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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:


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.

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.

Cvn 80 02

USS Bubba?

Current American aircraft carriers are named for United States Presidents, living and dead, or political and naval leaders of some importance. In the former category, we have the USS Theodore Roosevelt, the USS Ronald Reagan (named when Reagan was still alive), the USS Harry S Truman, and others. In the latter, we have the USS Nimitz (named for the most important American admiral of WWII), the USS John C. Stennis (a Senator critical to the Navy over several decades), and the USS Carl Vinson (a Congressman of similar ilk).

They’re running out of recent Presidents to name them, though. The lead ship (CVN-78) of the new carrier class (successors to the Nimitz class) was named the USS Gerald R. Ford. Ford had naval connections, but not a particularly successful Presidency. The next ship in that class (CVN-79) has been named the USS John F. Kennedy, a quick reuse of that name as the previous Kennedy was retired in 2007. The next ship remains unnamed. There is some pressure to name it the Enterprise, a name with a long and storied history in the American navy. But if not that, then the Navy would likely have to return to the list of Presidents. They’ve cherry-picked the great ones–there’s a Roosevelt (thought not an FDR), there’s a Washington, and there’s a Lincoln–so going to the distant past would be somewhat difficult. USS Martin van Buren, anyone?

I didn’t think so.

There are recent Presidents without carriers named after them, however. Lyndon Baines Johnson has no carrier, nor does Jimmy Carter (he does have a submarine named after him, perhaps appropriate for him since he served on submarines), nor does Bill Clinton, or Richard Nixon. I note that these are all (but Nixon) Democrats. I also note that both Johnson and Clinton were two-term Presidents, that Carter was a naval officer, and that Johnson was a member of the Naval reserve with a Silver Star to his name (albeit, oddly, an Army Silver Star). Clinton had a somewhat difficult relationship with the military, both before and during his Presidency. Johnson has Vietnam, and the Gulf of Tonkin. Nixon has his disgrace. Carter was not a great President.

None of those are particularly disqualifying. Ford was not a good President, and he has an entire class named after him. George H.W. Bush served a single term and, with the exception of the Gulf War, had few notable successes (*not* being Ronald Reagan could be counted as a success for many, I think). So the question becomes: what will CVN-80 be? The USS Lyndon Baines Johnson? The USS William Jefferson Clinton? The USS Jimmy Carter (SSN-23) will still be active, so it can’t be that. I personally think it should be Johnson, but the USS William Jefferson Clinton would cause right-wing heads everywhere to explode with massive force, which has its own appeal.

Current Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus has shown a willingness to give ships names that break from the expected (the USS Gabrielle Giffords and the USNS Cesar Chavez for example) and so perhaps he will step up.

We are not only safer than we think, we are safer than we have ever been, say Micah Zenko and Michael A. Cohen.

The world that the United States inhabits today is a remarkably safe and secure place. It is a world with fewer violent conflicts and greater political freedom than at virtually any other point in human history. All over the world, people enjoy longer life expectancy and greater economic opportunity than ever before. The United States faces no plausible existential threats, no great-power rival, and no near-term competition for the role of global hegemon. The U.S. military is the world’s most powerful, and even in the middle of a sustained downturn, the U.S. economy remains among one of the world’s most vibrant and adaptive. Although the United States faces a host of international challenges, they pose little risk to the overwhelming majority of American citizens and can be managed with existing diplomatic, economic, and, to a much lesser extent, military tools.
This reality is barely reflected in U.S. national security strategy or in American foreign policy debates.

By exaggerating threats, we overemphasize the need for defense spending. It’s a dynamic we saw during the Cold War though there, Zenko and Cohen say, the threat was genuine if overhyped. Here, they argue, it’s nearly nonexistent.

Zenko and Cohen also say, “Such hair-trigger responsiveness is rarely replicated outside the realm of national security, even when the government confronts problems that cause Americans far more harm than any foreign threat.” I don’t know about this. What about inflation- and deficit-hawkery?

Anyway, the takeaway is not only that we are a nation of cowards, but that we are a nation of cowards shooting ourselves in the feet.

Indeed, the most lamentable cost of unceasing threat exaggeration and a focus on military force is that the main global challenges facing the United States today are poorly resourced and given far less atten- tion than “sexier” problems, such as war and terrorism. These include climate change, pandemic diseases, global economic instability, and transnational criminal networks—all of which could serve as catalysts to severe and direct challenges to U.S. security interests. But these concerns are less visceral than alleged threats from terrorism and rogue nuclear states. They require long-term planning and occasionally painful solutions, and they are not constantly hyped by well-financed interest groups. As a result, they are given short shrift in national security discourse and policymaking.

Which is to say, Zenko and Cohen write, we should stop going nuts over the one percent (or less) threats and concentrate on the 99 percent. Which is a nice translation of the Occupy rhetoric to foreign policy.

022012mc ss logo1 800Both military historians and the United States military have long had an unhealthy fascination with the German Army of World War II. The Wehrmacht, the thinking goes, was both enormously effective (much more so than their enemies), and apolitical.[1] Unstained by its lack of involvement in Nazi war crimes, the Wehrmacht was thus a useful military model. Add to that the start of the Cold War, in which the Soviets became the main enemy, and the American military looked to the Germans for information and inspiration. The apotheosis of this was Colonel Trevor Dupuy’s Quantified Judgment Model, which used a statistical analysis to conclude that Germans were more effective soldiers than Americans in World War II. The German’s Combat Effectiveness Value, according to Dupuy, was significantly higher than that of the Allies, western and eastern front alike. Each German soldier, Dupuy figured, was worth about 1.55 Americans.[2]

The result of this fascination has come out in a number of ways, including the Marine Scout Snipers who decided that the SS symbol was a good one to adopt as their logo. But it also made the American Army focused on the kind of mechanized warfare that they took as the German model. Facing the Soviets across the Fulda Gap during World War II, American soldiers found themselves symbolically in the same position as the Germans in WWII (excepting the whole Germans invading the USSR thing, of course). That focus was (arguably) useful in Western Europe, but less so in other theaters, like Southeast Asia. The Germans were notoriously bad at counterinsurgency, and some of the American difficulties, I think, came over from the German model (note that pre-WWII, Americans had been pretty reasonable at counter-insurgency). The fascination with the Germans might also have influenced American imperial behavior; alone (I think) among major imperial powers, the United States did not have a separate imperial military force (like the Indian Army) that it used abroad.

The US military has gotten away from that obsession somewhat in recent years, and adapted quite well to the requirements of counterinsurgency (though it shows signs of backtracking in recent years), but, as the Marines demonstrated, the fascination with Nazi Germany remains.

[1] Military historians have pushed back against the apolitical image of the Wehrmacht in recent decades.
[2] Dupuy explained his model concisely here (subscription required, sorry). There were substantial problems with the analysis, outlined here and here. Dupuy recognized some of these problems, including a chapter called “Fudge Factors” in his book on the topic, Numbers, Predictions, and War.

Who knew he was still available for comment?

Breaking a 211-year media silence, retired Army Gen. George Washington appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press Sunday to speak out against many aspects of the way the Iraq war has been waged.

The first picture is worth the whole article.

Part I here.

Now, onto more specific evaluations. (Deep breath) I’m going to eliminate Washington. He is the greatest American statesman, for what he did as a general and leader in the Revolution and what he did as a Founding Father and first President.* As to being the greatest general, he made a number of spectacularly correct decisions during the Revolution, but he was nearly zero for his career in terms of battlefield victories. That’s just too much to overcome.

800px Winfield Scott in National Portrait Gallery IMG 4528

Next, Winfield Scott. Scott has a remarkably strong case for being the greatest American general. In fact, I’m not sure he wasn’t. In double fact, I think I would say he was the greatest American general in career terms. He started spectacularly well in the War of 1812 (“Those are regulars, by God!“), continued impressively in the Mexican-American War (his capture of Mexico City made both the Mexicans and Zachary Taylor look like blithering amateurs) and finished strong in the early stages of the Civil when, obese and suffering from gout, “Old Fuss and Feathers” nonetheless proposed the strategic plan that, with some modifications, strangled the Confederacy. That’s three wars (in three different eras) in which Scott faced an enemy comparable to the United States, was the most important general in two out of three, and critically important in the third. That’s a career.

And yet. Read the rest of this entry »

General Gates   General Horatio Gates   Revolutionary War   Rare  4x4    150

So the comments on this post got me thinking. Who was the best general in American History? It’s been several centuries, the US has fought lots of wars, and we have lots of famous generals.

So, who is it? Well, first, a disclaimer. As a historian I hate “who is the best…” or ranking lists of all kinds. History isn’t a sport, and it’s not organized like one. Generals don’t often get to fight against one another and certainly generals from the same countries rarely do. They fight in different eras with different resources and different enemies. Generals fight the wars in front of them, not the wars they want and certainly not a standardized war that would allow us to dial out personal differences. That makes rankings unfair, no matter how they are organized.

Nonetheless, it’s the end of the year when rankings flourish like kudzu, and I’m going to do it. Or, at least, I’m going to lay out a case and make a choice based on that case. It won’t be the only possible case. It might not even be the best case. It’ll be my case, though.

So, onward.

My first requirement is that the general had to be fighting for the United States. Uncontroversial, seemingly, but there go Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

My second requirement is that the general had to be fighting an enemy that was equal or superior to the United States in military and economic power and the general had to be fighting the main body of the enemy in that war. Everyone looks great beating up the Cleveland Cavaliers (sorry, sports metaphor). They’re out.

That takes out the Indian Wars of the 19th century, the Spanish-American War, the Philippine-American War (ahh, booo!), the Boxer Rebellion (double boo!), the Moro War, the interventions in Latin America, World War II (Japan was nowhere near equal to the US in economic size and the larger part of their army was in Manchuria during the war; Germany always had the bulk of its army in the East) and everything post-1945.


Eliminated are such contenders as Arthur MacArthur, Teddy Roosevelt (okay, he was never a general, but still…), Adna Chaffee, George Patton, Omar Bradley, Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, Matthew Ridgway, Creighton Abrams, Norman Schwarzkopf, Colin Powell, and David Petraeus.* If I’m leaving anyone out, remind me in the comments.

The wars left are the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, and World War I. Read the rest of this entry »

H72273kIt’s December 7th, the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Tomorrow will be the 70th anniversary of FDR’s speech to Congress, in which the President said:

Japan has, therefore, undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation.

It is a “date which will live in infamy” as Roosevelt said, but not much longer in living memory:

The 70th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack will be the last one marked by the survivors’ association. With a concession to the reality of time — of age, of deteriorating health and death — the association will disband on Dec. 31…Harry R. Kerr, the director of the Southeast chapter, said there weren’t enough survivors left to keep the organization running. “We just ran out of gas, that’s what it amounted to,” he said from his home in Atlanta, after deciding not to come this year. “We felt we ran a good course for 70 years. Fought a good fight. We have no place to recruit people anymore: Dec. 7 only happened on one day in 1941.”

This is not unusual: wars, spectacular events, and catastrophes bring the survivors together to bond, frequently in organizations devoted to the memory of the event. Those survivors have finite lifespans, however, and when they pass, so too do the organizations. The Boxer Rebellion (obligatory self-aggrandizement) witnessed the creation of the Military Order of the Dragon, an association of those veterans–from a range of western countries–who had fought in China in 1900. They had reunions and a newsletter throughout the first half of the 20th century. The order published a book in 1912. But by the 1950s, the membership was dying off, and the newsletter put out the following in 1952:

Activity…has taken a drop the past few years. The average age of Mandarins [the title they gave veterans] is between 75-78 years….Before long, though, the Hereditary ‘Chinos’–sons, daughters, and down the line–will have to take over.[1]

They didn’t, not having the connection to the events that their spouses and parents did. Thus, too, with the Pearl Harbor veterans, and so December 7th, its memories fading, is handed finally over to history for care and safekeeping.

[A good article on a similar theme, sent in by my co-blogger Eric Rauchway, who must now recuse himself from discussing the UC-Davis pepper spray incident]

[1] Military History Institute, Spanish American War Veterans Survey 42/12, McKinney, Lewis.

is up at Cliopatria

9780809094776 jpgIn the spring and summer of 1900, bands of ordinary Chinese began to spread across northern China, protesting against and attacking the representatives of an imperial world that was remaking their country in the name of modernity and progress. The so-called “Boxers” were mostly leaderless and connected only by their shared desire to resist and rebel.

The empires fought back. Caught in the middle was the tottering Qing Dynasty of China, led uneasily by the Empress Dowager Cixi, who had dominated Chinese politics for half a century. Watching was the rest of the world, caught by the daily reports from journalists embedded with the western forces.

I wrote a book about that summer of 1900. Writing a book takes a while. There are numerous way stations. There’s the research and the writing, the research that results from the writing, the rewriting, the editing, the rewriting that results from the editing, and the re-editing. For most of that time, the project is essentially mine and mine alone, though I did share some of that process on this blog. Only towards the end of the project do I turn things over, to the editors, to the publisher, to Amazon, to the reviewers, and, most importantly, to the public. They make of the book what they can, what they want to, and what they will. By that final stage, it is more the reader’s book than mine.

So, I am now in that latter stage. The book–The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China— comes out in March of next year, but, with all the oddities of timing in the publishing world, the first review has already arrived, from Publishers Weekly:

Silbey’s concise, lively account of an early experiment in multilateral intervention analyzes the imperialist motivations that led a mixed army of eight Western nations into a brief but bloody military expedition to suppress the Boxer movement, which spread across the plains of northern China in 1900, lashing out at the foreign powers that had carved the country into spheres of influence as the Qing dynasty wheezed toward its decline

I like Publishers Weekly.

Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus, De Re Militari, probably 5th century CE:

We shall now explain the difference between the legions and the auxiliaries. The latter are hired corps of foreigners assembled from different parts of the Empire, made up of different numbers, without knowledge of one another or any tie of affection. Each nation has its own peculiar discipline, customs and manner of fighting. Little can be expected from forces so dissimilar in every respect, since it is one of the most essential points in military undertakings that the whole army should be put in motion and governed by one and the same order. But it is almost impossible for men to act in concert under such varying and unsettled circumstances. They are, however, when properly trained and disciplined, of material service and are always joined as light troops with the legions in the line. And though the legions do not place their principal dependence on them, yet they look on them as a very considerable addition to their strength.

Hm. From Miller-McCune, November 15, 2011:

More than 260,000 contractors were employed in Iraq and Afghanistan as of March 31, 2010…The dominant factor driving savings was the lower wages paid to local and third-country-national contractor employees. The report said that more than 80 percent of those employees were not U.S. citizens…Looming just as large in the report is the unprecedented demand for contractors. “We rely on contractors too heavily, manage them too loosely, and pay them too much,” former commissioner Dov Zakheim testified on Oct. 19 before the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness. …The Defense Department simply can’t keep up, according to the report. Oversight has taken a backseat to expediency. “The number of Defense acquisition professionals had declined by 10 percent during a decade that saw contractual obligations triple,” the report states…Contractors represent U.S. policy during times of crisis and conflict and they are essential to wartime operations. Yet, while contractors now make up half the personnel in war zones, “The Defense Department has never treated oversight of contractors as a core function.”…What is more, the contractors control many of the levers of defense, and on that front, the Commission on Wartime Contracting was blunt: “National security is not a business decision.”

QED, or, perhaps, SPQR…

It’s well worth thinking of the living, as well as the dead:

I asked what she would tell the family of a serviceperson killed in action. She wept as she replied, “I hope that they have lots of pictures and I am sorry.” My mind stopped and I had asked too much. I thought of her photo albums that I had helped her preserve after nearly losing them a dozen years ago. My heart was breaking and I felt for the first time a dash of the pain my mother never talks about.

(And, by the way, Garry Trudeau is a mensch).

Unfortunately, there have not been enough submissions for Military History Carnival #26, so I’ve cancelled it. Sorry!

Edge of the American West, in conjunction with H-War will be hosting the next Military History Carnival, on November 17, 2010. Carnivals are an ancient and hoary Internet tradition, bringing together the best submitted work on a particular topic from around the web:

A blog carnival is like a roving journal, a rotating showcase of interesting writing from around the blogosphere within a particular discipline.”

My belief is to construe military history as widely as possible: drums and trumpets, surely. The face of battle, most definitely. But also memorialization, gender, and anything else that seems related to war in all its forms.

Submit potential entries here with the subject header “Military History Carnival Submission.” The deadline is November 15th.

Table of Contents

1. John T. Weikert Farm (Francis Althoff Farm) by Jenny at Draw the Sword (and Throw Away the Scabbard)
2. Schmidt: “Civil War Justice in Southeast Missouri” by (Drew@CWBA) at Civil War Books and Authors
3. The R Word by Brett Holman at Airminded
Read the rest of this entry »

Table of Contents

1. The Battle of Valcour Island 11 October 1776 by NHHC at Naval History Blog
2. Stoker: “the Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War” by (Drew@CWBA) at Civil War Books and Authors
3. Brian Gardner: Up the Line to Death by (Tim Kendall) at War Poetry
4. Commitment and Perseverance: Float Plane Pilots Ens. Harvey P. Jolly and Lt (Jg) Robert L. Dana. by NHHC at Naval History Blog

More after the jump… Read the rest of this entry »

From Der Spiegel:

Germany will make its last reparations payment for World War I on Oct. 3, settling its outstanding debt from the 1919 Versailles Treaty and quietly closing the final chapter of the conflict that shaped the 20th century. Oct. 3, the 20th anniversary of German unification, will also mark the completion of the final chapter of World War I with the end of reparations payments 92 years after the country’s defeat.

I wonder if they’ll have a mortgage-burning party?

P.S. The original reparations, according to the article, were the equivalent of 96,000 tons of gold, which works out at today’s price (math NOT guaranteed) to be about $4 trillion. Ouch.

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