Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Time travel opportunity

April 15, 2018

The Surratt House, 604 H Street NW Washington, DC, where conspirators planned Lincoln’s assassination, is now an Asian restaurant, with karaoke.

You can’t stay mad with wok and roll

If only they’d had karaoke in that meeting room 153 years ago, things might have been different


I Owe Paul Kennedy An Apology

December 22, 2017

Thirty years ago, Yale University professor Paul Kennedy published The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. In it, he reviewed 500 years of great power competition, from 1500 to the then present. His thesis was that international power has both an economic and a military component, and that a nation’s changing place in the international pecking order is based on the relative levels of these elements, compared to other nations. Economics includes new trade opportunities (gold, spices) and new technologies (sail replacing oars, steam power replacing manual labor). Military includes new applications of technology (gunpowder) and new demands on the size and sophistication of armies (WWI vs Franco-Prussian war). Countries that spend more on military can spend less on their economies, but large countries can spend more on both.

So, changing global economics, and changing social and military responses by the various nations, pushed Spain, then France, then England, then the US and Russia into the top positions. Meanwhile, challengers could become overextended, spending more and more on military that provided less and less return.

…the Ottoman army could maintain lengthy frontiers, but could not expand without enormous cost in men and money. And Ottoman imperialism, unlike that of the Spanish, Dutch, and English later, did not bring much in the way of economic benefit. By the second half of the 16th Century the empire was showing signs of strategical overextension….Socially, the system as a whole, like Ming China, suffered from being centralized, despotic, and hostile toward initiative, dissent, and private commerce. (Note: these quotes have been edited and combined to give a better narrative flow)

Kennedy ended by pointing out that these changes would continue, that all powers would see a relative rise and decline, and that there was no guarantee that the US would remain on top.

“…the decline referred to is relative not absolute, and is perfectly natural; and the only serious threat to the US can come from a failure to adjust sensibly to the newer world order. …The task facing US leaders over the next decades is to recognize that broad trends are under way, and that we need to manage affairs so that the relative erosion of the US position takes place slowly and smoothly, and is not accelerated by policies that bring short term advantage but result in long term disadvantage. “

Keep in mind, this was all written in the mid-1980’s.

Unfortunately for the long term usefulness of the book, it was written immediately before the end-of-century upheaval in the global order. The USSR and Warsaw Pact still existed, Japan was a rising economic power, China was struggling to break out, and the European Union was moving from European to Union. Over the next thirty years, these trends came crashing down. The results didn’t negate his thesis, but they did do away with most of his short term predictions. Still, statements like

“even in the military realm there are signs of a realignment from a bipolar to a multipolar system.”

are not only true today, but perhaps are more true than they would have been had his predictions held. In fact, the continuing validity of the basic thesis in the face of failed predictions of specific developments may indicate the underlying strength of his approach.

At this point I should say that Kennedy strongly objects to the word predictions. Precisely because the international system is based on complex, anarchic, changing conditions — what a Systems Scientist would call both chaotic and adaptive — it’s impossible to make useful predictions. Perhaps trends would be a better term.

So, this is where I come in. I read the book when it first came out, and it seemed that his underlying thesis missed a major change in the world system. For the first 500 years, it was indeed driven by contending powers, seeking to establish their rule over the rest, either for religious reasons, for prestige, or because their decision-makers could see no other way to protect their position in the world. But WWII changed all that.

I saw two trends that would change how the system worked. First, was the rise of a bi-polar world, based on extreme ideological differences, and the existential threat posed by both sides possession of nuclear weapons. From that point, every economic and military clash had to be viewed from the standpoint of a possible global nuclear war. The second trend was one that made one proud to be an American: the Marshall Plan, and its adjuncts, which poured money into our former enemies and lifted them up from devastation and made them true partners. No country had ever done this before. Every victor of previous wars, including WWI, had looted the vanquished in the name of reparations.

Surely, we had learned from our experiences at the end of WWI and WWII. It was better to be a magnanimous winner, and spend the money and establish the policies that would bring the losers over onto your side.

Of course, that didn’t happen. While we provided some assistance to Russia after the collapse of the USSR, that was mostly in areas where we would benefit militarily — helping them secure their nuclear materials, for example. Otherwise, we treated them as a full scale hostile power, among other things, expanding NATO into what is arguably their sphere of influence (what they would call the close beyond) and supporting anti-Russian regimes right on their borders. How would we respond if Russia announced a treaty with Mexico that would allow them to station troops in Durango Province, and worked to put a pro-Russian government into Hermosillo?

Of course they are one of our competitors. Ever since the collapse and the emergence of the US as the sole global super-power they have been scrabbling to secure a place at the top of the second tier. Russians are every bit as prideful as Americans, and they bitterly resent the insult of their current position. That’s one reason why they are willing to put up with Putin — he’s Making Russia Great Again (MaRGA).

Meanwhile, what else have we been doing? Invading Iraq on the basis of lies by the President and executive branch. Destroying their government, with no plan for replacement. In effect, taking all those actions that Kennedy would say result in long term disadvantage.

I am not the only one with these opinions. Canadian defence analyst Patrick Armstrong has listed the steps on how we got here. And Michael Brenner (Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh) details the psychology of our response to the realization that we are subject to the same changes others are.

So yes, Paul, you were right and I was wrong. Boy, was I wrong. My apologies.

What if Japan had not attacked Pearl Harbor

December 7, 2017

Periodically, people revive an alternative history narrative, where Japan never attacked Pearl Harbor, where they followed their, and the US, original warplans and invaded the Philippines instead. This was the old-fashioned style of warfare: invasion of nearby territories, clashes between rival fleets, extended land campaigns.

The Japanese were particularly enamoured of these ideas because of their strategic doctrine of the big, decisive, naval battle. Their concept was to induce, entice, or invite the enemy to send its fleet out for a major clash, one-throw-of-the-dice to see who won. Of course, based on their disastrous victory at Tsushima, they were sure it would be them. I say disastrous because if it had been harder and more painful, they might have drawn better lessons from it.

What Admiral Yamamoto did was shift the decisive battle from the waters of the Western Pacific to Pearl Harbor. The decisive strike would be from the air, not from opposing line-of-battle ships. This succeeded, partially, but left some…issues…unresolved. The rest, as they say, is history.

But let’s step back one more step. What if the Japanese hadn’t attacked the US at all?

You see, attacking the US was never the primary goal. The Japanese looked on us as an enemy because of our embargoes, our support for China, and our alliance with their local opposition, the Dutch and the British. But we were not a foe in the same way as the Dutch and the British, or as Russia. We were an adversary who they might or might not have to fight.

By cutting off their oil and steel (and remember, the US was the world’s major oil exporter, so this was the equivalent of the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo, only more effective), the US forced the Japanese to look for other sources of supply: British Borneo and Dutch Indonesia. So, the main thrust of the Japanese expansion was to be south, to the oil and rubber supplies.

The Japanese logic on how this would work out was plausible but incomplete, possibly because the Japanese Army, who by the late 1930’s was running Japan’s foreign policy, didn’t really understand international relations. Their logic chain said go to war with the Dutch, and the British will/must join them. Go to war with the British and the US will/must join them. Therefore, we have to go to war with the US. But they seriously miscalculated the US willingness to go to war.

Remember, this was 1941, and Britain had been fighting in Europe for almost two years. They had been defeated on the Continent, and were in serious danger of invasion, and the US still hadn’t gone to their aid. This was because the US Congress and the US people were strongly against war, and President Roosevelt was desperate enough to get us in to one to spawn shoals of conspiracy theories about what he knew and when he knew it, and how much of the action had been at his behest. (My take is, not as much as people think, later than most people think, and very little of import).

So, suppose the Japanese had concentrated on a strike to the south, and had actively avoided involving the US. What might have happened then?

Well, the southern thrust likely would have played out as it did in real life, except there would have been no ABDA Command and no US participation in battles like Java Sea. The US would have increased supplies to Australia, but could have done little west of Manila, given that, politically, we did not wish to take any overtly hostile actions. Increased reconnaissance and intelligence sharing is about all that could have been done until some suitable causus belli had occurred.

We would still occupy Wake and Guam and the Philippines, with troop buildups on all three.

More importantly, Midway would not have happened, and US troops would not have landed on Guadalcanal.

Having avoided a Pearl Harbor, what might have caused the US to enter WWII at this point? Perhaps some naval incident, either in the Atlantic or the Pacific. German u-boat attacks on tankers, perhaps, or Japanese attacks on US resupply shipments to Australia. Maybe a Japanese attack on US assets in China. It would have to be something blatant enough to tip US public opinion.

And then, Plan Orange would be executed, and the US participation in the war would begin. Six months or a year late, against an enemy that was more deeply entrenched, had seized key geography, like Guadalcanal, and New Guinea, and still had the majority of its fleet intact.

History would have been different.



Memories of my youth: The Yom Kippur War 2

October 8, 2017

The war started in early October, 1973. The US made the decision to support Israel with arms shipments, and because of the pace of the war, those shipments had to be airlifted.

Initially, the Military Airlift Command coordinated the movement of US weapons and munitions to east coast airfields, where El Al cargo aircraft would carry them to Israel. That system was soon overwhelmed, and the US decided to fly support directly to Israel, via an intermediate stop in the Azores.

By mid-October there was a constant stream of C-5 and C-141 transports flying across the Atlantic and all the length of the Mediterranean. Of course, the Russians were still running their support flights to Egypt. That meant for a portion of the flight we were sharing the same airspace and ATC frequencies.

An interesting feature of the Russian interaction with the ATC system was that one aircraft, probably the only one with a decent English speaker, would transmit flight data for a number of aircraft flying behind them, all using Aeroflot call signs.

MAC aircrews, being the innovative people that they are, would copy these transmissions and pass them back to the MAC Command Post, giving us useful information on the level of Russian activity.

At one point, a Russian pilot read off a string of position reports faster than the MAC crew could copy them down. When he finished, the young Captain co-pilot mashed the transmit button and said “Aeroflot 1234, could you repeat that list, please.” The Russian, who had no idea he wasn’t speaking to ATC, did so.

Everyone had a smile on their face that day.


Memories of my youth: The Yom Kippur War 1

October 7, 2017

It was early October, 1973. I was newly assigned to the Military Airlift Command’s Indications and Warning Center at Scott AFB, Illinois. I was fresh from a four year tour in Europe and had just finished checking out in the duties associated with the Center. Basically I&W is the discipline associated with looking at various indicators that a country might be going to war, and warning the decision makers about it.

It was about three days before the start of the war. That would make it the 2d or 3rd of October. I was sharing the night watch with a more experienced analyst. We were shuffling through the reams of messages that every center gets — 99.9% about normal day to day activities. There was one report that a Soviet transport was headed south over the Mediterranean, towards Egypt. That was nothing new. Egypt was a Soviet client state at the time, and transports were always overflying Yugoslavia, down the Adriatic, and turning left somewhere south of Greece. They were coordinating with the European Air Traffic Control system, just like all aircraft, military or civilian, and anyone could watch them transiting the various air traffic control zones.

Fifteen minutes later there was another report. That’s OK, they just crossed into a new zone.

Fifteen minutes later there was another report. That’s interesting. All three reports were for different aircraft. Fifteen minutes later, there was another one.

Before too long, there was a parade of Soviet An-12 transports, fifteen minutes apart, all the way from Yugoslavia to Egypt. This was definitely news. You don’t commit that level of airlift unless there’s something big going on. It is, as they say, an indicator, but of what?

We had seen a lot of activity in Egypt. They’d been making deployments along the Suez canal, but they did that a lot. They’d call up reserves, run an exercise next to the canal, and send everybody home. We hadn’t seen a lot of activity in the USSR or Eastern Europe, nothing that would support the idea of hostilities there (besides, you don’t start a war in Europe by airlifting stuff to Egypt). Since the Russians were close military advisors to the Egyptians, they’d likely be the first to know if Cairo was planning a major action. Were the Russians providing emergency military aid to the Egyptian army, or were they pulling their own people out? At this stage, there was no way to know.

We packaged up everything we knew, and asked the Operations Officer to wake up the Vice Commander of MAC, a three star general. We briefed him in his living room, with him in his bathrobe and pajamas. He needed to know, because if a Middle East war broke out again, MAC would be on the hook for delivering American aid to Israel. This was our official warning to the decision maker. He was not only warned, but he knew he had been warned.

Then we went back and prepared the morning briefing. The next day, CIA came out with an estimate that said the activity along the canal was exercises or nuisance probes. We got yelled at, but stuck to our guns. Forty-eight hours later, the war started.

Because of our warning, MAC had a three day jump in preparing for the command to start an airlift to Israel.


The Battle of Midway, 75 years ago

June 4, 2017

The Battle of Midway, 75 years ago today, marked the end of a remarkable six-month string of victories by the Japanese fast carrier fleet (Japanese name Kido Butai) across one third of the circumference of the globe, from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii to Colombo, Ceylon.

After striking at Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, the carrier force returned to Japan, before deploying to Truk and then to Palau, in support of the invasion of the northern Solomons. In February, they sortied for a raid on Darwin, Australia — the largest attack ever carried out against that country. Much of March was spent operating out of Staring Bay, Celebes, covering the Japanese Army operations across the Java Sea.

Early April, 1942, saw the fast carrier force in the Indian Ocean, where they conducted strikes on Colombo and Trincomalee, Ceylon, sinking the British carrier Hermes. By midmonth they were back in the South China Sea, bound for a replenishment stop in Taiwan.

The carriers redeployed to Truk in early May, to support the invasion of Port Moresby, New Guinea. On 7-8 May they participated in the Battle of the Coral Sea, suffering their first carrier loss (CL Shoho). It was a tactical victory but strategic defeat, because the Japanese had to call off the invasion.

Finally, in early June, the carriers assembled north of Midway Island, seeking to draw out US forces to protect the island. Unfortunately for them, the US had broken their codes and knew exactly what their plans were and where the carriers were located. This was not as easy as it sounds, by the way. For example, the carriers were operating under radio silence, but their support ships, including destroyers known to be used as their escorts, were not. We had to infer the location of the carriers.

The results of the battle are well known — four Kido Butai carriers sunk, with the loss of not just their decks, but their experienced crews and planes and pilots. Up until Midway, the average IJN pilot had about 700 flying hours under his belt. Midway started a decline to 70 flying hours by war’s end.


Pearl Harbor

December 7, 2016

A lot has been written on how we missed out on predicting Pearl Harbor as the location of the initial Japanese attack. It strikes me now that one reason was that Pearl was not that important of a target in the overall Japanese war effort.

Consider the warning message of 24 November:


And the followup “war warning” of 27 November (which went to the commander of the Asiatic Fleet, and others):

Observer, U.S. officer assigned to the RN] INFORM BRITISH. CONTINENTAL 

Not only didn’t it mention Hawaii, but the further away from the Far East it looked, the less it talked about naval action. Guam and Samoa and the Continental districts of the US were alerted against sabotage. Even with Magic, information gleaned from Japanese diplomatic codes, our warnings were aimed at the Far East.

In part, this is because the Japanese were aiming their main thrust south — Borneo, Malay Peninsula, Indonesia. We were tracking a major surface fleet headed that way, dozens of ships with thousands of troops, enroute to invade Malaya. They had hundreds of land-based aircraft at airfields in newly-occupied Cochinchina. This wasn’t just a main thrust, it was the whole reason for the war.

Pearl Harbor, from a force deployment perspective, was almost a side show. It was a head-fake, a bump-and-run. Yes, they felt that success at Pearl was vital to giving Japanese forces freedom of action at the start of the war, but it was like depending on a key block to make sure a large, complex play can run*.

*Hey, I’m doing the best I can — I don’t even like football.

WWII in the Pacific

December 7, 2015

Herewith, in honor of Pearl Harbor Day, a list of every US aircraft carrier lost in the Pacific War, from the USS Langley (CV-1), the first aircraft carrier ever built, to the USS Bismarck Sea (CVE-95), which served for only 277 days.

The world's first aircraft carrier

America’s first aircraft carrier, and the first one lost in combat

In addition, here’s a YouTube animated map showing the ebb and flow of the Pacific War from December 7th, 1941 to September 2d, 1945.

High water mark. The day the Marines landed on Guadalcanal

High water mark. The day the Marines landed on Guadalcanal

Interesting to note that it was over a year after the landings on Guadalcanal before the front lines appreciably changed.

Rehabilitating Chamberlain

September 30, 2015

Seventy-seven years ago today, an agreement was signed at Munich. Modern historians are coming around to the idea that, at the time, given the circumstances, without being influenced by 20/20 hindsight, it was probably the right thing to do. To appropriate the words of Churchill about the first stage of the war, it provided the needed time “till those who hitherto had been half blind were half ready.”

World War II in the Pacific: A 70th Anniversary Retrospective

September 2, 2015


So, now it’s late Summer, 1945, and the Japanese Empire is on its last legs. The Navy has been destroyed, the Army is mostly trapped in China and Burma, their merchant marine has been sunk. The American B-29’s have been fire-bombing almost every city in the country, against almost no resistance from the Japanese Air Force. The time had come to invade the Home Islands.

Invasion was a costly alternative, but we didn’t have any particular reason to believe other options were workable. A blockade might starve them out, but there was no assurance of that. Besides, the result would be to have the Japanese grudgingly admit that they’d lost, to bargain for a less than unconditional surrender, and to leave future generations open to a “stabbed in the back” theory, like Germany after WWI. An invasion was the only way to convince the Japanese that they really had lost the war.

The cost was going to be horrific, on both sides. We estimated there’d be a million Allied casualties, and upwards of five million Japanese casualties. Japanese plans were to defend the Home Islands the way they did Okinawa and Iwo Jima — a defense in depth by soldiers who would have to be dug out and killed one by one. What we didn’t know was the extent to which the civilian population would be involved. Males were inducted into home defense units. Women and school children were shown how to tie a knife to a broomstick and attack allied infantry. Another thing that we didn’t know was Japanese preparations for kamikaze operations.

At the start of the US bombing campaign, the Japanese high command had decided to hide their remaining aircraft in protected shelters and rail tunnels, and to reserve enough aviation gasoline to fly 6000 one-way sorties. What Curtis LeMay thought of as a weakness that allowed him to bomb from low altitude was actually an iron determination to strike as hard a blow at the invasion fleet as possible. And it would be a hard blow. Although we looked on the kamikaze pilots as fanatics, they were actually patriots, doing their final duty. Using kamikaze tactics during the battles for Iwo Jima and Okinawa, the Japanese put more US ships out of the war, with fewer losses to themselves, per ship sunk or damaged, than they did with any of their more conventional campaigns.

In addition, southern Japan does not have that much coastland and hinterland suitable for an amphibious invasion. The Japanese High Command predicted almost exactly when and where we would invade, and had distributed their forces accordingly — an initial foothold on Kyushu Island, followed by an invasion of Honshu, with landings on either side of Tokyo Bay. Much of the land behind the beaches is shown as agricultural (rice paddies), but that doesn’t mean it is level. The paddies are enclosed in dikes, and in many cases are stepped in terraces. From a tactical standpoint, this means that tanks crossing the dikes and terraces will have their vulnerable undersides exposed to the defenders.

But, we had The Bomb. We had choices on how to use it, but little assurance that anything short of destroying a city would convince the holdouts in the Japanese military and government. Using it would be horrific (I know, that’s the third time I’ve used that phrase), but consider that we had already destroyed a greater area of the three largest cities in Japan than we did in all of the cities of Germany. The only difference here would be that we were doing it with one bomb in one instant, rather than waves of bombers over several days. It was a terrible weapon, and we had to demonstrate to the world what a terrible weapon it was. Even then, it still took over a week, and a second bomb, for the Japanese government to actually admit to defeat.  They signed the articles of surrender seventy years ago today.

In The Prisoner and the Bomb, Laurens van der Post, an Afrikaner officer imprisoned in Indonesia, said that the prison camp guards seemed to be working themselves up to something at the end of July and the beginning of August. The prisoners believed there was going to be a massacre. But after the bombs had dropped, the guards attitude changed, becoming almost resigned. The use of the atomic bomb, and the way it was used, finally convinced even the most fanatical holdouts that Japan had been well and truly defeated. And it convinced the world that we had to do something to limit their use.

World War II in the Pacific: A 70th Anniversary Retrospective

September 1, 2015


And so now we come to the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entrance into the Pacific War. As I’ve discussed in previous essays on the topic, much of the action was driven by the needs and blunders of the Japanese Army. The Japanese Navy was much less enthusiastic about the project, although they did not try very hard to stop it.

The Japanese logic was straightforward, though misinformed. The US (the world’s largest oil producer) had just cut off their total supply of oil. There was only about two years supply left in-country — two years for the Navy, if everyone else was starved of it. The US demand was simple, total withdrawal from China. The implications, which the US did not consider, were that Japan would become a client state of the US, and give up its aspirations to become a world-class nation. Better to go down fighting than acquiesce to that kind of abject surrender.

If Japan was to become independent in oil (does this have a modern ring to it? has the irony sunk in?), they would have to take it from someone, and the Dutch and British possessions were closest. So it was war with the UK and Holland.

But the UK was a close ally of the US, particularly in the Pacific. If Japan attacked the UK possessions there, the US would surely come into the war to support their ally. So it was war with the US. The Japanese (or at least those Army officers with the most clout) didn’t know that isolationist opinion in the US would have made it difficult to declare war without an overt attack on US forces, so they decided to make one.

Surprise attacks are a long-honored samurai tradition, retained into the modern age. The Russo-Japanese war started with a surprise bombardment of Port Arthur. The Japanese wanted to knock the US back on its heels for a year, while they ran wild across the Western and Central Pacific. Then they’d be able to negotiate from a position of strength. In fact, it was the one thing that would ensure a unified American response.

The combat portion of the Pacific War is shortly told. The IJN carrier strike forces ran roughshod over their enemies for six months, sailing one-third of the way around the globe, destroying ships and facilities from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, to Colombo, Ceylon. Probably the single greatest naval campaign in history. Their run came to an end at the Battle of Midway, and they never recovered from the loss of ships and aircrews. The first nine months combat used up most of the aircraft carriers on both sides, and there was an eighteen month lull in carrier warfare while both sides rebuilt.

The Army, meanwhile, either retained most of it’s combat troops in China (to defend their gains or protect against a Russian invasion), or committed them to the campaign in Burma, in an attempt to split India off from the Allies. Fewer than twenty army divisions defended the islands between the US and the Home Islands. Because of this, the Army lost what was essentially a slow-motion meeting engagement on Guadalcanal, and was forced back and back by US ground forces, supported by superior naval and air firepower. One of the reasons for their losses was the fact that they had only fought the Chinese for the last quarter century, and had no idea what a modern Western army could do.

Through defeat after defeat, however, they were able to hone an effective, though not successful, defensive strategy. Rather than attempting to stop an invasion at the water’s edge, they opted for a defense in depth, relying on the stubborn determination of the Japanese infantryman to hold every position until the end, and in doing so, bleed the invading force with horrific casualties. They refined this approach at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and their preparations for an archipelago-wide battle to the death was one of the considerations in our decision to drop the atomic bomb.

World War II in the Pacific: A 70th Anniversary Retrospective

August 31, 2015


Imagine if England had retained the tradition of knights in shining armour into the mid-1800’s. Imagine if the UK had remained as it was in the mid-1400’s, with a weak king and strong barons. Imagine if Queen Victoria was the first English monarch in seven hundred years to actually rule the United Kingdom. Now, jump ahead fifty years, and imagine what British society might be like half a century later. You now have an idea of what Japan was like at the beginning of the last Century.

Japan was always a militaristic society, in a knights in shining armour way. For almost their entire history this militarism was aimed inwards, with more or less continuous Wars of the Roses style fighting between rival clans and warlords using small armies of samurai, or with indian wars in the north, to pacify the Ainu. Unification of the country in the 1600’s under one chief warlord (Shogun) suppressed the fighting, and converted the samurai to a governing civil service (while not decreasing their militaristic ethos). The rise of a national army, in post-Meiji Japan, gave an outlet for those who yearned for more than trusted places in the bureaucracy. By the start of the 20th Century, Japanese society could still be classified as militaristic, but not in a nostalgic way. Large parts of it embraced the militarism that would later lead Europe into two World Wars.

And now we come to the place where hubris evokes nemesis. In the first essay in this series, the Japanese had gained control of agricultural Taiwan and Korea, and had established a sphere of influence in the Liaodong Peninsula. Occupation of resource-rich Manchuria had earned them the censure of the League of Nations, but no economically important countermeasures. It did, however, kick off continuing clashes with Chinese forces, which the Japanese generally won. If they had stopped there, they might have consolidated, grown, and prospered. They didn’t.

In 1937 the Japanese army in China, which by now was pretty much out of control, exploited, or manufactured, several incidents, that lead to an all out war with the Kuomintang (KMT) government, and a parallel guerrilla war coordinated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). At the start of the war, the Japanese army totaled 17 divisions. By the time of Pearl Harbor, approximately 35 out of 51 divisions, and 38 out of 39 independent brigades were committed in China. Japan managed to occupy a number of the major cities — Shanghai, Nanjing, Wuhan — but had less luck pacifying the country in between.

The start of the Second Sino-Japanese War threatened Western business interests in China. That, combined with the associated Japanese atrocities against Chinese civilians, well reported by the US Christian missionaries in-country, provided the basis for US support for the KMT. Initially, there were no overt actions against Japan directly. Diplomatic objections were raised. Loans were made available to buy military equipment and supplies for the Chinese army, much of which was delivered through Haiphong, in French Indochina, and thence via rail to Yunnan. So far, the Japanese were still ahead in the game. This lasted for three years.

We now begin a series of escalatory tit-for-tats, each of which, on its own and viewed narrowly, was perfectly logical. The problem was, the Japanese army was bogged down in China. They were looking at a scaled up version of what the US faced in VietNam — a patriotic people, fighting on their own ground, with continuing resupply from an untouchable sanctuary. Ultimately, it would lose somewhere between one and two million casualties there. Probably half of those were suffered by late 1940. The solution was, of course, to close off the resupply. By September of that year French Indochina was in the hands of the neutral Vichy government, and the Japanese tried to get them to close the rail line through diplomatic pressure. They refused, and the Japanese staged an amphibious landing south of Haiphong, as well as moving ground troops across the border at Lang Son, closing the railway. The US reaction was to halt all sales of scrap iron (75% of Japan’s supply), machine tools, and aviation gasoline, one step short of a total trade embargo. This lead the Japanese to make plans to obtain their own oil, by seizing the British oil fields in Borneo, and the Dutch oil fields in Indonesia. They took the next step in July of 1941, by occupying the southern half of French Indochina, putting their aircraft in range of Dutch and UK targets. The US froze all Japanese assets, and instituted a complete trade embargo, including all exports of oil to Japan. The final stage was set.

Throughout all of this, the US demonstrated an almost complete lack of understanding of the Japanese goals and values. In fact, US actions continuously confirmed the Japanese understanding of the West. Immigration restrictions were informally imposed on the Japanese in 1907, and formalized in the Immigration Act of 1924. As early as 1895 the European powers had ganged up on Japan to roll back major provisions of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, which ended the First Sino-Japanese War. The Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 limited Japan to the short end of a 5:5:3 ratio in battleships. And now the US was adopting a hard line withdraw from China and then we’ll talk approach. The Japanese were faced with unconditional surrender and acceptance of a second class existence as a client state of a nation that despised them, or a war that might allow them to achieve at least some of their goals, or that might end in ruin for the nation. What’s a proud samurai to do?

World War II in the Pacific: A 70th Anniversary Retrospective

August 25, 2015


“World War II” is a collective term, encompassing a number of different conflicts that took place just prior to the mid-20th Century, in a number of different places, involving a number of different combatants, over a number of different durations.

For the US, the war started, with Japan, in 1941. For the UK, the war started in 1939, against Germany. For the USSR, the Great Patriotic War started in 1940, against Germany, with the follow-on Soviet-Japanese War limited to August, 1945. And for the Japanese, the Greater East Asia War began with the Second Sino-Japanese war, between Japan and China, in 1937 and later spread to the Pacific War, between Japan and the US and its allies, from 1941 to 1945.

I’m not going to talk about WWII in Europe. The European War is much more straightforward, one might even say traditional. The ruler of a country (Hitler) embarked upon a program of conquest through a war of choice. With a different ruler, one can argue, Germany would most likely not have gone to war. From that standpoint the European War serves to validate the Great Man theory of history. On the other hand, the Pacific War is fascinating because it can be attributed to the inevitable clash of cultures and national objectives, the Blind Forces of History. No one man pushed the Japanese into what one author calls the war they could never win. It was the Japanese (and American) view of themselves (and the world), that caused it.

As I said in an earlier essay, most Americans have this vague  notion that Japan woke up one morning and decided to attack Pearl Harbor.  I mean, it was a dull Sunday, and they still didn’t have cable TV, right? Of course it was more complex than that.

Around the world, the late 19th and early 20th Centuries saw a burst of New Imperialism, mostly on the part of European nations and the US. In the Scramble for Africa, the UK, France, Germany and Italy carved up those parts of the continent not already colonized. At the same time, the defeat of China in the Opium Wars allowed the UK, France, Germany, and Russia to establish spheres of influence there. Japan got some concessions out of it, but was treated as a decidedly minor partner. The US was not as imperialist as the other countries, possibly because it was still busy colonizing the lands between St Louis and San Francisco, but it still managed to come into possession of Puerto Rico and the Philippines, and of course earlier it had used the armed might of its Black Ships to force Japan to open up to the West.

The lesson was clear:  If you didn’t want to be a colony, you had to be a modern, industrialized nation.  And to become an industrialized nation, you had to have resources, either your own or from your colonies. 

Japan, a backward and resource-poor nation, learned that lesson well, at the hands of Oliver Hazard Perry. As soon as they felt up to it, they set about becoming both modern and industrialized, which meant acquiring colonies.

Between 1894 and 1910 they fought one war with China and another with Russia, as well as engineering several short-of-war incidents*, in order to transform Korea from a Chinese vassal state to a Japanese colony. Along the way they succeeded in getting China to grant them control of the Liaodong peninsula but the major European powers ganged up on them and forced them to give it back. This was one more example, if they needed one, that European nations still looked down on all Asians, and that Japan would not get any respect from Europeans unless they forced it out of them.

The Russo-Japanese war was a disaster for Japan. They won every battle. They drove the Russian field armies back and back, from one well-prepared defensive position to another. They bottled the Russian Pacific Fleet and another Russian army into the area around Port Arthur, at the end of the Liaodong peninsula, and forced a surrender after a year-long siege. Five months later the final disaster occurred — the Battle of Tsushima. There, the Japanese fleet utterly destroyed the Russian Baltic Fleet, and brought an end to the war.

Why was this highly successful war an ultimate disaster? Because the Japanese military came to believe they were the equal of any of the Western powers, that the army that destroyed the Tsarist  armies, 4,000 rail miles from their home bases, and the navy that destroyed the Tsarist navy, 18,000 nautical miles from its home ports, in 1905, could prevail against Britain and the US in the 1940’s.

The Japanese came to believe that they were destined to become the dominant power in Asia, superseding both China and the West. No-one believed this more than the Japanese Army. They, more than any other group came to see this as what Americans would call their Manifest Destiny. Not only was Japan now technically and industrially equivalent to the West, they felt they were also morally superior as well.

At home, the Army terrorized all who stood in their way. Assassination was a time-honored solution to problems of opposition**, and they, or their supporters, murdered recalcitrant generals, admirals, and politicians, even Prime Ministers. Abroad, with Russia cowed, the Army-dominated government continued their efforts to subdue China. As Allied participants in WWI they gained control of former German colonies across the Pacific, and in China they unsuccessfully attempted to push out their Western allies as part of their 21 Demands.

In 1931 the Japanese army engineered the Mukden incident, and used it to justify seizing all of Manchuria and establishing the vassal state of Manchukuo, a 100% Japanese creation, three times the size of the Japanese home islands (with over ten times the arable land), known today primarily for its exports of postage stamps.

But in 1937 the Japanese Army committed a fatal error, one that lead ultimately to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They started a land war in Asia.


*As with the US over the last fifty years, the Japanese used at least 17 incidents — violent events in China, some staged, some false flag operations — as excuses to increase military intervention there.

**In the clan conflicts of the late 1500s, which lead up to the unification of Japan, eight major figures fell to assassination, including Oda Nobunaga, and his brother, and the father, and grandfather of Tokugawa Ieyasu.

The Declaration of Independence

July 4, 2015

…according to Stan Freberg


On this date in Parliament, 1940

June 18, 2015
The original notes

The original notes

Winston Churchill gave a speech.

Postcard from Pearl Harbor

December 14, 2014

Written 73 years and four days ago. Note that the censors were a little slow. Not very informative, but I guess they couldn’t say more.

Front Side

Back when "penny postcard" meant something.

Back when “penny postcard” meant something.

Back Side

No mention of any incidents involving the Imperial Japanese Navy

No mention of any incidents involving
the Imperial Japanese Navy

My brother just found this in a box of old papers.


Pearl Harbor War Warning

November 29, 2014

On Thursday, November 27th, 1941, a week before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Chief of Naval Operations sent this message to CINCPACFleet at Pearl Harbor:

“Consider this dispatch a war warning. The negotiations with Japan in an effort to stabilize conditions in the Pacific have ended. Japan Is Expected to Make an Aggressive Move Within the next Few Days. An Amphibious Expedition Against Either the Philippines, or Kra Peninsula or Possibly Borneo Is Indicated by the Number and Equipment of Japanese Troops and the Organization of Their Naval Forces. You Will Execute a Defensive Deployment in Preparation for Carrying out the Tasks Assigned in Wpl 46. Guam, Samoa and the Continental Districts have been directed to take appropriate measures against sabotage. A Similar Warning Is Being Sent by the War Department. Inform Naval District and Army Authorities. British to be informed.”

This would seem to be about as direct as it gets. It’s what the Indications and Warning community would consider a true warning — the leaders have been warned, and they know they have been warned. On the other hand, the Army commander at Pearl got a wishy-washy-waffling kind of a warning from the War Department:

“Negotiations with the Japanese appear to be terminated to all practical purposes with only the barest possibilities that the Japanese government might come back and offer to continue. Japanese future action unpredictable but hostile action possible at any moment. If hostilities cannot, repeat cannot, be avoided the United States desires that Japan commit the first overt act. This policy should not, repeat not, be construed as restricting you to a course of action that might jeopardize your defense. Prior to hostile Japanese action. You are directed to undertake such reconnaissance and other measures as you deem necessary, but these measures should be carried out so as not, repeat, not to alarm the civil population or disclose intent. Report measures taken. Should hostilities occur, you will carry out the tasks assigned in Rainbow Five so far as they pertain to Japan. Limit the dissemination of this highly secret information to minimum essential officers.”

Neither one was directly warned of the possibility of an attack on Pearl Harbor (all locations mentioned were in the Western Pacific or Asian littoral), and each took their own measures to prepare. General Short believed that the biggest threat to his forces (mostly, the Army Aviation units) was from 5th columnists among the second and third generation Japanese, almost all of them American citizens by birth. (Those are the ones who today say things like “The Jap planes came in over that ridgeline there”.)  That being the case, he had the aircraft brought to central locations, where they could be guarded, and drained of fuel, so they would be harder for a saboteur to ignite. The result was a massed target that couldn’t respond to an air attack in time. Interestingly, the only mention of possible sabotage was in the Navy message.

I think the underlying cause of the failure of commanders up and down the chain was the lack of a war mentality. We hadn’t been in on the start of a major declared war since the Civil War, and that uncoiled with a lethargic 18th Century slowness. The Great War was one we saw start elsewhere and slowly girded our loins to fight. Even after Pearl Harbor, our commanders might have been combative, but they were not really combat-minded. Witness all the lessons we had to learn during the early days of the Guadalcanal campaign, when we lost one night surface action after another. If you can’t conceive of what a war might be like, you can’t properly prepare for it, no matter how strong the warning.

Tonight is Liþa-eve

June 21, 2013

Say what? Liþa, pronounced Litha, (the þ being the now-abandoned letter thorn) is the old Anglo-Saxon word for midsummer. Bede reports out a double month here: ǣrra līþa and æfterra līþa, which I would translate as before and after liþa.

The word itself is, according to Wiktionary: Apparently related to liþe (“mild”)’ probably cognate with Serbo-Croatian ljeto, Czech léto, Polish lato, Russian лето (léto, “summer, year”), and is descended from (West) Proto-Germanic *linþiz. Cognate with Old Saxon līthi, Old High German lindi (German lind), meaning gentle, mild, pleasant.

Back in Old Jutland, whence came most of the language, June and July were the mild months, with highs in the 60’s and lows in the 50’s. Before that, May was the tail end of a blustery, bud-shaking Spring, and after that came the heat of August (“72 again today, no relief in sight“). Midsummer was celebrated by most of the paganfolk of Europe, usually with bonfires, just like Walpurgisnacht, and every other pre-Christian holiday.

The Angles and Saxons and Jutes (Oh, my) would have started their celebrations the night before, because twelve hours of pre-soak is an excellent way to prep for a day-long party that ends with you setting fire to things.

NOTE: Got the date wrong. LAST night was Liþa-eve, because we hit the solstice at 1AM this morning.


June 14, 2013

Benedict Arnold, patriot, traitor, and shady businessman*, died on June 14th, 1801, six months too early to make the obituary section of the New York Evening Post. What better way to commemorate that day than by having Eggs Benedict for breakfast? Herewith, some recipes:

Traditional, recipe is at the bottom

Alton Brown, recipe is at the top

Japanese, recipe is a long way from home

Of course, there’s no need to remain bound to tradition. What about Apples Benedict, as mentioned in Jasper Fforde’s Well of Lost Plots? After all, Arnold was from Connecticut, a big apple centre at the time. Now, I don’t have a recipe. Well, yes, I do. It’s official and all, but it’s nothing like I’d envisage Apples Benedict as. You see, they chop up the apples and make applesauce. How would you like your Eggs Benedict made with scrambled eggs? That’s just a high-end Egg McMuffin. So my Apples Benedict calls for slicing them, like they were, you know, Canadian bacon. The key I think is the sauce. There is, I guess, always Hollandaise, just to be sure, or even its uncooked cousin from Mayon, but will either of those go with apples, and if not, what might substitute? Well, cheese might, for a ham n cheese experience. Or maybe maple syrup, which would make it more like breakfast pancakes.

Experiment 1: I sliced and cored a Fuji apple, heated a couple rounds of pre-cooked Canadian bacon, and toasted an English muffin. Put the CB in a frying pan to heat (don’t plan to get any cooking fat off them ’cause Canadians are lean). When the muffin was toast, I put on some butter and the CB, then put two apple slices in the same pan. Cooked them on medium to medium-low for about ten minutes, turning occasionally. About halfway through I added a glug of apple juice, to help get some steam up. Assembled them: muffin:CB:apple, then added a pinch of shredded cheese as the sauce, and popped them back in the toaster oven on a tray.
Result 1: Pretty good, but not what I was looking for. All the elements mixed, but the cheese solidified immediately. The apples needed slightly more cooking, but I was already at the end of my patience. Mayhaps thirty seconds in the microwave, to get them in the mood. My goal was a slice that was cooked through, but not falling apart.

Experiment 2: Let’s go cheap and quick all the way. Zot everything except the muffins in the microwave for three minutes. Use Cheese Whiz.
Result 2: I’ve had worse. The Cheese Whiz brought back childhood memories. It still wasn’t saucy enough. The microwave thing worked well, so I can go back to simplicity again.

Experiment 3: Well, what about Hollandaise sauce? Great idea, except we don’t got any. But from a cheminary standpoint, Mayonnaise is almost a Hollandaise. Hollandaise is a cooked egg yolk/butter emulsion. Mayonnaise is an uncooked emulsion made from egg yolk and oil  (since you can’t use hot butter). Hollandaise also has cayenne. OK, let’s put some cayenne in Mayonnaise and heat it in the micro.
Result 3: Not bad at all. Too much cayenne, which overwhelmed all the other flavors, but it stayed nice and saucy, and places where the cayenne thinned out it tasted pretty good.

Experiment 4: Tried real Hollandaise this time, straight from the can (if I gotta cook, I ain’t doing it).
Result 4: Not bad. Not great. More lemony than the Mayonnaise version. Thinner, with just a hint of cayenne. I think I liked the Mayo better.

Experiment 5: So, why not concentrate on making the Mayonnaise taste more like Hollandaise? I took the same amount of Mayo (almost half a cup, remember, there’s two muffin halves), a tablespoon of lemon juice, and a short, sharp, shake of cayenne. Since we’re not cooking this, I can taste as I go. Taste said, just a bit more cayenne, but not a lot. Heat everything in the microwave. Serve.
Result 5: Very good. low cholesterol. I think this is my go-to version.

Experiment 6: Let’s finish up with a sweet. How about authentic New England maple syrup, right from Bennie’s home state? OK, how about whatever syrup is available in the fridge? The choice is between Safeway Maple-like Syrup Substance and Jim Beam Pancake Syrup Byproduct. Since every English muffin comes with two halves, Let’s try both.
Result 6: Very good, but not Benedictine. Too thin. Still, this is the kind of breakfast that General Arnold might have eaten in the field, before going out to sell West Point.

After long thought, I have deduced some General Benedictine Concepts:

  1. Must be on English muffins. Croissants just won’t do
  2. Must involve a salty pork product
  3. Must use a namesake that is, or can be, shaped into circular…shapes…, in order to fit on the muffins — eggs, apples, pineapples.
  4. Must use a sauce. Should it be a Hollandaise sauce? Probably. I mean, you wouldn’t change the sauce if you went from eggs Florentine to spinach Florentine, would you?
  5. On the other hand, must use a sauce that doesn’t clash with the namesake, but keep it as close to the Hollandaise as you can.

*well, two out of three isn’t bad

Walpurgis Night, et al.

April 30, 2013

So, tonight is May Eve, when bonfires are burned, and maybe witches also. Walpurgis Night is, of course, a Christianized version of Beltane, the Celtic celebration of the start of summer, when bonfires were burned and people and cattle walked between them for purification, and witches would dance all sky-clad (or sometimes they would dance in shifts, because there wasn’t room for all of them). Tomorrow is May Day, dear to a certain generation as the date for large displays of new equipment in Red Square. It’s also, depending on how the moon tends, the first day of Ðrimilcemonað, the month that Anglo-Saxon cows had to be milked three times a day.

This month, on the second of May, 2013, the moon is a waning Last Quarter Moon. If you go out at sunrise and stand on the Earth’s terminator, you can look up at the Moon’s terminator. This means the Moon is directly ahead of us in our orbit, which means that where the Moon is, is where the Earth will be, three hours later.

Horse Soldiers

April 18, 2013

Paul Krugman reminded me that yesterday (17th) was the 150th anniversary of Grierson’s Raid, a Civil War cavalry strike from Corinth, TN, to New Orleans, and that the raid was the basis of the John Ford movie Horse Soldiers, starring John Wayne and William Holden.

I love a good cavalry story

I love a good cavalry story

One of the things the raid demonstrated was that the South was pretty much a hollow shell, and once the shell was penetrated it didn’t have forces capable of stopping the invader. A friend gave me the three-volume history of the Civil War by Shelby Foote. I’m not even halfway through the first volume, but I might have to skip ahead, to see how it ends.

Second Manassas

August 27, 2012

Today is the 150th aniversary of the Second Battle of Bull Run. It took place in northern Virginia, about eighteen miles from our house. Essentially, it was Jackson taking a slap at our right flank immediately after our left flank had withdrawn from the Peninsula Campaign. Generally considered a draw. @wpUnion and @civilwarWP are providing live stream tweets. As an aside, the creek that ran through my property fed into the Occoquan, the same river that Bull Run feeds. The Occoquan was the boundary between North and South for the early part of the war.

The Battle of Midway – 4 June, 1942

June 4, 2012

An 18min John Ford short, shot on the island during the battle. No sign of Dad (they never showed the 37mm’s), and they spent more film on the gooney birds than they did on the Marines. Still, it’s the best presentation that I’ve seen yet on what the battle was like on the island. The narration is in typical wartime style, and you’d never think to listen to it that 70 years later his son would be watching anime and learning Japanese. In two weeks, I’ll be attending a Japanese student’s wedding. For all the pain and suffering and mistakes, that world created this one, and it’s our job to now make the most of the one we’ve been given.

Friendship 7

February 20, 2012

Today is the 50th anniversary of John Glenn’s three orbit Project Mercury flight in Friendship 7. He wasn’t the first, but he was the best.

As a point of personal interest, he flew two tours in the Korean War, and got three MiG kills while flying out of Suwon AB, attached to the 51stFIW, later the 51stTFW. That’s the unit I served with, a third of a century later. I was the IN at Osan AB, and was responsible for Intel there, and at Suwon and Taegu.

“They” DON’T Hate Us for Our Freedoms

January 11, 2012

An interesting essay over on John Cole’s website. Islamic scholar Anouar Majid writes about the pro-American stance of the Arab Spring, in light of the history of America vs Islam. He makes three key points:
1. Arab Spring demonstrations are pro-democracy, and those that have mentioned the US have been pro-American
2. Wikileaked cables demonstrated to the populace our preference for democracy, even when we dealt with despots, and this helped strenghten the US position
3. Islamic countries need to recognize that the US view of their countries as despotic has some basis in historical fact, and work to change this.

This is a much more reasoned and nuanced look at the situation in the Middle East and North Africa than you will find in the neo-con rhetoric. The fact that some politicians are willing to lie in order to “engergize the base” isn’t new or surprising. The fact that many will do so on topics critical to our national security is frightening.

Iraq: The End of the Beginning

December 22, 2011

And so it ends. Not with a bang, not with the thanks of a grateful ally, not with a farewell ceremony by the newly elected leadership, but with a final convoy slinking out of the country — at night and nine days early — after a ceremony featuring two empty chairs where the “host” nation leadership should be, followed by a ten sixteen bomb salute.

We came, We saw, We screwed up from one end of the country to another.

Back in 9/11, AQ spent $50K to attack the WTC and kill nearly 4,300 Americans. Then George Bush said “Y’all don’t know nuthin ’bout killing Americans — here’s how it’s done”, and proceeded to kill 4,500 of them over nine years at a cost of a trillion dollars, or maybe three. Heckofa job, Georgie. (more…)

Pearl Harbor Part 3

December 7, 2011

Indications And Warning (I&W) is an obscure corner of an otherwise esoteric Intelligence discipline. It specifically deals with predicting a country’s intention to go to war through observations of their preparations. It was born of the Intelligence failures of the first half of the last century — Pearl Harbor and Korea (and the Chinese intervention there). It grew of age in the second half, watching the Soviet Union and North Korea. It was then subject to a major identity crisis when the Warsaw Pact collapsed, and the problem became one of predicting the terrorist actions of non-state organizations. Most of that is fodder for a different post.

I want to wrap up my Pearl Harbor coverage by looking at the I&W aspects of the problem. (more…)

Pearl Harbor Part 2

December 6, 2011

Earlier, we talked about the Japanese decision to go to war. Actually, it was a chain of totally logical decisions (aren’t they always?):

Phase 1
1. Japan has the capability to be a major world power, but in order to be a major world power, Japan must acquire overseas colonies

2. Korea and China stand in the same relation to Japan that Africa does to Europe, so that’s where the empire building should occur

Result: Japan starts a land war in Asia September, 1931. (more…)

Pearl Harbor Part 1

December 5, 2011

Iguchi Takeo was the young son of a Japanese embassy functionary, living in Washington, DC, at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He went on to a distinguished career of his own in the Japanese Foreign Office, serving as ambassador to several countries and teaching at universities both in Japan and the US. As a serving diplomat, Iguchi had access to the Foreign Office files concerning the days prior to Pearl Harbor, and he writes a very interesting book on the topic, titled Demystifying Pearl Harbor. This essay is based on much that is in the book, plus many of my own speculations and opinions. It’s not really a review.

As is well-known, the Japanese embassy delivered their diplomatic note breaking off negotiations well after the attack had started. The traditional explanation was that the embassy did not get the last part of the message translated in time, due to lax administrative procedures. Iguchi is not a disinterested observer, nevertheless, his new evaluation makes a compelling argument that the delay occurred on the Tokyo end, and that it was deliberate.

The general impression one gets from popular US culture on the subject is that the Japanese got up one morning and decided to conquer Asia, and what better way than to attack Hawaii? What comes out in this book is a clash of cultures between the US and Japan, and of priorities between the Japanese military and the Japanese Foreign Office (JFO). The US was woefully wrong in its estimate of Japanese reactions to US actions, while the Japanese military was manipulative and duplicitous, and the JFO was spineless. (more…)

History Repeats

September 15, 2011

Last week in Afghanistan:

Soldiers conducted a thorough search of several compounds, and discovered approximately 250 pounds of HME material, eight Russian-made hand grenades, two 82mm mortar rounds, blasting caps and detonation cord, handguns, and other explosive device components. Two suspected insurgents at the scene were detained for further questioning by coalition forces.
The Afghan and coalition forces also found an underground bunker that was well-hidden in a pomegranate field, and believed to be a bed-down location for insurgents or a storage area for weapons. The bunker and its connecting tunnel to a compound were both destroyed by explosives.

Forty-five years ago this week, in VietNam:

On September 11, 1966, the battalion command group (1st Bn, 5th Infantry, Bobcats) moved to XT 637211. Company A conducted an S&D operation, destroying bunker and tunnel complexes. At 1205 hours two WIAs were sustained from small arms fire. At 1220 hrs a 105mm artillery round was command detonated against an APC wounding 3 Bobcats. Company B conducted an S&D operation, destroying bunkers and tunnel complexes and munitions. 3 APCs detonated mines with no casualties.

But, this time, it’s different.

Last Days of the GSFG

September 9, 2011

Here is a “now it can be told” story from Berlin at the end of the Cold War. It’s typical of the kind of information one really gets in this business, and the kinds of inferences that you have to draw. There’s a whole sub-discipline of Intelligence, called Indications and Warning, that deals with predicting major actions like the withdrawal of the Group of Soviet Forces, Germany.

While I worked I&W most of my career, I wasn’t in the line of work portrayed here (it’s Collections, not Analysis) but I knew folks who were, and at the time the story occured I had just retired from my USAF job at the Defense Intelligence Agency, where I was trying to unravel the GSFG problem from that end. The “liaison mission” mentioned in the article is the USMLM. They drove all over East Germany with big American flags on their license plates, but were prohibited from entering “Permanent Restricted Areas”.

USMLM tour car on the road

My uncle was in the USMLM, back in the late ’40’s, and was one of the people declared “persona non grata” for violating the Rugen Island PRA.

It was just outside of the Ludvigslust PRA that Major Nicholson was shot to death by a Soviet guard in 1985, about four years before this story took place.

The History of Torture — Misses the Point

August 21, 2011

There was a recent article about torture on the website, talking about the history, of course, of torture, and why we’re seeing more of it. One doesn’t hold websites like this to too high a standard, but this article (a) casts its net too wide, and (b) misses the point.

On being too inclusive
The article includes as torture seemingly everything that would fall under the heading of doing bad things to noncombatants and former combatants. Yes, the Crusaders killed thousands of civilians in Jerusalem, many of them Christians, until their horses waded in blood. Yes, the Japanese killed tens of thousands of Chinese during their occupation. That’s murdering civilians, not torture. Starving and working POW’s to death, the way the Germans did in the Soviet Union, and the Japanese did in their prison camps (and the Confederacy did at Andersonville) is prisoner abuse, not torture. All of these are Bad Things, but they are all examples of simple atrocity, not torture. (more…)

Happy Æfterra Liþa

July 1, 2011

That’s “After Litha”. The Anglo-Saxons — who spoke Old English (although they probably didn’t call it that) — occupied and ruled Britain from about 449 to 1066. They used a solar/lunar calendar, which does not work well with the passage of the months of the modern calendar (although Bede mapped them that way). Two of their ‘months’ were doubled: Aere Yule/Aefter Yule fell on either side of their Yule festival, sometime around the end of December (or the winter solstice, or Christmas). Aere Litha/Aeftera Litha came six months later, close to the end of June/beginning of July. Since it is likely that the Angles and the Saxons and the Jutes (oh, my) started a month at the first crescent of the new moon, this year we might expect Aeftera Litha to begin on the 1st or 2d of July. Just in case you were wondering, next month, August, is Wéodmónaþ, or Weed Month. Since the seasons of England are much like those of the coastal NorthWest, all of my Portland reader can take comfort in knowing that others have had the same problems.

Anglo-Saxon history is a topic for another post, but I’ll just note that you can get an idea of the scale of their achievement by adding a thousand years to an A-S date, to map it into more modern history. So they arrived in England at the invite of Vortigern in 449 (->1449 almost fifty years before Columbus) and were destroyed in the Battle of Hastings in 1066 (->2066, over fifty years from now). This country has a way to go before we better their record.

Air Spy

June 6, 2011

Here is a BBC infomercial for a recent program(me) on the use of “3D”, AKA stereo, imagery by Photo Interpreters (PIs) in Operation Crossbow, the effort to find and destroy Hitler’s V-weapons.


What makes this interesting to me, is that I trained on a stereoscope exactly like the one shown (I still have it), and I knew PIs who knew Constance Babington Smith (“Babs”), the original “Air Spy” on Crossbow. (more…)

Apollo 13 Day

April 11, 2011

April 11, 1970, 41 years ago. Dis-aster on our way Ad Astra. Probably more famous than Apollo 11, because of the book and the movie, and (one would like to think) the song.

The movie was the first to accurately portray weighlessness, because they shot scenes on the NASA ‘vomit comet’, with the actors actually weightless (OK, in modernspeak, in microgravity).

The song “Ballad of Apollo 13” has words by William Warren, and is sung to the tune of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot. It was immortalized by Julia Ecklar on the decades-out-of-print Off Centaur Productions tape “Minus Ten and Counting”. Surprisingly, as far as I can tell, it was never nominated for a Pegasus Award.

Today is the anniversary of the launch, Thursday is the anniversary of the explosion, and next Sunday is the anniversary of their safe landing.

Apollo 13 Service Module, from WikipediaThe damaged Service Module, from NASA, by way of Wikipedia.

I was going to write something longer, but (as they said in Jurassic Park), life gets in the way.

S.E. Morison and the History of US Naval Operations in WWII

March 18, 2011

At the start of WWII, Samuel Eliot Morison was a professor of history at Harvard. He convinced President Roosevelt that the naval war should be documented by historians on site from the start. The result was the highly readable History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, fourteen volumes, almost 5000 pages, of active, informative prose, with a fifteenth volume as an index and general reference. Originally published in the 1950’s, it is currently being reissued in paperback form.

Night Battle off Guadalcanal

I had a chance to reread the entire series last summer. Even now, fifty years after its initial publication, it still reads well. Morison doesn’t pull any punches. This isn’t one of those ‘official’ histories, where everybody gets mentioned, and nobody is incompetent. In the Solomons Campaign, in particular (where the Navy’s pullout left the Marines, including my father, without adequate support for months), he details the errors that led to a situation where we could only put surface ships in the area at night, and where we lost a number of the surface actions — before learning how to win. I learned a lot from reading the full set in one sitting, as it were. (more…)

Life in the late 14th Century

March 4, 2011

Tuscan artist Cennino Cennini lived in the late 1300’s/early 1400’s. None of his paintings survive, but his notebooks and recipes do. Here’s one for a fine plaster:

Take bone from the second joints and wings of fowls, or of a capon, and the older they are the better. Just as you find them under the dining-table, put them in the fire; and when you see that they have turned whiter than ashes…

What I find interesting is not so much his production methods as his inadvertant description of what a typical dining room floor of the period might look like. Presumably there were rushes and so forth, changed seasonally, to give the chicken bone collection a more rustic look.

Last US WWI Vet Dies

February 28, 2011

The Washington Post, reports that Frank W. Buckles, the last surviving Doughboy, died at the age of 110 on Sunday. What I find amazing is not his long life, per se, but the fact that he was also a civilian prisoner of the Japanese in WWII. I knew a military POW, a US Army enlisted man captured in the Philippines. He was in his mid forties when I knew him, and he looked 80 — shrunken, shriveled, nearly toothless. Of course, he was a Bataan Death March survivor, but that was a mere instant in time compared with the next three years of deprivation. By all reports, the conditions that Buckles had to deal with were only slightly less horrific. The fact that Buckles could survive that, and still make it to 110 is the real miracle.

The British Resistance Movement in WWII

January 29, 2011

The what?

Unbeknownst to most people, the UK was one of the first countries to have an organized, armed resistance movement to fight the Nazis in WWII. They were known as Auxiliary Units , headquartered at Coleshill House. They were groups of civilians detailed to stay behind and carry on the fight even if Britain were invaded and overrun and the government forced to flee to Canada.

Information about them was very hard to find in the pre-Internet era, because very few records were kept — they didn’t want the Germans to find out about them. Now, of course, they have their own Wikipedia page. In some cases they masqueraded as Home Guard units, in others they were just groups of people who were given special training. They kept stocks of weapons and explosives, and were prepared to conduct sabotage operations against German units and infrastructure. Since in some ways they didn’t officially exist, there was no way for them to disband, and their sleeper cells lay dormant for decades after the war.

When we lived in England, in the early ’70’s, there would periodically be a news item about a former AU member contacting the army or police and saying “I am 90 years old now, and can no longer do proper maintenence on the 100 kilos of explosives and the collection of automatic weapons that have spent the last thirty years buried under my garden shed. What should I do with them?” Just another example of how people from that time felt they had a pact between themselves and the government, and were willing to keep secrets very nearly unto death. More recently, of course, government have violated those pacts, and squandered that good will.

Recently, archaeologists have started surveys at the AU headquarters at Coleshill House to see if they could uncover any physical evidence.

Updated to include mention and link to the Wikipedia entry.