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Book Review: The Accidental Superpower by Peter Zeihan

I picked up Peter Zeihan’s The Accidental Superpower because I thought the title was interesting. I did not expect it to be as excellent a book as it is. I actually expected a dry dissertation on geopolitics. It is a dissertation on geopolitics but it is anything but dry.
The book itself is 354 pages of text including appendices and includes an introduction, epilogue, and index. It is separated into 15 thematic chapters. The first eight chapters describe the impact of geography on the human settlement and political organization. They also go over how that impact has determined which modern countries and peoples are winners and which are losers. The last seven chapters look at the present and to the future in light of energy developments in the US.

The basic premise of the book is that because of the oil shale boom in the US America will shortly abandon the Bretton Woods international trade and monetary system that has been the international order since the end of World War II. America can do that because they no longer require a secure Middle East for strategic reasons of energy supply. He does not predict, in fact he specifically refuses to predict, whether that turn will be rapid or gradual. He just claims that the turn away from Bretton Woods is inevitable for a whole host of reasons. The contention is that since America has no strategic need to maintain Bretton Woods, hey will abandon it. The consequences for the rest of the world will be many, and almost all will be significant.

The main predictions are that the EU is unsustainable in the long-term because of inherent inequalities and difference between the northern and southern tier of EU countries. Europe, China, Japan, and Russia have doomed themselves to demographic suicide because of low birth rates. China better enjoy the boom while it lasts because their current prosperity is built on an economic house of cards that must collapse sooner or later. Russia is an unstable power that must wage aggressive wars for security sooner rather than later or face national and ethnic oblivion.

All of these predictions are made within a framework composed of the unalterable facts of demography, available resources, and geography. It is an interesting argument, to say the least, and one that has much going for it. As to whether the predictions for what is coming are true, only time will tell. One of the best lines from the book is that “history is about to start up again” and that the abandonment of Bretton Woods will expose much of the present international order for the artificially forced construct that it is. Based on my own thinking I would guess that Zeihan will be at least 50% accurate in his reading of the tea leaves if not more so. I would actually guess he is closer to 75% right. We are entering interesting times indeed and the next 15-20 years are going to be a bumpy ride.

The Accidental Superpower is one of the most interesting books I have read dealing with geopolitics in a long time and even if it turns out entirely wrong provides plenty of food for thought. I recommend this book for anyone interested in geopolitics or the way in which geography and population has shaped history and the forms and identities of nations. An excellent book.

Military Nurses Save Lives and Affect the Course of History

This is a guest post and infographic about the history of nursing in the US Military.

Few careers give you the chance to have a profound impact on the course of history like nursing. Since the birth of the United States, nurses in the armed forces have made a significant impact on the lives of thousands of people. Military nurses have been caring for those dedicated to fighting for freedom since the Revolutionary War.

American Revolution

As with any war, the American Revolution brought forth an array of casualties. During the battle for independence from Britain, George Washington sought the aid of Congress in tending to the injured soldiers of the Continental Army. He knew and successfully convinced lawmakers that a victory against the Monarchy would not be possible with hundreds of injured soldiers incapable of fighting. Throughout history, male soldiers routinely provided nursing care; however, Congress approved the hiring of one woman to care for every 10 injured soldiers; this is well before nursing had become the regulated industry that it is today.

Women were initially paid $2.00 per month and one daily ration during service in the Continental Army, but the wage had risen to $8.00 by the end of 1777. According to the U.S. Army, today’s military nurses are eligible to receive a sign-on bonus of up to $30,000, little to no-cost health and dental insurance, student loan forgiveness programs — which may help alleviate up to $120,000 of debt — and 30 days of paid vacation every year.

Civil War

The outbreak of the Civil War saw an unprecedented number of men fall to fire when the Union fought the seceding Confederacy, and nurses were needed even more than during the Revolutionary War. There were still no education requirements for nurses at this time, and women, who aided in cooking and making clothes for soldiers, in addition to providing nursing care, were paid $12.00 per month. Nursing care continued to be provided by both men and women, but that would soon change.

Spanish-American War

In 1898, thousands of men perished at the hands of tropical diseases during the Spanish-American War. The U.S. Army granted a contract to 1,500 female nurses to provide help during the war, but 20 of them lost their own lives. At this point, the need for a governing agency for nurses in the military became evident, and Dr. Anita Newcomb McGee found herself drafting a bill to create the first Army Corps of Nurses in 1901, Carrington explains. The Army Corps of Nurses, which is the organization that all U.S. military nurses are a part of today, took immediate action towards regulating nursing in the military by forbidding men from performing nursing care. Seven years later, the Navy established their own Corps of Nurses as well.

World War I

As the world erupted into battle in 1917, more than 21,000 Army nurses and almost 1,500 Navy nurses joined the crusade against the Central Powers. Although 116,516 U.S. soldiers lost their lives during WWI, the number of deaths may have doubled without the care provided by these nurses, especially considering that nearly 400 nurses died from infections like the Spanish Flu. The courageous actions of nurses during WWI contributed to the passage of the Army Reorganization Act of 1920; this act recognized military nurses as holding slightly higher standing in the military than held previously.

World War II

WWII called up thousands more nurses than any battle before, approximately 74,000 women. In fact, the battle required so many more nurses than were available that the Cadet Nurse Corps sprang into existence, training 125,000 women for military service as nurses in 1943. Following WWII, military nurses were finally granted commissioned officer status, which paved the way for women to advance their careers in the military.

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Text and Graphic ©2015 by Monika Gomez

Book Review: Ring of Steel by Alexander Watson

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author and/or publisher. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I does for the Germany and Austria-Hungary what Niall Ferguson’s The Pity Of War did for the Allies in WWI.  It explains the war through the lens of the people that participated both at home and at the front and explores the ways in which the experience of war shaped the perception of the war and led to the dissolution of both empires.

The book itself is a hefty tome at first glance, it actually looks like it could serve as a doorstop in an emergency.  All told it is 788 pages and a good 2 ½ inches thick.  Much of that thickness comes from the notes and bibliography.  There are 120 pages of notes and the bibliography alone is 68 pages long.  That testifies to the depth of scholarship that went into the book.  Everything is meticulously sourced, often using primary as opposed to secondary sources.  The meat of the book is 567 pages of text consisting of an introduction, 13 chronological chapters, and an epilogue detailing the experience of war on Germany and Austria-Hungary from 1914-1918.

This is a story that to my knowledge has never been told in detail in English outside of academic journals and even there has only been told episodically covering narrow subjects.  This is the first holistic overview of the experience of war in Central Powers in World War I that am aware of, and I have been studying World War I for almost 25 years.  This is a study akin to Ferguson’s The Pity Of War in the quality of it analysis and description of life on the homefront.

One thing that is common to most World War I historiography is that homefront of the Entente powers is discussed in detail, such as things as wartime rationing, women war-workers, propaganda, and public opinion while this has been largely ignored in Germany and Austria-Hungary or at best caricatured.  This work tells that story in one place for the first time and puts a human face on the civilian population of the Central Powers.

One thing that comes out clearly is the huge difference in the ways in which Germany and Austria-Hungary responded to the stresses of war.  Watson makes an excellent point that the greater ethnic homogeneity of Germany was a large factor in German support for the war as well as the more liberal policies of the Reich in controlling information and in trying to implement a fair and equitable ration system for food.  The discussion of how the policies of the Third OHL of Hindenburg and Ludendorff backfired and led to public resentment and eventual loss of support for the war effort is very informative and confirms a suspicion that I have had for long while.  Namely, that the attempt at total coercive mobilization by the third OHL was counter-productive and that Hindenburg and Ludendorff only realized this at the eleventh hour when the only thing they could and did do was advise the Kaiser’s abdication and sue for peace.

The discussion of the myriad and various policies tried in Austria-Hungary to raise support for the war that were flawed in both conception and execution is illuminating.  The surprising thing is not that Austria managed to fight on but that they did not collapse in the first year of the war in the face of both military incompetence at the front and blatantly unfair and discriminatory policies among the multitude of ethnic communities that made up the empire.  The lack of will and basic incompetence of Emperor Franz Joseph is largely responsible for this as he did not have the strength of character to rein in the various power blocs within the empire that eventually tore it apart.  The story of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is both sad and comical at the same time.  Public support was squandered throughout the war and even activity discouraged at times.  It is almost as though Austria-Hungary was just as much at war with itself and its identity from 1914-1918 as it was with any external power and it is his internal conflict that ultimately undermined the empire and the Central Powers by sapping and wasting all the strengths of Austria and preventing the nation from gelling and prosecuting the war with anything but the basest competence and energy.

Another tale that has not been fully told until now is the way in which Germany and Austria-Hungary administered areas they conquered.  It is by turns a tale of brutality and lenience.  The one thing lacking in large part in both countries administration of occupied territory was consistency as the treatment of conquered lands and peoples changed with time and location.  Westerners were generally treated better than those in Eastern Europe but there was violence and compassion all over and much depended on the temperament and inclinations of the military governor as most governors administered their areas as independent fiefdoms to do with as they wished and mostly paid lip service to central authority.

This is an illuminating volume that tells a history that has largely been either ignored or caricatured in English historiography.  It is an outstanding book that has been scrupulously researched.  It is also surprisingly easy to read given the potential dryness of the subject.  The narrative flows and draws the reader along.  I highly recommend this book to students of World War I and indeed anyone who wants to see how the Central Powers dealt with the stresses of war on the homefront.  They will not find a better, fairer history because it has not yet been written.

Book Review: The Longest Afternoon by Brendan Simms

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author and/or publisher. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

There have been hundreds of books written about the battle of Waterloo in the last two centuries.  Most acknowledge that the defense of the two farms at La Haye Saint and Hougemont were decisive in the allied victory.  Curiously, to my knowledge there has not been a microhistory written of the actions in and around the farmhouse of La Haye Saint.  Brendan Simms has rectified that era in his new work The Longest Afternoon: The 400 Men Who Decided the Battle of Waterloo.

This slim volume packs an amazing amount of detail between the covers.  The book itself is less than 200 pages in overall length.  The narrative is separated into eight short chapters and appendix, ten page bibliography, and 27 pages of notes.

The story of the defense of La Haye Saint is often remarked upon but seldom recounted.  Simms corrects this with his detailed history of the defense of the farm and even more interestingly the men of the King’s German Legion (KGL) that defended it.  The KGL is one of those strange units that only appears in wartime and does not long survive the war that called it into existence.  It was made up mostly of Hanoverians who fled French occupied Hanover to fight for the English and their German king to liberate their homeland.  They both were and were not considered elite troops but it was mostly an accident of history that the 2nd Light Battalion (rifles) of the KGL was detailed to defend La Haye Saint on the day of battle.

The thing that makes this book so good is the depth of scholarship that went into it.  Simms is able to reconstruct an hour by hour, and in places almost minute by minute account of the battle in and around the farm.  He can do this because he managed to discover several unpublished memoirs by members of the KGL, including one written by an enlisted man.  This allows him to not only name names but to describe somewhat the personalities of the characters involved in the fight.

The defense of La Haye Saint invokes other famous British defensive stands such as Rorke’s Drift and Le Cateau.  That the soldiers were mostly not British is irrelevant as the Hanoverians were just as determined in service of George III as any native English soldiers.  The KGL was eventually driven from the farmhouse late in the day after they depleted their ammunition and could not be resupplied.  There defeat was not really a defeat though as they had managed to tie up the French in the center of the battlefield long enough for Blücher and his Prussian army to arrive on napoleons flank and bought the time necessary to stave off defeat.  It was only shortly after the farm was surrendered that Wellington ordered a general advance as it became clear that the French had shot their bolt and were defeated.

The Longest Afternoon: The 400 Men Who Decided the Battle of Waterloo is narrative and microhistory at its best. For anyone seeking to understand the reasons for napoleons defeat at Waterloo this book is indispensable. I highly recommend this book. 

Gallipoli, 1915: Analysis of a Glorious Failure

The Allied invasion of Gallipoli and its subsequent failure represented perhaps the greatest lost opportunity of the First World War.  There is every reason to expect that if the invasion of Turkey had been successful then much the same results would have accrued to the Allies then as were to accrue twenty-eight years later when the Allies successfully invaded Italy in the Second World War.  The tangible results of the Allied invasion of Italy in 1943 was the capitulation of the government of Mussolini, and the diversion of up to sixteen German divisions in Italy that could have been more profitably used in France.  Additionally, one of Germany’s most capable generals, Albert Kesselring was also tied down in Italy.  If Kesselring had instead been in France it is conceivable that his operational creativity and flexibility could have made a crucial difference after Rommel was wounded in August 1944.

Anzac Cove shortly after the Start of the Dardanelles Operation
Anzac Cove shortly after the Start of the Dardanelles Operation

The Allies hoped that by successfully knocking Turkey out of the war they would open up a warm water route to Russia, divert German strength from the Western Front, and quickly conquer the Middle East thus freeing up western troops for service in France.  The Germans had been supplying and advising the Turkish army and navy since before the war in hopes of completing the Berlin-Baghdad railway and thus simplifying their access to Middle East oil.  The Allied invasion of Gallipoli in 1915 was a bold strategic move that if successfully executed could have changed the course of World War I.  The assault only became a disaster through poor, unrealistic planning and operational mismanagement.

The Allied assault at Gallipoli could have been as successful an operation as the Allied invasion of Italy in 1943-1944 if only the Allied planners had appreciated the real possibilities of a realistically planned operation.  The basic premise of both the Gallipoli and Italian campaigns was the same, namely to tie down enemy forces so that the war-winning blow could be landed elsewhere.  The vastly different outcomes in similar wars almost demand a comparison of the factors that led one operation to success and the other to failure.  There are many similarities between the concepts of the campaigns.  Both Gallipoli and the Italian campaign were considered secondary, both were very much ad hoc, both were fit into the larger Allied war-plans as off the cuff operations, and lastly neither were seen as potentially war-winning from the outset.

The origins of the Gallipoli campaign lie in the combination of stalemate on the Western Front and the Russian reverses after their disastrous defeat at Tannenberg in the fall of 1914 and the entry of the Turks into the war in December 1914.  The Western Front was seemingly locked in a stalemate without some innovation and it was felt that the Russians were on the verge of collapse after their massive losses at Tannenberg.  The thought was that if the Dardanelles could be forced and a warm water route to Russia opened the Russians could be assisted and the danger of their collapse could be averted.

The idea of forcing the Dardanelles was initially put forth by Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty in response to a request for a demonstration against the Turks to relieve pressure against the Russians.  Thus the initial concept of the operation was as a simple demonstration by the Royal Navy to force the Dardanelles there was no thought of a troop landing in support of naval forces, it was only later that an assault by land forces was added to the plan.  The Gallipoli campaign is one of the glaring examples in recent military history of what has become known as “mission creep” or the inevitable addition of tasks to what was originally a simple and straightforward assignment.

Planning initially began only for a naval attack to force the narrows at Gallipoli as Lord Kitchener, the British War Minister, said troops were not available for a land assault.  The initial plan called for the Mediterranean fleet to force the narrows and break out into the Black Sea where they could harass and interdict Turkish coastal shipping in support of the Russian army.  It was only after the Royal Navy’s failure in February 1915 with the loss of two capital ships that the idea of landing troops on the Gallipoli peninsula was batted around.  After the idea’s approval, only two months of planning went into the operation and the assault occurred in April 1915, with troops hurriedly collected from the Middle East and the diversion of the ANZAC corps that was stopped en route to the Western Front and assigned to the operation.