One of my side projects this year has been reading the entire Bible cover-to-cover for the first time. Starting at the beginning and staying with it throughout, I find, makes the whole thing more coherent. (It also sometimes feels surprisingly current: "Damascus is waxed feeble, and turneth herself to flee, and fear hath seized on her." -- Jeremiah 49:24.) I mean, ripped from today's headlines.
The other day I was struck by Jeremiah 46:13, which offers an aside about the Lord telling the prophet that the "king of Babylon should come and smite the land of Egypt." That passage reflects the larger fact that a big chunk of the Old Testament is about the Jews being squeezed between the Persians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, and the Egyptians. In other words, about a small, endangered people facing the predations of empires.
This made me think about the revenge of the Melians, another small people who were caught between greater powers, and who also got squashed. What does it mean that the Old Testament, the bulk of the central book of our culture, is written from the point of view not of one of the great powers, but of a small nation that is eventually destroyed by them? Is this why we instinctively side with the rebels and against Darth Vader? If so, how does that unconsciously shape our strategic thinking? Are we inherently more likely to succeed when aiding rebels than we are when fighting them?
"The last surviving dependent of the Revolutionary War continued to receive benefits until 1911," according to a book on the Bonus March I've been reading. In other words, the last dependent of a Revolutionary War veteran died just over 100 years ago.
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.
One thing a good book, whether a biography or novel, can do is take you partway into another time or place and give you a feel for them.
By that measure, George Garrett's The Old Army Game , about the American occupation force in Trieste, Italy, in the early 1950s, is a good novel. I'd never heard of Garrett until I saw a reference to him the other day as a good chronicler of the Army of the 1950s -- what the historian Brian Linn calls "Elvis's Army."
I found his style a bit noir-ish, but enjoyed much of it. One of my favorite passages is a new artillery battery commander introducing himself to his troops:
"I'll be a son-of-a bitch! You freaking guys! You are without a doubt the crummiest collection of decayed humankind I have ever laid eyes on, so help me God. We deserve each other. If you want to be soldiers, try it. See if I care. First Sergeant, take charge of this so-called battery. I'm going to get drunk."
The whole battery cheered him.
Here are some of his best lines:
--". . . common sense is as hard to find in the Army as anywhere, maybe harder."
--"If you've got to loaf, loaf gracefully."
--"Old-timers are the guys who always seem to have dry socks and cigarettes even in a rainstorm."
--"Most of the brains in the world are busy working on new ways to hurt people."
--"When it's plain ordinary garrison work, then it's a matter of knowing when to goof off and when not to."
--"There's nothing like having a lot of athletes to screw up an outfit."
--"Stitch was yellow all right, but not in the usual way. Not the way most people might think. He was trigger-happy yellow, the way I figured. He would be the kind of guy who would shoot prisoners in combat when he didn't have to. . . . . You would never want to stick him out on your perimeter defense with a machine gun. He would be blasting away at shadows all night and nobody would get any sleep."
--"I put on the best-looking uniform I had. . . . locating every ribbon my records said I was entitled to wear. (That's the one time you really need them -- at a court-martial.)"
In a recent Leavenworth interview, Col. John Harding Jr. commented that, "The thing that we found in Iraq over the years was that we were fighting this war one year at a time."
In his last tour, in 2011, he noted, "at the general officer, colonel and even lieutenant colonel rank, you saw those that were just over there because they knew they had to be there and deployed, but they didn't have anything invested in 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
Awhile back, one of you recommended this novel about the American occupation of Japan. I read it and sort of enjoyed it. I found it kind of slight. My favorite was the opening vignette, titled 'The Atom Bowl,' about a football game in Hiroshima.
One of the fun things about overseeing this blog is the comments that come in. I had to read this one a coupla times: "I had two dozen BARs for my Nung tribal irregulars in Laos. They were hugely more useful than our other basic weapon, the 30 cal M1-A3 carbine (which barely pretended to be an automatic weapon)."
The amount of knowledge collectively possessed by all of you amazes me.
--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.
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."
From Six Weeks, the book about British junior officers in World War I that I've mentioned before, here is a stanza from a poem by Sub-Lt. A.P. Herbert, who fought at Gallipoli, and later saw his battalion destroyed at the Somme:
We only want to take our wounds away
To some shy village where the tumult ends,
And drowsing in the sunshine many a day,
Forget our aches, forget that we had friends.
I really like those lines. The emotion they convey is more complex than it may first appear, especially the last five words.
I've been reading Six Weeks: The Short and Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War, by John Lewis-Stempel. I bought it in a store in St. Ives, Cornwall, on a stormy day when the tops of the gray waves off the Irish Sea were hitting the slate roofs of waterfront houses in the town. (But in Doc Martin, wasn't Cornwall always sunny?)
One thing that has really struck me in the book is how often battalions would lose many or even all their officers in a battle. "I ended up the only officer in the battalion," wrote 2nd Lt. Stuart Cloete, who was 19 years old. Of the 30 officers in one battalion of the East Surry Regiment who went into a battle on the Somme, four came back. And the 6th Battalion of the King's Own Scottish Borderers lost every one of its 20 officers in an attack on September 25, 1915. If I recall correctly, Robert Graves wrote in Good-bye to All That that as a lieutenant he went on leave and returned to find himself the senior surviving officer in his battalion.
I also was struck by the narrowness of military history in the small bookstores I visited in Cornwall. Basically, they are about the British in the two world wars, with a soupcon of the Falklands and Iraq tossed in. I can understand not paying much attention to the Americans, but how about ancient history at least?
And has anyone read Emperor Maurice's Strategikon? Worth reading?
By Ken Weisbrode
Best Defense department of Thucydidian analysis
Some months after the 9/11 attacks the diplomatic historian Paul Schroeder published an article in The National Interest with the title, "The Risks of Victory: An Historian's Provocation." He posed a simple question that has been asked many times: How does a minor crisis lead to a major war? He considered the possibility that the 9/11 attacks would result in something far worse, and the analogy he gave was to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914.
Another Great War has not taken place, and even if it were to happen in the near future, it would be difficult at this point to claim that the fuse for it was lit on September 2001. Much has happened since in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere. Nevertheless, Schroeder's provocation should still be taken seriously. We recall that not once during the entire Cold War (with the partial exception of Soviet pilots in the Korean War) did soldiers of the two main protagonists fire on one another. But both superpowers were engaged in armed conflict to one degree or another during the entire course of the conflict. The remarkable thing is that none of these smaller wars or crises escalated to an all-out hot war between the superpowers.
The consensus seems to be that nuclear weapons and the doctrine of mutually assured destruction are primarily responsible for that. This may be true but there is no way to prove it. We are told that John F. Kennedy had the 1914 scenario in mind (thanks to his reading of Barbara Tuchman's Guns of August) during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Cold War calculus may have been reversed whereby nuclear weapons and the prestige associated with deterrence made escalation more, rather than less, likely in this instance.
A higher cost attributed to escalation, in other words, does not do away with Schroeder's basic question. How and why do major powers make crises worse? Political scientists and others have been testing hypotheses for a long time, but a general blueprint still eludes us. One reason may be that their models emphasize the roles of major actors over minor ones. For nearly a century historians have debated whether Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia or the "system" was most responsible for the escalation leading to World War I.
Tom has recently reminded us to ask who won the Peloponnesian War and, by implication, who lost the most after starting it. Our eyes are trained to hunt for underlying structural conditions, "the long fuse," and great, zero-sum rivalries.
Overlooked in many of these accounts are the active and sometimes dominant roles of instigators: Corcyreans, Serbs, Cubans, et al. These second- and even third-tier revisionist powers tend to follow a different, more opportunistic calculus. They too -- potentially -- have everything to lose, but also much more to gain, they must imagine, from provoking a war among much bigger powers. The burden falls upon the latter to master the ways of defusing crises before it is too late.
The other day a friend sent along a 1932 War College paper by Maj. G.S. Patton Jr. on the likely characteristics of the next war. He actually got that next war wrong, predicting that small professional forces would prevail over mass armies. Or, as he puts it, "there is a reasonable probability that the next war will be characterized by the use of smaller and better trained armies."
Even so, seeing the history of warfare through his eyes is interesting, in part because they illuminate his approach to World War II, as when he writes, "Mobility and enthusiasm are a powerful combination."
Here are some of his other observations -- or, rather, assertions:
--"Distant wars and hard campaigning need quality rather than quantity." This made me think of Iraq and Afghanistan.
--His summary of the American Civil War: "Up until the Summer of 1863 a regular force on either side would have had decisive results. After that date both sides were professional in everything but discipline."
--"The sole useful purpose of depth is to replace losses in the front line, not to push it on."
--He disagrees with Clausewitz on the tactical importance of surprise. Patton says that "Surprise is one of the prime requisites to victory. Broadly speaking, surprise may be utilized in respect to: TIME, PLACE and METHOD."
Now, anyone wanna argue with Patton about warfare?
I had known that Enoch Powell, before becoming the most controversial politician in modern British history, was an intelligence officer in World War II (and a very good one, according to his boss) and a classicist before that.
But one thing I learned in London after a wine-fueled dinner at the old school bohemian Chelsea Arts Club ("dress code: none") was that Powell was one of the editors of a very good edition of Thucydides. I checked on Amazon and unfortunately it costs too damn much.
Bonus fact: The original version of the Beatles song "Get Back" had an allusion to Powell's "rivers of blood" speech (which itself was a reference to Virgil). It is not often that you can pack Paul McCartney, Enoch Powell, and Virgil into the same song. What a bag of cats.
I'm not even gonna get into Eric Clapton's 1976 endorsement of Powell.
While I am on the subject of what I did in London, can anyone name the one-time terrorist who is honored with a statue just west of the Houses of Parliament? Hint: She eventually became a member of the Conservative Party.
Best Defense guest historian
I fully appreciate the dialogue between the Athenian elite and the Melian elite. I am sure that among the Melians there must have been contention as to what choice to make. In 400 BC, as in our time, an elite in the name of the people always makes such decisions for better or worse.
A modern parallel existed in May of 1940 in Great Britain. With her armies being shattered on the continent and her key ally in the final stages of her death throes, Britain faced a choice very much like that of Melos.
The choice was no less stark than that faced by Melos. The enemy was a great power, with the momentum of victory behind it. It was utterly ruthless. Britain could have cut a deal with the looming threat -- a deal eagerly sought by Hitler -- and opted out of harm's way with little loss but of reputation and humiliation.
Many of the British elite who were led by Halifax and the Foreign Office were looking for such a peace treaty but Winston Churchill, understanding the nature of his foe, outmaneuvered the Halifax faction and accepted the challenge from Hitler come what may. This choice amounted to the key strategic decision of the 20th century. Churchill's leadership resulted in a decision that showed a willingness to risk all to preserve western civilization from Nazi barbarism.
This choice in my view was anchored in realism. Churchill and his Parliamentary allies possessed a hardboiled realism that fully appreciated the consequences of defeat but also the possibilities (as remote as they seemed at the time) of victory in the end.
Halifax's approach, in contrast, was seemingly realistic on the surface but in fact was not, because it failed to appreciate the nature of the opponent. Any deal arranged with the Nazis could only be temporary, because of the innate predatory nature of the Nazi regime and its cold-blooded ideology. Churchill, a historian, intuitively understood this important fact.
I find this parallel with the experience of the Melians very compelling. Had the Melians had a great power ally (Sparta), perhaps their choice may have become heroically successful rather than heroically doomed. As it was there was no deliverer off in the distance whose interests were served by a living Melos.
"Jeff" is an amateur military historian and financial executive retired after thirty years with Merrill Lynch.
I think I've mentioned that I can't find a good operational history of the Afghan war so far that covers it from 2001 to the present. (I actually recently sat on the floor of a military library and basically went through everything in its stacks about Afghanistan that I hadn't yet read.)
Here are some of the questions I would like to see answered:
--What was American force posture each year of the war? How and why did it change?
--Likewise, how did strategy change? What was the goal after al Qaeda was more or less pushed in Pakistan in 2001-02?
--Were some of the top American commanders more effective than others? Why?
--We did we have 10 of those top commanders in 10 years? That doesn't make sense to me.
--What was the effect of the war in Iraq on the conduct of the war in Afghanistan?
--What was the significance of the Pech Valley battles? Were they key or just an interesting sidelight?
--More broadly, what is the history of the fight in the east? How has it gone? What the most significant points in the campaign there?
--Likewise, why did we focus on the Helmand Valley so much? Wouldn't it have been better to focus on Kandahar and then cutting off and isolating Oruzgan and troublesome parts of the Helmand area?
--When did we stop having troops on the ground in Pakistan? (I know we had them back in late 2001.) Speaking of that, why didn't we use them as a blocking force when hundreds of al Qaeda fighters, including Osama bin Laden, were escaping into Pakistan in December 2001?
--Speaking of Pakistan, did it really turn against the American presence in Afghanistan in 2005? Why then? Did its rulers conclude that we were fatally distracted by Iraq, or was it some other reason? How did the Pakistani switch affect the war? Violence began to spike in late 2005, if I recall correctly -- how direct was the connection?
--How does the war in the north fit into this?
--Why has Herat, the biggest city in the west, been so quiet? I am surprised because one would think that tensions between the U.S. and Iran would be reflected at least somewhat in the state of security in western Afghanistan? Is it not because Ismail Khan is such a stud, and has managed to maintain good relations with both the Revolutionary Guard and the CIA? That's quite a feat.
Anybody got a recommendation on what to read that covers all this? Maybe articles that explain some of it?
The last four books I've read have been on very different subjects -- a terrific novel about Watergate, a startling unpublished book on foreign policy in the Middle East, the final years of the Vietnam War, and the manuscript of my own history of American generals since 1939.
Despite their differences, I was surprised to see one person appear in them all: Alexander Haig. He may be the real Zelig.
Question time: What is the best book to read on him? Is it time for someone to write a new bio that uses the disclosures of the last 30 years?
By Peter Mattis
Best Defense guest respondent
Colonel Gregory Daddis' argument is that strategy is overrated: "Talented American generals can develop and implement a comprehensive political-military strategy and still lose a war." As sympathetic as watching a poorly executed strategy fail is likely to make someone to this argument, the argument itself rests on fallacious assumption. In the United States, a general cannot develop and implement a comprehensive political-military strategy. That's what civilian control of the military means. We are not the Prussians under Frederick the Great or the French under Napoleon, where civilian and military command was unified. A talented American general only may advise on creating such a strategy, because he/she -- like almost everyone else in the room -- lacks the standing and the comprehensive professional competence to establish the political ends. Something civilian commentators should remember when the national introspection and reflection begin, hopefully with more honesty.
Does a good strategy guarantee success? No. A good political-military strategy however does mean that individual operational and tactical successes (or failures) are far less important.
The Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979 provides a useful antidote to the focus on operational successes at the expense of thoughtful strategic planning. The Chinese suffered enormous losses for the number of troops engaged. Apart from the crossing the border with some level of operational surprise, it is hard identify what the People's Liberation Army (PLA) did right. Beijing did however achieve its political objectives. As Vietnamese documents later showed, Hanoi learned that Moscow could not be depended upon to protect Vietnam from China. Vietnam's potential expansion was stifled, because it had to maintain more forces closer to the northern border. Beijing earned the gratitude of Bangkok and Washington, while getting Moscow to back off in Asia. If there is a Chinese way of war, then focus on political outcomes of campaigns is a key element to how the use of force is measured.
General Ulysses S. Grant's peninsula campaign in 1864 also shows the value of operations within a sound strategic framework. From the Wilderness to Spotsylvania to Cold Harbor and the failed amphibious move on Petersburg, Grant continued to have opportunities -- irrespective of stalemate or defeat on the battlefield -- to hurt Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and separate it from the Confederate political leadership. Because Grant understood this, he did not react the same way to defeat as the previous commanders of the Army of the Potomac. Lee may have been able to parry Grant's individual and successive thrusts; however, he could not force Grant out.
Although Andrew Bacevich's charge that the U.S. military has failed in almost every conflict since becoming an all-volunteer force may be hyperbole, there is enough truth to warrant some critical introspection. The lack of a draft meant a U.S. administration did not have to think as critically about power, passion, and politics -- even if the draft was not always a sufficient guard against supercilious "strategizing." Similarly, we should compare the record of the PLA's operational competence against the record of it accomplishing Beijing's objectives. That the former was poor while the latter superb should raise important questions for would-be U.S. strategists to consider about why and how to employ the U.S. military.
On one score at least Clausewitz was unequivocal: "War is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means." Although the military's professional prerogative and special competence, victory on the battlefield and operational competence are only relevant if they advance political objectives. The focus on the war-fighting excellence of the U.S. military seems to distract those in the civilian world from understanding that that excellence means little without walking through the political steps of strategy long before the military becomes involved.
Clausewitz was clear about war being simple, but he decried devotion to any simplistic notion of how to design and execute strategy. One of the analogies used was a comparison to chopping down trees with an axe. At first glance, the object is simple. Chop the tree down. However, it rapidly gets more complicated. Which direction does it need to fall? What about the knots in the trunk? Is it a hard- or soft-wood tree? Where to start making the cuts and at what height? Each tree grows in a different context -- even if in the same forest -- with different features. Thus, what is simple in concept rapidly becomes more difficult in execution.
In his book The Logic of Failure, psychological researcher Dietrich Dorner highlighted how complex problems needed variable levels of planning for good strategic decision-making to occur. Many individuals had a marked tendency to plan too much or too little, based on how insecure they were facing uncertainty. Dorner's experiments were not simplistic "games" of strategic choice, but rather continuing tests of people to manage the complex relationships -- such as the interrelationships between healthcare, population, food supply, and more -- over time where they had near dictatorial powers. Even people should know better by dint of training and experience still fail to set clear objectives, to treat strategies like testable propositions, and gather information related to the first two. Instead, most "muddle through" and a repair approach, which, although often better than nothing, is the result of a lack of clear objectives. In the face of such uncertainty, humans fall back on what they know and can deal with -- no matter how trivial -- to preserve their sense of competence.
The conventional wisdom is that Sparta won, because Athens ultimately surrendered and faced total destruction.
But as Robert Strassler points out in his epilogue to the Landmark edition, which I read this time, the big winner was not a belligerent. Rather, victory belonged to an observer, Persia, which stood on the sidelines and encouraged the fight, and then moved in to collect its winnings. I think too often we don't consider that as an outcome in wars.Interesting -- Athens going broke, Iran/Persia ascendant . . .
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
I think it is the best book I've read on the last part of the Vietnam War. Essentially, he argues that "Vietnamization" was a misnomer. Rather, it was the "Americanization" of the Vietnamese military. "Nixon's Vietnamization policy had worked very well to the extent that it taught the South Vietnamese to fight ‘American-style,' using air mobility, tactical air support, and lavish expenditure of ammunition and other materiel." But in 1974, the Americans cut off all that support.
It makes me wonder whether the war would have been different if from the outset, the Americans had tried to help Vietnamese fight in their own way. Would that even have been possible? I think so. (There is a good but PhD dissertation to be done comparing the U.S. efforts to build security forces in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.)
One of the things that struck me in the book is how different the American experience of the war was from Vietnam. For us, the worst year was 1968, with nearly 15,000 KIAs. For the South Vietnamese military, the worst year was 1971, with nearly 40,000 dead. Their second worst year was 1974, when they lost 31,000 soldiers. In that year, American combat deaths in Vietnam numbered 207.
Look for yourself:
The Final Years, Jeffrey Clarke
In the dialogue with the people of the small, weak island of Melos, the Athenians explained why the island must submit to the wishes of the city of Athens: "the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must." (P. 352, Landmark edition) Yow. That is (as the headline suggested) perhaps the nastiest line I ever have read.
The Melians asked to be allowed to remain neutral in the war. Tough luck, said Athens, which then invaded and "put to death all the grown men whom they took, and sold the women and children for slaves," and then re-settled the island with their own colonists.
Such wholesale violence seemed to be about par for the course in the ancient Greek world. Samos is not that big an island, but when one party in a civil war on the island prevailed, it executed 200 of most powerful men from the other party and banished another 400. (P. 493, Landmark edition) Sounds to me like they extirpated the opposition.
Describing the evil effects of revolution, Thucydides writes, "Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them." (P. 199 of the Landmark edition)
That's an insight that strikes me as true, and that I don't remember seeing before. Though Orwell's wonderful essay on the language of politics makes a similar point. (If you haven't read that, you should. You have my permission to take off the rest of the day to study it.)
C'mon, you know who you are. The National Archives has just the session for you, on Tuesday April 10:
The Historical Office of the Secretary of Defense and the National Archives invite you to a panel program discussing Robert S. McNamara's most controversial years as Secretary of Defense (1965-68), and Clark Clifford's brief but significant successor tour as Secretary (1968-69). The event will take place at noon on 10 April 2012 at the McGowan Theater, National Archives, located at 7th and Constitution, NW, Washington, DC.
Discussion will be based on the Historical Office's recent publication, McNamara, Clifford, and the Burdens of Vietnam, 1965-1969, by Edward J. Drea. Panel speakers will focus on the work of Secretaries of Defense McNamara and Clifford and the Vietnam War, but they will also address the impact of Vietnam on American defense interests in other parts of the world.
David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, will convene the panel and introduce Dr. Erin Mahan, Chief Historian, Historical Office of the Secretary of Defense. Dr. Mahan will introduce the panelists and lead the panel. Harold Brown, Air Force Secretary under McNamara and later Secretary of Defense under President James E. Carter, will talk about working with McNamara. Professor Emeritus George C. Herring of the University of Kentucky, one of the nation's foremost experts on the history of the Vietnam War, will review the book. The author, Dr. Edward J. Drea, currently a contract historian in the Office of Joint History, Joint Chiefs of Staff, will respond to Secretary Brown's and Professor Herring's comments. The speakers' presentations will be followed by a question and answer session and then a reception.
The event is free; reservations are not required. Seating is on a first-come, first-served basis. For this McGowan Theater event, doors to the building will open 30 minutes prior to the start of the program. Use the Special Events entrance on Constitution Avenue.
It seems to me, reading Pericles' funeral oration (431 BC), that it clearly provided the inspiration for Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.
Pericles begins by dismissing his own speechmaking ability: "[I]t is hard to speak properly upon a subject where it is even difficult to convince your hearers that you are speaking the truth." That reminded me of Lincoln's "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here."
Pericles then dwells on what we might call "Athenian exceptionalism": "Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighboring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves." A bit later, he adds, "In short, I would say that as a city we are the school of Hellas." This brought to mind Lincoln's beginning, "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure."
Most striking of all, both speeches conclude by challenging the living to live up to the standard set by the fallen. "So dies these men as became Athenians," says Pericles. "You, their survivors, must determine to have as unaltering a resolution in the field." I think Lincoln expresses that thought better: "It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
(After writing this I did some quick Googling and saw that the comparison between the two speeches is apparently a major theme of Garry Wills' book on the Gettysburg Address. So clearly I am not the first to come across this.) I knew that Lincoln was into Shakespeare and the King James Bible, but I hadn't realized he also absorbed the Greeks.
By Ron Rogers
Best Defense department of odd war stories
I forgot to mention a unique story about an experience enjoyed by no other soldier in Republic of Vietnam (RVN). There came a day when I gave a nice Viet Cong (VC) platoon a ride down the canal separating RVN from Cambodia and they asked to be dropped off on the VC side and disappeared into the high grass as they walked to their R&R leave, 1 kilometer away in Cambodia. They were so grateful for the ride that they didn't shoot me!
When the platoon leader waved me down, I thought that I was giving a Popular Force platoon a ride. As I continued down the canal to my temporary duty at A-424, it dawned on me that they had gotten off on the wrong side! I pushed the throttle as far as it would go and raced along close to the bank so the VC would have a harder time tracking me with a weapon. Their nice platoon leader wore an NVA pith helmet without the star and he spoke French with me. I think they would have ridden further, but their crisp khaki uniforms were getting wet and the men got upset. Their leader wore shorts and high socks and didn't care, but he didn't want their uniforms messed-up or their AKs (very few of the South Vietnamese Popular Force had that weapon!) to get rusty. They didn't try to take the 2 M1s lying in the bottom of the boat. They belonged to the two VN SF assholes who ignored my orders to get underway and went to eat and take Pak. The chain didn't know what to say to me and I told them I didn't appreciate being fucked with. We had a schedule and they were violating it. Boy, were they pissed when they were handed back their rusted rifles.
We radioed around when my commander thought it was weird to find a wandering PF unit wanting to cross the canal. Well, there were no PF in that sector that day -- just me and a VC platoon. I held that throttle so hard that the web of my thumb was bleeding badly. So I stopped at a fort and a Vietnamese medic bandaged it and spoke French with me. (Can you get a Purple Heart for a self-inflicted wound?) They thought that I was French! In 1965, a decent number of rural folks thought that we beret wearers were French. I guess they hadn't read the papers nor watched TV.
Sometimes you can get scared without being shot at. Of course, that platoon commander was awfully nice.
Ron Rogers was a Special Forces soldier once, and young.
I was struck by Gen. Martin Dempsey's observation of what prevails in policy and planning discussions: "when I go into a meeting to discuss policy, discuss strategy, discuss operations, plans, whatever it happens to be, he who has the best context generally prevails in the argument, not necessarily who's got the best facts. There's a difference. It's who has the best context in which those facts exist."
I think Dempsey is right, and the implication is that the way to successfully develop policy is to develop a framework or even a narrative. In other words, you say, "you all know about X, Y and Z. Here is what I think those facts mean, how they are connected."
In the same speech, delivered recently at Duke University, he also made a comment on the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats that actually is related: "he was probably one of those poets unique in that he changed; he allowed himself to change and to reflect about that change as he moved through his life. Now, he did some really bizarre stuff at the end of his life but, that said, he was always a man who could understand his time and himself, and he understood in that regard the context in which he was living." Dempsey didn't offer an example of Yeats understanding his time, but for starters, I'd recommend "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death," one of my favorite poems ever, and one of the first I ever memorized. Next, read "Easter 1916."
Yeats also wrote these lines that I kept thinking of back in 2003, as the Iraq war began:
Things fall apart; the
centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The last two lines kept ringing in my head as I watched pundits on TV back then.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.