A Bit of Healthy Bigotry

By which is not meant what most Americans assume it to be, viz. racism (or as the British would term it, racialism).  Racism is only a small subset of bigotry (go into an Irish pub and propose God Save the Queen! and see what happens next).  “Much may be made of a Scotsman, if he be caught young,” is another relatively famous example of it, but who calls Dr. Johnson a bigot?

I mean here to speak a word in favor of a bit of healthy bigotry, of the sort which begins with an assumption that whatever the speaker is (as self-defined), is absolutely the bee’s knees, and then draws from that the implication that every member of that identity group has an iron-clad duty to live up to the ideal.  The condition of “superior” is inseparable from the obligation actually to be, you know, superior.  One may fall short in one’s duty, and if one does one merits a double measure of shame, not only because whatever one did fell short, but because one’s falling short demeaned and damaged all other members of the identity group.  This sort of bigotry begets traditions like that of the U.S. Marines; show the yellow streak and not only are you a coward, but you have introduced cowardice into “my Marine Corps” (and it’s always the speaker’s Marine Corps, as if he personally bore the sole burden of maintaining its reputation for integrity, bravery, and sacrifice).

I will suggest that such an outlook is not an attitude to discourage.

Yet we do discourage it nowadays.  We have adopted as one of the few articles of public faith the dogma that No One is Better Than Anyone Else, a proposition which a moment’s reflection ought to reveal to be what P. G. Wodehouse would call unmitigated apple-sauce.  Get caught cheating in school?  It’s OK; no doubt you were feeling over-pressured.  Update (01 Oct 12; did I nail this or what?):  Amherst professor resigns after getting-caught red-handed (but notice all the exculpatory nonsense smeared throughout the article).  Get caught stealing $1.2 billion in investors’ money, like Jon Corzine and his firm did?  But he’s so smart, you see, and he does after all provide so much valuable support to the Messiah president, so we won’t investigate too hard.  Torch the neighborhood because a couple of bad cops beat a criminal rap when they roughed up a druggie?  We understand your pain; here’s a few hundred million dollars to funnel into our pet contractors’ pockets (whence it comes right back in the form of campaign contributions, all distributed to the right folks).  Cut your 16 year-old daughter’s throat and watch her bleed out because she was foolish enough to get caught slipping out to see her boyfriend, who just didn’t have the right kind of prayer rug?  We respect your religious scruples.

Gone are the days of General Napier.  He was governor-general in India, and one of the quaint local practices he took a shine against was suttee.  You remember, don’t you?  That’s that Old Time Religion where when the husband dies you tie the wife up and burn her on the pyre as well.  Nowadays the Deep Thinkers (indebted to Thos. Sowell for the phrase) assure us that such things are just their faith and heritage and besides “Racism!!”  Genl Napier had a different take.  Some of the locals protested that it was their custom.  Replied Napier, “Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.”

And so today, September 30, we remember the birth of Lt. Col. Alfred D. Wintle, MC, of the British army in both wars.  He rejoiced that he had been born an Englishmen and not, by way of comparison and contrast, “a chimpanzee, a flea, a Frenchman, or a German.”  He wangled his way into the army underage, and served at the front until severely wounded in 1917.  Told his war was over, he replied, “It may have escaped your attention, but there is no fighting to be done in England.”  And so back he went, without a kneecap, several fingers, and an eye, doing himself proudly enough that he won the Military Cross.  Coming across a severely wounded Trooper Cedric Mays, Wintle ordered him, “Stop dying at once and when you get up, get your bloody hair cut.”   Mays did so and lived to be 95.

Early in the Second War he finagled his way back into uniform and, convinced he had to get to the front in France, attempted to hijack the airplane of an air commodore, from the commodore in person.  Was arrested and tried at the Tower for, among other charges, treason and threatening the air commodore (he’d told him he deserved to be shot, and proposed to perform that office himself).  At his trial he not only didn’t deny having told the air commodore he ought to be shot, but produced and read aloud a list of others who merited similar attentions.  The charges were all dismissed.  Wintle finally did made it back to France where he was captured, and insisted on inspecting his German guard, whom he roundly ticked off for their slovenly bearing and poor turn-out.  Did the same thing when he was finally imprisoned by the Vichy regime.  He told the prison guards that he was going to escape (which he did), and that if any one of them was man enough they’d join him.  According to later accounts all 200-plus guards at the prison later joined the Resistance.

Wintle held that a gentleman never left the house without an umbrella, and a true gentleman never unfurled his.  His own, never unfurled, contained a note wrapped up in it that informed the reader that it had been stolen from Col. A. D. Wintle.

Wintle was a bigot.  But observe.  Once the landlord of a posh-ish London watering hole went to eject, upon entry, a West Indian laborer . . . a black patron, in plain language, who had mistaken the place for an ordinary pub.  [Jim Crow may have had a Southern accent, children, but he got around quite bit back in the day.]  As he was hustling the unfortunate towards the door, a voice from across the room barked out, “That gentleman is a friend of mine. I have been expecting him. Kindly show him to my table.”  Unable to refuse, the landlord showed the no doubt by this time thoroughly confused worker to Wintle’s table, where Wintle ordered them a glass of wine each, upon finishing which each went on his way.

Maybe what we need is a touch of that old-fashioned healthy bigotry.  The all-join-hands-in-a-circle approach doesn’t seem to be doing too well.

Fannie Mae Needs a New Day Job

Within the past few days I’ve come to understand something more about exactly how Fannie Mae managed to blow a whacking great hole in the American housing market and crash the world’s largest economy into the bargain.

Our firm has run a title company since the mid-1960s. Knock on wood, but not a single policy we’ve ever written has had to pay or defend a claim. A large measure of that is attributable to the fact that we’ve always done our searching in-house, and for 38 or so years we had a title searcher with a nearly photographic memory for deeds, titles, and people. She also had the kind of personality that is nearly impervious to tedium. A further reason is that our philosophy has always been that land titles must be like Caesar’s wife; “Oh let’s get it closed and we can take care of that later,” as a point of departure has been a non-starter in our office (and yes, it’s lost us a lot of business over the years, but either you do your job right or you’re an ass-hat). All of which is to say that, very humbly, I submit that we in our office know just a bit about land titles in our state and how to convey them correctly so everyone knows what he’s getting and gets what he’s been wanting. 

A few years ago two things happened, more or less simultaneously. 

The first things was that some bureaucrat at HUD who had obviously never practiced law – and more to the point, never searched a title anywhere outside the cookie-cutter subdivisions of northern Virginia – decided that he knew how to set up and close a residential real estate transaction better than the people who’d been doing it for several generations. The upshot was new regulations for closing real estate transactions subject to the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA), which if anything made the process less transparent for the borrower/buyer, provided an incentive for everyone to mark up his prices and generally put his thumb on the scale, and slowed down the loan approval process measurably. Whoever this pin-head of a government employee was required a bank to promise a hard number for “title services” within 72 hours of loan application. “Title services” was to include title examination, title insurance, closing agent’s fees, document preparation, and several other things that should never have been lumped together, and which in fact the “old” Form HUD-1 – the settlement statement – broke out, so that you could actually tell, you know, what you were paying for. The new HUD-1 required it all to be lumped in together and forbade anyone to break it out. 

Now, maybe you can reliably get a good title examination back on a cookie-cutter subdivision in northern Virginia in less than 72 hours. Folks, outside those sorts of environments that just doesn’t happen. You get all manner of cock-eyed legal descriptions, estates that either were never opened or nor properly administered (like having a personal representative without authority executing a deed), multiple chains of title that split, join, and split again, minors’ interests, gores in multi-tract parcels, unrecorded conveyances . . . just all kinds of stuff that can take days to do, if you do the work correctly. And of course until you know what’s out there you can’t quote a fee for what it’s going to cost. You just can’t assume that every title search will take your searcher 45 minutes. But that’s what the new RESPA rules required the bank to state to the borrower. Oh, if you discovered something in the search you could drag the borrower back to get a new good faith estimate, but then your borrower begins to get cold feet. So the situation HUD created was to pit lenders against title service providers, with the lenders having an incentive to low-ball and lean on the service providers to cut every corner they could to get it done as cheaply as possible. How’s that likely to work out? 

The second thing that happened was that our three senior staffers took one look at the new RESPA regulations and retired. As in we all attended a seminar on the new rules and within three weeks we had their letters on our desks. They took 45, 40, and 38 years experience with our firm out the door and left us majorly under-staffed. 

So we quit doing RESPA closings for a while until the dust settled (HUD kept changing the RESPA rules and the HUD-1 rules for months after they were supposed to have taken effect). But now we’re doing them again and finding out what’s changed while we were out. 

Fannie Mae, the clowns who brought you the sub-prime crisis, have a set of uniform instruments which it promulgates and requires be used for loan transactions in which it is buying or guaranteeing the paper. Those instruments vary by state, but the whole idea is that someone can buy several billion dollars of bond backed by thousands of these notes and deeds of trust (or mortgages, if your state rolls that way), and every note and security document in the package that backs those bonds will grant to the beneficiary of the note and security documents rights which are in all material respects uniform, no matter in which state the land happens to lie. Makes a great deal of sense, and in fact if were it not for the uniform instruments, the secondary market for residential loans would not exist, meaning much, much, much less home mortgage lending could occur. The secondary market is, after all, a good part of how the money gets into the system. 

Life is simple as long as you have married couples who both own the property and who both sign the note. Drop out one or the other and things get interesting. 

The instructions for our state-specific Fannie Mae uniform instrument set out those local alterations to the form document that must be made or that may be made, each depending on the precise circumstances. F’rinstance, if the trustee(s) of a “living trust” is to be the property owner, Fannie Mae wants certain portions of the document phrased certain ways. Again, makes sense. But their instructions contain no guidance at all to the situation in which both spouses are owners, but only one is the borrower (happens all the time, too). 

The instructions do contain language that applies when you have only one borrower spouse and one owner spouse (presumably the same spouse, but that’s not necessarily the case, is it?). The instructions tell you to provide that the non-debtor spouse “signs as Borrower solely for the purpose of waiving dower rights without personal obligation for payment of any sums secured by this Security Instrument.” There are several things wrong there. For starts, one does not “sign as Borrower” unless one is actually the borrower (I cannot sign “as” the president of a corporation if I am actually the janitor). Secondly, the uniform instrument contains a raft of affirmative obligations, many of them requiring financial imposition, but which are completely extrinsic to and unrelated to paying “any sums secured by” the instrument. The only sums “secured by” the instrument are those payable under the promissory note. Thus, the non-debtor spouse who “signs as Borrower” is in fact signing up for all manner of personal obligation. You as a closing agent dare not tell that non-debtor spouse that “Oh, honey, you’re not signing up to pay any money; they just need you to sign here to make sure the bank gets a good lien on the property.” Can you say, “consumer fraud,” anyone? 

But the most hilarious thing about this form document and its instructions is that “dower” as an estate in property was abolished in our state . . . in the spring of 1977. And by the way, males had “curtesy,” not “dower.” We now have “marital rights” in property, including especially property used as one’s principal residence, but those rights are very much distinct from the rights an owner has in that property (e.g., an owner has her own homestead exemption; a non-owner has only the inchoate right to her husband’s homestead exemption, should he die first). 

So if you have a non-debtor owner spouse sign the Fannie Mae uniform instrument, using the language they provide, you’ve just created an invalid lien on the property, and one which can’t be insured. The non-debtor spouse may have waived, for example, the right to claim the deceased spouse’s homestead exemption in the property, and waived the right to an elective share in the property on the first spouse’s death, and waived any right to participate in the property’s division in divorce (that, too, is a marital right against the property). But actual ownership as a cotenant far exceeds any of those inchoate interests – the tenant by the entireties owns an undivided whole interest in the entire property. 

So Fannie is only about 35 years behind the power curve, and of course does not understand the distinction between marital rights and ownership rights, it seems, at all. 

Is anyone still wondering how these muddle-headed imbeciles managed to get the housing market so wrong?


A Whole Lot of (Very Expensive) Chopping; Chips? Not so Much

So seems to be the conclusions suggested by the charts produced by the Cato Institute here

I find these charts tantalizing on several levels.  One thing I’d like to know is whether the SAT scores were normed to account for the test having been (famously) dumbed down some years ago.  If they have not been, would the trend lines be even as level as they are?  Would they not much more likely have a downward lurch to them?  I of course took the “old” test more years ago than I care to admit any more, but from what little I’ve seen, heard, and read of the “new” test, the raw scores are not equivalent.

Secondly, ought “scores” to be rising at all?  I mean, you can only teach a given person so much in the setting of a classroom, and the fact that you might be able to get Little Johnny over the hump if you exposed him to the full force of one-on-one or tiny group tutoring really doesn’t tell you a whole lot about what you can reasonably expect from him in a classroom, from a teacher with a room full of other kids also to attend to.  The SAT scores are also way too much subject to being gamed.  Back when I took the test, if you wanted a prep course and you didn’t live in a larger city, you were pretty much out of luck.  Nowadays, when an SAT prep course is only a few clicks away on the internet, and huge amounts of money and energy are spent reading the tests’ tea leaves, to say that SAT scores are flat may only be telling us that we’ve run up against the upper limit on what can be done with gamesmanship.  Subject to the self-selection bias noted in the article, every test cohort will have a statistical distribution of ability, and that distribution will be reflected in the test scores.

The national whatever-it-is scores are the ones which suggest the more important questions.  Why are the scores largely flat?  Are the scores flat because the complexity of the test has been adjusted upward?  Is this national level of aggregation even useful?  How about breaking the scores down by some of other benchmarks: class size, median teacher salary (expressed relative to local median income), school size, gross population of local school district, local median income as a proportion of national median income, number of post-bachelor’s hours of course work per teacher, percentage of classroom teachers as proportion of total school system non-maintenance employment, amount of school funds spent on marquee sports (football, baseball, softball, basketball, soccer) as proportion of overall school system spending?

I’d also like to figure out a way to put a reliable metric on some of the intangibles, like average minutes per week spent learning about global warming, or “diversity,” or “inclusiveness,” or “community service.”  It seems to this lay person that with all the other nonsense that teachers are being required to teach these days, instead of their field — I mean, what the hell does “diversity” have to do with chemistry?  Either a student can calculate the amount of heat that will be released in a particular reaction or he can’t.  Might it not bear investigating?  Subject/verb agreement is not inclusive or exclusive, and in any event the solution of an integral function has zero to do with whether this year’s arctic ice cap is changing faster or slower than the antarctic ice cap.  Picking up litter, or scrubbing graffiti out of housing project stairwells, or raking some little old lady’s front yard are all laudable tasks, but how do they teach a student to distinguish between correlation and causation?

What these charts do convey, however, is the negative conclusion that net marginal return on additional gross spending per pupil is a number soberingly close to zero.  Reasonable minds can and will differ as to why the two trend lines diverge so dramatically, but what we can’t dispute is that shovelling additional dollars willy-nilly into the system is simply not moving measurable outcomes.

On a related note, these charts do jibe with the results of a study that was done in Germany some years ago (saw a report of it in the FAZ, but didn’t print it off).  What they found was that all the traditional nostrums, all the way from per-pupil spending to teacher salary to class size had no measurable effect on student outcomes.  What they did end up recommending was delaying the triage of the German education system for a year or two, and keep all three strata of students together longer.

Funeral Procession

I don’t care who you are; this is funny

Happy Birthday Jerry Clower, wherever you are, born on this date in 1926.

Other than the fact that he’s side-splitting funny, one of the more impressive things about Jerry was he never used a four-letter word.  You can play Jerry Clower for your youngest children and never have to worry about what they’re going to hear.  And they’ll learn a thing or several about their native language.

Among his classic lines (too many to count) are the famous, “Well shoot up here ‘mongst us.  One of us has got to have some relief!”

A repeated theme in Clower’s work (and I think it does deserve to be considered as a body of work, every bit as much as that of some Hollywood buffoon) is the puncturing of conceit and pretense.  He tells the story of some television show that was filming at one of the grand Southern estates.  One of the fruity little Hollywood types makes the mistake of effusing over the flower beds, and says to the tiny little ancient black woman, on the staff there and to whom he addresses himself, that it looks as if “some fairy had waved a magic wand over this place” to produce all those wonderful flowers etc. etc. etc.  The woman says in fact it was even so, “an’ it had a hoe on the end of it!”  Or the time it come twelve inches or so of rain in 24 hours and they had them a flood.  All the hot-snot McMansion dwellers (although Clower was spared having to see those sprout all over the face of his beloved land) were just outraged that their houses had flooded!!  Floods, you see, are for poor people, people who live down by the levee, or in bottom land, or beside drainage ditches.  Sure enough the television talking heads were out in force, shoving microphones in the outraged faces of the Poor Victims and inquiring what had “Caused the Flood.”  Well, the Corps (or as Dear Leader would presumably say it, the “corpse”) of Engineers caused it with their dam; or the sport fishermen who wouldn’t let them lower the water enough; or all those greedy corporations.  Etc., in other words.  And then they made the mistake of asking some well-dressed boy standing by, not realizing that he was NOKD (Not Our Kind, Dear).  What caused the flood?  “I’ll tell what caused this flood:  Twelve inches of rain in 24 hours caused this flood an’ if we ever get that kinda rain again, we gon’ have us another flood.”

We need more Jerry Clowers in this ol’ world.  One wasn’t enough.

Sea Power and the Influence of Mahan, 1890-2012

27 September 1840: Alfred Thayer Mahan is born. Graduates from the Naval Academy and becomes a career officer, but never is truly enamored of the sea. Eventually gets orders for the U.S. Naval War College, in preparation for which duty station he begins to contemplate Sea Power. And a pattern emerges in his head, which he then begins to pursue in a systematic, academic fashion. He digs deeper and begins to write.

The pattern Mahan noticed is one that the British semi-intuitively, semi-institutionally understood, although in typical British fashion no one had ever actually sat down and demonstrated its truth. What the British understood and Mahan laid out on paper is the fact that throughout history, when nations have got cross-ways and one had control of the seas and the other not, the outcome always seemed to favor that power which controlled the seas. Why? 

In 1890 he begins to publish the results of his research, beginning with a book with a rather bulky but self-explanatory title: The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660 – 1783. A little over a century, a long, miserable century later, we might add to its title (in the style Mahan himself would have recognized), “; or, American Sea Captain Lays Powder Trail to Magazine and Blows up World”. But wait, the gentle reader murmurs, I’ve never heard of this sea dog or his book. Sort of like the newspaper reporter who couldn’t believe Nixon won in 1972 because, “No one I know voted for him.” But most people have never heard of the benzene ring, either. 

What made Mahan so influential was not what he wrote – the British, as mentioned, had been practicing his precepts as part of their military-cultural DNA for generations. What made Mahan influential was who read him. More to the point, which one specific person read him: a gentleman who, except for his garish moustache and withered left arm, would not have stood out in a crowd . . . well, apart from the Pickelhaube. Wilhelm II of Germany bit down hard on Mahan’s argument and in a case of confirmation bias if ever there was such, found in it a theoretical justification for what he admitted (to the shame of his ministers) he’d wanted ever since he was a child: a nice big shiny battle fleet, just like his grandmother Victoria’s. 

The problem was that Wilhelm was in a position to do something about it, and in a textbook illustration of what happens when the wrong two people get put in a room together, Wilhelm and Alfred Tirpitz (the “von” was added only later), who rose to the top of the Kaiserliche Marine in 1897, brought out the worst in each other and Mahan’s ideas were the glue that held them together. Wilhelm wanted a battle fleet to steam over to visit the relatives. Tirpitz wanted a battle fleet because . . . ummmm, because in building a battle fleet he will cement his position in the hierarchy of the German navy, and transform it from the bastard idiot step-sister of the Army into something that was . . . well, in point of fact, that was both a strategic and a tactical problem that Tirpitz never really successfully addressed. A recent biography of him paints a fairly unflattering picture of a bureaucrat’s bureaucrat, maneuvering, back-biting, side-stepping, and intriguing his way around in the circular logic that is the species’s hallmark: I must be master of the Kaiserliche Marine because Germany needs a battle fleet (Mahan hath said) and I must build it; the battle fleet must be built and continually expanded because without building the battle fleet I will have no navy to master. 

Why, you ask, is all this relevant? It is relevant because of what it did to British foreign policy during the not-quite 25 years from 1890 to 1914. As late as 1895 and the start of the third and last Salisbury government, Britain still proudly pursued her Splendid Isolation. In a famous formulation, she had no friends or enemies, but only interests, which she pursued at her discretion. “Fog in Channel; Continent Cut Off” read a much-quote headline in The Times. To the extent that Britain looked favorably on anyone, Germany would be it. Their ruling houses were closely connected, their commercial interests in friendly competition, their overseas merchants respectable. And the Germans had kicked the ever-loving snot out of England’s hereditary enemy, France, as recently as 1871. 

Wilhelm’s Kruger Telegram of 1896 was a belch in chapel that rattled the windows all the way up in the clerestory. Wilhelm sent congratulations to the Boers for having fended off the Jamison Raid by themselves, “without the assistance of friendly powers,” thus implying that Germany would have felt herself such a power. Although Britain was profoundly embarrassed by the raid, and in fact had no direct hand in its planning or execution – it was one of the last great and pure filibustering expeditions – it was launched from British territory, British citizens put it together, and it caused a ruckus in what was, after all, part of the British Empire. Wilhelm’s gratuitously intermeddling, and in a manner which strongly implied less than hearty goodwill towards Blighty, introduced an element into relations theretofore missing. 

Tirpitz’s Navy Law of 1898, providing for the construction of a German blue-water battle fleet, changed the direction of relations between the two countries. Even more importantly, the Second Navy Law of 1900, cobbled together by Tirpitz more or less in direct response to the frictions the Boer War generated, was pretty much a direct and explicit challenge to British naval supremacy. For quite a few years Britain had maintained an official policy that her fleet should be superior to the world’s next two most-powerful navies combined. Wilhelm and Tirpitz and their political allies changed all that. 

“All that” changed because naval supremacy was to the British not just a matter of keeping up with the Joneses (or the Hohenzollerns, or the Habsburgs, or the Romanovs, or the Meiji). It really, honestly, no kidding was an issue of life or death to their empire. You can ignore a puffing and strutting Kaiser, especially when doesn’t have a combat fleet to speak of. As was famously said of the fleet (I think it was in connection with the 1897 Diamond Jubilee naval review), all one need do was open the sea-cocks on those capital ships and within a few hours the British Empire would dissolve. Challenge her at sea, in other words, and all other bets were off. 

All bets were suddenly off. By 1904 Britain had squared matters with France, in Africa and in the Mediterranean. Later things went so far that Britain denuded her Mediterranean fleet of its most powerful units to bring them home, and France shifted her major naval power to the inland sea. In other words, each put vital sea lines of communication and supply in the effective guardianship of the other. To put some historical perspective on this, England and France had been at each other’s throats since at least the 1340s (the Crimean War was a brief and, as one looking back from 1895 would have thought, transitory exception). The Kaiserliche Marine was the proximate cause of an about-face in nearly seven centuries of mutual hostility. When HMS Dreadnought hit the water in 1906, the race was well and truly on. Britain and Germany just came right on out and admitted that each was building against the other. 

Britain and France sought out each other, each to assist in their respective protection against Germany. Britain even snuggled up with the Tsar, much to the outrage of the ruling Liberals’ constituents who wanted no truck with tyranny. The financial stresses of the naval arms race brought about the “People’s Budget” crisis of 1909 in Britain, and the following constitutional crisis of 1910-11, which resulted in the emasculation of the House of Lords as an active participant in British government. 

By 1910 Germany was encircled in fact and not just in the Kaiser’s periodic fulminations. 

In point of fact it was the building of the German battle fleet (which a few hours’ contemplation of a chart of the North Sea could – and did – reveal to the thoughtful examiner to be without strategic use or even function, Mahan’s “fleet in being” concept notwithstanding) which prompted the creation of one side of those alliances which ensured that a major blow-up in Eastern Europe would not be contained within the Balkans or wherever else; that it would spread to Western Europe; and, that – critically, from the perspective of the war’s duration and strategic development – it would involve Britain and her fleet. 

In September, 1914 the Germans were stopped at the Marne, and they were stopped, just barely, because the left flank of the French army was not in the air, but was tethered, however imperfectly, to the British Expeditionary Force and the remnants of its six decimated, dog-tired divisions of “Old Contemptibles” (itself an expression playing on what the Germans had intended a slur on Britain’s “contemptible” little army; the Germans just never did get what Americans of that generation knew as moxy).

 The war was not to be won on the six-week timetable envisioned by Count von Schlieffen. It was not, in fact, to be won by the Germans at all. Long wars produce results “fundamental and astounding” (to borrow Lincoln’s description from his Second Inaugural) that short wars do not. The Great War ushered in the most calamitous century of human history thus far. Our present century may yet make up the difference; we’re not even 14 years into it, after all. But the fact of strategic stalemate on the Western Front, a fact created by Britain’s belligerence, was the cauldron from which spilled revolution, fratricide, genocide, famines on untold scales, and glimpses into the wickedness of human nature which really I think we’d have been better off not being vouchsafed. Some things it’s better not to know are there, however much you may suspect them. 

Irony of ironies, it was the British fleet which starved Germany into submission in the end. Her armies were falling back, true, in part because of American manpower pouring into France at the rate of a quarter-million untrained Doughboys a month (that sealift itself a product of mastery of the oceans). But they were not broken by any means, and it was only the infection of defeatism permeating the army, as well as simple human hunger for something other than turnips (part of what stopped Ludendorff’s spring, 1918 offensives was the ordinary soldiers’ stopping to eat, just to get a damned bite of real food in the captured Allied positions after months of ersatz this-that-and-the-other, all with a good dollop of turnip and sawdust mixed in), that lead the generals to tell the Kaiser in early November, 1918 that they could no longer guarantee the army’s loyalty. In addition to their own suffering, lack of supplies, lack of food, that defeatism was in no small measure a function of the soldiers’ knowing what was going on at home. Their families were starving, literally starving to death by the tens of thousands a year. 

They starved because Britain had command of the seas. Just like Alfred Thayer Mahan, born on this date in 1840, would have predicted. 

All of which has to make Mahan one of the most influential single individuals in modern human history, easily on par with Marx, Einstein, or Darwin. Were it not for the turmoils unleashed by Mahan’s most unfortunate fan-boy, Marx’s ideas would likely never have got a trial run. Einstein’s insights into the nature of matter would have likely remained the stuff of laboratory technicians (no Manhattan Project without a target for the bomb, eh wot?). Darwin’s insight into the biological aspects of the human species would compete with a commonly accepted understanding of human moral nature not forever poisoned by the knowledge of what we humans did to each other over the course of a century that by rights should have seen material and moral progress limited only by the 24 hours in each day. 

For a tremendously good read on Mahan’s legacy, I can’t recommend any better than Robert K. Massie’s Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War.


26 September 1918

The Meuse-Argonne offensive begins.  In which the American high command singularly fails to distinguish itself.  Not apparently having learned much at all from the doings at Belleau Wood, the Army feeds men in, and feeds men in, and feeds men in, to assault carefully prepared positions, with inadequate fire support, poor communications, and scandalously poor staff work.  The result is America’s bloodiest battle, in terms of total dead and wounded over the weeks that it lasted. 

The French on the American right offered essentially no help.  They’d been ground down by the four years’ fighting and were just content to let someone else do the dying for a while.  In fact the whole offensive really didn’t accomplish much.  The German lines were not irretrievably broken until very nearly the end of the war, and they fed next to no reinforcements into the battle.  The troops on the ground just kept killing Americans, and dying in their turn, as long as they could.  Those same troops would not have been  sent elsewhere because that would have opened the German front at that location, so the offensive can’t even make that claim to relevance.  No:  What happened there was a helluva lot of American soldiers got killed for pretty much nothing at all.

We did get Alvin York’s story out of it, however, but that doesn’t seem like much to brag about.  On the less-edifying end of the scale is the story of the Black troops who were fed, poorly armed and nearly untrained, into the fight on the American left.  This was the segregated Army at its worst, and as usual it was the grunt on the ground who took the hit.

The story of the battle is extremely well-told here.

The Won’s UN Speech Summed Up

By the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which while sharing the inexplicable fondness of the chattering classes for Dear Leader, in fact has not drunk the Kool-Aid.

They’ve got the speech’s failure nailed in two sentences:  “Containment of a nuclear-armed Iran, threatening Israel, the Gulf states, and the world’s economy, would not be possible.”  And, “Obama proposed no new ideas for resolving the conflict.”

And there you have it: platitudes without action, endless platitudes while a new Holocaust is prepared.

25 September 1396

25 September 1396. At Nicopolis, now in Bulgaria, beside the Danube, a mostly-French army, including many of what can without blushing be described as the flower of high chivalry, is annihilated by the Turkish Sultan.  Barbara Tuchman’s excellent A Distant Mirror (still a standard history of the 14th Century almost 35 years after publication) closes with the battle and its aftermath.

The crusaders had put together what a later generation of English generals would, with equally high hopes and coupled with equally dismal results, term a “Big Push.” In the host are the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund (one of the last non-Habsburgs for several centuries, by the way), the Admiral of France, and dozens upon dozens of others. Some of them, such as the Comte d’Eu, were striplings who thought no more of the Turks than of the peasants back home and didn’t see why they shouldn’t be butchered with similar ease. Others, such as Enguerrand de Coucy VII, were senior statesmen who had under their belts more campaigns in the field and in the cabinet than they had hot meals on that last disastrous outing, and knew better. 

They were headed down-river to relieve the pressure on Constantinople, which their compatriots and fellow-Christians from all over Europe had managed, during the course of decades of intrigue, double-dealing, and steel hearts beating beneath stone heads so to undermine that little was left of the once-mighty Eastern Empire than the areas immediately surrounding the city, together with the odd colony or island fortress here and there. 

As if to emphasize how little they had learned since 1346 and the fiasco of Crecy, the French insisted on fighting as they had fought – and been beaten repeatedly by – the English. The French knights were to lead the field in a headlong display of what that same later generation of French generals were to call cran – guts. The Turks play them like a fiddle. Send out the hordes of lightly-armed conscripts to draw the crusaders out of their formations. Fall back in apparent (and some real) disorder, but in so doing draw the enemy into ever-deepening disorder, until over-topping a hill they see before them the might of Islam, unbloodied, in good order, and looking to do little more than wet their blades with infidel gore. 

And so it came to pass. The survivors were herded together and then, in retaliation for a similar act perpetrated on Turkish captives just before the battle, all but the most valuable hostages were slaughtered, one at a time, in the presence of the Sultan. The killing went on for hours. Then the pitiful remnant of European manhood was marched off into captivity from which many never returned, and those who did were greatly impoverished if not forever ruined. Nineteen years later at Agincourt the remnants of French knighthood were defeated by Henry V, and his son recognized as heir to the French throne. Would Agincourt have played out as it did, had France had on that field the men whose blood soaked the earth before the Sultan’s gaze? 

Nicopolis ended Christianity’s last large-scale organized effort to roll back the Ottoman tide lapping at Constantinople’s bastions. When the end came in 1453 there wasn’t much anyone outside could do any more. Another century of largely maritime war culminated in the two Christian victories of Malta (1565) and Lepanto (1571), and turned back the Turk from complete dominance of the Mediterranean basin. On land, Nicopolis ensured that further action would be fought on Christian territory, on the defensive, and with the intangible but very real disadvantage of facing an enemy that just didn’t do defeat in any lasting sense. Mohacs (1526), which saw Hungary thrown beneath the Turkish boot for 200-odd years, and the sieges of Vienna (1529 and 1683 respectively, both unsuccessful) were perhaps not “results” of Nicopolis in a strictly military sense, but Islam triumphant in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, in some cases for centuries to come, very much was. 

One of the magnificent features of European architecture is at least in part an echo of the aftermath of Nicopolis. The Turkish victory there ensured that Vienna remained an outpost city, that its role as fortress continued to transcend the mere protection of its inhabitants from the occasional rampaging army. It was, in the two sieges mentioned above, the point at which the Islamic tide from the east was turned back from Europe. The Imperial re-conquest of Hungary took until well into the 18th Century, ensuring that (i) Vienna’s role as a strategic fortress lasted well beyond the point at which such fortifications had lost much of their significance elsewhere (witness: a large number of Marlborough’s battles against Louis XIV in the 1600s and early 1700s involved formal sieges of fortresses; not many of Frederick the Great’s battles from the 1740s to the 1760s did), and (ii) the Empire was even more thoroughly bankrupt by the end of the Napoleonic wars than the other European powers, who were by any measure poor as Job’s turkey after 25 years of nearly constant war following (in reverse order) the Seven Years’ War, the War of the Austrian Succession, the War of the Spanish Succession, and Louis XIV’s continued attempts at continental hegemony. 

So that by the 1850s, when Austria under its youthful emperor Franz Joseph finally had the wherewithal and the security to abandon its ramparts, they were able to do it up right. The demolition of the Viennese fortifications created the Ringstrasse, a parade of self-celebratory architecture the concentration of which is seldom achieved elsewhere. If the imperial residence in the old town, the Hofburg, really is a “Burg” – a fortress in itself – the Ringstrasse is a girdle of hey-look-at-me-now! imperial magnificence. 

Seven years before Nicopolis there had already been one very disastrous defeat for a Christian people, and which the defeat of the mightiest army Christianity could field at Nicopolis pretty much assured would not be undone any time soon: the Battle of Kosovo, on the Field of Crows, on June 28, 1389 (although it might also have been on June 15 under the then-prevailing calendar, or June 23). The Serbian nation was cast beneath the Ottoman harrow for centuries. Whatever the date of the actual slaughter, June 28 became their national day. It became the day on which every Serbian worthy of the name burned with resentment at centuries of foreign rule, of far-distant alien emperors disposing of the lives and fortunes of the Balkan Slavs. It became a day on which great deeds were to be done, blows to be struck for South Slav freedom (in part to slaughter the non-Slavic populations of the region, to be sure, as we’ve seen in recent years). June 28 became perhaps the least-well advised day for the heir to such a foreign dynasty to insult the memory of Kosovo by parading in high state through the streets of a town called Sarajevo just across the border, during the blazing sunshine of mid-summer in the year that has become its own metaphor: 1914.