Tag Archives: history

The Allure of Battle

This is a new book arguing that winning battles is not enough to win a war. From Amazon:

History has tended to measure war’s winners and losers in terms of its major engagements, battles in which the result was so clear-cut that they could be considered “decisive.” Cannae, Konigsberg, Austerlitz, Midway, Agincourt-all resonate in the literature of war and in our imaginations as tide-turning. But these legendary battles may or may not have determined the final outcome of the wars in which they were fought. Nor has the “genius” of the so-called Great Captains – from Alexander the Great to Frederick the Great and Napoleon – play a major role. Wars are decided in other ways.

Cathal J. Nolan’s The Allure of Battle systematically and engrossingly examines the great battles, tracing what he calls “short-war thinking,” the hope that victory might be swift and wars brief. As he proves persuasively, however, such has almost never been the case. Even the major engagements have mainly contributed to victory or defeat by accelerating the erosion of the other side’s defences. Massive conflicts, the so-called “people’s wars,” beginning with Napoleon and continuing until 1945, have consisted of and been determined by prolonged stalemate and attrition, industrial wars in which the determining factor has been not military but matériel.

Nolan’s masterful book places battles squarely and mercilessly within the context of the wider conflict in which they took place. In the process it help corrects a distorted view of battle’s role in war, replacing popular images of the “battles of annihilation” with somber appreciation of the commitments and human sacrifices made throughout centuries of war particularly among the Great Powers. Accessible, provocative, exhaustive, and illuminating, The Allure of Battle will spark fresh debate about the history and conduct of warfare.

U.S. a “flawed democracy”

The Economist Intelligence Unit has downgraded the United States from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy”.

According to the 2016 Democracy Index almost one-half of the world’s countries can be considered to be democracies of some sort, but the number of “full democracies” has declined from 20 in 2015 to 19 in 2016. The US has been downgraded from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy” because of a further erosion of trust in government and elected officials there.

The “democratic recession” worsened in 2016, when no region experienced an improvement in its average score and almost twice as many countries (72) recorded a decline in their total score as recorded an improvement (38). Eastern Europe experienced the most severe regression. The 2016 Democracy Index report, Revenge of the “deplorables”, examines the deep roots of today’s crisis of democracy in the developed world, and looks at how democracy fared in every region.

Last time I thought about this I thought the U.S. was a republic. A flawed one, perhaps. Is this the end of the U.S. Republic, or just a hiatus? Who gets to decide? The Economist Intelligence Unit? Where was the Economist Intelligence Unit the day the Roman Republic ended? Did it end in a day, or was it a long slow slide that historians were only able to pinpoint later?

The Plot to Kill King

William Pepper, a lawyer who has investigated the King and RFK assassinations in detail, has a new(ish) book called The Plot to Kill King: The Truth Behind the Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Pepper represented the King family in a civil suit. From Wikipedia:

Following Ray’s death, Pepper represented the King family in a wrongful deathlawsuit, “King family vs. Loyd Jowers and other unknown co-conspirators”. During a trial that lasted four weeks, Pepper produced over seventy witnesses. Jowers, testifying by deposition, stated that James Earl Ray was a scapegoat and not involved in the assassination. Jowers testified that Memphis police officer Earl Clark fired the fatal shots. On December 8, 1999, the Memphis jury found Jowers responsible, and also found that the assassination plot included “governmental agencies.” The jury took less than an hour to find in favor of the King family for the requested sum of $100.

Perhaps the most disturbing claim in Pepper’s book is this (from an interview he gave to globalresearch.ca):

The hospital story was told to Pepper by a man named Johnton Shelby, whose mother, Lula Mae Shelby, had been a surgical aide at St. Joseph’s that night. Shelby told Pepper the story of how his mother came home the morning after the shooting (she hadn’t been allowed to go home the night before) and gathered the family together. He remembers her saying to them, “I can’t believe they took his life.”

She described chief of surgery Dr. Breen Bland entering the emergency room with two men in suits. Seeing doctors working on King, Bland commanded, “Stop working on the nigger and let him die! Now, all of you get out of here, right now. Everybody get out.”

Johnton Shelby says his mother described hearing the sound of the three men sucking up saliva into their mouths and then spitting. Lula Mae described to her family that she looked over her shoulder as she was leaving the room and saw that the breathing tube had been removed from King and that Bland was holding a pillow over his head. (The book contains the entire deposition given by Johnton Shelby to Pepper, so readers can judge for themselves whether they think Shelby is credible – as Pepper believes he is.)

Hiroshima

Should the U.S. apologize for dropping the bomb on Hiroshima? Certainly the Japanese government of the time committed horrible atrocities, but I still think dropping the bomb was a mistake, and not coming to terms with what we did leads to a callous attitude toward the dangers of our (much larger, much more powerful, in many more hands) nuclear weapons almost 70 years later.

Even if you have never been to the place, you know the place. The mountains that form the background in all the old photos are still backstopping the city. A lot of newer, tall buildings now, but the Ota River delta, where thousands drowned trying to cool their bodies and extinguish their burning flesh, is right there. You’ve seen the pictures. Most of the bridges and streets were rebuild [sic] right where they’d been before the Bomb. Same for most public buildings. You could see where you were in 2017 and where you would have been in 1945 because they are the same place…

Outside of Japan, most people feel the Japanese government has yet to fully acknowledge its aggressiveness in plunging East Asia into war. Indeed, the museum inside the Peace Park has been chastised as focusing almost exclusively on a single day, out of a war that began over a decade earlier and claimed millions of innocent lives before the bomb fell on August 6, 1945. The criticism is particularly sharp, given the rise in militarism occurring under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Now, as in decades past, China watches to see what Japan will do with its armed forces…

There are others with things to atone for, and much to reconcile. The U.S. remains unrepentant. It was only on the 60th anniversary of the bomb that the first American ambassador came to Hiroshima on an August 6th morning to pay respects. There has never been an apology for the first use of a nuclear weapon, and against a civilian target at that. Ask most Americans about the bombing, and it would be surprising not to hear the phrase “they deserved it.” A few elderly survivors with disfiguring burns still suffer today. Yet there is not enough vengeance for some, even seven decades later.

– See more at: http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/165741#sthash.Ii0iS7fh.dpuf

Indonesia

The Intercept has an article on what is going on in Indonesia.

On the surface, the massive street protests surrounding the April 19 gubernatorial election have arisen from opposition to Jakarta’s ethnic Chinese incumbent governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok. As a result of pressure from the well-funded, well-organized demonstrations that have drawn hundreds of thousands — perhaps millions — to Jakarta’s streets, Gov. Ahok is currently standing trial for religious blasphemy because of an offhand comment about a verse in the Quran. On Thursday, the day after he hears the results of the very close governor’s election, he is due back in court for his blasphemy trial.

Yet in repeated, detailed conversations with me, key protest figures and officials who track them have dismissed the movement against Ahok and the charges against him as a mere pretext for a larger objective: sidelining the country’s president, Jokowi, and helping the army avoid consequences for its mass killings of civilians — such as the 1965 massacres that were endorsed by the U.S. government, which armed and backed the Indonesian military.

Serving as the main face and public voice of the generals’ political thrust has been a group of what Indonesians call preman — officially sponsored street thugs — in this case, the Islamic Defenders Front, or FPI (Front Pembela Islam). Originally established by the security forces — the aparat — in 1998 as an Islamist front group to assault dissidents, the FPI has been implicated in violent extortion, especially of bars and sex clubs, as well as murders and attacks on mosques and churches. During the mass protests against the governor, FPI leader Habib Rizieq Shihab has openly called for Ahok to be “hanged” and “butchered.”

Indonesia is easily the largest and most important country that most Americans know little or nothing about. I don’t claim to know a lot about it, but I have been there, lived not too far away from there and interacted with people from there. My personal interactions with Indonesians have been very positive. More than once intrepid female Indonesian tourists have stopped me on the street and asked to take photos with me. This inevitably leads to small talk, which always seems to involve asking my martial status and how many children I have in the first minute. On the flip side, I remember an Indonesian woman asking me once to please not sit next to her on a ferry. I tried not to be offended but it was the last seat available. Eventually I managed to change seats with another female passenger, and that solved the problem. So in my personal experiences I have found Indonesian people very personable, peaceful, friendly and tolerant. Which makes the country’s history of ethnic and religious strife a bit hard to reconcile in my head. I have also known Indonesians of Chinese descent who left the country during the ethnic strife in the 90s, but they won’t talk about it much. And I’m aware of the awful things that happened in the 60s, possibly with U.S. government involvement, although I didn’t learn anything about it in school. It is sad if that sort of thing is happening again.

March 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • La Paz, Bolivia, is in a serious crisis caused by loss of its glacier-fed water supply. At the same time we are losing glaciers and snowpack in important food-growing regions, the global groundwater situation is also looking bleak. And for those of us trying to do our little part for water conservation, investing in a residential graywater system can take around 15 years to break even at current costs and water rates.
  • Trump admires Andrew Jackson, who I consider a genocidal lunatic and the worst President in U.S. history.
  • Fluoridated drinking water could eventually be looked back on as a really stupid idea that damaged several generations of developing brains, like leaded gasoline. Or not…I’m not sure who to believe on the issue but caution is clearly warranted.

Most hopeful stories:

  • A new political survey says there is a chance that a majority of Americans are not bat-shit crazy. Which suggests they might not be too serious about Steve Bannon, who believes in some bat-shit crazy stuff. There are a number of apps and guides out there to help sane people pester our elected representatives when they fail to represent our interests.
  • South Korean women are projected to be the first to break the barrier of an average life expectancy of 90, with a 50% probability of this happening by 2030.
  • Advanced power strips can reduce the so-called “vampire loads” of our modern electronic devices that are never really off.

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • This long NASA article first gets you excited about the possibility of life on eight new planets it has just discovered, and then throws cold water (actually, make that lethal X-rays) all over your excitement.
  • Bill Gates has proposed a “robot tax”. The basic idea is that if and when automation starts to increase productivity, you could tax the increase in profits and use the money to help any workers displaced by the automation. In related somewhat boring economic news, there are a variety of theories as to why a raise in the minimum wage does not appear to cause unemployment as classical economic theory would predict.
  • CRISPR could be used to create new crops out of the wild ancestors of our current crops.

America’s worst President: “does that sound familiar?”

My vote has always been for Andrew Jackson, for two reasons. First, he destabilized the financial system, ushering in a century of unnecessary chaos. Second, he mounted a truly evil genocidal campaign against ethnic minorities. To quote Donald Trump (just slightly out of context), “does that sound familiar?”

By the way, I put Truman second for dropping the bomb. Then Lyndon Johnson, for the blood on his hands in Vietnam. I would put George W. Bush in the top 5 or so for starting two aggressive, unnecessary wars and destabilizing an entire region of the globe. If Trump manages to destroy our health care system and set climate change mitigation back by a decade, he may deserve a top 5. If there is a major war or nuclear detonation on his watch, he may still earn that #1 spot.

January 2017 in Review

I just realized I forgot to do a month in review post in January. Well, I had a lot going on in my personal life in January, most notably the arrival of a tiny new human being. Blog posts are not the only thing I forgot – I forgot to pay some important bills and to do some important paperwork at my job too.

3 most frightening stories

  • Cheetahs are in serious trouble.
  • The U.S. government may be “planning to roll back or dilute many of the provisions of Dodd-Frank, particularly those that protect consumers from toxic financial products and those that impose restrictions on banks”.
  • “Between 1946 and 2000, the US and the Soviet Union/Russia have intervened in about one of every nine competitive national-level executive elections.” The “Great Game” is back in Afghanistan.

3 most hopeful stories

3 most interesting stories

The Fourth Turning

Supposedly Steve Bannon is influenced by a book called The Fourth Turning that hypothesizes a cyclical view of history. Wikipedia refers to its primary author, Neil Howe, as an “amateur historian”, although he actually does have a history degree from Yale. Here is Howe talking about his own book in the Washington Post.

Along this cycle, we can identify four “turnings” that each last about 20 years — the length of a generation. Think of these as recurring seasons, starting with spring and ending with winter. In every turning, a new generation is born and each older generation ages into its next phase of life.

The cycle begins with the First Turning, a “High” which comes after a crisis era. In a High, institutions are strong and individualism is weak. Society is confident about where it wants to go collectively, even if many feel stifled by the prevailing conformity. Many Americans alive today can recall the post-World War II American High (historian William O’Neill’s term), coinciding with the Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy presidencies. Earlier examples are the post-Civil War Victorian High of industrial growth and stable families, and the post-Constitution High of Democratic Republicanism and Era of Good Feelings…

Finally, the Fourth Turning is a “Crisis” period. This is when our institutional life is reconstructed from the ground up, always in response to a perceived threat to the nation’s very survival. If history does not produce such an urgent threat, Fourth Turning leaders will invariably find one — and may even fabricate one — to mobilize collective action. Civic authority revives, and people and groups begin to pitch in as participants in a larger community. As these Promethean bursts of civic effort reach their resolution, Fourth Turnings refresh and redefine our national identity. The years 1945, 1865 and 1794 all capped eras constituting new “founding moments” in American history.

Supposedly, Bannon’s theory is that the 2008 financial crisis is the latest “fourth turning”. There are lots of critical takedowns of these ideas online, calling them “pop history” or “pseudoscience”. For example, here is the original New York Times review of the book in 1997, and here are recent articles in Huffington Post, Business Insider, and The Nation.