Monday, January 31, 2011

Asymmetry rules the waves

Some lessons about naval power, and being the underdog, which we may have forgotten.

China, the U.S., and 1812

By Stephen Budiansky

From Theodore Roosevelt’s “Great White Fleet” to Ronald Reagan’s 600-ship force, proponents of a strong U.S. Navy have long been accustomed to making their case a matter of raw numbers. 

Or at least, a matter of raw force: The great late-nineteenth-century American seapower theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan argued that only a large and powerful sea force, built to defeat any potential enemy navy in a decisive blue-water sea battle, could maintain control of the oceans in peace or war. Mahan’s basic calculus has guided American navalists’ thinking ever since.

So it’s no surprise that recent concerns over China’s growing naval capacity have been expressed in familiar Mahanian terms,

Thursday, January 27, 2011

And don't forget to float a navy

Approximately two nanoseconds after arriving in Washington on their mission to save the country from corruption, socialism, taxes, spending, and unconstitutional runaway government that is threatening to destroy America and liberty as we know it, Tea Party-backed congressmen are beginning to sound like, well congressmen.

MdHS event postponed

My lecture and book signing scheduled for this evening at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore has been canceled due to the snow and will be rescheduled for February 10.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Perilous Fight in Baltimore (where else?)

Neither snow, nor rain, nor cold, nor dark of night shall keep an author from flogging his new book, so please join me in Baltimore Thursday evening at the Maryland Historical Society for a lecture/booksigning for Perilous Fight.

Here's a teaser of my talk:

Many historians over the years have tended to dismiss the War of 1812 as an inconsequential, avoidable and unnecessary conflict, the misstep of a hesitant and weak president that accomplished nothing.

The first professional historians who came on the scene in the late 19th century, beginning with the likes of Henry Adams, planted the even more disparaging idea that the war could not have really been about what Americans said it was about; it could not really have been a fight for American rights, much less a “second war of independence” from Britain, as James Madison's partisans claimed.

In fairness, Henry Adams and his fellow historians were in part reacting to the fact that American history up until then had been remarkably uncritical and unprofessional, full of flag-waving heroism and little objective reflection — but they and their followers since I think almost went to the other extreme, almost cynically dismissing the stated reasons statesmen gave for their actions as obviously nonsense and making it their job to discover and uncover the real motivations and explanations. And so they concluded that the War of 1812 was really all about crass party politics; or it was really all about  crass territorial lust for British Canada and Spanish Florida; or it was really about wiping out the Indians on the western frontier.

And for that matter I’m not sure Madison has yet recovered from Henry Adams’s treatment of him. Adams’s books on the Madison administration were and I should say are brilliant, often wickedly funny, based on a real scrutiny of primary sources – so unlike his unprofessional predecessors — but also, when it gets right down to it, a hatchet job of the first order.

But recently I’d hazard to say, the stock of the War of 1812 has been rising a bit, and I very much hope my book will help that process along in its own small way. As the historian Gordon Wood recently observed, even though historians have long been baffled by this war, Americans at the time understood perfectly well what Madison had accomplished, and celebrated it, and rightly so.

As John Taylor of Virginia, the philosopher of Jeffersonian Republicanism put it, this war was almost a metaphysical war; a war not for conquest, not for defense, not for sport, but for honor – like that of the Greeks against Troy. And I agree with that – it was a remarkable war in that way, in that it was fought over very basic principles of national honor. That doesn’t mean it was fought over airy vanity. National honor, as Madison realized, was something no country could survive without, either at home or abroad. Showing the world that we were prepared to fight for our rights had effects that went far beyond the de jure terms of the treaty that ended the war. For the fact was that Britain never again after the war attempted to press a single American seaman; none of the European powers ever again attempted to seriously interfere with neutral American trade. 

Before the war even many sympathetic Britons thought America’s democratic experiment was doomed to failure; democracy, they thought, was a fatal weakness that made both the government of America and its people and society unable ever to achieve the grandeur and greatness of an aristocratic society like Great Britain. But after the war those attitudes had profoundly changed. “The Americans,” said Augustus Foster, Britain’s former ambassador to Washington, “have taught us to speak of them with respect.” Those were words with huge meaning, especially in the early 19th century when notions of respect and honor, as intangible as they may seem to us today, had very tangible consequences.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Zero-sum economies

The dirty not-so-little secret of the Republican party is that for all of its Reaganesque rhetoric about optimism, confidence, and faith in the future, it has always been the party of crabbed protectionism and dour retrenchment; when it gets right down to it it has always sought to nervously preserve the vested economic interests of the moment rather than believing in the prosperity-creating promise of growth and innovation for the future.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Why military history is good for you

Inspired by the well-known list of the world's shortest books (Italian War Heroes; Who's Who in Poland; A Treasury of Scandinavian Humor; etc.) I once proposed to write a book entitled Great Jewish Foxhunters. This was back in my foxhunting days, when I bet I was the only person in the hunt field ever to formulate a phrase in his mind along the lines of, "The hounds are farblunget again."

I mention this example of mutually exclusive categories as I have had the feeling, especially of late, that the overlap of readers of this blog with readers of military history may be equally vanishing. But it needn't be

Monday, January 17, 2011

Perilous Fight hits the tabloids

It must say something about these troubled times in which we live that the New York Post devotes almost as much space to its Sunday book coverage as does the Washington Post. (The latter might want to consider renaming its "Book World" section "Book Refuge," now that it's down to 3 pages.) In any case, I feel I've really made it now that the former ran a piece from me yesterday about my new War of 1812 book, describing the life of the typical sailor of that era.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Mindless technology

In the aftermath of Sarah "It's All About Me" Palin's speech the other day, the psychiatric profession is probably wondering whether it was a bit hasty in electing recently to remove narcissistic personality disorder from its Diagnostic Statistical Manual, but I will leave that to wiser minds to contemplate. What I have been contemplating is the way that guns have become an exception to even the most simple propositions of cause and effect that apply to every other interaction between humans and technology.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Not us (cont.)

I see that most of the following points which have been rattling uneasily about my mind for the last twenty-four hours (since my earlier post on this subject) have already been made this morning by Paul Krugman in his exceptionally clear-eyed piece, but perhaps they are still worth saying if only to get them out of my system.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

With belated sanctimony

With belated sanctimony, the opportunists who gleefully exploited the violent imagery of armed patriots rising up against a tyrannical government, thereby seeking to appeal to the childish vanity of political nitwits, now offer their "prayers" and platitudes about a "senseless" act of actual violence.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Why 1812

Authors for some reason frequently find themselves accosted by the merest acquaintances demanding that they justify their existence, or at the very least explain why they chose to write about the things they do.

I'm always tempted to answer, "because I need to pay the light bill," but remembering how Anthony Trollope ruined his reputation for years after his death by such candid admissions about the practicalities of writing for a living, I will attempt to be more high-minded.

Here's my brief essay on why a new book about the War of 1812 is not only exciting, swashbuckling, stirring, thrilling, and altogether unputdownable — but Important.

Although the official start of the Civil War sesquicentennial is still months away, the preparatory hoopla is already deafening: State tourism councils from Connecticut to Alabama actually began years ago hiring “Civil War event coordinators,” printing glitzy brochures, and developing “comprehensive strategic marketing plans” to assist in the separation of visitors from their dollars in the coming flood of anniversary celebrations. Major newspapers including the New York Times and the Washington Post have been at it for months with blogs, features, and even regular “live” tweets recounting what was happening 150 years previous at each moment. I have a vision of a veritable legion of Civil War reenactors already taking to their beds each night clad in their authentic Civil War flannel long johns, authentic Civil War muskets at the ready, in barely contained anticipation of the non-stop excitement of the next four years.
By contrast, the upcoming bicentennial of the War of 1812 has barely penetrated the public consciousness. To give you the full sense of just how little it has penetrated, I was half way through writing my book about that war before it even occurred to me that there was a notable anniversary coming.
Many wars have been called “the forgotten war.” The War of 1812 is more like the obliterated war. Or, the war chiefly remembered as the setup for one of Groucho Marx’s “Who was buried in Grant’s tomb?” joke questions. Or, to the slightly more erudite, the war best known for its major battle having been fought after it was over.
The war didn’t even have a name for decades afterwards. It was just “the late war,” until a later war—the Mexican War of 1846—usurped that title.
But the real historical coup de grace was administered by Henry Adams in his brilliant, often amusing, and mostly disdainful account of James Madison’s administration, published at the turn of the 20th century. Adams, the grandson and great-grandson of presidents, was one of the first true professional historians in America, perhaps the very first to depart from the credulous, flag-waving hagiography that had characterized American history writing up until then.
Adams drew on primary sources—letters, congressional debates, newspaper accounts—to paint a devastating picture of a feckless president, a Congress filled with rubes and demagogues, and a futile war filled with miscalculations on both sides that sputtered on for three years, left the young republic bankrupt, and terminated in a peace treaty that was a complete return to the status quo ante. (The Treaty of Ghent, ending the war, did not even mention, much less resolve, the two great issues America had ostensibly declared war with Britain over: the rights of neutral maritime trade and the British practice of forcibly impressing American seamen into their naval service).
Nearly every historian since has followed Adams’s lead, portraying the War of 1812 as a pointless and utterly avoidable conflict that settled nothing, dismissing the popular catchphrase of the time—“a second war for independence”—as rhetorical desperation by Madison’s party out to salvage something from the fiasco, and divining the real motive beneath it all as crass partisan politics, crasser territorial lust for British Canada and Spanish Florida, or the genocidal enmity of American frontiersmen toward the Indians, Britain’s ally.
 But lately, I would venture to say, the War of 1812’s stock has been rising a bit. The historian Gordon S. Wood observes in his recent book Empire of Liberty that while “historians have had difficulty appreciating Madison’s achievement, many contemporaries certainly realized what he had done.”
Simply standing up to the mightiest naval power in the world, one that outnumbered America in men, guns, and ships 100 to 1, had been a stunning display of national fortitude. Much like the United States in Vietnam a century and a half later, Britain found herself baffled and chastened trying to respond to a far weaker adversary who had mastered the art of what we would today call “asymmetric warfare.”
America’s miniscule navy had fewer guns than Britain’s Royal Navy had ships. (“Our navy is so Lilliputian,” scoffed crusty old John Adams at the outbreak of the war, “that Gulliver might bury it in the deep by making water on it.”) Three early victories by American frigates in single ship actions, though of trivial strategic significance, profoundly shook British complacency and offered a perfect illustration of the huge psychological impact that occurs when a seemingly outclassed foe gets in even one lucky blow. “I like these little events,” commented the American secretary of the navy William Jones after another single-ship victory, by an American sloop of war. “They . . . produce an effect infinitely beyond their intrinsic importance.”
But it was Jones’s shrewdly calculated strategy to avoid as much as possible such gallant warship-on-warship actions, and instead hit Britain in the soft underbelly of its oceangoing commerce in a kind of seaborne guerilla warfare, that would truly be the key to fighting the mighty Royal Navy to a standstill. 
As Jones noted with satisfaction, a single tiny American raider could tie up a hugely disproportionate enemy force vainly chasing across the ocean in futile pursuit: “Five British frigates cannot counteract the depredations of one sloop of war.” 
It is deliciously satisfying even two hundred years later to read the increasingly irate chastisements from the British Admiralty to its North American commanding admiral, and his obsequious apologies and excuses, after the American frigate President led no fewer than 25 British warships on a wild goose chase across the entire Atlantic Ocean for months before slipping past the British blockade off Rhode Island and making it safely back home (and not before snapping up the British admiral’s personal schooner as a prize on the way in).
And it was pressure from Britain’s panic-stricken merchants to stop this depredation of their trade—American warships and privateers by the summer of 1814 were operating right in British home waters, taking and burning prizes—that finally brought Britain to the bargaining table in earnest. 
William Jones is a man still far too little known or remembered today. But if anyone is a hero in my story, it's Jones, a strikingly "modern" figure in many ways.
Whatever the actual written terms spelled out in the Treaty of Ghent, something was changed forever by the war. The European powers recognized that America was now a nation to be reckoned with, and Britain never again interfered with American trade or attempted to press American sailors. During the war, Augustus Foster, Britain’s former minister to Washington, had arrogantly sniffed that Americans “were not a people we should be proud to acknowledge as our relations.” But afterward, he summed up the consequences of the war in one simple phrase: “The Americans . . . have brought us to speak of them with respect.”
At home, that same sense of new respect was palpable, too, as the war forged a sense of national identity and purpose that had been notably lacking before. As Madison’s Treasury secretary Albert Gallatin observed, the people “are more American; they feel and act more as a nation.”
But it was Virginia’s John Taylor who perhaps best explained both why the War of 1812 is worth remembering and why it has so baffled historians ever since. It was, Taylor said, a “metaphysical war, a war not for conquest, not for defense, not for sport, but rather a war for honour, like that of the Greeks against Troy.” Even 200 years later that’s indeed something worth remembering, and honoring.

Stephen Budiansky's new book is Perilous Fight: America's Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 1812–1815, published by Alfred A. Knopf.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

And speaking of bullshit . . .

In a further sign of the downfall of civilization as we know it, the New York Times reports today that a leading scholarly journal in psychology is preparing to publish a paper purporting to find evidence of ESP.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Perilous Fight at the Maryland Historical Society

 I'll be giving a talk about my new book on the War of 1812 at sea, Perilous Fight, on Thursday, January 27, at 5:30 pm at the Maryland Historical Society. Please come along if you're in the greater Baltimore area that evening!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Chicken crap vs. bull shit

What a difference a few weeks make! It seems like only yesterday that teary-eyed Speaker Apparent John Boehner was denouncing as "chicken crap" the Democrats' insistence on bringing to an actual vote their proposal to limit the extension of the Bush tax cuts to those earning less than $250,000 a year.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Shamelessly courting the fat vote

In the new year a reveler's fancies naturally turn to thoughts of weight reduction, but the good news for 2011 is that dieting is all just a liberal plot.