Case Study 1, The Confederate States of America; Part 7: Publish Analysis and Await Criticism

Publish what…and why?

Yes, the Confederacy failed. That is indisputable. The cottage industry that includes Civil War Inc. has always disagreed on why, exactly, filling libraries with different versions. Blaming anything on Southern leadership, however, is verboten because that might disrupt The South’s (TM) Holy Trinity of Father (Jefferson Davis), Son (Robert E. Lee), and Holy Spirit (Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson). Yes, that’s the way they are remembered…look at Stone Mountain outside Atlanta before it’s blasted off as “offensive.”

I have to admit to a particular bias doing this. I never thought the Confederacy stood a chance. Frankly, their reasons for the separation were bizarre for someone raised in Detroit in the ’60s and ’70s. Outside the raw numbers of men and guns and horses and ships, outside the morality matter, the southern states were acting like petulant children over the issue of their peculiar institution, slowing national growth because they wanted the clock to stop so they could bask in the same glories of a genteel life of a vanishing landed gentry forever. Their social stratification seemed to me to be antediluvian. 

As a lad, I visited the south. I remember seeing the shadows of Jim Crow–the shadows under the painted-over signs that read “Whites Only” especially–in the early 60s. I used to ask what that was about, but ultimately I knew…we all knew. As a young soldier, I was stationed in the south; Louisiana, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, Florida, and Arizona. The southern people’s attitudes towards their failed country were then, and I believe they are now ambivalent. The idea of Proud Southern Heritage is irritating at one level and on another simply for the tourists. But there are a few who insist upon living in that failed past. Their numbers are few, but they are more vocal than sensible; agreeing with them as Civil War Inc. does at least shuts them up. I believe that one day the woke crowd will silence these Confederacetrists forever, but that day has yet to come.

Did this tinge my analysis? Maybe.

But there’s no quantification for this kind of analysis. No matter what else happened or what excuses are made, the Confederacy failed as a country, and no qualification will change that.

Corespondents who have read this screed so far (both of them) have assured me that none of my conclusions could ever be accepted by Civil War, Inc., let alone the Lost Cause Mythologists. Leadership failure? Politicians not representing the Will of the Southern People? Ridiculous. And, worst of all possible sins: defining The South as a cause, not a country? Asinine. Unjustifiable. And right in line with today’s oh-so-woke “history corrections” to get rid of all those offensive statues and flags because they’re symbols of America’s slave-mongering past. I’m surprised no one’s pointed that out. My conclusions are popular with the wrong crowd and un-publishable because they offend the sensibilities of the biggest audience for such products.

But this is a sample study; test of a method to see if such a method could work. It’s not intended to reach conclusions that have to be published. Not science; historical failure analysis attempts to quantify historical outcomes; it cannot change them. I’m the last to declare that this method is anything more than a proposal

This is just a test for a method, but I could turn it into a book. I have been thinking about consolidating my essay collections that never made me much money into a single volume. I could include this little series or a version thereof.

Now a list of somewhat more contemporary national failures for another test/sample study. Any ONE of these could be treated the same way as I treated the Confederacy:

  • South Vietnam
  • Italy to 1943
  • French 20th Century Empire
  • Soviet Union
  • British Empire
  • Germany to 1945

South Vietnam would be a political fireball even today–reason to leave it alone for another decade or so. The interest in Italy and France would be minimal. The Soviet Union, given some of the latest news, may be a renaming, not a failure. Whether or not the British Empire failed or just went away is also debatable. It would perhaps be better if we waited on those.

That leaves Germany to 1945 for next time.

The Liberty Bell Files: J. Edgar’s Demons

For those of you who don’t know, this book is something of a back story for the Stella’s Game Trilogy that answers some of the questions of just how the FBI…well, you’ll have to see it. Suffice it to say that Julia Parkinson Addison and Dave Clawson lived before they turned up in the Trilogy. Look for it come June…I hope.

Historical Failure Analysis Case Study 1, The Confederate States of America; Part 5: Compare and Contrast

According to my original outline for this method, this phase is where we compare and contrast the various examples. Since there are no other examples, we’ll compare and contrast the multiple causes of the Confederacy’s ultimate failure and rank them in order:

  1. First
  2. Worst
  3. Most influential
  4. Least appreciated by historians/pundits/blowhards

Chickens and Eggs

A short chronology of major events up to the end of 1861:

  1. South Carolina and Mississippi secede;
  2. Star of the West fired on in Charleston Harbor;
  3. Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas secede;
  4. Confederate Government formed by seceded states, naming Jefferson Davis as Provisional President; 
  5. Confederate Constitution adopted;
  6. Lincoln inaugurated;
  7. Relief expedition for Ft. Sumter ordered;
  8. Davis orders Ft. Sumter to be reduced before relief arrives.
  9. Ft Sumter fired upon;
  10. Lincoln declares rebellion, calls for troops;
  11. Lincoln declares blockade;
  12. Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee (in order) secede.
  13. War traditionally begins at Bull Run/Manassas.
  14. Cotton embargo begins.

First Failure: Davis and the Confederate Congress

The Buchanan government’s response to the firing upon the unarmed cargo ship Star of the West  in January of 1861 was a strongly-worded nothing. US armories, arsenals, and barracks across the seceded states surrendered to armed mobs without a fight during his administration. Then the South Carolinians wanted Ft. Sumter to just give up…and they wouldn’t. In the patois of the time, reduced meant destroyed or taken. South Carolina started shooting and everything went downhill after that. Davis’ faulty assumption/poor leadership as to Lincoln’s reaction to an attack on Sumter led to the war, the first failure of the Confederacy.

But that blockade…

For a country that was so dependent on imports and exports, The Confederacy had no reliable means of defending any maritime assets. Yes, the Confederacy built ships to break the blockade, but the blockade was porous until late 1862. Nonetheless, the Confederate Congress, with Davis’s agreement, began to withhold cotton when cotton could get out as early as the winter of 1861. They believed that starved of their cotton, Britain and France would hasten to rescue the Confederacy.

But Europe depended too much on the North’s output and too little on the South’s, and the Confederacy never admitted this. The Confederacy believed Europe would break the blockade and land troops to fight off the Yankee invaders in exchange for cotton. When even recognition didn’t come, Confederate leaders tried all sorts of schemes to finance the war with cotton futures: all failed. As the war went on and they lost more territory, the schemes became even more fantastic. One even surrendered the Gulf of Mexico to whoever would support them…without asking the Gulf States.

It is a leader’s responsibility to act in the best interests of a majority of the led. Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Congress did not guide the Confederacy in a practical or realistic direction. Aside from the miscalculation about Lincoln, cotton diplomacy, continual insistence on ever more draconian draft and impressment regulations that ate up the future, then even the future of the future, destroyed what resources even a prosperous country would need to survive. The manifold failure of leadership at Montgomery, then Richmond, merely compounded Davis’ failure.

At the same time, Davis acted as if every setback was permanent, forever and ever. The frontiers of his country were impossible to hold with the resources at his disposal. Trying to hold them squandered manpower and resources the Confederacy could never replace.

By the end of 1863, when titanic battles had wiped out a quarter of his armies, Davis should have appreciated the dire straights he was in, but if he did, he didn’t do anything about it. Maybe, surrounded by fire-eaters, he couldn’t, but that doesn’t mean that he might not have been able to reach some accommodation with the more virulent of them. Again, there’s no evidence that he tried. After Lincoln’s reelection in 1864, after the fall of Atlanta and the clear signs that the Union Army was in charge, not him, he held firm with the policy that would become the Lost Cause. Feeling the need to hold impossible borders in defense of a hopeless policy was contributory, symptomatic of poor leadership.

Worst: Lack of Real Representation

The Confederacy needed everyone to be on board to fight off an invasion. The Confederate Congress was exclusively white, male, and almost exclusively slave-owning. While many had represented their same constituencies in Washington, that didn’t make them any better at representing their people. Sure, educated men in America were among the landed gentry. Many were attorneys that made them better at understanding and creating laws. Many were wealthy. But most people in the Confederacy were not slave-owners, and not all slave-owners were proponents of disunion willing and ready to expend their blood and treasure to stay out of the Union.

This became more apparent the longer the conflict lasted. Yet, the slave-owners in Richmond insisted on continuing the war, on not changing the policy that had clearly failed, and insisting that Europe would come to its senses any day now…coming right up…next ship…

After the last full measure of devotion had been served out by soldiers who hadn’t had a square meal in four years, Richmond finally allowed the arming of slaves. Politicians in Richmond and elsewhere were willing to sacrifice everyone else on the altar of their Noble Cause. Many of the most virulent supporters of slavery in 1861 were still adamant secessionists in 1865, still insistent that their peculiar institution could survive if only…if only….

North Carolina, which had sent fully half its military-age men off to war by 1865, contributing fully 20% of the Confederate Army, had had enough by early 1865 and was willing to call it quits. It was the second-last state to secede and was the first to counsel surrender, sacrificing more than any other state. And Richmond ignored them.

The peace commissioners of 1865 that Lincoln refused to see, well-meaning as they were, wanted the Union to pretend that the past four years of bloodletting just didn’t happen, that a peace based on nothing more than a cease-fire and a handshake, preserving their Peculiar Institution intact. Lincoln wouldn’t see them because there was no point. The Confederate leadership was living in Cloud Cuckoo Land. They always had been.

The leadership–as a class–of the Confederacy seemed aloof, not just from the country but from reality. Even as late as 1865, some senior Confederate officers thought that breaking up the armies to fight as guerrillas was possible. But most of the former Confederacy only wanted the fighting to end, and most of their would-be guerrillas thought so as well. The leader’s failure to recognize how the world was and what their people–who were not mere subjects or chattels–wanted seems inexcusable and yet another failure. Ranked against Davis’s and his government’s miscalculations, the non-representation of leadership was far worse.

Most Influential: Lack of True National Identity

The issues of national definition and sovereignty go hand in hand. The lack of definition seems innocuous compared to the other failure causes/modes, but let’s see.

A bunch of guys from various seceded states gathered together and called themselves the Confederate States of America. They wrote a constitution enshrouding their Noble Cause–their preservation of their Peculiar Institution of slavery–installed a government and waited for foreign recognition. In the meantime, they added a bunch of states that mysteriously failed to secede and parts of other states…and waited some more.

Then, one of the states started shooting and the government at Washington said “rebellion!” and called out the militia. More states seceded because of that call. The Confederate government moved from Alabama to Virginia and started collecting volunteers to defend the capital. And again, they waited for foreign recognition, intervention to secure their independence, and arms and money.

By 1865, they wondered why the army was melting into nothingness. And they asked why no one had recognized either the Confederacy or their Noble Cause. Unlike the guys in Richmond, a majority of people in the seceded states did not own slaves. And unlike them, not all backed a secession based on the preservation of the institution. Indeed, not all of them supported a war to preserve that policy, regardless of how it started or whatever reason anyone had that the violence began. Most may have been behind it when it started, but after years of deprivation and sacrifice, wearing black and digging grave after grave, their patriotism was worn thin, and what support there was evaporated for most by the end of 1864.

The Confederacy failed on many counts, but how long might they have survived if there was no war? Unknowable, but it’s hard to imagine that without an operating Fugitive Slave Act (it would have been a dead letter, without a doubt). Without the ability to expand beyond the confines of its undefined frontiers, there would have been some imbroglio someplace other than Charleston Harbor that would have triggered a war. By defining themselves as a place where only some people were free, they set themselves up for disaster. It is hard to imagine a shorter-sighted policy. That was a failure equal in devastating effect to the Confederacy’s overall poor leadership.

The Confederacy defined itself not as a country but as a cause

While the nascent United States built itself based on individual liberty for most of its citizens in the 1780s, it didn’t expressly state that it would only be for some people in perpetuity–1619 Project notwithstanding. From the outset, the United States said that anyone could be free of government intrusion. From the beginning of its existence, citing chattel slavery and perpetuating a strict class system, the Confederacy could not understand why everyone didn’t support them. They had cotton, after all. Here’s cotton, the Confederacy said. Buy our cotton; sell us arms; expend your blood and treasure to break this blockade nuisance. Yeah, those guys over there object to our firing on the flag, say we’re in rebellion. Forget that you’ve freed your slaves a generation or two ago. Here’s cotton

The Confederates defined themselves as slaveholders, not as a stable country to invest in. They had a political economy, yet they were more alike than different from those they left…except for that slavery thing. No, the North was not the land of universal suffrage, but neither was anywhere else in the mid-19th century. 

But the Confederacy was the land where people were bought and sold. No, they weren’t the only ones then. Let’s remember that Brazil kept slaves until 1888; Saudi Arabia–officially–until 1962; it still exists in other parts of the Muslim world. Regrettably, the Confederacy wanted the support of a state founded on liberty, equality, and brotherhood–France. And the British Empire abolished slavery in 1833. That they didn’t define themselves as a country but as a cause was a substantial failure, but one that was inevitable and led to inevitable failure.

In his magisterial War For the Union, Allan Nevins said that the Confederacy’s sole concern almost from its founding was the war against the Union. While the Union still expanded, added three states, and began a transcontinental railroad, the Confederacy lacked the resources to do any of those things, except add states that hadn’t seceded. The ONLY thing that they could spend their attention on was fighting and gathering resources for the war.

And that they did poorly, I submit, because of all the other causes of the Confederacy’s failure. The failure of cotton diplomacy stemmed from an overdeveloped belief in the supremacy of King Cotton. The leadership was either willfully blind or ignorant of Europe’s dependence on American food products, specifically wheat and corn. While the South grew those too, those products were primarily for their subsistence, not enough to export. Tobacco, rice, and pecans were popular exports but didn’t hold a candle to cotton’s cash value. 

This faith in cotton led to the consistent belief that Britain and France would recognize the Confederacy and intervene on their behalf with almost religious fervor. As late as November 1864, Confederate agents were offering France inducements from selling a decade’s worth of cotton at prewar prices to surrendering their sovereignty over seaports (which what states would agree to?). But France wouldn’t bite…because France could not afford to annoy the Union.

There’s a school of thought that suggests that Lincoln should have ordered Ft. Sumter’s evacuation and that he started the war by not doing so. Let’s not blame the mugging victim for getting beat up.

Least Appreciated: All Three Added Up to Catastrophe

  • Davis authorized the firing on Ft Sumter;
  • The Confederate Government didn’t represent those they said they represented;
  • The Confederacy was less a country than it was a cause; a way of life.

Thee was no single cause of the Confederacy’s failure, but several. One may not have been enough, but all three ganged up on a small bunch of people who couldn’t modernize their outlook or their industry fast enough to stop the tide of blue serge that overwhelmed them in 1865. How well, how long they might have survived if any one of these failures had not existed is impossible to say. One thing is certain: incompetent leaders who don’t understand their people and who expect the rest of the world to think as they do is a recipe for disaster.

The Safe Tree is Coming in March

The Safe Tree

After three years, The Stella’s Game Trilogy will be complete next month. For those you who have read Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships, and Tideline: Friendship Abides, The Safe Tree: Friendship Triumphs follows JJ and Ann, Leigh and Mike for another year. They are apart, then together, then suffer fire and gun battles, treachery and personal loss, culminating a wild trip through time. Whatever you thought The Safe Tree was about, you’re probably wrong.

For those who are unfamiliar with The Stella’s Game Trilogy, it follows four young people from age eight to 31, watching them grow, learn, laugh, cry, love, and rely on their friends. From the Kennedy assignation through the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa to the Iran-Contra scandal, the four friends stick together, even when they are oceans apart.

Case Study 1, The Confederate States of America; Part 4: Analyze Factors

So now we come down to the why of the Confederacy’s failure.

  • The Confederate States of America couldn’t define its borders or its members
  • The Confederacy’s central government didn’t represent–truly–the majority of the populous of states that it could encompass and thus could not count on the support of its people.
  • The seceded states declared their support for the institution of slavery, but few in the states actually owned them.
  • The Confederacy really, really could not defend itself or its sovereignty.
  • The President of the Confederacy failed to lead his country in realistic economic, diplomatic, or military directions.

Defining Confederates and the Confederacy

While the seceded states were easy to encompass, the outlying slave-holding states were enigmatic and mocking. While Delaware was never disputed (in Delaware) because there were so few slaves there and minimal secessionist sentiment, Maryland and Missouri were thought of as merely intransigent. Secession ordinances failed in Maryland in early 1861 because the legislators didn’t feel they had the power to approve them. Before a second session could convene, Union soldiers arrested pro-secession legislators. Under US military occupation early on, Missouri had two legislatures by the end of 1861, and both sent representatives to both Washington AND Richmond. 

Kentucky declared neutrality in May 1861, then voted for a Unionist legislature in June. All the while, both Unionist and secessionist factions were raising troops in the Bluegrass State. That said Union Kentucky troops outnumbered their Confederate brethren by 10:1. Kentucky’s flimsy neutrality was violated when the Confederacy invaded the state in September 1861. A shadow legislature was formed, and representatives sent to Richmond. Kentucky was admitted to the Confederacy in October. After the Confederate army abandoned the state in the spring of 1862, it no longer mattered that the elected government had never voted on secession. 

Then there were those other places. The Confederacy claimed the Arizona/New Mexico territory. There was a secession convention in March 1861 that voted to separate the region south of the 38th parallel, elected a president, and authorized militias. Richmond hailed the move and admitted Southern/Confederate Arizona. Beset by Federal troops and California volunteers, the secession legislature fled the state in the summer of 1862, though there was minor resistance until 1865. Modern Oklahoma, then called Indian Territory, wasn’t coherent enough to secede and suffered through its own civil war, where native Americans fought each other with the Union and the Confederacy’s assistance.

A handful of pro-slavery Oregonians raise a secession flag in Jacksonville, OR, but were persuaded to haul it down by their neighbors. An 1865 incident called the Long Tom Rebellion in Eugene after Lincoln’s death resulted in the arrest of a pro-slavery blowhard and a few bruises. In California, secessionist sentiment was somewhat more robust in certain areas, but no secession ordinances were considered, and no shadow governments were formed in California. Some California secessionists journeyed east and fought with the Confederacy; more went to Confederate Arizona. About 60,000 Californians fought for the Union; perhaps 5,000 for the Confederacy.

Aside from these outliers, the Richmond government had trouble with parts of the states that had seceded. Texas was never quite a united front; unquestionably not as united as, say, Mississippi. East Tennessee was notoriously rebellious, and there was even talk of a West-Virginia-like secession. Though the third state to secede, Florida was always an enigma because 3/4ths of the state was uninhabited. The important bases in Key West, Fort Jefferson, and Fort Pickens were vital to the Federal blockade of the Confederacy, yet the Confederacy never had the resources to capture them. Only one of Florida’s major ports, Pensacola, was served by rail, and Fort Pickens effectively neutralized it.

The Confederacy had two conflicts on its hands: one with the Union and one with some of its more recalcitrant constituents. It should be remembered that the only state that did not send units to the Union Army was South Carolina. Simultaneously, the number of non-seceded states that sent troops to the Confederacy was just three: Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri; four, if we count Confederate Arizona.
There’s an expression in critical thinking: All poodles are dogs, but not all dogs are poodles. The states and parts of states may have seceded before Bull Run, but not everyone in those states were committed Confederates. This lack of commitment was reflected in the growing number of desertions after 1863.
A Government Not Of The PeopleThe government that met first at Montgomery, Alabama, and finally at Richmond, Virginia, was an anomaly. Many men in the government had been members of the US Congress; others had been cabinet secretaries. Nearly all were men of means, and almost all were slave-owners. And therein lay at least part of another cause of the Confederacy’s failure: slave-owners were not a majority of the southern population.

Slavery wasn’t as simple as owning human beings and trading them like baseball players. Slavery was an attitude, a way of thinking, and a way of life. Within its grasp were the southern states’ entire political economy–indeed, the Cotton Kingdom around the Gulf of Mexico rose and fell on the practices. Because cotton cultivation defied mechanization until the 1960s, the primary cash crop of at least half the Confederate states depended on human labor for planting and harvesting. This fact might have been a tremendous boon for people who could perform these back-breaking tasks, but because slaves could do it at a lower cost, it only made their situation worse. The planters who owned the land had a tradition of treating people who were not like them poorly. And it didn’t matter if those people were black, white, red, brown, yellow, or pink-polka-dot. If you were not a landed Southern aristocrat, you were a second-class citizen or less. And it was these men–less than 5% of the population–who claimed to represent the Confederacy in Richmond.

The big planters weren’t the only slave-owners. About one in four southern landowners owned at least one slave, but a majority owned fewer than five; indeed, most one or two. The rest worked their own land by themselves. It wasn’t that they didn’t agree with slave-owning, just that they either couldn’t afford it or didn’t feel the need. Many weren’t above hiring one or two from a neighbor for planting or harvesting. That said, many southerners agreed with the social system that kept non-whites from having the same rights that they did.  

But many were not all, and some estimates have as many as 15% of those living in Confederate states who did not agree with the social and legal stratification that their neighbors did…and many of them had money that the Confederacy needed. What was worse, as the war went on, what little support there had been in 1861 steadily eroded until, by late 1864, the trickle of army desertions, state defections, and domestic supporters of the Confederacy became an unstoppable torrent.

The Problem of Slavery After Emancipation

When Lincoln announced the Emancipation, he did it as a weapon and an administrative tool, not a humanitarian gesture. He only “freed” the slaves everywhere that Federal troops did not control, thus legally and theoretically taking them out of the control of their masters. Sounds great, but in fact, it was impractical because, well, the slave-owners were under no compulsion to pay attention, and most slaves knew nothing of it until Federal troops arrived. And that was the Confederacy’s problem.

Before the Emancipation, slaves who came into Federal lines or escaped to free territory had an ambiguous status. Some commanders allowed them to remain behind Federal lines; others felt compelled to return them. Indeed, slave-owners and their employees sometimes entered Federal lines to retrieve their charges. Just as often–because not all Federal officers believed the war was over slavery–they were allowed to pass through the lines again with the slaves. There was no clear policy. Which was one reason why Lincoln did what he did.
The other reason was to deprive the Confederacy of its cheap manpower, and that reason was, to be frank, problematic. If the slave-owners just ignored it, and the slaves never heard of it, what good did it do? For that, we fall back on the first reason: it required all Federal commanders to let the former slaves remain free. That meant that the cheap labor pool often dried up wherever Federal troops went, whether they stayed or not. The power of the Washington government that the Confederacy defied was such that the Confederate States could not prevent the Emancipation from being enforced on what had been their territory. The longer the war lasted, the fewer slaves they could keep.

The Shield That Didn’t 

While this study isn’t about why the Confederacy lost on the battlefield, it is an essential factor behind the Confederate States’ failure. For centuries, scholars and statesmen had been struggling to define “sovereignty” in absolute legal terms. By the 19th century, the theory was called Westphalian sovereignty, named for the treaty that ended the Thirty Years’ War in 1648. Loosely, it is the concept of nation-state sovereignty based on territoriality and the absence of external agents in domestic structures. In other words, no foreign power inside the defined borders of a sovereign state could interfere with the functions of either the established government or society.

Then it gets complicated. Buried in the Paris Declaration Respecting Maritime Law in 1858 was a definition for blockade that replaced ancient unwritten law. In 1861, Lincoln declared the “rebellious states” to be under blockade. What that did legally, among other things, provided a tacit admission to some that the Confederacy was legitimate. However, the 1826 Brazilian blockade of the Rio de la Plata during their war with Argentina was recognized by Britain but not by the US or France, so “legitimacy” was somewhat moot. Indeed, vessels of foreign registry that tried to run the blockade of the Confederacy stopped by the US Navy might have protested the violation of their sovereignty…but they usually didn’t. Even the famous Trent incident might have passed unnoticed if the two Confederate agents/diplomats hadn’t been removed. The fact that the Confederacy couldn’t protect its communications with the outside world affected her sovereignty because she could not trade as a state if she couldn’t assure that cargoes in or out would be safe.

As for land communications, that is a different matter. The borders were porous; the Confederacy could not control even the trade on the Ohio River. Other than few fixed forts in Kentucky, defending the long and ambiguous borders would always be done inside the Confederacy. And what did the Confederacy have to protect those long frontiers with? A collection of state-based units that, for all their zeal, were undermanned and poorly equipped. By some measures, fully 25% of the military manpower was exempt for reasons ranging from being overseers of more than 25 slaves to being members of the national, state, or local government or of local or state militias. While many of the militias did indeed fight when the war came to them, they were rarely used for anything more than rear-guards, for they were rarely good enough for more. By then, it was too late to save an already failed state.

Jefferson Davis: Poor Leader

Jefferson Davis believed in states’ rights to determine whether or not they could maintain slavery as an institution, and he accepted the presidency based on that belief. However, it is not clear that he believed that the CSA could have achieved lasting and meaningful political and economic independence from the United States. From the pie-eyed optimism of the cotton embargo early in the war to his oft-stated belief that any territory “lost” to the Union was “lost” forever to slavery, Davis was many things, but a true believer in the success of his country, he was not.

When the Union blockade was the weakest, the attempts at cotton diplomacy perhaps had the best intentions but the worst of effects. While cotton was short in Europe, Britain and France were more dependent on the Union’s wheat and corn shipments than on the Confederacy’s cotton. Southern belief in King Cotton drove the illusion that Europe would come to their rescue and drove many economic and diplomatic efforts. Even as late as 1863, the Confederacy expected diplomatic recognition any day now…real soon….yep, next month for certain….

Davis, who had been a Secretary of War and a member of the US Congress for years, should have recognized the British-French diplomatic stalling when he saw it, and counseled away from it…but he didn’t. Nor could he back away from defending the seceded states’ long and distant frontiers, believing that every foot of territory held by slave-believing power would be held forever, and every foot lost to the abolitionists would be lost forever. This belief contributed significantly to the defense of untenable positions in Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, and the border states. To read some of his writings, it was as if Lincoln and the Republicans had never uttered a word before Ft. Sumter, and he was consistently surprised to learn that they meant what they said.

The next step is to Compare and Contrast these factors to see which were the most damaging. Given the above…hard to tell, but we’ll work on it.


Sergeant’s Business, Second Edition

For those of you who like the stuff I write, you can enjoy the paperback of my short story collection for less than ten bucks and the e-book for less than a buck. Fun, travel, and adventure, celebrating the unsung, the un-celebrated, the un-heralded workhorses of the backwaters and the front lines of human conflicts.  Sergeant’s Business and Other Stories has it all.

Historical Failure Analysis Case Study 1: The Confederate States of America

Delay may give clearer light as to what is best to be done.

Aaron Burr

Sorry for the delay between entries, but the press of life is such that…well, OK, I wasn’t quite ready to continue.

Step 1: Determine when, where and how the failure occurred.

The seceded states clearly failed in their struggle to achieve separation from the Union in the war that lasted from 1861 to 1865. Most scholars and other commentators have suggested that it was because of several factors. Beringer, Hattaway, Jones, and Still, in their Why The South Lost the Civil War (1986) considered the popular notions as to the seceded states’ failure to achieve independence. They concluded that The South failed with something they called “civil religion,” or a united ideological basis for the conflict. 

Unfortunately, in this scholar’s view, that didn’t go far enough, because there are three entities–not just the seceded states–to be considered. . There were:

  • The seceded states popularly called The South
  • The slave states that included four states that did NOT secede–Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware (yes, Delaware), and the District of Columbia.
  • The Confederate States of America, or Southern Confederacy, which was a government entity formed in 1861.

For the purposes of this analysis, I’ll stick with these rough definitions.

All three are interrelated, and all three failed

Most commentators stop at the southern states, or The South, which is an understood entity all on its own. Perhaps understood by most after the war, but there were parts of other un-seceded states that considered themselves moderately southern in outlook. These included Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, and they also contributed recruits to Confederate armies.

Which brings us to the slaveholding states. Slavery along the borders roughly defined by the Mason-Dixon Line was a contentious issue divided more than just neighbors. Slavery in America was, in part, economical, in part philosophical, and in part political. Both sides of the argument had what they thought were perfectly valid reasons for their positions. Slaveholding states like Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland contributed units to both sides during the conflict. Delaware only sent troops to the Union. Little DC’s several 60-day battalions and militia cavalry companies maneuvered with the Union armies.

This brings us to the Confederate States of America, a government entity based first in Montgomery, Alabama, then Richmond, Virginia. The Confederacy was formed by the seceded states, and tried to include the non-seceded slave states–except Delaware. It considered DC to be slave-supporting in sympathy. It lost that struggle when Lincoln signed legislation freeing DC’s slaves in April 1862.

Failed…at What?

What were these three entities trying to do? What was the conflict about? All three entities said they wanted political and economic independence from the Union so that they could maintain humans as chattels and treat them as little better than animals. They also presumed that, as an independent political entity, they could take their property anywhere they wanted, including into the trans-Mississippi west. OK…but what about the war?

Lincoln’s election in 1860 caused fear in the slave states that their rights to keep and expand their policies would be curtailed in a Northern-dominated government. No matter what Lincoln, his supporters, or even neutral parties–there were a few–said about Lincoln’s burning desire to maintain the Union above all else, this is what slavery’s supporters feared.

The Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott vs. Sanford decision declared slavery legal no matter where the slave-owner wanted to take his property. It also denied citizenship to slaves for all time, effectively abolishing manumission–the act of freeing a slave–by denying them citizenship. The South believed that Lincoln would try to overturn Dred Scott. Starting in December 1860, before the electors voted, South Carolina began the stampede of secession.

There was also the stampede of southern militias grabbing Federal arsenals throughout the seceded states, but there was no shooting even after the Confederate government was formed in February 1861, until it started in South Carolina that April.

Slavery began secession

The seceded states contended that the ground upon which Ft. Sumter was built belonged to South Carolina, claiming that South Carolina’s secession meant that the fort would revert to state ownership, The Federal troops that occupied it were trespassing. They called the legal theory reversion .

But that little island didn’t actually exist before the US Army Corps of Engineers built it. Unfortunately, South Carolina started shooting, so that legal theory wasn’t tested in any court.

The shooting at Sumter triggered Lincoln’s militia call. That triggered the secession of the upper South–Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia–and we know what happened after that.

The war that followed the firing on Ft. Sumter was triggered by a legal theory that had never been tested.

It has long been argued that the conflict was fought for the seceded states’ independence. Well, that’s OK, until we note that three un-seceded states were considered part of the Confederacy–Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland. More than that, the Confederacy also claimed New Mexico and Arizona territories. And there was Oregon, that supposedly expressed sympathy for the Southern cause. Finally, there were attempts to drag California into the Confederate orbit.

Neither California nor Oregon nor Arizona nor New Mexico contained a single slave. Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland all rejected secession. Furthermore, every state but South Carolina formed Union regiments.

So…what exactly did the losing faction/side/political entity lose at? The violent war that ended in 1865, yes…but with such a coarse definition of who was on which side and when…what did who lose? All three entities failed to achieve meaningful and lasting political and economic independence from the United States. If all three entities failed in what they set out to do, didn’t the Confederate States of America fail its constituents? So that Berenger and company may have been at least partly right…

Step 1: The failure of the Confederate States of America was that, given the widespread support for the Union within its claimed borders, they failed represent, really and truly, the will of a majority of the people within its ill-defined borders.

Think about that until next time, when we talk about similar cases.

The Safe Tree: Friendship Triumphs

The Safe Tree

It’s on its way…slowly. Ran into some structural snags, some things failed to mesh with the rest of the Trilogy…but it’s getting there. Hoping by the end of the year.

Historical Failure Analysis Part I: An Outline

Victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan

John F. Kennedy, 1961

This post is the first in a series of ruminations I’m about to venture on for the dual purpose of selling books and trying to advance the study and writing of history. Now, I’m not the guy to start a whole sub-field called “historical failure analysis,” but I’d like to get people thinking in those terms, if possible.

If at first you don’t succeed, then skydiving is definitely not for you

Steven Wright

Failure Analysis (FA) is a discipline of engineering that endeavors to determine the cause of a failure, be it a bearing or a bridge, to fix the problem(s) that caused the failure and avoid further failures. Now, applying this to history…dicy, maybe. But, perhaps not. To expand on my poor ruminations, I’ll be borrowing extensively from other web sites because I understand FA’s rudiments but not much more. So, if you work in failure analysis, forgive my clumsy attempt at adapting your discipline to mine.

Failure is always an option if you’re not paying attention

John D. Beatty

Reasons for Performing Failure Analysis

In engineering, these include:

  • Understanding the Root Cause of the Failure
  • Preventing (Future) Asset or Product Failures
  • Improving Future Products and Processes
  • Preventing Financial Losses and Penalties from Failed Components
  • Meeting Standards for Products and Assets
  • Determining Liability for Failure

Thanks to TWI Global for this adapted list. I’ll borrow more if I can. At the same time, I’m going to keep my eye on other truths, including…

Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it

Georges Santayana

As students of the past, we should recognize the realities of the list above, because, in more than one book/class/discussion, we go straight to the bottom: finding someone to blame. And we shouldn’t. Well, maybe we should…sometimes. But it’s going to be my position that the Historical Failure Analysis (HFA) I propose should be applied not to battles or generals or even to campaigns, but first, best and most effectively to social groups like whole civilizations and kingdoms, to empires and countries. I believe that it is there that we’ll find the best use of any such method if we find any use for one like it at all.

What do we mean by “failure?”

I’m going to borrow heavily from the corrosion-doctors.org web site. A social group has “failed” when it can no longer act in its society’s best interests. It need not be broken entirely, conquered or destroyed, but often may be extinct: civilizations also sometimes transition into others. Any failure can begin with social stresses or environmental influences, by the effects of climate changes (yes, Virginia, there were climate changes before there were SUVs), by changes in neighbors, or by combining these and many other factors. Understanding the relative importance of these factors is the historical analyst’s job, but can never be as definitive as an engineer’s. Unlike in engineering, understanding what happens to people is a matter of opinion and opinion only, for conclusive proof has to wait to develop more reliable time machines than the sources at a scholar’s disposal.

History is part legend and part fact, but mostly interpretation by those who have gone before us.

Burgess Meredith in The Master Gunfighter (1975)

Think about that for a while. We don’t get proof like engineers do: we reach consensus. We go back to the original sources where we can, but the further back we look, the fewer sources survive. When I was in school, I had an issue with some “source material,” especially in the classical/ancient world. My professors said, “don’t worry about it,” but I still do. I mean, Pericles’ funeral oration is positively Shakespearean…but did he really say it? Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is what three different reporters who wrote it down in shorthand says it was. So, I look at the source documents and look for corroboration, preferably physical evidence. And that’s what we need for HFA to work: corroboration.

Books that analyze historical failures in any systematic way aren’t legion. Two examples that I’ve tried to follow are Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, and Robin Higham’s anthology Why Air Forces Fail: The Anatomy of Defeat. Neither book, as far as I could tell, was very methodical about reaching their conclusions, which were nonetheless perfectly valid on their own. Being a writer (first) and a scholar (a close second), I’m concerned about the field I write in because I’ve been seeing many scholars write critiques of the past without a sound, repeatable method.

So, Let’s venture upon a method

The historian should first have a broad knowledge of the events leading to the failure. If the scholar is aware of the failed group’s nature and its historical performance, broadly-accepted conclusions are more likely. Failure analysis is akin to detective work, gathering, and weighing evidence. Not everyone will buy what we have to say, or the conclusions that we reach, or our method. Some critics are just more inclined to reach the conclusions they want/need to make, rather than those that fit the evidence.

Here’s a venture into a method, God help me.

  • Step One: Determine When, Where and How the Failure Occurred
  • Step Two: Collect Information on Similar Cases for Comparison
  • Step Three: Identify Social/Economic/Political/Environmental Similarities in Similar Cases
  • Step Four: Analyze Each Element/Factor Separately
  • Step Five: Compare and Contrast Like You Did as an Undergrad
  • Step Six: Stop, Think, and Ask: Does This Make Sense?
  • Step Seven: Publish Analysis–and Methodology–and Await Criticism.

Determine When, Where and How the Failure Occurred

Yeah, this looks a LOT like what most scholars do all the time…but is it? How often do we look at the American Revolution and the War of 1812 and ask ourselves how the British failed their empire-not-yet-imperial and conclude that America was just too far away to keep? How often do we look at WWI in the Pacific and say, “Japan jumped in for better position in 1941” without realizing that Japan was looking for markets and colonies in 1914, not mid-Pacific positioning? And who among us doesn’t bob our heads up and down and agree that the Cold War ended because of the Soviet system’s economic collapse, not the political failure? Who argues that the US manned space program was a significant contributor to that collapse? Can we look at the French Revolution and subsequent global wars from the Catholic Church’s standpoint and see if its influence had as much to do with The Terror and the eventual sale of Louisiana as did Bourbon indifference and Napoleon’s need for money?

We Rush Now to Step Ten…

Cover of Why the Samurai Lost Japan: A Study of Miscalculation and Folly available at your favorite booksellers

Historical Failure Analysis is what Lee and I think we did in Why the Samurai Lost Japan: We didn’t look at the triumphalist march of the US Navy across the Pacific, for once. We looked first at why the Japanese acted the way they did. We found a combination of reasons, but mostly what we saw was a cultural and institutional failure of Japan’s own making. It was also a cultural and institutional inability to build a military organization that…wait for it…learned from its failures. Failure analysis for the Japanese before 1945 consisted of examining the plan to discover who failed the plan, not how the plan failed. Consequently, losses like the Coral Sea, Midway, and even the first attack on Wake Island in 1941 were unfortunate blips on the Japanese tableau’s landscape, not failed plans.

In The Devil’s Own Day: Shiloh and the American Civil War, I tried to emphasize what both sides did wrong before those two days in the Tennessee pine barrens. Neither the Confederates nor the Federals were ready for a battle on that scale, not there, not then. Neither side had more than a handful of “veterans” of any battle, and even those saw nothing on the scale of slaughter they saw that April. Both sides failed at many things, that much is for sure. The relative weights of those failures ultimately paid off by Monday afternoon.

In future posts I’ll take a look at how this proposed method might be used, how it may help the discipline, and how it might just advance the field.

I invite scholars, dilettantes and others to comment and criticize at their leisure.

I just hope it sells more books.

Guadalcanal, Why the Samurai Lost Japan, and The Safe Tree

Yes, I’m trying to sell that one, too.

The Solomon Islands, Bismarck Archipelago, and New Guinea. Guadalcanal is in the lower right just about 10 degrees S latitude and bisected by 160 degrees E longitude.

The American operation in the Solomons Islands called WATCHTOWER began 7 August 1942, with the Marine landings on the northern coast of the island of Guadalcanal. For all the much-vaunted preparation that would later characterize American amphibious operations, the Americans barely knew how big the island was. All they really knew was that it was large enough to support an airstrip…and that the Japanese were building one there.

The threat from Tulagi
WIkimedia Commons

What had concerned the Americans before the Japanese started on that airstrip, however was the seaplane base at Tulagi, just across Skylark Channel. While it’s hard for us to understand now what a seaplane base meant then, this big bruiser to the left was known as an Emily–a Kawanishi H8K flying boat, with a combat range of about 3,000 miles carrying 4,000 pounds of bombs. Emilys had bombed Pearl Harbor on 4 March 1942, albeit ineffectively, and could hit Australia from Tulagi…and did NOT need an airstrip.

So the Americans sort-of planned this battle for this island…an island hardly anyone had ever heard of. The scant accounts there were of terrain and climate were studied assiduously. Jack London was one of the few Americans who had ever visited the Solomons before the war, writing a non-fiction account, Voyage of the Snark, and a short story, The Red One. But a few thousand words of prose, some descriptions from missionaries, magazine travel articles and information from a planter-refugee from the island didn’t provide tidal tables, or ground firmness above the beach, or were there was access to fresh water sources, or any of the other myriad other little bits and pieces the planners needed.

Thus…it was dubbed Operation Shoestring by the troops.

Why the Samurai Lost Japan: A Study in Miscalculation and Folly doesn’t talk a great deal about the American planning, but it does cover the Japanese plans for the island, their reasoning for being there in the first place, and their clumsy reaction to the American landings. For one thing, there were fewer than a thousand Japanese combat troops in the Solomons east of Bougainville, which was why the Marines met little initial resistance. Initially, the IJN believed that the American landings were only a Marine regiment–less than 2,000 men–instead of the division-plus-attachments–somewhere around 15,000–who were really there. Their first counterattack with a little more than 900 troops led by Ichiki Kiyonao was wiped out in what the Marines called the Battle of the Tenaru River on the night of 21 August.

After that, the Japanese became alarmed, but not distressed…not yet.

The Japanese buildup on Guadalcanal was gradual for several reasons, among them being distance: the nearest base was a day and a half sailing away, and the Americans were quick to build up their air strength on Guadalcanal Moving ships during the day became more perilous by the week.

And September didn’t get better. And the Japanese grip on the island slipped more every week, regardless of how the naval battles went because the Americans could replace all their losses and keep getting stronger, and the Japanese could not.

The Safe Tree: Friendship Triumphs–15 November

The Safe Tree

For those of you following the Stella’s Game Trilogy, the last installment is on track for publication on 15 November of this year.

Follow the friends as they solve the mystery that has plagued, threatened and endangered them since the ’60s. Whoever–whatever–threatens their lives and their families now, in 1986, will be discovered and, with any luck, ended.

For those of you who are now scratching your heads and saying “what’s a Stella’s Game Trilogy,” you have a chance to catch up with Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships, and Tideline: Friendship Abides from your favorite booksellers.

Here’s what readers have said about Stella’s Game:

A rolliking roll through the ’60s…I could almost smell the tear gas…perfectly captures an era…

Various Stella’s Game readers

And Tideline’s getting some positive comments:

…felt like being in the Army after ‘Nam…a salute to service women between Vietnam and Desert Storm…smell the sawdust of Ranger school…the friends we made in uniform are with us forever…

Various Tideline readers

The Moon Landing and Stella’s Game

Who can’t remember where they were when the Eagle landed on Tranquility Base?

For some of us, it was forever ago; for others, yesterday. I was on vacation with my mom and my oldest sister; we were in New Bedford, Massachusetts, having already visited Gettysburg, Philadelphia, Trenton, and Valley Forge; I was fourteen, barely, and in the lobby of the Governor Bradford Hotel…and that huge-for-the-time 27-inch color TV in the wall had Jules Bergman narrating…closer…closer now….closer…

Houston, Tranquility Base here: the Eagle has landed.

Neil Armstrong, 20 July 1969

And who cared what Houston said after that, or where we’d been before? A guy next to me, though, declared “triumph of the capitalist system.” I puzzled over that for a long time before I came to understand that the US manned space program was more than propaganda: it was a way to bankrupt the Soviet Union by spending money on their own program that they couldn’t afford…and the West could.

Really? Why?

And a year later, 30% of Americans believed that the Moon landing was faked…

Twenty percent of Earth’s population had watched the landing live…and still many people insisted that it was produced in a movie studio…and many people still do. Though thoroughly debunked, the conspiracists also fail to explain just why they would do that, let alone how literally millions of people who worked on the project were persuaded to remain silent about the duplicity

President Kennedy’s goal he’d set eight years earlier had been reached. But a year later, fewer Americans cared about it. They moved on, except during the Apollo XIII mission. Perhaps it was supposed to be that way…

July ’69 and Stella’s Game

Cover of Stella's Game:
Cover of Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships, Available Now from fine booksellers everywhere

The friends all know where they were when Apollo XI landed on the Moon, and readers who were around then might remember that Sunday, too. JJ and Mike met during that broadcast, wondering at the traffic noise outside: something exciting happened in Chappaquiddick, something to do with a Kennedy, so the reporters were torn as to which story they should cover.

One of the unique qualities to Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships, is the feel that it has given some readers who remember that time not just in their lives but in history. One reader wrote me:

as I read … I remembered watching the Moon landing in my Grandmother’s kitchen, on her Motorola portable…I was nineteen…thanks for triggering that memory.

C. Lollard

Maybe Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships will trigger some pleasant memories for you, too. Now available in paperback and e-book from fine booksellers everywhere.

Operation Homecoming, Stella's Game, and Tideline

The war was over; the last American combat casualties were months before; the POWs were coming home.

It was 1973, and the last negotiations had scheduled the return of some 500-plus American prisoners of war from North Vietnamese, Viet Cong, Laotian, and Chinese captivity. As the men were flown to the Philippines to be debriefed and treated, the medics were surprised at how resilient they were, how mentally healthy despite debilitating injuries and malnutrition.

Burst of Joy

LTC Robert L. Stirm, left, greeted his family at Travis AFB 17 March 1973, after six years of captivity. This photo Burst of Joy by Slava “Sal” Veder, won a Pulitzer Prize, and did more to encapsulate the end of America’s “Vietnam experience” than any other image. The cameras were more than happy to record every heartfelt greeting, every fragile survivor, every dash across the hardstand into the eager arms of fathers barely known; of husbands weak and tired; of sons and brothers who had experienced isolation that few could appreciate…

And not a protester in sight…

And frankly, THAT was weird as I recall. Though most of the protests had sputtered out after 1970 and the Kent State shootings, we seriously expected to see protesters outside the air bases and hospitals…but nothing. Maybe because we were tired, all of us in America were; tired of the division, of the shouting, the screaming, the whiffs of smoke and tear gas for no end other than to protest a draft that sent less than 30% of its inductees to a conflict that would see no victory because it wasn’t supposed to…

And there were those bracelets again…

The POW bracelets that many people wore, starting in 1970, nickel plated or copper, they were engraved with the name of a POW or a missing American; some five million of them were sold by Voices in Vital America (VIVA). They vanished from most wrists for unknown reasons in about ’72, but during Operation Homecoming, out they came again. Those who had bracelets engraved with men who came back celebrated; some sent their bracelets to “their” PWs. Those with bracelets engraved with names that didn’t come back got blue star stickers…and by July those bracelets were back in the drawers.

But there were still more than five hundred men missing…

“Missing” in war means a lot of different things, and in the mid-20th century it could mean burned up in their aircraft; suspended bleeding in a parachute harness until death overtook them and they were consumed by the jungle; blown to smithereens and unidentifiable by any means at the time, or even just took off, making a life elsewhere.

But some were still held captive…

In his book, Henry Kissinger stated that he knew there were still Americans captive in Southeast Asia, but the North Vietnamese could wait; Kissinger, Nixon and the whole Western world needed an end to the carnage. So, he signed the best treaty he could get for himself, Nixon, and the whole Western world…and for Vietnam, for that matter. But as a result of that treaty, the Saigon government almost certainly saw the writing on the proverbial wall. Most sources say that the Saigon regime gave itself no more than three years to live after January 1973. They were right.

Cover of Stella's Game:
Cover of Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships, Available Now from fine booksellers everywhere

In Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships, watching the POW’s come back is a family matter, hearing the commentators mention that this guy’s mother died while he was in a cage; that one’s family was so excited about his return that they took out a two-page ad in the local paper; that one’s wife didn’t want to wait and divorced him. These were teenagers–high school seniors–glad that the draft was ending but unsure about their own futures. Both the girls and the boys would watch the joyous reunions, be happy for the bracelet-owners whose men came home, and try to feel for those who did not. But it was hard: they had nothing to compare that agony to.

Tideline..Ever Rising

Footprints in the sand along the Tideline

Guess where this beach is for an autographed copy of Tideline: Friendship Abides. The kids grow up, as happens when you keep feeding ’em. But they have lives of their own, and they write letters to friends and loved ones wherever they are.

They write lots of letters…

They write because between 1974 and 1986, the Internet was still called DARPANET, there was no World Wide Web (hypertext wouldn’t come along until a decade later), no cell phones in general use, no blogs (I know; ancient history), so no e-mails. “Social media” was, well, sitting around and shooting the bull. But they still had fun, fell in love, fell out of love, went to war, and worked for success in their chosen professions: three of them in the Army; one in the Navy. And they wrote letters.

Tideline: Friendship Abides is the second part of the Stella’s Game Trilogy, and should be available at you favorite booksellers by mid-April.

Khe Sanh ’68 and Stella’s Game

And we woke up on 31 January to learn a new place name: Khe Sanh. That afternoon we learned that Jeff’s there. No longer was Vietnam some abstract.

White bread America was as affected by that conflict as the rest of the country.

The controversial McNamara Line of outposts and electronic monitoring systems along the 17th parallel was built starting in 1967, and was anchored by combat bases like the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB), which was a series of revetments and artillery batteries that was a most impressive sandbag fortification with an air strip and helicopter landing pads enough to maintain a Marine battalion. In January 1968, there were some 6,000 Marines based out of the Combat Base, and an unclear number of South Vietnamese and Royal Lao troops. The struggle for Khe Sanh and the I Corps area started nine days before Tet ’68, but William Westmoreland insisted that Tet was a diversion from Khe Sanh.

Was the tail wagging this dog?

The day after the Tet offensive exploded on the news, the war became very personal for some of us, even at the tender age of 12. With older sisters who had boyfriends of a certain age…yes, two of them were in-country. One mailed a letter to my oldest sister just after Christmas, saying how this Khe Sanh place was just a maze of sandbags.

Every TV newscast about Vietnam became a contest to see who could spot Jeff

While the war raged and every evening people watched at the Marines fought for the hills and villages around the base, there were times when we thought “oh, there he is!” But we never knew for sure. No one heard from Jeff…not even his family…until after the siege was lifted on 6 April by the 1st Cavalry Division. His parents received a note–brief and hurried–saying he was OK and headed for Japan. The next my sister heard was a year later, after he got back Stateside. Yeah, that kind of thing happened, too.

Letters and Friends and Stella’s Game

Cover of Stella's Game:
Cover of Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships, Available Now from fine booksellers everywhere

Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships is a story of four kids growing up in these turbulent times, when things like video calls, instant messaging with a device in your pocket were the stuff of science fiction. To communicate they wrote letters, and some letters arrived with odd timing, like Jeff’s to my sister. But the kids worry because their families worry, and that worry spills over to their friends sometimes, and friends offer what comfort they can.

Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships takes place in the Detroit area from 1963 to 1974, following four children trying to fit in, to learn, to love, to laugh and for one–to stay alive. Look for it on Amazon and everywhere else. Learn what it was really like growing up without too much concern about money, but a lot about your future, and about your friend’s futures. Money doesn’t, after all, buy security for everyone.

Tet ’68 and Stella’s Game

On Tuesday, 30 January 1968, many of us awoke to a world different from the one we had slept in.

Marines outside Hue, February 1968
Getty images

There was supposed to be lines, rear areas, clean divisions between combatant and non-combatant…everybody knew that’s what war was supposed to be like. Combat was like, well, Combat and The Gallant Men. Besides, General Westmorland and Vice President Humphrey both said that the US was winning the war in Vietnam. Then…

Nứt trời; Làm rung chuyển trái đất!

Vietnamese for Crack the Sky; Shake the Earth!

But the Tet offensive, like the message above, in ’68 changed all those perceptions. The phrase was the signal sent to North Vietnamese units that the offensive to take over South Vietnam, planned for months, was on. Khe Sanh was suddenly put under siege; the US embassy in Saigon was partially captured; many provincial capitals were attacked, and the old capital of Vietnam’s empire, Hue, was captured by Viet Cong forces, which began a bloody campaign of massacre.

War didn’t have executions like the one in the New York Times for 2 February 1968–the one on top of this blog. Photographer Eddie Adams captured BG Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of South Vietnam’s national police, executing CPT Nguyen Van Lem of the Viet Cong, whose unit had just slaughtered Lem’s friend’s family. Before that photo appeared, Vietnam was just World War II in color with different weapons and uniforms, and the US Department of Defense had treated it just like that..until that day.

And Vietnam became a very different kind of war…

Wounded men, Tet ’68
Washington Post

And there were images of men hurt in the fighting delivered into your very home; in the newspapers, the magazines, on television. I was twelve, living a comfortable white-bread suburb of Detroit…and we saw this war unfold before us in living color. This kind of horror came after the riot of ’67, when the whiffs of smoke and tear gas rising on that wet and angry breeze from downtown, and the imagery of troops marching in formation down Woodward Avenue with bayonets fixed, and the news that our housekeeper was burned out of her home, reached us in the supposedly insulated suburbs that long and hot summer. Sure, I was too young to be drafted, but my older sisters had boyfriends…and one who was drafted in March of ’68; and one was going to West Point in the fall.

That war affected the affluent, too.

Public perceptions of the war changed decidedly after that. Though the battles for the capitals and the countryside ended with the US and South Vietnamese controlling most of the country and the Viet Cong were mostly destroyed, the war for public opinion was lost that winter. By spring, the demands to end the war were becoming overwhelming. Yet, Richard Nixon’s campaign theme was “Law and Order,” while Hubert Humphrey’s was “End the War.” And Nixon won in ’68 mostly, it is thought, because he promised new leadership…and he did get the US out two years before the Saigon government collapsed.

Your Author, 1967

And that damn war affected the characters in Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships. Imagine how a 12-year old–like the guy to the right here–might be affected by the knowledge that a family friend was a Marine stuck in Khe Sanh…and how his friends might be affected by that knowledge. Remember that this is Nixon country for the most part; supporters of the conflict in Vietnam.

But you don’t have to imagine it if you can read about it in Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships on Amazon or at your favorite booksellers.