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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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On Woodworking, Military History, and Writing.

When I started this blog in January, the hope was to sell books…lots of books.  That effort has been…disappointing, but not entirely fruitless.  However, in the meantime, I have discovered a number of things.

Now the weather has warmed up and my wood shop is moved out of my basement to my garage, I have concentrated weekends on rebuilding what I had abandoned some years ago, when I could no longer feel my hands well enough to be safe around sharp tools or even sandpaper.  Having had that issue resolved in March 2013 and having recovered enough from the surgery required, I can now go back to turning perfectly good lumber into sawdust, splinters, shop fixtures, household trim and small furniture, in that order.

But that leaves very little time (and energy) for writing, though a great deal for research.  I have sold another article to Strategy & Tactics, another to Against the Odds, had some modest book sales for both The Devil’s Own Day and Crop Duster, so I am not entirely disappointed in my personal writing career.  In my day job, while slow at this time, it has to be looking up soon as the price of copper slowly rises again.

I like building things, be they stories of people in wartime or quasi-useful widgets of wood.  I make a living out of words; I lack the skills and endurance to make one out of wood.  Yet, the creative outlet is there, and shall remain there when the weather is warm enough to work in my insulated but unheated garage, which means about mid-April to about mid-November.  Research, however, doesn’t stop.  Reading on average three books at a time (albeit slowly), and concentrating for the moment on non-military subjects, my next work I believe will be a study the battle of Belmont in the American Civil War.

Or not.  I also have to finish my article based on a bunch of WWI artifacts from a fellow named Harley Washburn, who joined the US Army in 1917 and went to France.  There’s also my article on the evolution of the cruiser in the coal-burning age, and another on Confederate Mississippi River ironclads.  Those need to be done.  Then there’s that piece I started ages ago on recovering from cervical vertebrae fusion surgery…but the end to that hasn’t been written yet.  And then there’s that ages-old essay on Pickett’s Mills (an 1864 Civil War battle in Georgia, en route to Atlanta) I really should dust off, and that other piece I started on the development of flame weapons in the 19th century, and that long-promised essay on HP Lovecraft and WWI (he tried to enlist in 1917, but somehow his family put the kibosh on that).

But in the shop I have to improve power tool storage, square off the end of my bench deck, flatten my bench plane sole, cut new headers for the front porch door (which has been waiting for about, well OK, years.  And then I want to plan something useful for my great-grandson’s Christmas present.

Oh, I’ll then take some time and write my blog…

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Kasserine: The Battlefield Experiment

There’s a great deal of confusion about the first major ground fighting between the Germans and Americans in Tunisia.  There is a distinct impression that it was one decisive, smashing battle, brilliantly executed by Erwin Rommel, the vaunted and fabled Desert Fox commanding the undefeated Afrika Korps, who humbled his primary opponents, American Lloyd Fredendall commanding US II Corps, and Englishman Kenneth Anderson, commanding the Allied First Army.

While Rommel did indeed plan the fight, for once he couldn’t do what he wanted to do.  It was his plan to severely drub the Americans in western Tunisia so he could fight Bernard Montgomery’s Eighth Army to his south.  But he an his men had been fighting more or less non-stop since September; his desert veterans were mostly gone.  In their place were replacements: capable, but not as savvy as the men who lay across a dozen battlefields from El Alamein to Tunisia.  Rommel himself was ill with a debilitating nasal condition that would compel his evacuation.  Since he failed, after a week of fighting, to completely eject the First Army from the Atlas Mountains, his attack only delayed the inevitable,.  The inevitable it was becoming clear, was the ejection of German and Italian forces from North Africa.
But American battle performance had been abysmal.  The 1st Armored Division’s M 2 tanks were completely outclassed by the German Pzkw IIIs and IVs; the M 3 tank’s riveted hull was poorly protected, even if the 75 mm main gun was better than most German tank guns in North Africa.  American infantry dug slit trenches instead of foxholes, could not (or would not) advance without considerable support, and generally acted like…green troops.
But they did not melt away, as British, French, Polish, Dutch and Russian troops did at first contact with German veterans.  At the end of the battle, a consolidated artillery group under the command of Stafford Irwin was able to pin down enough German assets forward to effectively starve them of ammunition and fuel, halting the offensive.  For the first time, American insistence on firepower and the Anglo/American polar plot fire control system combined with Anthony McAuliffe’s time-on-target barrage technique brought the German attacks to a halt.
As Rick Atkinson made clear in An Army At Dawn, the first clash at Kasserine was a portent of the future.  The Americans may not have been the best infantry in the world, but they were some of the most persistent, and they did have the best artillery fire control in the history of land warfare.  The Americans had fared poorly in nearly every “first battle” in every war they had ever fought.  But at Kasserine, the artillery that would mark their performance in future was consistently superb.
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The Long War

On 5 February 1985, in a solemn ceremony of unknown origins and unclear location, the mayors of Rome and Carthage signed a peace treaty ending the Third Punic War.  This conflict was the longest in human history, but had had no practical effects on either city for more than two thousand years.  No doubt the two were prodded into the peaceful and wholly ceremonial action to promote international relations, or a cruse line, or something else without either warlike or other international implications.

The conflict had begun in 151 BCE, and (openly) ended when Carthage fell to the Romans under Scipio Aemilianus after a three year siege that ended in the spring of 146. In the nature of such things, the city was rebuilt by Julius Caesar as a Roman city, and would become a major trading center under the Empire.

Unlike the Third Punic War, the prospect of a “long war” has reared its ugly head in the mass media as a conflict between militant Islam and the rest of the world–principally the industrial West–that would have a very active presence for generations.  Despite the protestations of some on both sides, it has very little chance of a peaceful resolution within the next news cycle or before the next elections.  It seems likely, indeed probable, that it will only end when people in the most influential factions (not necessarily the most powerful) realize the futility of continuing.  And that could take a very long time.

As the American Indians were gradually assimilated (by and large) over the course of 500 years, and the Irish insurgency against Britain waxed and waned over the course of at least as long, some elements will eventually ask how they could possibly prevail.  Both the Indians and the Irish, the Walloons and the Basques, the Armenians and the Maori and countless other small ethnic cultures eventually simply had to stop struggling against the inevitability of demographic defeat everywhere even if they won every battle in their own back yards.  After the fall of Carthage, it was likely that partial assimilation–not armed resistance–became the obvious key to survival.

Not that it would necessarily happen, but it could.  Declared wars, or open warfare, don’t always end in victory parades.  They don’t even always end in clear military success.  But they do always end.  The real challenge is to still be alive when the shooting stops.

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America Ascendant and Germany Descendant

On 2 February 1848 the Mexican-American War came to an official end, though for all practical purposes it had ended weeks before.  Winfield Scott, the only American General-In Chief to take field command (a whole other story, that) was the most celebrated soldier since Andrew Jackson.  An entirely self-educated officer who was first commissioned at age 22 as a captain of artillery (1808), “Old Fuss and Feathers” had led the American invasion of the Mexican Plateau in the first such expedition since Cortes.  What was remarkable was that European observers were all convinced that the European-trained Mexicans would handily defeat the Americans, whose last outing against European-style armies was in 1815.

Scott’s army never lost a battle, nor left a battlefield in retreat.  Six different American forces invaded Mexican territory from 1846-48 ranging in size from company to Scott’s small army, and none were unsuccessful.  “A little more grape, Captain Bragg” became a buzz phrase for a generation before the Civil War.  Mexico, beset by internal division, class warfare, and political uncertainty since its independence in 1822, would gradually settle into a twilight state between revolution and civil war that would obtain until the European invasion in 1862, and return until the Cristero War ended in 1929.


And then there was Stalingrad.  Though German Sixth Army officially surrendered on 31 January 1942, it would be two days until the last pockets of resistance were destroyed.  Between the Axis Allies and the Soviets, somewhere near two million soldiers and at least as many civilians died in the carnage and bitter weather at the City of Stalin.  Films like Stalingrad (1943) and Enemy At the Gates (2001) depict desolation, privation, random death and injury only to well-fed Germans and Russians, but the truth was that both sides were nearly on starvation rations even before the November 1942 offensive cut off the Germans and their allies.

Stalingrad changed the entire face of WWII in Russia, and arguably lost the war for Germany.  Between the loss of Guadalcanal by Japan earlier in the week, the brawl that was the American’s return to combat in North Africa in the next month, the British offensive into Libya and then Tunisia, the cracks in the Axis empires were becoming bigger, if not deeper.  It was clear that, if the Allies would fight long enough, both the German and Japanese monsters could be tamed.

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America Bombs the Reich

By later standards the first USAAF bombing of Wilhelmshaven on 27 January 1943 was not a lot, but it was something.  B-17 Flying Fortresses from parts of the 369th Squadron of the 306th Bomb Group (H) hit the small port city on the Jade River, hitting mostly industrial plants where they hit at all.  Bombing accuracy, much to the disappointment of the Americans, was never stellar.  They would make up for it later with sheer numbers.

These early efforts, like the 15th Squadron’s 4 July 1942 raid on a Dutch Luftwaffe field in borrowed aircraft, were mostly symbolic.  The Americans taking the war to the enemy, like Jimmy Doolittle’s military stunt bombing Japan 18 April 1942 showed, could be disconcerting,  It also boosted morale for the military as much as the home front.  For a generation that had been told that strategic bombing would be able to prevent the kinds of deadlocks that characterized WWI, this was heady stuff.

By the end of 1943, the USAAF had bombed Germany more than a hundred times, and the Luftwaffe showed no signs of deterioration…on the outside.  Internally, the Luftwaffe had good morale, but the physical and mental strain on its pilots was beginning to tell.  Goering spoke of a “plague” as early as 1942 that killed many new pilots in accidents that more experienced men might have avoided.  But the Americans had lost nearly a third of their aircraft and crews in September and October of 1943…their morale was not nearly as good as their opponents, and never would be.

Crop Duster: A Novel of WWII is a story about Americans and Germans flying over Europe in that tumultuous year.  Available in paper and E-book from fine booksellers everywhere.


As the Soviet juggernaut pressed ever onward to Berlin, the 332nd Rifle Division reached  partly dismantled and almost entirely evacuated concentration camps near Oswiecim, in southern Poland on 27 January 1945.  Eventually, the Allies would find evidence of nearly two million deaths and the Auschwitz/BIrkenau complex, with warehouses full of the pitiful possessions of the inmates.  No one before believed the wild tales coming out of the area.

Even today the sheer numbers of the Nazi’s “final solution” strains credulity.  There is a cottage industry of deniers (author David Irving among them) of the extermination of probably close to 12 million people (a little over half were Jews; the rest just got in the way) as a matter of state policy.  The British who liberated Belsen in Germany in April 1945 couldn’t believe it, either.

Though this writer has never been to Auschwitz he has been to Belsen, where many of the evacuees from Auschwitz were liquidated.  That was bad enough, though a fraction of the size of Auschwitz.   But not believing does not change the evidence, nor the testimony of the survivors.  Just as strategic bombardment gained evidence of success with practice, technology and numbers, so too did the accounts of the survivors of the death camps gain credulity.

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Not All Military Action End With Parades

January marks the anniversary of the largest US ground operation in Vietnam, called Cedar Falls, in 1967.  The Viet Cong evaded the American forces, large as they were, and though they were ejected from the Iron Triangle briefly, many historians point to Cedar Falls as a symbol of American misunderstanding of the Southeast Asia conflict.

It can also be used to point to scholarly “misunderstanding” of the American presence in Vietnam, and to the critics who loudly say that United States “lost” the conflict there.  Interestingly enough, most critics cannot point to what direct failure of American forces led to this purported “defeat.”  While the oft-stated but never documented purpose of the American military there was to prop up the Saigon regime (which was too corrupt for its own good), the fact is that this was never an officially stated mission: indeed, no Letter of Instruction was ever written for MACV.  Thus, there was no “war” there to “win.”  Nor, since the last American combat units left the region in 1972 and Saigon fell in 1975, can any battlefield loss be attributed to US arms.

The Southeast Asia war also points up some uncomfortable truths about military action, as has been shown through history but became plain in the 1970s.  Not all conflict ends in “victory,” but most end in a simple winding down of combat operations.  Not all of a nation’s enemies are “officially defeated” and forced to sign treaties in rail cars or on battleship decks.  And, most important, comparatively few even begin with a declaration of war.

While many who read this will become let’s say incensed at the idea because conventional wisdom says that the US “lost” Vietnam, it must be asked: by what measure?  Might we also consider that, in Tet 1968, while the body count was rising and attention was fixed at both Vietnam and North Korea’s seizure of USS Pueblo on 23 January of the same year, the Soviet Union was unable to take advantage of the paper army that USAEUR had become and launch an offensive to reunite Germany.  One could argue that January-February 1968 would have been the best, last chance the Soviets would have had to do this.  Yet they failed.  They didn’t even try.

So, what does this say?  Perhaps it says that ultimately Southeast Asia was a sacrificed pawn in the global power game between the US and the Soviet Union, that American military action was, deliberately or not, intended to bait the Soviets into doing something…anything…stupid.  They didn’t, yet in 1992, after seeing yet another pawn–Iraq–sacrificed in its gambit over Kuwait, the Soviet experiment came to an end.

Not all military action leads to victory, or even success.  And often, we cannot know for generations what it was all for.  We can only guess.