Category Archives: Political History

Book Review Featured Image

Book Review: The Month That Changed the World: July 1914 by Gordon Martel

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

Given that 2014 is the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, there has been a virtual flood of new books and scholarship on the war in the past few years. A flood that I sincerely hope does not stop anytime soon as the renewed emphasis on the war is starting to change the traditional view of the war. One area that has gotten particular emphasis this year is the Origins Controversy, as in, what really caused the war and who was responsible. The Month that Changed the World: July 1914 by Gordon Martel is ostensibly an origins book but in many ways, it is not. The main goal of the book, as the author puts it in the preface, is to lay out the way that events actually unfolded making clear who knew what, and when they knew it.

The book itself is 431 pages of text divided into three topical parts with the majority of the book being part two, a day-by-day narrative of events in the final week of July, 1914. There are also notes, a list of works cited, and an index.

Entire forests have been dropped in the past 100 years writing books about World War I.  This is particularly so in the past 30 years since Joll and Martel’s The Origins of the First World War produced a virtual deluge of books and journal article presenting competing theories. Trying to explain why the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in June, 1914 set in motion the train of events that led to World War I is almost the platonic definition of impossible. Nobody has come to a satisfactory answer, there are arguments that it was the fault of just about any of the belligerents and many of them are very good arguments. But arguments is all they are. There is not now, nor is it likely there ever will be a definitive answer as to why World War I started when it did. Suffice it to say that there is more than enough blame to go around that opprobrium can be heaped on the leadership of all the belligerents.

This volume is not an origins book per se. That is, it does not seek to assign blame for starting the war. What this book is, is a step by step, detailed narrative of the events between the death of the Archduke on June 28th, and the British declaration of war on Germany on August 4th. This is a straightforward account of when and importantly, what sequence things happened. The number of miscues, miscommunications, and diplomatic bumbles in July, 1914 is astonishing. The wonder is not why the war started when it did, but why it did not start sooner if the men involved were the highest quality diplomats Europe had available. Dr. Martell, lays out all these steps as they happened in a most engaging and readable way that pulls the reader along. I know what happened yet was compelled to keep reading because of the matter of fact way he writes.

What is abundantly clear in the narrative is that while Austria wanted to punish Serbia and eliminate them as a threat to the Dual Monarchy, they did not want a wider war.  It is equally clear that France, but particularly Russia, and to a lesser extent Britain, misread Austrian determination to deal with Serbia. Nobody except the Austrians really understood the lengths to which the Kaiser was willing to go to support Austria, Germany’s only true ally on the continent. Fault is not assigned in this book. The facts however, to the extent we know them, are laid out and it is left to the reader to determine what blame, if any, they assign to the various belligerents.

Diplomatic history, is one of the hardest types of history to write and make interesting. That difficult task has been accomplished in this work. I highly recommend The Month that Changed the World: July 1914 to anyone who wants an unvarnished narrative about July, 1914, possibly the most crucial month of the 20th century. This is an outstanding book that should be on the bookshelf of every student of World War I.

The Battlefield at Leipzig

The Battle of the Nations – 16-19 October, 1813

The October, 1813 Battle of the Nations in Leipzig was arguably as important as the 1814 Battle of Waterloo.  In English language historiography of the Napoleonic Wars it is often downplayed or only briefly mentioned however.  This is mainly because no English speaking armies fought in the battle.  The lions share of the fighting at Leipzig was done by Austrian and Russian armies and thus the English speaking world tries to ignore this decisive battle in which almost 50,000 men died.

The Battlefield at Leipzig
The Battlefield at Leipzig

After Napoleons’ defeat in the Russian Campaign of 1812 and the concurrent French defeat in the Peninsular Campaign the Allied nations of Europe joined together once again in the Sixth Coalition.
Napoleon was not quite defeated though. Between May and August he defeated coalition forces in three separate major battles at Lützen, Bautzen, and in front of Dresden.

Following their spring and summer defeats the Allies then held to their originally agreed upon strategy of avoiding battle with Napoleon himself but accepting battle with his marshals if the situation seemed favorable. The Allies inflicted defeats on the French at Großbeeren, Kulm, Katzbach, and Dennewitz. These defeats led Napoleon to consolidate his army in and around Leipzig in early October, 1813. The Allied armies followed him and converged there and forced a battle in mid-October.

As the allied armies grew closer to Leipzig Napoleon knew he was being encircled but planned to use his interior position to avert defeat and achieve local superiority. This plan eventually failed in the face of the massively superior numbers the Allies could bring to bear.
The allied armies approached from the north, west, and south with the only possible avenue of escape for Napoleon being to the east and away from France.

Army Positions on the first day
Army Positions on the first day

On the first day, 16 October, 1813, there were several areas of contact between the French and Allies .  Most notably in the areas of Mockern, Wiedentzsch, Lindenau, Connewitz, & Wachau.  The fighting was difficult but the French managed to essentially stay in position and the day ended in a bloody stalemate.

Day 2 saw only two minor actions. One between the Polish and Russians and between the Prussian and French Cavalry.  14,000 French troops arrived to bolster Napoleon.  However, two entire new armies, a Russian and the Swedes consisting of 145,000 troops arrived in the Allied Camp.

The third day of the battle
The third day of the battle

The third day was the culminating day of the battle as Napoleon was essentially encircled.  The fiercest fight of the entire battle was at Probstheida between the Russians and Prussians and French. The French successfully held off the attackers but at the cost of crippling casualties.  There was additional fighting at Paunsdorf and Schonefeld where the Swedes and Prussians attacked and defeated French forces defending these villages. The Saxons and Württembergers defected to the Allies during this action.  At the end of the day the French had held in the south but been pushed back in the north east.  Napoleon knew he was beaten.

During the night of 18-19 October Napoleon began withdrawing his army to the west across the Elster. The Allies were unaware until 0700 on the 19th and Marshal Oudinot put up a fierce rear-guard action in the streets of Leipzig.  The retreat went well until a corporal who inevitably did not get the word blew the only bridge over the Elster up while it was still crowded with French troops and the rear guard was still fighting in Leipzig itself. Blowing the bridge caused a panic a rout of the troops trapped east of the river.  Poniatowski, the only Foreign born Marshal drowned trying to cross the river.

The Battle of Leipizig was the bloodiest battle of the Napoleonic Wars both in terms of total losses and in losses as a percentage of troops engaged.

French Casualties
Not Counting the defection of the Saxon and Württemberg armies the French suffered roughly 80,000 casualties.  44,000 were killed and wounded and a further 36,000 were captured.  19.5% of Napoleons force was killed or wounded while total casualties approached 36% of the army he started the battle with.

Allied Casualties
Total Allied casualties were approximately 54,000 dead, wounded, or missing; 14% of their total force.

In the wake of his defeat Napoleon abandoned Germany altogether and retreated to France to prepare his defenses for the defense of la Patrie that he knew was coming in 1814.  The Allies did not pursue Napoleon after Leipzig as their armies were exhausted after 4 days of brutal fighting and the end of the campaign season was fast approaching.  After Leipzig the Confederation of the Rhine fell apart and French Armies would not occupy German soil again for any appreciable length of time until 1918 when occupation troops entered the Rhineland in the wake of World War I.

Moral Relativism and War

If you are of liberal political leanings you will probably not like this piece as I am going to proceed to attempt to demolish several sacred cows of contemporary liberal thought.  I unreservedly admit that I am politically conservative and further admit that I am not trying to be unbiased in his piece.  I am essentially venting my spleen at the half-truths and outright lies I so often find in books that purport to be histories but that are in reality only thinly disguised attacks on historical actors.  I find it typically liberal that such attacks are often made on those that cannot defend themselves, such as historical figures long dead.  I personally find the practice repulsive and try very hard to avoid doing the same thing in my own historical writing.  Then again, if you are liberal and don’t like it, I do not particularly care either.

I am currently reading House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power by James Carroll.  The level of moral relativism within this book is unreal.  I figured it would be a leftist take on the Pentagon because there is a blurb of praise on the back cover from Howard Zinn, the ultimate leftist historian.  What I did not count on was the sheer level of Western hatred disguised as objectivity that I would find within the cover.  That being said, this is not a review of this book in particular but an examination of leftist historiography, particularly when it comes to military history, in General.

I have read many leftist histories over the years from Isabel Hull and Iris Chang to Thomas Fleming, Paul Fussell, Dave Grossman, and Howard Zinn.  One thing they all have in common from my perspective is a formless hatred of all things Western and a lack of a solid grasp on reality.  They don’t write history, so much as polemics designed to convince the reader that they know the big T truth and if you disagree with them then you are part of the problem. In short,  Leftist history is activist history.  It is the type of history that would have you believe that the best thing that could have ever happened to the world is if the population of Europe had been destroyed during the Black Death, if not even earlier, say perhaps before the Dorics moved into Greece during the second millennium B.C.

If you read leftist history everything not Western is great and everything that has the touch of the West on it is evil incarnate from the Greek settlement of southern Europe to the European colonization of the Americas and just about everything in between and since.  They would have you believe that Westerners deliberately introduced disease to the New World to decimate and subjugate the natives to deliberately keeping the peoples of Africa down since de-colonialization to economically exploit them some more.  That everything having to do with the Christian church is evil incarnate while Atheism is cool and Muslims are peaceful little sheepherders.  Every group out there with a grievance against the West is justified in not only having it but in doing whatever they can to attack the West and they are willing participants as they seek to undermine Western culture itself from the inside.

It is as if liberals truly believe that contemporary morals have a place in describing the actions of people in the past who ascribed to a wholly different moral code and that they are unable to make the distinction that while they personally find an action immoral, at the time it was made, the action may have been considered fully justified.  That is not moral relativism; that is reality.  Today we don’t think exposing unwanted children to die on a mountainside is morally justified but the ancient Spartans did and it is stupid in the extreme to condemn ancient practice on the basis of contemporary morality.

Let’s take just a few examples from popular Western history that have gained the currency of Truth in leftist circles.

1. Western Genocide against Indians – This one is so laughable I don’t even understand how the idea got so much currency.  Leftists would have us believe that Westerners deliberately introduced diseases such as smallpox into the New World during colonization to kill off the inhabitants and clam the land for themselves.  Of course that presuppose that 15 Century Spanish, Portuguese, and English explorers understand how diseases were transmitted.  That the Germ Theory of Disease did not gain wide scientific currency until the mid to late 19th century is conveniently ignored.  The most common invective hurled is that of the US Cavalry giving out smallpox covered blankets during the Indian Wars.  This claim was given credence by the now discredited Ward Churchill and has been pretty well destroyed by Thomas Brown in the Journal, Plagiary.Despite the subsequent disgrace of Churchill’s corpus of work the myth continues that the US Army deliberately triggered an epidemic of smallpox among native Americans to “get them out of the way.”  That claim is made elsewhere about Indians throughout the Americas.
While epidemics did occur, as Jared Diamond so persuasively argues in Guns, Germs, and Steel, it did not take deliberation for European diseases to decimate native populations.  All it took was one sick European infecting unknowing natives.  Widespread epidemics and subsequent population loss did occur in the Americas after the arrival of Europeans, that was the natural result of American populations being exposed to diseases for which they had absolutely no resistance, because heretofore these disease did not occur in the Americas.
The narrative that Europeans deliberately killed off huge populations of Indians suits the left though, so they will keep it alive and it is easy to do because so many people take the claim at face value and never bother to research it for themselves.

2. The sanctity of civilians in wartime – There is a persistent assertion among both leftist historians and the media that throughout history the lives, property, and persons of civilians has been sacrosanct in war and the large scale killing of non-combatants is a new phenomenon.  Nothing could be further from the truth, the difference in modern times is that it is easier for a few men to kill lots of civilians, not that civilians have never been a legitimate target. You will not hear a liberal admit that anytime soon though.
You will never hear a liberal acknowledge the Mongol policy of massacring entire cities that refused to surrender.  That the rule in medieval Europe was that a city that had to be taken by force was sacked for 72 hours, that for hundreds of years Muslim slave traders preyed on European shipping in the Mediterranean, or that the ancient Goths and others who preyed on the edges of the Roman Empire routinely slaughtered entire villages as a way of solidifying their control of areas by spreading terror.  There has never been an absolute prohibition on killing civilians in warfare and what protections civilians have had, especially in modern times, comes out of the Western, specifically, Roman and Christian traditions.

3. Dropping the Atomic Bomb on Japan – The dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II is a topic that has come in for considerable debate.  I have even read people that claim America should apologize and perhaps pay reparations for the bombing.  I am flabbergasted by this.  I simply cannot understand how America should in any way apologize for ending the war that Japan started or the manner in which they did so.  This argument even goes back and claims that Japan was goaded into war by American policy.  That is the “West is at fault argument” taken to its absurd extreme.  What is even more ironic and silly is that many of the folks who make this claim condemn America and then turn around and condemn Japanese wartime conduct out the other side of their mouth.  These people would have you believe that America is in the wrong for civilian deaths at Saipan and Okinawa during the war and that any place with civilians nearby was not a legitimate target.
I hate to disappoint people, but people die in wars, sometimes the dead are even civilians.  Civilians are not normally targeted but they are legitimate targets as civilians are the lifeblood of any society and nothing can convince a people that they have lost than seeing that their military cannot defend them.  Targeting civilians is a legitimate act of warfare.  Unsavory yes, but still legitimate.  The arrow, bullet, or bomb that can always miss a civilian has not been invented and probably never will be.  It would be imprudent in the extreme for a military force to hamstring itself out of fear of causing a single civilian death.  If they do that they might as well surrender because the military is then of no use to the society that sponsors it and it is to the sponsoring society that the military must answer, not that of the enemy.

 Rant over.  Feel free to comment, I am more than happy to debate on this.  (the usual comment rules apply)

1. Brown Thomas. Did the U.S. Army Distribute Smallpox Blankets to Indians? Fabrication and Falsification in Ward Churchill’s Genocide RhetoricPlagiary:  CrossDisciplinary Studies in Plagiarism, Fabrication, and Falsification. Vol 1, 2006 pp. 100‐129

 

Book Review Featured Image

Book Review: Breakout: Pioneers of the Future, Prison Guards of the Past, and the Epic Battle That Will Decide America’s Fate by Newt Gingrich

Breakout: Pioneers of the Future, Prison Guards of the Past, and the Epic Battle That Will Decide America’s Fate by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich would probably have been a more interesting book if it had introduced some new ideas.  Sadly, it does not.  The book is nothing more than a rehashing of the tired ideas that have been floating around in conservative circles for years.

One would think that in 209 pages of text at least one original idea would appear.  The book is separated into 13 topical chapters with an introduction and a conclusion.  There is an extensive notes section and a surprisingly good index.

The topics cover everything from Education, to Healthcare, to Government and Business and much in between.  The essential argument of the book, and one I actually cannot disagree with is that the biggest problem in the US right now is government.  Government regulation and intellectual luddites are stifling innovation and holding the country back from making the conceptual leaps and paradigm shift that it is capable of to extend American leadership into the 21st century and beyond.

Speaker Gingrich makes an eloquent argument that over-regulation and political interests are holding the country back.  There is no reason for the current economic and societal malaise that we are not inflicting on ourselves.  I found especially demining his description of the over-cautious FDA drug and device approval process and the ways in which oil exploration and extraction in the US is being deliberately slowed and even stopped.  I share the Speakers concern that there is a large segment of people in America that actively want the country to fail and work to see that it does.  I find it equally dismaying that such people even exist.  What I don’t share is his optimism that there is a way out of the mess by working within the current system.  I hope that he is right and I am wrong.

Regardless, this is a well written book that explains the many issues presented in a rational and non-extremist manner.  Speaker Gingrich is a past master at making seemingly complex issues easy to understand, Breakout continues in that tradition and for that reason alone is worth reading.  I recommend this book to anyone interested in contemporary politics and the ways in which said politics are stifling progress both societally and technologically.

Book Review Featured Image

Book Review: Rise of the Warrior Cop – The Militarization of America’s Police Forces

I picked up Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces because the book looked interesting and I was shocked at what happened in Boston during the search for the two bombers.  The sight of police officers kitted up like my platoon and I was in Iraq on TV pulling people out of their homes at gunpoint and then searching those homes without a warrant shocked and dismayed me.  Therefor the title of the book was at a minimum intriguing and I decided to read it.

The book itself is separated into 9 chapters in what is essentially chronological order.  There are 31 pages of endnotes by chapter and an index. The book is a history of policing in America with particular emphasis on the rise of SWAT teams since their inception in the late 60’s in Los Angeles.  While the book is obviously biased, that is to be expected from the title.  This is an advocacy book after all.  What concerned me was how well the author made and presented his case that American police departments are becoming less about fighting crime and more about becoming a quasi paramilitary force that ignores constitutional protections when convenient.

I thought that the book does make a pretty good case that police do look at citizens as the enemy.  If you have had any run ins with law enforcement recently from a traffic stop to airport security, much less had your house invaded by a SWAT team it is evident that police take an us and them mentality.  Personally, I find it amazing that SWAT teams have become so prevalent and as the book makes very clear, there is no basis for them as the vast majority of the time SWAT raids turn up no weapons, and often nothing else.

There are many examples in the book of SWAT raids gone wrong but SWAT is not the biggest of the problems detailed in the book. The biggest problem the book points out is two faceted and that is the way in which law enforcement has been politicized and how compliant courts have stood by and even encouraged law enforcement to ignore the 4th Amendment against unlawful search and seizure. Law enforcement has always been at least somewhat political but the author in m opinion, rightly  highlights how the “war on drugs” has been used to criminalize a large segment of society for victimless crimes.  Even more disturbing is the way in which judges apparently rubberstamp requests for no-knock warrants and then if something goes wrong or even the wrong house is raided neither officers nor departments are held to account.

There are situations where the use of a SWAT team and paramilitary tactics and methods are appropriate.  What this book says is not that SWAT teams need to be eliminated but that using one should be the exception and not the rule.  Mr. Balko makes a very compelling case for the overuse and abuse of both SWAT teams and no-knock warrants.  I highly recommend this book for its in-depth look at the way in which the Constitution is essentially being ignored in the pursuit of at best ill-defined law enforcement goals.