Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

Archive for December 27, 2013

Winston Churchill and his reputation as one of Britain’s greatest leaders.

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Firstly a little bit of leadership theory to put Churchill into context, specifically that of Transformational Leadership.

Transformational leaders inspire their followers to achieve more than would normally be expected by a combination of:

  • Looking after followers’ individual needs, acting as a coach or mentor and developing them.
  • Challenging followers intellectually. Asking them to consider complex problems and come up with solutions by conducting their own research.
  • Providing inspirational motivation. Articulating a vision of the future, setting lofty goals and being optimistic about the team’s ability to achieve them.
  • Being a role model. Exemplifying everything they want their followers to be, setting high ethical and behavioral standards thus gaining respect and trust.

f0748c6555d28511ba409ced1c8507eea49a4f3b131f45c9f1dcff6f11539dcdWhenever Churchill took charge of a government department, the work rate would increase considerably. He was a man of energy and ideas who was always keen to understand the latest innovation or cutting edge technology. For example, by the time the neutron had been discovered, he had already written about the potential of nuclear power, especially in the military context.

This energy was most apparent when he became PM in May 1940, coincidentally on the day that the German Invasion of Belgium and France was launched. Thus the first six weeks of his premiership saw one of the worst strategic set backs in British military history as the BEF was defeated and forced to abandon France. In the face of exceptional pressure form the French to stay in France and to commit further reserves, he trusted his commanders and accepted that a withdrawal was the best option. Throughout this period he did as best a job as he could to placate the French (possibly even lying to them) in order to give his commanders the space they needed to effect the withdrawal. He moved between the tactical, operational and strategic levels of command on an almost hour by hour basis in order to understand, support and decide.

Churchill_waves_to_crowdsWhilst all this was going on, he took the time to familiarise himself with Britain’s air defences knowing all too well that this was the next line of defence. He trusted Hugh Dowding and Charles Portal, he trusted the air defence system and he supported Dowding’s recommendation not to send any more spitfires to France, knowing it was a lost cause. He then set about instilling his confidence into the British public. The “finest hour” speech is not simply a masterpiece of rhetoric, it is the cornerstone of a concerted effort to reassure Britain that its Air Force, by this point untested in any major campaign for 22 years, was up to the job of defeating a highly capable, more numerous and more experienced Luftwaffe. Whatever went on behind the scenes, he maintained the high vision of victory and portrayed an almost relentless optimism, whilst reminding everyone of the gravity of the situation.

539wDeep down he knew that the Royal Navy would be the deciding factor in case of invasion, but the opportunity to stop the enemy before he even reached the shores was one he seized upon and a cause he triumphed as if it were his own.

This pattern repeats itself throughout Churchill’s tenure: the frenetic activity surrounding him, the detailed interest in an important area of responsibility, the campaign (supported of course by excellent speeches) to reassure the public that everything would be OK and then exploiting successes. Note too that he took very little credit for himself, instead focusing the public’s attention on the men and women fighting the war and crediting them with success.

So we can see that WSC was highly adept at challenging his followers intellectually and providing inspirational motivation, but what of the other two elements of Transformational Leadership?

Churchill’s weakest suit, in my opinion, was looking after individual followers. He had a terrible habit of befriending people, using them for what he needed and then dropping them. He could even do this to entire organisations and has been heavily criticised for abandoning Bomber Command in the face of criticism about the strategic bombing campaign which he had supported.dK1dn

He was, however, an excellent role model. The pugnacious, stoic face of defiance in adversity, portrayed famously as the archetypal British bulldog, he set the tone for the British public to adopt – he was the archetype for the stereotype of the down-trodden but bloody-minded blitz victim. His military experience, including some remarkable individual heroics as a young subaltern and command of a battalion during the Great War, set him in good stead and enabled him to wear the uniform and rank of a commodore/brigadier/air commodore credibly.

9781533_1He was not, however, perfect. He was a contrary character who wouldn’t ordinarily have become Prime Minister, let alone a successful one. He was prone to flights of fantasy and was prepared to allow incredibly risky activities. He would often be reeled in by the likes of General Hastings Ismay, his chief military assistant for most of the war, who maintained a well-informed, realistic brief and was able to recover him from his more audacious fantasies. He was also prone to depression, his “black dog” and there is immense credit to be found in his ability inspire people as he did despite his own personal demon. These two quotes do a good job of reflecting on WSC:

In 1940 the American journalist Ralph Ingersoll reported:

Everywhere I went in London people admired [Churchill’s] energy, his courage, his singleness of purpose. People said they “didn’t know what Britain would do without him.” He was obviously respected. But no one felt he would be Prime Minister after the war. He was simply the right man in the right job at the right time. The time being the time of a desperate war with Britain’s enemies

Field Marshal Alanbrooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff from 1941, wrote in his memoirs:

…..And the wonderful thing is that 3/4 of the population of the world imagine that Churchill is one of the Strategists of History, a second Marlborough, and the other 1/4 have no idea what a public menace he is and has been throughout this war ! It is far better that the world should never know, and never suspect the feet of clay of this otherwise superhuman being. Without him England was lost for a certainty, with him England has been on the verge of disaster time and again…….Never have I admired and despised a man simultaneously to the same extent. Never have such opposite extremes been combined in the same human being.

True genius treads a fine line between triumph and disaster. Churchill knew this line all too well.

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Further Reading

Bass, B.M. & Avolio, B.J. (1994). Improving organizational effectiveness through transformational leadership

Bungay, S. (2009), The Most Dangerous Enemy: A History of the Battle of Britain

Jenkins, R. (2001), Churchill: A Biography

Storr, A. (1997) Churchill’s Black Dog and Other Phenomena of the Human Mind

Thompson, J. (2009), Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory

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Robespierre: a child of the Enlightenment, a tragic misunderstood figure, or a forerunner of modern dictators?

Labille-Guiard_Robespierre

The first thing I will say is that there is no understanding Robespierre without Rousseau. There is the famous apocryphal story that he slept with the Social Contract under his pillow. But Rousseau is best understood as a transitional figure between the Enlightenment proper and Romanticism, it is in this light I think we must understand Robespierre. Today we remember Rousseau as a political philosopher, or for Emile and his educational theory, but if you want Rousseau as his contemporaries (and Robespierre) knew him look more closely at Julie or especially his Confessions. What emerges is an immensely sentimental philosophy, which considers man as largely subject to passions, passions which are beyond morality and can only be measured by the intensity of their feeling. The astonishing trick of Rousseau’s Confessions, on his audiences and many of us today, is that it consists mainly of his admitting terrible, even unconscionable things, but throughout he has such pure, consistent, and appealing sentiment that you cannot help but love him more for it.

Robespierre’s entire career is animated by a similar overwrought emotion. It fuels his success until it takes him to martyrdom: the single-minded refusal to compromise, unlike a Mirabeau or even Danton, it is his strength before it unites the multitude in guilty fear of him.

The second thing I will say is that for Robespierre Terror is a revolutionary doctrine, a republican doctrine, necessary in every respect to the Revolution in the time of its most pressing need. For Robespierre a revolution must be ‘something more than a noisy crime to distract from previous noisy crimes’ (from his penultimate speech.) What more is it? The Revolution is a total refoundation of society, a new social contract, liberty from the old regime means the opportunity for radical reformation into a new model for humanity. Of course in Rousseau’s formulation what happens to enemies and refusers of the social contract? They are exterminated or exiled. They threatened no less against the revolution. When a revolution is in peril (as it was in 1793) it must either realize itself through violence against the threatening reaction or perish.

Robespierre was never misunderstood in his own time; he is misunderstood now as being bloodthirsty. This is ignorant of the record, Robespierre was the leader of the anti-war faction when the Brissotin were declaring preemptive war, and it was his attempt to reign in the corrupt terror of Fouché that was the immediate cause of 9 Thermidor. He is tragic in that it was his absolute devotion, his incorruptibility, the very qualities that made him a champion of liberty, that brought about the downfall.


“Working to beat the devil – Eskimo medicine man exorcising evil spirits from a sick boy”, ca.1900-30.

"Working to Beat the Devil" sounds like it could be the name of an upbeat gospel song.

Now I have found my calling. I want to become an Eskimo medicine man!

Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-133505


Mukpie: Point Barrow Eskimo girl, youngest survivor of the S.S. Karluk, 1914.

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The last voyage of HMCS Karluk, flagship of the Canadian Arctic Expedition, ended with the loss of the ship and the subsequent deaths of nearly half her complement. On her outward voyage in August 1913 Karluk, a brigantine formerly used as a whaler, became trapped in the Arctic ice while sailing to a rendezvous point at Herschel Island. After a long drift across the Beaufort and Chukchi seas the ship was crushed and sunk. In the ensuing months the crew and expedition staff struggled to survive, first on the ice and later on the shores of Wrangel Island. In all, eleven men died before help could reach them.

Mugpi, who later was known as Ruth Makpii Ipalook, became the very last survivor of the Karluk voyage, dying in 2008 after a full life, aged 97.


Field Marshal Erwin Rommel shortly after arriving in North Africa-Unknown date, 1941

I am here to kick ass and chew bubble gum...

I am here to kick ass and chew bubble gum…

Rommel was able to get a combat command due to his relationship with Hitler. Rommel had known Hitler for years and had asked Hitler for a combat command. In France his division became known as the Ghost Division. That’s generally seen as praise. However, it was called that because no one in his own chain of command ever knew where it was because Rommel kept out running his own lines of communication and command. If his French opponents had been more on the ball they could have cut him off in a Kessel (surrounded) and destroyed him.

German military officers were trained to think for themselves. Today this is known as Mission Type Tactics. The commander was supposed to give an order which stated the resources available to be used (troops, tanks, etc) and the objective. It was up to the lower ranked officers to use their own initiative in how to obtain the objective.

Rommel however was quite an interfering General. He gave orders with specific instructions and expected them to be followed to the letter. He would also drive around the front and give orders to soldiers thus cutting their actual officers off (there’s accounts of him issuing individual targets to anti tank guns rather than let their own officers decide and almost being killed by the return fire. In fact, Rommel lost quite a few aids while “touring” the front in this manner). This could lead to confusion and also resentment. Rommel was loved by the enlisted men under his command and quite detested by his officers as they considered him interfering and that he didn’t trust them to do their actual jobs.

By going around the front Rommel also quite often cut himself off from everyone. No one knew where he was and it could be quite difficult to get in communication with him.

People also seem to cherry pick things Rommel did or said to prove he was great. They will point out that Rommel believed the Allies would invade Normandy but then leave out that he thought said invasion would be a feint which made him like every other German officer.

I also think that Rommel looked good in North Africa due to the Allies helping him with that image. Churchill “stole” quite a lot of troops from Wavell for the impossible task of defending Greece. Wavell was so worried about his job that he didn’t say anything and thus made it easier for Rommel to attack him, which Rommel did against orders. Wavell also isn’t considered one of Britain’s finest. It is easier to look great if your opponent isn’t.

A lot of people try to make North Africa look like this huge battle for the control of the Suez Canal, to block access to oil fields in the Middle East, etc and thus state that Rommel was sent there as he was the best of the best. In reality the years of war in North Africa were pretty much because Rommel disobeyed orders to not attack.

Which leads me to my next point that if Rommel was so great why wasn’t he on the Eastern Front? Why was he never given that “prestigious and highly important command?” In the West we like to “pretend” that North Africa and Western Europe were every bit as important as the Russian Front, but to the Germans the Russian Front was it. That’s where they sent over 2/3 of their military and suffered 80% of their casualties. Rommel wasn’t even privy to knowing that the invasion of the Soviet Union would be happening which is why he thought when he launched his attack across North Africa that he would quickly be given all the men and supplies he would need. Sadly for him this wouldn’t be the case.

Rommel though was a gallant enemy. He didn’t order his men to execute troops. He didn’t set out to oppress Jewish populations. If he could have avoided this on the Eastern Front we’ll never know, but we can credit him for it where he did fight. In fact, he is said to have ripped up an order from Hitler that ordered him to execute prisoners and then announced that the order wasn’t clear to those around him.

The Australian General Morshead considered Rommel to be highly predictable in how he would initially attack. This is one of the reasons why he failed to take Tobruk from the mostly Australian garrison. Morshead was able to time and time again work out where Rommel would attack and would have the needed defences there to resist. Morshead said that if Rommel had shown a bit more unpredictability the “Fortress” would have fallen as the defenders did not have enough antitank guns, etc to defend everywhere.

I feel that a lot of people talk Rommel up because he’s well known and he’s the “Nazi” you can openly talk about respecting without people looking at you funny. However, I would say he was a mediocre general who was promoted above his means due to his relationship with Hitler. He was a captain trapped in the body of a General/Field Marshal. As a captain things he did wouldn’t have been a problem, in fact they would have worked well. As a general though he acted as a captain. Rommel is quite often praised for his tactical abilities. Tactics though (the small scale stuff, what soldiers do in battle) wasn’t supposed to be what a general worried about.


When We Tested Nuclear Bombs:

Since the first nuclear explosion in 1945, nearly 2,000 nuclear tests have been performed, with the majority taking place during the 1960s and 1970s.  Nearly 1000 of these were at the Nevada Test Site in the desert outside Las Vegas.  When the technology was new, tests were frequent and often spectacular, and led to the development of newer, more deadly weapons.  All sorts of tests were conducted; to animals, to houses, bridges, clothing and shelters.  These mushroom clouds and craters became a tourist attraction.  They were banned in 1963, giving way to underground testing, which involved lowering a massive nuclear device several hundred feet underground, rattling the bones of the earth and producing craters, “sink depressions,” across the barren landscape as big as 1,500 feet in diameter.
But wait, there’s more!


Ayn Rand

FUN FACT: Ayn Rand’s original protagonists for her novels (whom her later protagonists were based off of) were based on a psychopath named William Hickman that kidnapped a little girl, demanded ransom, received it, and mutilated her body anyway, returning to her parents a corpse without internal organs.

To be fair, she wasn’t admiring this monster’s horrible acts (what she called his degeneracy). But it seems like she was inspired by how Hickman couldn’t be controlled by the imposing and controlling morality of society. She wanted “A Hickman with a purpose” in Renahan, her protagonist.

“The first thing that impresses me about the case is the ferocious rage of a whole society against one man. No matter what the man did, there is always something loathsome in the ‘virtuous’ indignation and mass-hatred of the ‘majority.’… It is repulsive to see all these beings with worse sins and crimes in their own lives, virtuously condemning a criminal…”

According to the Wikipedia page, Rand liked how Renahan was

“born with a wonderful, free, light consciousness — [resulting from] the absolute lack of social instinct or herd feeling. He does not understand, because he has no organ for understanding, the necessity, meaning, or importance of other people … Other people do not exist for him and he does not understand why they should.”