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

Archive for May 26, 2014

Ham the chimpanzee photographed while in orbit; ca. 1961


Ham was trained to work with operant conditioning, using a system that would send electric shocks to his feet when he made a mistake and reward him with a banana pellet if he did well.

During the flight, this system went haywire and sent electric shocks even though he was doing a great job at fullfilling his tasks. He was also exposed to almost 15 g’s of acceleration rather than the predicted 11g. Finally, the cabin lost pressure during flight, and reentry damaged the bottom of the craft which started taking in water after landing.

After his historical flight, Ham clearly wanted nothing to do with space anymore and started showing symptoms similar to PTSD. He was thus allowed to retire.

What I have learned from studying history:

I think that a lot of people get into military history because of their childhood. Fond memories of plastic army soldiers, and jingoistic, watered down tales of derring-do. I know I certainly was drawn to it for the glory when I was a little kid. War was running around the woods with a stick going “bang”, and the most contentious issues were arguments about who got who. And many people I don’t believe move beyond that.


Military history, for many, still remains a mostly clean affair, with the good ol’GI-citizen soldier going and liberating Europe from the clutches of Nazism. We simply forget the abject horrors of war. The dying cries of “mother” or simply “water”. The smell of shit that permeates a battlefield. Widows, orphans, and parents burying their spouses, parents, or sons. And that, of course, is only in wars that are fought with close attention to the rules.

I was listening to an interview given by Shelby Foote, the author of several Civil War books, and she said something that struck me as so perfect:

“There is a general belief that war books promote a love of war, and that is true about bad war books, but every serious book about a battle or about a war, if it’s serious, is bound to be anti-war. […] Because the truth is, it’s more bloody than it is glorious, and the suffering is a far bigger part of it than the patriotism and the glory, and that will come across with an honest writer. Cheap literature hurts everybody, but decent, honest literature will always carry this anti-war message, it’s bound to be there. No matter how patriotic a man may sound, underlying it, if he has a good eye, everybody is going to see through the phony patriotism and the ephemeral glory, and to the real suffering of it and especially the absurdity of it.”

And I couldn’t agree more. War is absurd, and I now find great distaste in books that don’t present that side of the conflict alongside. It is a disservice to everyone to separate the good parts of war from the bad.

I don’t believe people are either good or bad, and studying war, really, has shown me that anyone is capable of reaching both extremes. So what I can say about how studying conflict has affected my outlook on human nature is that it has sobered it. Sure, I still enjoy reading an uplifting story about some brave soldier saving his buddies, but you can’t shake the images of the terrible human cost.

Marching Belgian Carabiniers leading their dog-drawn machine gun carts towards the front line during the German invasion of Belgium; ca. 1914

 I feel sorry for all parties involved, human and quadruped...

I feel sorry for all parties involved, human and quadruped…

“Marching toward the camera, and shot from a low angle, these Belgian Carabiniers are given a powerful sense of purpose by the photographer. Clean uniforms and neat formation say the soldiers have not come from battle.

These are the early days of WWI and Belgium has been invaded by the Germans in a surprise move. The Germans, 600,000 strong, were confident against the small Belgian Army of around 117,000, who were ill-equipped and poorly trained.

Yet the Belgians fought bravely in and around their fortifications in the Liège area. They held up the German advance for ten days before withdrawing on 16 August, when the Liège system finally fell. This delay would prove crucial to the French forces’ ability to re-organise and oppose the German push through Belgium into France.

King Albert I had ordered his Army to retreat to the ‘National Redoubt’ at Antwerp, consisting of over 40 forts and several lines of defence. Our Carabiniers are part of the force sent forward to cover that retreat by confronting the advancing Germans.

Marching out of the foggy background, the Carabiniers, with their Tyrolean hats and dog-drawn heavy machine-gun, look as if they are striding out of the past into the light of 20th century warfare. Almost like gentlemen in top hats taking their dogs for a walk.

The traditional dress of the Carabiniers, a light-infantry unit, was a tunic and greatcoat of a green so dark that the German nickname for them was the ‘black devils’. Many new recruits, however, were given a greatcoat of the more usual Belgian Army dark blue because of the chaotic supply situation. Despite their old-fashioned uniforms, their machine-guns were effective enough, though both soldier and dog were to pay a high price.

Although the main German forces bypassed Antwerp, four divisions had to be diverted to contain the Belgian forces there, further weakening the thrust into France. Antwerp did not fall until 9 October.”


A soldier stands alone during the Battle of Passchendaele; ca.1917


When I was in 8th grade, my English teacher asked everyone in the class to come up with parts of a story, a character’s name, a setting, and something else which I can’t remember. Anyway, I picked some generic name, but my setting was “3rd Ypres, Passchendaele 1917.”  The teacher then split each of the items up, put them in a hat, and had people pick from this random assortment to put together a story. I still remember the look on the one girl’s face who had to try to figure out what to do with my setting…

Aerial photos of the village of Passchendaele, Belgium, before and after the Third Battle of Ypres, 1917:


Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge, Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs And towards our distant rest began to trudge. Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind; Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling, Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time; But someone still was yelling out and stumbling And floundering like a man in fire or lime.– Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace Behind the wagon that we flung him in, And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin; If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,– My friend, you would not tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.

-Dulce Et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen


Men of the 8th Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment going up to the line near Frezenberg during the Third Battle of Ypres; ca. 1917

WAR… what is it good for? Absolutely NOTHING.

“See that little stream—we could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a month to walk to it—a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs. No Europeans will ever do that again in this generation…This western-front business couldn’t be done again, not for a long time. The young men think they could do it but they couldn’t. They could fight the first Marne again but not this. This took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation that existed between the classes. The Russians and Italians weren’t any good on this front. You had to have a whole-souled sentimental equipment going back further than you could remember. You had to remember Christmas, and postcards of the Crown Prince and his fiancée, and little cafés in Valence and beer gardens in Unter den Linden and weddings at the mairie, and going to the Derby, and your grandfather’s whiskers…This kind of battle was invented by Lewis Carroll and Jules Verne and whoever wrote Undine, and country deacons bowling and marraines in Marseilles and girls seduced in the back lanes of Wurtemburg and Westphalia. Why, this was a love battle—there was a century of middle-class love spent here…All my beautiful lovely safe world blew itself up here with a great gust of high explosive love…”

-Dick Diver (Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald)

From Wikipedia:

The Battle of Broodseinde was fought on 4 October 1917 near Ypres in Flanders, at the east end of the Gheluvelt plateau, by the British Second and Fifth armies and the German Fourth Army. The battle was the most successful Allied attack of the Battle of Passchendaele. Using “bite-and-hold” tactics, with objectives limited to what could be held against German counter-attacks, the British devastated the German defence, which prompted a crisis among the German commanders and caused a severe loss of morale in the German Fourth Army. Preparations were made by the Germans for local withdrawals and planning began for a greater withdrawal, which would entail the loss to the Germans of the Belgian coast, one of the strategic aims of the British offensive. After the period of unsettled but drier weather in September, heavy rain began again on 4 October and affected the remainder of the campaign, working more to the advantage of the German defenders, who were being pushed back on to far less damaged ground. The British had to move their artillery forward into the area devastated by shellfire and soaked by the return of heavy rain, restricting the routes on which guns and ammunition could be moved, which presented German artillery with easier targets. In the next British attack on 9 October after several days of rain, the German defence achieved a costly defensive success, holding the approaches to Passchendaele village, which was the most tactically vital ground.

The decline of the Ottoman Empire:

A little background is necessary; Mehmet II, also known as Mehmet the Conqueror, had captured Constantinople in 1453, ending the sickly Medieval Roman (Byzantine) Empire’s run. in 1459, Pope Pious II declared a Crusade against the Ottoman Turks, but it was largely up to the Eastern European states like Modavia, Hungary and Wallachia to resist Ottoman encroachment. Arguably, the apex of Ottoman reach into Europe culminated in the Siege of Vienna in 1529. It is in this context that the speculation amongst historians begins to swirl about the ‘decline’ of Ottoman power.

There are some who argue that the 1571 Battle of Lepanto – a naval battle between Catholic Europeans and Ottoman Turks – was the first indicator of the ‘decline’ of Ottoman power. In the battle, the smaller but slightly more technically-advanced “Holy League” defeated the numerically-superior but overconfident Ottoman navy. The defeat was seen in Ottoman circles of the result of God’s will – ironically, the same position was taken by the Holy League – as the rout was truly devastating; around 30 Ottoman ships made it home out of a whopping 250-ish. Some historians (in my opinion, wrongfully) argue that this signaled the rise of Europe as a technologically, and politically advanced region which would be able to credibly challenge the Ottomans on their own turf (in this case, the Ionian sea). But I disagree; the Ottomans learned from the loss and updated their ships and, within a year, were back and bigger than ever. In 1573, they wrested Cyprus from Venetian control and mocked Venetian “power” saying that in wresting Cyprus from them, they had deprived Venice of an arm, while the defeat at Lepanto was merely a “shaved beard.”

The second point where historians argue that the Ottoman Empire was losing its grip was the Battle of Vienna. Though Ottomans had not taken Vienna in 1529, they at least were able to force Europeans to recognize their superiority and exact tribute. The disastrous Battle of Vienna in 1683; the impressively large Ottoman force besieged Vienna for nearly two months, but was turned away by a combined Polish, Austrian, and Holy Roman Empire coalition. This time, the Europeans were much more organized, much more technologically-advanced, and much richer (thus able to wage these wars). After the battle, the Ottomans began losing territory in Hungary, Transylvania and other European countries over the next two decades. So what had change in the last few years? Well, part of it was a recognition of the threat that the ottomans posed against the Europeans, thus necessitating a coalition of the big players of the day. Also, there is the matter that Western Europeans had established profitable colonies on the Western Hemisphere, leading to a general increase in wealth for most of Europe, which allowed them to prosecute such a huge war. And finally, the Ottomans had some internal problems of their own (such as an increasingly petulant Janissary corp). This loss led to more losses and culminated in the humiliating Treaty of Karlowitz in 1699. Even though the Hapsburgs had become a central/eastern European power through this treaty, I’d say that the Ottomans were at best ‘stagnating’ and not necessarily declining at this point; they were still a regional power in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

A real blow came, however, when Egypt rebelled against Ottoman rule. In the late 18th century, a group of so-called “Mamluk” (meaning slave) military leaders declared their independence from the Ottomans and the Ottomans were relatively helpless to stop them, partly because the Mamluks paid lip service to being part of the Ottoman Empire and the Sultan was willing to play along with the fiction.

What the Sultan could not play along with, however, was France’s invasion of Egypt in 1798. Napoleon probably invaded in order to threaten English ties to India, though he allegedly argued he was doing it for the benefit of the Ottoman Empire, promising to rule it in the Sultan’s name. The Ottomans reached out to the English and sent their best general, Muhammad Ali, to free Egypt and return it to Ottoman control. At this point, we can see that the Ottomans have lost control over their internal affairs and were lagging far enough behind that they had to rely upon other outsiders to defend their borders; a sure sign of decline. It didn’t help matters that Muhammad Ali essentially crowned himself king of Egypt and began an ambitious – and largely successful – modernization project in Egypt which had been tried (and failed) in the Ottoman Empire. His reforms made Egypt a regional power and strong enough militarily to challenge the Ottomans credibly. His conquest of Syria and attempt to march on Constantinople was only stopped because the Sultan was able to call upon the English for help.

Reforms in the Ottoman Empire – modernization, mechanization, industrialization, etc. – were often opposed by the ulemma or ‘educated’ religious leaders of the Muslim community as Western poison which would further corrupt the Ottoman Empire. Critics of these ulemma derisively called them juhala meaning ‘ignorant’ or ‘stupid’ to denote the unreasonable resistance to modernity.

To make matters worse, the Ottoman Empire – for various reasons including the invasions noted above – began to sign increasingly lop-sided agreements with England, France, and (to a lesser degree) Russia. These so-called “Capitulations” granted immunity to prosecution, taxes, and inspection by the Ottomans of the respective subjects, at least at first. These ‘protections’ were later expanded to include favored ethnic or confessional groups within the Empire, thus weakening even further the Ottoman control of internal policy and law enforcement. Over the course of the 19th century, Ottoman government and leaders essentially relied more and more on foreign aid and investment to keep their empire limping along. Partly because of these unequal treaties, partly because of the reticence of the rabble-rousing ulemma and Janissaries, and partly because of the economic inability to do otherwise.

This cycle of dependency was a hallmark of the 19th century as foreign powers treated the Ottomans like a combination of an over-ripe melon ready to be carved up and a sickly old man, unable to defend himself. A really good example, is the Crimean War (noted below); Russian troops sought to eject Ottoman control from the Black Sea, particularly Crimea, and looked to be on the verge of doing so when the English and, to a lesser degree, the French intervened on the Ottoman behalf. Now any illusion that the Ottomans had that they could defend themselves were gone.

There were late-19th century attempts at reform and revolution, most notably the Young Turk (also called the Committee of Union and Progress, or CUP) movement. But, one could argue, it was too little too late. By the beginning of the 20th century, even though the Ottomans were beginning to pull themselves out of a political and economic nose-dive, they had such an uphill battle, that it is doubtful they could have accomplished it.

The final straw was, of course, World War One. Though the Ottomans acquitted themselves fairly well at battles such as Gallipoli – mostly due to the incompetence of Britain’s command staff and geography – the rest of the war did not go well for the Ottomans. Though the Russians were poorly armed poorly trained, and relatively poorly led, the Ottomans were worse, losing battle after battle. At the same time, England was riling up the Arabs against the Ottomans and had taken full control of Egypt. Territorially, the Ottomans were in bad shape as well; they were a mere sliver of who they once were and, in the end, I don’t think anyone was surprised when a new state emerged from the Ottomans’ ashes.

Stalin mugshot; ca. 1911-Tsarist Russia

Say what you will about the man; he had a hell of a mustache.

Say what you will about the man; he had a hell of a mustache.

You can see his gimped left arm in that photo:

“As a child, Ioseb was plagued with numerous health issues. He was born with two adjoined toes on his left foot. His face was permanently scarred by smallpox at the age of 7. At age 12, he injured his left arm in an accident involving a horse-drawn carriage, rendering it shorter and stiffer than its counterpart.”

From Wikipedia article

A messenger dog laying out new electric line during WWI; ca. September 1917

Reminds me of that movie Enemy at the Gates... but with dogs instead of people.

Reminds me of that movie Enemy at the Gates… but with dogs instead of people.


The “Nixon Madman Theory”

Essentially, a key tenet of Nixon’s foreign policy was to make the leaders of communist countries think that he was unstable and prone to use nuclear force. What ensued in his first year in office in 1969 is one of the most fascinating episodes of the Cold War because it really highlights the growing split between the USSR and China and how Nixon tried to drive a wedge between them in order to strengthen the United States’ relative power and influence.

During the buildup to the Vietnam war after the Cuban missile crisis, and prior to Nixon taking office in 1969, leaders in the US and USSR would generally not explicitly threaten each other for fear of stoking another nuclear crisis. Nixon believed that the only way to end the war in Vietnam was to get North Vietnam and China to back down in the face of nuclear extinction, as the threat of nuclear escalation is what brought about a ceasefire during the Korean War. After secret peace talks in Paris to end the war stalled in the first few months of his presidency, Nixon went full ape. If Teddy Roosevelt believed that the United States should speak softly and carry a big stick, Nixon believed the United States should yell incoherently and flail its stick around.

In October 1969, Nixon issued a secret high level alert to his top military brass. He told them to be on standby to use nuclear force against North Vietnam and possibly the USSR and to scramble planes equipped with nuclear bombs to fly near Soviet airspace. This was kept secret from the American public, but was made loud enough so Soviet intelligence would pick up on it. At the time, Nixon wanted to escalate the war in Vietnam by expanding the bombing campaign into the North, which was not popular with the American public and would have likely resulted in fully-fledged war with China. So Nixon wanted the North Vietnamese, the Chinese and the Soviets to think that he would do anything to win the war in Vietnam without actually having to do anything. It was a huge gamble.

But let’s not forget that in the immediate months prior to Nixon’s secret order, the USSR and China were in an undeclared military conflict with each other over a border dispute. Relations between the two communist powers had soured since 1960, which Nixon sought to capitalize on.

Prior to Nixon issuing the nuclear alert, the USSR was considering a preemptive, possibly nuclear attack on China’s nuclear arsenal. The USSR worried that if the United States escalated the Vietnam war with nuclear force and if China responded with nuclear force too, then they would get dragged into a nuclear war with them as well. When a KGB officer approached an American diplomat about the possibility of the USSR striking China’s arsenal and how the US would respond – and allegedly even asked if the US would collaborate with the USSR to weaken China – Nixon made it very clear that the US would not tolerate an attack on its enemy by its other enemy.

But while Nixon intended the nuclear alert to influence events in Vietnam in his favor, some evidence from recently declassified Cold War documents suggest that the USSR mistakenly believed that the alert was meant to warn the USSR against attacking China’s nuclear arsenal.

Nixon did want to exploit the soured relations between the USSR and China in order to have leverage over the Soviets, and the nuclear alert had the unintentional effect of hinting that the US would side with China should a nuclear conflict arise between them and the USSR. This also unintentionally played into Nixon’s policy of opening up to China. By opening up to China, the US would no longer be dealing with one communist power, but rather two competing communist powers that were at odds with each other.

The nuclear alert issued in October 1969 did nothing to improve the situation in Vietnam (and arguably made things worse). While it did frighten the Soviets, they did ultimately interpret it as a bluff. Still, it indicated to the Chinese that Nixon would give them leverage over the USSR. It set the stage for rapprochement with China, which culminated in Nixon’s monumental 1972 visit to the communist country and the subsequent improvement of Sino-American relations. And of course, the visit laid the foundation for the deepening of economic ties between the two nations.