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

Archive for June, 2014

Hobby Lobby SCOTUS Ruling:

The Supreme Court ruling on BURWELL, SECRETARY OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES, ET AL. v. HOBBY LOBBY STORES, INC. has now opened up the precedent (ignoring how narrowly tailored the ruling was to only contraception) that under the RFRA, even if its a compelling government interest, the state cannot mandate any firm with sincere religious beliefs to carry out a requirement, so long as the government can pick up the slack? It seems like the least restrictive means will always be making the government do it instead and not restrict at all anyone’s religious beliefs.

On page 46 of the opinion, Alito writes: “Our decision should not be understood to hold that an insurance-coverage mandate must necessarily fall if it conflicts with an employer’s religious beliefs. Other coverage requirements, such as immunizations, may be supported by different interests (for example, the need to combat the spread of infectious diseases) and may involve different arguments about the least restrictive means of providing them.”

This certainly leaves open the possibility that the Court could rule differently on the “least restrictive means” issue in the future, but his language in section V-B, which discusses the “least restrictive means” test, seems to indicate that it is a difficult standard to pass. On page 41 of the opinion, he indicates that “the most straightforward way of [meeting the least restrictive means test] would be for the Government to assume the cost.” He also says that “HHS has not shown … that this is not a viable alternative.” This seems to indicate that if such a challenge were to come up regarding vaccination or blood transfusions, or whatever else, the burden would be on the Department of Health and Human Services to show that it would be impractical for the Government to cover the cost. That would be quite the burden for the Government to prove.

Ginsberg seems to agree with that reading in her dissent. On page 29 on the dissent, she writes, “And where is the stopping point to the ‘let the government pay’ alternative? Suppose an employer’s sincerely held religious belief is offended by health coverage of vaccines, or paying the minimum wage, … or according women equal pay for substantially similar work…? Does it rank as a less restrictive alternative to require the government to provide the money or benefit to which the employer has a religion-based objection?” In addition to indicating that the Court’s logic could prove problematic in the future, she asserts that it is flawed at present, saying, “In sum, in view of what Congress sought to accomplish, i.e., comprehensive preventive care for women furnished through employer-based health plans, none of the proffered alternatives would satisfactorily serve the compelling interests to which Congress responded.”

I agree with Justice Ginsberg on many points here, especially the last few pages of her dissent. Justice Alito attempts to narrow his ruling as much as possible, but leaves a lot of questions unanswered as to the basis for his narrow ruling. To me, the most compelling arguments come from sections III-4 and IV (pages 27-35) of Ginsberg’s dissent. She basically asserts that the Court’s ruling has much broader implications than it intends, and poses quite a few questions about the basis for the narrow ruling.

I am also inclined to agree with her reasoning that the Court should have no business in determining which religious views are legitimate and which are not, and that religious exemptions from generally applicable law should be reserved for groups that are organized “for a religious purpose” and/or “engaged primarily in carrying out that religious purpose”.

The Supreme Court ruling can be found here:

Justice Ginsburg’s dissent here:

Were Southern Generals better than Northern Generals in the US Civil War?

Right after the Civil War, there was something called the myth of the “Lost Cause.” It was pioneered by Edward A. Pollard, A Richmond journalist who wrote a history of the war in 1866, called (can you guess?) The Lost Cause. Basically, the book says that the Confederacy was a glorious agrarian state, and was defended by the best armies in American history. Pollard argues that the Armies of the Confederacy were more motivated, they fought better, they were led by better officers, and they were fighting for a noble and glorious cause (the defense of the antebellum south). Many historians, especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, repeated this myth and rebuilt it into its modern, “acceptable” form. Basically, they repeated it so often, and so loudly, that the “Lost Cause” became accepted as truth. Men like Douglas Southall Freeman, and even Ken Burns, have been influenced by the “Lost Cause” mythos. More recent historians have moved away from the “Lost Cause” myth, but the myth is still incredibly powerful, especially in conservative and southern circles, where the myth is undergoing yet another reinvention.

Were the South’s generals really better? Well that depends.

Robert E. Lee was repeatedly able to produce battlefield successes; hes called the American Napoleon for good reason! But he also failed strategically, by wasting the South’s precious manpower in offensive battles that cost the Confederacy more than it gained.

And on the other hand, Ulysses Grant maximized the Union’s advantage, especially in the Overland Campaign, by using multiple armies to attack the Confederacy all along its border. This strategy prevented the Confederates from reinforcing one area after another, as they had done in 1863, and it also stretched the CSA’s manpower to its very limits. So, there, you could say that Grant better adapted his strategy to the unique strengths and weaknesses of the resources at his disposal. In addition, he waged a spectacular series of campaigns, first in Mississippi against Vicksburg, then later against Lee in Northern Virginia, which achieved remarkable battlefield success.

What held Grant back, and what held both the Confederacy and the Union back throughout the war, was the state of professionalism in the wartime armies. Many of the Generals who fought in the American Civil War, on both sides, really weren’t generals at all. Lee was a Colonel before the war, Grant was a washed up Captain, Winfield Scott Hancock was a quartermaster, Sherman was a Colonel at First Bull Run, etc. Nobody really had the command experience required to maneuver large forces either strategically, or tactically. Unlike in Europe, where generals learnt how to be generals for decades before a war put their training to the test, in America, these men had to learn on the job. What that meant was that those with natural talent, like Lee, Grant, and Sherman, floated to the top, while everyone else made a mockery of warfighting. And when a commander would be wounded, or worse promoted, their subordinates would have to come up to fill the gap, regardless of skill or training. The Armies needed officers, and it was too late to shove a new batch through West-Point to make a general staff.

Thats why we often look at the Union Army, especially the Army of the Potomac under Hooker and Burnside, and snicker. They look so dumb, and these men were give command of an army. But really, I think if you look at what was going on in the Western theatre, and if you look at the Corps commanders of the Army of Northern Virginia, Grant and Lee were the exceptions, not the rule. They were the cream that rose to the top. Even men like Longstreet and “Stonewall” Jackson had major problems with commanding their forces in the field, Longstreet did poorly without Lee’s supervision, and Jackson did so with it.

So I think thats the real issue with Generalship in the Civil War. The South was fortunate to have found Lee so early on, while Grant was a gem that had to be dug out of the rough.

Why did Hitler so grossly underestimate the Soviet Union’s war capability?


There were a number of reasons why Hitler and the Oberkommando of the Wehrmacht had underestimated Soviet troop strength and capabilities before the 22nd of June in 1941. First of all were the failures of intelligence to accurately produce a realistic estimate of enemy troop strength and their ability to recover said losses. The Germans were aware of the size of the red army in general terms and that they would in theory be outnumbered, but they had a lack of respect for the capabilities of Soviet troops. Finally the Germans did not account for the soviets relocating major factories and centers of industry from central and southern Russia to the East of the Urals – beyond the range of both ground forces and the Luftwaffe.

Intelligence reports before the start of Operation Barbarossa in June of 1941 failed to account for the size and scale of the massive rearmament process and military reforms that had been ordered following the debacle of the Winter War with the Finns in 1939 and 1940. Even though the Soviets were eventually able to prevail over the Finns, the conflict showed serious flaws in Red Army training and tactics. Intelligence failed to account for large tank formations and the emergence of newer tank models like the KV2 and T34’s that were just beginning to come off production lines around that time period. These newer tanks models were a cut far above older T-26 lighter tanks that at that point were prone to malfunctions and obsolete to German tank models. Even with close to 28,000 tanks at the start of the invasion – many of these would be destroyed, disabled, or captured by the end of the year. Seeming to confirm that the German commanders and intel officers were correct in their assumption of Soviet Tank capability – disregarding the tremendous difficulty with which German units were having in knocking out T34 models and KV2’s that lighter german tanks and anti tanks guns couldn’t hope to penetrate. The Soviet tankers nicknamed the lighter German anti tanks guns like the Pak 36 “The Door knocker” due to its poor performance against their tanks. Soviet aircraft production was heavy but the were heavily reliant on obsolete or inferior aircraft like the Il16 and LaGG 3 (nicknamed the Guaranteed Varnished Coffin by its pilots due to its acronym, wooden construction, and poor performance), Soviet aircraft production would eventually see great examples of design and performance like the Yak 3, 7, and 9 – along with the Lavochkin La5, Ilyushin Il2 Sturmovik, and other mass produced designs. The soviets lost up to 97% of their air strength after the end of 1941 and had to completely retrain their newer batches of pilots on brand new machines that had little testing. Soviet pilots would not be able to rival the skill, tactics, or competence of German pilots until very late in the war when they began to have more confidence in their ability – along with the introduction of comparable fighter aircraft. This was also not accounted for as the Germans did not consider the ability with which the Soviets would have to produce the massive amounts of aircraft the were able to muster over the war. Germany also did not account for Lend-Lease American aircraft like the Bell P39 Airocobra, A20 Boston, P62 Kingcobra, P40 Hawk, B25 Mitchell and others. Lend lease would also provide tens of thousands of quality trucks and Willy’s Jeeps that gave the Russians much greater mobility and reliability in their mobile forces. Even though intelligence had dropped the ball early on German commanders were confident that they could over come the superior number of obsolete and unreliable soviet tanks that they were knocking out and capturing by the thousands in 1941.

German commanders and Hitler personally going into Barbarossa had a clear contempt for the average Soviet soldier in regards to his fighting ability and morale. They believed – with some credence – that the normal Red Army soldier and the entire command structure (Hitler famously remarked that “one need only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure would come crumbling down”) would collapse under the onslaught of the assembled invasion force of close to 2 and a half million men – the largest ever deployed in the history of warfare. After the Red army’s abysmal performance in the winter war against the Finns, this seemed to confirm to the Germans that this was indeed the case – the Red Army was in such a perilous state of affairs that they could not hope to stand to the might of a Blitzkrieg attack on their motherland. They did not count on the fact that major reforms to increase military effectiveness and a willingness of Stalin to reinstate former disgraced military commanders like Konstantin Rokossovsky, among others, after the purges of 1937 and 1938 when events transpired against him. Formerly taboo tactics of Deep Battle and driving penetrations by newly formed Tank armies would form the basis of a reinvigorated Red Army with competent and motivated commanders. Stalin lacked the ideological shame Hitler had in his actions and was willing to listen to the advice of his commanders or reinstate those that had previously fallen out of favor. Red Army soldiers put up tremendous resistance to German advances and attacks that caused ever increasing amounts of casualties that the Germans could not adequately replace. The Germans did not count on the specialty the Soviets had in defending against attack, “every village into a fortress” as was remarked. Dug in emplacements underneath houses, earthen bunkers, determined fighters that would fight on long past the point at which other European armies would have surrendered all typified German underestimation of Red Army skill and resolve – no matter the amount of prisoners they took or divisions they destroyed. This resolve became the most famous at Stalingrad, in which the 62nd Army under Chuikov was able to pin down and survive the onslaught of the 6th Army under Friedrich Paulus long enough to allow massive reserves to cut off and surround them, thus turning the tide of the entire Eastern Front.

Finally the Germans thought once they captured the Soviet industrial and agricultural heartland of Ukraine that the industrial capacity to make war would cease for the Soviet Union. What the Germans did not count on was the ruthlessness with which Stalin relocated thousands of factories from their original locations to beyond the Ural mountains – along with most of their workers. Even though these facilities had to endure terrible conditions early on, some production lines were brought online even before the roofs had been built, with snowflakes falling on fully operational tank production lines. Even with the Germans capturing the Ukraine early on in the war after the resounding successes at Kiev, Odessa, and the Crimea – with Erich Von Manstein pulling off some of the most impressive tactical feats of the 20th century – the industrial capacity of the Soviet Union would endure. By 1943 Soviet tank, aircraft, and gun production had surpassed or even doubled anything the Germans could even hope to muster from their own economy; from factories and industrial facilities beyond the range of their bombers. Soviet war production was able to far surpass the limits of German industrial might by their relocation of factories – something that was never accounted for in the German invasion of the Soviet Union.

So an underestimation of forces by German intelligence, a lack of respect or admission of Russian fighting ability and resolve, and the relocation of major industries beyond the reach of the German military all accounted for the survival of Soviet war making capacity. These failures contributed directly to the failure of operation Barbarossa, Blue, and Citadel to turn the tide against the Red Army. German war production and reserves simply couldn’t keep up with the fanatical defense that the Soviets displayed in blunting the advance of the Wehrmacht. They made grave errors in underestimating the capabilities and ideological will that drove the Russian people around Stalin rather than against him (though they didn’t have much choice to begin with)

Sources: Richard J. Evans “Third Reich at War” – Anthony Beevor “Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege”, various documentaries and textbooks

How close was Heisenberg to successfully developing the Atomic bomb for the Nazis?

The way I like to talk about this is in this way: what are the phases necessary for developing a nuclear weapon? In some ways, it’s easiest to first talk about this in the context of the American Manhattan Project.

In 1939, Einstein and Szilard wrote the famous letter to Roosevelt about bomb issues. FDR said, “sounds interesting,” and made a very small exploratory committee to look into it (the Uranium Committee at the National Bureau of Standards). This is what we might call an exploratory stage. It was basically theoretical studies and small laboratory studies. The questions they were trying to answer were very basic: Is atomic energy something worth worrying about? Can an atomic bomb, or an atomic reactor, be built in the near term by anybody?

The conclusions they came to weren’t encouraging. By 1941 the top science advisors in the US had basically concluded that while it might be possible to make nuclear weapons, it was going to be very difficult to do so and probably not worth spending a lot of money and time on in the near term. The atomic bomb, they reasoned, was unlikely to play a role in World War II.

Towards the end of 1941, though, they received a report from scientists working in a similarly exploratory capacity in the UK which concluded that the bomb could probably be built in a short amount of time if a sufficient effort was put into it. The British scientists were successful in convincing the American administrators that the program should be moved into a new stage of development.

This new stage we might call the pilot stage. It sought to establish on a small scale some of the key aspects that would go into a real production model. Roosevelt approved this just before Pearl Harbor. Basically this required building several small-scale production plants, and funding work on building an experimental nuclear reactor.

By mid-1942 it became clear that they felt this was all worth spending more money on, and by late 1942 it was decided that the US Army should be brought into the matter, because they had the experience necessary to construct the massive factories and plants necessary to produce actual atomic bombs. This is the transition into the production phase. You’ll note that in this case, the pilot stage was very brief. This was unusual and noted even at the time; they were really flying by the seat of their pants, drawing up plans to build full-scale industrial reactors even before the first experimental nuclear reactor had gone online (which happened in December 1942).

It is this final phase, from 1943 to 1945, that is the Manhattan Project proper, when it was run by the Manhattan Engineer District of the US Army Corps of Engineers. This is the full (crash) production program to make atomic bombs, and required a huge expenditure of resources.

There is some irony in the fact that the original, 1941 estimate by the US scientists about the difficulty of making an atomic bomb was more or less correct. They had concluded that a bomb, though feasible, would be very difficult to make, and that nobody else was likely to really be working on one. The UK scientists underestimated the difficulty substantially. The final bomb project cost about 5X what was estimated in 1942, when it started the transition into the production phase, to give some indication of the disparity of estimates. And we now know, of course, that making an atomic bomb was difficult and no other nation did get very far in it during the war.

OK, but back to Germany. Where did they end up? They started their exploratory phase in 1939, the same as the USA (and the same as the USSR, Japan, France, and the UK). Like the US, they concluded that this was interesting but pretty difficult. Nobody thought this was going to be an issue in the present war — which, of course, Germany was doing very well in, early on.

By 1942, they started to realize that things weren’t going so well. They started to get more interested in the uranium issue. But even then, it was still just a transition towards the pilot stage — they were looking into building an experimental reactor. They were hampered in this by many factors.

They never got to the end of this phase before the war ended. What if they had? They still would have to start a production phase, which was the most difficult and most costly of the phases.

So by 1945 they were almost to the phase that the United States moved out of in 1942. They were pretty far from getting a bomb, and even if they had decided, in 1942, to start building one, it’s really unclear that they would have been able to pull it off, merely because the sizes of the buildings required for such a program would make them very attractive bombing targets.

US Marines watch F4U Corsairs drop napalm on Chinese positions near the Chosin Reservoir; December 26th, 1950


Forgotten war. And forgotten it seems, that the main foe were Chinese soldiers.

There is a great documentary called “Chosin”. It’s on Netflix and has a lot of interviews with survivors that are unbelievable.

One that has stuck with me was the man who was wounded, then the truck carrying him to an aid station was captured by the Chinese/North Koreans. They set the truck on fire to kill the wounded, but this guy managed to get out only to be shot in the head. He survived that, crawled down a trench only to be discovered by a chinese patrol who tried to beat him to death with their rifles. Survived that too and almost died of hypothermia before finally being discovered by a American patrol. It really gives you a sense of how horrendous that campaign really was…

Here’s the trailer: 

Hitler’s Pants being burnt by the allies after the war; ca 1947


Führer Führer Hosen auf Feuer?

I’ve always loved the pointing gesture. As if to say “See? invade and occupy most of Europe, murder tens of millions of people, and we will burn your goddamn pants.”

The Nazis had carefully preserved the pants from the  Operation Valkyrie assassination attempt and the allies inherited them after the war. They were concerned that if they put them in a museum they’d end up becoming a shrine to Hitler so they burnt them instead.

Hitlers pants after the Operation Valkyrie assassination attempt; ca. 1944

It looks like he got blown up with Acme dynamite.

It looks like he got blown up with Acme dynamite.

The last photo of the Far Eastern Party. Two of them would never make it home; ca. 1912


The leading theory as to why the two expedition members died is hypervitaminosis A from eating their own husky sled dog’s livers.

(A gripping account of Douglas Mawson’s 1912-13 Antarctic expedition. Unimaginable hardship in the cause of science. Mawson’s hair fell out, skin peeled off. He survived only by bathing his eyes in cocaine and eating his dogs)

This story reminds me of the time when it was about 30 degrees (F) and I had to walk about three blocks to get some chips. I made it, but on the way back, I actually pulled out liner gloves and put them under my regular gloves, as I had packed them in my coat, along with other provisions. Slipping more than once on the way, I had to bend my knees to keep from falling in the snow that was a record 2 inches deep. Unexpectedly high winds made the last block nearly impassable on the sidewalk and I actually had to revert to walking along the street, which had not yet been cleared — and it wouldn’t be clear for a whole day due to the demands of this unheard of weather phenomenon of 2 inches of snow in early December. When I finally arrived, the I found that many of the chips had been broken from the rigors of the journey. So, I can identify.

Sinbad in a Sousaphone; ca. 1940s


The crew of the Coast Guard cutter Campbell adopted a mixed-breed puppy in 1938.  Little did they know that their canine companion would become a world famous Coast Guard veteran.  He was, literally, a member of the crew, complete with all the necessary enlistment forms and other official paperwork,  uniforms, and his own bunk.  He sailed on board the combat-tested cutter through World War II and saw much action, both at sea and in port.  As Life Magazine reported: “An Old Sea Dog Has Favorite Bars and Plenty of Girls in Every Port.”  Until recently he had the honor and distinction of being the only Coast Guardsman to be the subject of a biography!  It was Sinbad of the Coast Guard, written by Chief Specialist George R. Foley, USCGR and published by Dodd, Mead and Company of New York during the war. The book made him an international celebrity.

Although he served honorably, he did run into a bit of trouble on occasion, as any sailor might during a long career at sea.  He caused an international incident in Greenland, another in Casablanca, and was busted in rank a few times for minor infractions.  As another author noted:

“Sinbad is a salty sailor but he’s not a good sailor. He’ll never rate gold hashmarks nor Good Conduct Medals.  He’s been on report several times and he’s raised hell in a number of ports.  On a few occasions, he has embarrassed the United States Government by creating disturbances in foreign zones.  Perhaps that’s why Coast Guardsmen love Sinbad, he’s as bad as the worst and as good as the best of us.”

Regardless of the fact that he liked to blow off a little steam while on liberty, he was a brave and capable sailor when he was on duty.  He earned the respect and affection of his shipmates during one famous battle when the Campbell fought it out with the Nazi submarine U-606.  The cutter was severely damaged during the fight and the commanding officer ordered all but essential personnel off the ship. They transferred to a nearby destroyer but a tough and hardy few stayed on board the Campbell while the cutter was towed to safety, patching her hull and ensuring that she stayed afloat during the voyage.  Among that few was Sinbad.  

He served faithfully on board Campbell for eleven years, garnering more sea time than most of his contemporaries, before finally retiring to the Barnegat Light Station.  He passed away 30 December 1951 and was laid to rest beneath the station’s flagstaff. 



From his mount a German horseman views an early airplane at Tempelhofer Feld (Tempelhof’s Airfield) Berlin; ca. 1900s