Are you sure Mr. Gibbon was talking about the Roman Empire?

“The image of a free constitution was maintained with a decent reverence.”

– Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Bust on right is Constantine the Great. (No relation).

Bust on right is Constantine the Great. (No relation).


War: An Owner’s Manual — Chapter 1

Canadian_Mounted_Rifles_posterIn order to understand your military and know whether it is operating properly you need to know why you have one.

This isn’t a vague philosophical question whose answer is inevitably “End war now.” I, along with every soldier I’ve ever met, would love to live in a world without war. Unfortunately we don’t. The question of why we have a military is actually a very important real-world question which the Pentagon itself asks and then answers every four years in its Quadrennial Defense Review.

In order to figure out how many of those tanks, sailors, nuclear war heads, fighters etc., we have to answer one very simple and complex question: What do we want the military[1] to do?

The answer at first seems obvious. Nations have militaries in order to protect themselves, right? That’s part of it, but what is it protecting us from? In some cases this is easy to determine. Israel, for example, needs protecting from neighboring states which would like it cease existing. India wants its military to protect it from its neighbors to the north, Pakistan and China, as well as rebellious groups which pop-up from time to time.

Defining protection can be quite complex and India is a perfect example of this. India has at different times fought with both Pakistan and over control of some or all of India’s northern province of Kashmir, which borders the other two nations. What’s odd about that is there is little there to fight over. Kashmir consists mostly of a part of the Himalayan Mountains. It is a beautiful, inhospitable area. It’s barely populated and so far few, if any, valuable resources have been discovered there. Not only is there little if any reason to fight over Kashmir, it is also a terrible place for military operations. It is distant from everywhere, making resupply difficult even for the nations bordering it. With the possible exceptions of the South Pole and Siberia in mid-winter, it is likely the most difficult place on the planet to conduct a war. Not that has stopped any of the three nations from trying. To this day, the armies of India and Pakistan occasionally fire artillery shells at each other just to see if anyone is paying attention.

You get the feeling that the nations themselves know this. Consider the war between India and China in 1962. It lasted about a month and resulted in about 2,000 deaths. The cause both sides claimed to be fighting for was territory, a resource both nations have in abundance.

In which case, why did they fight? At the time of the war both nations were relatively young as independent, unified political entities. India had become a free nation in 1947 when the British, who had ruled India as a colony for more than a century, handed control of the government to the indigenous people. China had become a nation united under a government of its own people at roughly the same time, after the Communists kicked out the Japanese, the Nationalists and the various colonial powers which had controlled the nation for the past century.  In 1962, China was perceived as having an expansionist foreign policy because it had conquered Tibet a few years earlier. Just before the conflict the Indian government set up some border posts on parts of the land no one really wanted but which the Chinese considered to be on their side of the border. So China attacked in order to push them back to the correct part of the land no one really wanted. In other words, two young nations/governments wanted to prove that they couldn’t just be pushed around and so 2,000 people died.[2], [3]

So we can see from this example that militaries are not just used for protection.

Certainly directly protecting the borders of the nation isn’t why the United States has such an enormous military. The U.S. is ideally situated defensively. In the east and west two oceans separate it from the rest of the world. Its two other borders are with Canada and Mexico, neither one of which have ever posed even a nominal military threat to the nation. It has been 200 years since a foreign power directly invaded the U.S.[4] The only real direct threat to the nation’s existence was 150 years ago and that came from other Americans. It is this splendid geographic position that has allowed the U.S. to develop almost entirely unmolested by nations which were much more powerful than we were for the first 150 years or so of our history as a nation.

Although national security is frequently cited when justifying the huge amount we spend on the military all it would take to defend our borders is our nuclear submarine fleet to deter anyone from launching a nuclear strike against us, a few warships to help protect our import and export capabilities[5] or attacking us at sea, some fighters and bombers and a land force perhaps the size of the Marine Corps. Except for the nuclear weapons the military would then be reduced to size and role it had prior to both World Wars I and II.

The other reason that nations in general – and our nation in particular – have militaries is to prevent other nations from telling us what to do and get them to do what we want. To understand how this works it’s necessary to look a little deeper at what war is and what it is that nations get from it.

onwarWe will begin with a book called On War by Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian officer who fought in the Napoleonic Wars of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Clausewitz lived during the Enlightenment, a European intellectual movement which hoped to wean society from irrational beliefs and superstitions.  This movement came about as part of the great scientific revolution which happened at the same time. The Enlightenment was, among many other things, an attempt to apply the scientific method to how people thought and acted and especially to their philosophies. In On War, Clausewitz tried to examine and define the theory of war; to look at the why of it and determine what, if any, universal rules and laws it operates under.[6]

Continue reading

On the limits of irony

great war“Every war is ironic, because every war is worse than expected. Every war constitutes an irony of situation, because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its ends.”

— PAUL FUSSELL, The Great War and Modern Memory


Veterans’ Day reflection on two military cemeteries in France

“To the living we owe respect, to the dead we owe only the truth.” — Voltaire

There are 28 military cemeteries in Normandy. Sixteen for British & Commonwealth troops, two American, two Canadian, one Polish, six German and one French. The best known is the American Cemetery and Memorial at Omaha Beach in Colleville-sur-Mer, featured in the opening and closing scenes of Saving Private Ryan. It is located just yards from Omaha Beach, one of three American landing areas in the D-Day invasion. The fighting here was the day’s fiercest, responsible for almost half of the nearly 6,000 Americans killed and wounded.

Paris 09 097 Today it is difficult to imagine a battle here. The German fortifications have been removed and the craters filled in, replaced with an official memorial and the graves of 9,387 American men and women who died in Europe during the World War II.

To get to the graves you walk on a path along the top of bluffs overlooking the beach. It is a serene view. Dense, green shrubbery runs down the hillside and ends at a wide, sandy shore. Two paved walkways make it easy to go from the beach to the heights. It is a beach you could take your family to and not once think of men at the top and bottom of the bluffs trying to kill each other and stay alive at the same time.

The path ends at the structures and statue formally designated as the memorial. The structure contains things better suited for a text book: Maps swarmed over by large red arrows showing the outlines of the battle at the most impersonal scale. The statue, Spirit of American Youth, is a highly polished bronze giant. It is rendered in a WPA/socialist realist style meant to embody Every Man and therefore reminiscent of no one.

Look out from the statue and you see the cemetery. It  immediately makes all the other construction superfluous. Row upon row upon row upon row of white headstones, crosses and the occasional Star of David, all perfectly aligned – as if still in military formation. Kneel directly in front of one and look down the row and they seem to curve over the horizon. This emphasizes the group over the individual. It is easy to be awed by the number of dead without a trace of the grief which comes from the loss of a person you actually know.

The largest German cemetery in Normandy is a few miles away from Omaha in the town of La Cambe. It gets far fewer visitors than Omaha, which is a major tourist attraction. The cemetery here is a muted, hidden place. It sits close to a highway but is screened from it by a high wall. Near the wall is a stone marker with this inscription:

The German Cemetery at La Cambe: In the Same Soil of France Until 1947, this was an American cemetery. The remains were exhumed and shipped to the United States. It has been German since 1948, and contains over 21,000 graves. With its melancholy rigour, it is a graveyard for soldiers not all of whom had chosen either the cause or the fight. They too have found rest in our soil of France.

Paris 09 127 Entering the cemetery all you see are groups of five small, dark crosses placed far from each other. They bring to mind small groups of people separated by vast distances who are not part of any greater cause or effort. Initially the lack of headstones is disconcerting. Walk a little farther in and you see the markers lie flat on the ground, filling the areas between the crosses. The multiple crosses are a reminder that many graves here contain several bodies. Because of this La Cambe has far fewer graves than Omaha but contains more than twice as many dead.

At the center of the graveyard is a large stone cross atop a circular mound. The mound is a memorial to some 300 unknown soldiers buried beneath it. At the foot of the mound are a number of wreaths, most donated by former foes.

At Omaha there is a memorial with this inscription: “This embattled shore, portal of freedom, is forever hallowed by the ideals, the valor and the sacrifices of our fellow countrymen.” This statement was made for the living, not the dead. The US cemetery is designed to console the survivors that those who died here did so for an important and worthwhile reason.

While losers of wars often make similar claims for their dead, in World War II the Nazis’ acts made this impossible. As a result the private group that built and maintain this German cemetery was free to ask a question their foes could not: Why do we still consider war to be just “a continuation of politics by other means?”

10 Memories of 9/11


I wrote the following on 9/11/02. Except for the last item, which I added in 2008.

1. First hearing the news — a bulletin on the radio. Just, “a plane has crashed into” and figured it was something stupid, some idiot in a Cessna going into the Tower like bug vs. windshield. I remember thinking — before — there was a lot to do that day but it all seemed very light and easy. I thought I’d take a quick look at the pictures on TV before getting on with crossing items off my “To Do” list. Then it all changed, the world went from laughable to horrifying. An accident? It was my first question, not understanding what I was looking at, the images not really making it past my retinas. And then and then and then that second plane and I and you and all of us knew it was deliberate but that made no sense. A separation between what I saw and what I believed could possibly be true.

2. They can’t disappear, they can’t collapse, they can’t be gone. Can’t can’t can’t. The dust eating up the city and, worse yet, blocking my view. All I had to hold on to then was what I could see, as if information was helping me somehow.

3. Later that morning, when it seemed that planes just would not stop falling from the sky, I walked outside to get away from the TV — to not, for one moment, look. I saw a woman driving slowly down the street and on her face was that phrase I’d always read but never actually seen: utter despair.

4. I called my son’s school. His second week at kindergarten. I know this is stupid, I asked, but is everyone OK?

5. My wife was just outside of Chicago, which was all of a sudden too far away. The planes were now all grounded and it felt like the world had suddenly expanded, what once was a distance of hours was now farther than I could imagine. What did I think was the best way to get home — train or car? I was afraid of that responsibility. I didn’t want to say one or the other because what if I chose wrong and there was another attack and she died? Car or train? It felt like she was asking me the best way to get across a field watched over by a sniper.

6. My mother-in-law had a psychic fool visiting from the UK. London’s being evacuated, he would say whenever he got off the phone. Even on that day when nearly all rumors were to be believed, this one pushed too hard at credibility. No, I said with the sullen certainty of someone who has spent the past six hours watching the news. No, it is not.

7. What to tell my son was the only other topic of conversation. Regina, who I was on and off the phone with all day, had no suggestions. No more idea what to say to my son than to her daughters. Stupid with fear, I didn’t say anything that day. The teachers at school the next day were very clear they weren’t going to talk about it either. By the time he got home, he knew something. After playing with a friend, he knew a lot. I talked to him about it then. Weeks later I would be very aware of what I should have said and didn’t: It’s all going to be OK. Normally I’m not so recalcitrant about lying.

8. I’d never noticed how much noise came from the sky until it was silent. The grounding of all air traffic had an odd benefit of silence and beauty. The quiet marked those days and fit my mood. I loved the view of all that empty blue now and then bisected by a single fighter heading north to its base or south to cruise over New York. My little flying security blanket. Three days of quiet ending abruptly as the skies filled again. Even now I cringe when I hear a jet coming down low to land. I wait after it passes, expecting an explosion.

9. The flags came out for a variety of reasons: Pride, solidarity, protection. Down the street is a little donut shop where, at lunch time, you could also get curry. The owners were from India or Pakistan. That first night their windows were broken. Not even the right end of the continent, I thought to myself, cursing. The day after that an American flag was in the window. Within the month they had sold the shop. The new owners are Asian and still serve curry, but no one will ever confuse them with Arabs.

10. That day I was supposed to finish a book proposal. The topic: A humorous look at parental paranoia. I haven’t looked at it since.

9 11 papers


Why Finding Nemo is a great movie about 9/11

Can you help a couple of friends of mine?

When Big Brother Sergeant First Class CollateralDamage was in the sandbox many friends sent him stuff. On his birthday or Christmas or something he got so many cards that he actually cried. (He does it once a century whether he needs to or not.) I have two buddies currently serving in the George Bush Desert Classic. One is in playing on the course in the mid-east, the other is on the course in the far east. (Full disclosure — one is a buddy of SFC CollateralDamage whom I’ve never met but who he says is really neat despite being a lieutenant.) Both could use some care packages. If you have a moment and would like to help make a soldier cry for a good reason then please post a comment below or drop me an email.

My further thoughts on the topic, below:

IRAQ: My 10 Lessons Learned

1: I can hold my breath for six months. It’s not that hard, really. I just inhaled when my brother shipped out and exhaled again when he returned for R&R. I did it again when he went back until he returned from his tour. This is a convenient literary description of what it felt like – but in my memory it is the literal truth. I know people who’ve done it for 15 months, several times.

2: How to listen to the news. A mental flow chart I followed whenever I encountered any reports about Iraq. An answer of “that’s not my brother” at any step allowed me to return to my daily life.

  • Has somebody died?
  • Iraqi or American?
  • Civilian or military?
  • Was it someone in the Army?
  • What part of the country?
  • Is this near Fallujah?
  • Is it my brother?

When I reached that final question, I felt relieved and then horrible. I knew my reprieve was someone else’s loss.

3: What to send. Batteries. Hot sauce – MRE’s are bland. Hard candy. Chewing tobacco – it’s a form of currency. DVDs. Baby wipes – help people clean off when they’re in the field. My son sent some of his toys and stuffed animals to give to Iraqi kids.

4: What not to send. Don’t send chocolate. It will likely melt during shipping because of the temperatures in Iraq. There have been many reports that the military is trying to develop a chocolate with a higher melting point. Officially you’re not supposed to ship porn, alcohol, and/or anything with pork in it. While there are serious doubts as to whether or not anyone actually checks for these things, people at home disguise them anyway. A friend of my brother’s got some mouthwash in a box from home, screwed the top off and took a swig out of it. He spit it out and said in total surprise, “It’s mouthwash!”

5: Nothing bigger than a shoe box. That’s the optimum size for shipping. Anything bigger than that will take forever to get there. For some reason speed of delivery mattered even when he was going to be there for a year.

6: The USPS is very helpful. When shipping overseas you have to fill out one of two different customs forms depending on the weight of the package. I was always filling out the wrong one. No matter how long the line behind me, when the clerk saw the address on the package he or she invariably said something kind and didn’t mind waiting while I filled out the right one.

7: People are very kind. You send things because there’s nothing else you can do. I asked other people to send things, too. And they did. Lots of things: packages and dozens of birthday and Christmas cards and prayers. Always prayers. You send those, too, because there’s nothing else you can do.

8: I don’t care what you think about the war. Before you tell me that, tell me if you’ve had someone over there. If you know what that constant dread is like or what it’s like to be terrified when the phone rings late at night, then I’ll listen to what you have to say. I’ve disagreed with people who’ve been through this, but I’ve never argued. We have too much in common. It’s irrational, but I think we are the only people who should get to discuss the topic. Anyone else – even the ones who agree with me – I tend to view as a clueless fool.

9: Many people have it worse. And it’s not just the families that have had someone killed or injured. He is my brother but he is Stacy’s husband and my parent’s child. The times they were awake at 3 AM were much darker than the times I was.

10: I am a hypocrite. If truth is the first casualty of war, then the first truth to die is the fact that your opponent is human, too. I passionately believe that all human lives are equal. For the entire year my brother was over there I didn’t care how many Iraqis died or what else happened to them. Now that he is back, I am compassionate again.

Bush gave up golf for families of Iraq war dead

“I don’t want some mom whose son may have recently died to see the Commander-in-Chief playing golf,” Bush said. “I feel I owe it to the families to be as — to be in solidarity as best as I can with them. And I think playing golf during a war just sends the wrong signal.”

My head hurts from this quote.

Dear George, you want to show solidarity with these families? How about you visit each and every one of them. Maybe explain why neither you nor your children have served in this or any other war. How about adequate funding and administration for the Veterans Administration? How about not being an idiot? How about not starting wars on fictitious grounds?

Good Lord.

McCain? Hillary? Obama?

I’ll take any of them over this fool.

Not Huckabee, though. I can’t live through another administration that views facts as malleable.

Can you find my article on camouflage?

It’s cleverly disguised as art criticism over at DarkRoastedBlend.

Here’s the lead:

War has inspired many great artistic moments but how often have artists returned the favor? Once, as far as I can tell. During World War I Modernism descended on Allied naval planners with a bang (sorry about that), turning fleets into the largest painting canvases in the world.


The HMS Mauritania — prepared to disappear into a crowd of Pagliacci imitators.
The idea of painting ships this way was the idea of Norman Wilkinson, a British naval officer and painter. Oddly, this was Wilkinson’s only stab at non-representational art. After the war he went on to a successful painting career, including many wonderful posters for British railway lines. Wilkinson
For all of my UK readers (maybe that’s reader singular, maybe that’s wishful thinking), there’s what looks to be a great show about camouflage at the Imperial War Museum through Sunday. Wish I could go.
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