Bench-mark Harrier

Leave it to the Marines . . .

Dunkirk - the miracle of the mirage

One of the things that has always fascinated me about World War II is how the utter embarrassment of the British during the summer of 1940 somehow morphed in popular minds into a great "triumph" centered around Dunkirk. The evacuation of the shattered army is generally treated as a high point of the war, rather than the end result of a chaotic and ill-planned campaign. And not just in the popular imagination, but in (supposedly) serious history books as well.

That apparently fascinated the BBC as well, and they've put together a fine report here (written by Duncan Anderson) putting the evacuation into better perspective. The title of the piece pretty much gives away its slant: "Spinning Dunkirk."

The article can be found here.

It's truly amazing that barely a year or so after the fall of France, British soldiers would look down on the American Army in Africa and elsewhere as hopelessly incompetent. As bad as our Army was - and the Americans certainly had a long way to go after entering the war - nothing the Americans experienced came close to the rout suffered by the British when France fell. But I suppose we all believe what we need to believe.

Shocking, just shocking . . .

The latest on Iraq:

BRUSSELS — Iran is directing surveillance drones over Iraq from an airfield in Baghdad and is secretly supplying Iraq with tons of military equipment, supplies and other assistance, American officials said. Tehran has also deployed an intelligence unit there to intercept communications, the officials said.
The secret Iranian programs are part of a broader effort by Tehran to gather intelligence and help Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s government in its struggle against Sunni militants with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Story.

Is Iraq officially a vassal state yet?

World War I

A.O. Scott published an excellent meditation on World War I Friday in the NY Times. Part of his theme:

World War I remains embedded in the popular consciousness. Publicized in its day as “the war to end all wars,” it has instead become the war to which all subsequent wars, and much else in modern life, seem to refer. Words and phrases once specifically associated with the experience of combat on the Western Front are still part of the common language. We barely recognize “in the trenches,” “no man’s land” or "over the top" as figures of speech, much less as images that evoke what was once a novel form of organized mass death. And we seldom notice that our collective understanding of what has happened in foxholes, jungles, mountains and deserts far removed in space and time from the sandbags and barbed wire of France and Belgium is filtered through the blood, smoke and misery of those earlier engagements.

Yet in America, the war seems barely studied in schools, let alone remembered by the general public. Given that the 100th anniversary of its start will be observed next month, I wonder if that will change.

Iraq in a nutshell . . .

. . . or I should say "nut graph," as they say in journalism school. From the NYT:

That many Sunnis would prefer to take their chances under a militant group so violent it was thrown out of Al Qaeda sharply illustrates how difficult it will be for the Iraqi government to reassert control. Any aggressive effort by Baghdad to retake the city could reinforce the Iraqi Army’s reputation as an occupying force, rather than a guarantor of security.
That many Sunnis would prefer to take their chances under a militant group so violent it was thrown out of Al Qaeda sharply illustrates how difficult it will be for the Iraqi government to reassert control. Any aggressive effort by Baghdad to retake the city could reinforce the Iraqi Army’s reputation as an occupying force, rather than a guarantor of security
Many of those who fled said they were terrified of possible airstrikes and indiscriminate shelling that they have seen, in news reports, against insurgents in Sunni-dominated Anbar Province, which has been out of government control for more than six months. Some, saying a rumor had been swirling through the local population, even worried that the Americans would be back to bomb their city. And most said the militants in Mosul had not terrorized the population and were keeping a low profile, with a small number of men in black masks staffing checkpoints.

Story. The headline on the story is wrong, as it makes it seem as if the people actually want the mujaheddin. And while ISIS is extremely violent, the break with al Qaeda is far more complicated than the writer glibly states - and let's be real: al Qaeda is not exactly Ghandi. But the general attitude of the fleeing residents toward the government does jibe very much with what I've heard from people there.

This has been several years in the making. Maybe the real question isn't whether Iraq will split up, but what form the Sunni-dominated western country will take. Will the mujaheddin dominate, or will the tribes reassert control?


As the country continues to crumble, the Telegraph provides a good overview of developments:

Calls for U.S. involvement so far have largely ignored the fact that Maliki, Iraq's prime minister, has been openly hostile to the U.S. and U.S. forces, and is basically a pawn of Iran. Of course, he's been even worse to his country's Sunni population.

What's about to happen here is the same thing that happened in Syria - Iran is going to intervene on the side of the government; in fact Quds units are already reported inside the country.

Two things:

- though they're getting most of the attention, the ISIS is not the only player among the mujaheddin forces,
- the speed of the takeover is mostly a function of the disillusionment, disorder and corruption on the army and government's side, not the abilities of the mujaheddin.

Things are going to get bloodier before they get better.

‘Killing Patton’

According to various reports, Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard plan to take on Patton in the next of their “Killing” series. I'm looking forward to it.

Patton died as a result of an auto accident*, but like a lot of other things these days, a veritable cottage industry has sprung up spinning conspiracies about his death. Presumably O’Reilly and Dugard will put those to rest. They may straighten out a lot of other things as well: much of what we think we “know” about Patton isn’t true, as historians and biographers have said over and over.

Some of it is a little obscure and understandable – like giving Patton credit Patton credit for the final American push in Africa, when it was really Omar Bradley in charge. (Secrecy at the time helped obscure Bradley’s role, and Patton had spent several weeks reshaping the forces (with Bradley) prior to that. But mostly it was due to media fascination and shoddy reporting.)

I suppose there’s little hope that the public can ever be convinced that the so-called “slapping incidents” had a small impact on Patton’s career – Eisenhower had already chosen Bradley to lead the American invasion, and despite the incidents insisted on having Patton as an Army commander (under Bradley and over his initial objections – he wanted Lucian Truscott). But a well-rounded portrait of Patton, pluses and minuses all, may have at least a small influence in how we think of heroes. a more realistic appraisal might help us all.

I’m looking forward to the book as a readable and enjoyable popular introduction to an important person and, from there, important events. It is a bit of departure – until now, O'Reill and Dugard have only looked at people who have been deliberately murdered. I’m sure they don’t need my advice, but I’d love to see them tackle Julius Caesar in the future – not only does his death fit with their original premise, but I think there’s a lot of resonance in his life and times with our own era.

* The car, incidentally, is at the Patton Museum at Fort Knox. I saw it last week when I was there. Completely restored, it’s part of a new and promising exhibit on leadership the museum is putting together.

You'll never hear these phrases come from a zipper suit's mouth . . .
Mosul, Iraq - now controlled by 'militants'

. . .  with 'militants' being another word for terrorists who have indiscriminately killed many civilians. Item:

Militant fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant seized Mosul after battling government forces for control of the northern Iraqi city, extending their reach over the country as central authority crumbles.
The group also captured the airport in Mosul as the Iraqi army pulled out of its positions inside the city, Dubai-based Al Arabiya television station said today, citing the Nineveh governor Athil al-Nujaifi. Images on Al Jazeera satellite television showed cars burning in the city and citizens fleeing the fighting. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called for parliament to declare a state of emergency.

The "Islamic State of Iraq and Levant" was affiliated with al Qaeda until recently. It's admittedly hard to pin down exact affiliations and alliances, even for Iraqis. But one of the key things going on in Mosul - once the most peaceful major city in Iraq - is the radicalization of Sunnis completely disillusioned and disenfranchised by the Shia government in Baghdad and the east. The majority of people there don't necessarily like ISIL, et al, let alone violence, but they detest the "central" government. The terrorists are the only viable opposition.

We're watching the long-predicted breakup of Iraq into three distinct countries along sectarian lines. The only question is how many innocent people will die in the process.

Rousseau was wrong . . .

. . . but Conrad* was right. At least according to a new theory about why the bones in men's faces are so big.

violence played a greater role in human evolution than previously thought. 
When modern humans fight hand-to-hand the face is usually the primary target. Dr Carrier and Dr Morgan found that the bones that suffer the highest rates of fracture in fights are the same parts of the skull that exhibited the greatest increase in robusticity during the evolution of fossil hominins.

Now if we could just get a theory explaining bone-headed behavior . . .

*(Jean-Jacques Rosseau with his noble savages theory, and Joseph Conrad, with Heart of Darkness, et al)
D-Day air drops

The contribution of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions during the D-Day landings is occasionally overlooked, and even more often misunderstood.
The units that landed on Utah Beach had only a few ways to get off the beach and onto the peninsula proper. The airborne troops not only tied up German defenses inland, but more critically secured those “exits”: roads, crossroads, hamlets and villages that controlled access across swampy and otherwise difficult terrains. Without securing those exits, the troops on Utah could easily have been bottled up. Because of their location, the only feasible way to guarantee they could be taken was by air - a controversial decision at the time, especially given the short but decidedly mixed American experience with paratroopers to that point in the war.
Like most airborne operations in WWII, the drops that preceded the D-Day invasion left troops scattered over the battlefield, and in many cases far from their objectives. Casualties were high. But despite the odds, the paratroopers were able to rally effectively, insuring the invasion's ultimate success. Later on, the 101st secured Carantan, another key turning point in the Normandy campaign, and one that ultimately led to the breakout.
A side note: Maxwell Taylor, the 101st commander, was one of the key generals during the Normandy battles and indeed the entire war. Following the battle, Taylor received the Distinguished Service Medal in recognition for his and his troop’s role in Normandy. This will tell you something about Taylor: Not only did he not expect the award – Omar Bradley arranged to surprise him with it – as far as I can tell Taylor didn’t bother mentioning it (or most of his commendations) in his autobiography. He was a general who not only believed in giving his men credit, but acted on it as well.

A humble achiever – no wonder we won that war.

D-Day . . .

P.S.: I have a (tiny, tiny, tiny) part in The History Channel special, D-Day in HD, which premieres tonight on, duh, History Channel. You can find more information on the series here, and a little bit on how they put it together here. They were a great bunch of people to work with; I was happy to contribute.
NASA, take two . . .


“Absent a very fundamental change in the nation’s way of doing business, it is not realistic to believe that we can achieve the consensus goal of reaching Mars,” Mitch Daniels, the former Indiana governor and co-chair of the committee, said Wednesday morning in an interview.

So let's change the way we do business. (Story here. The committee was charged with looking at NASA's long-range plans, including the goal of getting to Mars by 2030.)
Thank you, Kentucky

I had a great time visiting the Blue Grass State this week. The people at the Wayne County Library and up at Fort Knox are some of the friendliest folk I've ever met.

One of the things I truly enjoyed was meeting a bunch of young adults who are interested in history and current events. I was really impressed by their knowledge and enthusiasm. I'm sure they'll be successful in whatever they choose to do.

NASA . . .

. . . and the era of restricted visions - that's what I thought of watching this retro-report of the Space Shuttle program at the NYT. (No embed - here's the link.)

NASA now contracts with the Russians to launch payloads. 'Nuff said.

Now in paperback

The trade paper edition includes a short essay I wrote noting how important history was to Chris Kyle, and includes a little speculation on the eleventh gun he might have added. You can get it at all fine bookstores - even Amazon.

You can even buy it from the publisher's site, here.