James Graham, Marquess of Montrose: A Modern and Relevant Career

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Montrose led to the gallows in Edinburgh by the Covenanter theocracy.

I just finished C.V. Wedgewood’s short biography on James Graham, Marquess of Montrose. Though I had previously read her seminal work on The Thirty Years War, I had no idea she had written a book on Montrose until I randomly discovered it in my local used book store. By the way, please patron your local used book store. Mine is Second Story Books in Washington DC, and it absolutely rules.

Montrose is my favorite military commander of the British Civil Wars (more famously but erroneously called ‘The English Civil War’ even though it began in Scotland and ended in Ireland). Unlike many unjustly lionized loser-generals (ahem, Lee, Hannibal, arguably MacArthur), Montrose was a guy who lost in the end, but showed immense skill and daring in an impossible situation practically no one would be expected to pull off a stalemate in, much less a succession of improbable victories.

Montrose originally began the war on the rebel side, finding the overreach of the King and his neglect of his Scottish birthplace galling. As is so often the case both in our world and that of the past, rebels have a real reason to pissed. But as is also the case, when rebellion jump the shark loyalties change. Montrose served successfully as a commander in the rebel forces to seek negotiation with the King. When it became obvious that the rebels were no longer interested in negotiation now that they had a window to establish a theocracy of their own and a chance to force Presbyterianism on the population of Scotland by fiat, however, Montrose defected to the monarchy as the lesser of evils and began to set up a resistance within the very country he had just cleared of pro-Stuart forces. Perhaps he had been naive to believe in ‘moderate rebels’, certainly many can be. But few at the earlier juncture could have seen the unexpected rise of Archibald Campbell, First Marquess of Argyle and the leverage he would give to fanatics once he wormed his way into Scotland’s body politic as the chief powerbroker.

With a class of theology nerds, the 17th Century equivalent of alt right neckbeards and the tumblrgelicals of today but guided by all the screeching antireason of the modern day evangelical right, ensconced in power in Edinburgh, Montrose raised and led a tiny and ramshackle coalition of all those opposed to the rule of a single theocratic faction. With Irish Catholics, disaffected Scottish Protestants, Stuart royalists, and those driven to extremity by the Covenanter occupation all serving as one, Montrose’s small band darted in and out of the Highlands, scorching Campbell’s home bases, liberating Aberdeen  and numerous small towns, and defeating much larger Covenanting forces with shock, surprise, deception and maneuver which led their tiny band to have an outsized effect on the conflict. Scotland, which had been entirely won for the rebel cause before the war was yet decided in England, now teetered in uncertainty before a truly crushing set of victories by Montrose liberated the country and put anti-Covenanter forces in power again, with Argyle fleeing the country he had once sought to rule.

With such an emergency on hand, the Scottish rebels fighting under David Leslie in England were recalled and Montrose finally defeated by a numerically and technologically superior force. Seeing the war was basically over in the decisive theater of England (this stage of it anyway) Montrose negotiated terms from his Highland bases, ensuring escape for many of his band before they were declared outlaws. He made his way to Norway, and then, later when the rebels executed the King and the Covenantors broke with the English Parliament over it and other issues, he raised exile support from the new heir-in-exile, Charles II. Montrose would land in Orkney and raise a new army in support of Chucky, but would be double-crossed in negotiations of that monarch with the restored Argyle. Eventually, he would be captured, put on a show trial, and executed in Edinburgh and Charles II would flee after failing to make a compromise with the ruling fanatics. All accounts of the humiliating parade of Montrose on his way to execution state he was calm and composed, even staring down Argyle who then elicited the jeers of the crowd for looking away. The way things were going, he knew history would vindicate him and not his opponents. In the end Cromwell would invade and take over Scotland before all the kingdoms got fed up with his Puritan rule and after his death invited back Charles. The Covenanters would go on to be hunted to near extinction, and total suppression, in the coming well-deserved revenge.

Montrose’s legacy in his homeland, however, would only soar. In a messy and complicated legacy left by the Stuarts, he showed what was best and what could have been under their arrangement had things worked out differently. A multi-confessional and multi-ethnic reign but under contract. This would indeed be what Scotland would eventually become, if in a very different way and time period. Even the Scottish National Party of today, despite its seemingly nativist name, courts the votes of minorities and immigrants and had the independence referendum apply to those who lived in Scotland and had residency no matter their background, while denying it to those who lived outside of Scotland. It was the land itself, and the governance thereof, that was what was important over sectarian absolutism, now as it was under Montrose tiny band of anti-theocracy fighters.

Since it is my personal opinion that opposition movements both to tyranny and fanatacism should learn to work with, rather than against, national movements I feel that this example of leadership, and those like it, are worth revisiting today. We live in a world bifurcated between a collapsing and flailing global ruling class who views finance, unsustainable resource extraction, and endless peripheral war as the key to everything on one hand and extreme identitarian nutjobs on the other (be they called ‘moderate rebels’ to describe sectarian jihadists in the Middle East or ‘alt-right’ /white nationalist fascists in the developed world) and the rest of us are just waiting for everything to get worse as these fools hiss at each other over the scraps of a dying planet.

But beyond that vaguely similar situation of needing to cobble together motley coalitions, its Montrose’s battlefield leadership itself that I feel would be illustrative as instructive to the future. Likely, many groups of people forced to fight and survive in the conflict zones of our world will begin as small bands unable to take or hold territory but merely showing that an opposition still exists. The leaders will share hardships with their followers. Then with success and greater recruitment come more conventional operations and the dangers of multi-faceted factional politics and shifting alliances. His life and complicated results serve as an illustrative example of both what once was, but also what might be again-and already is a reality for many in the world. More modern examples of this form of leadership, which I would like to discuss in a later post, are Paul Kagame in Rwanda and Tito for the former Yugoslavia.

Plus, Montrose is a fellow St Andrews University alumnus, so of course I want to claim him. Not to mention that as someone who lived in Edinburgh for years any enemy of the grotesque theocracy that once occupied it and ruled it in a manner similar to how Saudi Arabia is governed today is a friend of mine. The Stewarts, like the Assads, had their huge flaws and helped create the circumstances that led to conflict against them, but the alternative was so much worse. When it comes to the dying present order and the extremist alternatives to it, however, environmental concerns mean such a dynamic of lesser evilism may no longer apply. Another option is needed. I do not know what it is but I do know that like Montrose’s band it will start small, have to cast a very wide tent for supporters, and combat destructive ideology on behalf of the land itself and those living in it rather than specific sectarian or ethnic grievances. I also know that, unlike Montrose, in the end it must not fail.

 

Odious Romanticism vs Material Victory

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I want to talk about some Civil War generals, and no, not the rightness or wrongness of their statues being in public spaces.

What I have always found bizarre about the myth of Confederacy is not its blatant rise with attached romantic artwork convergent with the last gasp of segregationist politicians in the public sphere-that is perfectly logical in its own way-nor even the memorializing of the United States’ greatest act of treason by segments of the population most chauvinistic and flag-waving on most other issues (though that is bizarre), but rather the myth of Robert E. Lee himself as this amazingly seminal general and leader of men. This is often combined with a myth of the Confederacy as a uniquely impressive battle against the odds akin to Finland’s Winter War or the Norman rise in Sicily.

In a time where America realizes it still must reckon with the painful wounds of its past by bringing up the public status of Civil War era issues, I feel it’s time to turn a critical gaze to the military part of this odious romanticism.

Let us begin with Robert E. Lee. A great tactician, surely, but as the ghost of Hannibal could tell you, this does not necessarily equate a great strategist. Lee’s rise to prominence came about first by skilled junior officer actions as an engineer in the U.S.-Mexican War of 1848, and then by accurately reading the psychology of General McClellan as he advanced on Richmond in 1862 and pummeling his forces with offensives to cause the famously timid general to retire despite getting the better of most of the engagements…convinced as always he was outnumbered. So far, so good.

We then can witness Lee run roughshod over several ineptly led Union armies. Despite the poor quality of leadership of these forces, we can still give Lee a hefty dose of credit in this period. And yet, amongst this time of Confederate triumph (in the east anyway) came Lee’s first botched invasion of the north, which undid many of successes when he was checked at Antietam (by McClellan, of all people) a battle whose strategic implications enabled the Emancipation Proclamation which in turn would fatally undermine the southern war effort by both enabling Union armies to legally liberate slaves in secessionist states as well as sabotage British and French efforts to directly aid the Confederacy.

Even including Antietam, up until now it would still be a fair point to consider Lee the best general of the American Civil War, but the Union was just getting started-and it would be there that the best leadership would actually emerge. It was also, in 1863 and flush with hubris after Chancellorsville, that Lee would once again commit the mistake of invading the north.

As someone whose favorite army in history is that of the medieval Mongols and whose favorite navy in history that of late 16th Century Korea, I am hardly the one to take a universally critical view of taking the offensive when your forces are outnumbered if the opportunity looks promising. The problem with the Civil War context is that Lee himself had proven time and time again that this was an era where defense held clear battlefield advantages. Indeed, superior Union industrial and material strength were for much of the war totally offset by facing the most difficult challenge of having to reconquer a third of a continent in an era of defensive primacy. It had been such on the battlefield starting in the Crimean War, where a Russian army armed with outdated firearms and a piss-poor logistical system had managed, at least temporarily, to stymie two of the best armies of the time, even if they lost (barely) in the end. It would remain thus until the Brusilov Offensive in WWI when that same Russian army would innovate the interplay between offensives and artillery use to restore mobility to the battlefield-a process later honed by the Germans and then perfected by Foch and Allenby. Even Lee’s boldest moves in previous battles had been often paired with a key defensive element. His smaller army could move faster to seize the better terrain, and in an era where the minne ball merged with the last gasp of linear field formations, this made a huge difference. And in Gettysburg it was the Union who held the high ground and the defensive posture, and it was the Union that won. Soon after, Meade was superseded by Grant, and Grant would be the superior general to Lee. Not because he was a brilliant commander nor because he simply ended up winning in the end, but because he was a general of the times who truly understood the nature of industrial warfare. Lee’s many victories could be undone by a few missteps, but Grant could suffer multiple reverses at Lee’s hands and still win the campaign.

The true genius of the war, however, was Sherman. William Tecumseh Sherman understood the material nature of war in the industrial age like Grant, but had a much greater sense of terrain and maneuver. His command of the western front, once Grant moved east to take command there, was the true decisive campaign of the entire war.

The west had been the mirror opposite of the east from the start. Union forces performed generally better than their enemies and capably used riverine naval forces to advance consistently along the vital Mississippi River. Winfield Scott (in my opinion, the greatest of all American generals, but that is another story) correctly saw that blockade and securing the central river systems of the continent were the key to victory in the war, rather than a quick advance on Richmond. Generally, Union forces under both Grant and Rosecrans at first (in Appalachia) made advances in this theater wisely using ships and a less pro-Confederate population in general. Yet, not until the fall of Vicksburg did this front’s decisiveness manifest itself.

Sherman up until now had been a subordinate commander of no great distinction. But when turned loose on his own to command the west in 1864 would prove to be the stand-out general of the war and, in my opinion, the second greatest of all American generals. Unlike Lee, Sherman did not set out to win set piece battles, but rather to crush the Confederacy’s ability to resist. Granted, Lee did not have the numerical option to do such to the Union, but that is precisely why he should have stuck to a more Longstreet-type plan of cautious attrition as the only realistic path to southern victory was exhaustion through casualties of the north. Where Lee gambled rashly, Sherman coldly calculated.

Sherman also maneuvered with the big picture, rather than individual battlefields in sight. As he advanced out of Tennessee and into Georgia through immensely difficult terrain and against the skilled defense of Joseph Johnston, he became the master of flanking movements to dislodge Johnston from favorable terrain and forcing him to open up more and more of the vulnerable heartland of the Confederacy. Even after battlefield reverses, Johnston would be forced to retreat by maneuver, gradually driving him towards less formidable defensive terrain.

By the time Confederate forces were entrenched around Atlanta, Sherman had already won in a way. While the disposition still favored the defender, now the Confederacy’s most industrial city and arguably second most important (after New Orleans, which had already fallen to the Union navy) was locked down on siege mode and its ability to assist the war effort already partly curtailed. And then the leaders in Richmond made the most fatal error they could have, they assigned John Bell Hood to replace Johnston.

The successive offensives against Sherman’s army led to disaster for the Confederacy at every step to the point where the previously defensible Atlanta had to be abandoned. Raw militia and crack units alike were thrown against veteran Union units increasingly starting to be armed with breech loading weapons like the Spencer rifle and carbine which held trenches and field works. Knowing there was no way to avoid being crushed by Sherman after a few of these failed battles, Hood tried to pull a reverse-Sherman and drive north in a bid to take Nashville. Of course, with a beaten and demoralized army this would have opposite the intended results and his entire army would eventually be liquefied by reserves sent after him.

Atlanta fell, and burned. Sherman cut his baggage train and took off across Georgia, feeding off the enemy territory and crippling their food production and morale all at once. He ‘marched to the sea’ and took Savannah before the end of the year. Concerned for their families, soldiers in the Confederate army began to defect in record droves from all fronts. The lowlands-gulf south was cut off from the east. Then Sherman turned north wreaking devastation across the hotbed of secession itself, South Carolina, before taking a more moderate tone towards the conduct of his pillaging troops in North Carolina-which was a less gung-ho about secession state.

By the end of the war he would make it to Virginia, where the looming advance of his forces played no small role in Lee’s surrender in the east.

It is easy to play up the Confederate romantic mythology here and state Sherman’s material and often numeric advantages. This is to ignore the far greater challenges of waging a truly continental scale long-form campaign of offense in an era that favored defense. This is also to ignore Sherman’s full grasp of total war, and the desire to crush an enemy in as many ways at once to create a collapse of both morale and logistics, which are the true sinews of war. He was in many ways the first great modern-industrial general. He fought not for flashy victories to be studied in microcosm but rather for war ending long term objectives. He accurately assessed the enemy’s weaknesses and responded accordingly. There have not been many generals or admirals in history who have so thoroughly understood how to crush the opposition-which is exactly a general’s job.

And that is something worth considering as a million Fox News Dads send up a simultaneous howl of ‘don’t erase our history that we can only apparently learn from statues, how will people at West Point learn tactics if they can’t idolize Lee?’

The answer is not to waste your time studying Lee when you could be studying Sherman instead. Hell, if you need a Confederate general to study take Forrest. Sure, the politically correct *really* won’t like that, but if your point is battlefield command ability…The problem is, most Fox News Dads and Basic History Bros don’t even know any commander who is not famous-and therein lies the problem of romanticism over materialism in the study of history.

The Allure of Battle: A Review

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The Allure of Battle: A History of How Wars Have Been Won or Lost‘ by Cathal J. Nolan is no trite and glib accounting of heroic genius and blundering foolishness like so much of published military history.  There is no romance to be found here. Only the stark appraisal of a materialist looking at many of the conventional wars of the modern age and asking those who casually study military history (actual scholars usually-but not always-know better these days) to smash the myths and look at the bloody truth: Its societies and their logistics that tend to win more than leadership. When leadership is important it can only work when harnessed to a communal effort that enables it to thrive.

Nolan implies he understands it was not always so. Medieval and tribal armies were often the sum total of defense their societies could put in the field. Surely, few could argue with the military dominance of the Eurasian nomad to centuries. (One also of course could say Eurasian nomads had the best logistical system of all time, as they took everything with them on campaign at no mobility sacrifice, I suppose). But with the increasing importance of centralized states, fortifications, and gunpowder came larger armies and more territoriality fixed states. After a brief introduction to bring us up to the 30 Years War, Nolan really gets going with his main case studies. He seeks, and largely succeeds, in gradually building a case that in the age of firepower starting in the 17th Century and leading through at least the Second World War if not through today, the age of firepower has been the age of attrition and not grand romantic decisiveness.

One can go back before to find obvious examples of supposedly brilliant generals who lost entire wars only a few years after winning one or more truly ‘decisive’ victories. Hannibal gave us the term ‘Cannae’ after all-named after one of the most successful envelopment in all of military history. But that and other brilliant battlefield tactical level performances did not change that the outcome of the war was a decisive defeat for him and for Carthage. Scipio on the other hand could learn from Hannibal tactically but brought an understanding of the enemy’s weakness behind their armies that led all his campaigns to really count in the long term. But as is so often the case with military history, the glamour of the takes eyes off the drudgery of the staff room and the logistics trains. Now, this is not really a new or mind blowing perspective for those of us who have given the research of military history quite a lot of thought, but it has never seen such a concerted case for its making as this.

Showing consistently how gunpowder actually extended the operational over the tactical in conventional war, Nolan takes us through the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and up until 1945. He has a wide array of history to work with, so he focuses on Europe and modern Japan, where the cult of decisive battle seeking was the strongest. He has some choice words for some famous generals, respectful criticisms of others, and some praise for a few who normally do not get the praise they deserve. Part of the joy of the book is to find out what his take on a ‘great captain’ might end up being. Some common wisdom is overturned.

All throughout Nolan shows us how ‘the captains’ and even sometimes the armies themselves were secondary to the ability of states to wage war until the exhaustion of the other. Combined with these straightforward and mostly objective observations also comes the author’s poetic humanity, which never fails to bring forward the suffering of common people, soldier and civilian, in often pointless and frivolous wars for marginal gains. He never loses sight that he is a historian of tragedy and broken lives, even as he sets forth the seemingly brutal case that mass numbers, grueling campaigning, and institutional and organizational superiority often overcome where flashy battles do not.

One major reason he gives for the popularization of the concept of the one decisive battle or campaign right when warfare was moving exactly in the other direction was a cut of the offensive stemming from victory disease. His two most detailed case studies, Victorian-Early 20th Century Germany and Japan, were resource insecure revisionist powers who sought to use military force to establish regional hegemonies. Their first wars, often against foes in more dire straights than they, were successful enough in their objectives to inspire a bland self confidence not just in military solutions to international problems, but also that such solutions could  and must be brought about rapidly before superior coalitions resources could be brought to bear against such aggression. ‘Shock and Awe’, much later generations would call it. These actions are contrasted quite negatively with Allied adaptability after initial massive defeats, and greater ability to re-tool to play the long game to reverse the tables against enemies who were too wedded to very specific victory plans. As Von Kluck and Moltke the Younger melted down over the failure of the Shleiffen Plan (something Nolan refreshingly doesn’t even praise as a potential concept given the dire diplomatic ramifications and lack of enough vehicles to really exploit the speed necessary) Foch was learning to abandon his commitment to previously faddish offensive doctrine and look for a nuanced grand strategy that did not have to win or lose in an opening move. A similar thing would happen throughout World War 2, most egregiously in the Pacific with the Japanese failures to bag the American carriers and prepare for full scale logistical war on their new empire by submarines, making all their many resource rich and defensible consequences become rotting branches on a dying tree. Operation Barbarrossa might be the largest scale example of this type of thinking, itself moved up in expectation in timetable due to a miss-reading of the tea leaves that came with the unexpected ease which France fell-seemingly confirming the cult of the offensive and enabling it to grow yet more over-ambitious. In so doing, by failing to win decisively in Moscow it condemned its soldiers to lose in time.

The author does not forgo the important or morale or leadership but simply undermines their cardinal place in the hierarchy. Though to me group solidarity is a very important part of not just battlefield success but also logistics and mobilization at home. That feeds directly into staying power which in turn feeds into production and sustaining the effort.

While I loved this book stylistically and historically…I do have a couple of quibbles:

-I do understand needed to limit oneself on such a massive topic, but throwing in more countries outside of Europe than just Japan would have been nice. Paraguay in the War of the Triple Alliance stands out as a great example of the author’s thesis points. So does the Second Boer War and even the century long succession of conflicts known as the Ashante Wars. The Safavids often coming off poorly against the Ottomans would also just barely fit into the time frame but illustrate the point, as would all around more views on the naval aspect of conflict (where battles do tend, proportionally, to be decisive as fleets are more expensive than armies and can be more thoroughly destroyed in defeat).

-The author constantly and rightly alludes to the American Civil War as far more instructive to the future of war than Konnigratz or Sedan, whose proximity to London and Paris made them models for future armies to follow-into disaster. But he never actually talks about it. I feel, considering even his admittance to its importance at looking at how war was evolving technologically, especially towards the end of the conflict, that he could have had a chapter on it to further his points elsewhere. Not only did the western campaign’s slow and stead progress on geographic and logistical targets prove the decisive part of the war, but commanders like Lee are often held up as neo-Hannibals when really their actions, impressive in single field engagements as they were, failed to further actual achievable strategic direction.

-While the author does mention Soviet Deep Battle strategy as a positive development against both purely positional grinding and wild pell-mell and often petering out Blitzkrieg, he never actually goes into it. This is a shame as few people do, but it has a truly impressive historical record as a battle doctrine and also shows that one can wage limited decisive campaigns building on each other to grind down an enemy with maneuver without risking everything on a single throw of the dice and wounding their behind the lines logistics while doing it. Personally, I am I big fan of looking at Soviet Deep Battle as an example of how conventional mechanized wars could operate as a starting point. I felt it getting a shout out without proper analysis was a real missed opportunity.

Definitely a must have for the military historian. Now, let’s just hope we don’t live to see another conventional outbreak.

Reclaim Military History!

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Expect the unexpected. Prepare for collateral damage. Prioritize outcome over ideals. Fear the costs of war and so avoid it whenever possible, but when it is not avoidable prosecute it with the utter ruthlessness of one who knows victory wipes away all prior qualms. These are lessons that seem obvious to anyone with at least a passing engagement in military history. What is increasingly obvious to me, however, is that these are still things found baffling by most of the populations of nations in North America and Western Europe. By failing to take into account of the most important aspects of history, large segments of the populations who can afford such ignorance are often baffled by sudden and shocking current events. When they are told of a plan that fits with their preconceived ideological notions they assume this plan will work. When told of one they disagree with they assume it will never work. People who know the fragility of military plans in history might not be so easily taken in.

So why, if understanding military history has such obvious contemporary value, is it one of the more lost and relegated arts under the humanities umbrella? Why are we now living in a world where vast swathes of the population who fancy themselves ‘informed’ largely get blindsided by events, clutch their pearls, and scream what the year currently is in response?

Well, it’s the same reason when I was an undergrad so many people I was sharing a History major with did topics like ‘Peasant Festivals and Identity.’ It is also, interestingly enough, from the same origin as the present plague of right wing identity politics. More on that last example later, but needless to say, it comes from the hyper-individualistic and romantically affirming hegemonic influence of postmodernism in academia. In the post-Vietnam era studying war became something akin to being a slack-jawed neanderthal, studying ways to ignore it in favor of supposedly lost approaches to human behavior that prioritize emotional response and ‘identity’ took its place. Because of that, I would argue, political science and critical thinking lost a valuable asset in the tools it had to analyze the world around us.

It may not surprise anyone who reads this blog that Victor Davis Hansen and I basically come from nearly opposite perspectives on everything political. He is a hard core neoconservative who often interprets history along a Fukuyama-Hegelianesque path of societies fighting ‘for freedom’ against those who fail to imbibe the Freedumb Fries and also persists in one of my biggest pet peeves, the assumption that there is something inherently special about the ‘western’ world that can be seen throughout history. He often presents us with stuff written for low-information suburban dads who also read Tom Clancy novels style of military history, despite his obvious talents as a nonfiction writer. But one of his books I did really like, ‘The Father of Us All’, in which he argues that military history is engaging, informative, and under siege. It is by far his strongest work and one I enjoyed despite the inevitability of quibbles given the author. He talks at length of the class divide in appreciating military history, with working class students trending much more strongly in favor of it in class to their more economically sheltered peers. It resonated with those who had struggled in life and realized the lack of individual choices in real life and who fate sweeps us along via events much bigger than ourselves. He wrote also about history professors who looked down their noses at people with a war specialty as if they were some kind of ghoulish cabal of necrophiles just flicking through the pages of the past for a rush.

Granted, that is how I got into it myself in a manner of speaking. When I first became interested in history it was to experience a whole new wonderful world of weaponry, armor, and battles that could not be found in the present day world. What can I say? I always liked action and horror movies. I wasn’t silly enough to think it was fun or glorious, far from it, it only confirmed my desire to never experience war directly. But interesting? You bet! I was also in my early teens, so this was in some sense the inevitable bridge to get me into nonfiction events. But even then it taught me valuable lessons like that things never go according to plan, a lot of strange borders make sense if you know the history behind them, geography and ecology are the ultimate determining factor in human affairs, and just how potent human hubris can be. None of these are lessons your average news junkie reblogger of today seems to have learned, but they are all lessons they need. As it was, I ended up diversifying my interests into cultural and diplomatic history just as much as military in adulthood, and my core interest in the militaries of present and past has not stopped me from being a constant agitator against unnecessary conflict, the neoconservative foreign policy status quo, and making a world better fit for a reduction in defense spending to focus on environmental and infrastructure issues as priority whenever possible.

Most tellingly, this kind of military history education could be used to allay some of the pearl clutching over the ongoing fall of Aleppo. Taking two seconds to think before commencing in pearl clutching would make people realize several things:

  1. An orgy of violence is most often better than a long drawn out perpetual stalemate and siege.
  2. In an era of urbanization war is more likely to come down to city sieges. That is more likely to affect civilians. It is an outcome of demographic and technological shifts and not a constant and intentional policy by everyone with explosives who uses them.
  3. Targeting civilians can indeed meet strategic ends. If it does so and shortens the conflict in the process (think Sherman’s March here) it is actually justifiable on ethical grounds.

I could probably list more, but that does for now. I also like to remind fans of hashtag slacktivism that ‘never again’ was always a silly slogan. ‘We’ did nothing in Rwanda, a huge scandal to humanitarian warriors of the 90s and probably a big reason ‘we’ took such a hawkish line on Kosovo later. The problem is that in Rwanda, remarkable leadership, which began on the battlefield by local actors, caused the persecuted side to recapture the country, defeat their enemies, and set an an infinitely superior and more stable government in its place. In Kosovo, where intervention was touted as a success and a way forward (before the various calamities of the 21rst century would rightly tarnish its image) we have a mafia run pseudostate which gave to its Serb minority as bad as once was given by them, and which furnishes no insignificant amount of recruits to jihadist groups in the Middle East. So…the ‘we must do something’ mantra *must* be questioned given the uneven results it gives. Ironically, this is a position most likely to caution against military action-and one it seems only adhered to by those who have some knowledge of the military past. After all, the most effective intervention against a horror show regime in modern history was almost certainly Vietnam deposing the Khmer Rouge, but since it is not a liberal democracy initiating the action it gets ignored. It was also an operation launched with clear geostrategic objectives in mind on the part of Hanoi. Often times, to see a conflict you need to question the dominant narrative. That becomes easier to do when you study the long-forgotten conflicts of history, where one’s present temporal location makes them less partisan. You start to seek not who is right and wrong, but why some won and others lost. Those are lesson that apply to all times and all fights. They are lesson which are easy to overlook when one is only a partisan of the present. ‘(It’s the [current year]!!!!!’ comes from this lack of depth in perspective.

I also want to mention that other side to the hippy horror show descended from the postmodern hegemony: the neofacist right. The natural people who would attach themselves to identity politics were of course the perpetually (supposedly) victimized white identity types. It is often these types of people who fantasize about a world of strong virtuous men and their manly deeds. No homo. Often, you see these kinds of people latch on to superficial elements of military history in addition to their bad Roman Empire analogies. With these type of people now clearly in the cultural ascendant, we must not let the utility of military history be claimed by those incapable of using it intelligently. Plus, in most nearly equal fights far right governments overall tend to have pretty terrible military records. There is a difference between knowing how to draw an analogy from many periods of history of many different cultures and how context-centering that can be, and some goon who can cite multiple youtube videos and Cracked articles. Don’t cede this ground to such unworthies.

A new group of young people entering the worlds of civic service with a strong and global understanding of military history, coupled with other forms of history and political science, would be a fearsome and potentially wondrous thing to behold. In an age of complacent breakdown leading to a time of fear and retrenchment it is now, more than ever, that we must reclaim military history!

And on that note, a fair goodnight with a song to perturb the pacifist: