Friday, January 27, 2017

Is the Arc of History Nonsense?


“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” is a rhetorical conceit, or what historians call a “meta-narrative”, that dates from the mid-nineteenth century.  What is a meta-narrative you ask?  It is a made up proposition adopted by a group of people by which they make sense of events.  Meta-narratives are to history what cosmologies (theories on the nature of the universe) are to religion.  In order to accept this meta-narrative you must: (1) accept that there is a moral universe as opposed to an impersonal universe, (2) accept that there is one universal standard by which to determine “justice”, and (3) accept that history progresses toward some purpose.   If you do not accept these underlying propositions, the meta-narrative is meaningless.

Other historical meta-narratives have included, The Mandate of Heaven (i.e. kings have a divine right to govern), The March of Progress (i.e. all technology is good), The Triumph of Civilization (i.e. Western civilization), Manifest Destiny (i.e. American expansion across the North American continent), and Marxist “class struggle” which must ultimately end in the establishment of worldwide communism because of the “forces of history.”

The British historian Alan Munslow sums the issue up as, “The past is not discovered or found. It is created and represented by the historian.”


The history represented by historians is a reflection of power relationships within a society, and different historical perspectives represent the vying for power of different groups within that society.



General George S. Patton once said, “Compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance.” Here are four stories about the history of the world IF wars we know about happened differently or IF wars that never happened actually took place.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Fake News in the American Civil War


Confederate President
Jefferson Davis (1861)

Apparently the news media has been in the habit of producing “fake news” for a very long time.

In late 1861, the New York Herald reported: “Our latest telegraphic advices from Louisville, Washington and Fortress Monroe assure us positively of the death of Jefferson Davis….Considering that his health has been in a very shattered condition for several years, and considering his extraordinary labors, anxieties, and exhausting excitements of the last five months, we think it remarkable that he was not carried off three or four months ago.”

This was a case of wishful thinking.  Davis was alive and active.  Indeed, he lived another twenty eight years, dying at the age of 81.

Southern editors lambasted the article as “Yankee delusion and unreliability,” denouncing the Herald as a “mendacious journal…(with) a record for lying second to none.”


The more things change, the more they stay the same.


Jefferson Davis Funeral (1889)


In 1860, disgruntled secessionists in the deep North rebel against the central government and plunge America into Civil War. Will the Kingdom survive? The land will run red with blood before peace comes again.




A brief look at love, sex, and marriage in the Civil War. The book covers courtship, marriage, birth control and pregnancy, divorce, slavery and the impact of the war on social customs.


Friday, January 13, 2017

Why the Allies Won World War II

Richard Overy, Why the Allies Won, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995

Richard Overy asks the question: Why did the Allies win the Second World War? Overy’s argues that, contrary to the conventional answer that the overwhelming material resources of the Allies won the war, “the outcome had not just a material explanation but also important moral and political causes”. Additionally, Overy argues that it was not Axis mistakes that led to Allied victory, but “on a very great improvement in military effectiveness of Allied forces.” Overy cautions, “…statistics do not simply speak for themselves; they require interpreters”. For example, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the Soviet Union fielded some fifteen thousand tanks compared to 3,648 German tanks, and yet it was the Germans who won the initial victories. Similarly, an American fleet defeated a greatly numerically superior Japanese fleet at Midway. In terms of productive capacity, Overy notes that during the critical middle years of the war the balance of economic resources was not yet weighted heavily in the Allies’ favor. (P.181) The outcome of the war was not inevitable. “Materially rich, but divided, demoralised, and poorly led, the Allied coalition would have lost the war….” (P. 325)

Overy focuses his discussion of the War on what he considers the decisive parts of the conflict. He identifies four main zones of combat: the war at sea, the Eastern front, the bombing offensive, and the reconquest of Western Europe. Success in combat in these zones was determined in great measure by issues of production, scientific discovery, military reform and social enthusiasm. Activities in each combat zone influenced and was influenced by activity in each of the other combat zones. The bombing campaign against Germany, for example, resulted in German forces being denied approximatley half their battle front weapons and equipment in 1944. “It is difficult not to regard this margin as decisive.” (P. 131)

So why did they Allies win the war? Overy points out that the Allies were more agile in adapting to changing circumstances, quickly instituting reforms that covered both the organization of forces, their equipment and operational skills. These reforms achieved improvements in the qualitative performances of all Allied forces and technology in the middle years of the war, “without which later quantitative supremacy would have availed little”. (P. 318) While the gap between the two sides narrowed in every sphere of combat, Axis forces did little to alter the basic pattern of their military organizations and operational practice, or to reform and modernize the way they made war. They responded more slowly to the sudden swing in the balance of fighting power evident in 1943. In Germany and Japan much greater value was placed on operations and on combat than on organization and suppply. (P. 318) Industry was central to the Allied view of warfare. Germany and Japan did not consider economics as central to the war effort, focusing on willpower, resolve, and endurance as the prime movers in war.( P. 206) Eventually, factory for factory, the Allies made better use of their industry than their enemies thereby winning the long war of attrition.

How effective is Overy’s argument? Overy’s description of the organizational skills and adaptability of the Allies is extremely compelling and perfectly captures the concept of the so called “Boyd Cycle” (a concept applied to the combat operations processes by military strategist John Boyd). According to Boyd, decision-making occurs in a recurring cycle of observe-orient-decide-act. An entity that can process this cycle quickly, observing and reacting to unfolding events more rapidly than an opponent, can thereby "get inside" the opponent's decision cycle and gain a military advantage. In short, the one with the shortest Boyd cycle wins. Overy’s insistence on the importance of the moral cause for which the Allies fought is less compelling. “The moral forces at work on the Allied side kept people fighting in a common cause; but as the war went on Axis populations suffered a growing demoralisation, a collapse of consensus….(P. 286)” Overy himself acknowledges that “Words like ‘will’ and ‘courage’ are difficult for historians to use as instruments of cold analysis. They cannot be quantified; they are elusive of definition….” One might postulate that if the war had been going more favorably for Germany and Japan, the populations of the Axis powers would have had higher morale.


Overy’s analysis of the roots of Allied victory, a complex and highly interrelated topic, is brilliant in both its nuance and treatment of hard, quantifiable numbers. His dismissal of gross statistics and mastery and interpretation of specific statistics, such as the shipping losses in the Atlantic (“After years of painful attrition the U-boat threat was liquidated in two months.” ( PP. 58-59)) is eriudite and compelling. In the final analysis, even Overy, however, acknowledges that victory was won by a very narrow margin and that the element of chance was an important variable. “If war had not started until the mid-1940s Germany might well have proved unstoppable” (P. 200) “The decisive engagement at Midway Island was won because ten American bombs out of the hundreds dropped fell on the right target.” (P. 320) “…if Eisenhower had decided at that critical moment to wait for the next brief period when the moon and tides held good the invaders would have been swallowed up by the great gale….”(P. 178)





A first person account of the Normandy campaign from D-Day + 1 to the liberation of Paris. 


War from the perspective of the average citizen soldier.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

The First Temporary Insanity Defense


Dan Sickles

Daniel Sickles, New York Assemblyman, well known lady’s man, and rising star in the Democratic political machine, married Teresa Bagioli in 1852.  He was thirty three, she was fifteen.  Teresa’s family refused to give their consent to the marriage, so the couple married in a civil ceremony.  Seven months later a daughter was born.

In 1856, Sickles was elected to the U.S. Congress.  Teresa was bored and lonely in Washington.  Teresa struck up an innocent friendship with Philip Barton Key, Washington D. C. District Attorney and son of Francis Scott Key.  What began as innocent meetings soon blossomed into a romantic affair.

Precautions to elude detection were taken.  Key rented a house in a poor section of town so they could meet in private.  Despite the precautions the affair became the stuff of tittle tattle in Washington social circles.  Finally, an anonymous letter was sent to Sickles informing him that, “I do assure you he (Keys) has as much use of your wife as you do.”  Sickles confronted Teresa and after a heated, emotional, and tearful scene, forced her to sign a full confession.
The next day, Sunday February 27, 1859, Sickles spotted Key (unaware of the events of the previous night) standing in Lafayette Park across the street from the Sickles' home waving a handkerchief to get Teresa's attention. Dan Sickles saw the signal and went into a rage. He rushed across the street armed with several pistols and said, “Key, you scoundrel, you have dishonored my home; you must die.”

Sickles fired at close range but only slightly wounded Key's hand. Key grabbed Sickles and the two men wrestled. Sickles drew another pistol and fired again. Key fell to the ground and Sickles fired a third shot into Key’s chest.  Horrified onlookers took Key to a nearby house where he soon died.

Sickles was arrested for murder. In an unprecedented legal strategy, Sickles pled innocent by reason of insanity.  This was the first use of a temporary insanity defense in the United States.  The attorney for the defense argued that Sickles had been driven insane by his wife's infidelity.  The jury agreed and acquitted Sickles.  Sickles publicly forgave Teresa, and “withdrew” briefly from public life, although he did not resign from Congress.

Sickles weathered the public outrage over his forgiveness of the adulteress Teresa and went on to become a Major General in the Union army during the Civil War. 





We think we know the Victorians, but do we? The same passions, strengths and weaknesses that exist now, existed then, but people organized themselves very differently.