A Joyful Noise

22 March 1459:  The young sprig of the Habsburg family is born who grows up to be Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor.

Max practiced masterfully the art of the dynastic marriage both for himself and his descendants, significantly sweeping under either direct Habsburg sovereignty or collateral affiliation large swathes of Europe, most notably direct kingship over Hungary after the disaster of Mohacs in 1526.  It was Hungary which provided the “and royal” tag in the Habsburg “imperial and royal” descriptor after the Compromise of 1867.  On the other hand, it was in large measure Hungarian intransigence which forever derailed what feeble attempts Franz Joseph and his advisors made to drag the empire forward as a viable geopolitical force.  I forget now which German senior commander (or was it a chancellor? I’ve slept since then) observed during the Great War that Germany was “shackled to a corpse.”  Magyar refusal to entertain any measure which might impair their oppression of the crazy-quilt of ethnicities within Hungary has to bear a good portion of the responsibility for the truth of that statement.

Gentle Reader will perceive how easily that for which we strive mightily, and sacrifice nearly all to defend once in our possession, can turn out to be a poison chalice in the end, after all.  Be careful what you wish for, I suppose.

Max also is a pretty good example of the Habsburg penchant for eccentricity.  He spent a large amount of effort on a couple of lengthy epic poems as well as a novel.  The purpose, in addition to patting himself on the back for being An All-Round Swell Guy, was to glorify what he presented as the traditions of chivalry and more to the point, the Habsburgs’ role as principal exponents of ditto.  There is a fascinating history of the family which takes for its focus the means and media in which the successive Habsburg rulers used their representation in visual and written arts to establish, explicate, and fix in permanence their role and claims in the European power system.

History has been less impressed with Max as author than he might have desired.

What Maximilian did do, and what to this day remains as an enduring legacy, perhaps his only enduring legacy, is the direction he gave to one of his court flunkies in 1498 to go hire, as a permanent fixture at court, some musicians and young male singers.  Just over 500 years later the Wiener Sängerknaben — better known in English as the Vienna Boys Choir — is still going.  Roughly 100 strong, they of course perform concerts in and around Vienna; they also split into four separate touring groups and travel all over the world performing.  A couple of years ago, one of them visited the city near where I live and as a bucket-list item I took my mother to see them.  They put on a pretty good show.

In addition to concerts at home and abroad, they also play a significant part in the cultural life of what has as good a claim as any to the title “Music City”.  Here’s a video including them performing at the 1989 funeral of Zita, the last Empress of Austria-Hungary.

[Here I will confess to a bit of a personal preference.  I understand that musicians must perform what their audiences want to hear.  Thus I do not take it ill of the Sängerknaben that so much of the program they presented that evening we saw them was newer settings of newer things.  But I prefer a greater homage to the towering music of the past.  I mean, let’s face it:  Just about anyone who can carry a tune in a dump truck — and I own that I am not among them, not at all, even a bit, by any standard — can sling together a passable setting of “contemporary” music, showtunes, and so forth.  It’s just not all that challenging.  The great music of the past, however?  That takes a bit more in the way of chops.  I prefer the focus of the Thomanerchor, which is even older than the Sängerknaben (they trace their roots back to 1212, I think) and which concentrates above all on the music of their one-time Kantor, one J. S. Bach.  Not to take anything away from their colleagues in Vienna; it’s just that I sort of wish they’d devote their undoubted talents to challenges more worthy of them.  Purely personal taste.]

Perhaps Maximilian did achieve his earthly immortality, and through the medium of art.  It just wasn’t his own, or even about him.  Irony will out.

Go make a joyful noise, in memory of H.I.M. Maximilian.

Pardon Her

That post title is not a misprint.

Nor is it an indication that I’ve finally gone off my meds (consisting of beer; on those few occasions when I see someone in a doctor’s office and I’m asked if I’m taking any medications, my invariable response is, “Does beer count?”).

Nor have I suddenly become unable to read, and thus discovered an element of intent in a statute which plainly contains no such element.  18 U.S.C. § 793(f) reads, in full —

(f)Whoever, being entrusted with or having lawful possession or control of any document, writing, code book, signal book, sketch, photograph, photographic negative, blueprint, plan, map, model, instrument, appliance, note, or information, relating to the national defense, (1) through gross negligence permits the same to be removed from its proper place of custody or delivered to anyone in violation of his trust, or to be lost, stolen, abstracted, or destroyed, or (2) having knowledge that the same has been illegally removed from its proper place of custody or delivered to anyone in violation of its trust, or lost, or stolen, abstracted, or destroyed, and fails to make prompt report of such loss, theft, abstraction, or destruction to his superior officer–

Shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both.”

The FBI director allowed that he was recommending She not be prosecuted for violating that statute because they couldn’t find any solid indication of intent on Her part to commit the acts described in it.  No Virginia, the word intent does not appear in that statute, nor does any variant of it.  Nor, for that matter, does reckless.  But the mens rea for both components of it is in fact expressed, so that you cannot even say that you must infer the standard of intent. The affirmative act proscribed requires only “gross negligence” (which was, as I recall, more or less exactly how Comey characterized Her actions), and the omission (failure to report) requires only “knowledge”.  She certainly had knowledge of the events itemized in the statute.

She is, in round numbers, Guilty as Hell, as are many of Her underlings and associates.  She is subject to imprisonment for up to ten years.  Full stop.

I have expatiated, both here and elsewhere, on why Her actions in respect of this country’s most sensitive information (barring, perhaps, the actual nuclear launch codes) made it impossible for me to support Her candidacy, no matter how revolting Her opponent may be, and no matter what Her actual policy actions might have turned out to be (in contrast to Her objectives as stated for public consumption).  Her blithely compromising our national security would alone have done that.  That, added to Her sale of the fourth-highest public office in our gift (the secretary of state is fourth in line for the presidency, behind only the actual president, the vice president, and the Speaker of the House), and you could have run a yellow dog against Her and I’d have voted for the dog.

Before proceeding, I want Gentle Reader to understand how it pains me to have to write that last sentence.  I grew up among Yellow Dog Democrats, people who proudly proclaimed they’d vote for a yellow dog if you ran him as a Democrat.  And they meant it, too.  I once attended a talk given by the author of a book about a very tumultuous time in my Southern state’s history.  It was neither more nor less than a full-blown constitutional crisis, and several key players came together to salvage the integrity (to the extent we enjoy any around here) of the Rule of Law.  Come to think of it now, those several weeks early that winter marked the point at which the Democrat Party in this state went into a decline from which it has not recovered to this day, forty-odd years later.  What I remember most about the author’s presentation was the praise heaped on the then-chief justice of our state supreme court, because he chose to uphold his oath of office, rather than do what he dearly wanted to do, namely not do anything that might benefit a Republican.  Apparently he actually did struggle with his decision, on exactly that basis.  Pause and think about that for a moment:  The highest judge in the state finds it even a close question as to whether to put party loyalty before his “so help me God” oath to preserve, protect, and defend the constitution of our state and of the United States.  I want to go find his grave, that I may shit on his headstone and otherwise desecrate it and those of his ancestors.

All of the above notwithstanding, I would like nothing more than to see Dear Leader pardon Her on his way out the door.  Certainly pardon Her for Her compromise of national security and all the crimes She committed in connection with the cover-up (destruction of evidence, obstruction of justice, conspiracy, and God only knows what else), and — here I confess I waffle a bit — probably for the corruption-related crimes as well.

However much She richly deserves to spend the bulk of the balance of Her life in an orange jumpsuit (She’s on the wrong side of 70 and not in good health; there’s a decent chance She wouldn’t do the full term even if sentenced), if She is prosecuted by the Trump administration, it will later be explicitly used by a Democrat administration as a precedent to bring witch-hunt criminal charges against defeated opponents.  Capture office and you not only sideline your opponent politically, but you use the physical coercive power of the United States government to destroy the individuals on the other side.  I still remember — I think it was the very first day of class — my 1L criminal law class, and the professor pointing out that criminal law is concerned with the application of the physical coercive power of millions upon millions of people and all the wealth they command to the body, the corporeal being, of a single human.  Or as Stalin phrased it, “How much do you suppose the Soviet Union weighs?”

Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and the other totalitarians are of course only the best-known practitioners of that principle.  A goodly bit of The GuLAG Archipelago covers Stalin’s use of the Soviet criminal law system (I refuse to use the expression “justice” in connection with anything appertaining to the Soviet Union) to wreak the physical destruction of vanquished political foes.  And by “physical destruction” I don’t mean that they had to eek out a marginal existence as third assistant bottle-washer in some dreary provincial town.  I mean they were sent to the execution chambers, just as they had, by the way, joyfully sent thousands of others before them.  So my sympathy for them is muted.

What is less known, because the perpetrator is something of a secular saint around here, is that Stalin and Hitler were far from the only ones doing that.  I refer Gentle Reader to the story of one Andrew Mellon (yes, of that family).  He had been Coolidge’s and Hoover’s Secretary of the Treasury.  After Hoover’s blow-out defeat by FDR, the new president instructed the chief prosecutor for the IRS, one Robert H. Jackson, to bring criminal charges against Mellon.  Not, you understand, for any misdeed taken in any official capacity, but rather for allegedly fiddling on his personal income taxes.  The specific offense charged (because Jackson did FDR’s bidding; his reward later was appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court) was Mellon’s having claimed deductions against his income.  The problem was that the deductions were specifically legal to claim, and Mellon was well within his rights to claim them.  No matter; Roosevelt commanded that he be charged and prosecuted as a criminal, and Jackson the toady in fact tried to do it, although the grand jury returned a no true bill.  The whole sordid story is well-told in Amity Schlaes’s The Forgotten Man.  Not having been able to get the grand jury to do his master’s bidding, Jackson then went after Mellon for civil penalties; eventually Mellon was fully exonerated.  Jackson went on to become the chief Allied prosecutor at Nuremberg’s IMT trials of the chief Nazi defendants.

So Gentle Reader may not think it can’t happen here, because it can and it has.  In fact it continues.  What’s left of the Democrats in Texas have made several — thus far unsuccessful — runs at their opponents.  In Alaska they succeeded in a witch hunt trial of Sen. Ted Stevens.  They convicted him of corruption and he lost his re-election bid to a Democrat, with the vote of whom the “Affordable” Care Act became law.  There was only one problem:  The Department of Justice rigged the whole thing, up to and including manufacturing of evidence and suborning perjury.  Don’t take my word for it.  Let’s hear from the Special Counsel’s report (completed and released too late to avoid the disastrous consequences of his loss to the Senate):  “The investigation and prosecution of U.S. Senator Ted Stevens were permeated by the systematic concealment of significant exculpatory evidence which would have independently corroborated Senator Stevens’s defense and his testimony, and seriously damaged the testimony and credibility of the government’s key witness.”

The fact that She is in fact guilty, that there is no reasonable dispute as to Her guilt, the fact that the damage She did to national security interests, all in an effort to cover up . . . well, we don’t know quite why she went to such lengths . . . will endure for decades:  None of that changes my thinking.  Trump’s prosecution of a consummately guilty person will, no matter the outcome, later be used by his Democrat successors as an excuse to destroy the innocent.  And then it will be only a question of time before a successful Republican does it.  And then it will become part of our political DNA.  Lose office and they’ll hound you into jail or the grave, whichever comes first.

When you raise the stakes of political challenge-and-defense to that level, candidates and incumbents alike will stop at nothing in their effort to win.  And by “nothing” I am not speaking metaphorically.  At that point anything and everything will be viewed as being on the table, up to and including outright assassination.  Grabbing the scalp of a senator is one thing; when the stakes are the Oval Office on the one hand or federal incarceration on the other, things become imaginable which otherwise never ever would.  When we reach that point we will be indistinguishable from some banana republic, from Mexico, from Putin’s Russia, from Cambodia, from North Korea.

So I heartily endorse the notion that Dear Leader will pardon Her for Her criminal actions in regard of The E-Mail Server and its cover-up.  The sale of office offenses I have a little more hesitation about, but if pushed would probably swallow that as well.  My hesitation in that respect arises from the unfortunate fact that sale of public office is so easily accomplished and so difficult to prove, and it may be practiced at all levels of government, and its unabashed practice — which would, by the way, be the inevitable outcome of Her getting away with it — has the independent ability to destroy the republic.

And the pardon must come from Dear Leader.  Everyone expects him to, anyway, for starts.  Secondly, such a pardon from a President Trump would in an instant destroy his credibility with everyone who — as I did — pulled the lever for him by reason of Her guilt.  If you want to destroy Trump’s presidency once and for all, have him grant Her clemency.

I would note that, because the FBI has an independent counter-intelligence function, pardoning Her will not end its jurisdiction fully to investigate and evaluate all those e-mails.  This is important, because the American people do deserve to know the full details of what She did while in office.

I would not, however, support clemency for Her raft of co-conspirators and enablers.  Exactly how many hundreds of people had to be in the loop on that illegal server, seeing what any fourth-grader could recognize as classified information flit to and fro?  How many bag men for the Clinton Foundation were there who made the arrangements with the foreign donors?  All of Her scheming could never have got off the ground were it not for the underlings.

Let us run a thought experiment:  I am some senior staff member to a senior government official.  I am given instructions by my chief that I know from the moment the words leave his mouth are flagrantly not just illegal, but constitute major felonies.  Thinking that my chief and I sink or swim together gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling, because I’m thinking he has the political pull to save himself, and by doing so will necessarily save me as well.  What if, on the other hand, I can look back and find ample precedent for the outcome that my chief, for whose benefit I am asked to commit multiple crimes, is going to skate and enjoy a long and remunerative retirement, while I go to prison?  Will I be more likely or less likely to go along with it?  How likely is it that my chief will organize a John Q. Zimmelfritz Legal Defense Fund to keep my country ass out of chokey?

What if senior staff at the State Department had refused to communicate with Her except across a properly authorized, secure government e-mail account?  What if She Herself had had to do all her negotiating favors for the King of Morocco, or the Russian uranium interests, or Ericsson for cash (like the $750,000 speech Bill gave to Ericsson’s board of directors, or the $500,000 speech he gave to the Moscow bankers financing Putin’s acquisition of 20% of U.S. uranium production capacity, or the $23 million that the king kicked into Her foundation), instead of having shoals of willing errand-boys and -girls?  I will tell you one very likely outcome of my alt-history:  We would be getting ready for our second President Clinton right now, because millions of voters — voters such as yore ‘umble correspondent here — would very likely have opted for Her, instead of Trump.

I don’t want to live in Central America, or Russia, or China, or North Korea.  I damned sure don’t want those places brought here.  Pardon Her, and be done with it.  To borrow from Cromwell:  In the name of God, go!

On the Kaiser and the Administrative State

A couple of weeks ago a buddy forwarded to me a photo that a friend of his had taken, of House Doorn in the Netherlands.  This is it:

house-doorn

As Gentle Reader might surmise from the bust in the foreground, this was the house in which Kaiser Wilhelm II spent the last two decades or thereabouts of his life.  He is buried on the grounds there, and is likely to remain there forever.  His express wish was not to be returned to Germany until it became a monarchy again, and the likelihood of that occurring is somewhere in the neighborhood of 0.0.

Being the considerate, courteous feller that I am I thanked my buddy.  I passed along that I have the two-volume biography of Wilhelm by Lamar Cecil, which I found to be very well done, and remarkably fair given the subject.  Cecil doesn’t pull punches, but refrains from gratuitous character-blackening.  But it’s his final comment on Wilhelm that sticks in the mind.  Of the last kaiser it could equally be said, so Cecil, what Wellington pronounced upon George IV:  He lived and died without being able to assert so much as a single claim upon the gratitude of posterity.

My buddy then e-mailed me back to allow that Cecil’s judgment echoed what he had read about ol’ Kaiser Bill in both Paris 1919 and The War That Ended Peace, both by Margaret MacMillan.  I have both and recommend them both, but the exchange with my buddy got me to thinking back to the war’s beginnings.

As I think I’ve mentioned before, the Great War has been a fetish of mine for right at 30 years.  I can’t say I have any friends I know to give a tinker’s damn about it, but for me it is a source of endless fascination and continuing reflection.  [N.b.  By an odd coincidence, a very dear friend of mine had one grandfather who was a machine-gunner for the kaiser; the other grandfather had been a machine-gunner in the A.E.F.]

I have on loan from a mutual friend the BBC mini-series 37 Days, the story of the interval between the Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination on June 28 and the August 3, 1914, British declaration of war.  As you might expect from the Beeb, the story is told primarily from the viewpoint of the Anglo-German dyad.  There are two brief scenes each of Franz Joseph and Nicholas II; the balance of the action takes place in London and Berlin.  The central character around whom the narrative is framed is Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign minister.  Ian McDiarmid plays Grey marvelously.

There are a couple of historical inaccuracies in the plot.

Franz Joseph is implied to be the motive force behind the famous ultimatum to Serbia, when in fact it was his cabinet, and above all his military Chief of the General Staff, Field Marshal Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, who seized upon the assassination (which Franz Joseph greeted with, above all, a sense of relief, remarking as much in so many words) to crush Serbia once and for all, both to remove a source of agitation for the empire’s Serb minority and to re-assert Austria-Hungary’s place as a Great Power in Europe.

In Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm’s initial reaction is presented as being bellicose, when it was nothing of the kind.  At least at first.  For obvious reasons the Austrians wanted to know whether they had Germany’s backing in doing anything to Serbia as such in response to the assassination.  So they sent Alexander, Count von Hoyos a foreign service official, with a memorandum in hand to see the Austrian ambassador to Germany, who was then to meet with Kaiser Wilhelm and the German Reichskanzler, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg.  Bethmann-Hollweg’s initial reaction during that meeting — and more importantly, the kaiser’s as well — was cautionary.  But during the Austrian ambassador’s meeting with kaiser and chancellor, Hoyos was meeting with his own German counterpart to “explain” the memorandum’s actual meaning.  Hoyos had long been, it seems, a proponent of violent reckoning with Serbia, and the gloss he put on the memorandum was that Austria wanted a short, victorious war against Serbia and it expected Germany to live up to its alliance obligations.  That “interpretation” was then communicated up to Wilhelm, and by the time dinner came around that evening, Wilhelm was wearing his war paint and declared that whatever Austria wanted to do, Germany would back it to the hilt.  Thus was the famous “blank check” given.

The final point of inaccuracy in the BBC miniseries is that it presents Bethmann-Hollweg as being much more belligerent, and much more energetic about provoking warlike measures by the Austrians, than he actually was.  He’d never served in the army and had no illusions about its out-sized role in Germany policy-making.  He had long been an unsuccessful opponent of Admiral Tirpitz’s quixotic naval construction programs.

But that’s not what this post is about.  The BBC miniseries very accurately presents the role played by the German General Staff, the Generalstab.  The generals very very much wanted a war, but not a war between Austria and Serbia.  They were looking for war with Russia, a preventive war.

What follows below is the (slightly edited) e-mail I sent to my buddy:

If you back up a half-step from the historical narrative and look at the meta-story of it, what you realize is that what was going on was that the responsible organs of government – the kaiser and the reichskanzler — abdicated a central decision-making function – how to address the continent-wide instabilities created by two decrepit, ancient political systems (Austria-Hungary and Russia) as they desperately fought for continued relevance in a notoriously volatile part of Europe — to supposed “experts” viz. the Army Generalstab. 

Everyone and his cousin knew the issue – What to Do About the Balkans, Dear – to be fiendishly complicated. 

But hist! the Generalstab more or less hijacked the decisional process.  For them the issue wasn’t the Balkans as such, it was the supposed settling of accounts (“Which accounts, exactly?” the innocent bystander might have asked) with Russia.  For decades – ever since Caprivi had let the Secret Reinsurance Treaty with Russia lapse in 1890 (I think it was), the Generalstab had assumed a war with Russia as part of Germany’s treaty obligations to Austria-Hungary.  To be true, they’d at first discounted the possibility that despotic Russia and republican France could ever find their way to the same bed, but in 1894 it had happened.  But they were “experts,” after all, and what good is an “expert” if he can’t “solve” any problem you set him, right? 

In 1914, the “experts” of the Generalstab offered several assurances to the responsible decision-makers:  (i)  There was a rapidly approaching, apocalyptic event – the overtaking of Germany by Russia in military and economic power – the result of which, if not stopped, was the utter destruction of Germany as a flourishing polity and puissant European power.  (ii)  Only the Army had the power to stop it.  (iii)  The only method of addressing this on-coming apocalypse was to cede authority and command over events to the experts, who were to be given free hand in crafting a salvation from it, and that salvation was a specifically military solution.  (v)  There were no unknown developments to fearfrom the experts’ be-all-and-end-all solution of provoking a general war against Russia in the east (oh, for example, the American industrial economy being effectively thrown into the scales on the other side, or Italy getting bought by the Allies with promises of Austrian territory).  (vi) Any known risks of side-effects had been fully accounted for and contained (the Schlieffen Plan and knocking France out of the war in six weeks, thereby reducing the British and more critically the Royal Navy to impotence . . . assuming Britain even bothered to come in at all). 

You will readily recognize in the above the fundamental paradigm of the modern state.  The organs pursue their own agendas, which they form internally and without reference, by and large, to the determinations of the responsible political organs.  Those agendas grow from the agencies’ own objectives, the ultimate outcomes of which, whatever other attributes they might enjoy, invariably display one common feature: the increase in the control exerted by that agency, and the protection of its insiders.  The agencies invariably present their programs never as a trade-off among competing priorities, but rather as the sole chance of staving off catastrophe.  The agencies explicitly take the position that no one from outside them can possibly understand their pet issue(s) or be morally entitled to take a position on them which must be respected and is entitled to be accounted for in any ultimate resolution.  The agencies strenuously maintain, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that they possess full knowledge of every possible consequence of their actions, have accounted for those consequences, and have so arranged everything – Everything, I tell you!! – that no meaningful harm can come from just turning the keys over to them, and if we’ll all just shut up and do as they say, the lion will lie down with the lamb and all will be for the best in the best of all possible worlds. 

Hold that template up to nearly every single agency of modern government, and you will see it fits like pigskin on a pig.  The legal system?  Check.  The EPA?  Check.  The Fed?  Spot-on.  The educational industry?  Oh boy yes; try making a suggestion about how classroom education might be improved to someone carrying an NEA card in her purse and see how much an Outsider gets listened to.  Pretty much any of the alphabet-soup agencies?  Like it was tailor-fit to them.  The military?  Pretty much yes, although the cultural memory of Vietnam has done a great deal to pop a lot of seams in the cloth (kind of ironic that the one aspect of modern America which doesn’t fit perfectly the paradigm of summer, 1914 is precisely the American military in its relationship with the responsible organs of government). 

And now remind me how the Kaiser’s decision to put the generals in the saddle in July, 1914 worked out.

We are glibly informed by our president that, “I’ve got a pen, and I’ve got a phone,” and so he’ll jolly well do as he pleases and Congress be damned.

We have the Consumer Financial Protection Board, which actually isn’t a “board” at all, but rather a non-firable single administrator whose budget comes from the Fed’s surplus income and who answers to no one (mercifully, that structure was just the other day ruled to be unconstitutional by the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit).

We have the EPA just more or less deciding to destroy the American power system through regulating carbon dioxide as a “pollutant”.  The courts, indulging the lunacy, agreed that what comes out of your chest as you exhale is subject to regulation by the EPA.  Think about that one, Gentle Reader.  The product of one of your basic life processes is subject to regulation in Washington, D.C.  You are a discharge point.  The EPA runs the National Point Discharge Elimination System (at least for wastewater; I can’t say off the top of my head whether it applies to airborne pollutants — like your breath — as well).  Can you say “residency permit” and “internal passport,” Gentle Reader?  Don’t think it can’t happen; the Army Corps of Engineers famously tried to regulate wet-weather pools on private land as being “navigable waters”.

It is an unfortunate fact of Life that it is far, far easier to do harm than good.  It took the better part of 600 years to build the cathedral at Cologne (or Köln, as we Germanophones would say it); one truck bomb lit off by an ISIS sleeper cell (and the German security services have admitted that such are already there) could bring it down with a few hours’ work.  The German Generalstab managed, with a few weeks manipulation of processes and personalities, to provoke a war which just about destroyed European civilization; in fact, it did destroy it.  If in 1895 you’d asked anyone but a raving lunatic whether it was OK to shoot and gas 6,000,000 people because of where — not just they, but their ancestors going back six generations — went to church, they’d have tried to calm you down while they quietly fetched the gentlemen bearing the straitjackets.  If you’d suggested that it was OK to kick hundreds of thousands of people off land they and their ancestors had inhabited for centuries (as happened in Poland, and eastern Germany, and the Sudetenland), they’d have very carefully put a table between you and them.  If you’d proposed that it would be a very good thing to starve to death your entire independent agricultural class, they’d have run for the hills shouting there was a madman on their tails.  And yet by mid-century all this and much, much more had happened, and had been blessed not just by the perpetrators but by “serious” third-party observers, such as The New York Times whitewashing the Holodomor.

What might an uncontrolled administrative state work by way of mischief?  I am afraid that I will live long enough to find out.  I am terrified that my sons almost certainly will.

Sometimes You See it in a Single Card

[Ed. — Wow.  I haven’t put anything up on this humble little blog since spring.  What have I been doing?  I couldn’t tell you, for the life of me.  The time just sort of heaves and sighs, and poof! there are another few months gone under the bridge.  Is this what we have to look forward to, as we age?]

You can see it in the slightest things, sometimes.  Someone in whom a particular mind-set, a philosophy, a Weltanschauung is so stamped that it has become a part of who he unthinkingly is will sometimes do or say something and not realize that he has laid bare, to some degree, the most fundamental mechanisms of his soul.  Reporters, the overwhelming majority of whom in Western societies are hard-core leftists, are especially prone to do such things.  They’re so far to the left that they don’t even realize that they are leftists; that’s just how the world looks to them.  And so they’re forever turning cards face-up on the table so that the rest of us can see what’s going on behind their eyes.  They’re no more self-conscious about it than a dog licking his balls.

I recently ran across a splendid example of it, in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the newspaper I’ve used as my internet start page ever since CNN took to shilling for al Qaeda back in 2006.  [Remember the snuff film they produced, of U.S. soldiers getting killed by snipers in Iraq?  They made and released that film in an explicit, self-proclaimed effort to influence the outcome of the 2006 mid-term elections.  CNN took that film, which its own makers had announced as an intention to subvert the American political process, and ran it, again and again and again.  What would we have thought if the Germans had made a similar film in 1944 and then Movietone had run it with the newsreels before every showing of every film in the U.S?]

The article deals with a statute with a wonderfully German name:  the Bundesausbildungsförderungsgesetz, or the Federal Education Improvement Law.  With typical glee in abbreviation and acronym (the Gestapo’s nickname was also one: in truth its full name was the Geheime Staatspolizei) it’s universally known as Bafög.  In round numbers it provides for federal level financial aid  to German students who are attending university (and presumably the technische Hochschulen as well).  The process starts with filling out a standard form, much like the FAFSA form here in the U.S.

At least, the Bafög provides that financial aid to students whose families aren’t well-off above a certain threshold.

The article’s title — “Unity and Justice and Bafög” is a play on the first words of the German national anthem: Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit, unity and justice and freedom.  The point of the article is that our newly-minted Abiturient — the holder of the coveted Abitur, which allows you to attend college in Germany — looking forward to the freedom and Selbstbestimmung (self-determination) of adulthood, with the university years as joyful, stimulating, liberating, challenging, endlessly intriguing opening chapter, is in for a let-down when he sits down to fill out the Bafög application. You see, on page 3 of the form the student is required to state his parent’s income and resources.  Too much and you don’t get any Bafög assistance.

Oopsies!  Turns out the blossoming student isn’t viewed as being quite liberated from his parents, after all.  More to the point, his ability to be a care-free student —

is materially affected by attributes of his family.  Wait.  Isn’t one of the Big Points of university exactly the separation of the student’s identity from that of his background?

The article correctly states the issue implicated:  We are called upon to take a position in the “eternal conflict between freedom, equality, and justice”.  You see, the problem with Bafög is that it is taxpayer funded.  By all taxpayers.  Including the baker whose son is doing an apprenticeship at the local machine shop, whose daughter is a waitress at the restaurant down the street, and whose wife is a nurse’s assistant at the hospital.  His and their money is being taken from them to fund the heightened life prospects of our new student.  Remind us again how this is just and equitable, if the student’s ability to launch himself in life with recourse to the resources of those who — at this point in life at least, before spouse and children appear — have the No. 1 Biggest Stake in his future prospects, is not to be taken into account.  [Note that just making university “free” to everyone doesn’t address our baker’s objections.  He’s still having to fork out to give someone else’s child a leg up in life, irrespective of the ability to help of that child’s parents.]

The article suggests that from our hypothetical tradesman’s perspective, it would be much fairer to require the student and his family to borrow the money and then pay it back from his presumably greater earnings.  As they do it in America, the author points out.  But what has been the result of that system in America, the author asks.  “Mountains of debt” just at the outset of one’s career.

The other way to go is the Scandinavian model, in which everyone — including the children of millionaires — has a right to support from the state.  To treat the children of the wealthy differently would be “not to take them in earnest.”  Whatever.

And now, the tell.  “The liberation from the oppressing bonds of background, which it [the money-for-everyone system] promises the student, has another hook.  It only come as a package.  In other aspects of life as well the state prefers to work directly, without disruptive intermediaries such as the family, with people.”  It is a “großangelegtes Vereinzelungsprojekt” — a comprehensive atomization project — with “grave side effects.”

There you have it.  The socialist system rests upon what is in substance an unlimited claim upon the individual humans who make up society.  It cannot and will not tolerate any other locus of power or independence.

First and foremost is the nuclear family.  It is no accident that among the earliest “reforms” of every socialist dictatorship (and they all are, even the Scandinavian ones with the smiley face) is a programmatic subversion of the nuclear family.  Divorce laws are loosened, the legal privileges of married status are withdrawn.  Children are removed, sometimes by force (membership in the Hitlerjugend or the Young Pioneers was not optional), and often by enticement (universal “free” day-care, anyone?) from their parents’ supervision.  The adults from whom they receive their daily, drip-drip-drip of influence are no longer the parents (or grandparents, or older siblings, aunts and uncles, cousins, and so forth) but rather government functionaries, teaching lessons, values, and self-understanding chosen by the state.  Children are encouraged to spy and report on their parents.  Those who do (or who are said to have) are celebrated, publicly.

Churches come into the cross-hairs for the same reasons.  From the liquidation of the hierarchy under the Bolsheviks to Hitler’s co-opting the German churches — kudos to Bonhoeffer and the other organizers of the Confessing Church movement in Germany; they weren’t going along to get along — there is a remarkably consistent pattern in the subversion of religious organization by socialist government.

The Cultural Revolution was more of the same.  A couple of years ago I read a fascinating biography of Chairman Mao, and of course that period comes in for some close examination.  Traditional Chinese society is, of course, exactly that: deeply and abidingly traditional.  Although the Reds had completed their formal conquest of the country by 1949, and even though they had starved — very intentionally, by the way — somewhere between 45 and 60 million people — mostly peasants — to death during the Great Leap Forward (the link is to the Wikipedia article, which give a high of 42 million and a low of 18 million; on the other hand, this history gives the 45-60 range), Chinese society still remained in many of its core organizing principles the same traditional society it had been.  Mao realized that he had to smash, irretrievably, that hold which tradition had, because in traditional Chinese society the state, as such, played so small a part in everyday life.  Hence the Cultural Revolution’s targeting of everything which traditional China revered, first and foremost the teachers.

It was Mussolini who made famous the formulation: Everything within the state; nothing outside the state; nothing against the state.  This is the first and basic credo of the socialist.  You can pretty it up and say, “Government is just the name for the things we all do together,” but it’s the same thing.  You can stick a label on it — Gleichschaltung — so you can speak in catch-phrases.  You can even attempt to replicate it, to some degree, in the context of a free association, in such things as labor unions, with their ladies’ auxiliaries, athletic teams, children’s groups, and so forth.  But that doesn’t really work, does it, without coercion.  Witness what happened in places like New Harmony:  Without the coercive power of the state, the experiment in an all-encompassing socialism flew apart under the stresses of its own centrifugal forces.

Which is why, at bottom, if the premise of socialism is this unlimited claim upon the individual lives of the people, its essence is violence, physical coercion.

But how does this fascism-with-a-smiley-face play out in wonderful Scandinavia?  Let’s go back to that FAZ article for a reference to just one of those “grave side effects”:  “There are for example few lands in which so many people as in Sweden die completely alone, without any connection with their family.”  Or we can look at the WHO data on alcohol-related disorders:  For males, the rate in the U.S. is 5.48%.  In Sweden it’s 6.32%; in Finland 6.39%; in Norway (you know, that place we’re all supposed to be like) it’s a whacking 9.05%.  Here’s a link to an article in The Washington Post about the prevalence of diagnosed depression.  In the U.S., according to the map at the link, the rate appears to be in the 4-4.5% range.  It’s hard to tell from the map (there’s a further link to the underlying study, if Gentle Reader wants to read that far), but it looks like Sweden comes in at 4.5-5%, and Finland and Norway at 5.5-6%.  Those don’t sound like terribly bad numbers, until you consider that the jump from 4% (the U.S. low-end) to 5.5% (the low-end in wonderful Norway) is a 37.5% leap.

It looks, in other words, as though whatever else the intrusion of the state into every nook and cranny of its citizens’ lives is working for the better, it still seems not to do a very good job of avoiding your dying drunk, depressed, and alone.

Cheer up, Comrade.

Harriet and Andy

The news in numismatics this week is that Andrew Jackson, the nation’s seventh president, is to be booted from the face of the $20 bill in favor of Harriet Tubman, of Underground Railroad fame.

Jackson’s getting the axe for two reasons:  The present administration is determined to put a face on U.S. currency that is not a white male face, and Jackson owned slaves.  He is also warmly despised for ejecting the Five Tribes from the Eastern United States.  So he has to go.

Harriet Tubman was a leading figure in the organization and operation of the Underground Railroad, that system of hiding places and safe houses which conducted escaping slaves from their points of origin to Canada, where the fugitive slave laws didn’t apply.  It was work conducted, at least in the South, at peril of the parties’ lives, and once in the north, at peril of arrest and imprisonment.

Suffice it to say that Harriet Tubman was equipped with guts enough to equip a regiment.  If you were to set out to fill an auditorium with the Greatest Americans who have thus far lived, she’d have a seat somewhere.

And yet I do not favor kicking Andrew Jackson off the $20 to make place for her.

Why?

For starts, a portrayal on U.S. paper currency is, if you will look at it, presently reserved for people who did great deeds in their capacity as public officials, not for acts of private significance, however worthy.  The only even possible exception is Benjamin Franklin on the $100 bill, but even then, Franklin was among the United States’ most important public servants.  The revolutionary alliance with France, that enabled us to win the war for independence in the first place, was a product of Franklin’s credibility at the court of Louis XV, of Franklin’s acknowledged place in world society (he regularly corresponded, as an equal, with the pre-eminent scientific minds of his generation).  Even before the war, he represented several colonies in London, and it was his personal experience of vituperation in Parliament which decided him that continued affiliation with Britain was not a workable long-term solution.  Later, he was a key player in the constitutional convention in 1787.  So even though he never held any public office under the United States Constitution, he was one of the men but for whom that compact would never have come into existence.

The other public servants scarcely need introduction.  Washington?  Father of the country.  Lincoln?  His deeds require no justification for the reverence in which we hold his memory.  Hamilton?  Father of our national economy (and also a key player in the constitution’s birthing).  Grant?  If being the key commander in winning the Civil War doesn’t merit his place, what might?  On coinage the pattern is similar.  Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson.  Eisenhower, who held together the Western allies in defeating Germany.  The two heads I don’t really understand are Truman’s on the dime and Kennedy’s on the half-dollar.

There is a single exception, and one that never took off:  The Sacagawea dollar (by coincidence I happen to have one in my pocket at this moment).  But even she has a claim to a service in the public interest:  It was she who guided the Corps of Discovery (better known at the Lewis and Clark Expedition) over the western mountains, who was valuable in securing for them the safe passage from the tribes whose lands they crossed.

Now let’s think of why Jackson might be on the $20 bill.  He was the founding light of the oldest continuing political party in American history.  Being a party hack doesn’t really merit a spot on the currency, though, does it?  Victor of New Orleans?  Well, as every school child knows, that battle was fought after the peace had been signed, although the point has been made that it in fact was not, in all likelihood, totally irrelevant for that reason.  There is strong reason to believe that Britain, had it been in possession of the mouth of the Mississippi, would not have surrendered it willingly after the war, which would have utterly changed the complexion of later American development.

No, I think Jackson earned his spot on the $20 bill when he stared down the South Carolina nullifiers.  As Gentle Reader will recall, a protective tariff had been adopted for the benefit of northern industrial interests.  The new imposts had the desired effect, of making imported manufactured goods more expensive than domestic production.  The burden fell hard on the Southern agricultural interests, because of their dependence upon their trade relationships with the British to move their cotton crop.  They bought a large proportion of their manufactured goods from Britain as a result of that trade.

Needless to say, the Southern interest was outraged at the new tariff law.  South Carolina announced an intent to “nullify” the federal statute.  It even passed an ordinance declaring the law to be unconstitutional and null within its borders.  It just was not going to apply in South Carolina (sort of like all these bullshit “sanctuary cities” that have announced that the federal immigration statutes don’t apply within their city limits — San Francisco is very much in the slaveholders’ tradition in this respect).

Let’s pause for a moment and take stock of where things stood during the Nullification Crisis:  In 1832-33 the United States was still a comparatively weak country, a comparatively small country.  Its parts were not yet bound by an enormous rail network, and outside the coastal plain there weren’t even all that many canals.  Large areas were still virgin wilderness (that situation applied far longer than one might expect: not far from where I live there is a county in which there were still over 100,000 acres of virgin hardwood in 1910).  The forces of cohesion in the country were still fragile, and there were still many powerful actors in the world who would have rejoiced in a failure of what was then known as the American Experiment.  This was still a world in which people’s demands for written constitutions were believed to be, and were treated as, an act of rebellion.  In fact, the Revolutions of 1848 in Central Europe were based in large part on precisely that — demands for written constitutions to tie down monarchs’ privileges.

[By the way, note what this understanding of constitutionalism has to say about the notion of a “living constitution.”  Until the U.S. Supreme Court got into it, everyone understood that a written constitution was written for the precise reason that its meaning did not morph over time into whatever you wanted it to say.  The U.S. Constitution was a revolutionary document for exactly the reason that it was written and its meaning did not change to suit the whims of the ruler of the moment.  The idea of a “living constitution” in which no provision has any permanent meaning does violence to the very concept of a constitution, and until the American left got at it, was universally understood to do so.]

The United States with its written constitution was a direct and immediate threat to all those crowned heads in Europe who fiercely resisted the pressure to shackle themselves to a written document with ascertainable substance.

Had South Carolina succeeded in openly defying the federal government as to Congressional action in respect of a matter unambiguously placed within its constitutional competencies — the regulation of trade with foreign nations — the American Experiment would have failed.  The country would not have survived, and there would have been no Underground Railroad because the borders would have been largely closed off.

Jackson was having none of it.  Congress authorized the Force Bill to compel South Carolina’s compliance with the law.  But of course, it would have been Jackson as commander-in-chief who would have been charged with implementing that, or not, and if so, how vigorously.  And what was Jackson’s position?  Well, a visitor from South Carolina asked him if he had any message he’d like to send to the good folks back home.  Jackson gave it to them with the bark still on it:  “Yes I have; please give my compliments to my friends in your State and say to them, that if a single drop of blood shall be shed there in opposition to the laws of the United States, I will hang the first man I can lay my hand on engaged in such treasonable conduct, upon the first tree I can reach.”

South Carolina knew he meant every last word of that promise.  Compare and contrast Dear Leader’s “red line” in Syria that wasn’t.  South Carolina knew what it had to expect from Jackson, and a compromise was reached.  Syria knew what it had to expect from Dear Leader, and it has acted accordingly.

Jackson, in short, did no more and no less than save the union in 1832-33, at a time when there was an immediate danger of its dissolution.  For that, he more than deserves his place on the $20 bill.  Whatever Harriet Tubman’s private courage and dedication to the cause of human liberty may have been, her life’s work simply does not rise to that level of national significance.  The Underground Railroad never would have changed a damned thing about the institution of slavery; there is no way on earth they could have spirited enough slaves out of the South to make any but the most minuscule dent on the institution.  It took a civil war to make that happen, and had it not been for Jackson’s stance in the face of the nullifiers in 1832-33, there never would have been the northern industrial and demographic powerhouse twenty years later which tore the poison lance of slavery from the national body by main force.  Just wouldn’t have happened.

If you absolutely want to have Tubman’s face on U.S. currency, bilge either Truman or Kennedy, preferably the latter.  But to degrade the man whose courage saved the country betrays a profound ignorance of American history.

Gödel and Washington

Among the very earliest posts on this humble little blog was one on Washington’s Farewell Address, posted on the occasion of its anniversary. In truth I’d not read it until then, an omission which I now very much regret. The Farewell Address must be one of the most extraordinary documents in American political history, and it is worthy of tremendously more attention than gets paid to it these days. It should, rather, be required reading in just about every level of American education.

For the moment I’d like to return to a part of it, specifically the following passage:

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.“It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?”

I’d like more specifically to drill down on the statement, “And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” Let’s just say that modern American public discourse is obliged to discount that thought. Religion, or perhaps better stated religiosity, is thought to be in bad taste at best, oppressive by merely allusion to it at worst.

Some time ago while ruminating, what I am pleased to call my mind began studying on the question of exactly on what basis do I require of my fellow humans that I be treated as anything other than an instrumentality. We’ve all heard of Kant’s categorical imperative, but I mean, really? If you, dear reader, have an objective and I am in the way of its achievement, by what right do I claim that you must, to borrow a line from one of my favorite Abe Lincoln stories, “plow around” me? It can only be that I claim some peculiar status in the world which you inhabit.

You say we are all equals, in some moral sense. How is that? Do we see non-human life exhibiting this same recognition of abstract equality? Or do we see, even among pack animals, behavior which cannot be explained except upon purely utilitarian grounds? The alpha male drives the juvenile male from the herd, to wander alone in a world in which he is not at the top of the food chain, until either he is eaten or finds another herd in which he can with violence establish himself. Males battling each other for the privilege of mating with the females, and the females not observably having any choice in the matter. Males preying on their own off-spring. The sick or the old or the lame abandoned to the predator. It all makes sense if you view those animals’ existence from an amoral perspective. Not so much if you apply Kant’s imperative as among them.

What is it that makes humans different? Why should you extend to me any greater consideration than you would a tree, or a rock in your garden, or raccoon who wants only to feed from your garbage? Turning Lincoln’s critique of the slaveholders’ racialist apologia on its head, it cannot be because I am your equal in intelligence, because as like as not you’re sharper than I am. It cannot be that I have some unique talent for any particular task or form of expression, because again, you probably excel me there and besides, on what basis do I assert that my talent for X is somehow more worthy than yours for Y? Strength? No. Leadership? Not there. Looks? Not even in the park. Am I more useful than you? Highly doubtful. No, the only this-worldly basis that I have to demand your recognition of me as your equal is because I can compel it. But that’s nothing more than a catch-all description of the lone male wandering the brush and forcing himself into a new pack, pride, herd, family group, etc. Or, even more bluntly stated, it is the proposition that Might Makes Right.

Thomas Hobbes famously grounded his conclusion that all men are equal in the fact that every man can kill any other man, for each man must at some point sleep. Very true, and very much of a piece with his characterization of the natural condition of man: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. But that’s not an identifiably moral basis for asserting equality.

I defy anyone to enunciate a anthropocentric basis upon which you must address me as your equal and which does not on closer examination boil down to expedience or force (which is itself little more than a specific application of the principle of expedience). Expedience of course cannot be reconciled with Kant’s imperative. And what if in fact I am not useful to you, if my existence athwart your path is inexpedient to you? Oops; I’m not sure I like that outcome one bit.

No, if I want you to recognize in me anything more morally compelling than that raccoon knocking over your garbage can, I must refer to a morality that confers that claim on me from outside our shared humanity. That “outside” can come only from a supra-human source, from a source that we by its very nature as supra-human characterize as “divine,” as in partaking of divinity, the attribute we reserve to Him whom we confess to be God. Only by recognition of the divinity of God may you recognize a small portion of that divinity in His creature, in me. Small it assuredly is, but it is enough, it is a basis to which you can point and acknowledge my claim upon you for no other reason than the fact that I am.

I am. Only a confessing believer in a higher being can logically recognize that as being a perfect statement of claim. Without that belief you must necessarily ask, “You are what?” and adjudge that “what” to be or not be sufficient.

Or so I reasoned. Seemed tidy enough, and explained enough to me for my own purposes. I am no mathematician. My D and D- in two semesters of calculus resolved that much if nothing else. So I beg indulgence from those whose abilities in that regard extend beyond those of the great apes. As better explained in a book later on lent to me by one who actually enjoys theoretical mathematics as a hobby (de gustabus non disputandum est, and leave it at that) Kurt Gödel (rendered in English, happily deprived of diacritics, as “Goedel”) demonstrated that you cannot prove a system from within that system. I won’t go further into the particularities of his proof for knowing that I would misstate something, but suffice it to say that he showed that you cannot bootstrap a logical system. I was mighty proud to find out that my stewing wasn’t so wildly off the mark after all: you cannot prove up a logical system of morality from within that system. Kant’s categorical imperative seems to be a “big bang” analogue, but respectfully I’m not having that.

Washington was, in other words, dead-on right when he reminded his fellow citizens that the maintenance of a republic over time could not succeed without virtue, and that virtue cannot exist without religion. For without religion, without the acknowledgement of a mind, purpose, and power above all human comprehension, there can be no morality but only the expedient of the moment.

I’d also observe that the truth of the above can be demonstrated by observing the tragi-comedy of “international law.” In point of fact there is no such animal, because there is no authority to which the nation-states are willing absolutely to concede the right and power of enforcement against themselves. So we get treated from time to time to the spectacle of some professional bloviator allowing that such-and-so is plainly contrary to “international law,” by which is meant that Country A has done something to Country B to the speaker’s vigorous disapproval, but which will go entirely unpunished. The only source of “international law” is the same source which Chairman Mao identified as the source of political power.

I first turned my attentions to the Farewell Address in the fall of 2012, as America was about to go to the polls and re-elect to the presidency a man who is about as close to the antithesis of George Washington as a citizen could imagine. This is a man who, when asked point-blank in an interview to define “sin,” replied that “sin” was when someone did or desired something that was inconsistent with his own thoughts and positions. All the hoo-hah about whether he’s a Muslim or not is really mis-guided, as I saw it observed once: This is a man who does not recognize any being as superior to himself. He can have no religion because he truly believes himself to be a latter-day messiah, but the Good News He brings is solely that of His own advent among us.

Today, in 2016, we get to observe the spectacle of two candidates, one of whom is – barring divine intervention – going to be our next president, neither of whom brings anything to the table other than a firm conviction that he or she, as the case may be, is entitled to the office because. And neither of whom has any known floor below which he or she will not stoop.

Four dead Americans, one of them a serving U.S. ambassador? What difference does it make “at this point” that She lied to the American public, lied to the dead men’s families, about why those men died? They’re dead and her political party won the election; that’s what’s important. The formal representative of his nation to a sovereign country slaughtered like a wild animal and his corpse dragged through the streets? That’s just chaff, at this point.

A man who has bragged, in writing, about buying his way to influence with politicians? Whose entire public persona is built on the practice of saying or doing anything necessary to close the deal on his own terms? This is the same thinking that got us the Tonkin Gulf Resolutions. Those were built on fraudulent representations of an attack that simply never happened (don’t believe me? read In Love and War, the book by Vice Admiral Stockdale, who was in the air over the Maddux and Turner Joy when they were supposedly attacked, and who point-blank states it never happened).

Back in the day, when it first became undeniable that Wm. Clinton had shamelessly perjured himself in deposition about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, I had a conversation in which my interlocutor repeated the New York Times-approved talking points that it just didn’t matter because it was purely and private matter and besides shut up. I very vividly remember telling him that it very much mattered when a president perjures himself because the only thing that stands between us and – well, at the time the most prominent failed state was the former Soviet Union, but now you’ve pretty much got your pick – was the notion that when someone raises his right hand and swears to tell the truth, that he will do so. Without that presumption the court system is meaningless. And when the court system is meaningless, people will implement their own justice and seek redress on their own.

I refer Gentle Reader to President Washington’s observations, all those years ago.

As the anniversaries of Washington’s Farewell Address succeed each other, we the posterity to whom he addressed himself blunder on, heedless of his wisdom. Re-learning lessons tends to be more difficult than learning them the first time around.

 

Oh, Well, but Other Than That, Mrs. Lincoln

What’s the play actually about, anyway?

Sometimes you come across something that, almost in passing, so glaringly reveals an underlying truth about its subject matter that it takes your breath away.

This week some random guys who adhere to no identifiable ideology or religion just randomly decided to light off a couple of bombs in Belgium.  It was a bad week for workplace violence, in other words.  And in other news, the president enjoyed yukking it up at the ballgame with a murderously oppressive regime.  But I digress.

In follow-up to the Brussels bombings, this article ran in USA Today.  The headline sort of tips the author’s hand:  “The Quran’s deadly role in inspiring Belgian slaughter,” by a fellow identified as Nabeel Qureshi.  From his self-description and how he relates his family background, he seems to be one of those adherents of the Religion of Peace that is being referred to on that silly “Coexist” bumper sticker.  His father spent a career in the U.S. Navy, starting as a seaman and retiring as a lieutenant commander (which, by the way, tells you his father must have been pretty hot stuff, to make it that far up from that far down).  “As a Muslim growing up in the United States, I was taught by my imams and the community around me that Islam is a religion of peace. My family modeled love for others and love for country, and not just by their words.”

All to the good.  I’d have no problem with him, or his family, for my next-door neighbors, any more than I’d object to any other American family.

But let’s let Comrade Qureshi tell it himself:

“As a young Muslim boy growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, it was impossible for me to look up a hadith unless I traveled to an Islamic library, something I would have never thought to do. For all intents and purposes, if I wanted to know about the traditions of Muhammad, I had to ask imams or elders in my tradition of Islam.”  That is, as he notes, no longer the case.  Just as the Bible’s translation into the vernacular enabled the masses to access for themselves just what exactly scripture has to say about any particular thing, without the interposition of the clerisy, so today’s Muslim masses can look it up for themselves.

And just what are they finding?  Why, they’re finding the same things that Qureshi did, once he no longer was reliant upon his elders and imams.  “Yet as I began to investigate the Quran and the traditions of Muhammad’s life for myself in college, I found to my genuine surprise that the pages of Islamic history are filled with violence.”

Do what?

“When everyday Muslims investigate the Quran and hadith for themselves, bypassing centuries of tradition and their imams’ interpretations, they are confronted with the reality of violent jihad in the very foundations of their faith.”  “The Quran itself reveals a trajectory of jihad reflected in the almost 23 years of Muhammad’s prophetic career. As I demonstrate carefully in my book, Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward, starting with peaceful teachings and proclamations of monotheism, Muhammad’s message featured violence with increasing intensity, culminating in surah 9, chronologically the last major chapter of the Quran, and its most expansively violent teaching. Throughout history, Muslim theologians have understood and taught this progression, that the message of the Quran culminates in its ninth chapter.”  [N.b.  The foregoing quoted language has links in it over at the USA Today website.]

Qureshi then pulls a few chestnuts out:  “Surah 9 is a command to disavow all treaties with polytheists and to subjugate Jews and Christians (9.29) so that Islam may ‘prevail over all religions’ (9.33). It is fair to wonder whether any non-Muslims in the world are immune from being attacked, subdued or assimilated under this command. Muslims must fight, according to this final chapter of the Quran, and if they do not, then their faith is called into question and they are counted among the hypocrites (9.44-45). If they do fight, they are promised one of two rewards, either spoils of war or heaven through martyrdom. Allah has made a bargain with the mujahid who obeys: Kill or be killed in battle, and paradise awaits (9.111).”

According to Qureshi, the implications of Surah 9 are acknowledged by modern Muslim theologians.  “Muslim thought leaders agree that the Quran promotes such violence.”  And there’s the rub:  The most potent recruiting tool and mechanism for radicalization available to ISIS is . . . just quoting the foundational documents of their religion.  “With frequent references to the highest sources of authority in Islam, the Quran and hadith (the collection of the sayings of the prophet Muhammad), ISIL enjoins upon Muslims their duty to fight against the enemies of Islam and to emigrate to the Islamic State once it has been established.”

And that, folks, peels away quite a bit of bullshit that’s being peddled by self-loathing Westerners.  The “extremists” among the Muslims have the theologically better argument of their “moderate” or assimilated co-religionists.  That is the irreducible fact that stares us in the face over the shards of glass and spattered bits of airline customers.

Pity the Muslims don’t have the theological equivalent of modern U.S. Supreme Court jurists to explain to them that all those words simply don’t mean what they say.  No, when ISIS wants to convince a young Muslim man that his most solemn duty is to fight, kill, and maybe die in order to subjugate practitioners of any religion other than strict-form Islam, they perversely go out and just show him the actual words and have the temerity to suggest to him that they mean precisely what they say.

Deconstructionism, in other words, hasn’t made very deep inroads into Islam.

A couple of quick points.  Islam appears to be enjoying something of the same process that Christianity went through, at least in its early phases, with the Reformation.  There was a reason, after all, why for so long either translating the Bible into the vernacular, or even possession of a translated Bible was a capital offense.  Literally.  Get caught with a Wyclif Bible and they’d make short work of you.  Step 1 of the Reformation was therefore what is now known as “disintermediation.”  It’s really not much more than the same process as online commerce.  The internet has largely dissolved the barriers between the ordinary Joe on the “Islamic Street” and the authoritative pronouncements of his faith’s founding documents.  Generally disintermediation is a very good thing.  Anything which undercuts the ipse dixit hierarchy of any one group (priests, imams, broadcast network news shows, judges) over another, by providing the people that walked in darkness direct access to ultimate authority (Holy Scripture, the Koran, multiple independent news sources, or the actual words of constitutions and statutes) is to be praised on that ground alone.  I’ll state that as a categorical.

So what is to be done if the ultimate authority commands, in pretty plain language, behaviors such as we have seen in Brussels, Paris, New York, Madrid, London, and so forth?

I honestly don’t know.  It seems to me that the fellow quoted by Qureshi has a long, hard slog ahead of him, and whether the thing is to be done at all must be seen as wholly questionable:  “Maajid Nawaz, co-founder of the Quilliam Foundation in the United Kingdom, has said, ‘We Muslims must admit there are challenging Quranic passages that require reinterpretation today. … Only by rejecting vacuous literalism are we able to condemn, in principle, ISIS-style slavery, beheading, lashing, amputation & other medieval practices forever (all of which are in the Quran). … Reformers either win, and get religion-neutral politics, or lose, and get ISIL-style theocracy.’ In other words, Muslims must depart from the literal reading of the Quran in order to create a jihad-free Islamic world.”  By his own words he may well be chasing a will-o-the-wisp.  What Nawaz calls “vacuous literalism” the boys of ISIS can call “the words’ plain meaning,” without strained or sophistical reading.  And slavery, beheading, lashing, amputation, and “other medieval practices” are “all . . . in the Koran.”  Well, of course they are; that’s what makes it so straightforward to convince the jihadisti that they are commands of Allah. Just read the damned words, boy, and make up your mind for yourself.

And what is this about creating a “jihad-free Islamic world” in the first place?  If jihad is part of the central framework of Islamic existence in this world, then how can you excise it and still call what you’re left with “Islamic”?  I recall once, a number of years ago, this billboard alongside the interstate in a city near where I live.  It was from one of these First Church of What’s Happening Now, where Christianity is on offer as a practical therapeutic lifestyle option.  The billboard encouraged the wanderer to come discover “a non-religious path to God.”  That is an oxymoron plain and simple, folks.  It seems as though what Qureshi is positing is the same sort of oxymoron.

The Protestant movement’s most powerful arguments rested on the elemental fact that, once translated and accessible, Holy Scripture was seen not to provide authority for quite a bit of what had grown to encrust the Roman Catholic church as an institution.  The problem today is that what the ISIS recruiters are propounding can be seen to be very much in the Koran, in exactly as many words as they’re saying.

Islam is not, in other words, a Religion of Peace, not on its own terms, read in the ordinary sense of the words actually used, without contorting them into their opposites.

The situation outlined by Qureshi makes it doubtful whether anything like a Protestant Reformation can ever be in the cards for Islam.  Accomplishing that would require millions of Muslims all over the world to believe in the in-most recesses of their hearts that the ordinary words of the foundational texts just do not mean what they so obviously say.  How do you convince people of an argument the unspoken subtext of which is: “Mohammed didn’t know what he was talking about”?  My understanding of Islamic dogma is that the Koran’s words are not actually those of the prophet, but rather of Allah himself.  Quite different from even the most literalist Christian fundamentalist, believing every word in the King James Version to be divinely inspired.  To “interpret” the Koran in a way which would allow peaceful coexistence requires you to accept either that, to some extent, Mohammed was a false prophet because he failed accurately to transmit Allah’s pronouncements, or alternatively, that Allah knowingly allowed his words to be mis-transcribed.  How can either of those suggestions be acceptable to a devout Muslim?

Not all problems have solutions.  I very greatly fear that Islam is among the problems that don’t.

Verdun

One hundred years ago this past Sunday, in the early morning hours, hundreds of German artillery pieces, ranging in size from field guns to enormous siege guns, cut loose on the forts protecting the French town of Verdun.

The objective of the German army was, in the words of the chief of the General Staff, to “bleed France white.” In other words, as originally conceived, it wasn’t really so much designed to capture the town of Verdun – the Germans really had no pressing need for it – as to draw as many French soldiers as possible into a massive killing zone. Because Verdun was much more important to the French not to lose than it was to the Germans to take, it introduced a fundamental asymmetry into each side’s calculations. At least that was Falkenhayn’s plan originally.

Without boring Gentle Reader with a recitation of all the back-and-forth which reduced the landscape around Verdun to a pock-marked wasteland where the very soil itself was poisoned by the chemical residue of all the explosives, to say nothing of being an enormous bone yard, let us just say that Falkenhayn lost sight of his initial strategic insight, which was to break one of two Western Front opponents, by inflicting on it casualties it was unable to bear, enabling him then to defeat the other. Had he stuck to his original concept of the battle he might well have accomplished just that. The French were willing to squander any amount of their soldiers’ lives to hold that place, and had the Germans sat back and shelled them into oblivion while keeping just enough ground pressure to bear to make sure the French remained engaged, they might well have inflicted the kind of grossly disproportionate casualties necessary to make it all work. Recall that while Germany outnumbered the British or the French separately, they never between fall 1914 and March 1918 had overall numeric superiority over both together. Hence the idea of crushing one and then the other (this wasn’t especially original; Napoleon tried the same gambit in the Waterloo campaign, Jackson illustrated it masterfully in the Valley Campaign in 1862, and Ludendorff tried it in the spring, 1918 offensives).

But Falkenhayn, encouraged by the amount of ground and the number of forts his troops in fact did capture in the battle’s early phases, changed his objective. Instead of contenting himself with slaughtering Frenchmen at a highly disproportionate rate, he decided he’d grasp the territory. He of course managed to kill enough Frenchmen that, by the time the battle was over in late 1916, the French army had only one offensive left in it (the Nivelle offensive of 1917), after which time it mutinied and was more or less finished as an offensive force. But he also managed to slaughter a vast number of his own troops trying to take a place he’d initially had enough sense to realize he didn’t need to take. And in doing so he finished the German army in the west as an offensive weapon until it was reinforced with the troops from the Eastern front released by the Soviet surrender in 1918. The difference, as we now know, was that the horrific French losses, and the terrible British losses on the Somme in 1916 (which offensive was launched in no small measure precisely to take the pressure off of Verdun) were to be made good by hordes of American doughboys. Germany’s every loss was a soldier who wasn’t going to get replaced.

Put a bit metaphorically, Falkenhayn originally conceived the notion of tossing a hand grenade between his enemy’s legs from a distance, but then decided he’d just as well hand-carry the same to its target. With predictable results.  The battle blunted the offensive power of the western Germany armies and cost Falkenhayn his job.  As his replacement the kaiser ushered in the team of Ludendorff and Hindenburg to the top of the German command structure.  Once there they dug themselves in, so to speak, and so consolidated their control over Germany and its war effort that by the end of the war the kaiser was no more than a cipher, rubber-stamping decisions handed to him, passing out medals to the survivors, and going for rides in the countryside around headquarters.

With Hindenburg and Ludendorff in place, the last chance for a conclusion of the war other than one through collapse (by one side or the other) vanished.  Those two were true believers in ultimate victory; they believed their army could do anything.  It was the army which assured the kaiser that it could win the war before American troops arrived in large enough numbers to make a difference, leading directly to the approval for resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in February, 1917.  It was the army which propped up Austria-Hungary as that nation collapsed in on itself after the Brusilov offensive in summer 1916. And in the end it was Hindenburg’s statement that he could no longer guarantee the loyalty of the army which induced the kaiser to slip across the border to the Netherlands on November 9, 1918.

On the French side, the “victory” at Verdun became one of the — I’m tempted to say “founding myths,” but really it wasn’t a myth — loci of inter-war French politics and society.  It’s no accident that it was the victor of Verdun, Marshall Petain, who was dragged out of retirement to head the Vichy government.  For a good treatment of the battle and what it meant to the France of 1916 and the France that survived the war, you can do much worse than this.

So the failure of Germany at Verdun has a claim to be among the most momentous results of the Great War, not so much for the tactical decision obtained (the French kept the town and what was left of the surrounding forts) as for the changes it wrought in the overall complexion of the war.

Verdun is now firmly established as part of that infamous group of battles in which the commanders blindly fed men into a meat grinder on the supposition that if they stuffed enough in, fast enough, eventually they’d jam the works and bring it to a stop. Loos, the Somme, Passchendaele, Verdun, Gallipoli, the Nivelle offensive: Their very names have become bywords for callous disregard of the human lives entrusted to one. The commanders who kept those offensives going for weeks and months after it was abundantly clear that there was no prospect of victory on any basis justifying the slaughter have rightly been damned by posterity.

And this gets me to a quibble about what I suggest is the historical revisionism of General Grant’s talents as a strategist and/or a tactician. Once upon a time Grant was viewed as a plodding butcher, a Douglas Haig with a cigar sticking out of his face. That view arose chiefly as a result of his campaign in Virginia from 1864 through the end of the war. That’s not the fashionable view of him, these days. More recent books tend towards a much more hagiographical approach to his conduct of the war in the East. I freely concede his resolution of the Vicksburg campaign was every bit as audaciously brilliant as it has ever been made out to be. But of his signal victories other than Vicksburg – Ft. Donelson, Shiloh, and Chattanooga – the first was a siege where he was ferried to within a few miles of his objective by the navy; the second was a “victory” only in the sense that he didn’t get his ass run backwards into the Tennessee River by the end of the first day, and then when he was reinforced overnight outnumbered the Confederates by a sufficient margin that they weren’t able to remain on the field; the third wasn’t really his doing anyway (or any other general’s, for that matter), but rather that of the private soldiers in the Army of the Cumberland (which hadn’t been Grant’s army in any event) who, at Missionary Ridge, decided they’d had enough of looking at the Rebels on that damned ridge and took matters into their own hands, driving them from the field in disarray. [N.b. The only two times in the entire war that a Confederate army was driven from the field in disorder – Chattanooga and Nashville – it was the Army of the Cumberland both times, under the command of General George Thomas, whose talents Grant apparently went out of his way to disparage, unfairly in the opinion of at least one biographer of Thomas.]

I will also give Grant full credit for understanding that the war was not so much about conquering territory as it was about destroying the South’s ability to continue resistance. This was an insight which seems largely to have escaped the powers running the war in the East. I won’t excoriate the commanding generals alone, because they were working under the intrusive gaze of the entire Washington power establishment. It might well be that, although any one or the other of them had it figured out, the geo-political reality of the relative situations of Richmond and Washington effectively prevented any such general from transforming that strategic insight into operational plans. Or maybe not. Sherman in the West also understood the war in that sense, but he then took that comprehension to the next level after Atlanta. Neutralizing Atlanta as a transportation, supply, and communications hub effectively destroyed the Confederacy as a going concern west of the mountains. Sherman’s sequel, the March to the Sea, was nothing else than a conclusive demonstration to the people of the South, in the most immediate manner possible, that their country had lost the ability to keep a massive army from strolling across an entire state, taking its sweet time to do so, and burning and plundering everything in its path. Any Southerner who did not, by the time Sherman reached Savannah at Christmas 1864, understand the war was lost had to have been singularly obtuse.

So how did Grant go about realizing his strategic insight on the battlefield? Well, at some point during the year, more or less, that Grant was in the East, someone pointed out to him that his army and Lee’s were like the Kilkenny Cats, who fought so viciously that each ate the other up. Grant famously observed, “My cat has the longer tail,” meaning, of course, that he could consume Lee’s army and still have some of his at the end of the day. And that is exactly what he set out to do. He was entirely willing to accept horrendous casualties (by spring, 1865 the Army of the Potomac had suffered over a 100% casualty rate) on the only condition that his soldiers in dying kept killing Confederates. Which they did.

And in the end, the longer tail of Grant’s army won out.

Were there other ways to have accomplished the destruction of Lee’s army without grinding his own into a bloody pulp? There must have been; there almost always is. Grant’s preferred method to keep Lee too busy hemorrhaging soldiers to get up to mischief was to keep him engaged, day after day, week after week. Sure, that works. But you can tear an army to pieces by keeping it on the move and denying it any opportunity of rest and re-supply.

Much of Lee’s strategic maneuvering in 1862 and 1863 had been a direct response to his inability to supply his army without continual fresh territory to plunder. He couldn’t stay in one place more than a brief spell because his men would strip the countryside bare, and the Confederate government had no way to provide him the supplies which would have permitted him to live other than off the immediate vicinity. By 1864 nearly all Virginia was stripped bare. Grant had the men to move on sufficiently broad and widely dispersed fronts that there is no way Lee could have responded to all of them and protected his supply base at Richmond (which was, in addition to being the capital, a major center of what little industrial capacity the South enjoyed). Grant also had the massive transport and supply systems of the North at his back. Is it so unthinkable that by launching offensives on enough different fronts he could have leveraged Lee out, away from the Richmond-Petersburg line, and forced him so to divide his forces that, even with Lee’s famous defensive capacities, his army would have collapsed by division, and all the while trying to live off land that had repeatedly been plucked clean during the war up until then?

Such a strategy of maneuver would have taken a great deal of shoe-leather, and not a few trains and wagons. But by that time the North was cranking out such things in quantities never before seen in human history. No. Grant chose the simple method of making Lee out-bleed him. In contrast, after Kennesaw Mountain (for a good working description of what that fight was like, read Ambrose Bierce’s description), Sherman never again launched his men in a frontal assault.

All of which is to say that I don’t buy the recent praise for Grant’s abilities as a field commander. As a strategist, yes. As an organizer of the movement of some of the largest field forces in history (I think Napoleon’s Grand Army that invaded Russia in 1812 may have been larger than the U.S. Army in the East, but not by much), certainly. But as a commander who understood how to accomplish his purposes by other means than drowning his opponent in his own men’s blood, not so much.

A good friend of mine went, a number of years ago, to the battlefield at Verdun. Large areas of the countryside are still pock-marked by interlocking shell craters. It’s grown up now, but there are still places where the soil is too contaminated to till. My friend went to the ossuary they built. As you might imagine in a battle in which so much of the action consisted of massive artillery bombardment, huge numbers of the dead were so blow to shreds that there is no way ever to sort them out. In many case of course there wouldn’t even have been enough for a burial. So they brought all the miscellaneous bones together and built a large hall over them. There are windows, through which you can peer at the remains of some 130,000 unidentified French and German soldiers.  As more bones are discovered each year, they are added to the pile.

My friend described the ossuary at Verdun as being the most eery place he’d ever been. I can image; it is not in many places in the world, or at many times, that such massive collective evidence in presented of the horrors of which mankind is capable. The liberated Nazi concentration camps would have been such places. The killing fields in Cambodia might have been. Verdun is another.

And so we pass another grim anniversary date.

Neptune’s Inferno; or, “If You Get Hit, Where Are You?”

I finished reading this morning, while camped out in front of the (closed) Turkish Airlines counter at Dulles (they have one single flight out of here, at 11:10 p.m., and they don’t open their counter for check-in until 7:20 p.m., and you can’t get through security without a boarding pass, which you can’t get without check-in, and did I mention that all the restaurants in Dulles are on the far side of security and I’ve been here since 4:00 a.m?), a book given to me for Christmas, Neptune’s Inferno, by James D. Hornfischer, a history of the naval battle for Guadalcanal, from early August through the end of 1942.

This is the third book of Hornfischer’s which I’ve read. I have his Ship of Ghosts, about the survivors of USS Houston. She was part of the ABDA fleet which was annihilated in the opening weeks of the war. She survived the first few battles only to come to grief in the Sunda Strait. She, in company with HMAS Perth, stumbled across the entire Japanese invasion fleet coming ashore in Java, including a destroyer force and squadron of heavy cruisers covering the transports. Both Allied ships were sunk, each taking roughly half her crew with her. Both captains were killed in the action, Houston’s by taking a shell splinter that just about eviscerated him. Houston’s survivors ended up in no small part working on the Burma-Siam railroad line the construction of which forms the setting for Bridge on the River Kwai. The thing about the battle was that it was so sudden – the Allied ships hadn’t expected to come across hostiles – and occurred in the middle of the night, that Houston and her consort effectively just disappeared, as far as Allied high command could tell. It wasn’t until the end of the war that it was known anyone had survived, and who.

A couple of vignettes from that book.

One of the eventual survivors from Houston had his battle station in the mast top, manning a heavy machine gun with a Marine sergeant. As the ship was heeling over, on her death ride and with the order to abandon ship having been given, the sailor was getting ready to drop into the water (by that point the top was well out over the water), and he noticed the Marine wasn’t. Come on, let’s go, was the thrust of his observations. The Marine just pointed out that he couldn’t swim. So over the sailor goes, striking out with might and main to avoid the suction when the ship went down. He later recalled that among his last glimpses of Houston was the sight of tracers still pouring forth from the mast top, as the Marine fought his station to the very last. You can’t teach that kind of tough.

The other vignette speaks volumes about how the Dutch (who owned Java as of the war’s beginning) were viewed by the locals, and how the Japanese were viewed (at least as of that time). Houston sank so close to the beach that many of the sailors who got off in time were able without too much trouble to swim ashore. The current in Sunda Strait is pretty ferocious, but since the swimmers were swimming perpendicular to it, those who weren’t swept out into the open ocean were able to make shore. To a man they were turned in to the invaders by the local villagers who found them hiding in the woods, and it wasn’t out of fear of the Japanese. The Dutch had behaved in the East Indies much as the Belgians had in the Congo, and with very similar results, in terms of how the native population reacted when they had the chance for regime change. In short, the Japanese Greater Southeast Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere was very much not looked upon as being a cynical euphemism by its purported beneficiaries.

The third book of Hornfischer’s I have is The Last Stand of the Tin-Can Sailors, the story of the destroyers and destroyer escorts screening the light carriers whose job it was, during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, to cover the landing forces. and provide in-shore close air support.  Admiral Halsey having been snookered into taking all his fleet carriers and all his heavy screening forces (he flew his flag in New Jersey, sporting nine 16″/50-cal guns) to chase — far to the north, well away from the critical focus of Halsey’s actual mission — Japanese carriers who weren’t carrying any planes – in other words, they were suicide decoys – all that was left to guard the San Bernardino Strait was a group of escort carriers, whose magazines were full of anti-personnel and other “soft” (in other words, not armor-piercing) ordnance), along with a squadron of destroyers and one of even smaller destroyer escorts. And here comes Admiral Kurita with the Center Force, consisting of the bulk of the remaining Imperial Japanese Navy heavies. Battleships and heavy cruisers. It actually took them two tries to get through the strait; it was on the first effort that Musashi was sunk (her sister, Yamato, didn’t go on her own death ride until later). Kurita had turned back but then reversed course after all and on the morning of October 25, 1944 (metaphor alert: this was the anniversary of Agincourt in 1415, when a badly-out-numbered Henry V opened a can of whip-ass and flat smeared it all over the French – we few, we happy few, we band of brothers, anyone?) all that stood between him and the helpless American invasion fleet at anchor, frantically unloading the invasion force, were a dozen or so tin cans, with the escort carriers several miles further off.

Hornfischer uses the story of USS Johnston (DD-557), commanded by Commander Ernest E. Evans, to construct the narrative framework of the story. He was from Oklahoma, half-Indian (and so of course his Academy nickname was “Chief”). When he took command of Johnston, he offered any man in the crew who wanted off a transfer, no questions asked.

On that October morning, by chance Evans happened to be the closest ship in the formation to the Japanese battle line as it came out of the strait. Without waiting for orders, he turned his destroyer to engage a line of battleships and cruisers. Maneuvering at flank speed, he engaged with such of his 5″ mounts as could be brought to bear, chasing the Japanese shell splashes (on the theory that your enemy will have corrected his fire control solution away from that spot so he won’t hit there again) and trying to get close enough to launch his torpedoes. Chasing shell splashes only works if your enemy doesn’t figure out what you’re doing, and if there are enough people shooting at you, then you’re out of luck in any event; there’s no place to dodge to where someone’s not likely to drop a 14″ round onto your unarmored deck. Which is what happened to Johnston. She started taking large-caliber shell hits.

Evans gave the order to launch the torpedoes and then turned away to open the range. By that time all Johnston’s 5″ mounts were out of commission, the ship had been badly holed, was on fire, and was losing speed. As she steamed away from the Japanese, she came upon the other small boys, likewise riding hell-for-leather to engage the enemy battleships with their destroyers and destroyer escorts. Notwithstanding he had nothing left to fire at the Japanese, Evans turned Johnston around and went back into the fight. After all, Kurita had no way of telling she was a sitting duck; every turret that fired at Johnston was a turret not firing at a ship still capable of action. When last seen, Evans was standing on Johnston’s fantail, severely wounded (as I recall, among other things, he had a hand shot off by that point), shouting rudder orders down a hatch into the rudder room where crewmembers were manhandling the rudder, all other steering control having been shot away.

Evans received a posthumous Medal of Honor. And the small-ship Navy acquired an immortal example of gallantry.

They’re called “tin cans,” by the way, because that’s how easily they open up. When I was on an Adams-class guided missile destroyer back in the day, we had an A-6 that was supposedly bombing our wake for practice put a practice bomb onto us instead. The idea is they drop these dummy bomblets that have a saltwater-activated smoke flare in the nose into your wake, 500 yards or so astern of you. They’re aiming at the centerline of your wake and it’s easy to see how good their aim is. Well, this ass-hat, in the words of the JAGMAN investigating officer’s report – which I saw – “released his bomb with a friendly ship filling his windscreen.” This practice bomb weighed less than 10 pounds and, except for the smoke flare in the nose, was completely inert. A chunk of metal, no more and no less. It went completely though our ship. It penetrated a bulkhead on the O-2 level, blew up the Mk-51 fire control radar’s power panel, penetrated the O-2 level deck in that space, crossed the small office space beneath that and went through the far bulkhead out into the open air, penetrated the O-1 level deck, went across the main passageway (almost taking out our chief boatswain’s mate), penetrated the inboard bulkhead of the chief petty officer’s mess, ripped up their refrigerator, penetrated the far bulkhead back into open air, and would have kept right on going over the side except it hit the inboard side of one of the davits for the captain’s gig, and bounced back into the scuppers.

Neptune’s Inferno, as mentioned, deals with the specifically naval engagements of the Guadalcanal campaign. The Marines ashore make an appearance only to the extent of their interaction with the navy, consisting mostly of their outrage when, two days after the Marines splashed ashore, Vice Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher (most recently seen relinquishing command of the American carriers to Raymond A. Spruance half-way through the Battle of Midway back in early June, 1942 , when his flagship, Yorktown, was put out of action and eventually sunk) took the carriers, which were pretty much all the flat tops the Navy had in August, 1942, away from the battle in order not to risk them against Japanese aircraft. It was a decision Admiral Earnest King never forgave him for (and for which he was relieved). From a strategic perspective it was the right choice. If those carriers had been put out of action at that point, the Navy’s operations in that entire portion of the Pacific would have been crippled. You can always get some reinforcements ashore, get some more supplies ashore. In fact the Japanese did more or less exactly that with the night-time runs of the “Tokyo Express”; because of the Marines’ Henderson Field on the island, and the back-up of the American carriers just out of reach of their land-based aircraft flying from Rabaul, they couldn’t make day-time landings or even use slower transport ships because they couldn’t get in, un-load, and be gone from the danger zone before the American aircraft would be back in the air the next morning. So they used destroyers . . . and managed to put well over 20,000 troops ashore, together with artillery and related supplies.

The Marines came to forgive the Navy, more less, when the light surface forces (destroyers and the new anti-aircraft cruisers, bristling with 5″ rapid-firing guns) showed a gleeful willingness to plow up great swathes of Japanese-bearing tropical jungle. They’d literally hose out corridors through the undergrowth with their gunfire. No less than Lt. Col. Lewis D. “Chesty” Puller expressed his gratitude after having observed the fun from one of the firing ships. The sub-title of this post is his reply to his host’s reaction when, just prior to going back ashore, he observed to the captain that he, Puller, wouldn’t have captain’s job for anything.  The captain was amazed; surely wouldn’t he prefer to have a shower and a bed when the day’s work was done?  Puller asked him when he got hit, where was he, and then pointed out, “When I get hit, I know where I am.”

And then after the night-time surface actions all the bodies would wash ashore.

In the end, for every Marine who died defending Guadalcanal dirt, three sailors died defending its waters. USS Juneau, her keel already broken by a torpedo strike and shot all to hell, was limping away the morning after the Night Cruiser Action, on November 14, 1942, when a submarine found her. She literally disappeared in a single flash of explosion. Out of her crew of almost exactly 700, all of ten men survived. Among the dead were the five Sullivan brothers, of Waterloo, Iowa.

For all the valor of the surface navy – and the naval fight was overwhelmingly a surface fight; the airplanes were mostly consumed (and they were consumed, as well) defending Henderson Field – the senior leadership really comes across as bumbling, in Hornfischer’s telling. Most of the action went down at night, an environment the Japanese had spent years aggressively training to own. And they did, even without the benefit of search or fire-control radar, both of which the Americans had in abundance, and which all but one of the OTCs (officer in tactical command: the guy out on the water who’s actually ordering the formation, steaming directions, and controlling – supposedly – the action) studiously ignored. It started with the Battle of Savo Island (a gob of island several miles to the northwest of Guadalcanal proper), when a fast-moving Japanese cruiser squadron got the jump on not one, but two American formations of cruisers and destroyers, and sent four out of five Allied cruisers (USS Quincy, USS Vincennes, USS Astoria, and HMAS Canberra) to the bottom in a maelstrom of fire lasting barely an hour from start to finish.

The eventual verdict on Savo Island (the waters between it and Guadalcanal acquired the nickname “Ironbottom Sound” by the time it was all over) was that the Americans simply had not been ready for combat, eight months after Pearl Harbor. They just didn’t know their craft. The Americans got a little of their own back off Cape Esperance when Rear Admiral Norman Scott was put in charge of a scraped-together force to challenge the night-time deliveries of the Tokyo Express. But for all of his drilling his ships in gunnery exercises (including off-set firing at each other, where two ships would shoot at each other’s wakes, or at target sleds towed by each other, much like that A-6 pilot was supposed to have done to my ship 40-odd years later), and all his aggressive instincts, even he couldn’t quite get it all in one sock, when it came to a real, live, shoot-em-up night action. He bungled some maneuvering signals, put his flag in a ship which did not have the 10-cm search radar (a vast improvement over its predecessor; it was actually useful for running a naval fight, as was later demonstrated), and before anyone knew it, what should have been a smoothly unfolding fight turned into a chaotic slug-fest, with individual commanders more or less picking their targets of opportunity and seeing how many rounds they could pump into them. Scott’s forces did manage sufficiently to cripple the sole Japanese battleship that she was scuttled. But it was otherwise an opportunity mostly lost.

Then the mistakes got worse. Rear Admiral Dan Callaghan, a real swell guy but a desk admiral, was put in charge of the cruisers, over Norman Scott, who – even if he’d stumbled a bit his first time out of the gate – at least had spent countless hours pondering the dynamics of modern naval action. There is not much indication that Callaghan did. He owed much of his advancement to senior rank to his connections, not least with FDR himself. During the Night Cruiser Action of November 13, 1942, he made an absolute pig’s breakfast of his formation, his handling of it, and his conducts of the battle. But he did have the decency to get killed that night, along with all but one of his staff and his flag captain (Cassin Young, who had won his own Medal of Honor at Pearl Harbor). Norman Scott was also killed that night. But the Americans bagged one of the two battleships the Japanese had sent.

In the aftermath of the Night Cruiser Action, the Americans had so few heavy surface forces left that Halsey finally decided to pull his two battleships – Washington and South Dakota – away from escorting carriers and transports, and shove them into Iron Bottom Sound. And not a moment too soon. Admiral Yamamoto had decided to try one final all-out push to destroy Henderson Field through naval gunfire (they’d made a pretty good run at back in September). This time the American commander, Rear Admiral Willis Lee, was a radar geek who knew exactly what use his radar could be. The Americans shot them all to hell and gone, saving Henderson Field and thereby guaranteeing that the Japanese simply could not maintain their forces on the island.

By the time the Japanese evacuated, many of their units had only a handful of men left who were not so starved or sick or both as to be completely out of action.

What I found, other than the very well-written narration, interesting about the book is the portrayal of William Halsey. In Last Stand, Halsey comes off as a blustering buffoon, who was so gung-ho to Get Him Some Carrier Scalp that he abandoned what was actually his principal strategic function – safeguarding the Leyte Gulf invasion – and but for the courage of the small boys could have cost the Americans an enormous loss. Gentle Reader will also not overlook that it was also during this time and shortly thereafter that Halsey came within an ace of losing not one but two battle groups to typhoons, by reason of his mismanagement of refueling. In Neptune’s Inferno he comes across being something of a naval cross between Nathan Bedford Forrest and Omar Bradley. Perhaps it’s the difference between 1942 and 1944. By the time of Leyte Halsey had worn four stars for almost two years and was a fleet commander. Perhaps with Leyte he had risen to his level of incompetence.

In any event, Neptune’s Inferno is a tremendous read. Hornfischer does an excellent job of narrating surface naval action. This is more complicated than it sounds, I suggest. If you’re describing the Battle of Shiloh, for example, or the First Marne, you can hook your narrative onto place names that can easily be shown on a map in geographic relationship to each other. Not every author has this talent. The first time I tried to read August 1914 I gave up because Solzhenitsyn’s description of the run-up to Tannenberg is nearly unintelligible without a map to refer to (and then some time later I discovered that – in the very back of the book, exactly where you would not look for it – his publisher had put just such a map; made all the difference in the world). In describing a naval surface action, however, all you’re left with is “port” and “starboard,” and it’s very difficult even to draw it out on a map because the relative positions of the ships to each other at any specific moment is of such critical importance. I think Hornfischer does as good a job of conveying the actual movements of the ships over the trackless water as well as anyone I’ve ever run across.

Can’t recommend too highly, in round numbers.

Carousel of History?

We may hope not.

Over at Instapundit, a link, via Ed Driscoll, to a piece by one of my favorite linkees (is that a word, even?), viz. Victor Davis Hanson, “A Tale of Two Shootings“.

[N.b.  Hanson, whom I’m mostly familiar with via the internet, is a very accomplished classical historian, with a heavy sideline in military history.  I recently read — it was borrowed, so I had to return it, much to my chagrin — his The Soul of Battle: From Ancient Times to the Present Day, How Three Great Liberators Vanquished Tyranny, a comparative history of Epimanondas’s conquest of Sparta, Sherman’s march through Georgia, and Patton’s march through France in 1944.  Fascinating stuff.]

Be all that as it may, Hanson looks at two shootings:  the first, in 2014 of the violent criminal Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, and the second of Kathryn Steinle, in San Francisco.  Brown was black; Steinle was white.  Brown had just committed a robbery; Steinle was walking down a pier with her father.  Brown had just attacked and attempted to seize the weapon of the police officer who had matched him to a minutes-old radio alert of the robbery, and was shot dead in his tracks , from the front, while charging the officer.  Steinle was shot dead in the back while . . . well, while walking with her father, minding her own business.  Brown was shot by a police officer; Steinle was shot by a multiple-convicted felon whose very presence in the United States constituted a crime.  The police officer who shot Brown was white; the convicted felon who shot Steinle was Mexican, an illegal alien.

After Brown was killed in the midst of his attempted third felony of that day (first: robbery; second: attacking and attempting to steal weapon from law enforcement officer; third: second attempt to attack and steal weapon from same), Dear Leader’s administration and his political allies very carefully stoked the fires of racial hatred, and Ferguson burned.  After Steinle was shot dead by the felon who was very intentionally released by the City of San Francisco in spite of a request by federal authorities that they hold him until he could be deported (this would have been his sixth deportation), there were . . . crickets.

Hanson has the temerity once more to point out the very different treatment of the two killings, one indisputably justified (Brown’s), and the other (Steinle’s) indisputably an abomination, all but engineered by the left-extremists in the San Francisco city government.

Maybe VDH didn’t want to violate Godwin’s Law, which holds that the longer an internet discussion goes on, the closer to 1.0 approaches the probability that someone will make an explicit comparison to the Nazi era.  But since Hanson put up his post yesterday, and today is November 9, I’m going to do the belly-flop for him.

On November 9, 1938, Germany exploded.  Well, to be more precise, a segment of Germany exploded.  That segment was the segment represented by synagogues and Jewish businesses.  They were torched, their owners and congregants beaten, in many cases beaten to death.  There was so much broken glass in the streets from smashed windows that the Germans knew it as “Kristallnacht,” or “crystal night.”  Here’s the Wikipedia entry, for those curious.

Why did Victor Davis Hanson’s post on the political reaction, and the carefully orchestrated violence, in response to Michael Brown’s death put me in mind of November 9, 1938?  Because Kristallnacht too was a highly orchestrated orgy of violence in response to a single killing.  Ernst vom Rath was a German diplomat stationed in Paris.  On the morning of November 7, 1938, a Polish Jew then living in Paris a teenager, Herschel Grynszpan (he had fled Germany in 1936; after his arrest he stated that he acted to avenge the news that his parents were being deported from Germany back to Poland), shot him five times.  Rath died on November 9, by which time the Nazi powers had had time to organize “spontaneous” demonstrations of outrage inside Germany.

The destruction of November 9, 1938, was no less “spontaneous” than the observances surrounding the announcement that officer Darren Wilson, the police officer who successfully defended himself from Michael Brown, would not be indicted for any criminal offense.

Carousels are circular.  Stand in one place long enough and everything you’ve seen before you’ll see again.  Sort of makes you wonder, doesn’t it, what else from the 1930s and 40s we’re going to see again in the coming years?  Holodomor?  Molotov-Ribbentrop?  Munich? (Dear Leader sure made a run at that last by handing the Iranian mullahs a green light for nuclear weaponry.)  Greater Southeast Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere?

Sobering thinking, it is.

[N.b.  I don’t know whether I’ve pointed it out before on this ‘umble blog, but November 9 is a date pregnant with significance in German history.  In 1918, the German republic was proclaimed and the Kaiser abdicated; in 1923, the Beer Hall Putsch failed; in 1938, they put on Kristallnacht; in 1940, Neville Chamberlain, the man who more than any other enabled Hitler to become the continental-scale monster he did, finally died; and, in 1989, the Berlin Wall, the physical embodiment of the war’s outcome, came down.  Can’t make this stuff up.]