Monday, June 12, 2017

the delusion of decisive battles



I like books with a well-argued point of view. That makes revisionist and contrarian writers more interesting than the recyclers of the conventional wisdom. Today’s example is Boston University historian Cathal J. Nolan’s The Allure of Battle. I didn’t read all 707 pages of Nolan’s tome – hardly any book deserves that length and weight -- but I welcomed his basic message:


The book does not argue that battle-seeking was always the wrong strategy throughout the period covered, or that all the wars considered were decided solely by attrition. However, it argues that, with few exceptions, the major power wars of the past several centuries were in the end decided by grinding exhaustion more than by the operational art of even the greatest of the modern great captains.

 Nolan’s pedagogical point is that it is highly misleading to focus history on so-called decisive battles, since they rarely determined or can explain broader geopolitical developments. His policy point is even more important: too many political and military leaders have succumbed to the “allure of battle” and counted on short wars which rarely turned out that way. The actual quick success of Prussia’s wars against Austria and France misled later generations of military planners to adopt the cult of the offensive, with tragic results.

I agree with that analysis, and with Nolan’s conclusions:
  

 First, beware the vanity of nations and the hubris of leaders, civilian and military; but perhaps civilians most of all. … Second, always be deeply skeptical of short-war plans and promises of easy victory, for they shall go awry as combat commences and descends into chaos, and an intelligent and determined enemy refuses to accept the initial verdict.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

foreign policy in support of slavery

Several months ago, I praised Matthew Karp's book documenting how pro-slavery southerners, often in powerful positions in the federal government, promoted a military buildup and foreign policies to defend, support, and expand slavery in the western hemisphere.

The New York Review of Books this week has a favorable review of Karp's book, which also serves as a summary of his arguments. [There's a paywall, so use the library, subscribe, or just read the book.]

Among his points: southerners favored and achieved a strong military buildup in the 1850s in part to guard against abolitionist attacks from Britain or its emancipated slaves; while arguing states' rights on domestic policy, they favored a strong central government for foreign policy. Karp also shows a pro-slavery tilt to other American foreign policies in the two decades before the war of the rebellion began.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

how does this end?





General David Petraeus’ famous question to a journalist about the Iraq war can also be asked of the Trump presidency. There are four broad options.

1.       Normalization/January 2021. Many supporters and opponents of the president just hope he settles down, stops tweeting, makes reasonable even if dull speeches, and works with the Republican Congress to enact the Republican program of tax cuts, smaller government, and increased military spending. By the way, this change of behavior could even lead to Trump’s reelection, continuing his presidency until January 2025.

2.       Impeachment/March 2019. Democratic leaders don’t want to talk about this because they know it can’t happen until enough Republicans turn against Trump, for whatever reasons. That could happen if Trump alienates congressional Republicans by opposing some of their key initiatives or if he loses so much public support he drags down their candidates. If Democratic gains in the 2018 elections are enough to give the party control of either house of Congress, the investigative subpoenas will fly like snowflakes and multiple scandals will be broadcast around the clock. If Republicans won’t defend Trump, it won’t matter what his own defenses are.

3.       Paralyzed presidency/sometime after summer 2017. Any of several possibilities could isolate the president from all but a residual 35% or so public support – faltering economy, terrorist attack, poorly handled foreign policy crisis, disclosures of presidential lies or misbehavior. Imagine nearly simultaneous events like a sharp recession, a war in Korea, and a terrorist attack on the DC subway – and then add leaked presidential tax returns. The best case is political gridlock; the worst case is armed partisan bands fighting in our cities and normal government services disrupted.

4.       Resignation in frustration/sometime after mid-2018. Trump could decide to leave office, either declaring victory – that he had accomplished all he could, given the political and media opposition – or declaring war against his political enemies and rallying his supporters for the 2018 elections. He could still hold his head high – he had been president – and he could still blame others for his shortfalls.

The Trump presidency seems so chaotic and unstable at the moment that something has to change, and only one possible change leads to a calmer America. The others portend political and economic turmoil, with few incentives to unify for solutions.

Monday, June 5, 2017

expunging history

I have been open to reexamining our veneration of American historical figures who had significant flaws.  Over the years I have changed my own views of Woodrow Wilson, largely because of his racism but also because of his stubbornness that prevented Senate approval of a modified Versailles Treaty and League of Nations. On balance, however, I argued against erasing his name from the international affairs school at Princeton.

The efforts of some southern localities to remove statues of long-honored Confederate generals riase similar questions of balance. I certainly don't want to re-fight the war of rebellion [which is a far more accurate description of the conflict than "war between the states"]. I am glad that veterans were able to reconcile amiably at battlefields like Gettysburg a half century after that bloody battle. On the other hand, those generals were defending slavery, whatever other motives they might have held. I'm willing to let the locals decide which statues should remain where.

But I was struck this week by an article pointing out what a nasty slave owner Robert E. Lee was. His dark side was darker than I had realized, even though he was a smart general, did surrender honorably, and served well as a college president. I'm ready now to retire his statues to museums rather than towering over our cities.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

echoes of 1798

I've long been fascinated by the Federalist period, when the new government got formed and set precedents still followed today -- like the Supreme Court's refusal to give hypothetical advisory opinions. But reading a new book by Professor Carol Berkin, A Sovereign People: the crises of the 1790s and the birth of American Nationalism [Basic Books], reminded me that there were many features we see today.

The country had sharp partisan divisions, at that time between John Adams and his Federalist majority in Congress and Thomas Jefferson's Republicans. The Federalists passed laws denying citizenship to immigrants or imposing long waits for naturalization. One of the Alien Acts gave the President the power to deport aliens deemed undesirable -- a provision still on the books and at issue in the travel ban court cases. And the President denounced the angry and often false criticisms of himself and his government and sought to punish his critics. 

In that case, his partisan Congress passed the Sedition Act, which said:
That if any person shall write, print, utter, or publish, or shall cause or procure to be written, printed, uttered, or published, or shall knowingly and willingly assist or aid in writing, printing, uttering, or publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either House of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States, with intent to defame the said government, or either House of the said Congress, or the said President, or to bring them, or either of them, into contempt or disrepute; or to excite against them, or either or any of them, the hatred of the good people of the United States, or to stir up sedition within the United States; or to excite any unlawful combinations therein, for opposing or resisting any law of the United States, or any act of the President of the United States, done in pursuance of any such law, or of the powers in him vested by the Constitution of the United States; or to resist, oppose, or defeat any such law or act; or to aid, encourage or abet any hostile designs of any foreign nation against the United States, their people or government, then such person, being thereof convicted before any court of the United States having jurisdiction thereof, shall be punished by a fine not exceeding two thousand dollars, and by imprisonment not exceeding two years.
Nota bene: did you notice that the law did NOT outlaw criticism of the Vice President -- opposition leader Thomas Jefferson?

In fact, as the Berkin book notes, "Only 11 of the 17 men and one woman indicted [under that act] actually went to trial, and most of the editors, released on bail, continued to publish their newspapers in the interim... They had been incarcerated but not silenced." The Sedition Act expired at the end of the Adams administration -- and should stay there.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

patriotic gore

I know that the Revolutionary War was a real war, with fierce battles and casualties among the warriors and lots of "collateral damage" to civilians and their property. One of my own ancestors, Captain Levi Ely, who led a company of Massachusetts men, was killed in the battle of Stone Arabia near Utica, New York, on October 19, 1780.

Now there is a new book, Scars of Independence,  by Holger Hoock, that apparently drips with bloody violence committed by both sides. I'm on the library's waiting list to read it, for I'm not sure I really want it permanently near my books about Washington and the Continental Congress. The Times' book review cites some passages. It wasn't just the British and their Indian allies who were brutal.
Hoock narrates the brutal “campaign of terror” Gen. John Sullivan waged in Iroquoia during the summer of 1779, a scorched-earth march involving one-third of the total Continental fighting force. George Washington himself planned the campaign, telling Sullivan to pursue “the total destruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more,” wrote the Patriots’ supreme commander, whom the Seneca nicknamed Town Destroyer. Sullivan followed Washington’s orders; his men put at least 41 Indian towns to the torch. They desecrated native graves, raped native women and mutilated native bodies for profit and for sport. One lieutenant, William Barton, sent a party of his men “to look for some dead Indians.” The soldiers returned to camp having skinned two of them from their hips down for boot legs: a pair for Barton’s commander and “the other for myself,” he wrote in his official journal.
 I guess the lesson is that war is hell and war was hell, despite the airbrushed history many of us were taught.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

it feels like 1974

I was a staffer for a Democratic Senator in 1973-74.  I followed the Watergate scandal as a sideline to my regular work on such issues as military aid to South Vietnam and the B-1 bomber program. But, truth be told, I tried to catch the 11pm radio news because it often had stories from the just-published first editions of the newspapers.

I was shocked, of course, when the president fired his top aides and tried to push the scandal away by taking foreign trips and making defensive television speeches. One of our senior staff often reacted to those speeches with the comment, "It's enough to make a buzzard puke."

Life went on for the rest of us -- softball on the Mall; after work drinks at the Monocle, jazz at the One Step Down; foreign movies at the Circle theater. But the White House suffered the drip-drip-drip of revelations, and parts of the Congress were digging and holding hearings.

The media were actively investigating, too, and competing for big headlines.  Woodward and Bernstein get most of the credit because they had a movie made of their exploits, but the Times and other publications also had banner-headline exclusives.

Eventually the evidence became too weighty and undeniable. The president was involved in an actual crime and abused his governmental powers to obstruct justice and cover things up. His partisans in Congress couldn't defend him anymore. They were ready to impeach, but sent a leadership delegation that persuaded him to resign first. The president did, and a likable, experienced former congressman took his place.

Last night, for the first time in the Trump saga, it felt like 1974. It felt as if the capital city was at a tipping point, unable to move ahead on normal governance because of the accumulating problems of the chief executive.

Maybe things will play out as they did in 1974, but the impetus has to come from demoralized Republicans. They  hold the balance of power.