One of the many felicities of Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life, which I am currently engaged in reading and am enjoying greatly, is that noted warriors and statesmen do get mentioned, but for their peacetime activities.
The Duke of Wellington, for instance, gets just the two brief mentions, on page 128, for his habit of consuming a very large breakfast, this being an illustration of the then breakfasting habits of rich personages generally, and before that on page 49, when in his dotage Wellington was in nominal charge of an army of militiamen whose task would have been to quell any revolutionary outrages that the masses gathered for the Great Exhibition of 1851 might have felt inclined to perpetrate, outrages which were greatly feared at the time but which never materialised.
Concerning two big military and political movers and shakers on the other side of the Atlantic, Bryson has more to say, because they, unlike Wellington, made two very impressive and influential contributions (Jefferson’s Monticello and Washington’s Mount Vernon) to the art of domestic architecture, and in consequence to architecture generally:
Had Thomas Jefferson and George Washington merely been plantation owners who built interesting houses, that would have been accomplishment enough, but in fact of course between them they also instituted a political revolution, conducted a long war, created and tirelessly served a new nation, and spent years away from home. Despite these distractions, and without proper training or materials, they managed to build two of the most satisfying houses ever built. That really is quite an achievement.
Monticello’s celebrated contraptions – its silent dumbwaiters and dual-action doors and the like – are sometimes dismissed as gimmicks, but in fact they anticipated by 150 years or so the American love for labour-saving devices, and helped to make Monticello not just the most stylish house ever built in America but also the first modern one. But it is Mount Vernon that has been the more influential of the two. It became the ideal from which countless other houses, as well as drive-through banks, motels, restaurants and other roadside attractions, derive. Probably no other single building in America has been more widely copied – almost always, alas, with a certain robust kitschiness, but that is hardly Washington’s fault and decidedly unfair to his reputation. Not incidentally, he also introduced the first ha-ha into America and can reasonably claim to be the father of the American lawn; among all else he did, he devoted years of meticulous effort to trying to create the perfect bowling green, and in so doing became the leading authority in the New World on grass seed and grass.
It is remarkable to think that much less than a century separated Jefferson and Washington living in a wilderness without infrastructure from a Gilded Age America that dominated the world. At probably no time in history has daily life changed more radically and comprehensively than in the seventy-four years between the death of Thomas Jefferson in 1826 and the beginning of the following century …
A “ha-ha”, in case you are wondering, is a fence set in a ditch, which works as a regular fence for impeding animals, but which doesn’t spoil the view.
Concerning those “proper materials” that Washington and Jefferson lacked, I particularly enjoyed reading (pp. 424-8) about the infuriations suffered by rich pre-revolutionary Americans when trying to get Brits to send stuff over to America for them to build and furnish their houses, in sufficient quantities, of the correct sort, not ruined in transit, and for a non-extortionate price. The Brits insisted that everything that Americans bought from abroad had to go via Britain, even stuff originating in the West Indies. Of this draconian policy, Bryson says (p. 428):
This suppression of free trade greatly angered the Scottish economist Adam Smith (whose Wealth of Nations, not coincidentally, came out the same year that America declared its independence) but not nearly as much as it did the Americans, who naturally resented the idea of being kept eternally as a captive market. It would be overstating matters to suggest that the exasperations of commerce were the cause of the American revolution, but they were certainly a powerful component.
Despite such things as the dramas now going on in the Ukraine and in the Middle East, most of us now live amazingly peaceful and comfortable lives, when compared to the hideously warlike and uncomfortable lives lived in the past. That being so, more and more of us are going to want to read books like this one by Bryson, about how life became as comfortable as it now is, who contrived it, and how, and so forth and so on. We are now becoming the kind of people who attach more importance to things like why forks are the way they are, or why wallpaper started out being poisonous, or how vitamins were discovered and itemised, or how farming got better just when big new industrial populations needed more food, or how gardening became such a huge hobby or how meat, fruit and vegetables first got refrigerated, than we do to such things as the details of the Duke of Wellington’s or George Washington’s battles.
All this peace and comfort may turn out to be a mere interlude, if all-out war between Great Powers is resumed, and if that happened, the people in the formerly comfortable countries, like mine now, would soon rediscover any appetite they might now be losing for learning about war rather than about peace. But despite recent claims that our times resemble those just before WW1, I personally see little sign of a real no-holds-barred Great War erupting soon between two or more Great Powers. Putin is not Hitler reborn and Russia now is not 1940s Germany; the Muslims are mostly killing each other rather than us; and attacks with H-bomb barrages remain as utterly terrifying now as they have been ever since they were first made possible.
Former head of the Marine Corps James Conway says Obama’s idea of relying on local forces with US air power has “not a snowball’s chance in hell“.
However Hemin Hawram, a leading member of the Kurdish Democratic Party, disagrees:
We just need armaments and training; we don’t need boots on the ground from any country to fight this war for us. We want these countries to support our Peshmerga – arm, train, and make them capable. Even for future confrontations against terrorists, there will be no need to support us militarily. In the coming 4-5 years, we hope the Peshmerga will be better equipped and trained, and that certain sanctions will be removed. Why should they not have tanks, artillery, armored personnel carriers, for example? I hope that they will be a part of an international military unit to fight terrorists in other countries and be part of peacekeeping missions.
Surely that must be a better solution.
And the reason I am inclined to believe him, rather than General Conway, is that the US and its allies were unable to create a viable unitary Iraq that could prevent what happened from happening, because Iraq is simply untenable as a nation. This has been clear for a great many years to anyone who does not have an institutional vested interest. A significant part of the US trained and equipped Iraqi Army simply turned its weapons over to the Islamic State, because they saw no reason to fight for an Iraq that was of zero value to them. The Peshmerga on the other hand has everything to fight for, and unlike foreign troops with western sensibilities and significant cultural ineptitude regarding the realities of the Middle East, the Kurds are far more likely to ‘sort things out on the ground’ if given the tools.
Southern Kurdistan intends to become an independent nation and moreover enabling that to happen by arming them (which will be the consequence) very effectively counters the threat posed by the Islamic State. It is hard to see the downside from the western point of view of enabling a pro-western de facto nation to become an effectively armed de jure nation, one very willing to do the dirty work and sort out Northern Iraq… and frankly probably Northern Syria (Rojava) too, rather than having to deal directly with the more politically problematic Syrian Kurdish PYG.
The Times from 12 September 1914. A vicar passes on a letter from his son, an officer in the British Expeditionary Force:
Another poor girl has just come in, having had both her breasts cut off. Luckily, I caught the Uhlan [German cavalryman] in the act, and with rifle at 300 yards killed him. And now whe is with us, but, poor girl, I am afraid she will die. She is very pretty, and only about 19, and only has her skirt on.
The article continues in a similar vein with this and other letters from the front telling tales of rape, the use of civilians as human shields and other forms of German treachery.
But what is one to think? I suppose the first question is, is it true? And then, was it intentional (on the part of the Uhlan)? Are there any mitigating factors? And are the British any better?
On that last one I am inclined to think yes, simply because they are amongst friends.
And on the first one, I see little reason why an officer or a vicar would make it up. But someone else might. And The Times which backs the war effort might not be that keen on checking up. Or maybe the officer was suffering hallucinations through lack of sleep.
But on the other hand, the Kaiser’s men did raze Louvain to the ground, and massacre civilians at Dinant and use the ones they hadn’t massacred as human shields.
Ultimately, I am inclined to believe this. And I am shocked. And if I am shocked a hundred years later it is not difficult to imagine what people must have been thinking at the time.
This is certain to cause much mirth:
The U.S. military has always been the one place in government with a plan, forever in preparation mode and ready to yank a blueprint off the shelf for almost any contingency. Need a response for a Russian nuclear missile launch? Check. Have to rescue a U.S. ambassador kidnapped by drug lords? Yup, check, got that covered. How about a detailed strategy for surviving a zombie apocalypse? As it turns out, check.
A well-armed peshmerga and renewed investment in proven intelligence techniques will be critical to combating extremists inside and outside of Iraq. America can stand tall with the Kurds, cripple Iran’s paramilitary capability, and destroy the Islamic State, but must act decisively and creatively – today.
– Robert Caruso
The evidence that confirms what anyone paying attention suspected has been released: Russian artillery is firing on Ukrainian forces across the border from inside Russia. And the PutinBots in the comment sections of the world’s media are out in force saying “nothing to see here, move along”.
The only surprising thing about this is that anyone is surprised. World War 3 is not at hand, but it is definitely time to pay more attention and point more guns eastward.
I expect many afflicted with Obama Derangement Syndrome will be dismayed to see Obama praised for anything, but the actions in Iraq seem to be pretty much correct, at least so far.
My views on Iraq (and Afghanistan) are well know and can be summarised thus: it was right to go in and topple the governments, whereupon the US (and its allies should have) should have declared victory and got the hell out many many years ago, saying only “now that you have seen what will happen to any government who annoys us enough, keep that in mind when you sort it out amongst yourselves who will be your subsequent rulers. Our armies have gone home now but we own your sky any time we wish to, so you need to realise we will not tolerate any jihadi lunatics running the country.” No futile democratic nation building.
So Obama is right to not put any substantive forces on the ground beyond the barest advisers who are there now (and perhaps some forward air controllers). And he is right to strike this most deranged lunatic strain of jihadis yet seen from the air. If I have any criticism, it is that as the IS nutters are currently exposed targets out in the open, having transitioned from guerilla war to out-in-the-open war, the intensity of strikes should be increased rapidly whilst the opportunity presents itself. Kill as many of these islamo-fascist barbarians as possible as quickly as possible.
Just as Kabul was actually taken by the Northern Alliance with US air support, so too can people like the Peshmerga do the ground work with US assistance from the air.
But so far at least, well done Obama. That is the first time I have ever said that particular combination of words.
Thousands of Christians are reported to be fleeing after Islamic militants seized the minority’s biggest town in Iraq. The Islamic State (IS) group captured Qaraqosh in Nineveh province overnight after the withdrawal of Kurdish forces. An international Christian organisation said at least a quarter of Iraq’s Christians were leaving Qaraqosh and other surrounding towns.
So my question is why were rifles and RPGs and a few truckloads of ammunition not deposited in these communities weeks ago? The Yazidi and Christian communities should have been armed to the teeth by now. If 100,000 people from the region have been displaced, at least 10,000 of them should be viable militia, no? Why leave such things to various state armies?
From a couple days ago, I just noticed a story from Breitbart Network claiming the government of Israel was being criticised for not sharing Iron Dome technology with Gaza’s government (i.e. Hamas) so that Hamas could defend its population from bombardment… presumably by Israeli attacks.
Please read the article and then tell me if I have misunderstood this. It seems rather like criticising the government of the United Kingdom in the 1943 for not sharing centimetric radar technology with the German government so that the German government could better protect their population from bombardment… by the RAF.
Either Breitbart Network have got the story wrong or the world is an even more absurd place than even cynical old me realised.
The “July Crisis” of 1914 may have come as a shock to the British but that does mean they were not able to weigh their options. I was surprised by the excellence of a couple of articles I came across in The Times. One of them appeared on the editorial pages, did not have a byline but didn’t appear to be an editorial either. It was still good though. This is the key passage:
France does not threaten our security. A German victory over France would threaten it irremediably. Even should the German Navy remain inactive, the occupation of Belgium and Northern France by German troops would strike a crushing blow at British security. We should then be obliged, alone and without allies, to bear the burden of keeping up a Fleet superior to that of Germany and of an Army proportionately strong. This burden would be ruinous.
That is the best explanation from Britain’s decision to go to war I ever heard. Peace is perilous.
The other was a letter from Norman Angell, author of The Great Illusion:
We are told that if we allow Germany to become victorious she would be so powerful as to threaten our existence by the occupation of Belgium, Holland, and possibly the North of France. But, as your article of to-day’s date so well points out, it was the difficulty which Germany found in Alsace-Lorraine which prevented her from acting against us in the South African War. If one province, so largely German in its origin and history, could create this embarrassment, what trouble will not Germany pile up for herself is she should attempt the absorption of a Belgium, a Holland, and a Normandy?
Rather depends on how civilised she plans on being. He goes on:
The object and effect of our entering into this war would be to ensure the victory of Russia and her Slavonic allies. Will a dominant Slavonic federation of, say, 200,000,000 autocratically governed people, with a very rudimentary civilisation, but heavily equipped for military aggression, be a less dangerous factor in Europe than a dominant Germany of 65,000,000 highly civilised and mainly given to the arts of trade and commerce?
A prediction, of course, that manages to be both very wrong and, ultimately, very right.
Crowdfunding military procurement? Could this be the best idea ever? Or at least the best idea since letters of marque?
Actual link to the project here.
I recognize that some of the other contributors to this blog believe that military intervention in Iraq was justified.
However, it appears that, after expending literal trillions of dollars, and after countless deaths, Al Qaeda, which had not even a slight foothold in the country before the U.S. led invasion, is in a position to take over the bulk of the country. Certainly it is a real risk in coming days, even if it does not actually happen.
Iraq had no involvement in 9/11. Trained weapons inspectors said that it possessed no weapons of mass destruction, and that claim proved to be correct, while the claims of politicians that they were actively developing WMDs proved to be wrong. Today, however, Iraq stands on the threshold of being a location actually controlled by Al Qaeda, an outcome that would have been unimaginable if Saddam Hussein had remained in control.
Some might ask, “who could have predicted that the U.S. would leave the country with a corrupt, ineffectual government capable only of looting foreign aid and oil revenues?”
I would argue that anyone with an understanding of what government programs are like could have predicted that.
One might have a beautiful, seemingly airtight argument for why an ideal intervention into Iraq might have been of enormous benefit both to the Iraqis and to the world. This is not very different from the beautiful, seemingly airtight arguments made by Statists for why the government should run health care, or why it should help train the unemployed for new jobs, or a raft of other claims.
However, in the end, your beautiful idea will not be executed by angels, or even by you. It will executed by bureaucrats.
Perhaps (and I say at most “perhaps”) if angels had invaded Iraq they would have produced a wonderful outcome. However, the nation was invaded by the same keen minds responsible for such disasters as the U.S. Postal Service, the Veterans Administration hospitals, the Internal Revenue Service, and other organs that are hardly paragons of good management and reliable execution.
Libertarians are (correctly) fond of telling collectivists in debates that utopia is not an option. One cannot compare one’s idealized government program against the alternative, one must compare what will realistically happen under state control with the alternative.
The current disaster is simply another example of this. Iraq was not, in fact, invaded by angels, it was invaded by the U.S. government, the occupation was run like any government program, and the resulting disaster was entirely predictable.
The lesson to us all is that it is all fine and well to muse “if I ran the world”, but in reality no one person can run the world. Even if a leader actually has the best of intentions (which is rare in itself), they plan as men do, not as gods do, and they rely upon men, not gods, to execute their plans. Dreaming about what might be accomplished by gods is insufficient. One must instead discuss what is actually achievable by men.