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George Orwell and National Opposite Day

Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t

Just to mess with your head a bit…still cold here in the Great Lakes; trust me. Today is the 52nd anniversary of the lowest daily high temperature ever recorded in the Detroit area: -26 below. Let’s hope that record is never quite met.

Today, though, we’re going to talk about a most extraordinary writer, a scrivener of ideas and thoughtful prose. George Orwell (the pen name of Eric Blair) was born in India 25 June 1903, the son of an Englishman in Indian Civil Service and a Frenchwoman raised in Burma. Orwell and his older sister were taken to England when the boy was a year old. Though his father visited from time to time, he would not live with his father again until 1912.

As a boy, Orwell was attracted to writing poetry, stories and historical essays, earning prizes and scholarships, including one for Eton. Still too broke to graduate, he took a job with the Imperial Police in Burma in 1922. While there Orwell learned Burmese, grew a mustache, had his knuckles tattoed, started his path towards socialism, and caught dengue fever. After returning to England in 1927, he resigned from the Imperial Police to take up writing full time.

His first book, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) was an homage to Jack London’s People of the Abyss (1903), describing the seamier side of the largest European cities, its poverty, and degradation of people less fortunate than others. Working a number of odd jobs while writing essays and articles, Orwell associated with some of the organized labor and growing socialist movements in central Britain while writing The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), which brought him to the attention of Britain’s Special Branch until the publication of his landmark–and last–book, 1984.

From late 1936 until mid-1937, Orwell participated in the Spanish Civil War primarily as a fighter, but also as an observer of the political chaos that drove the many factions in Spain to cut each other’s throats with charges and counter-charges of “fascism” and “counter-revolutionary thought.” Wounded, he left Spain somewhat disillusioned about the future prospects of socialism if not even the socialists could agree with each other.

After a long recovery, Orwell published a novel, Coming Up for Air (1939), partly based on his childhood and partly not. Rejected for military service with the outbreak of WWII, he kept writing essays, reviews, poetry, stories and a journal, where he often spoke of his disillusionment with the socialist movement in practice but never in theory. He got work supervising BBC broadcasts for India, countering German propaganda.

In 1942 or thereabouts Orwell started writing his breakout book, Animal Farm, that would eventually be published in 1945. Along the way, he suffered many shocks, not the least of which was the death of his parents, losing his lodgings to a V-1 bomb, and the death of his wife. While it was in process with his publishers, it was rejected by his first publisher on the advice of Peter Smollett, a Ministry of Information official in charge of producing pro-Soviet propaganda during the war who turned out to be a Soviet agent. How this affected his later work is speculative since the connection only came after Orwell was dead. Nonetheless, 1984‘s Ministry of Truth did have a duty to change yesterday’s history to fit today’s reality.

Animal Farm won Orwell international acclaim, and without a family he submerged himself in work, producing over 130 essays and reviews in less than a year, and publishing a collection of his review essays. A boating incident in 1947 resulted in tuberculosis, which he barely survived by early 1949 while finishing his last book, published in June–it was an instant best-seller. On 21 January 1950, Eric Blair/George Orwell died at age 46.

In his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell set out six simple rules for writers:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figures of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

With his impressive published output, I can’t possibly disagree with these rules, but break them most of us do, and regularly. But they come from a man of contrasts, an atheist who embraced and thrived on traditional Church-of-England values, who provoked arguments endlessly but was a loner, aloof from even his most intimate friends. Sickly for much of his adult life, his views on humanism never wavered, while he raged at the humanitarians who didn’t–or couldn’t–provide enough relief for the downtrodden. He hated the idea of dictatorship, yet understood it better than nearly anyone else. He rejected the Soviet Union but embraced socialism all the more fervently. While the Special Branch of London’s Metropolitan Police maintained a file on Orwell as a possible subversive, the Home Office’s MI-5 was just as convinced that he was not only not a communist, the communists didn’t want anything to do with him.

Reading any of Orwell’s writings after reading 1984, however, is difficult because the haunted quality of his last novel almost feels as if he knew his end was coming sooner than later. Animal Farm, which I read first in the 1960s, was spectral but not with the same feeling of doom. Reading Burma Days about his life as an Imperial Policeman or Down and Out in Paris and London recalls Jack London’s desperate despair, but contains none of the feel of death that his last works have.

For those of you who know nothing of Orwell’s prodigious body of work, you should read the significant books in the order they were published.

And if you have read him already, pause today in memory of the late Eric Blair…when the clock strikes thirteen.


One of the most extraordinary things I get to do on this blog is making pithy observations about what people expect versus what is–ahem–real. It is with the height of irony that Friday, 25 February is called by some National Opposite Day. I say “by some” because not everyone agrees that 25 February is National Opposite Day; some insist that it’s 7 January, yet others demand recognition of the “fact” that the 25th of every month is Opposite Day. Several sources speak about “experts” in the field of national days.

Orwell would have loved/hated it. “Experts on national days”–there are such things? And the idea of opposite days–where you say one thing and do another–would have fit into his Oceania very well.

No one knows when or where “opposite days” started, but the earliest reference is in the 1920s when Calvin Coolidge declared “I do not choose to run for president in 1928.” At this, the punditocracy began debating if he was running or not (he didn’t).

Opposite Day is a self-referential paradox, and the perfect way to commemorate the death of George Orwell. Declare Opposite Day, and there can never be one–Winston Smith at the Ministry of Truth will ensure it. Declare an orgy on Opposite Day and Julia of the Junior Anti-Sex League will spend hours deciding if she should or not.

Double-plus-good!

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Why the Samurai Lost Japan: A Study in Miscalculation and Folly

Finally, it’s here! Why the Samurai Lost Japan is now available in paperback and PDF!

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Cover for Why the Samurai Lost Japan

JDB Communications, LLC is proud and pleased (and relieved, after two years) to announce the publication of Why the Samurai Lost Japan: A Study in Miscalculation and Folly by John D. Beatty and Lee A. Rochwerger, a reworking of their earlier and acclaimed What Were They Thinking: A Fresh Look at Japan at War, 1941-1945 (Merriam Press, 2009).

Why the Samurai Lost Japan isn’t just another “west triumphant” hagiography of WWII. Nor is it a “Japan as victim” story of lost opportunities for peace. Instead, it is a study of agrarian and cash-poor Japan’s desperate need for resource independence, and of the warriors who sought to satiate that need…the samurai.

When Perry sailed to Japan in 1854, the whole of the Japanese Empire had fewer paved roads than a square mile of the city of London. In 1941, Japan sent the largest aircraft carrier task force in the world to attack the United States Navy at Pearl Harbor. How this three-generation, breakneck-paced modernization, and industrialization affected Japan is just one subject explored in Why the Samurai Lost Japan.

Beginning in the late 19th century, Imperial Japan embarked on a program of aggressive military overseas adventures in Asia and the Pacific. Yet, it wasn’t until the 1930s that Japan’s economy changed from largely agrarian to mostly industrial. Between 1904 and 1941 Japan conquered Korea, Manchuria, large parts of China, and French Indochina, and occupied large swaths of Pacific islands. This provided tremendous resources, but it still wasn’t enough: food riots wracked Japan right up to 1945. How this powerful-yet-weak empire managed these conquests is also explored by Why the Samurai Lost Japan.

Japan’s empire-building aggressions were driven by the ancient cult of samurai warriors who were answerable only to their Emperor. The samurai followed a freewheeling, freely interpreted “code” of bushido—a code better understood than it was understandable, more spoken of than written down with authority. Bushido left only one option for any failure, regardless of scale or import—death. Why the Samurai Lost Japan is also a study of that code and the warriors who followed it—their aspirations, successes, miscalculations, and follies.

In 1941 the samurai picked a fight with arguably the greatest western industrial power on the planet at that time—the United States. They led Japan into a horrible war—the Pacific Theater of World War II—stretching across a third of the Earth’s surface, and spanning an additional three years, eight months, three weeks and five days. Their early and easy victories convinced them of their invincibility. They refused to believe that their fighting spirit could be defeated by superior firepower. However, before they started the war, the samurai knew they could not win outright. The west had to stop fighting early on, or Japan was doomed…and they had no Plan B.  Why the Samurai Lost Japan explores the expectations of the samurai planners, and their main planning tool—hope.

The samurai’s war ended after two nuclear devices were used over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Most authorities believe that Japan’s seeking peace after the atomic bombings were connected to those bombings. Why the Samurai Lost Japan discusses and challenges how the war in the Pacific really ended…and questions the popular assumptions about governance in pre-1945 Japan.

Why the Samurai Lost Japan is available in trade paperback for $24.95 plus shipping and $9.95 in PDF from The Book Patch and fine booksellers everywhere.

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Britain and the American Revolution now Available in Paperback

JDB Communications LLC is proud to announce the publication of Britain and the American Revolution, another collection of essays by John D. Beatty, author of The Devil’s Own Day: Shiloh and the American Civil War.

Most scholars—especially Americans—when writing about the American Revolution (also called the American War) emphasize the Western Hemisphere when considering the effects.  However, in this scribe’s opinion this view is short-sighted.  Great Britain, after all, is still around, and its Empire indeed flourished a century after it lost its then-largest and most prosperous colonies.  The Empire may have steadily degraded after Victoria’s diamond jubilee gala in 1897, but by the much-ballyhooed “Brexit” from the European Community in 2016, Britain herself was still a force to be reckoned with.

Recent writers, especially Steven Sears in The British Empire, have suggested that the British Empire was really nothing more than a jobs program for the English middle and upper classes.  In some ways, this is arguably true.  However trivial this may seem in the great scheme of things, it was also the largest single influence on human civilization between the fall of Rome and the triumph of the United States and the Soviet Union in 1945.  As these essays argue, this influence was in part because of the sheer genius of hard-pressed Britons to survive on their harsh, rocky islands.

“Changing the Great Game” is an exploration of how the concept of “rights” was grudgingly preserved by dynasty after dynasty ruling the British Isles.  Even if the Scots, Irish and other ethnic groups didn’t recognize it, the rights enjoyed by Englishmen that were unique to their legal system did rub off on them as well, if only in small doses from time to time.  The ancient legends of Arthur, Alfred and the rest of the traditional lawgivers may have been perfected in the 19th century, but their origins are clearly much older.  The legal tradition that no sovereign is above his own laws far predate the Normans.

“Kings, Kin and Killers” is something of an experiment.  Steven Pincus in 1688: The First Modern Revolution talks extensively about the motives of the supporters of the Stuarts and those who…well, did not support the monarch.  They hadn’t yet expressed a desire to throw out the monarchy as they would later, but the non-supporters of the Stuart kings were far more interested in the power of capital than that of land.  Their arguments were eerily similar to those that would take place in America before the shooting started in 1861.  It is almost certain that many of the philosophical animosities in English society between country and town, between farm and workshop, were locked into American society after the Revolution, and hung on in animus for another three generations.

“The Limits of Empire” is explicitly that: an essay into the administrative and technical limitations of imperial administration in the late 18th century.  Law, trade, finance, and community administration all depended on communications, and there was simply no good or reliable way to improve trans-Atlantic communications in the 1770s such that the Revolution, or one like it, could be put down.  Even if India were to become the most prosperous of all of Britain’s imperial properties, it wasn’t yet.  If the Gandhi revolution had come two centuries earlier, by that remove it may have succeeded much faster.

“Copper-Bottomed Wizardry” began as a challenge—a sort of a bet.  This writer was wagered that he could not find enough technological innovation between 1775 and 1805 to explain how Britain defeated France at Trafalgar.  Knowing that coppering became standard by 1783, the research started there and produced this essay.  The carronade, the short-barreled “smasher” that was the terror of small-vessel warfare before the shell gun, was intentionally left out because of other innovations that made British ships not only reliable and easier to handle, but overall better vessels.  Any sailor can tell you that, pound for pound, any well-handled warship in peacetime is worth three that are better gunned.  In wartime, it’s how well the guns are laid and how long they can stay on station, not just how well they can blast a target.

Four essays are hardly a working thesis, but they may point to one: Britain was strengthened by the conflict that resulted in the loss of her thirteen colonies that would eventually become the United States.  Both she and the United States, ultimately, resolved the last of a conflict in Anglo-Saxon society that had raged since the Tudors: Do governments have a right to rule, or a duty?  Is society the master of an economic structure, or a servant or product of it?

Let these essays inform the reader’s viewpoint. Available in paperbound and PDF at The Book Patch. Personally autographed copies will be available at JDBCOM.COM soon.

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Three Essays on Strategy Now Available in Paperback and PDF

JDB Communications, LLC is proud to announce the availability of Three Essays on Strategy by John D. Beatty in paperback and PDF from The Book Patch.

Walcott, Iowa, and Wall, South Dakota may seem to be unlikely places to talk about in an essay collection on strategy, but examining these institutions is a good introduction to the ideas of how strategy is made.  For those who have never been to Walcott, Iowa, it is the home of the world’s largest truck stop.   To earn this distinction, the ne plus ultra of road trip rest emporiums rises from the Iowa prairie along Interstate 80.  It began in 1964 as a simple gas station and lunch counter, according to the web site, and has by this writing grown to a sprawling complex that offers everything from a museum to a pet wash stand, four eateries, a laundromat and even a chiropractor and a regular doctor, in addition to the usual fuel found at any such, smaller establishment.  Wall Drug started even earlier, in 1931, offering free ice water to thirsty travelers in the Badland’s summer heat.  When this correspondent saw it, Wall Drug had been joined by over fifty-odd other store fronts plying everything from food to footgear, from books to jewelry, and from tourist souvenirs (including the ubiquitous bumper stickers) to fuel.  How these two mid-America roadside behemoths got where they are, how they got to be bigger than their host communities, is part marketing of course, but also by employing the theme of these essays: strategy.

Alfred T. Mahan’s series of Naval War College lectures, published as The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783 (1890) were inconsequential, but the 110-page introduction formalized strategic thought and theory for the first time.  Using Britain as a model, he outlined a fleets-make-bases-make-ports-make- trade-makes-money-makes-fleets formula that had been in use, if unacknowledged, ever since wood was made to swim and carry a load.  This model of strategy was designed not for just for military gain but to advance and secure economic power.  To emphasize this point, Mahan wrote his introduction out of economic necessity: his original manuscript had been rejected, and he penned the famous introduction to get it sold.

That this formalization of what every major state since the beginning of recorded history had practiced should come from a naval officer from the greatest commercial power of its age was almost anticlimactic.  Of all human enterprises, up until Mahan’s time ships and the sea were simultaneously the most lucrative and the most expensive to build and maintain.  The United States, of all the world’s commercial powers, took advantage of America’s many international coasts and harbors to build an overseas trading empire that dwarfed both its competitors and its partners by the middle of the 20th century.

Scratch any historian, politician, wargamer, monarch, or businessperson and you’ll likely get a different definition for “strategy” from each.  Each will be correct—as far as their specialized viewpoint is concerned.  Politicians need to keep getting elected, so their concern is for their electorate, which often means jobs.  Monarchs have some of the same concerns—though usually for their own fortunes and for those of their supporters.  Business always looks for markets, for resources, for labor, but most often for political and economic stability.  Wargamers, working in a different kind of environment altogether from the rest, seek to succeed in whatever game they are playing at the moment, but only within the confines of the game.  For the historian, “strategy” is the sum of what social groups and states plan to do, and what they actually execute, to achieve their goals.  As such, “strategy” is the overall idea that monarchs, tradesmen, politicians or anyone else start out with—or what they develop over the course of years or centuries—to either achieve a defined goal, to ensure their commonweal, or to just survive.

These essays were written in a time when the concept of “strategy” had been formally defined for over a century, and in a world where the concept of “strategy” was intentionally driven by policy.  As these essays show, strategy has been an evolution, a development of policy-making that stretches back millennia, and was sometimes driven by accident, sometimes by design.  During the time period covered by the first two, dealing with the Mediterranean’s ancient world and with Europe and Asia in the early modern period, strategy was a matter of royal prerogative and trade demands.  In the third, dealing with the United States and Japan in the Pacific in the 19th century, strategy was the prerogative, at least in part, of democratically elected representatives.  What is interesting is how similar the strategic choices are, and how similar the alternatives are.  The greatest difference is that of scale.

But too there’s geography, and the tremendous role played by simply stopping in the right place.  Human communities grow where there are resources and conditions that support them.  Even if commercial enterprises like the I-80 truck stop and Wall Drug make their own conditions, that’s not always possible.  Drive along an interstate highway in the US on either side of Wall or of Walcott, and that becomes apparent.  The successful stops are built where on and off ramps provide easy access, but there are nearly as many tall road signs standing next to empty concrete slabs as there are those next to bustling enterprises.  Those that are further down the frontage roads or farther from the ramps rarely survive more than a few years unless they offer something else that weary travelers needed or, like Wall Drug did in the beginning, gave away ice water in summer.  In some places along the highway are the artifacts of failed truck stops, motels and even whole towns that may have thrived once, but no longer.  Many of the abandoned gas stations along the highway lost business when the range of vehicles increased, others because the price of fuel made their continued operation unprofitable, and still others because the owners retired or died.  But, these relics of bygone days were often the casualties of strategic changes made by their competitors and the changing tastes of consumers that they failed to meet.  Often as not, they are the losers in a strategic game that they lost, or perhaps that they didn’t even consciously play.

The social groups and countries described in these essays, like the truck stops and the drug stores that fail while others succeed, are all subject to someone’s strategy.  The trick is being in a position to take advantage of successful strategies or be able to withstand bad ones.

Three Essays on Strategy is another of the growing essay collection from JDB Communications, LLC. that retails for $3.99 for paper, $1.99 for PDF from The Book Patch.

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Hamburg and National Tequila Day

So, 24 July marks a lot of things. The Great Fire of Rome (the one Nero fiddled through…not) ended in 64 AD; Mary Queen of Scots was compelled to abdicate in 1567; the Rochester (New York) Riot started in 1964; and Apollo IX returned from its Moon mission in 1969, fulfilling JFK’s pledge to send a man to the Moon and bring him back.  Too, today is Amelia Earhart Day (born in 1897), and Fast Food Day, and Cousin’s Day (I only ever had two and one’s gone, so that one’s lost on me.  But today we’ll talk about Operation Gomorrah and Mexican booze.

By 1943, the RAF and the USAAF were able to pick and choose targets in Germany with some impunity, having built up an inventory of over 1,000 heavy bombers and crews.  After a five month campaign against the Ruhr, RAF Bomber Command decided to switch targets and concentrate on Hamburg, on the North Sea coast.  The first RAF raid was on 24 July, 1943 included a pathfinder force that saw the first use of chaff (called “Window” at the time) to jam the German radar. The fires the first raid started burned for three days.

A daylight raid followed on 25 July, and another night raid. After a 24 hour respite, over 700 RAF bombers struck on the night of 27 July, igniting the first recorded man-made firestorm: a cyclonic blaze so big it was seen in England and Norway (read Crop Duster: A Novel of WWII for a description).  After 27 July, the Luftwaffe wrote off Hamburg, declaring that it was no longer worth defending–or that they were capable of defending it.  There were two more raids before the British and Americans were done on 2 August.  In the end, Operation Gomorrah caused more than 80,000 German casualties at a cost of less than 500 Allied, caused over a million Germans to flee the city, and essentially knocked Hamburg off-line for better than a year.

Why Hamburg?  There’s some debate about that.  Though Germany had a large armaments industry there, the concentration of 4,000 pound blockbuster bombs in the early part of the 27 July raid suggests an “operational experiment” on the behalf of the Bomber Command eggheads and the American National Fire Prevention Association that created the surveys and data for evaluating the relative flammability of targets. The early “thousand-plane” raids in 1941 hit on a formula that made optimum use of the masonry that was used in German construction: blow it to dust and light the dust on fire. In addition, the larger bombs would be better for destroying the infrastructure (like water mains and telephone networks, city streets and fuel stocks) the defenders used to fight fires and evacuate casualties. Some defenders of the Allied air offensive claim that all of this was coincidental, but the record makes it fairly clear that using the ancient Hanseatic city’s very construction and age against it was planned.  It is known that some of the data gleaned from Gomorrah was used again in planning the fire raids on Japan in 1945,  Yes, it all sounds very callous, but it was a war.

And then there’s tequila.  Today, 24 July, is National Tequila Day for reasons unknown to anyone.  Now, I personally can’t physically stomach the stuff (long story that intimates know), but I can appreciate that mezcal wine distilled from the blue agave has done more for the region that it’s made in than any other export.  It is a shining example of what alcoholic beverages were first made for: to extend the commercial trading range and shelf life of agricultural products. The agave plant’s sap itself, undistilled, is of little commercial interest other than as a sweetener. But, turn it into mezcal, call it by the region’s name (Tequila) and suddenly you can sell certain bottles of the stuff for hundreds of dollars on the other side of the world, as it has been since it was first exported in the 1880s.

And you can drown you sorrows in it when your house burns down because your leader can’t keep his mitt off other countries.

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Sergeant’s Business and Other Stories Now Available in Paperback

JDB Communications, LLC is proud to announce the availability of the famous short story collection from John D. Beatty, Sergeant’s Business and Other Stories at The Book Patch. According to the author:

Mostly this collection is about the unsung, the innumerable heroes that don’t get into the history books, that struggle on many levels, are hurt and killed by the enemy and the elements, by bad luck and stupidity-the ultimate yet necessary stupidity that is war.

Priced at $7.99 for the 212-page 6 X 9 perfect bound, $3.99 for PDF, Sergeant’s Business is perfect for those who love a front-to-back engaging read.

 

 

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Ruminations On War

JDB Communications, LLC is pleased to announce the publication of another in the series of essay collections from John D Beatty.  “Ruminations On War” contains five essays on topics as wide ranging as air power, militias, disease, the origins of warfare, and early military theorists.

Speculation on issues like the beginning of war is usually beyond the pale of “military philosophy” and well into anthropology, but sometimes the thoughtful scholar has to want to know how humanity got from hunter-gatherer to suicide bomber.  Though these essays were written in an academic environment, I had given some thought as to how warfare in general came about for some time.  We like to think in Rousseau-like terms about early man, but I think about that idealistic picture long enough and there’s a disconnect.  The “Which Came First” essay is an initial foray into the possibilities of early hominid warfare, a rumination based on what we know, what we guess at, and the laws of physics and, very generally, on Jack London’s Law of Meat that he spent a whole chapter on in White Fang.

We like to think in Rousseau-like terms about early man, but I think about that idealistic picture long enough and there’s a disconnect. 

That the early Bronze-Age civilizations of North America were devastated not just by Old World technology but also by Old World diseases is not new, but the effects of contagious disease in combination with their already slow population growth was a fatal combination for their continued existence.  “Deadly Emigres” is an exposition into the dynamics of a one-two punch that the Indians got when the waves of invaders reached their shores.

“Obligations of Freedom” is an experiment in the legal and historical grounds for militia service.  Though it didn’t start out that way, it is a sturdy rejoinder against the argument that the US National Guard is what Amendment II of the Constitution meant by “militia,” when the record is clear that it is anything but.

Academic history is very certain that the four classical philosophers discussed in “Four Philosophers Revisited” were the ur-scribes of modern strategic thought.  The truth is that three of them at least were less concerned with philosophy than they likely were in seeing their name in print—and repeated what others wrote in the doing.  But one, the first—Sun Tzu—we can’t even be certain how he was compensated, or if he wasn’t a pen name for some scholar who put a lot of other writers together.  Writing during the Iron Age in China, whoever wrote the original text attributed to Sun Tzu really had little to say that others didn’t say afterwards who never heard of him, making him perhaps the first to re-state what was obvious to military professionals since the beginnings of organized warfare.

Traditionally, “a marriage made in Hell” was the unity of the machine gun and barbed wire on the Western Front in France and Flanders.  “A Divorce from the Marriage Made in Hell” is an exposition on the earliest philosophies that poses a question: are separate air forces the answer?  That, of course, depends on what the question is.

“Ruminations On War” is available on Amazon Kindle, and is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.  See other books from JDB Communications, LLC on John D. Beatty’s Author Page.

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Verdun: Operation Judgement

Erich von Falkenhayn’s offensive of 1916 was aimed directly at the traditional invasion route between the Rhine and Paris.  The area had been used often enough that the area called the Heights of the Meuse were heavily fortified by the French over the years to have culminated in a series of forts that, if nothing else, put the entire Meuse-Rhine plain under observation for artillery.

The German plan was simple: take the forts, make the French commit their strategic reserves protecting the route to Paris, build up behind the bulge, press on to Paris in the summer months until France gave up and march home in triumph before fall.  The strategic motivations, however, were far more complex.  German agriculture was suffering under the loss of so much of its manpower, and was sorely affected by the British blockade–far more than Germany could withstand.  Though Germany had suffered less than had Britain and France in the battlefields, combined the Allies had far more manpower than did the Central Powers.  Germany, the most powerful of the Powers, was in the second year of a war she had anticipated would last two months.  Knocking France out of the war was the key to Germany’s survival.

On 21 February, the Germans unleashed their Fifth Army on the French Second Army manning the nineteen fortresses of the Verdun complex.  The first French fort to fall, three days later, was Douaumont, the largest and highest of the outer ring forts, by a small German raiding party.   Even though it had been unoccupied for months, the French were scandalized, and in Gallic rage they threw more and more men into the face of the German offensive.

While most scholars feel that this was the German intention all along, German military theory and doctrine never, ever had attritional battle in mind.  Prussia/Brandenburg, the font of Imperial German military tradition, never had the numbers nor the temperament for a drawn-out brawl, and always preferred maneuver–preferably to encirclement–to merely adding up casualties.  Tannenberg, the August 1914 double-envelopment of the Russian Second Army in East Prussia, was far more to Prussian/German liking than was the long slog of Verdun.  It is likely that post-Verdun German commentators merely claimed that attrition was the German plan all along, when in truth the French defense, orchestrated by Robert Nivelle, was more persistent and successful than they had imagined was possible.

Verdun would rage on unabated for ten months, consuming the lives of some three hundred thousand men out of the million committed, and occupying the full attention of over a hundred divisions. It would have been impossible for the rest of the world not to notice, and it would have been impossible for the Americans not to look on in horror, and in contemplation.  American military men may have been forbidden by President Woodrow Wilson to prepare contingency plans, but that did not prevent preparedness plans from being put into action with some urgency.  The Plattsburg Movement, a civilian-driven (if military favored) program of camps that trained young collegians in various places in the country, had finally come to fruition in the National Defense Act of 1916, that created the Army Reserves.  Approval of NDA 1916 and the increase in American preparedness had been spurred, in part, by the specter of the 2,300 French and Germans casualties About a regiment) every day on the Verdun front alone.

Two years after the worst of the fighting at Verdun had been concluded, the Americans were fighting to throw the Germans out of some of the 1916 gains at the Meuse-Argonne.  This battle was the largest American campaign between Appomattox in 1865 and the invasion of Sicily in 1943.  Wiley-Blackwell’s A Companion to the Meuse-Argonne Campaign, edited by Ed Lengel, contains an essay by John D. Beatty entitled “We Can Kill Them But We Cannot Stop Them: An Evaluation of the Meuse-Argonne,” which looks at American performance there, and the influences of American preparedness before 1917.  Available in hardback and E-book from fine booksellers everywhere.