Archive for the ‘war’ Category

In the Garden of Beasts

July 31, 2011

[Ed. : Note to future Historians: this entry contains topical references which we hope will be meaningless in a few short years. We hope.]

Hitler Addressing the S.A. 1933

I’ve just read a book about the opening days of the Nazi regime takeover of Germany which, of course, followed the days of the Weimar Republic, a government that couldn’t seem to get anything done. Sort of like the one we in the United States seem to have right now. Of course, huge differences exist. The Weimar government couldn’t get much done because of outside forces it could do little about. The Treaty of Versailles and then a world-wide depression constrained its ability to do much. The current inability of the United States government to do anything is an entirely self-inflicted wound administered by a group of petulant children from the ideological right-wing, abetted by surprisingly feckless Democrats led by a president bent on jumping off the cliff with the children. Only time will tell if they all manage to destroy what is left of the economy of this great Nation.

The book, In the Garden of the Beasts by Erik Larson, follows the four-year tenure of America’s ambassador to Germany from 1933 through 1937. A scholar and chairman of the History Department at the University of Chicago, William E. Dodd, was picked by President Roosevelt for the job. He arrived with his family in Berlin just five months after the Nazis took power. Dodd quickly grasped what that meant. Along with two other embassy employees he tried to raise an alarm, but the wiser, richer heads running the State Department were much too worried about collecting bond debts from Germany for private American investors dumb enough to have bought them in the first place.

Ambassador Dodd and Family Arriving in Germany - LOC

We all learned in school about the European powers of the day adopting appeasement of Hitler as policy. Less is taught in U.S. schools about the U.S. government’s similar policy: “Ignore him and maybe he’ll go away.” Of course, not everyone in the upper reaches of the State Department thought Hitler should be ignored; some thought we could do business with him. (As did many titans of U.S. business.)

Dodd thought otherwise and was appalled at the lack of concern in Washington about what Germany was doing to its Jews, it’s lawless state-sponsored murders of people thought disagreeable by the Nazis, and by its open and plain-to-see rearmament in violation of the Treaty of Versailles.

One joke circulating through Germany about the illegal and supposedly secret rearmament may have reached Dodd. One man with a new baby in his family tells a friend that he doesn’t have enough money to buy a stroller for the baby. The friend works in a stroller factory and volunteers to bring enough spare parts to his friend so he can build a stroller himself. Some weeks later the friend spots the father carrying the baby in his arms and asks why he isn’t using the stroller he should have built from the parts. The Dad says, “I tried. I tried three times but it always ends up as a machine gun!” (From the book: Endnote 213)

Gestapo Head Rudolf Diels - Bundesarchiv

One suspects there may have been jokes circulating about Dodd’s daughter as well. She managed to bed a fair number of Nazis and other Germans while she was there. At one point she carried on a simultaneous affair with both the head of the Gestapo and a NKVD Russian spy. She had a good time in Germany even if her father didn’t.

William Bullitt - LOC

The Germans complained about Dodd, the upper-level wise men did not like him, and so they convinced President Roosevelt to replace Dodd with Hugh Wilson, another wise man from State, who set about his new job in Berlin with gusto, promising Germany’s Foreign minister, the Nazi von Ribbentrop, that if war came to Europe he (Wilson) would do all he could to keep the United States out of it. William Bullitt, one of the stars of the State Department, wrote Roosevelt that the appointment of Wilson “increased definitely” the chances for peace in Europe. Secretary of State Cordell Hull and his undersecretary Sumner Wells applauded. Soon Hitler gobbled up the Rhineland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and invaded Poland. The rest is history.

My point? At long last I come to it: History teaches that people at high levels of government, despite their pretenses, don’t know much more about how things will turn out than we do. They aren’t bad people; they aren’t stupid, they just can’t see any further into the future than we can. And sometimes, not as far.


69 Years Ago Today

December 8, 2010

Iraq – “Ending” Combat

September 6, 2010

Air Attack on North Korean Train

In my lifetime, the United States has ended two wars – Korea and Vietnam – and pretended to end a third – Iraq. Korea ended in a stalemate that endures to this day, Vietnam was a loss, and it’s way too early to tell about Iraq. But the president has declared an end to the U.S. combat role in Iraq.  Since we’re leaving fifty thousand troops behind, I certainly hope somebody told the insurgents.

Withdrawing combat troops is a strange way to win a war anyway.  As Winston Churchill told the British after their successful WWII evacuation from Dunkirk, “We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by withdrawals.”

North Vietnamese Tank in Saigon

But, at least the Iraq War won’t end the way the Vietnam War ended with helicopter flights from the embassy roof. The end in Vietnam was both predictable and predicted by many observers and policy makers including President Eisenhower.  A product of a simpler age, Eisenhower actually thought that the nation should not go to war unless the nation agreed to go to war.

That was the job of Congress exercising its responsibilities under the Constitution and declaring war. Eisenhower specifically said that he would not go to war in Indochina unless and until the people of the United States, acting through their elected representatives, voted for a Declaration of War. Besides, along with President Roosevelt, he thought it was a bad idea and he wasn’t about to ask Congress for a war declaration.

President Eisenhower Meeting President Diem

Prior to the Japanese takeover of Indochina in the early days of WWII, it was a French colony. FDR adamantly opposed returning Indochina to France after the war. Believing that the French slowed the growth and development of the region and deprived its people of their basic freedom to choose their own governments, FDR made it clear throughout WWII that “French Indochina” would not be French after the war.

Unfortunately, he forgot to tell Harry Truman.

President Truman worried much more about Soviet communism than about some backwater in Southeast Asia. If the price of getting France to join the NATO embryo included giving them their Indochina colony back, Truman paid without hesitation. French President De Gaulle knowing his way around power politics, threatened to take France into the Soviet bloc unless Truman agreed to let France have its old colony back.

Charles de Gaulle during WWII

Truman, the old poker player, didn’t see the bluff. De Gaulle didn’t have so much as a pair of deuces, but Truman folded anyway and France moved back into Vietnam.

It was Truman, who first hit upon the idea of taking the nation to war without bothering with constitutional niceties, like congressional war declarations. That’s how we ended up fighting the Korean “conflict.” No reason to use a perfectly good Anglo-Saxon word like “war” when a convenient euphemism is at hand; the Constitution is silent about whom shall declare “conflict.”

These “Executive Branch” wars often don’t work out well for the simple reason that not all the American people are behind them in the beginning and no one expects them to last as long or cost as much as they do. The United States alone has suffered forty thousand casualties in Iraq and that doesn’t count all the psychic wounds. No one knows the full extent of the damage done to the Iraqi people and how that weighs in the scale with the removal of Saddam Hussein. By some calculations, we’ve already spent a trillion dollars on the project, mostly on borrowed money. Fifty thousand American troops remain in the country.  Moreover, most are fully combat capable and many are on combat missions as you read this, but since they are just “advisers” and “trainers” it doesn’t count as combat.

We’re leaving Iraq the same way we entered Vietnam.

65th Anniversary- Battle of the Philippine Sea

June 20, 2009

We recently paused to remember the 65th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Europe.  Today, we pause again:  This time to remember the 65th anniversary of the Battle of the Philippine Sea, during which a friend won the Navy Cross. We would tell you more about what he did that day, but he is modest and says, “I was just doing my job.” And so, we pause again, to thank him and all the men who fought with him on that day, not so long ago, for doing their jobs.

phillipine sea

Source: US Navy online library of Japanese Navy Ships--Zuikaku, photo number 80-G-238025. June 20, 1945

D Day

June 6, 2009
Photo by Chief Photographer's Mate (CPHOM) Robert F. Sargent, U.S. Coast Guard

Photo by Chief Photographer's Mate (CPHOM) Robert F. Sargent, U.S. Coast Guard

Sixty-five years ago this morning, German soldiers awoke to face the largest amphibious assault in the history of the world.

The Allies hit the beaches at 6:30 A.M., British Double Summer Time (GMT + 2 hours), 12:30 A.M., U.S. Eastern Wartime. (GMT -4 hours)

We pause to remember.

 Colleville-sur-mer photo by Tristan Nitot

Colleville-sur-Mer photo by Tristan Nitot


The President of the United States was eloquent there this day. Video here.

Custer’s Last Stand

June 1, 2009

littebighornFor reasons buried far too deeply in my psyche to bear examination, I’ve always been interested in military history.  For instance, I have read, twice, David Chandler’s magisterial — and long — history of Napoleon’s campaigns.  Normal civilians probably don’t do that sort of thing. So, those of you disinterested in
Custer’s Last Stand, more properly the Battle of the Little Bighorn or the Battle of the Greasy Grass, are excused.

Napoleon, by the way, was Custer’s favorite general.

Almost 400 men lost their lives that hot day in June, 1876; 263 soldiers and about 100 warriors.  Nobody knows how many civilians were killed. Acres of paper and tanker trucks of ink have explored how the Native Americans won the battle.  I just read one of the latest efforts, A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn by James Donovan. Donovan does a credible job, resolving as best anyone can, many of the historical discrepancies that remain 133 years later.  His portrayal of Custer is nuanced and realistic.  Custer is neither a bungling fool nor a glorious hero in Donovan’s telling.

Custer lost for a number of reasons, mostly because he was out fought by a larger force using superior tactics. Sitting Bull was smarter. Still, the list of Custer’s mistakes is daunting.

He didn’t just divide his force; he splintered it.  First he sent Captain Benteen on a wild goose chase, or at least that is how Benteen, who hated Custer, saw it.  Probably, Donovan surmises, Custer was worried about any Indians escaping and wanted Benteen to find and stop any small groups of them.  In the event Benteen and his three companies of soldiers found no Indians on his useless side trip.

Modern View of the Site of the Indian Camp

Modern View of the Site of the Indian Camp

Then Custer sent Major Reno with three companies up the valley floor. Reno was probably drunk at the time.  If his job was to get attacked, he did it well, even drunk.  That was about all he did right, but one can blame Custer for that.  Reno had been his immediate subordinate for years.  Shouldn’t Custer have trained him better?  Then, instead of helping Reno by riding down from the bluffs east of the river and attacking the Indians’ flank — perhaps because he couldn’t find a good place to get down to the river?  He had done no reconnoitering of the scene — Custer literally waved at Reno and rode off 4 miles to the north, leaving Reno’s men to face the charge from the Indians unaided.

His command already divided in thirds, Custer continued dribbling men out of his formation as he galloped north. And why did Custer lead his remaining command that far north? Nobody knows for sure, but Donovan posits that Custer was still worried that the Indians might escape. That would account for his long ride north .  Perhaps he wanted to fall on the Indian camp from the opposite direction of Reno and prevent escape. Apparently he never considered that the Indians would fight instead of running.

But whatever Custer’s plans, the Indians reacted quickly and well to the surprise attack and soon seized the initiative.  After that, what Custer thought no longer mattered.

A Remarkable American

A Remarkable American

Like Hannibal’s great victory at Cannae, the Indians’ victory at the Little Bighorn (And at the Rosebud, a week earlier) preceded their ultimate defeat.  As Hannibal was forced to leave Italy and watch as the Romans sacked and burned Carthage; so the slaughter at Wounded Knee 14 years after the Little Bighorn was the final end of a way of life.

But the Native Americans won the last two major battles of the war.

Custer was no Napoleon, but he read everything he could about Napoleon’s campaigns.  Not that it did him any good. Custer misunderstood the strategic goal of the campaign; lacked a clear idea of his tactical goal; ignored his Indian scouts; underestimated his foe; failed to reconnoiter the terrain; over-estimated the ability of his troops; neglected to adequately train his junior officers, splintered his command; and imagined that a small fast-moving force could conquer anything.  All in all, he behaved with remarkable hubris.

After Custer was dead for awhile, he reincarnated as Donald Rumsfeld.



April 23, 2009


Our last post – coincidentally the name of the British bugle call used during the burial of honored soldiers – concerned the death of Private Richard A. Dewater.  Here is a photo of his remains returning home.  His funeral is Saturday.

All of which reminds us of the words of H.G. Wells:

A time will come when a politician who has wilfully made war and promoted international dissension will be as sure of the dock and much surer of the noose than a private homicide. It is not reasonable that those who gamble with men’s lives should not stake their own.

It does not matter what your politics and it does not matter what your political stand  about the war in Iraq or the war in Afghanistan, you must agree that men who gamble other mens’ lives should be required to gamble their own.


April 20, 2009
Tyler Hicks photo from the kill zone

Tyler Hicks photo from the kill zone

Monday’s New York Times contains an extraordinarily moving piece about GI’s patrolling in Afghanistan.  I suggest you listen to the audio slide show first and then read the article.

It will remind you , as if you needed reminding, that no matter how long the adjective that is placed in front of the word “war” — for instance, “asymmetric” — it is still war and in war young soldiers behave with uncommon courage and exemplary devotion to each other.

They also die, in the mud and the rain; as did Private Dewater, age 21 years, whose body was blown into a tree by the IED that exploded beneath his feet about a minute after the photo of him crossing the river was taken.
All the photos, including the one above, were taken by war photographer Tyler Hicks who was himself in the kill zone.  I post it as a comment on his courage as well as that of the soldiers who participated in the chaos that is a fire fight.  Note the two soldiers across the river.

The Shetland Bus

June 1, 2008

I re-read last week The Shetland Bus, a book by David Howarth, one of my favorite non- fiction writers.  He was British and predominantly a military historian.  He wrote an excellent history of Trafalgar, another of Waterloo and many others. During WWII Howarth was in the British navy and helped operate what was called “The Shetland Bus.” That was the name the Norwegians gave the small fleet of Norwegian fishing boats that the British operated from the Shetland Islands during WWII.  The boats carried spies, radios, munitions and supplies to the Norwegian Resistance and brought out refugees and Norwegians whom the Gestapo was after.  An excellent website commemorates their achievements and failures.

A Shetland Bus in the North SeaWhile the boats were actually in Norwegian coastal waters they were fairly safe because each looked just like the hundreds of other legitimate fishing boats.  But the run back and forth in North Atlantic in the winter killed lots of men.  (The Bus couldn’t operate in the summer because of the long days which allowed German aircraft to find and sink them. The Germans weren’t as effective against the boats during the long Arctic winter night.)  Nonetheless many were lost, some due to enemy action , many more due to the weather. It was about 200 miles from the Shetlands to the Norwegian coast, through the winter time North Sea.
Here is a map of the run across the North Sea.

Map of the Shetland Bus Routes

The book is a rollicking good adventure story, full of espionage, seamanship and individual and community acts of incredible bravery.  And death.  Here is what Howarth wrote:

. . . to ascribe glory to the violent death of any young man loving life is only to add further to the failure of human wisdom which is the cause of war.

. . . .[Our friends’ deaths] will always remain with us and haunt us, and remind us that though wars can still bring adventures which can stir the heart, their true nature is of innumerable personal tragedies, of grief, waste and sacrifice, wholly evil and not redeemed by glory.