In the ever-growing category of things I didn't know:
The first time British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain ever flew in an airplane was on 15 September 1938, to see Hitler at Berchtesgarden. Seeking to bolster his policy of appeasement, Chamberlain flew to Germany twice more that month, first to Bad Godesberg and then to Munich.
Also, Churchill, stunned and alone after the Munich agreement, retreated to his country house, where his first visitor was Guy Burgess, then a producer for the BBC, but of course also a Soviet spy. No indication that Churchill knew anything about that.
Both facts from Martin Gilbert's fine Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years.
Winston Churchill, writing in My Early Life, mentions how wealth affected one's choice of branches in the British Army:
I qualified for a cavalry cadetship at Sandhurst. The competition for the infantry was keener, as life in the cavalry was so much more expensive. Those who were at the bottom of the list accordingly were offered the easier entry into the cavalry.
Tom again: So, by making the cavalry expensive, the wealthy aristocracy was able to reserve largely for itself job openings in part of the military -- perhaps a place to store second sons without sufficient brains for other jobs? I asked Douglas Allen, an economic historian who has studied the political economy of the British military. He wrote back, "No doubt though, it took a long time for the aristocrats to be replaced by attrition, and they probably did use a price mechanism to keep the vulgar middle class out of their preferred positions."
Was it Normandy? Blenheim? Waterloo? Goose Green? No to all.
Perhaps Naseby or Culloden? No again. El Alamein? Nope.
It was, indeed, Imphal and Kohima, the turning point in the fighting in South Asia during World War II. Now, I'm a Burma theater fan as much as the next guy. But this still surprised me. I wonder why they picked that. It wasn't just because President Obama's grandfather served there. Perhaps it was the ever-growing reputation of General Slim?
(HT to PL who had to read the original article upside down)
In a footnote in the Orwell diaries, I learned that more British civilians were killed by enemy action during World War II than were members of the Royal Navy (60,595 vs. 50,758).
Meanwhile, in other news related to World War II, for the first time in nearly 70 years, there is not a single American tank on German soil.
A woman who had too much to drink fell asleep on a train. Mark Scully, an official in the British Ministry of Defence, pretended to help her to a taxi but instead dragged her into some woods and assaulted her. He worked on reconstruction issues in southern Afghanistan in 2009-10, the Daily Mail reports.
It is mentioned in the diary of John Colville, one of Churchill's aides during the war. Churchill was so mad he said he would make sure Rome was bombed.
Colville is a snob and a prig, but his diary contains many illuminating passages about Churchill, and also some inadvertently good insights into the British mentality during the war. Among other things, they have no idea of how much ground they have lost technologically, which slammed their economy in the following decades.
Another interesting moment came in February 1944, when Churchill mistakenly had the songwriter Irving Berlin to dinner, believing he had invited the philosopher and diplomat Isaiah Berlin. He kept pestering poor Irving with questions about his thinking about when the war might end. The great songwriter, no slouch himself, correctly predicted that FDR would run for a fourth term and win.
Also, on New Year's Day 1953, Churchill predicted that communism in Eastern Europe would end before the century did. Well played, sir.
By Henry Farrell
Best Defense office of ethno-military affairs
You asked recently whether the "British Army ever formally recognized and honored the role that Irishmen (not Anglo-Irish aristos) historically played in its enlisted ranks?"
The answer is yes, at least for World War I. Neither the British nor the Irish government was particularly inclined to celebrate the role of Irish soldiers in the British Army until quite recently. World War I split the Irish Volunteers into a majority under the sway of John Redmond, who supported the British in World War I (and in many cases volunteered to join the British Army), and a minority who opposed the war and the threat of conscription (which was nominally led by my great-grandfather Eoin MacNeill). The latter started the Easter Rising and the War of Independence, and won, more or less (the Irish civil war was fought between two sub-factions of this faction; as Brendan Behan once remarked, the first item on the agenda of any IRA meeting was always The Split). The former nearly completely disappeared from historical memory -- nobody, except the Ulster Unionists, particularly wanted to remember the Irishmen who had fought on Britain's side. Sebastian Barry's extraordinary play, The Steward of Christendom, talks to this amnesia from the perspective of the "Castle Catholics" who had sided with the British administration. Frank McGuinness's earlier play, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, talks about it from a Unionist perspective.
This began to change in the 1990s, leading to an initiative to create a memorial to the Irish who died in World War I, which was folded into the more general peace initiative. The result was the building of a tower with financial support from both the British and Irish governments, commemorating the war dead from both parts of Ireland. The British and Irish army bands played together for the first time at its opening. The Wikipedia page on the memorial gives a good overview of the project and the politics behind it.
Pretty small to start: Six Irish troops with work with 21 British troops. And less than 100 years after the Easter Rising! (And why six Irishmen -- for the "six counties that live under John Bull's tyranny"?)
I wonder: Has the British Army ever formally recognized and honored the role that Irishmen (not Anglo-Irish aristos) historically played in its enlisted ranks?
In other Anglo-foreign military news, a Canadian reservist who presided over a lethal screw-up with Claymore mines in Afghanistan was demoted from major to lieutenant. I don't remember that sort of two-grade demotion occurring in the U.S. military -- do you?
A reader writes with this request for you well-informed BD readers. It reminds me that I read the other day that Russia took more casualties at Stalingrad than the United States suffered during the entire war:
While I've read many books about World War II, they've all been from the Western perspective (and predominantly about the United States' role in the war). I've been reading Dominic Tierney's mediocre but salvageable How We Fight, and he made a particularly interesting note about Russia's more significant role in WWII compared to the US -- more loss of life, greater stakes, and ultimate victory.
I've never read an account of WWII from the Russian perspective, and I'm not quite sure where to start in my search for one or two good volumes. I was hoping you might either have a suggestion, or be interested in posting to your blog to see what answers may come.
From T.P. Cameron Wilson, who was killed in 1918:
. . . The gates of Heaven were open, quite
Unguarded, and unwired.
As a holiday gift for myself, I read an advance copy of the last of Rick Atkinson's trilogy on World War II in Europe. The book is out in May, but you can pre-order on Amazon right now.
It was like slipping into a warm bath: Good writing ("Sherman pyres on the Caen plain") and fine narrative.
But most of all, fascinating facts:
But it kept prices low! This strikes me as almost the worst of capitalism and communism combined.
The company says it will donate money for research on forced labor. Here's a better idea: Why not just pay the former prisoners, or their families, decent back wages for the work they did? Better decades late than never.
I spent a lot of time recently reading poems from World War I, much of it new to me. Rather than discuss them all at once, I am going to feature one poem or even one line a day.
Here is W.W. Gibson's "Breakfast":
We ate our breakfast lying on our backs,
Because the shells were screeching overhead.
I bet a rasher to a loaf of bread
That Hull United would beat Halifax
When Jimmy Stainthorp played full-back instead
Of Billy Bradford. Ginger raised his head
And cursed, and took the bet; and dropt back dead.
We ate our breakfast lying on our backs,
Because the shells were screeching overhead.
British military might rested on its navy for centuries, Paul Kennedy reminds us in The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery, which I am just finishing. That changed almost exactly 100 years ago with the advent of the submarine. "There is no doubt that this new weapon almost brought the British Empire to its knees," he writes.
By 1937, British spending on the RAF passed spending on its army, and a year later, also passed the navy's budget.
One of the drawbacks to being the pioneer in the Industrial Revolution, Paul Kennedy writes in The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery, was that the British, being first, simply were not accustomed to competition. Hence both their industrial and social practices were encumbered, he writes, by "complacency and inefficiency."
As a result, he continued, the British educational system failed to keep pace with the Americans and Germans in churning out engineers and technologists. And even when innovators surfaced, they did not necessarily succeed. Britain was a major innovator in the steel industry, he writes, but was surpassed because its wealthy did not back innovation with investments.
That question had never occurred to me until I was driving along the Mass Pike yesterday to the Motel 6 in Springfield, and thinking about Paul Kennedy's analysis of the strategic positions of France and England in the 17th century.
The British strategic situation was relatively easy to discern: As an island, it was clear that it had foremost had to be a seapower. But France had both land and sea to consider. Moreover, like the United States, it had to weigh how to protect two major non-continuous coasts. The result for France, writes Kennedy, "was to cause an ambivalence in national strategy for the next few centuries, for it was never clear to her leaders how much attention could be devoted to building up sea power as opposed to land power."
Anyone know of a good essay that explores this dilemma in the context of the French and the Americans? Does the United States need to be foremost a seapower or a landpower (or an airpower or a cyberpower)? It is like we have five coasts.
In an essay knocking down the concept of "total war" in the book Arms and the Man, West Point history prof (and rowing coach) Eugenia Kiesling offers this interesting analogy: "If war under the ancien regime was like dining at an elegant restaurant where one paid extravagantly for small, elaborately presented portions, Napoleon took advantage of the all-you-can-eat buffet."
I just finished reading Robert Graves' autobiography of World War I service for the fourth time. I read it first as a teenager in Kabul in 1970. (I have no idea how I happened to come across it there in Afghanistan, or why picked it up.) I think it was the first book of military history that ever really grabbed me, for which I remain grateful. I can't think of any other book that I have read four times, except perhaps for some of Shakespeare's tragedies.
I read Graves' memoir again in my 20s, at Yale, and then in my 30s, in Washington, D.C.. It was different book each time for me. I realized recently I hadn't looked at it in about 20 years, so picked it up to see how it felt now. I also wanted to see what had captured me so much in the previous readings.
I have to say I was less impressed this time. The first and second times I read it, it seemed kind of shocking. This time it felt a bit tame. That might be because I have read so many other memoirs, some stronger, and also seen some war myself in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and, Afghanistan.
Some passages that struck me this time:
--On how to pick platoon leaders: "Our final selection was made by watching the candidates play games, principally Rugger and soccer. Those who played rough but not dirty, and had quick reactions, were the sort needed."
--At the front, "I kept myself awake and alive by drinking about a bottle of whiskey a day. I had never drunk it before, and have seldom drunk it since."
--His friend Siegfried Sassoon on leave in London: "very ill, he wrote that often when he went for a walk he saw corpses lying about on the pavements."
--After the war, "It has taken some ten years for my blood to recover." Also, "strangers in daytime would assume the faces of friends who had been killed."
It made me wonder the extent to which for Europe, World War I, with its industrialization of killing, was the event that set the tone for the entire 20th century. I think that maybe for the U.S., World War II was more significant, but maybe not for Europe, and especially for the British.
By Stacy Bare
Best Defense bureau of veterans' affairs
There is no easy way to discuss the issue of veteran entitlement in America. It is a sensitive topic and that there are those veterans among us who have an issue with what entitlement is, perhaps a natural reaction. It is also a reaction that our strategic leadership should have foreseen. When you are part of the 1 percent who serves repeatedly and you come home to a country where most people are absorbed with Jersey Shore, the Karadashians, or Michael Vick's dog trial but can't find Afghanistan on a map nor pick out the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in a lineup, it is easy to feel like society owes you something. That is, however, not why we choose to serve and is antithetical to the nature of service and duty.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, America was encouraged by our president to go back to the lives we were used to living. We were not asked to gird ourselves for sacrifice, for war, for men and women who would come home disconnected and misunderstood by their communities; at worst, broken and bruised emotionally, spiritually, and physically. Since then, the men and women who served our nation have come home to a country that had little understanding of the war or what the war had done to our minds and bodies. Since Korea, our veterans have deserved better, but America was not ready then, nor were they now, for the wars of the last 11 years.
America panicked, and rightly so; we did not want a repeat of what happened during and after Vietnam. America did something and a lot of it. Something, however, does not always equate to the right thing. In our attempt to heal, to be generous, and to be thankful to those who volunteered to serve, America inadvertently created a cadre of veterans for whom nothing would ever be good enough and at times dis-incentivized reintegration back home. Our country was good enough to go fight for, why isn't it good enough to come home to?
We've got a lot of work to do in this country: It isn't just veteran issues that need fixing, and veterans can and should take an active leadership role. For example, roughly 1,000 service members have lost an arm since we started the war in Afghanistan. An estimated 30,000 Americans will lose an arm this year alone. Here is our opportunity to be a hero, to be a real warrior even without our uniform, to be leaders in our communities. To embrace that challenge is a decision we as veterans have to make.
Our generation is easily the best supported generation of veterans since those of World War II. A lot of the something America has done is necessary, needed, and deeply appreciated. However, we have been nervous to say out loud that service alone should not guarantee free admission and the front of the line every time for every service member.
So what do we do?
We need to follow the examples of those veterans who have politely said "No ,thank tou" to the handouts and asked instead for a hand up, an opportunity to excel, a level playing field -- not free admission. We as veterans need to create a return on investment for the sacrifices and resources we're being given by a grateful nation and we need to stand beside America in the long hard work of creating a better future for younger generations, not just wait for free tickets to the next baseball game.
I wrote nothing about the recent NATO summit -- and not a single reader asked how come. That's interesting because clearly the readers of this blog are interested in national security issues.
I suspect that you, like me, just found the whole thing boring. In fact, the main thing that interests me about Europe right now is its economic crisis, not its security pretenses.
That said, I still believe what one sage once told me about the purpose of NATO: "They keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down."
By Rebecca Frankel
Best Defense Chief Canine Correspondent
Lance Corporal James Wilkinson was a mere two meters away when a roadside bomb exploded, sending shrapnel spray into his hip and stomach, severing the femoral artery in his leg. The blast launched Wilkinson off his feet, and though he was able to take stock of the severity of his wounds, he blacked out before he could call for help.
When he came to he found Tam, the yellow Labrador who'd been his bomb-sniffing partner during their three months in Afghanistan, standing over him. After the explosion Tam, who had not been injured in the attack, stuck close by his handler through the billowing black smoke and barked "like mad," not only bringing Wilkinson back to consciousness, but also drawing their fellow soldiers to his aid. They treated him quickly, applying a tourniquet to his leg and getting him onto the U.S. Black Hawk helicopter that brought him swiftly to Camp Bastion's military hospital.
The doctors who repaired the extensive damage done to his hip and leg told Wilkinson, a dog handler with the 104 Military MWD Squadron of the British Army, that if he'd arrived at the hospital "a minute later he would be dead." His surgeries lasted an entire day.
Originally from Yorkshire, Wilkinson, 26, is still working through his recovery. "It is a slow process," he told reporters, "but I am getting there. I am walking, which is the main thing. A lot of guys who get caught by IEDs (improvised explosive devices) end up losing a leg or both."
Unfortunately, his career as a military dog handler is over. Wilkinson suffered nerve damage in his leg and still has shrapnel in his body. The Army has classified him as "non-deployable." His wife Kerry has left the Army and hopes that her husband will decide to join her in civilian life and return to his former job as a gamekeeper. They are expecting their first child this summer. But Kerry, who was also a handler with the 104, knew Tam and saw the connection between her husband and his canine partner. "They had a great bond. Jim loved that dog."
There is no questioning the role the dog played in saving this soldier's life. Of Tam, Wilkinson says, "He was my world. He was a good companion and I trusted him."
Rebecca Frankel, on leave from her FP desk, is currently writing a book about military working dogs, to be published by Free Press.
It's kind of like hearing the neighbors arguing late at night -- you can hear the shouts, but can't quite make out the meaning. That is, I don't quite understand the inside baseball here, but The American Conservative sets out to demolish neoconservative icon Leo Strauss:
Strauss was at best a mediocre scholar whose thought expressed a confused bipolarity between a very German and ahistorical Grecophilia on the one hand and a scattered, dogmatic, and unsophisticated apology for an American version of liberal universalism on the other.
This is the equivalent of one soldier calling another "a lardass REMF fobbit liberal." Why do I mention this obscure intellectual squabble in this blog? Because there are those who contend that followers of Strauss at the Pentagon and elsewhere in the Bush administration were instrumental in getting the United States to invade Iraq.
By Robert Goldich
Best Defense guest respondent
I've gone in the other direction regarding Gen. Dempsey.
A bit to my surprise, given how much he was praised before he became the CSA by people who I really respect and admire, I am becoming increasingly disenchanted with him.
I see official remarks and documents that seem to me to be nothing more than a stringing together of contemporary pop phrases in military-strategic affairs, dispensing conventional wisdom. There seems to me to be a lack of intellectual rigor in his published statements of policy. I found his first CJCS reading list to be amazingly puerile, filled with that most suspicious of categories of written material, best sellers on general booklists. And while as an historian I'm suspicious of excessively precise historical analogies, I'm also concerned that excessive soft-peddling of rising Chinese truculence and expansionist probing will encourage a Chinese Sparta to indeed threaten us Americo-Athenians. Gen. Dempsey should recall that just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you, or at least willing to try in times of crisis.
Unlike Tom, I'm very concerned that by incessant remarks about how "mass formations" won't be necessary. We'll play into the hands of adversaries who decide that they aren't equally dubious about their utility.
Perhaps we can modify the alleged statement of Trotsky to read: "You may not be interested in conventional war, but conventional war may be interested in you." I don't think we're as bad off as the British Army in 1914, because we have a very large reserve force by comparison and a much greater diffusion of fairly recent military service within the general male population (and, of course, a growing number of younger women). But there's no question that for a prolonged conventional conflict beyond a certain unpredictable level, an AVF is always going to have less trained mobilization potential than larger draft-fed force that generates a lot of recently-trained individual reservists. There are always tradeoffs.
And this doesn't even touch on industrial mobilization. As far as I can tell, nobody but nobody in officialdom is thinking about this (if they are, they're quiet about it). Trained manpower can always be generated a lot faster than the material to equip it. If we had had to put the very large ground forces we had in action from mid-1944 to mid-1945 into the field in 1942 and even 1943, as well as being much more poorly trained, they would have had a lot of inferior weapons.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
--Despite the images of waves of soldiers being scythed down by machine gun fire, artillery and mortar shells inflicted the majority (60 percent) of wounds in the British infantry in World War I. Bullets caused 35 percent. (I didn't see numbers on gas casualties.)
--In 1938, some twenty years after the end of World War I, there were still 120,000 former British soldiers receiving pensions or awards for "shellshock" or other psychiatric disabilities -- that is, what he now call severe PTSD.
--Finally, I read aloud to my wife this passage by a Royal Fusiliers officer about dealing with a panicky soldier as they sheltered in a shell hole during a German artillery barrage during the battle of Passchendaele:
I tried to reason with the boy, but the more I talked top him the more distraught he became, until he was almost screaming. 'I can't stay here! Let me go! I want my Mum!' So I switched my tactics, called him a coward, threatened him with court martial and slapped his face as hard as I could, several times. It had an extraordinary effect. There was absolute silence in the shell-hole and then the corporal, who was a much older man, said, ‘I think I can manage him now, sir.' Well, he took that boy in his arms, just as if he was a small child, and when I crawled back a little later to see if all was well, they were both lying there asleep and the corporal still had his arms round the boy . . . .
From my current reading: British Capt. Alan Hanbury-Sparrow, who served in World War I, called chemical weapons "the Devil's breath." (That would be a great title for a history of chlorine and mustard gas.) Soldiers wearing gas masks, he wrote, looked like "imbecile frogs" -- I guess especially in the green haze of chlorine.
I saw this on page 389 of Jean Edward Smith's new biography of Eisenhower: "Army Group B had three wartime commanders: Rommel, von Kluge, and Model. All three committed suicide." (In the photo, that's von Kluge with Vichy France troops in Russia.) That's quite a track record.
But on page 568, though, Smith has a footnote I just don't understand. He writes that "President Obama initially chose Marine Corps general James L. Jones [as national security adviser], the first nonacademic to hold the post since the Eisenhower years." What? How could the following people be considered "academics"? Brent Scowcroft, Richard Allen, William Clark, Robert McFarlane, John Poindexter, Frank Carlucci, Colin Powell, Sandy Berger, and Stephen Hadley. In fact, by my count, the majority of national security advisors have not been academics.
By Rebecca Frankel
Best Defense Chief Canine Correspondent
Last week, France lost one of the fiercest among their canine fighting force, the 132e Bataillon Cynophile de L'Armee de Terre. On April 17 Fitas, an eight-year-old Belgian Malinois, succumbed to injuries he sustained while serving in Afghanistan.
According to the Armée de Terre's Facebook page in April of last year, while on patrol in Afghanistan, Fitas uncovered an ambush awaiting French troops. Apparently, the dog not only alerted to the danger, but was key in warding off the insurgents during the attack that followed. Unfortunately, during the upheaval, Fitas was captured and held captive for months.
My French is a little rusty but from what I could tell, there are at least two accounts of what happened after that fateful night. As one story goes, Fitas was found (some versions say rescued) by the Afghan National Army and returned to his unit stationed at Camp Warehouse near Kabul. According to Facebook, the brave dog escaped on his own mettle though it doesn't detail how he made his way back to his fellow troops last August.
Sadly, what finally took down this warrior dog was an injury he suffered either during the initial attack or while poorly treated during his captivity. Reports say Fitas contracted some kind of disease or infection from the wound, something that was apparently too pernicious or too far advanced to treat.
For his bravery, Fitas received commendation from General Ract Madoux, who awarded the dog with the Gold Medal of National Defense with the Silver Star.
In the above photo, Fitas poses with a French soldier in Kabul on Sept. 10, 2011. Note his front-left paw, the site of his injury, easily distinguished by the reddish coloring.
Rebecca Frankel, on leave from her FP desk, is currently writing a book about military working dogs, to be published by Free Press.
PASCAL GUYOT/AFP/Getty Images
When I first read the passage below, I thought Patton was writing about mission command. But as I typed this in, I began to wonder if he simply is prescribing rote learning of a military repertoire. What think you?
From the same 1932 paper I quoted the other day:
The successful use of such [small, mobile, self-contained] units will depend on giving great initiative to all leaders in actual command of men.
. . . Under such circumstances the solution of the command problem would seem to rest in using the method called by the British: "The Nelsonian Method," or by our Navy, the method of "Indoctrinated initiative."
This system is based on the belief that the: "Best is the enemy of the Good." That a simple mediocre solution applied instantly is better than a perfect one which is late or complicated.
Among leaders of whatever rank there are three types: 10 percent Genius; 80 percent Average; and 10 percent Fools. The average group is the critical element in battle. It is better to give such men several simple alternative solution which, by repeated practice, they can independently apply than it is to attempt to think for them via the ever fallible means of signal communications."
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.