Tuesday, March 30, 2010
On V-E Day, the author – Audie Murphy – was not yet 21, though he’d seen almost nonstop combat from the first wave of the Sicilian invasion to the end of the war outside of Munich two years later. An orphan who grew up on a hardscrabble Texas panhandle farm during the dust bowl depression, he’d volunteered for the Marines as soon as he’d turned 18. “Too small,” said the recruiter to the scrawny, baby-faced young man. So he volunteered for the Airborne, and was again rejected. “Too small, Murphy.” And he was small, but he wanted to fight – to fight for his country, and perhaps, to fight to prove that he wasn’t really too small after all.
Having failed to enlist in the two “fightingest” units of the American military, Murphy joined the Infantry. He arrived in North Africa right before the end, but the Germans and Italians surrendered the day he was going into the line to see combat for the first time, forcing him to wait for Sicily two months later.
There isn’t an ounce of braggadocio in Audie Murphy’s chronicle of war, and though he was scarcely educated, even by the standards of the day, he wrote his unpretentious memoirs in the most literate and evocative style I’ve encountered. All of those fabled “writers” who went off to war, seeking to learn some deep inner truth and share it with the world, how they must have envied Murphy’s honest, moving words.
Within minutes of landing on Sicily, his unit took their first fatality, courtesy of German artillery – and from the start, Murphy began learning the lessons that kept him alive. He realized that the dead man had let his guard down, and in two years of hard fighting, Murphy never did.
In combat, Murphy soon had to fight two opposing forces – the need and want to be close to the men who shared life and death with him, and the need to remain distant from men who were doomed to die or be disfigured or dismembered. Not one of the men Murphy landed with in Sicily were still in combat with him when his war ended in the occupation of Munich. He lost so much – but he did not lose his soul. He indeed went to Hell and Back, but the important thing is, he did come back.
As a soldier, Murphy was a hard man. He knew that a wounded German was a dangerous German, and if they would not surrender, he had no qualms about shooting them as often as he needed to until the risk went away. He could never forget that his best friend was gut-shot and murdered as he stood to take the surrender of eight German soldiers – men whose fanaticism was such that they’d betray that most basic of trusts, the one that allowed men to surrender to others who’d just tried to kill them – and whom they’d just tried to kill. An instinctive shot, he seldom had to shoot them very often. But he was not a war criminal, or a murderer in any sense of the word. Germans who surrendered to him were treated honorably and well, and the wounded he took prisoner got the same rough-but-gentle medical care as did his own men.
Yet he was also a gentle man. For those of his comrades who – after all the heroism and courage they could give – cracked under artillery fire, or after the sight of one more friend eviscerated by a German mortar shell, Murphy was solicitous, understanding and caring. One man, who couldn’t bear to be thought a coward, kept cracking, and being evacuated, then coming back. To save his friend, Murphy called the Colonel and read him the riot act about sending this man back. Lieutenants did not read Colonels the riot act, but to save a friend who’d given more than he’d had to give, Murphy would fight bureaucracy as sternly and as effectively as he’d fight the Germans.
In combat, Murphy earned 22 medals, including the Medal of Honor. Yet the reader is left to guess which distinctive action won him that highest medal. My bet is the time he mounted the rear deck of a burning and abandoned American Tank Destroyer – a kind of thin-skinned tank with no roof on the turret, but with a bigger main gun than could be carried by a more heavily armored tank. On the turret’s top was mounted a .50 caliber heavy machine gun, and standing with smoke swirling around him, and open flames warming his feet for the first time all winter, Murphy single-handedly stopped a German counter-attack. They could never find him to shoot him, for the simple reason that no sane man would stand on the back of a burning TD, one packed with heavy artillery shells and filled with hundreds of gallons of high-test gasoline, all seconds away from fireballing.
But there were at least a half-dozen other incidents that could have won him that most honored of medals, and the reader is left to guess, and to wonder, because Audie Murphy never gives a hint.
In the bitter winter of 1944, while facing down fanatical Germans in the Vosges Mountains on the border between Germany, France and Switzerland, Murphy was shot – apparently the only serious wound he received. He says he was shot in the hip, though his comrades joked that he’d gotten shot in the ass. It took him three days to move from front line to aid station to field hospital, and by that time his wound had infected and turned gangrenous. Doctors had to pump him full of antibiotics and carve away the dead, necrotic flesh as the gangrene ate it, for two full months. This living hell was dismissed in a short paragraph, a few evocative but uncomplaining sentences. All we do know is that, as soon as he could, two months from being shot, he was back in the line, freezing off what the Germans had failed to shoot off.
There were no easy battles for Murphy. Some consider Sicily a cake-walk, but Murphy lost his first friend within minutes of going ashore. Nobody considered Salerno, or the Gustav line, or Anzio a cake-walk, but many considered the invasion of the South of France to be a walk in the park. I should have known better – in 1973, right out of college, I worked with a man who’d won the Congressional Medal of Honor in the South of France when, as a sergeant, and after all of the unit’s officers had been killed, he held together a company of Americans who’d been cut off and surrounded – and held them together as he’d held off the Germans for a week before relief came. This wasn’t Murphy, this was a man I’d known.
So I knew – or should have – that the late-summer 1944 invasion of the Riviera on the South of France wasn’t easy, or safe. It was in France that Murphy paid the highest price in lost friends – those few who were left from the men who’d left North Africa for Sicily 13 months before – of the entire war. It was made more poignant because there were so few left, and because even the replacements of the replacements of the replacements were now so few in number.
At the time that Murphy’s unit breached the Siegfried Line and entered Germany, Murphy had been taken out of combat and assigned as a courier, running messages between the Division’s rear-echelon headquarters. He was safe, secure, and … and he ordered his driver to take him as close to the line as possible. Then dismounting, he walked through the Dragon’s Teeth and bunkers until he found what was left of his own company, cowering in a ditch, as demoralized as he’d ever seen them. Standing on top of the trench, in full view of any Germans who’d cared to look, he cajoled and prodded and kicked and cajoled again, and got the remnant of that battle-shocked company out of their safe trench and on the march. Then he led them through the rest of the Siegfried Line and into Germany. Once they’d accomplished their assigned task – only because of his leadership – he left them and marched back, unprotected, unafraid and unharmed, through the Siegfried Line, back to his jeep, and back to headquarters. They’d never missed him.
Soon enough, he was back with his beloved company, leading them as part of the tidal wave that swept through Germany in the last 8 weeks of war. Finally, he was given a furlough, and was on a train heading for the French Riviera when V-E Day was announced. And it was in France that he forced himself to abandon cynicism and embrace the return of life – and to complete the journey he took, the journey to Hell and Back.
It would take a wonderful book to do justice to this hero’s war, and I encourage you to read it, one of the best and most evocative war books I’ve read in more than fifty years of reading war books. I grew up in that generation just after the war; I remember a legless friend of my father’s coming over to use our backyard swimming pool for exercise. I can still see him – though the last time I saw him was the summer after the first grade – unbuckling his artificial legs, apparently unselfconsciously, crab-walking across the patio and plunging into the water. I can still remember my uncle, whose ship had been Stuka’d in the Med – the scars of shrapnel and fire still mark his face to this day. My father never told me of the four Kamikazes which had attacked his ship (or the one that hit – then bounced off – before exploding). Men of that generation, those who didn’t write books, didn’t talk much about the war. But as a kid, I saw the evidence of war carved into the bodies and faces of men I’d grown up around. I have a sense of what they went through.
But Murphy leaves no doubt. He saw no glory, no heroism worth banners and bugles, though a grateful nation showered him with awards he never even mentioned. He did his duty, led his men, fought his battles, defeated his foes and did his part to win the war and protect the country he so clearly loved. His book tells this story, and it is worthwhile.
After the war, the unquestionably handsome Audie Murphy became a Hollywood film star – even playing himself in the movie adaptation of his memoir. Surely, that must have been surreal. And tragically, after surviving all that the Germans had thrown at him, Audie Murphy was killed in a plane crash in 1971. He was just 46.
That fact brought to mind another soldier – a paratrooper named Carter – who also began his war in Sicily, also fought in Italy and France and Germany – and who died of cancer, of all things, just a year or two after the war ended. Before he died – before, I presume, he knew that he would die, Carter wrote an unforgettable book, “Those Devils in Baggy Pants.” That was a story of paratroopers, of men Audie Murphy was too scrawny to join. Each man gave his all, and it was enough to defeat Germany, but not enough to live in peace for generations after the war ended. They were all heroes, but none more consistently and effectively heroic than Audie Murphy, who fought for his country, gave his all more times than I could count, and indeed, went to Hell and Back.
Friday, July 31, 2009
Recently, I got into two unconnected discussions about Ulysses S. Grant, the first Lieutenant General in the US Army after George Washington, and the 18th President of the United States - and I've concluded that Grant has an image problem - a PR challenge for the ages.
As a General, many 20th and 21st century historians consider Grant a "butcher" for the way he won the Civil War, though the facts don't bear this out. As a President, Grant has often been considered both ineffectual as a leader and an amiable dupe of a group of corrupt men who stole the country blind while Grant presided in serene ignorance of their perfidy. Again, however, the facts don't bear this out.
Both of these charges were, in my opinion, politically motivated during Grant's lifetime for short-term political advantage by those who would attack his presidency, or by Confederates "smarting" over the way this uncouth commoner could have consistently whipped that epitome of the aristocratic Southern Gentleman, Robert E. Lee. More later on how and why latter-day historians came to the same unsubstantiated conclusions.
In the bloodiest war in US history, General Grant was remarkably economical of his soldiers' lives, and he felt their loss keenly (he was also "economical" of his enemies' lives - eager to end the war before more Americans from either side had to die). Grant fought but one battle where loss of life was excessive and preventable, and he never forgot that horror - or those bitter lessons - of Cold Harbor. Still, fewer soldiers died at Cold Harbor than died in Lee's last throw of the dice at Gettysburg (Pickett's Charge) or at Lee's own successful charge on Malvern Hill during the Peninsula (Seven Days) campaign. And of course, Lee presided over Antietam (or, to the South, the battle of Sharpsburg) - the bloodiest one day in American History.
Both of these great men felt their losses deeply, but in the cauldron of war, it was inevitable that each would have made mistakes that cost mens' lives. It is instructive that while Lee had relatively few of those awful days - Grant had only one day of disastrous casualties. Yet it is Lee who is remembered for the care in which he husbanded his troops - perhaps because he was more public with his feelings - while the more stoic but no less feeling Grant is unjustly smeared with the title "Butcher."
Lincoln, who deeply felt each American death (North and South), respected Grant as he respected no other man - and Lincoln was personally unable to support any man who was a "butcher." Once, when Grant's opponents in the war department snivelingly came to Lincoln claiming that Grant was a drunk (a calumny based on a bout of depression Grant experienced in the mid-1850s while he was in California in Army service, forced to be separated for years from his wife and children), Lincoln said, in effect, "What brand does he drink? I want to send a case to every one of my Generals."
While Grant was leading the Union Army during the last two years of the war, Lincoln was - along with Grant's home-town Congressman and friend, Elihu Washburn - Grant's strongest advocate. Lincoln was shrewd judge of character - he defended those, like Grant, who had the highest personal integrity, coupled with military effectiveness. And that support from Lincoln says more than anything else about Grant the man, and about Grant the General.
As a peacemaker, there was no-one more generous than Grant. For example, when Lee surrendered, Grant immediately ordered that Lee's men be fed from the Union's own stock of rations (not the typical action of a bloodthirsty conqueror). Further, out of respect, he ordered that Confederate officers - rather than going to prison for treason and rebellion - could keep their swords and sidearms (and their self-respect), and that all Confederates - regardless of their rank - could take their horses and mules home to facilitate the Spring planting.
Finally, in that surrender document, Grant specifically forbade the US government from arresting or prosecuting any surrendered Confederate for his role in the war, with that amnesty remaining in force for as long as that Confederate abided by the terms of the surrender (basically, to not take up arms and fight the American government anymore). This latter provision tied the hands of those in Washington who wanted to try and execute General Lee, at the very least.
As a President, Grant brought to an end the shameful "reconstruction" era in the South, and insisted that Southerners were once again Americans, with all the rights, privileges and obligations of American citizens. He was also the first president to specifically (and deeply) care about the fate of the Indians in America - he took positive steps to stop the war on the plains and bring an honorable peace between settlers and Indians, and to ensure their long-term protection of (and role in) America.
This wasn't a "new" position - on Grant's wartime staff, at a very high level, was an officer who was a full-blooded Native American - a man Grant treated as he did every other officer on his staff. This at a time when there was not only strong racial prejudice against Indians, but also at a time when the only Indians formally participating in the Civil War were Cherokees fighting on behalf of the Confederacy against the Union in the "trans-Mississippi" theater of operations (Arkansas, Missouri, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoman Territory).
Grant was equally concerned with the fates of former slaves, putting the full force of the Federal Government (including the Army) behind ensuring that these men, women and children had the rights of American citizens, fighting the rising tide that led, shortly after Grant's death, to the widespread adoption of Jim Crow laws. He had been one of the first (and relatively few) Union advocates of enlisting and arming "contrabands" - former slaves - during the war, and giving them the same status as white soldiers. This might seem all the more remarkable because Grant was no abolitionist and had even (briefly) owned a few slaves - gifts from his father-in-law, who was a prominent Missouri slave-holder. It's my personal belief that Grant's brief and painful experience owning another human being turned him against slavery and reinforced his view that all men were equal before God and should be equal before the bar of justice.
Grant did much that was good as President - so much so that he had to actively refuse a "draft" to make him the first American president to serve three consecutive terms (and if he'd accepted this draft, he would have won hands-down - he was that popular). He was also courted to run again after his successor's first term as President, and would have won had he run. In short, his fellow citizens - North and South - honored him despite the scandals (common to all Administrations in the era between Andrew Johnson and William McKinley) that never touched him. Nobody who knew him questioned his integrity - his biggest flaw was that he trusted men who'd once proved trustworthy, but who (tempted by money or power - usually money) had failed to live up to that trust. That is hardly the worst sin a sitting American President has committed.
Grant was a man of immense integrity and deep personal responsibility. Upon learning that he had throat cancer - the byproduct of his habit of smoking a dozen or more cigars every day - and knowing that he wouldn't be there to support his beloved Julia, Grant set out to write his autobiography, something his natural modesty had kept him from doing until necessity over-rode humility. It was and is one of the most honest and objective (and remarkably well-written) autobiographies I've ever encountered - certainly it stands head and shoulders above the rest of the General officers' autobiographies coming out of the Civil War.
To make this book happen, a Missourian and Southern sympathizer (though not a combatant) named Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) created a publishing company and borrowed against everything he owned to ensure the publication of this remarkable work - and he did this all long before a word had even been written. If that book had failed, Clemens would have been ruined - but thanks to the generous advance he had given to Grant, Mrs. Grant would have been provided for even if the book failed - though it turned out to be a huge best-seller. Grant finished this book barely two days before he died, and that honest work of self-exploration is a worthy monument to a great man's memory.
When Grant died, the largest parade in American' history was held, in New York City, to honor his passing. This funeral parade was decades after the Civil War, and more than a dozen years after Grant had last served as President - yet Americans, including tens of thousands of Americans not yet born when the Civil War ended, came out in unprecedented numbers to honor his memory. Leading that parade in Manhattan was a group of Confederate veterans - wearing the Gray one more time - honoring the man who defeated them in battle, but who then treated them so honorably and compassionately in victory that Grant stood higher in the minds of these ex-Confedrates than many of their own Generals and leaders.
When Grant's autobiography came out, it became the best-selling book in American history - except for the bible - which was and remains far and away the best-seller in American history. The public, though Grant was now beyond honoring, still poured out their love and regard for this brave and great man by buying his book in record numbers.
The judgment by those who knew him during his lifetime - and the judgment of the people he served and those who fought against him - was clear. Grant was a great general, a President of no mean accomplishment, and a man of the highest personal standards. Lincoln judged him the best man in uniform on either side of the war, and Lincoln had been burnt so often by his generals that he was not eager to praise any one of them. The people judged him as a President worthy of an unprecedented third term - and in death, long after he was out of the limelight, Grant was again honored as no other President has been who was not assassinated in office.
It was only a generation after Grant's passing that revisionist historians began to tarnish his name and reputation. They were eager for something new to say, and as a result they were equally eager to give life to the worst calumnies of Grant's contemporary political opponents. Being academics, they were eager to "say something new" so they could get published and earn tenure. For all the wrong reasons, these men, who were not worthy to polish Grant's mud-stained boots, began grinding away at this great man's reputation. With no contemporaries left to defend Grant, with no academics "with a dog in the fight" to dispute the lies, those lies stuck.
None of these calumnies, of course, were true, but "dish" is generally more salable than honesty and integrity. Fortunately, and more recently, yet another generation of historians have looked at Grant - this time through documents and statistics, and through the perceptions of those who knew him best. In doing so, they have once again completely revised "history's assessment" of Grant as General and as President, finding him to be worthy of admiration rather than condemnation, respect rather than contempt - yet to the public, his image is still tarnished, his name as mud-stained as his combat boots.
Which brings us back to the original question - what can be done to restore this great and good man's reputation in the face of generations of ignorance imposed on Americans by scholars' self-serving assessments and public schools' parroting of those assessments? Perhaps this blog post is a start.
Wednesday, December 31, 2008
The British Secret Weapon ... of the Revolutionary War - a Breach-loading Rifle 80 years ahead of it's time ...
This is a guest column, written by Bob Shaver and published in "Patent Pending" blog: http://patentpending.blogs.com/
It is reprinted here, with permission
The British Secret Weapon of the Revolutionary War
The British in the American Revolutionary War had their own secret weapon, the Ferguson breech loading rifle. This was designed by Patrick Ferguson, then a Captain in the British army, and patented in England in 1777. It had a threaded cylinder attached to the trigger guard, with steeply pitched threads that allowed one twist of the trigger guard to open the breech for insertion of a ball and powder. In tests conducted before the Army officials, the rifle proved that it could shoot 6 shots per minute and reliably hit a target 200 yards away. This was far superior to the standard issue smooth bore musket, the Brown Bess. The barrel of the Ferguson rifle was rifled, which contributed greatly to its accuracy.
Following conservative advice, only 200 of the rifles were commissioned. These were used by troops personally trained and commanded by Captain Ferguson. He was wounded at Brandywine, and his core of riflemen was disbanded, and their remarkable weapons stored in a warehouse.
After recovering from his wound, Major Ferguson was put in command of British and Tory forces in South Carolina, where his forces developed a reputation for killing civilians and prisoners. Under Major Ferguson’s command, a force of 1100 British regulars and Tories trained in British field tactics traveled the frontier of South Carolina fighting militias, and forcing settlers to join the Tory army and swear allegiance. When Ferguson threatened to go over the Blue Ridge Mountains to eradicate the refuges of fleeing militiamen there, the leaders of remote “over mountain” settlements decided to mount a force to confront Ferguson, and many small groups of frontiersmen headed for Ferguson’s last known position for a battle.
From a force of 1400 men, the backwoodsmen sent their fastest 900 men, some mounted and some on foot, to catch up to Ferguson as he headed back to Cornwallis' main force. The frontiersmen were all armed with the Pennsylvania rifle, later called the Kentucky rifle. Hearing of the approaching force, Ferguson’s force of 1100 took position on King’s Mountain, and dug in for a fight.
The Whig riflemen and their Kentucky rifles were not equipped for a bayonet charge, and whenever faced with one they fell back. However, shooting from behind rocks and trees, they poured murderous fire from long distance into the British and Tory positions. Some British positions were found with a pile of several men each with a bullet hole in his forehead, killed when they peered around the same rock one after another. Ferguson was killed in the fight, and had seven bullets in him. In an hour of fighting, 225 British were killed and 28 frontiersmen were killed.
Shooting downhill, it is thought that the British over shot their targets. Shooting uphill, the frontiersmen and their Kentucky rifles carried the day, and ended the British efforts in the South. Although the Ferguson rifle was not used on King's Mountain, the death of Ferguson ended its use and further development, and a breech loading rifle was not successful for another 80 years, in the U.S. Civil War.
Other Revolutionary War era technology is posted at:The Turtle Submarine
Friday, April 4, 2008
Recently, Pat Buchanan fired the first volley in the next great debate on “The Good War” – World War II – in his column in Human Events. He critiqued pacifist Nicholson Baker’s new book challenging the virtue of World War II – then makes his own (different) case for why “The Good War” was nothing of the kind. While he raised some interesting points and drew some challenging conclusions, we’ll have to wait for Mr. Buchanan’s new book, “Churchill, Hitler and 'The Unnecessary War,” due out next month.
I’ll reserve judgment on that book until I can read it, but I took the opportunity on the Human Events website to take issue with some of Mr. Buchanan’s conclusions. Here is his column and my reply:
Was It 'The Good War'?
Published in Human Events 4/4/08
"Yes, it was a good war," writes Richard Cohen in his column challenging the thesis of pacifist Nicholson Baker in his new book, "Human Smoke," that World War II produced more evil than good.
Baker's compelling work, which uses press clips and quotes of Axis and Allied leaders as they plunged into the great cataclysm, is a virtual diary of the days leading up to World War II.
Riveting to this writer was that Baker uses some of the same episodes, sources and quotes as this author in my own book out in May, "Churchill, Hitler and 'The Unnecessary War.'"
On some points, Cohen is on solid ground. There are things worth fighting for: God and country, family and freedom. Martyrs have ever inspired men. And to some evils pacifism is no answer. Resistance, even unto death, may be required of a man.
But when one declares a war that produced Hiroshima and the Holocaust a "Good War," it raises a question: good for whom?
Britain declared war on Sept. 3, 1939, to preserve Poland. For six years, Poland was occupied by Nazi and Soviet armies and SS and NKVD killers. At war's end, the Polish dead were estimated at 6 million. A third of Poland had been torn away by Stalin, and Nazis had used the country for the infamous camps of Treblinka and Auschwitz.
Fifteen thousand Polish officers had been massacred at places like Katyn. The Home Army that rose in Warsaw at the urging of the Red Army in 1944 had been annihilated, as the Red Army watched from the other side of the Vistula. When the British celebrated V-E day in May 1945, Poland began 44 years of tyranny under the satraps of Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev.
Was World War II "a good war" for the Poles?
Was it a good war for Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, overrun by Stalin's army in June 1940, whose people saw their leaders murdered or deported to the Gulag never to return? Was it a good war for the Finns who lost Karelia and thousands of brave men dead in the Winter War?
Was it a good war for Hungarians, Czechs, Yugoslavs, Rumanians and Albanians who ended up behind the Iron Curtain? In Hungary, it was hard to find a women or girl over 10 who had not been raped by the "liberators" of the Red Army. Was it a good war for the 13 million German civilians ethnically cleansed from Central Europe and the 2 million who died in the exodus?
Was it a good war for the French, who surrendered after six weeks of fighting in 1940 and had to be liberated by the Americans and British after four years of Vichy collaboration?
And how good a war was it for the British?
They went to war for Poland, but Winston Churchill abandoned Poland to Stalin. Defeated in Norway, France, Greece, Crete and the western desert, they endured until America came in and joined in the liberation of Western Europe.
Yet, at war's end in 1945, Britain was bled and bankrupt, and the great cause of Churchill's life, preserving his beloved empire, was lost. Because of the "Good War" Britain would never be great again.
And were the means used by the Allies, the terror bombing of Japanese and German cities, killing hundreds of thousands of women and children, perhaps millions, the marks of a "good war"?
Cohen contends that the evil of the Holocaust makes it a "good war." But the destruction of the Jews of Europe was a consequence of this war, not a cause. As for the Japanese atrocities like the Rape of Nanking, they were indeed horrific.
But America's smashing of Japan led not to freedom for China, but four years of civil war followed by 30 years of Maoist madness in which 30 million Chinese perished.
For America, the war was Pearl Harbor and Midway, Anzio and Iwo Jima, Normandy and Bastogne, days of glory leading to triumph and the American Century.
But for Joseph Stalin, it was also a good war. From his pact with Adolf Hitler he annexed parts of Finland and Rumania, and three Baltic republics. His armies stood in Berlin, Prague and Vienna; his agents were vying for power in Rome and Paris; his ally was installed in North Korea; his protégé, Mao, was about to bring China into his empire. But it was not so good a war for the inmates of Kolyma or the Russian POWs returned to Stalin in Truman's Operation Keelhaul.
Is a war that replaces Hitler's domination of Europe with Stalin's and Japan's rule in China with Mao's a "good war"? We had to stop the killers, says Cohen. But who were the greater killers: Hitler or Stalin, Tojo or Mao Zedong?
Can a war in which 50 million perished and the Christian continent was destroyed, half of it enslaved, a war that has advanced the death of Western civilization, be truly celebrated as a "good war"?
I share your enthusiasm for history - I've been fortunate enough to have been on the History Channel on eight occasions and to have had published a number of articles on history (including one in Newsweek Japan in defense of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings - not for the carnage they caused, but for the perhaps 10 million Japanese starvation deaths they prevented). So I read your column with more than a little interest.
I have no use for "pacifism" as a philosophy - the world is too harsh a place to stand idly by singing Kumbaya while the wolves howl at the door. But you raise the issue of the worth of World War II from a non-pacifistic position, and I think your views are therefore worth serious consideration. I have long bought into the "Good War" theory, all the while wondering how Churchill could sell out Poland (after going to war to preserve that too-frequently-conquered country); how Roosevelt could barter away Eastern Europe at Yalta (though much of that was acknowledging a fait accompli); how Truman could "Keelhaul" millions of reluctant-to-return Soviet citizens held in Nazi POW camps even when he had reason to believe that they were being sent to their death or long-term imprisonment (it was no secret that Stalin's USSR considered all surrendering troops as traitors unless proven otherwise). It seems that, except for Italy (our enemy) and Western Europe (including our other enemy, West Germany), the "Good War" was indeed not very good. While we freed half a continent, as you pointed out, we liberated the other half of the continent from Hitlerism only to consign them to nearly half a century of Stalinism.
So I'd like to acknowledge that you are, in part, echoing some of my own thoughts and musings.
But I have to take issue with some items and assumptions you make (though acknowledging that your book may address them).
While I am horrified by Japan's excesses, it's true that the ultimate result of World War II in the Pacific was Mao's China (not to mention Kim's North Korea and Ho's North Vietnam). However, unlike Europe, that was neither the goal nor the initial outcome. We supported Nationalist Chiang against the Japanese (and allowed him to keep his lend-lease materials and US advisors to fight Mao after the war). Unlike Eastern Europe, we didn't want a Communist China and didn't agree to it by treaty. However, a war-weary America and a too-accommodating Truman didn't NOT want a Communist China badly enough to fight for it (and perhaps fight Stalin for it - a land-war in Asia we could have only won by resorting to massive use of tactical nuclear weapons). But in the Pacific, we fought for the defeat of a fascist-like ultra-nationalism and a return to a status quo ante that, while not liberating the colonial countries (except our own - we kept our word to the Philippines), we did fight for freedom in China. It's not our fault (the way Poland and Eastern Europe are our fault) that China couldn't keep that freedom. In the Pacific, we did fight the Good Fight - and I contend that even Hiroshima was justified in the awful arithmetic of total war (as I contended in my Newsweek Japan article last summer).
It's not so clear in Europe, you are correct in that. However, if we (after December 11, when Hitler declared war on us - not the other way around) and Britain on September 3, 1939 (and France before June 1940) had sat idly by and let Hitler have his way, he might well have ignored the West (at least at first) and focused on replacing Stalinism in all of Eastern Europe and Central Asia with Hitlerism - a fascism supported, as Churchill said, by a perverted science.
Left to his own devices, and with the incredible brainpower of Germany's scientists at his beck and call, Hitler might have become the world's only nuclear power (we certainly wouldn't have had the Manhattan Engineering Project without the impetus of World War II - and who knows what he might have done.
You can maintain that we should not deal in "what if" speculation about a future Europe with Hitler in sole command of everything from the Rhine to the Urals (including the oil-rich Caucuses and the food-rich and metal ore-rich Ukraine) - but I think you use that same "what if" logic in blaming Communist China on our "Good War" effort to defeat Japan. We freed China - not knowing that a Soviet-backed Mao would, four years down the line, make a mockery of that freedom. And if we'd given Hitler a free hand, he might well have become the sole world nuclear power by that same 1949.
In such a world, and if Hitler's success had altered the flow of the Pacific's pre-war policies, Japan might have avoided war with the West (after all, in a peaceful Europe, the colonial powers would not have been preoccupied - a major impetus for Japan's warlike approach to 1941. In that case, Japan might have likewise come to control resource-rich Siberia, giving the world two dark superpowers with no-one strong enough to stand against them.
Given Hitler's empire-building proclivity, and his often-stated desire to punish the West (eventually) for World War I, a nuclear Germany might have indeed become a nuclear power, and used nuclear blackmail to control Europe - and to intimidate America. While we had the stomach to fight back against Japan (and to take on Hitler as part of a coalition once he'd declared war on us), would we have faced him alone, knowing that our seaboard-hugging cities with their tens of millions of Americans were at risk of a nuclear holocaust we could not answer? I think not.
Taking this further, I do not think that Hitler's empire could have survived him, any more than Alexander's survived the world's first "Great" conqueror. So perhaps this is all moot.
I look forward to your book, Mr. Buchanan, and I look forward to the vigorous debate in defense of America's (and the West's) role in World War II that is sure to follow. Could we have had the "Greatest Generation" without a "Good War?" Probably not - so those old warriors, and the generations that followed, will be sure to challenge your views.
All the best
Saturday, March 1, 2008
Ned Barnett © 2008
This column was written for my "Barnett on PR and Politics" blog, but it applies so well to history that I'm cross-posting it here. In it - rather than looking at a particular political PR tactic and examining the strategy behind it - looks at the so-called "war" in Iraq, and examine what may be the real strategy behind America's continued presence in the Middle East.
Is it a "War" We're In, In Iraq?
First, before we answer that perennial rock-and-roll question, we have to ask, are we at war? We call it a war on terrorism, but we also refer to efforts to stop the massive import of illicit drugs into the US “the war on drugs” – and that’s clearly not a war (and not particularly effective, either).
Frankly, as a life-long military historian, I don't consider what we've got in Iraq or Afghanistan a "war" - or even much of a skirmish. More Americans in the same age cohorts as our uniformed and deployed soldiers die in domestic auto accidents each year than die in the Middle East. This suggests (oddly, but factually) that it's safer to be in uniform in the so-called “war zone” than it is to be out of uniform here in the US (and since I lost a military-aged son to a traffic accident you can be assured that I've checked those stats carefully).
What we have is an occupation, not a war – a damned expensive occupation, to be sure, but an occupation. It has more in common with our presence in Korea since 1953 than it does with any active combat America has seen since the period from 1781 (when we defeated the British at Yorktown) and 1783 (when the peace treaty was finally signed, sealed and delivered). Our Middle East presence today has a fair amount in common with the low-level of military activity that characterized the Pax Brittanica during the latter half of Queen Victoria’s reign (excepting that we don’t have an empire and aren’t trying to create one) – it’s an armed peace, rather than a real war.
Why Are We Still There?
However, we generally perceive it as a war, if only because such a high percentage of our uniformed military is on active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan (as well as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates). But there's one glaring fact that most Americans – and apparently most of the American media – don't seem to realize (or if they appreciate it, to embrace the implications of this glaring fact). In recent discussion with uniformed reserve unit commanders, I have confirmed that a numerical majority of our deployed forces are serving in this “war zone” in non-combat roles - primarily "hearts-and-minds" kinds of activities, rather than in the combat roles most Americans assume they’re involved with.
While (as a personal note) I think this kind of civil affairs activities – rebuilding schools and bridges, digging wells, providing medical services, even training local police and militia forces – could all be accomplished more easily by hired civilians than by our uniformed soldiers, I don’t think this will happen. To be sure, such a transition would free our soldiers for military activities and dramatically reduce our military “footprint” in this part of the world. However, these civil affairs activities are carried out – and will continued to be carried out – by the military, in part because these civil affairs “hearts-and-minds” kinds of activities get budgeted out as "war" expenses. Which is nonsense, but it is nonetheless politically-expedient for both sides, so the charade will continue.
War opponents want to keeps soldiers performing civil affairs activities because the larger military presence this requires creates a larger target – they can cite the hundreds of thousands of soldiers and other uniformed personnel “in-country,” as well as the hundreds of billions of dollars required to keep them there, as reasons for opposing our continued presence. A small, economical military force made up solely of war-fighters would be a much smaller, much less significant target.
Why are We Really There?
On the other side, the pro-war leadership wants to keep the largest American footprint possible in Iraq and Afghanistan, even if the uniformed troopers are performing non-combat and even non-military functions. Why? Because their presence there provides for regional stability by keeping Syria’s President Bashar Al-Asad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from exercising their stated desire to destroy Israel … and in the process, our armed forces in the Middle East prevent a nuclear exchange the world can ill-afford.
Sound far-fetched? Well, listen more closely. With Ahmadinejad busily crafting nukes – or at least the capability for quickly creating and deploying nukes – and with his frequent and public threats against Israel, our forces in the Middle East are the best single means of defense against a nuclear exchange. Ahmadinejad knows that if he uses nuclear weapons in an area where the US has deployed forces, he’s inviting a massive nuclear retaliation – that has always been the US policy when facing WMDs, and it’s not likely to change regardless of who’s President.
If America dismantles our “buffer” presence and leaves the Middle East, and if Ahmadinejad gets strong enough, Israel – if it wants to continue to exist – will feel compelled to pull a 1967-like preemptive war or a 1981-style preemptive strike. Remember, it was on June 7, 1981 that Israel warplanes struck at Saddam Hussain’s Osirak nuclear facility – preventing that dictator from creating nuclear weapons and sparing the world from a regional nuclear war in the 20th century.
At that time, Iraq had but a single nuclear facility and Israel had attack aircraft and conventional weapons with enough range and striking power to take that facility out. Today, Iran has more than 50 nuclear program-related sites, some buried below the level that any conventional weapon can reach. If America abandons this region, all that Israel will have with which to take out Ahmadinejad’s nuclear capability are their own (unacknowledged – but nonetheless real) nuclear weapons.
President Bush knows this, though of course – after his failure to turn up WMDs in Iraq – he’s not going to trumpet it publicly. Hillary Clinton knows this – when Bill was President they faced the same issue, though with Saddam Hussain instead of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and reacted by instituting periodic air attacks that kept Saddam destabilized and relatively impotent. Retired warrior John McCain has surely figured this out – it’s a latter-day example of nuclear brinksmanship that constituted our military strategy when he was in the service.
Barack Obama could be forgiven for not having made the connection – as a very junior Senator, he wouldn’t have access to the inside strategy, and as someone primarily focused on domestic politics, he may not have looked behind the curtain to see what the Wizard was really up to. However, as America gears up for its next election – with Iraq as a potentially decisive issue – all the candidates need to consider the regional and strategic “real reason” why are troops are there, nation-building in the Middle East and maintaining a “force in being” deterrent to a devastating regional nuclear war.
These candidates – as well as the media and the voting public – should keep in mind that, as expensive as is our current presence is in the Middle East, whatever the stated PR reasons for our presence, we are really there (or at least also there) to prevent the world’s first nuclear exchange since 1945. Considering Middle Eastern oil and its role in the world economy, this is one nuclear exchange that the world really can't afford – but (absent our presence) it is also one nuclear exchange that the world can't stop. We, alone, have the strength of arms and – at least for the present – the strength of will to remain in a buffer position in Iraq and Afghanistan, just as we have served for 55 years along the DMZ in Korea.
Here’s the bottom line: Whatever our stated intent, we prevent a real nuclear war between Iran and Israel just by being there.
Remember, you heard it here first.
Friday, February 1, 2008
By Ned Barnett
Welcome - this site, Speaking of History, will be used to help me "tell the story" of history - primarily Military History (but we'll get into political and social history as well) based on my many published (and forthcoming) military history articles and books, my public speaking before groups interested in history - and based on my repeat appearances on The History Channel as what they call a "Historical Expert."
History is my passion. Explaining and making relevant history to groups of interested laymen - through my writings, via the History Channel, or one-on-one at speaking engagements - is one way that I share my passion with others. In addition, I've been publishing articles on primarily Military History since the early 70s (my first while I was still in college) and giving talks on history for more than 25 years. I'm currently working on three historical projects - an "alternate history" on Pearl Harbor, a novel about submarine warfare off the Philippines at the start of World War II, and a scholarly article on aerial combat over Guadalcanal in 1942.
I specialize in making history come alive - and making history relevant - for those who are interested in history but don't see how history relates to their lives today; and I strive to do so in an entertaining fashion that holds my audiences' attention. If you want to read about history in a new way, an entertaining and informative and relevant fashion, this blog is for you (as are my published articles and my forthcoming books about submarine warfare in the Philippines in 1941 and and "alternate history" of Pearl Harbor - a what-if that I think captures the real American leadership failure that helped cost thousands of lives and helped prolong the war in the Pacific by the better part of a year.
Beyond that, if you need a good and entertaining author or speaker who can make history come alive, give me a shout - I'll be glad to help.
Ned Barnett - 702-696-1200 - firstname.lastname@example.org
Commentary by Ned Barnett
Joe Foss was a poor kid from South Dakota, growing up in the Depression, when his dad died.
He had a dream, though - he'd met Charles Lindbergh in 1928 and seen a Marine Fighter Squadron barnstorming through his neck of the prairie in 1930 - and that dream required college - a tough act for a poor orphaned kid, but he managed to do it, earning both a bachelor of business administration and a private pilot's license.
His dream was to be a Marine aviator - but in those pre-war days, the odds against even qualified applicants were two in 100 - he hitchhiked 300 miles to Minneapolis, took the test with 100 young men, and was one of the two.
After completing training and a 9-month tour as an instructor (something only the best trainee pilots were assigned - and few liked) he was assigned to an observation squadron (aka "target") in San Diego instead of a fighter squadron - but he noticed that a lot of trainee aviators were "buying the farm" - he went to the base commander (a Navy Commander who hated Marines) and offered to trade duty as "funeral officer" for stick-time in a fighter. In three months, he racked up more than 150 hours in a Wildcat - that was more than 3 hours per day for 47 consecutive days (all while fulfilling his assigned duties as an observation-unit pilot AND funeral officer).
As the only carrier-qualified Marine aviator in San Diego, he was named Exec of a squadron about to sail into combat, even thought many thought of him as "the old man" - too old for fighter combat (he was 27 - average age of new fighter pilots, 23).
His first combat mission over Guadalcanal he had his engine shot out and made a "hot" dead-stick landing - but only after he'd shot down the first of many deadly Japanese Zeroes to fall under his guns.
The fourth time he was shot down, he realized that "one more and I'll be a Japanese Ace" - but by that time he'd shot down something like 19 confirmed first-line Japanese planes (mostly Zeros, piloted by the cream of the best in the Imperial Japanese Air Force - the Tainan Wing).
One time, after downing three or four Japanese fighters, combat damage to his engine forced him to ditch his Wildcat two miles of the beach of Malaita Island (about 50 or so miles from Guadalcanal). The plane sank fast, his foot caught in his seat, and before he knew it, he was 30 feet under and "breathing" seawater. Convinced he was going to die, instead of panicking, he calmed himself, figured out how to free himself and used his Mae West life preserver to get him back to the surface (breathing more seawater along the way). To tired to swim, he decided to float on his back until his strength came back - until he saw a couple of shark-fins. Then he saw a couple of canoes - convinced they were Japs looking for him, he decided to "face down" the sharks - until he heard an Australian voice and surfaced again. The next day, Major Mad Jack Cramm - the personal pilot to the Marine Air Commander (General Geiger) - taxied his PBY Catalina right up onto the beach to retrieve Foss - and two days later, he was back in combat, shooting down a couple more Japanese fighters in the process.
He finished his tour of duty with 26 confirmed kills - tying Eddie Rickenbacker (WW-I American Ace of Aces) - but unlike some self-centered Aces, Foss led a unit that fought with him - together with Foss, his flight (Foss's Flying Circus) shot down 72 confirmed enemies - literally all of those young-buck grass-green fighter pilots he'd brought into combat (except the two who didn't survive) became aces in their own right under Foss's masterful training and leadership. Aces like von Richthofen often couldn't remember the names of their wingmen - Foss made medal-bedecked aces of them.
His technique was simple - he flew so close to the enemy that he couldn't miss (of course, they couldn't, either, which is why he was nearly a Japanese ace, too) - his flight-members used to joke that he'd leave "powder burns" on his targets by holding fire until he was in slow-pitch softball range of his enemy. The results - 26 confirmed kills leading a team of eight "novice" pilots that together scored 72 confirmed kills - speak for themselves.
Amazingly, Foss did all this while flying a plane considered obsolete even before the war began (the F4F Wildcat was slower in level flight, slower in the climb and much less maneuverable than the Zero - it also had much less range). He was the highest-scoring ace in Marine history, and won the Congressional Medal of Honor - the highest award available to American servicemen (most who earn it do so posthumously).
After the war, a bureaucratic bungle denied him a "Regular" commission in the Marines - so he founded the South Dakota Air National Guard. He served in the regular Air Force in Korea, and retired a Brigadier General.
Retiring from the Guard, he became the Governor of South Dakota, the Commissioner of the American Football League, the host of two TV programs (running, together, for about 10 years) and - late in life (as in, during his 70s) he became President of the National Rifle Association.
At age 87, airport "security" in Phoenix (this was after 9/11) tried to stop him from boarding a plane for a flight to New York (where he was scheduled to address the Cadets at West Point) for carrying a "dangerous weapon" - the five-pointed star of his Congressional Medal of Honor.
What would Joe Foss do? Apparently, he laughed it off (I understand he actually let the idiot security guard live).
Now, when I'm in a tough spot, I ask myself, "what would Joe Foss do?" (hint - move in close before opening fire - never give up - never slow down - and never take "no" for an answer).