Monday, June 27, 2011

Barbarossa Began Seventy Years Ago a Few Days Ago, When I Was Babysitting: Some Thoughts on Tanks, Planes, and Horses

(And just in case you haven't heard them lately.)

The usual scoring for Barbarossa sets The Internationale (or whatever) against Die Wachte am Rhein. I mean, if Tchaikovsky is going to do it, why not us hacks? 

The thing is that Adam Tooze has occasioned me to wonder whether the implicit "titanic struggle of nations" theme is appropriate. His recent monograph on the German war economy has very convincingly reinterpreted Barbarossa as something closer to an attempted mugging with menaces, and the only suitable scoring of the German national anthem that is really appropriate and on Youtube is this one.

We have to let the Marseillaise stand in for something more Russian, though. Not only is that annoying for Germans, and I'm also less than enamoured of the gender politics of this famous clip.

That being said,  it's the meta-point that stands. Nazi Germany invaded Russia out of economic desperation, having convinced itself that it had only to kick in the door and collapse the house. As though Russians would submit to enslavement and genocide because the Party had given them horrible government. It's a contemptible combination of brutality and wishful thinking that can stand in for Nazi rule in its entirety.

That being said, the Germans attacked an enemy that was probably outnumbered, and exposed in ways that are not obvious on plain maps. As Rob Kirchubel, points out here, the main weight of the German effort was made along the same corridor along the water-parting of the Dniepr and Dvina that Napoleon had used, and, by consistently flanking their enemies, eventually rolled the Russians up all the way to Moscow.

I don't think that the fall of Ukraine and German armies reaching the doorstep of Saint Petersburg and Moscow tells us much about the objective correlation of strategic forces here, so much as it does about the geographic realities that make those cities what they are. That being said, war is the province of contingencies, and it does seem to me that there was some prospect of a German victory. Not before Moscow, but next year. It just doesn't seem to me that the Russian war effort could have held together if the Caspian-Volga route had been broken, and thus that the fight for Stalingrad/Volgograd counts as decisive and deserves the place that no-one denies it as the decisive moment of the world war, along with Washington's dance with the Long Lances off Guadalcanal and Montgomery overcoming his first-battle jitters to impose Woolwich's way of war on the beau sabreurs of the Axis Army of Africa. The courage of the Ostheer came fairly close to overcoming the weaknesses that handicapped it. A lesson, I'll reiterate, for those who shrink from the spending, thus taxing, that they can see is necessary.

All that being said, we can drill down a little further here.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Plantation of the Atlantic, V: Modernity Was Paid For By Your Taxes, And It Was Incidental to Winning Dynastic Wars

I wrote all sorts of things in the course of completing my thesis that have been hanging about in various storage media ever since. This piece informs my thinking about the establishment of the modern Atlantic order, and more recently my reading of Brendan Simms. In the past it has been a Microsoft Word for Macs document, Wordperfect 7.0 (bleeah!), Open Office (bleeah more!), and Word2007 (why can't you cut and paste into the reference list window? WTF, Redmond?). The true horrors of the formatting changes seem to be confined to the footnotes, and I'm interested in seeing what happens to them when I hit "Publish," so I'm not going to muck around with them.

So the only place that this is out in the world is in a very small and off-topic part of a University of Toronto thesis, and it plays a huge role in informing my picture of how the Atlantic world got the way it did. Heck, it explains why I'm putting my foot down on my sinister readings of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, aware as I am that chances are that I'm going to get my scholarly butt handed to me. It's that "winter quarters" in the sequence of events leading to the "Danish conquest of East Anglia." That's my territory, medievalist dudes! So why not put it on the Intertube, too?

Oh, and let's set the mood. Toronto in the 1990s, defined....

Friday, June 17, 2011

Seeing The Dead Planet: What Is Mars to Us? On de Lane, Geographies of Mars

 It's the same old story: band has a hit (not that, this), corporate money comes calling, and the band falls out, perhaps over the royalties, perhaps something more personal. And for five years I was left searching Youtube for this. Now, I  hear that there are more productive ways of finding music on the Internet, but I don't know about these ways, and I wasn't that motivated. The charm of ephemera is of things gone, and perhaps even coming back, however little you deserve them.
There is a sense of loss to the western homesteader. Life calls you away, to war or to work, and a return home might not be possible, because that home might not be there any more. It was staked somewhere that was green for a season, and then the water failed, and now there is nothing but bleaching boards and abandoned dreams. A science fiction novel that struck me deeply as a youth, Kate Wilhelm's Juniper Time, had that happen to the entire West. At the end, the protagonist returns to the old homestead and finds its old, perennial stream still flowing amidst a stand of junipers in the midst of continental desolation.

Well, I think that's what happened, because it's been a long time since I've read it. Maybe I'm making it up, because I was brought up in a Western stock raising family (in a very minimal way), and our old family homestead has a perennial spring in an arid environment. When the doom comes for us, we'll have water for our horses. The rest of you are on your own.

 Or, that's one attitude, one that the United States Reclamation Bureau was set up to fight. I'd like to tell a story about how Percival Lowell looked down from Flagstaff Mountain at the canal system spreading across Arizona, even as he looked up and imagined that he was seeing canals on Mars. Only I can't. Lowell's Flagstaff Observatory isn't on a mountain. It's on a mesa. It's a big mesa, but still a plateau, flat, and more than big enough for the whole town of Flagstaff. Lowell's observatory was a "comfortable" walk from downtown and the rail station, as K. Maria de Lane points out in her Geographies of Mars: Seeing and Knowing the Red Planet.  I'm embarrassed. That was my mental image of the Lowell Observatory. And I make such a big deal about distinguishing mental geographies from geographies as they actually exist. I'm going to petulantly blame Lowell for misleading me, and, according to de Lane, I have a point. Lowell, and astronomy in general, was a located science, in which the place that it was performed in was partially determinative of the observations made. And when talking about imagined entities such as the canals of Mars, an imagined geography was even more epistemically productive. And that's de Lane's point.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Let's Argue About Aircraft Carriers, Again!

Edit: Oh, Good Lord, according to Google, people are reading this cut-and-pasted monster. So I'm going to edit it up a bit.

Now, I was originally going to blog about K. Maria D. Lane's  Geographies of Mars. That's because I didn't have a copy, so, really, I could say whatever the heck I wanted to say about it. Once I had it, I figured, I could read it, and then I could live up to my obligations to the world of letters with a Very Serious Review.  Such, however, are the wonders of Amazon and UPS that I already have a copy of a book I ordered two days ago. (Maybe the Internet loves me; maybe I checked the wrong box on the delivery options page). So where's that Very Serious Review? Well, I've sort of got to read it, now, before I can say anything scholarly. That doesn't exclude my writing about the subject in a non-scholarly way, but I have a place for such things, where it will help space out the (more blatant) self indulgence.

Speaking of self-indulgence, while I don't follow Lawyers, Guns, and Money closely, when I checked in today, Robert Farley was trying to jump into a conversation about aircraft carriers. The argument is that they're large and they're boats, so they can sink if they hit a rock or an ICBM, and that they're really nothing more than an expensive stage for telling America to itself.*
(Congratulations on the embedding restrictions, SME. I can't imagine a better way of promoting Blood and Chrome! That's sarcasm, BTW.)

There are worse uses for money than settings for hopeful love stories, but my  personal opinion (which is to say, my rehash of Norman Friedman's useful opinion) is that the advent of the aircraft carrier really marks the transition from the weight-limited naval warship  to the volume-limited. The actual weapon system matters far less. It's just a thing that right now that happens to be manned aircraft. The size of the ship comes out of naval architectural logic, and really doesn't dictate costs compared with other factors. So supercarriers it is.

Controversy! I court it! And I have some more substantive things to say about the "vulnerability" of supercarriers.

Gather the Bones, 9: To the Lady of the Lake

If you ask me,  The Pioneers: Or, the Sources of the Susquehanna, is, in the last analysis, politically engaged. The framing event is the Whiskey Rebellion, with Judge Temple standing in for George Washington, and Hiram Doolittle as some people's villain of the piece, Alexander Hamilton. On where to fit Richard Jones into the story, I defer to Lauren Groff, with perhaps more charity to Cooper, who could hardly have got away with character assassination had Richard Cooper's descendants not perceived him in the same unfavourable light.

So if we're telling a story about the Whiskey Rebellion, we need Whiskey rebels. Cooper has an idea about what Whiskey Rebels looked like, and thus we get old Natty Bumppo's role in the story. And the fact that Bumppo turns out to be such an interesting character tells us that Cooper has an interesting reading of the Rebellion. (Inevitably.)

So that might be all there was, originally, to Natty Bumppo. Two years later, when Cooper was acting as tour guide to a group of British visitors interested in the battlefields of 1757, and, as it turned out, the "sublime" scenery on the route from New York to Fort Ticonderoga, his very distinguished guests demanded a romantic, "Indian" story set in this dramatic scenery. And whatever his reasons for recycling material from Pioneers, the result was Last of the Mohicans.  And Cooper found himself the proprietor of the first genuinely American hero, Leatherstocking/Hawkeye/Le Longue Carabine/Natty Bumppo.

It's quite possible that this was pure serendipity, but that doesn't mean that Cooper did not now have an asset with which to carve his idea of America into the American body politic like a ritual scar. I've called Killdeer the American Excalibur, and Elizabeth Temple the Lady of the Lake. So clearly there was a story in the  original gift of Excalibur.

On second thought, let's not go there. 'Tis a creepy place.

Anyway, to the extent that I've got Cooper's inspiration right, his vision  will be informed by the 1816 edition of Le Morte d'Arthur, which apparently caused quite a stir even before Lady of Shallot (1835), and the big deal here is the end. And that's where Cooper goes in The Prairie, the next Leatherstocking Tale. Natty is going to die, and that death is going to be Meaningful. There'll be ironic comment about race and religion, as Natty is buried, accompanied by his dog. And Cooper will play with issues of identity. In all of The Prairie, that name is never once uttered. Natty is only "the Trapper." Now, at the end, Natty asks Captain Middleton for a headstone, simply engraved with his name and dates. (As always, he is ignored, and gets a motto, too.) But Cooper fails to give the full inscription on the headstone. This isn't how he did it last time, and it is very reminiscent of this odd choice:

"Hannah Cooper's tomb in Christ churchyard, within the Cooper family
plot, is inscribed with some plaintive verses that her father composed
and caused to be carved upon the slab, with the singular omission of her 
name, which was not added until many years afterward."

Above all, Natty doesn't want to be buried with his arms, as his Pawnee adopted son proposes to do. To the contrary:

"Little that I have ever seen is forgotten," returned the trapper: "I am at the close of many weary days, but there is not one among them all, that I could wish to overlook. I remember you with the whole of your company; ay, and your grand'ther, that went before you. I am glad, that you have come back upon these plains, for I had need of one, who speaks the English, since little faith can be put in the traders of these regions. Will you do a favour to an old and dying man?"
"Name it," said Middleton; "it shall be done."
"It is a far journey to send such trifles," resumed the old man, who spoke at short intervals, as strength and breath permitted; "a far and weary journey is the same; but kindnesses and friendships are things not to be forgotten. There is a settlement among the Otsego hills—"
"I know the place," interrupted Middleton, observing that he spoke with increasing difficulty; "proceed to tell me, what you would have done."
"Take this rifle, and pouch, and horn, and send them to the person, whose name is graven on the plates of the stock,—a trader cut the letters with his knife,—for it is long, that I have intended to send him such a token of my love....."
.....but then I know, it will give the boy pleasure to hang the piece in his hall, for many is the deer and the bird that he has seen it destroy.

Killdeer is going back to the Lady of the Lake, to hang in that curious hall that Judge Marmaduke Temple built, Elizabeth inherited, and John renovated. That very curious hall.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Plantation of the Atlantic, IV: Set A Thief, And You'll Have Two Thieves

It's an issue of trust. I went one way last time, but there's two sides.

(Uh, probably not. It's the tats. And the crazy.)

Susan Ronald begins her The Pirate Queen: Queen Elizabeth, Her Pirate Adventurers, and the Dawn of Empire with a "Master Foster," deposing on an attempt by Spanish port authorities to seize his Primrose, a 150 ton Londoner loaded with Home Counties grain in Bilbao  harbour on 26/05/1585 (Old Style), along with all other English ships. And, apparently, ships from Holland, Zeeland, "Easterland," Germany, and England. Typical of the times, the deposition specifies a religious motivation, while the historiography, as always, loves a good story and looks forward to the Armada campaign. For whatever reason, I can't resist reading Foster's story against the grain, not that there's much here to sustain my cynicism.

So how do I justify my cynicism? In this case, it's perversely hopeful. It doesn't seem to me that human affairs can continue if everyone is paralysed by fear of treachery. So, on the one hand, the merchant captain can't be so fearful of being seized and pressed into service that he won't come into port. On the other, the harbour master can't be so preoccupied with the danger of being taken advantage of by a dangerous heretic that they will not let the ship dock.

That these are real, and common fears, the Foster deposition, and many like it, tells us. So that has to be the weak point, because human affairs aren't coming to a screeching halt.  There's a deception going on here, a word that's doing illicit work. How about "heretic?" The work it is doing is telling us that of course the captain and the harbour master are on opposing sides, forever condemned to strife. Italics, though, on the "of course." Because why is this so obvious. Why should a harbour master or a sea captain care which church the other goes to, or even make the distinctions that some doctor of theology might.

And isn't there money on the table? Doesn't money count as a motive? And who ever tells the truth about money? The cargo will fetch you this much if you pay by letter of credit; this much if you pay cash. Maybe the truth of the matter is that the harbour master and the sea captain are adults, and would prefer to keep their business to themselves.

There's no maybe about it. This is the story of the corrupting sea.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Fall of France, 4: The Armoured Division, III: (The Lack of) A Lincoln Connection

The city of Lincoln in Licolnshire. Or Lindsey, if you're in an antiquarian mode. Wikipedia.

Here's a town, on a hill, cut off by fens and marshes to the south and forests to north and west, connected by river to the sea. Saint Paulinus visited a "Praefectus Civilis" here in 629, and some archaeologists entertain misty fantasies of Roman British bishops gradually transitioning into Anglo-Saxon bishops. Here be fen-folk who resist the hegemony of the state and of statebuilding historical narratives alike.

I like the map because it shows the wet bits. They're not unimportant.

In 1840, two Lincoln families operating as "millwrights and General Smiths," had occasion to incorporate as Proctor and Burton. That's work down in the wet, having to do with surveying canals and bringing the water to mills that either used it for work or pumped it some place, so that it watered the grass, rather than liquefying the soil. Nowadays in these modern, "Victorian" times, one gets smiths involved, so as to replace the easily-worked but fast-decaying wood bits with pieces cast out of iron.

Was it the technology, or  the demand for capital, that got away from them? When George Ruston entered the picture in 1856, he had both recently completed a premium apprenticeship with a Sheffield cutlery maker, and was the son of a relatively wealthy farmer. (Twenty-eight labourers worked the 600 acres of the Ruston estate, I'm told by the fine company history website, unfortunately not terribly well internally linked. Here's Page 5.) The company would go on from its initial interests to work on tractors, cranes, and dredgelines as well as milling equipment. Power demands got more elaborate, and it interested itself in "oil" and "gas" engines at a period so early in the history of British engineering that one meets people who don't want to give Rudolf Diesel credit for the former, and do not distinguish between modern automobile-style internal combustion engines and the various other kinds of engines that use a gaseous cylinder charge.

There might be a story in the relationship between the Rustons and the old Proctors and Burtons if one dug that far down into the vast corporate archives generated by the subsequent mergers of almost too many similar Lincoln and Lincolnshire firms. Names like Hornsby, Barford, Fosters, Perkins, and Aveling flit into the picture, and even American partners such as Bucyrus and Caterpillar. Counting Lincoln agricultural machinery companies that didn't go into Rustons would just extend this list. I'm singling out Hornsby as particularly important here because they are the inventors of record of the "caterpillar tractor," transferring their patents to Caterpillar. I could also mention Fosters, which employed Sir William Tritton, one of the two men to receive payments over the tank from the postwar Committee on Inventions that settled up the Crown's debts to various inventors.

Still, it's the Hornsby connection that is most striking at first glance. With the Lincoln tractor export business already in full swing and doing fine with wheeled vehicles, the decision to branch out into caterpillar-tracked vehicles requires a little motivation given the difficulties early inventors had with the transmissions/steering of fixed wheeled vehicles. After all, this was the original concept of the locomotive, which only works because the road is shaped to turn under them! It turns out that George Hornsby developed and persevered with the concept because the War Office intimated that it was buying. According to the company history, its caterpillar tractor did a super awesome job of pulling siege artillery about the countryside, but an evil and reactionary artillerist, Stanley von Donop, nixed the idea. (Knowing that the Kaiser was about to strike within the next 10 years or so, the genetically disloyal von Donop was, of course, cutting off Britain from advancing down the armoured warfare development line. Too bad for Germany that he didn't gently suggest the concept to Berlin!)

It might be nice if someone were to actually publish Donop's report one of these days and clarify his actual thinking. The Japanese reduced Port Arthur by moving some coastal defence guns overland during the Russo-Japanese War, so everyone was thinking about such things at the time. And unlike many technical issues that obsess contemporaries only to be forgotten today, this one got a purchase on real history when the German offensive into Belgium was held up by the fortifications of Li├Ęge. Wikipedia is interesting on the subject (here), and links to the German gun  that needed ten railway wagons to reach the front and therefore wasn't terribly useful, and the one that they thus had to borrow from the Austro-Hungarians.

In reality, two of the road-mobile "Big Berthas" were ready in 1914, so it's more complicated. As far as I know, only Eric Dorn Brose has investigated the question. Right now, it appears that the engineers of the German army wanted to fight forward from the railhead, basically conducting operations by reducing the forts at the edge of the German-controlled net, while the cavalry entertained dreams of wild, sweeping operations across country. I submit that this is the old tug of war between "artillerie de campagne," and "artillerie des places forte" (such are the wonders of the Internet that I can even check my French genders via Google!) The cavalry wants to make free on the land, and so its guns must eat grass. The engineers, meanwhile, want to alter the earth to the purposes of war, and therefore build their guns in place, requiring, therefore, a more deliberate approach to the offensive.

So the salient point here is that Lincoln-area agricultural machinery makers emerged as an important node within the network that produced the first tanks. Many of Britain's WWI tanks were made there, at Fosters. In the Second War, tanks were also made in Lincoln, at Ruston. In small numbers, to other designs, because the Lincoln area was not recruited into tank building during the 1930s. The factories didn't go unused.
Large Oil Engine Test Bay, 1940. From Ray Hooley's Ruston-Hornsby History Site.
But they pretty much just made boring stuff that's only important, and which no WWII enthusiast will ever talk about here. This is only an interesting observation insofar as the official historian claimed that tank production was delayed during rearmament because of the need to recruit inexperienced firms into the business. I've suggested before that that talking point might be an attempt to shift blame for a specific production shortfall onto the Vulcan Foundry, but I'm not going to go too far out on a limb there. What I am going to point out is that you have basically an entire industry that ought to be ready to leap into the business of tanks, and which got no contracts in the late 30s. That might be because the Premier didn't want to interfere with normal business, which would be a telling commentary on the presumptive importance of what the Lincolnshire industry was doing. But, as it happens, we haven't looked at who did get the contract, and what it might all mean.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Late Bronze Age Collapse, I: Breaking Godwin's Law All Over the Place

I don't know why I find these girls so risible. I suspect that it's more than the "Celtic" thing, and I don't particularly want to explore the fact that on these girls, in this choreography, I want to make fun of their gowns, too. That ain't a nice thing for a boy to do. Especially considering that there are people I really don't want to offend, and what with the whole ear bud thing, it's not like I necessarily know what kind of music they like. So, hey, pre-emptive apology if that describes you, because it's not like my tastes are any more aesthetically advanced. (On the contrary....)

So, um, I'm making fun of some undoubtedly quite nice girls who make some very nice music, because somehow the kind of performance they put on rubs me the wrong way. Now that's pretty wishy-washy, but I do have a point, and it is that this whole "Celtic" thing bothers me. It's not the romanticism, but rather that race slips in through the back door. Our pretend ancient history validates racial essentialism. And it might well be that there's no better example of this than the Late Bronze Age collapse.

We know the story; we could practically make it up ourselves. The Late Bronze Age of the Mediterranean was a society of multiple high civilisations: Minoan Crete, ancient Egypt, Babylon, the Hittite Empire. Then, "about 1200BC," the Aryan nomads, who had invented chariots and battleaxes on the high Eurasian steppe years before, came up short when they arrived at the shore of the Middle Sea in Sardinia, Sicily, Greece, and coastal Turkey. They could hardly drive their herds across open sea. (Well, actually you can, at the Hellespont, but once you admit the details into this story, it begins to fall apart, so we won't go there.)

Nothing daunted, the Aryans hewed out longships from the ancient forest, crossed the seas, and fell upon the ancient civilisations of the Mediterranean peoples with their battleaxes, killed everyone, and set in motion the next cycle of pastoralism-civilisation-decadence-collapse. Throw in some notion about the barbarians only being successful because the civilised states had reached a stage of "crisis," and you can even shoehorn the Reverend Malthus into the story.

Longships? Battleaxes? Am I making some kind of sarcastic comment about a thesis I disagree with? Well, of course. This is a blog, after all. But I'm not going too far out on a limb, here. Here's the Nineteenth Century Franco-Italian archaeologist Gaston Maspero, formulator of the Sea Peoples thesis, setting the scene for the onslaught (you'll have to scroll or search a bit to find this citation, as I lazily used an image search result as a shortcut):

"The new-comers had all been absorbed and assimilated by the country, but the generations which arose from this continual cross-breeding, while representing externally the Egyptians of older epochs, in manners, language, and religion, were at bottom something different, and the difference became the more accentuated as the foreign elements increased. The people were thus gradually divested of the character which had distinguished them before the conquest of Syria; the dispositions and defects imported from without counteracted to such an extent their own native dispositions and defects that all marks of individuality were effaced and nullified. The race tended to become more and more what it long continued to be afterwards,—a lifeless and inert mass, without individual energy—endowed, it is true, with patience, endurance, cheerfulness of temperament, and good nature, but with little power of self-government, and thus forced to submit to foreign masters who made use of it and oppressed it without pity."

Clearly, such people have a problem. Cats and dogs sleeping together! Once a Syrian has a baby with an Egyptian, much less a Nubian,  the resulting society could hardly defend itself against a great movement of peoples began in the west, led by the tribe that left its dolmens on the plains of the Maghrib:

"They were men tall of stature and large of limb, with fair skins, light hair, and blue eyes; everything, in fact, indicating their northern origin." 

Obviously dolmen-builders from Gaul! (Although I'll confess to having had a higher opinion of them before I learned that they wanted to extirpate ancient Egyptian civilisation.) One Pharaoh defeated them, but not decisively, and it was left to another bearing the ancient name of Ramses to finally defeat the Peoples of the Sea. But, first, he had to put the army into order. How to do this? 

"Ramses revived the system of classes, which empowered him to compel all Egyptians of unmixed race to take personal service."  

Good thinking! Almost reminds me of something. Somewhere about is the etching taken from Ramesses' victory mural at Medinet Habu showing the horned helmets of one of the ethnic groups in the "Sea Peoples" coalition. Seriously: these dudes were Berber-Viking-Prussians invading Egypt-France. The theory dates back to the 1890s, but don't think of it as decrepit. Or, I guess it is decrepit, but like some nice old fixer-upper that can still house a family. A Trekboer family, but a family.

So, yes, I'm sarcastic. Even if you accept the Sea Peoples hypothesis, turning it into a justification for any current political position is an abuse of history. And, substantively, it's ....unpersuasive.