Posted on January 16th, 2013 1 comment
As I was going to and fro on the Internet, and walking back and forth on it, I stumbled across a site that has made the content of every issue of H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury available online. It’s a wonderful resource if you’re interested in the politics, history, literature, etc., of the 20′s and 30′s, or just want to read something entertaining. The Sage of Baltimore was a great editor, and he won’t disappoint. He was at the helm of the magazine from the first issue in January 1924 until December 1933. The site actually includes issues up to 1960, but the content went downhill after Mencken left, and the Mercury eventually became something entirely different from what he had intended. Many other interesting periodicals are available at the site, as well as books and videos. You can visit by clicking on the hyperlinks above or point your browser to:
Posted on November 6th, 2012 No comments
In an article entitled “Hitler’s Second Front,” that appeared in the November 1942 issue of the Atlantic Review, one T. H. Thomas confidently predicted disaster for the British forces in North Africa. In his words,
Roughly speaking, Rommel is sixty miles or so away from winning the war. There looms up close at hand the prospect of a decisive victory – one which would involve an irreparable disaster to the Allied conduct of the war.
In the mustering of forces for this battle, the enemy has now the advantage of position. At one time British convoys could still take the direct sea route to Alexandria, but German dive bombers then appeared over the central Mediterranean. By now it has actually become Mare Nostrum. The British forces in Africa and the British fleets had no planes with which to strike back in kind. British factories do not produce them.
British tanks were hopelessly outclassed by the Germans:
These actions (earlier fighting in north Africa) also brought into the field German medium tanks armed with 75′s (i.e., 15 pounders) against British tanks carrying nothing larger than 2-pounders. The effective range of the German guns is said to be over three times that of the 2-pounders. This contrast has dominated the fighting in Egypt since that day. The British 2-pounder is an excellent tank against infantry positions. In the naked landscape of Libya, mechanized warfare develops the situation of duels between tank and tank, or tanks against anti-tank artillery. On this footing, the heaviest British tanks were hopelessly outranged.
Victory, was out of the question for the British. It was merely a question of hanging on for dear life until the various nostrums proposed by Mr. Thomas could be applied:
The narrow front at El Alamein has become the keystone of the whole arch of Allied resistance east of Suez. Here, as on every other front, the pressing task is to avoid defeat – the question as to how the war is to be won does not yet arise.
As it happens, on this day 70 years ago, just as Thomas’ prophecy of doom was appearing on the newstands, the question of how the war was to be won did arise. Rommel’s “hopelessly superior” forces had been smashed by a British offensive after nearly two weeks of brutal fighting. The remnant was in speedy retreat, leaving Hitler’s Italian allies, who had fought well at El Alamein, helplessly mired in the desert without food, ammunition or fuel. Quoting from the Wiki article on the battle:
It had not been the first time that the Allies had had numerical superiority in men and equipment in the Western Desert, but never had it been so complete and across all arms. Furthermore, in the past—except in field artillery—they had struggled with the quality of their equipment. But with the arrival of Sherman tanks, 6-pounder anti-tank guns and Spitfires in the Western Desert, the Allies at last had the ability to match the opposition.
Allied artillery was superbly handled. Allied air support was excellent in contrast to the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica which offered little or no support to ground forces, preferring to engage in air-to-air combat. This overwhelming air superiority had a huge effect on the battle…
In the end, the Allies’ victory was all but total. Axis casualties of 37,000 amounted to over 30% of their total force. Allied casualties of 13,500 were by comparison a remarkably small proportion of their total force. The effective strength of Panzer Army Africa after the battle amounted to some 5,000 troops, 20 tanks, 20 anti-tank guns and 50 field guns.
So much for Mr. Thomas’ prophecies of doom. The Atlantic described him as follows:
A military hitorian who served with distinction on the staff at GHQ in the First World War, T. H. Thomas is well qualified to appraise the developments of the war.
I have no information on what became of him after he penned the article, although I didn’t put a great deal of Google time in searching for him. If he had written the same stuff in Germany or the Soviet Union, no doubt he would have been shot as a defeatist. However, the Allies were remarkably tolerant of pacifists and defeatists during the war. I suspect that such tolerance played a major role in the rapid collapse of France, and may have cost Hitler’s other enemies dearly if he had not been so completely outmatched by the forces arrayed against him. Be that as it may, there were many other T. H. Thomases writing similar disinformation about Hitler and the phenomenon of Naziism, the likelihood of war, the probable outcome of the war, etc., during the 30′s and 40′s. I know of none whose careers suffered significantly as a result. Apparently they just swept their past mistakes under the rug, and kept writing more of the same.
Fast forward 70 years, and a new generation of pundits has been busily enlightening readers as to the reasons why either Mr. Obama or Mr. Romney will inevitably win the election. Half of them, more or less, will be wrong, and the other half, more or less, will be lucky. Given the number of pundits and the laws of probability, a random few will be very lucky, predicting not only the outcome, but the exact tally of votes in the electoral college. No doubt these lucky ones will be celebrated as geniuses, at least until the next election. Except for Cassandra, successful fortune tellers have always prospered. However, those who put too much faith in them would do well to recall the example of Mr. Thomas.
Posted on October 24th, 2012 No comments
President Obama’s snarky response to Mitt Romney’s observation about the dwindling number of ships in our navy in their final debate seems to have gone viral over the last couple of days. Here is the quote for those of you who, like me, become nauseous when watching political debates:
Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets
I have no comment on who out-snarked whom but, having attended the military academy at West Point and served in the military for a while thereafter, I can at least throw in a few anecdotes. Touching on horses, the old riding hall (Thayer Hall) was still there in my day, and remains there now. However, it was converted to classrooms in 1956. The contractors made a very competent job of it, because there was little left to remind one of its old function when they were done, and it served its new mission very well. The building had a high wall facing the Hudson river next to the old riding field, and they used to march us down there to practice our “command voices” by shouting “Ma! Mo! Ma! Mo!” at the wall and listening to the echo.
As for bayonets, my father, who served in Patton’s Army in World War II, said they routinely threw them away as so much useless extra weight on their way across Germany. However, we were still trained in their use in my day (the late 60′s). They were considered good for morale, and I could probably still perform a convincing imitation of “butt stroke series number one” and “butt stroke series number two,” growling fiercely at the end as I plunged my blade into the heart of an imaginary enemy. There’s no doubt that bayonet training helped to get us in shape during “Beast Barracks,” the first two months of every cadet’s career. Try double timing with an M-14 with fixed bayonet at port arms to some field in the hot sun and then performing all the traditional gyrations for an hour or so, and you’ll understand why.
When asked, “What’s the purpose of the bayonet?” the proper response was to shout at the top of one’s lungs, “To Kill!” When we returned to the barracks after training at the double-time, we would chant, “To kill! To kill!” in cadence with our steps, holding our weapons with fixed bayonets at full port arms in front of us. Apparently some of the more tender-hearted officer’s wives on base were quite shocked to hear this, and complained to the Superintendant. As a result, our class was the last to learn that the purpose of the bayonet was “To Kill.” Its new purpose sounded rather more innocuous, but unfortunately I no longer recall what it was.
Of course, bayonets were included in our parade equipment, and we used to fix them on our weapons during marching drill. Once, while we were marching in platoon formation, one of the more inept plebes (first year men) happened to be marching behind me. At the command of ”Present Arms!” he swung his M-14 a bit too far in front of him, plunging it up to the hilt through my fatigue shirt and cutting a nice scratch along my back. After struggling for a while, he finally managed to extract it. I’m sure the incident wasn’t “funny” to him, as plebes who became “famous” in that way came in for some nasty hazing in those days, but I still always smile when I think about it. As for parades, bayonets add a nice touch as they glitter in the sun when the Corps of Cadets marches out onto the plain. By all means, take one in if you’re ever in the area.
While bayonets may no longer be as useful as they were at Yorktown, the mystique about them remains. As I recall, there were plans in my day to mount bayonet studs on the noses of Army helicopters. I’m not sure if they were ever actually carried into effect.
Posted on August 16th, 2012 No comments
We’ve witnessed a remarkable paradigm shift in the behavioral sciences in the last couple of decades in the aftermath of the collapse of Blank Slate orthodoxy. A similar one has happened in politics with the collapse of Communism. A significant fraction of our species are attracted to messianic ideologies as moths to a flame. For many years, Communism was the brightest flame around. However, it suffered from the Achilles heal of all secular religions. It promised paradise, not in the realms of the spirit, but here on earth. Predictably, it couldn’t deliver, and so eventually collapsed.
That left something of a vacuum for those hankering to be the saviors of mankind. No new secular religion was waiting in the wings to take up the slack. But nature abhores a vacuum, so they had to make do with one of the traditional, spiritual religions; Islam. The resulting ideological paradigm shift has presented us with one of the most remarkable political spectacles history has to offer. On the ideological left, former Marxist true believers, militant atheists who scorned religion as the opiate of the masses, are being displaced by a new generation of activists who find to their dismay that radical Islam is, at least for the time being, the only game in town. The result has been a grotesque love affair between the would be liberators of the oppressed masses and one of the more obscurantist forms of religious fundamentalism on the planet. Those who once despised religious belief have now become some of its most outspoken apologists.
I found one of the more comical manifestations of this strange love affair in an article, embellished with all the jargon, references, and other stigmata characteristic of the stuff that appears in academic journals, posted on the website of the reliably leftist BBC. Entitled God and War: An Audit & An Exploration, it purports to debunk the New Atheist claim that religion is a prominent cause of war. Taking an attitude towards religion that would have been an embarrassment to any self-respecting progressive in the heyday of socialism, it notes that “…at a philosophical level, the main religious traditions have little truck with war or violence. All advocate peace as the norm and see genuine spirituality as involving a disavowal of violence.” It continues,
One organising feature of this article is what it calls the ‘Religious War Audit’. BBC asked us to see how many wars had been caused by religion. After reviewing historical analyses by a diverse array of specialists, we concluded that there have been few genuinely religious wars in the last 100 years. The Israel/Arab wars from 1948 to now, often painted in the media and other places as wars over religion, or wars arising from religious differences, have in fact been wars of nationalism, liberation of territory or self-defense.
This is a typical feature of the recent crop of articles emanating from the apologists for religion on the left. Just as good Marxists or defenders of “Confederate Heritage” will tell you that the U.S. Civil War wasn’t really about slavery, even though at the time it actually happened the leaders and population of the south, the leaders and population of the north, foreign observers of U.S. politics, and, no doubt, any aliens who happened to be hovering around in their flying saucers would have agreed it was about slavery, they tell us that many of the wars that merely seem to the casual observer to be about religion are really caused by nationalism, imperialism, territorialism, etc., etc. If nothing else it’s a safe strategy. Take any war you like and, no matter how much the actual participants had deluded themselves into believing they were fighting about religion, any historian worth her salt will be able to “prove,” based on abundant citations, references, and historical source material, that it wasn’t about religion at all. Ostensibly secular wars can be transmogrified into “religious” wars just as easily.
As the article cherry picks the historical record, so it cherry picks the holy books of the various religions to show how “peaceful” they are. Predictably, this is especially true of the Quran. For example, quoting from the article,
The Islamic tradition provides for limits on the use of force in war similar to those found in the Christian tradition: ‘Never transgress limits, or take your enemy by surprise or perfidy, or inflict atrocities or mutilation, or kill infants’; and ‘Never kill a woman, a weak infant, or a debilitated old person; nor burn palms, uproot trees, or pull down houses’. The Koran also provides for the humane treatment of prisoners of war: ‘And they feed, for the love of God, the indigent, the orphan, and the captive’ [Koran 76:8-9].
As with most religions, one can “prove” the opposite by a judicious choice of verses. For example,
The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His messenger and strive to make mischief in the land is only this, that they should be murdered or crucified or their hands and their feet should be cut off on opposite sides or they should be imprisoned; this shall be as a disgrace for them in this world, and in the hereafter they shall have a grievous chastisement.
I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them.
After this exegesis of the holy books, the article provides a pair of tables purporting to show that the role of religion in the wars prior to and during the 20th century has been minimal. In the case of the 20th century, for example, the role of religion is supposedly zero on a scale of 0 to 5 for World War I and one on the same scale for World War II. In fact, in the case of WWI, the war was explicitly declared a religious war (jihad) by the religious leaders of Turkey, one of the major combatants. Many tens of thousands of Jews were murdered, frozen and starved in pogroms or as they were forcibly removed from areas stretching back many miles from the front lines by the Orthodox Christian rulers of Russia, and over a million Christian Armenians were murdered by the Moslem rulers of Turkey. By all accounts, the assurance that the war was not religious did little to relieve their suffering.
In the case of World War II, the role of religion depends entirely on how you define religion. I doubt that our brains have any hard-wired ability to distinguish immortal gods from mortal ones. At least as far as evolutionary biology is concerned, the distinction between traditional spiritual religions and modern secular ones, such as Nazism and Communism is, then, entirely artificial. Every essential element of the former has its analog in the latter. From that perspective, World War II was almost entirely a “religious war.”
Suppose, however, that we refrain from such unseemly quibbling, nod apologetically to the many millions even the authors agree have been killed over the years in religious wars, and accept the authors’ premise that, for all that, warfare really has played a “minimal” role in promoting warfare. Alas, the role of individuals in shaping historical events can be great indeed. After reading page after page establishing the benign role of religion in modern society, the authors inform us, to our dismay, that there is reason for concern, after all. An evil religious zealot of truly gargantuan power and influence appeared on the scene quite recently, almost single-handedly setting at naught the calming influence of religion as an instrument of peace. And who might this evil bogeyman be? Think, dear reader! The article we are discussing emanated from the left of the ideological spectrum. That’s right! The warmongering jihadi in question is none other than George W. Bush! Quoting a noted psychologist, the authors inform us with a shudder that,
…however much Bush may sometimes seem like a buffoon, he is also powered by massive, suppressed anger towards anyone who challenges the extreme, fanatical beliefs shared by him and a significant slice of his citizens – in surveys, half of them also agree with the statement “the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word.”
Gee, and I always thought he seemed like such a nice guy. How wrong I was! Reading on we find,
He hated his father for putting his whole life in the shade and for emotionally blackmailing him. He hated his mother for physically and mentally badgering him to fulfill her wishes. But the hatred also explains his radical transformation into an authoritarian fundamentalist. By totally identifying with an extreme version of their strict, religion-fuelled beliefs, he jailed his rebellious self. From now on, his unconscious hatred for them was channeled into a fanatical moral crusade to rid the world of evil.
Damn! Now I finally understand why my sister never liked the guy. The authors provide us with the laconic conclusion,
As the commander in chief, Bush dominates US foreign policy especially in regards to the war on terrorism that is presently the US government’s major military commitment. His plans, however influenced by advisors, arise from his personal view of the world and his concepts of justice, retribution and peace. Clearly his past and his relationships impact these views and ultimately help shape those of the American state. Therefore individual leaders’ psychology is perhaps an underrated area of study in the debate on God and war and could do with further analysis.
What an understatement! Why, that crazed religious fanatic had his finger on the nuclear trigger for eight years!
How wonderfully ironic! After spending so much time and effort to create an ideologically driven mirage of religion as benign and peaceful, in the end the authors upset their own apple cart because they couldn’t stifle their ideologically driven need to portray Bush as the personification of evil, complete with all the religious fundamentalist trappings. By their own account, religion nearly inspired, not merely a war, but the mother of all wars, a nuclear holocaust that might have exterminated our species once and for all. “Further analysis” indeed! Maybe we should have listened to the New Atheists after all!
Posted on July 23rd, 2012 No comments
We tend to be strongly influenced by the recent past in our predictions about the future. After World War I, any number of pundits, statesmen, and military officers thought the next war would be a carbon copy of the one they had just lived through, albeit perhaps on a larger scale. The German government’s disastrous decision to declare war in 1914 was likely influenced by the quick and decisive German victories in 1864, 1866, and 1870. The Japanese were similarly mesmerized by their brilliant success against the Russians in 1904-05 after an opening surprise attack against the Russian fleet lying at anchor at Port Arthur, and assumed history would repeat itself if they launched a similar attack against Pearl Harbor.
Sometimes startling events force the reevaluation of old ideas and paradigms, such as the German armored Blitzkrieg or the destruction of powerful battleships from the air in World War II, or, more recently, the sudden collapse of Communism and the Soviet Union from 1989-91. We are always fascinated by such events, yet few of us grasp their significance as they are happening. Our tendency is always to look backwards, to fit the revolutionary and the unprecedented into the old world that we understand rather than the new one that we can’t yet imagine. So it was after the dropping of the first atomic bombs. It certainly focused the attention of public intellectuals, unleashing a torrent of essays full of dire predictions. For many, the future they imagined was simply a continuation of the immediate past, albeit with new and incredibly destructive weapons. It was to include the continued inexorable push for world dominion by totalitarian Communism, centered in the Soviet Union, and world wars following each other in quick succession every 15 to 20 years, about the same as the interval between the first two world wars.
Such a vision of the future was described by James Burnham in “The Struggle for the World,” published in 1947. Burnham was a former Marxist and Trotskyite who eventually abandoned Marxism, and became one of the leading conservative intellectuals of his day. His thought made a deep impression on, among others, George Orwell. For example, he had suggested the possibility of a world dominated by three massive totalitarian states, constantly at war with each other, in an earlier book, “The Managerial Revolution,” published in 1941. These became Oceania, Eastasia, and Eurasia in Orwell’s “1984.” The notions of “doublethink”, the totalitarian use of terms such as “justice” and “peace” in a sense opposite to their traditional meanings, and the rewriting of history every few years “so that history itself will always be a confirmation of the immediate line of the party,” familiar to readers of “1984,” were also recurrent themes in “The Struggle for the World.”
Burnham, born in 1905, had come of age during the stunning period of wars, revolutions, and the birth of the first totalitarian states that began and ended with the world wars of the 20th century. He assumed that events of such global impact would continue at the same pace, only this time in a world with nuclear weapons. As a former Marxist, he knew that the Communists, at least, were deliberately engaged in a “struggle for the world,” and was dismayed that U.S. politicians at the time were so slow to realize the nature of the struggle. He also correctly predicted that, unless they were stopped, the Communists would develop nuclear weapons in their Soviet base “in a few years.” This, he warned, could not be allowed to happen because it would inevitably and quickly lead to a full scale nuclear exchange. His reasoning was as follows:
Let us assume that more than one (two is enough for the assumption) power possesses, and is producing, atomic weapons. Each will be improving the efficiency and destructive potential of the weapons as it goes along. Now let us try to reason as the leaders of these powers would be compelled to reason.
Each leader of Power A could not but think as follows: Power B has at its disposal instruments which could, in the shortest time, destroy us. He has possibly made, or is about to make, new discoveries which will threaten even more complete and rapid destruction. At the moment, perhaps, he shows no open disposition to use these instruments. Nevertheless, I cannot possibly rely on his continued political benevolence – above all since he knows that I also have at my disposal instruments that can destroy him. Some hothead – or some wise statesman – of his may even now be giving the order to push the necessary buttons.
Even if there were no atomic weapons, many of the leaders would undoubtedly be reasoning today along these lines. Atomic weapons are, after all, not responsible for warfare, not even for the Third World War, which has begun. The fact that the political and social causes of a war are abundantly present stares at us from every edition of every newspaper. The existence of atomic weapons merely raises the stakes immeasurably higher, and demands a quicker decision.
But to assume, as do some foolish commentators, that fear of retaliation will be the best deterrent to an atomic war is to deny the lessons of the entire history of war and of society. Fear, as Ferrero so eloquently shows, is what provokes the exercise of force. Most modern wars have been, in the minds of every belligerent, preventive: an effort to stamp out the fear of what the other side might be about to do.
The existence of two or more centers of control of atomic weapons would be equal to a grenade with the pin already pulled.
According to Burnham, the resulting nuclear war or wars would lead to the collapse of Western Civilization. In his words,
If, however, we are not yet ready to accept passively the final collapse of Western Civilization, we may state the following as a necessary first condition of any workable solution of the problem of atomic weapons: there must be an absolute monopoly of the production, possession and use of all atomic weapons.
One wonders what direction world history might have taken had someone like Burnham been President in 1950 instead of Truman. He would have almost certainly adopted MacArthur’s plan to drop numerous atomic bombs on China and North Korea. We were lucky. In the end, Truman’s homespun common sense prevailed over Burnham’s flamboyant intellect, and the nuclear genie remained in the bottle.
However, in 1947 the U.S. still had a monopoly of nuclear weapons, and, for the reasons cited above, Burnham insisted we must keep it. He suggested that this might best be done by establishing an effectual world government, but dismissed the possibility as impractical. The only workable alternative to a Communist conquest of the world or full scale nuclear war and the end of Western Civilization was U.S. hegemony. In Burnham’s words,
It is not our individual minds or desires, but the condition of world society, that today poses for the Soviet Union, as representative of communism, and for the United States, as representative of Western Civilization, the issue of world leadership. No wish or thought of ours can charm this issue away.
This issue will be decided, and in our day. In the course off the decision, both of the present antagonists may, it is true, be destroyed. But one of them must be.
Whatever the words, it is well also to know the reality. The reality is that the only alternative to the communist World Empire is an American Empire which will be, if not literally worldwide in formal boundaries, capable of exercising decisive world control. Nothing less than this can be the positive, or offensive, phase of a rational United States policy.
As a first step to empire, Burnham proposed the union of Great Britain and the United States, to be followed, not by outright conquest, but by firm assertion of U.S. predominance and leadership in the non-Communist world. Beyond that, the Communist threat must finally be recognized for what it was, and a firm, anti-Communist policy substituted for what was seen as a lack of any coherent policy at all. Vacillation must end.
Fortunately, when it came to the nuclear standoff, Burnham was wrong, and the “foolish commentators” who invoked the fear of retaliation were right. Perhaps, having only seen the effects of dropping two low yield bombs, he could not yet imagine the effect of thousands of bombs orders of magnitude more powerful, or conceive of such a thing as mutually assured destruction. Perhaps it was only dumb luck, but the world did not stumble into a nuclear World War III as it had into the conventional world wars of the 20th century, and the decisive events in the struggle did not follow each other nearly as quickly as Burnham imagined they would.
Burnham also failed to foresee the implications of the gradual alteration in the nature of the Communist threat. At the time he wrote, it was everything he claimed it to be, a messianic secular religion at the height of its power and appeal. He assumed that it would retain that power and appeal until the battle was decided, one way or the other. Even though he was aware that the masses living under Communism, other than a dwindling number of incorrigible idealists, were already disillusioned by “the God that failed,” he didn’t foresee what a decisive weakness that would eventually become. In the end, time was on our side. The Communists, and not we, as Lenin had predicted, finally dropped onto the garbage heap of history “like a ripe plum.”
However, Burnham wasn’t wrong about everything. To win the struggle, it was necessary for us to finally recognize the threat. Whatever doubt remained on that score, at least as far as most of our political leaders were concerned, was dissipated by the North Korean invasion of the south. Our policy of vacillation didn’t exactly end, but was occasionally relieved by periods of firmness. In the end, in spite of a media dominated through most of the struggle by Lenin’s “useful idiots” and the resultant cluelessness of most Americans about what we were even trying to do on the front lines of the “clash between the cultures” in places like Vietnam, we prevailed.
It was a near thing. Burnham feared that, even after losing the opening battles of the next war to a United States with a monopoly of nuclear weapons, the Communists might regroup, abandon their vulnerable cities, and transform the struggle into a “people’s war.” His description of what would follow was eerily similar to what actually did happen, but in a much smaller arena than the whole world:
They would transform the struggle into a political war, a “people’s war,” fought in every district of the world by irregulars, partisans, guerillas, Fifth Columns, spies, stool pigeons, assassins, fought by sabotage and strikes and lies and terror and diversion and panic and revolt. They would play on every fear and prejudice of the United States population, every feeling of guilt or nobility; they would exploit every racial and social division; they would widen every antagonism between tentative allies; and they would tirelessly wear down the United States will to endure.
Though the result would be not quite so certain, perhaps, as if the communists also had atomic weapons, they would in the end, I think, succeed. Because of the lack of a positive United States policy, because it would not have presented to the world even the possibility of a political solution, its dreadful material strength would appear to the peoples as the unrelieved brutality of a murderer. Its failure to distinguish between the communist regime and that regime’s subject-victims would weld together the victims and their rulers. Americans themselves would be sickened and conscience-ridden by what would seem to them a senseless slaughter, never-ending, leading nowhere. The military leadership would be disoriented by the inability of their plans based on technical superiority to effect a decision. The failure to conceive the struggle politically would have given the communists the choice of weapons. From the standpoint of the United States, the entire world would have been turned into an ambush and a desert. In the long night, nerves would finally crack, and sentries would fire their last shots wildly into the darkness, and it would all be over.
Change “the world” to Vietnam and it reads like a history instead of a premonition. Tomorrow is another day, and I doubt that any of us will prove better at predicting what the future will bring than Burnham. We have lived through an era much different, more peaceful, and more sedate in the pace of events than the one he experienced between 1914 and 1945. We should beware of assuming, as he did, that the future will bear any resemblance to the immediate past. The world is still full of nuclear weapons, some of them already in the hands of, or soon to be in the hands of, dictators of suspect rationality. Some of our intellectuals soothe our fears with stories about the “vanishing of violence,” but as Omar Khayyam put it in the “Rubaiyat,” they could soon be “cast as foolish prophets forth, their mouths stopped with dust,” through some miscalculation or deliberate act of malice. As the Boy Scouts say, “be prepared.”
Posted on November 16th, 2011 No comments
The Edinburgh Review, that’s who. The liberal Edinburgh was one of the two great British political and literary journals of the first half of the 19th century. It’s conservative counterpart was the Quarterly Review, which enjoyed its heyday at about the same time. An article in the April, 1810 issue reviewed a Letter on the French Government that had just been published by an anonymous “American recently returned from Europe.” Unfortunately, we still don’t know who he was, but we gather from his letter that he was an anglophile, highly educated, and very well informed about the financial arrangements of the Napoleonic government in France. The Letter deals mostly with taxation and the other sources of revenue of France at the time, and includes estimates of the total income and disbursements of the Empire, the amount spent on the military, etc.
The British reviewer, also anonymous as usual at the time, threw in some interesting speculations of his own regarding the current political and military situation, likely reflecting the journal’s editorial point of view. It will be recalled that in 1810 Napoleon was at the zenith of his triumphant career, with an army of around 800,000 veterans. His power on the ground in Europe seemed unchallengable, at least as far as liberal opinion in Great Britain was concerned. The reviewer’s comments about Napoleon and France have an uncanny similarity to some of the “informed commentary” about Hitler and Germany that was appearing on both sides of the Atlantic after his stunning victories in 1940 and 1941. They also reveal, yet again, the pitfalls of attempting to predict even the immediate future. Political pundits take note.
Then, as in 1940, victory created a deceptive aura of invincibility. In both cases, Russia appeared to pose the only remaining credible challenge to the power of the autocrats on the European continent, and in both cases a remarkably large number of “well-informed” commentators dismissed her with a wave of the hand. Here’s what the Edinburgh’s reviewer had to say about her:
The states that border upon France are ruled either by the kinsmen, or by the vassals of Bonaparte; – all but the Spanish chiefs, who have only a little hour to strut and fret. The more remote empire of Russia is still in peace; and in peace she must remain, or be crushed without mercy, and without hope of restoration, for she seemed powerful only by the prudent reserve of Catherine. The succeeding governments, less sagacious, have experimentally shown us how much we overvalued the resources of that country.
Of course, we know in retrospect that both Napoleon and Hitler had a disastrous penchant for undervaluing the “resources of that country.” Both of them found it rather more difficult to “crush her without mercy” than they had expected. The rest of the reviewer’s comments about how to deal with the “hopeless” superiority of Bonaparte seem hopelessly naive to those of us who know “the rest of the story.” They are, however, interesting by virtue of their striking similarity to the advice of a class of writers that we now refer to as “appeasers.” In both cases, the proposed “solution” to the problem was to avoid offending the triumphant dictator. Here is what the Edinburgh’s man had to say:
We do think, then, that there is no chance of our being able to crush the power of France by direct hostility and aggression; but still we are of opinion, that, by skilful and cautious policy, we may reasonably hope to disable it. This, however, we must do by gradual and cautious means; …we ought not to disturb the quiet of the Continent. Every agitation that we can now excite there, is a fresh advantage to our enemy; …We should rather endeavour to keep the states of Europe so completely tranquil, that he shall have no cause or excuse for war – no resistance to fear, no plots to punish. If we could but behold the French forces inactive, we might hope to behold them subdued. …”What then?” it may be said – Are we to congratulate ourselves on the helplessness of all the states that might make head against France? Certainly; – if we are convinced, as it appears we should be, that nothing can be expected from their exertions, while every thing may be hoped from their repose.
Just as the appeasers of a later day, the reviewer’s sanguine hope was that, if England just stopped provoking the boogeyman, he would eventually go away. His people, informed of their folly by the burgeoning power of modern means of communication, would become restive, and his army would just “melt away”:
While the war continues, and especially while it is possible to impute its continuance to the restless hostility of England, the vanity and impetuosity of the French people may second the ambition of their ruler; but if they be ever allowed to settle into the habits and enjoyments of peace, all the natural interests and reflections which are generated by the very structure of modern society, will expand with tenfold vigour, and oppose a most formidable resistance to the tyranny which would again repress them for the purpose of its own extension.
Napoleon’s mighty army would simply fall apart of its own accord,
…degenerating, by disuse, toward the level of a new and inexpert militia.
Of course, as we now know, Napoleon’s mighty army, and later Hitler’s, did not “degenerate by disuse.” Rather, their “degeneration” resulted from their attempts to “crush without mercy” a foe both they and the respective “experts” of the day had underestimated.
I suspect that the pundits of our own day will have no more luck in their attempts to predict the future than those of earlier ages. However, the psychological type of the appeaser is as familiar today as it was in 1810 or 1940, as is that of their more bellicose and militant counterparts, who once wrote for the Quarterly Review. In fact, neither type has had much success in predicting events. It’s a great deal easier to predict how they will react to those events when they happen, though.
Posted on June 2nd, 2010 No comments
A World War II bomb took the lives of three brave men who were working to disarm it on Tuesday. The 1000 kilo blockbuster was found buried 30 feet deep at the building site of a new sports arena. It’s amazing how casually the German people take stories like this. It’s already disappeared from the websites of Spiegel, Focus, and Stern, three of the countries biggest news magazines. It’s almost as if the three had died in a car accident. I suppose it’s to be expected; the commonplace isn’t news. Another 500 pound bomb had been found at the same site a week ago and disarmed without incident. Between them, the three experts had already disarmed more than 700 others!
I can only agree with a German commenter:
Isn’t there any other way that one could protect the lives of bomb disarmers in these modern times, for example, with robots? Those who put their lives on the line for others deserve our deepest respect, and their families our sympathy.
Posted on May 30th, 2010 1 comment
As I’ve pointed out in previous posts, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to use depleted uranium (DU) as ammunition because of its potential value as an energy source. Other than that, its substantial advantages as a penetrator for defeating armored targets are likely grossly outweighed by the value of the propaganda weapon we hand to our enemies when we use it, not to mention the massive cost of litigating cases brought by lawyers who are well aware of the potential value of DU hysteria for lining their pockets. That hysteria lost touch with reality long ago, and continues to grow. A glance at the facts should be enough to cure anyone of an overweening faith in the intelligence of human beings.
The basic propaganda line relating to DU weapons is that a) Great increases in cancer and other health problems are experienced in areas where they are used, and b) Most of these health problems are due to radioactivity from DU. The professionally pious have devoted a great deal of webspace to the subject, typically short on facts but with lots of pictures of terribly deformed infants and, as usual, featuring themselves as noble saviors of humanity. Those with strong stomachs can find examples here, here and here. It’s all completely bogus, but the truth has never been more than a minor inconvenience for ideological poseurs.
The World Health Organization, public health arm of the UN, an organization that has not been notably chummy with the US of late, debunked the DU hysteria in a report that appeared in 2001 (click on the link to see the document). Quoting from the report,
For the general population it is unlikely that the exposure to depleted uranium will significantly exceed the normal background uranium levels.
Measurements of depleted uranium at sites where depleted uranium munitions were used indicate only localized (within a few tens of metres of the impact site) contamination at the ground surface.
General screening or monitoring for possible depleted uranium-related health effects in populations living in conflict areas where depleted uranium has been used is not necessary. Individuals who believe they have been exposed to excessive amounts of depleted uranium should consult their medical practitioner for examination, appropriate treatment of any symptoms and follow-up.
The potential external dose received in the vicinity of a target following attack by DU munitions has been theoretically estimated to be in the order of 4 μSv/year (UNEP/UNCHS, 1999) based on gamma ray exposure. Such doses are small when compared to recommended guidelines for human exposure to ionizing radiation (20 mSv/annum for a worker for penetrating whole body radiation or 500 mSv/year for skin (BSS, 1996).
Of course, the poseurs dismiss such stuff with a wave of the hand, claiming that, for reasons known only to them, the authors of the report suppressed damning evidence, or didn’t consider certain miraculous processes whereby the DU can be transported into the bodies of its victims without showing up in urine samples. If one points out, for example, that natural background radiation in places such as Iran and India is much higher than any increase due to DU in the places where all the birth defects and illness is supposedly taking place, without ill effects to the local populations, they merely reply that the DU is carried on insoluble particles, that are infinitely more dangerous than natural uranium. If it is pointed out that, in that case, it would actually be much more difficult for DU to cause birth defects because the rate at which the body carries insoluble compounds to the vicinity of the reproductive organs is an order of magnitude less than for soluble uranium compounds, or that it is much more difficult for insoluble compounds to get into the food chain, they quickly change tack. Suddenly, the DU becomes soluble, and the circle is squared.
A moment’s rational consideration of the facts demolishes the DU hype. For example, it is claimed that 320 tons of DU were used in the Gulf War in 1991 and 1700 tons in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Those numbers pale in comparison to the approximately 9000 Tons of natural uranium and 22400 tons of thorium currently released each year from the burning of coal. Much of this material is pumped directly into the atmosphere in the form of particulates that easily enter the lungs. It is far more likely to contaminate nearby population centers in this form than the byproducts of DU munitions. Coal consumption in China alone is over 2 million metric tons per year, resulting in the yearly release of about 3000 tons of uranium and 7450 tons of thorium. There have certainly been health problems downwind of these plants, but they’ve been due to plain old-fashioned air pollution. There have been no massive increases in birth defects or radiation-related cancer, flying in the face of claims about DU’s supposedly demonic power to sicken and kill. Uranium absorbed in the body will show up in the urine, whether it is ingested in soluble or insoluble form. Yet, despite massive screening of military veterans, ongoing studies find no persistent elevation of U concentrations beyond that found in the general population other than in soldiers actually hit by DU fragments or involved in friendly fire accidents.
Studies of uranium miners confirm the absurdity of the inflated DU claims. Exposure to increased levels of uranium dust has not been associated with increases incidence of cancer, even in older miners. Increased levels of lung cancer in such workers certainly have been detected, but it is associated with the breathing of high concentrations of radon in confined spaces. The contribution of DU to radon gas concentrations in the atmosphere in Iraq is utterly insignificant compared to natural seepage from the earth and release by coal plant pollution. Meanwhile, massive use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war, the sabotage and burning of hundreds of oil wells after the first Gulf War, and the release of a host of carcinogenic chemicals in the process of oil production are somehow never considered as possible contributors to illness and birth defects, unless, of course, they happen to fit another narrative.
In a word, the DU propaganda is nonsense, but that doesn’t keep it from being effective. Other than that, because of DU’s potential value as a fuel in future breeder reactors that will be available to us without the environmental and health hazards of mining new uranium, we are almost literally shooting silver bullets. Under the circumstances, one wonders what possible justification there can be for the claim that the advantages of continued use of DU munitions outweigh the drawbacks. Why are we working so hard to confirm the familiar claim that “military intelligence” is an oxymoron?
Posted on April 7th, 2010 No comments
The right and the left in this country have achieved a state of MAD (Mutually Assured Demonization). The recent attempts by the legacy media to whip up hysteria over threats of violence to those who voted for the health bill is a case in point. There was a time, not that long ago, when these “objective journalists” would have gotten away with it. There was no comparably audible public voice on the right to oppose them. Now there is, in the form of talk radio, powerful blogs, and Foxnews. Result: They only succeeded in, once again, making themselves look silly. The Right was in their face immediately, pointing out, among other things, the gross hypocrisy in the double standard they applied to violence and threats of violence depending on whether they come from the right or the left.
Overall, this form of MAD is a good thing. The sanctimonious, condescending attitude of the journalists of yesteryear was getting very old by the time Rush Limbaugh finally appeared on the scene. However, it does have its drawbacks, in the form of increasing levels of political polarization and the associated pious posing on both the right and the left. Indeed, when it comes to the ostentatious striking of sanctimonious public poses, the right has, at long last, achieved parity with the left. Reasoned debate becomes difficult when both sides are only interested in occupying the moral high ground.
Consider, for example, the right’s overwrought response to the latest Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). The NPR is a document submitted to Congress each year by the Department of Defense setting forth what the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. security strategy should be. The latest version contains a watered down “no first use” provision according to which we won’t respond with nuclear weapons even if attacked with chemical and biological weapons, with the caveat that for nations that don’t play according to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, everything is still on the table. Some of the other more significant provisions include:
• The United States will not conduct nuclear testing, and will seek ratification and entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
• The United States will not develop new nuclear warheads. Life Extension Programs (LEPs) will use only nuclear components based on previously tested designs, and will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities.
• The Administration will study options for ensuring the safety, security, and reliability of nuclear warheads on a case-by-case basis, consistent with the congressionally mandated Stockpile Management Plan. The full range of LEP approaches will be considered: refurbishment of existing warheads, reuse of nuclear components from different warheads, and replacement of nuclear components.
The response Tunku Daravarajan at The Daily Beast:
I despair of this latest episode of gestural theater designed to make the U.S. look exquisitely reasonable (should we call it “Jimmy-Cartesian”?), but which in truth results in the U.S. looking flaccid, or worse, complacent. After all, who gains from a presidential posture that has, in effect, stigmatized our most potent deterrent? In terms of foreign policy—or, better put, foreign clout—the U.S. is going through a startling period of auto-emasculation.
and from Roger Simon at PajamasMedia:
Like some looney member of Code Pink, our president is abandoning the nuclear deterrent adhered to by every American president since Truman. And he is doing it in a manner that makes absolutely no sense… What are we to make of this and the man who is adopting this policy? Does he hate us? Does he hate this country? What would he do if there was, for example, a massive small pox attack on the U.S.? Send in the infantry? Call in the Marines? Try to reason with whoever did it and recommend they negotiate as the fatal disease spreads to millions of people?… Now I detest nuclear weapons as much as the next person, but this approach seems — I hate to repeat myself, but I will — deranged.
Now let’s think about this for a moment. Suppose, just for the sake of argument, that the ultimate reason for having a nuclear arsenal in the first place is to protect our security. What if Tunku and Roger, being human, and therefore not infallible, are wrong? What if, just hypothetically, the policy set forth in the NPR really will make us more safe, and the policy they prefer less safe. They have not limited themselves to a reasoned response to the NPR, setting forth, in their opinions, why they think it will not enhance our safety. Rather, they have villified the people who support it, accusing them, not only of being wrong, but of being crazy. When you demonize people, you make it very difficult for them to respond to your objections in a reasoned manner. Being human, they are more likely to strike back, trading tit for tat. I would even go so far as to say that, in some cases, that is the only rational way to respond. It seems rather obvious that convergence to correct policy decisions is not a likely outcome of this process of mutual demonization.
That is the reason that, as I have maintained elsewhere, when it comes to policy decisions as weighty as those relating to nuclear policy, moralistic posing, with all the associated pushing of emotional hot buttons, should be set aside in favor of some semblance of rational discussion. The goal here, I assume, is to survive. Let us, then, dispassionately consider what we should best do in order to survive.
According to Steve Schippert ant Liberty Pundits, the NPR not only does not serve that goal but is, in fact, pointless. In his words:
There is none, really. Not beyond rhetoric and “historic” moments and – dare the Los Angeles Times say it – a “manifesto.”
No point at all – but for one critical aspect lost in all of the arguing back and forth. Clarity is dead. Nuance and the foolish self-assurance of perceived superior intellectual and/or moral capacity have rightly replaced clear understanding.
Admitting in advance my own fallibility, I beg to differ. In the first place, we have kept the nuclear genie in the bottle now for going on 65 years. I am far from believing that an all out nuclear exchange would result in the extinction of humanity, or anything close to it. It is, nevertheless, an understatement to say that it would be extremely destructive. That being the case, it would be well if, to the extent possible, we maintained a taboo on the first use of nuclear weapons.
Any first user of nuclear weapons likely would become and, it seems to me, should become, an international pariah. Roger paints a nightmare scenario in which millions of people are dying in a biological attack while our hands are tied. Given the known effects of the releases of biological and chemical agents to date, the chances of something like that happening are vanishingly small. If it did, the NPR would become a moot point, just as all our loud protestations against unrestricted submarine warfare prior to our entry into WWI became a moot point for our own submarine forces in the Pacific after Pearl Harbor. A far more likely first use scenario would be an attempt at eliminating enemy stocks of biological or chemical weapons with a nuclear bunker buster, either preemptively or after an ineffective and very ill-considered attack on the United States with such weapons. This kind of first use would be very attractive to many in the nuclear weapons community. It would, however, do anything but promote our national security. Rather, it would end the taboo on the use of nuclear weapons, greatly increasing the chances that we, in turn, would become the victims of a really devastating attack, not with ineffective chemical or biological agents, but with nuclear weapons.
I also agree with the other sections of the NPR that are major departures from past policy, or, at least, have been represented as such. One of these is the provision that the United States will not conduct nuclear testing. Again, there are many in the weapons community who would love to resume testing, basing their arguments on insuring the reliability of the stockpile. It would also help the national weapons laboratories solve the demographic problem they face with the retirement or impending retirement of most of the physicists and other technical experts who have actually taken part in nuclear tests, and the difficulty of attracting talented scientists to careers as custodians of an aging pile of nuclear weapons. It would also play directly into the hands of our enemies.
The United States has a huge advantage over potential nuclear rivals in its possession of above ground experimental facilities (known in the business as AGEX) second to none in the world. From the massive National Ignition Facility, with its ability to focus 192 powerful laser beams on a tiny point, to the Z pulsed power machine capable of producing bursts of X-rays at levels far beyond those of any comparable facility on the planet, to a host of other smaller but still highly impressive and technologically advanced experimental facilities, we can approach the physical conditions that exist within exploding nuclear devices more closely and for longer periods of time than any other nation can even dream of. To resume nuclear testing would be to stupidly throw away this huge advantage. At the same time, it would give our enemies all the moral authority they needed to resume testing or develop nuclear weapons themselves.
The decision to set in concrete in the NPR the decision not to develop new nuclear weapons is also a good one. The idea that the United States would do such a thing is anything but implausible. On the contrary, the National Nuclear Security Administration has been agitating for years to get the go-ahead to build the Reliable Replacement Warhead. When Congress wisely told them, not only no, but hell no, they kept up the pressure regardless. Congress has taken a lot of bad raps lately. They deserve a lot of credit for derailing NNSA’s determination to go ahead with the RRW. In the first place, the weapons in our stockpile are not fragile and unreliable. Any enemy that assumed so would be making a very grave mistake. In the second, if we developed the RRW, the pressure to test it would likely become irresistible. The idea of developing a nuclear weapon without testing it would never have passed the “ho-ho” test at the weapons labs back in the 70′s and 80′s. The claim that we wouldn’t need to test the RRW is likely wishful thinking. Again, all the objections to a resumption of nuclear testing I have cited above would apply. Finally, by building a new type of nuclear weapon we would once again sacrifice the moral high ground, handing our enemies all the justification they needed for building new weapons themselves. Again, we would sacrifice major advantages, simply to acquire a weapon that would be somewhat cheaper to maintain than those in the existing stockpile. For obvious reasons, the weapons designers at the labs would love it. For the rest of us, it would make no sense at all.
I am hardly in favor of unilateral nuclear disarmament. On the contrary, I am in favor of maintaining a powerful arsenal and assuring that the resources we need to keep it safe and reliable will always be available. However, the latest NPR is a reasoned response to the nuclear myopia that would have us sacrifice real advantages in return for extremely dubious returns. As such, it deserves our support.
Posted on February 28th, 2010 1 comment
It’s a persistent meme, isn’t it? You can see recent examples of it here, here, here and here. If you care to see a few thousand more examples, Google is ready and waiting. The interesting thing about it is that it’s completely ridiculous on the face of it. If nigh unto 5000 years of recorded history are any guide, there have been military solutions to virtually any human conflict of interest you can imagine, including countless situations entirely analogous to that faced by the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan today. This particular meme hasn’t acquired legs because its true, but because people who live in any number of different ideological boxes want it to be true. Of course, it lacks what mathematicians would call symmetry. Military solutions may not be available to us, but, oddly enough, they are invariably available to our enemies. Just ask them. For that matter, just ask the people reciting the meme.