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Seydlitz89: “The US Needs to Re-discover the Concept of Strategy”

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

[by Mark Safranski a.k.a. "zen"]

Our Clausewitzian friend, Seydlitz89 commented on my recent post on politics and strategy and has a new one of his own that accurately frames a solution to the geopolitical disarray in which the United States finds itself today. Seydlitz89 asked for my comments so I will be making some where appropriate [ in regular text]:

The US Needs to Re-discover the Concept of Strategy

by Seydlitz89

 

There are various definitions of strategy. Basically what I mean here is expressed by a simplified example from Homer. The ten unsuccessful years of the Greek seige of Troy was carried out by force driven by notions of being led by heros/exceptionalism resulting in failure. Compare that to the subsequent Trojan Horse strategy which is far more than a simple ruse. The Greeks are able to turn the Trojan’s own belief system/narrative against them, and the horse is taken into the city to strategic effect. Had the Greeks been able to conquer Troy with force and notions of exceptionalism alone, then strategy would have been unnecessary, but since they were not, strategy became a necessity.

This particular symbolism chosen by Seydlitz89, of Achilles vs. Odysseus representing antipodes in strategy – of brute power vs. metis – were themes in Charles Hill’s Grand Strategies and Sir Lawrence Freedman’s Strategy: A History and the question of relying more on force or stratagem echoes in many contexts of military history and diplomacy. The “heroic” comment is particularly interesting to me. Homer’s Greeks in the archaic period  lived in aristocratic societies that had replaced the petty monarchies of the Greek Dark Ages in which The Illiad was set, but predated the Greeks of the polis of classical antiquity with which most people are more familiar.  The highest value of the the archaic Greek aristocracy (and for many classical Greeks as well) was “Arete” – an epitome of excellence in spirit and action, a virtuous nobility of character.

The Trojan Horse is a turning point for the Greeks, as Seydlitz correctly notes.  While all the major leaders of the Greeks in The Illiad are presumed to have arete, the stress on individual action, like the unstoppable battle-madness of Achilles outside Troy, makes unified action difficult and gives rise to bitter quarrels over place and spoils. Adopting the strategy of the Trojan Horse legitimizes collective action in light of arete; this shift in the direction of metis and strategy morally reinforced the iron discipline required for the phalanx, which became common Greek military practice in the century or two after Homer. So much so that while classical Greeks  marveled at the prowess of the legendary Achilles, the death of Aristodemus at Plataea received a far more grudging recognition from the Spartans. Strategy trumped heroics in terms of arete.

Lets consider strategy as a complex concept of at least three distinct aspects: the first is political context and contingency; the second is dialogue supported by a coherent strategic narrative; and the third is the combined application of various sources of power to achieve an effect greater than the sum of those sources, that is strategic effect. If we combine these three aspects we can conceptualize a test of opposing wills interacting over time applying various moral and material resources within a specific political context. The environment they operate in is one of uncertainty, violence and danger adding to the friction of the entire sequence. The goal is imposing one’s will over that of the enemy, but for the whole complex interaction to be coherent, certain criteria have to be met. Is the political purpose attainable by military means? Are other forms of power more appropriate? Is the purpose worth the possible cost? Who is the enemy exactly? A modern state? A tribe? An ideology?

A good riff here.

If you don’t care to take the time to understand the context in which you propose to operate, if you are unwilling to make rational choices about allocating your sources of power, if you are unwilling to acknowledge who (or what) constitutes “the enemy”, then your strategic narrative will be incoherent, unpersuasive and your effects anything but strategic (unless perhaps we count a debacle as being “strategic”).  Asking what the political purpose of military force  being used is for, much less the probability of success, seems to be the questions the Beltway prefers to ignore rather than answer.

Following Clausewitz, war belongs to political relations, so the enemy is by nature a political one, representing a political community. What is the nature of this political community, is it cohesive or fragmented to the point that it is the foreign presence which actually calls it into being? Dialogue is the interaction of both sides, but narrative includes all audiences involved including the home front, the enemy population and neutral political communities. One can see here how the moral and material cohesion of the two or more political communities influences the number of audiences we are dealing with.

Seydlitz here has written a paragraph to which Col. John Boyd would readily assent. The moral position your use of force communicates matters greatly to a variety of audiences, particularly if your actions contradict your words and your strategic narrative. Boyd argued for a grand strategy that would “Pump-up our resolve, drain-away our adversary’s resolve, and attract the uncommitted” , a task made impossible when marrying hypocrisy to cruelty while boasting of our own virtues. It is hard to lose a popularity contest with a ghoulish, beheading, paramilitary cult of sociopathic fanatics, or a brutal movement of unlettered zealot hillmen who throw acid in the faces of women, but at times the United States government managed to do exactly that. If the current and previous administrations had run WWII, we’d have had half the people of occupied Europe weighing their chances with the SS.

So based on our conceptual model, we can deduce that strategy requires a clear and specific political context, you cannot have a strategy to simply remain the only superpower on earth, or engage against methods such as terrorism or extremism. All of these are simply too abstract to be engaged in any way by strategy since the political contexts are too broad or nonexistent. How could the lone superpower prepare against any conceivable challenge from any rising political community, let alone engage a method of violence, strategically?

Declaring that we were in “The War on Terrorism” was the American elite’s way of finessing two aspects of the conflict they found most disturbing – the inconvenient reality that two American allies, Saudi Arabia and especially Pakistan, had done much to create the radical jihad movement from which our enemy had come and the elite’s own enormous political and psychological revulsion at grappling with the enemy’s sincere religious motivations and claim to defend Islam.  Not being willing to identify your enemy, even to yourself, will make discerning his center of gravity rather tough. Nor will anyone be impressed with demonstration of moral cowardice in fearing to do so.

Maintaining your strategic position relative to others?  This is more of a political task to emphasize the fundamentals, especially economic growth and moral confidence in the legitimacy of the model we present to the world, that make up the various aspects of national power of which military force is but one. A society that is ill-governed, corrupt and enduring social decay might be relatively more powerful than others (for a time) but it is unlikely to use its advantages effectively, much less wisely or decisively.

Re-discovering strategy allows us to look more critically at both our recent wars in terms of political context. What was the political purpose which we expected to achieve by especially military means in Afghanistan and Iraq? It seems to have been to remake both the Afghan and Iraqi political identities, since only that would have assured the success of the new governments we wished to impose.

From this perspective, not only Afghanistan and Iraq, but also more recent possible US military action regarding Syria, Iran or in support of the current Ukrainian government are all astrategic. None of them are coherent in any of the three aspects I have introduced

Complete agreement. The Bush administration based its claim to strategy on a narrow worldview of preemptive unilateralism, while the Obama administration has appointees who actively promote anti-strategic/astrategic models of national security decision making and disdain strategy altogether.

To illustrate this, let’s quickly consider Iraq. Iraq was initially portrayed as a looming threat. Operations commenced in 2002, although for some reason US and coalition air activity over Iraq was uniquely not considered military action. In the following spring, the country was quickly overrun, but the political purpose of imposing a new Iraqi political identity (as symbolized by the white, blue and yellow flag they were expected to adopt) was quite radical requirring sustained and extensive US moral and material support. An Iraqi resistance movement quickly spread with the US leadership caught by surprise. No strategy went into the planning of this campaign, instead it was based on a preference on organized violence linked with ideological assumptions regarding the market system as well as US exceptionalism.
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What we have experienced since 9/11 is not strategy, but the collapse of strategy as a coherent concept in US policy formulation producing a series of astrategic spasoms involving organized violence but to no US strategic effect. Instead we only have the aftereffects, the knock off of the corruption of these events contributing to a dissolution of US political standing in the world.

“Collapse” is an apt description.

Let us be clear that the supreme responsibility for this cognitive, cultural and moral collapse lies with the self-congratulatory, bipartisan elite, inside and out of the executive and legislative branches. They make policy that the military strives to carry out, they craft the strategic narrative or refuse to do so and they decide whether or not to focus on strategy and the exigencies of war or their ideological trivialities, they set the national moral example of careerism and brazen efforts to game the system for the personal enrichment of their relatives and cronies.

They are failing us and have been doing so for nearly a quarter-century.

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Pole position

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014

[exhumed by Lynn C. Rees]

Pilsudski

If a man continually blusters, if he lacks civility, a big stick will not save him from trouble but neither will speaking softly avail, if back of the softness there does not lie strength, power.

-  Theodore Roosevelt

One of the great strategic failures of the twentieth century was the failure to strangle Bolshevism in its cradle. For France and Britain, the failure arose from a desire to reconstitute the Russian Empire as it was before World War I with White armies, general war weariness by their populations after four years of bloody war, and a belief that no one as crazy as the Bolsheviks could endure in power. Winston Churchill warned of danger ahead but, as he was through most of his career, he was a prophet without honor in his own country on a good day and a stereotypical aristocratic English crank on a bad day. France and Britain would suffer a century of war, loss of their preeminence, and the fundamental corruption of their liberal institutions as a result.

The motives of the United States, new to this world power thing, were weakly held at worst and ambivalently held at best. They intervened in Russia primarily for reasons of Allied/“Associated Power” solidarity, to rescue a large army raised from former Austro-Hungarian Czech POWs that needed to be shipped to the Western Front, to seize Allied arms provided to the Imperial Russian government before the February Revolution, and to protect American property. Much to the chagrin of Allied commanders, American soldiers largely focused on that mission and not on the cause of supporting Russians fighting the Bolsheviks. Stopping a Red Menace in Russia that would threaten the U.S. after 1945 was not on the American agenda. Coming home was.

Poland did not have such a luxury. For Poland, Russia was all to close. Much as they would have wished the Atlantic to shift eastwards and separate Poland from Russia, Jozef Pilsudski, the father of Polish independence, had to have a strategy to counter a Russian empire that was right next door. The curious thing: he developed and started executing his strategy before Poland was even a state.

Pilsudski was born in Lithuania, then part of the Russian Empire. His family was minor nobility who’d risen and fought against Russia during Poland’s habitual escape attempts from the Prison of Nations. In school, Pilsudski was subjected to Russification but only learned to hate Russia, the Czar, Russian Orthodoxy, the Russian language, and Russian culture. He went to medical school but soon involved himself in pro-Polish independence movements. As with many, this led to arrest and a Siberian vacation. He was later released, returned to Poland, took up agitation again, and was imprisoned again. Pilsudski escaped (escape from Russian prisons was surprisingly common for revolutionaries like Pilsudski, Dzerzhinsky, and Stalin) and went into exile.

It was here that Pilsudski proposed the first version of his Promethean strategy to the Japanese after their war with Russia War broke out:

Poland’s strength and importance among the constituent parts of the Russian state embolden us to set ourselves the political goal of breaking up the Russian state into its main constituents and emancipating the countries that have been forcibly incorporated into that empire. We regard this not only as the fulfillment of our country’s cultural strivings for independent existence, but also as a guarantee of that existence, since a Russia divested of her conquests will be sufficiently weakened that she will cease to be a formidable and dangerous neighbor.

Pilsudski was proposing a grand strategy that echoed French strategy from Richelieu down to the bumbling Luigi Nabulione Buonaparte: keep a large neighboring proto-nation, in France’s case Germany, from being united under a state whose combined strength would constitute a mortal threat. Britain followed a similar strategy by keeping Europe divided by supporting whoever ganged up against the latest aspiring continental hegemon. In Pilsudski’s scheming, Russia, the Prison of Nations, was to be permanently checked by opening the prison’s locks and letting the prisoners out.

Japan, aiming to disrupt rather than destroy, provided Pilsudski with just enough resources to create distractions for Russia during the 1905 Russian Revolution but not enough to gain independence. Stymied, Pilsudski removed to Austrian Poland and sat down to an intricate game. Foreseeing a general European War, Pilsudski, with Austrian connivance, started building up a Polish Legion. Officers and NCOs were trained, agents were sent into Poland to assassinate Russian officials and steal money, and troops were trained under the fiction of setting up sporting clubs and a Rifleman’s Association. When World War I broke out, Pilsudski led 12,000 paramilitaries. At a meeting in Paris in 1914:

Pisudski presciently declared that in the impending war, for Poland to regain independence, Russia must be beaten by the Central Powers (the Austro-Hungarian and German Empires), and the latter powers must in their turn be beaten by France, Britain and the United States.

Pilsudski formed an official Polish Legion to fight for Austria-Hungary against Russia while secretly  informing the British that his forces would only fight Russia, not Britain and France. Pilsudski gained military experience by leading his forces in several battles with the Russians on the Eastern Front. After one encounter in which the Polish Legion suffered heavy casualties in successfully defending against a Russian attack, Pilsudski was able to coax the Germans and Austrians into declaring Poland independent. Under the new Polish government established by the Central Powers, Pilsudski served as minister of war  but increasingly took an independent position as the war drew to an end. After refusing to permit the Polish Legion to swear allegiance to Germany and Austria, Pilsudski was imprisoned by the Germans, the Polish Legion disbanded, and its men incorporated into the Austrian army. But, as Germany approached Armistice Day, they decided to create mischief. They released Pilsudski from prison and sent him back to Poland in a sealed train (like Lenin).

On Armistice Day 1918, Poland declared her independence. Pilsudski eased German troops from Poland (usefully leaving their weapons behind) and, as head of state, began organizing Poland as an independent state with its own government and army. The other leg of his strategy was revealed at this timeIntermarum. Pilsudski sought to create:

[A] federation, under Poland‘s aegis, of Central and Eastern European countries. Invited to join the proposed federation were the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia), Finland, Belarus, Ukraine, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia.

Intermarum

This federation would be an explicit counter to Germany and a rump Russia and an implicit counter to Britain and France. Curiously, in reference to the future, it would have been a kind of positive Warsaw Pact. Unfortunately for Pilsudski’s scheme, Britain and France opposed such a creature and Poland’s neighbors were too distrustful of Poland and too antagonistic towards each other to make such a pact.

Facing the immediate impracticability of Intermarum, Pilsudski shifted to Prometheism. Observing that “All that we can gain in the west depends on the Entente—on the extent to which it may wish to squeeze Germany”, while in the east “there are doors that open and close, and it depends on who forces them open and how far.” So Pilsudski focused on extending Poland’s eastern frontier.

This is where two of Pilsudski’s actions had a massive effect on the future of the world. When examining the situation in Russia, Pilsudski had a problem:

Pilsudski was aware that the Bolsheviks were no friends of independent Poland, and that war with them was inevitable. He viewed their advance west as a major problem, but also considered the Bolsheviks less dangerous for Poland than their Russian Civil War opponents. These “White Russians”—representative of the old Russian Empire—were willing to accept only limited independence for Poland, probably within borders similar to those of the former Congress Poland, and clearly objected to Polish control of Ukraine, which was crucial for Pilsudski’s Intermarum project.

This was in contrast to the Bolsheviks, who proclaimed the partitions of Poland null and void.Pilsudski thus speculated that Poland would be better off with the Bolsheviks, alienated from the Western powers, than with a restored Russian Empire [allied with Britain and France].

The sheer craziness of the Bolsheviks, as evidenced by such actions as unilaterally declaring peace with German without German agreement, led people to underestimate them. No one that nuts, especially a movement led by coffee-house intellectuals and hippies, could possibly last long against battle hardened White Armies, backed, as they were, by the Allied Powers. So Pilsudski decided not to move against the Bolsheviks in mid-1919. If he’d attacked the Bolsheviks at that time, Polish arms would have destroyed the Bolshevik regime.

Later, the Bolsheviks were drawn west as German forces finally withdrew from Russian territory. Their advancing forces clashed with Polish forces moving eastward. In response, following his Promethean philosophy of encouraging independence among the nationalities of the former Russian Empire, Pilsudski signed an alliance with the Ukraine. Together they attacked the Bolsheviks. After some success, the Russians, raising the specter of the ancient Polish enemy, rallied the Great Russian people and counter-attacked, driving the Poles back into Poland.

This is where a second action of Pilsudski led to historic changes. Here I will channel Niall Ferguson from The Pity of War and conjecture that a collapse of Poland in 1920 would have allowed Bolshevik forces, as they openly proclaimed, to invade Germany and Austria. As Ferguson argued that British intervention on the continent in 1914 saved France from Germany and thus led to all the horrors of World War I and its demon spawn, Polish collapse in 1920 might have triggered an intervention that led to the Bolsheviks being destroyed. While the Reds may not of been successful in occupying Berlin or large parts of central Europe, the Weimar Republic was weak and may have crumbled under even a weak Russian attack. The prospect of Communism advancing into central Europe and threatening western Europe might have triggered a renewed and more vigorous intervention in Russia by the Western Powers, possibly with broad public support. That might have led to the suppression of the Bolshevik regime.

This speculation is, of course, speculation. But opinion of the time, in the words of Norman Davis:

Pilsudski had nothing of his later prestige. As a pre-war revolutionary he led his party to splits and quarrels; as a general in the WWI he led his legions to internment and disbanding; as a marshal of the Polish Army he led it to Kyiv and Vilnius, both now lost to Poles. He left the Polish Socialist Party and his Austro-German allies; refused to ally himself with Entente. In France and England he was considered a treasonous ally who leads Poland into destruction; in Russia he was seen as a false servant of the allies, who would lead imperialism to ruin. All – from Lenin to Lloyd George, from Pravda to Morning Star - considered him a military and political failure. In August 1920 all were in agreement that his catastrophic career will be crowned with the fall of Warsaw.

As it was, Poland fought off the Russian attack under Pilsudski’s military leadership. The Poles had Russian codes and were able to listen in on their communications traffic. The result was Polish victory in the Battle of Warsaw, which featured the last decisive cavalry charges in military history. Russian forces completely collapsed and the Poles completely drove them from Poland. The Bolsheviks sued for peace and Poland’s civilian government, abandoning its Ukrainian allies over Pilsudski’s objections, made peace, and even passed on large territorial gains offered by the Russians in favor of a more compact Poland. Pilsudski’s political opponents, who controlled the government, focused on forming a Poland for the Poles, only accepting territory that contained Polish majorities or populations that could be “polonized”. Belarus and Ukraine, ironically, were partitioned between Poland and Russia. Pilsudski’s two grand strategic schemes were stymied. Poland would pursue neither a federation with an independent Ukraine nor a comprehensive policy of breaking up Russia into smaller and more manageable pieces.

Poland lapsed into a period of internal disorder that only ended when Pilsudski led a coup that overthrew the elected Polish government. Pilsudski became dictator and bloodily restored order to Poland. Authoritarian rule allowed Pilsudski to pursue his two strategic threads. While the Polish government under Pilsudski gave support to exile organizations representing reconquered Russian nationalities, little came of it. Pursuit of Prometheism and Intermarum lapsed after Pilsudski’s death in 1935. The pursuit was utterly extinguished after the outcome the two interwoven strategic threads were meant to prevent, a two front war followed by a fourth partition, took place.

Like many ideas, Prometheism and Intermarum experienced an unexpected reappearance in the last years of the Cold War. In the usual pattern of Special Providence, the United States achieved by accident what Pilsudski sought through design. The Soviet Union was torn down to its constituent nationalities. Even the core Russian Federation was threatened with disunion, fulfilling the ends of Prometheism. Central Europe and the Baltic states were federated under the auspices of the EU and NATO. Even though the first Bush administration sought to preserve the Soviet Union in an ironic echo of Britain and France failed policy in 1918-1919, the people of the Soviet Union took matters into their own hands and frustrated the design of sophisticated American analysts, pundits, and diplomats to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Current American policy favors Russia’s reassertion of control over its former territories. While Americans remain oblivious and forget about Russia’s historical ambitions, Russia’s former subjects and its neighbors are well aware of Russia’s tender mercies. If Poland is not pursuing an explicit policy of Prometheism and Intermarum, it may end up pursuing such a policy by default, irrespective of American fickleness and incompetence. It can be argued that the level of Russia’s formal or informal control over its “near abroad” means little to America’s national interests. Indeed, if the Promethean stirrings of 2005-2008 are any evidence, direct American pursuit of such a strategy may prove counter-productive.

American strategy works best when the U.S. can stumble around and, through luck, sheer size, and incoherent friendliness, comically trip and fall on the offending party, crushing them under its bulk. A proverb shared by both America’s friends and enemies is: America: No Better Enemy, No Worse Friend. Skill and finesse are not American strengths, only occurring sporadically and accidentally.

Poland and its neighbors should pray for their own special providence.

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Feckless

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

[belatedly acknowledged by Lynn C. Rees]

Here’s strategy at its most concrete.

Of all human imposed constants in American strategy, this is the most constant: Russia is the only threat on earth that can destroy the United States of America in hours. Though this constant seems less constant now than when Russia was subject to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, it has remained a constant menace despite Russia’s successful revolt against Soviet rule in 1991.

Yet the leaders of the United States follow a feckless strategy. Feckless strategy is like reckless strategy only with this critical distinction: while reckless strategy is at least energetic stupidity, feckless strategy is merely lazy stupidity. It is the art of failing without leaving your hammock. Swinging away, not a seeming care in the world, the United States has rudely intervened into Russia’s front yard, kicked out its Russia-friendly leadership, and is now taking leisurely victory lap around an uncaged nuclear tipped bear with a thousand year old inferiority complex and twenty years of wounded feelings to work through. This is not a win-win sporting event.

I’m all for stomping on your own client states. The efficient law of the jungle hypothesis argues that eventually the strong do what they can while the weak do what they must and the concert of nations will efficiently ultimately reflect this. But the United States has its own stable of poodles to oppress. Despite Mackinder’s trifecta:

Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland;

who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island;

who rules the World-Island controls the world

Sleepwalking past the Straights of Gibraltar or the Suez Canal through the Hellespont and the Bosporus so we can pee on Russia up the Dnieper from the Black Sea strikes me as a waste of time. Like the ridiculous proposal that the Americans take up the burden of a League of Nations mandate for Armenia after World War I (a proposal Thomas Woodrow Wilson (may his bones be crushed) fecklessly sent to the United States Senate where it was thankfully euthanized 52 to 23), the idea of American puppetry in the Black Sea, be it in the Ukraine, in Georgia, or some other quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing, is insane for many reasons. The most pressing of these reasons is that it is simply on the wrong side.

While Russia is from Mackinder, the United States is from Spykman:

Who controls the rimland rules Eurasia;

Who rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world.

The United States stands tallest when it stands astride blue water. What touches blue water is on the right side and that blue water touches the Eurasian rimlands. It does not flow up the Dnieper.

To the rimlands we can go. If a key maxim of statecraft is “never stick your head into a hole you can’t pull it out of”, the rimlands, if they become a hole, at least have the virtue of being a hole a blue water power can pull its head out of. Sticking our head up the Dnieper, in contrast, is sticking our head into a hole wrapped in a tunnel wrapped in a bottomless abyss. The hole Ukraine gauntlet is three consecutive holes: the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, and only then the Dnieper.

At the end of that gauntlet is resentful Russia sucking its nuclear-tipped thumb. The Russians believe they were ill-treated by the United States after the USSR went to its ash heap. If I were Russian, I’d probably share the same hurt feelings. However, Russia can not be subject to Communism for seven decades and expect life to be rainbows and unicorns. A key question at the heart of statecraft: if you can’t kick a man when he’s down, when else exactly are you supposed to kick him? The United States emerged from its great contest with the USSR in a stronger position than the refugees fleeing that infernal contraption. Russia suffered through a decade of postwar gloom without the sort of postwar emotional reinforcement I thought only Germans required to work through chronic revisionist issues: American troops marching through the Brandenburg gate or Red Square. The United States was going to do thing to Russia that it couldn’t do to the USSR. It could afford to indulge in useless luxuries like online, on demand chewing gum pack delivery or pushing your “attack on one is an attack on all” club to the line of the Nieman.

Poor Russia, whining in the cold, wanted dotcom era baubles too. If it couldn’t get that, at least it wanted the shadow of American intervention removed from its near reaches. We succumbed to the full Mackinder, absentmindedly reaching our tentacles into Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and other remote parts. 

I have no objection in principle to reaching our tentacles into remote parts. I do object to doing so fitfully and under resourced. If you are going to go Heartland on Eurasia, go Tamerlane or go home. If we are not going to go Tamerlane, a highly likely course since Joe S. American is likely to ask “What’s a Ukraine and what can I do with it?”, than we should stay home. Home is even more comfortable when you realize its walls provide some protection and distance from angry nuclear tipped teddy bears.

The United States, if it is to be overseas, should keep to its knitting by keeping to its Eurasian littorals. Heartland thugs and Heartland minions are not a luxury we need to acquire. Especially if your mischief is slouching over the line separating self-indulgence from self-destruction. Then we’re buying low quality assets at a price that can easily go nuclear. Or, to quote a particularly feckless past incarnation of our nation’s current top diplomat:

“How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

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Lincoln on Coventry

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

[by Lynn C. Rees]

British code breakers discover a massive Luftwaffe air raid will fall on the city of Coventry on November 14-15, 1940. When told, Churchill chooses to leave the city exposed. He fears that special measures to protect Coventry will let Hitler intuit that Churchill is reading his mail. Reading encrypted Hun was more critical to winning the war than a standing Coventry. So 568 people die. 1,256 suffered injury, and the center of Coventry ceases to be but Britain’s decryption efforts stay secret until the 1970s.

Or so the story would have it. Like most fables, Coventry burning is more truthful than factual. The implied moral of this fable stings some: Churchill’s family has gone to great lengths to disprove that “Churchill let Coventry burn“. Mourning that “the Coventry lie hardily endures, probably forever, periodically resurrected and solemnly proclaimed by those who have convinced themselves of Churchill’s perfidy.” seems misplaced though. Given the stakes:

Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.

Condemning 1 Coventry, 10 Coventries, 100 Coventries, 1,000 Coventries, even 1,000,000 Coventries to be burned seems worth the Mass. Churchill’s continued hold on human memory rests in part on his reputation for making hard choices. When you kill 1,297, wound 350, sink 1 battleship, and maul 6 other naval ships of a recent ally to impress your banker, fictionally burning Coventry doesn’t rise to the level of a sin that requires special expiation.

For all the current talk of seeing big pictures outside of boxed thoughts, the fashion now is soft times convicting hard times of hardness. The human mind is tribal scale: whatever small picture a small human group can manage to fit into their box as “human” is turned toward condemning whatever big picture lies outside the box as “inhuman”. So French naval vessels resting in their natural habitat on the seafloor can never be a small hurt suffered now to prevent suffering a bigger hurt later. It’s too mean: won’t Churchill, someone, anyone, think of the children?

Such is the cross born by hard times: some hurts and some children must be more equal than others so soft times can pretend all hurts and all children are equal. Yet hard times also let slip hard forces that exceed human carrying capacity for comprehension. Their unfolding proves more alien to day to day experience than hard sacrifices in fictional fables and by real French sailors. It’s worse than hard: it’s tragedy multiplied by uncertainty and compounded by unknowing.

It rained March 4, 1865.  The crowd gathered. John Wilkes Booth slunk through the wet crowd (“What an excellent chance I had to kill the President if I had wished!”). Vice President Johnson delivered his speech. His audience quickly grasped that he was all wet too but not from the rain (It was medicinal. For typhoid. I swear.).

Lincoln rose to speak. Sun broke through. The crowd waited for cheer. They got more rain: a master sermon on the need for hard humility when face to face with the incomprehensible logic of Lucy pulling away the football:

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

The most terrifyingly bloody statement ever delivered by an American public official. And the most terrifyingly necessary.

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Yet More Biographies…..

Monday, June 17th, 2013

     

Alexander The Great by Robin Lane Fox  

Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris 

Shadow Warrior: William Egan Colby and the CIA  by Randall Woods 

The first, was one of the works cited by Paul Cartledge in his own biography of Alexander the Great. Fox is an eminent historian at Oxford, now emeritus and his biography was a an important work in the field.

The next two were gifts from my own students. Now that I have Colonel Roosevelt, I will have to read the prize-winning trilogy as I have copies of the first two volumes (somewhere). The impression Morris made with his Reagan biography, Dutch, was very strange, but this will probably redeem him.

Not very familiar with Woods, but William Colby was a fascinating, controversial and contradictory DCI whose intelligence career spanned the OSS and much of the Cold War, dying in retirement under mysterious circumstances.

Added to the pile…..

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