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MuppetIt’s moving day at EotAW. After calling WordPress our home for the past four years, we’re shifting to more academic-specific digs: the Chronicle of Higher Education. They’ve asked us to become part of their Blog Network, along with luminaries like the Tenured Radical, and who are we to refuse such esteemed company? Nobody, that’s who.

The new Edge is at:

http://chronicle.com/blognetwork/edgeofthewest/

Come on by. Check out the new place. Grab a beer. We promise the same skewed but deeply historical view of the world, full of disappointment and Muppets.

Lots of Muppets.

The New York Times, April 28, 2012:

Presidents running for re-election typically boast of programs they created, people they helped or laws they signed. They talk about rising test scores or falling deficits or expanding job rolls. President Obama is increasingly taking the unusual route of bragging about how he killed a man.

To be sure, that man was Osama bin Laden, and he is not mourned among either the president’s supporters or detractors. But in the days leading up to the first anniversary of the raid that finally caught up to the Qaeda mastermind, Mr. Obama has made a concerted, if to some indecorous, effort to trumpet the killing as perhaps the central accomplishment of his presidency.

The article does nod to previous Presidents running on their toughness, but then goes completely off the rails when talking about a recent Obama interview in the Situation Room:

Tony Fratto, a deputy press secretary under Mr. Bush, said that it was “unseemly” to use the room for such a purpose. “I don’t believe it ever would have occurred to us to conduct an interview in the Situation Room,” he said, “and don’t believe we would have considered it appropriate.”

Mr. Fratto (and Times), I give you the USS Abraham Lincoln from the New York Times, May 16, 2003:

George W. Bush’s ”Top Gun” landing on the deck of the carrier Abraham Lincoln will be remembered as one of the most audacious moments of presidential theater in American history. But it was only the latest example of how the Bush administration, going far beyond the foundations in stagecraft set by the Reagan White House, is using the powers of television and technology to promote a presidency like never before.

Officials of past Democratic and Republican administrations marvel at how the White House does not seem to miss an opportunity to showcase Mr. Bush in dramatic and perfectly lighted settings.

Media strategists noted afterward that Mr. Sforza and his aides had choreographed every aspect of the event, even down to the members of the Lincoln crew arrayed in coordinated shirt colors over Mr. Bush’s right shoulder and the ”Mission Accomplished” banner placed to perfectly capture the president and the celebratory two words in a single shot. The speech was specifically timed for what image makers call ”magic hour light,” which cast a golden glow on Mr. Bush.

Oh, and:

The New York Times, June 21, 2004:

The story of how President George W. Bush ended up with Saddam Hussein’s pistol mounted in his private study off the Oval Office has dribbled out in the last few weeks, and it is a good one.

In that context, Saddam’s pistol is a bookend of sorts, the prize of a president who viewed the badge as reason for waging two wars.

To the Delta Force that brought it back, the gun is a piece of history representing nothing less than mission complete. “These kinds of experiences you only have a few times in your life, and they’re very powerful,” said Major General David Grange, a retired commander in the Delta Force during the Gulf War. “It’s ‘Sir, we got him.”‘

As to whether Bush will ever give the gun to the Iraqis, he didn’t say.

Politics was so much more dignified in the Bush administration.

The intersection of 195th Street and 58th Avenue, Queens, NY, in 1941:

N20 bpq07376

And today:

It’s not always the victors writing the history, in this case, or the historical markers:

On this site occurred the Colfax Riot in which three white men and 150 negroes were slain. This event on April 13, 1873, marked the end of carpetbag misrule in the South. Marker is at the intersection of Main Street (Louisiana Route 8) and 2nd Street (Louisiana Route 8) on Main Street.

Or maybe it was the victors writing, sadly enough.

At any rate, those Confederates were writing markers all over the place.
From the Gettysburg battlefield:

Photo59165

I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to detect where the above writer’s Confederate sympathies crept out.

We had a discussion about ship naming in the thread on the USS Lyndon Baines Johnson and I thought I would post a link to this lovely article by the Naval Historical Center, which pulls in (among others) Alfred the Great:

As if to emphasize the ties that many Americans still felt to Britain, the first ship of the new Continental Navy was named Alfred in honor of Alfred the Great, the king of Wessex who is credited with building the first English naval force. Another ship was named Raleigh to commemorate the seagoing exploits of Sir Walter Raleigh. Some ships honored early patriots and heroes (Hancock and General Greene). Others commemorated the young nation’s ideals and institutions (Constitution, Independence, Congress). A 74-gun ship-of-the-line, launched in 1782 and donated to the French Navy on completion, was named America. A Revolutionary War frigate named Bourbon saluted the King of France, whose alliance would further the cause of American independence. Other ship names honored American places (Boston, Virginia). Small warships– brigs and schooners–bore a variety of names. Some were named for positive character traits (Enterprise, Diligent). Others had classical names (Syren, Argus) or names of small creatures with a potent sting (Hornet, Wasp).

Still hoping for a USS Ethelred the Unready.

P1 BF789 PORTRA DV 20120416165217I couldn’t resist the scare quotes, sorry. A source may be a source, or it might be a practical joke:

The portrait of “Ensign Chuck Hord,” framed in the heavy gilt typical of government offices, may be the greatest—or perhaps only—prank in Pentagon art history. “Chuck Hord” can’t be found in Navy records of the day. It isn’t even a real painting. The textured, 30-year-old photo is actually of Capt. Eldridge Hord III, 53 years old, known to friends as “Tuck,” a military retiree with a beer belly and graying hair who lives in Burke, Va.

Even as I write, someone’s dissertation on the semiotics of paintings in the Pentagon is having a chapter revised, I’m sure.

Following up to this article, the Navy has continued its streak of not naming carriers after Democratic Presidents. LBJ now has a ship named after him, but a destroyer, rather than a carrier:

The Navy has named the third ship in its class of state-of-the-art destroyers after the late President Lyndon B. Johnson, who served as a naval officer during World War II, the service said in a press release Monday.

“I am pleased to honor President Johnson with the naming of this ship,” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said in a statement. “His dedication to a life of public service included bravely stepping forward to fight for his country during our entry into World War II.”

No word on whether the ship would have a tendency to report attacks by imaginary torpedo boats, but some folks have been unable to avoid the sniggering locker room humor that the name might inspire:

That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to ever name a Zumwalt destroyer the JOHNSON. Only Ray Mabus [Secretary of the Navy] is apparently so tone deaf as to not see the irony that during April 2012 – also known as Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) in the Navy – that the 18-22 year old enlisted sailors are going to almost certainly come up with some highly creative (and crude) JOHNSON jokes. OK, so the silver lining is that at least we won’t have a JOHNSON STRIKE GROUP in the Navy, but when a ship’s most prominent feature is often described as 6″ or 155mm, JOHNSON doesn’t quite strike me as the appropriate name.

I’m sure the person was concern-blogging about the USS George HW Bush when it was named.

The only remaining recent Presidents without ships named for them are now Nixon, Clinton, and Shrub. Nixon’s unlikely to get one, which means that naming the next carrier is going to be an interesting decision. My guess? They name it the Enterprise and push back the controversy.

Canada and Denmark, finding a way to avoid war:

The National Post has learned that Canada and Denmark are apparently this close to hammering out a deal over Hans Island, the vitally important strategic chokepoint that has kept these two warrior nations on the brink of mutual annihilation for the last eight years. With a little luck and perhaps some Annan-style shuttle diplomacy, our long national nightmare might soon be over.

The plan is brilliant for its simplicity. There will be no exchange of atomic energy monitors, no prisoner swaps, and no gradual pullbacks to the positions the countries held on the first day of the costly conflict. Neither side will have to disarm its military forces or surrender commanders for war crimes trials. Instead, the deal under discussion between Ottawa and Copenhagen would take Hans Island, a rock roughly a square kilometre in size and — get this — simply divide it in half.

Always good to see diplomacy triumph, especially over such a strategically vital piece of land. One observer described it as “little more than an upsized decorative stone of the sort intentionally landscaped into homeowners’ gardens. The thing seems almost as if it is trying to look boring.”

Well, so there, then.

Kevin Drum reads Rachel Maddow’s Drift and basically loses (as she seems to, though I have not read the book) American history before 1945:

So what’s different? I’d say this: it’s one thing to periodically wage brief, smallish military actions. The Dominican Republic occupation of 1965 falls into that category. So do Grenada and Panama. Without getting into the merits of any of these actions, you can at least say that they were limited and isolated.

But the last couple of decades seem quite different. The Gulf War, followed by Somalia, followed by Haiti, followed by Kosovo, followed by Afghanistan, followed by Iraq, followed by Libya and Yemen, and all against a background of drone warfare that now seems all but perpetual, feels very different. It feels like we’re simply in a constant state of military action. In the last 20 years, there have only been three or four in which the U.S. military wasn’t at war. (And I’m not even sure about the three or four.)

So I think that’s a real difference, and the policy drift that Maddow talks about in her book bears a big part of the blame for this.

Oof. I’m not sure I would categorize the 1965 Dominican Republic occupation “limited and isolated” when it came at the moment that the United States was ramping up its effort in Vietnam.

But in any case, Drum’s comment throws overboard anything before World War II. I note this list of American interventions or occupations in Latin America from the period 1898 to the present. From 1898 to 1933, the United States was nearly continuously at war or in occupation of a range of states in the southern hemisphere. Far from “periodically wag[ing] brief, smallish military actions” the United States has throughout most of its history tended to fight a range of simultaneous military actions. Wikipedia conveniently has a list of American military operations in chronological order and I didn’t spot a single year of American history missing in action. I should say, perhaps, missing from action.

The past isn’t even past, and it’s still quite explosive:

Luftbilddatenbank, based on the top floor of Carls’ home just outside Würzburg in the southern state of Bavaria, specializes in finding bombs using old aerial photos. In the last five years, the company has digitized hundreds of thousands of images, developing a database of geographical coordinates and archival reference points that let them request photos of specific locations from collections of wartime photos in Washington, DC, and Edinburgh, Scotland.

Followup to this, and h/t to Jonathan Beard.

As a follow-up to this post, I note this:

The Air Force has more drones and more sensors collecting more data than it has humans to interpret what the electronic tea leaves say. The glut of all that video and still imagery is “unsustainable,” says the Air Force’s top civilian — but it’ll be “years” before the Air Force digs its way out of it.

As the article points out, there are various levels of processing needed. There’s a need for an immediate triage of imagery for time-sensitive operations. If an American unit’s under attack, the imagery that might help them can’t go in the normal processing queue. But there’s also the general processing, that might yield information useful over the medium or long term.

More computers, please.

The Transportation Security Agency, in all its glory:

A spokesman said the agency has its reasons for still requiring that traditional laptops go through X-ray machines in a separate bin. But he declined to share them, saying the agency didn’t want to betray any secrets.

There are reasons, BUT WE CANNOT TELL THEM TO YOU OR THE TERRORISTS WIN.

I’m trying not to put up puff posts for every bit of publicity that the BRatGGC* gets, but I can’t resist two items.

The first is through the kindness of John Scalzi, the noted science fiction author, who runs “Big Idea” pieces for authors with new books. Most of those are, unsurprisingly, science fiction or fantasy, but Mr. Scalzi was kind enough to include the Boxer book today. He is a mensch, and you should buy his books.

The second is from the Wall Street Journal, which ran a review of the book last week. I liked the review, and as long as I sort of squint my way past the opinion page of the WSJ, I like it as well.

*Boy, that’s a bad acronym. Any better suggestions?

51rSlusxgLL SL500 AA300

My new book, The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China, came out today.

Makes a great present for any occasion.

Leftover ordnance is one of the legacies that lasts generations after the war itself concluded. The phrase “Iron Harvest” comes from the annual crop of exploded shells and bombs that French farmers in northern France bring to the surface when plowing their fields. Farming is a dangerous occupation in France.

But the Iron Harvest is not limited to World War I. World War II era bombs are sometimes found, particularly in areas heavily bombed during that conflict. The city center of Rennes was evacuated within the last few years when a 550 lb British bomb was discovered and had to be disarmed. A similar discovery required the evacuation of the Paris suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt

Nor is the ordnance always found in an active war zone. Recently, in Washington, DC, a construction crew building a new supermarket was somewhat surprised to discover an unexploded 1,000 pound bomb. The supermarket was being built on the site of the old Naval Gun Factory, a site that apparently the Navy had not cleaned up quite as well as they might have.

H57932

Even better? The Army has still not quite been able to figure out where all the old chemical weapons dumps underneath DC are, including some in heavily populated areas, one of which was nicknamed “Hades”:

[The] corps excavated part of the South Korean ambassador’s residence on Glenbrook Road. They discovered two pits on the ambassador’s property and then a third straddling the property line to the north, all of which contained munitions and glassware with traces of chemical agents.

Perhaps the most damaging form of unexploded ordnance, however, are the cluster bomb remnants and landmines that litter more recent battlefields, from Afghanistan to Vietnam to Korea. Just looking at landmines:

There are between 70 and 80 million landmines in the ground in one-third of the world’s nations. Landmines are indiscriminate weapons that maim or kill 15,000 to 20,000 civilians every year. They cost as little as $3 to produce, but as much as $1000 to remove.

At $1000/mine, that works out to $80 billion to remove all the mines, and that assumes that all the mines can be found. If northern France is any indication, they won’t be , and the legacy, as it has for the French, will be generational, the continuing toll of a fading war.

An interview with moi is in this month’s Military History magazine. Introductory paragraph:

Northern China in the summer of 1900 was the scene of the Boxer Rebellion, one of the most spontaneous, disorganized, violent and downright peculiar uprisings of that or any other century. Vividly described and detailed by Cornell University historian David J. Silbey in his new book, The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China, the rebellion was at once a peasants’ insurgency, an attack on modernism, a clash of cultures and a game changer in the nascent international struggle for power in the Pacific in the new century.

With pictures!

Understand that if you felt something that connected you with where your devices come from — that is not a lie. That is art.

If you use real people and real events, you don’t get to lie. No dramatic license, no aiming for a larger truth, no composite characters, no changing things around for better narrative flow, no “art.” No lying.

I get it. Actual events can happen slowly, or not at all, intermittently, inconclusively, inconveniently, and not in useful way for story-telling. I also understand that, for example, history and historians never get to the pure unvarnished objective truth of myth and legend. There are too many distortions, too many intervening years, too many people, sources, and all the grand filtration that the past goes through before reaching its reporter. I know too that historians often produce pedantic, waffle-full, carefully-couched, well meaning but utterly boring recitations. Their books fly off the shelves only when someone yanks too hard on the David McCullough biographies beside them.

All that is true, and irrelevant. Using real people with real lives and real names as your subjects gives a singular advantage over fiction: the conviction and credibility of reality. The power of talking about things as they are, rather than as you imagine, goes bone-deep with the audience. It goes too deep for disclaimers and denials and claims about artistic license to overcome. That is its great value.

The payment for that power is a duty and responsibility to your subjects, to your audience (now and future), to your peers, and to the act of explanation and narration itself, to speak the truth as you understand it, in all details big and small. There is no “larger truth” that you get to by lying. If you wish to speak the truth, you must actually speak the truth.

There are no exceptions; not if you’re Mike Daisey, and not if you’re David Foster Wallace.

No exceptions.

Stepping on one of my co-bloggers’ toes (that is, I am stepping on his toes, and he is one of my co-bloggers, not that I am stepping on only one of his toes).

Let’s try that again.

I’m sure Eric will comment about this at some point, but I thought I would note that Ben Bernanke, or Professor Bernanke to you students, spoke on the gold standard in his class at George Washington University the other day:

Mr. Bernanke spoke Tuesday about the history of monetary policy in the United States, including the Fed’s creation in 1913, and its role in causing the Great Depression. He framed much of this history as a critique of the gold standard, which was dropped in the early 1930s in a decision that mainstream economists regard as obviously correct, hugely beneficial and essentially irreversible.

The students in the class did not, perhaps, cover themselves in glory commenting to the Times: “‘It always surprises you to realize that this guy actually exists and he’s not just on TV,’ said Max Sanders, a 19-year-old from New York.”

On the other hand, having been quoted once in a newspaper comparing 9/11 to the American Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, I should probably not be too sarcastic about poor Max.

Ron Paul could not be reached for comment.

Titan arum1webA titan arum or “corpse plant” is about to bloom in a Cornell University green house:

[The] bloom…has been recorded only 140 times in cultivation, and perhaps that’s for the best, as the plant smells like rotting meat when in bloom. The strong odor and deep purple color of the inner leaf attracts carrion flies for pollination in its native rainforests on the island of Sumatra.

The plant has reached 66 inches in height as of Saturday, 3/17, and might bloom today. Live video can be seen here.

Repurposing a comment I made in this thread, I thought I would run a chart of American military fatalities in Afghanistan. I use American military fatalities “as a quick and dirty way to tell how things are going in a US counterinsurgency effort, figuring that killing an American soldier is always a valuable achievement for an insurgent, that American soldiers (especially in the respective surges) are in harm’s way, that killing one requires mobilizing a certain amount of effort on an insurgency’s part, and that (perhaps most importantly) the Pentagon can’t really fudge the number of deaths (they can with wounded; the definition of “wounded” changed in the middle of the Iraq War to, shock! surprise!, reduce the numbers). It’s not perfect (not nearly so), but it worked pretty well for me looking at Iraq in 2008 and 2009.” Note that this is not a statement about the morality or utility of the war, but simply an attempt at measuring the military effectiveness of the American effort there.

In Afghanistan, the two periods to look at are summer and winter. Summer has the highest number of fatalities and winter the lowest. In both seasons, American fatalities began surging in 2009, peaked in 2010, and started downward in 2011.

Afghanfatalities

That suggests to me that, like Iraq, the American effort is knocking the insurgency down, if slowly.

[UPDATE, 3:00 PM: Having written and scheduled this post on Friday, it turns out to be ill-timed, given the horrific slaughter of Afghan women and children by an American soldier over the weekend.]

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