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.