Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Fall of France, 3: On Armoured Warfare, II

Tanks, of course, were into their second war in September 1939, and it would be a mistake to think of them as having been invented in the 1914--18 war. On the contrary, the idea is apparently so obvious that inventers had been proposing them for centuries. It might be argued that they first became practical in 1914, but that's a slight mistake, too. Everyone understood that you couldn't drive a wheeled vehicle across a battlefield, so the idea of the tank in 1914 started with recent experiments with caterpillar vehicles. Lots of wheels drove a track that reduced the ground pressure levels so low that the vehicle could make way in the heaviest mud. Put it another way, and we get the concept of a locomotive that lays its own track as it goes. Running locomotives on roads is notoriously hard on the roads, but this is war, and you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs.

Only, and here's a problem, locomotives don't turn. They're more-or-less pushed around corners by banked and gently curved tracks. The wheels are forced to go different distances in the same time, even though they are rotating at the same speed, and so the inner wheels skid, and the locomotive turns. Without curved rails, one has to substitute direct speed control of the tanks track. This is how it worked on the tractors that so impressed the generals watching them in 1914. (And, contrary to myth, it impressed them a lot. Generals are men before they are officers, and men like gadgets.) The operators wrenched on a brake lever on one side while gunning the engine. The inner tracks slowed down, the outer ones sped up, and the tractor wrenched around to a new heading.

But, as Dr. H. E. Merritt explained to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in 1946, there is no sufficiently rugged and compact mechanism for providing positive control of the speed of a track. Dr. Merritt's talk provides solutions using hyperbolic functions, so he solved the problem by setting up a partial differential equation and solving it, presumably numerically. For a 500 hp, 50 ton tank, length 16 feet, width 10ft, turning at 30 ft/sec velocity, he concluded, the motor must drive the outer track at 230hp. There's enormous waste heat, the tank slows rapidly as it turns, you need a huge engine, mainly to fight itself in the turns, and an even huger arm on the brake lever!

Merritt was employed by the great Huddlesfield gear maker, David Brown, except when he went down to the army's tank design office to urge his favoured solution to the problem, a regenerative braking system. Not surprisingly, he had a rival at the army's tank design office, Major Walter Wilson, who also dabbled in the private sector, founding Self-Selecting Gears. Wilso designed his first gear box in the 1920s. It was used first in an abortive tank design of the early '30s, the Vickers Independent while the Merritt-Brown transmission was first adopted in the Infantry Tank A22, Churchill, which entered service in the summer of 1941, just in time to great the great German invasion that never came.
Merritt reviews various possible transmission arrangements, not surprisingly concluding that his was the first that really worked. Major Wilson had an apoplexy in the audience, but the point should not escape us that the first really satisfactory heavy tank transmission appears in 1942. (The Germans even copied it in the Tiger.) Before that, there was 40 years of faking it. Tanks were hard to turn, hard to drive, and very slow in the corners.

As I've said, the British high command was very enthusiastic about them, all the same.
David J. Childs, (A Peripheral Weapon? The Production and Employment of British Tanks in the First World War [Westport, Conn., and London: Greenwood, 1999]) finds plenty of enthusiasm for the weapon. They might have been misused, as Liddell Hart used to like to argue, but looking back postwar, you can also write this off as a learning experience. The Army certainly seems to have valued the opportunity. A young but very promising officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Hugh Elles (b. 1880), was placed in charge of the Tank Corps, and his postwar ascension through the ranks was smooth and rapid, with some, although not nearly all of his appointments, related to the tanks. In 1934, as a 54 year-old Lieutenant-General, he was placed on the Army Council as Master-General of the Ordnance. This strikes me as a generous recognition of the tanks, and even a promise of greater things. As a Lieutenant-General he would have to retire at 60, but if he were promoted in the next 6 years, he could expect to serve until 1945, and as full General, he had a good chance to advance to the top professional appointment in the army, Chief of the Imperial General Staff. The last two had been artillerists, but as a strike against him, they had also come from field appointments.

There were many officers under Elles at the Tank Corps. Today we are inclined to focus on Fuller, who was a clever young staff officer seconded to his staff to do paperwork. Closer to his heart (I do not doubt; Fuller comes through his writings as a malignant narcissist and compulsive plagiarist) was a clever young engineer, Giffard Le Quesne Martel. You have probably never heard of him. For while the historian of the Tank Corps Hart cultivated close connections with many young officers, Martel was not among them. (If you find the alternating usage of "Tank Corps" and "Tank Regiment" confusing, it's because it is meant to be confusing, as near as I can tell. There is an explanation, which can be found on Wikipedia.)

So what are these smart fellows doing in the aftermatch of the First World War? They are worrying about the great tactical problem of the war, the (light) machine gun. As Colonel R. S. McClintock explained in the April 1931 number of Army Quarterly, the unlocated machine gun was the fundamental problem of modern war. (Col. R. S. McClintock, “The Last Five Hundred Yards,” AQ 22,1 [April 1931]: 128–40). A machine gun is so small, so inconspicuous, that you need to suppress it without knowing where it is. You have to saturate the battlefield with artillery. He goes on to conclude that the Field Force needs artillery more than tanks, but that is not the whole story. An analysis of successful modern battles (Unsigned review of Col Gresset, Montdidier, le 8 Août à la 42e division AQ 22,2 [July 1931]: 386–9) concludes that the attack needs "'mass;'" but also surprise and depth of penetration." Vast amounts of munitions and force must be brought up by stealth in preparation for the attack. To do this, engineer support has to be laid on, and, well, how do you manage both stealth and mass? By a very rapid concentration: mechanisation is key, because the attack force has to make a rapid approach march, and tanks --attack tanks-- are the one weapon that can do this. Another reviewer comments on a German thinker who concludes that to meet the new menace requires new weapons. Automatic rifles backed by LMGs, light mortars, anti tank guns (which are light enough to be manhandled), and “smoke producing apparatus.” This will allow infantry to do without as much artillery --but how can they possibly carry all of this? And is the weight of artillery that McClintock calls for even practical?

Giffard Martel had a chance to work these things out for himself. He was posted to the Experimental Bridging Establishment in 1920, where he contemplated his first world war experience and developed various ideas, good and bad, before being made chief engineeer commander of the Experimental Mechanised Force in the late 1927. In the way of such things, he was then put on half pay for six months, during which time he worked his notes up into a book, In the Wake of the Tank. Since it was published during his half-pay period, it maintained the illusion of not being an "official" document, the standard method by which British officers published works on the theory and practice war in those days. Next he was made an instructor at the Indian Army Staff College in Quetta, where he worked up the manuscript into a definitive second edition that was published on his arrival back in England to become the Assistant and then Deputy Director of Mechanisation. (Despite the qualifier, I think that he was the man in charge of tanks. The full director had other responsibilities as well.)

So while Liddell Hart and Fuller certainly had something to say about tanks, Martel was the guy actually in charge. Hopefully In the Wake of the Tank will have something meaty to say! And, of course, it does. We can actually go back to what another army rising star, Australian Basil Cranmer Dening, to get some insight. As winner of _Army Quarterly's_ inagural Bertrand Stewart Memorial Prize for best essay on military affairs, he should have something to say about 1924's topic, mechanisation.
As, indeed, he does. The germ of his paper is that the army needs armoured personnel carriers to go along with its tanks. Since he is pretty clearly right, and was recognised as being right, one wonders how such an insight was missed. Only, his runner-up, Lionel Dimmock, argues that since APCs are a little too expensive for the moment, perhaps tanks can pull armoured carriages full of troops as an interim substitute. Full marks for originality, if not practicality, the judges seem to be saying.

So lots of officers are saying that there need to be infantry operating in close support of the tanks. Hmm. But doesn't Liddell Hart tell us that he was practically the only person interested in the subject, along with Fuller? Doesn't he point out that while Fuller thought that a tank-only army was viable, he (Hart) thought that some "tank marines" would be needed, mainly to protect "tank harbours" at night and during refuelling?

Dening believes, like many of his contemporaries, for example E. G. Home and W. D. Croft) that tanks need close and organic infantry support to clear barriers (there are those "barriers" again) and thereby protect tanks from the antitank guns that will be picking the tanks off as they mill helplessly before them. By the same token, however, the infantry are vulnerable to light machine guns protecting the barriers. That is where the firepower of the tanks come in --it's all a finely integrated web. Practically, though, is it feasible?

Martel says that it is: provided that the tanks have tank support! And what he means by this is that there are two kinds of tanks. One is a "light" kind that conducts "cavalry" operations across country, presumably accompanied by infantry in APCs. The other is much heavier. Why, well, imagine the tactical situation as the enemy waits, ready to receive British attack. There are LMG teams and antitank gun teams. There is barbed wire, and mines, and ditches, and rivers and canals. Now, however, there is a storm of artillery falling on the enemy. This is the situation familiar from the Battle of the Somme and the like. Right now, there is no barrier to British infantry running right up and taking the field, except their own artillery (plus defending artillery firing from so far back that it is relatively safe from the "counter-battery" fire of British heavy artillery.)
Unfortunately, the moment that the artillery lifts so that British infantry can advance, the enemy machine gun teams and AT crews will climb out of their shelters, man their weapons, and mow down the advancing troops. Something must occupy the position first. And that is the tank's job: the heavy tank. It must be immune to enemy artillery and machine gun and light anti-tank gun fire. It must have a machine gun of its own with which to attack the enemy infantry. And, considering that the likely enemy counterattack force is heavy tanks of its own, it must have an antitank gun as its main armament.

We can call this weapon a "heavy" tank, or an "infantry" tank, or a "gun" tank. Heavy is the most literal description of it, in that it is going to be too big and bulky to steer properly. That means that it is going to have to be slow. It is not a question of engine power, cost or size, although these issues do arise. It is that technology can't give a tank this big proper steering, if it happens to be at all fast!

As for the lighter tank, what does it look like? What does it do? Well, it bursts through the broken line to chase the enemy defenders back and capture their guns, take prisoners, and generally convert a defeat into a rout. The infantry and guns follow behind, and advance into the enemy interior, striving to take capital cities, river crossings, air bases, whatever. Infantry marching fast into enemy-held country are at constant risk of being ambushed by rapidly-moving enemry forces, so the lighter tanks stay ahead of them, covering the approach routes, scouting the roads.

Everything I've said about "lighter tanks" above I could just as easily have said about cavalry in Nineteenth Century warfare, so let us call this tank what it is: a "cavalry tank." The APC that accompanies it is a pure abstraction as long as we cannot afford to build it, so we will leave it undefined. What does a cavalry tank look like? Ideally, it should not be too specialised. That is, it should be at least vaguely capable of doing the heavy tank's job. Not as much armour, compensated by more speed is the picture that we are imagining here. Certainly it should be able to skirmish with enemy infantry and tanks, and that means that it needs an antitank gun as its main armament. But it has to be self-sufficient, too, because it is fighting mobile "encounter battles" that develop rapidly. So it should have one of those "smoke projectors," too. If antitank guns and LMGs are the big issue, well, they can't hit what they can't see!

So let us push the argument forward into the early 1930s. Martel is off in India, giving his lectures. Dening is proceeding through the educational institutions of the army on his way towards a senior command, occasionally writing as he does so. The "Experimental Mechanised Force" has evolved into the Tank Brigade. The CIGS, an artillerist with the unfortunate name Archibald Montgomery-Massingberd, believes that cavalry cannot do the cavalry job anymore, so the entire cavalry division that is supposed to screen the BEF as it advances to contact in a European war will have to be "mechanised" in some way. The clear solution, it would seem, is that the tank brigade should in some way give issue to a new "Mobile Division," replacing the Cavalry Division.

I'll look at that thought later, because it is precisely what is not at issue. On the contrary, after the 1931 manoeuvres, Liddell Hart published an extraordinary series of articles in the Daily Telegraph that were later summarised and defended in a brutal series of exchanges with the young Lieutenant Colquhon Grant in the 1933--34 run of Army Quarterly:

He imagined an armoured brigade of 100 Vickers 11t Medium Tanks (1x47mm cannon and 2xMGs) and 130 light Tanks. It had, he proposed, more firepower than an entire infantry division, and, being more mobile, was consequently much more effective, and much cheaper. He suggested that had the BEF of 1914 consisted of this single tank brigade instead of its actual 5 divisions, it could have won the war in a summer.

Grant pretty much made mincemeat of this: but let us be clear that Hart is proposing that the BEF could be replaced by a brigade of 230 tanks with no infantry at all! It would be a windfall for his young friends of the Tank Corps, but bad news (institutionally speaking) for everyone else in the army. But, more importantly, it is clearly a huge deviation from the standard Army thinking about the future of armoured warfare. The 11ton medium tank with its 47mm gun is a long way from the necessary "heavy" tank, but it is a step in the right direction. But even this seems to be no more than a support weapon for a light tank with no meaningful military capacity at all. And it is to replace the BEF? Is Hart talking to the army at all? Or does he have another audience?

Let us be clear here. Far from being blindsided by the future, intelligent young officers can clearly visualise the armoured division as it existed in 1945. They are experimenting with APCs (in its British incarnation, we have the Bren Gun Carrier, which has its counterparts overseas) and know what the tank they need will look like --distractions like the idea of a "mobile pillbox" aside. This is not the division that gets to France in 1940, though.

Or is it? Is something else going on here?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Fall of France, 2: On Armoured Warfare, I

It is not hard to learn about the British army's views on armoured warfare in 1940. It is an important issue, of course, because one thing we can all agree on is that if there were, say, 50 British (Commonwealth) armoured divisions in France in 05/40, the Germans would have been defeated, and the Holocaust would never have happened. Or if there were 20. 10? Perhaps even 5?

And 5 is not actually that unreasonable a number. A division is a formation of manoeuvre, and it is hard to imagine one being made up of more than 12 battalions of infantry or regiments of cavalry, and there were far more than 50 battalions and regiments in the British, Indian, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and South African orders of battle. (As it happens, there were only 8 battalions/regiments in the 1945 issue armoured division.) Twelve regiments of armour with 60 tanks each is a great many tanks, indeed; but Germany deployed 3000 tanks in the Battle of France, as did France. (Perhaps.) Britain --never mind the whole Commonwealth-- had more money than France. It had more money than Germany, especially Germany without its territorial expansions of the two years previous to the Battle. (It took 3 years for a tank contract to go from a call for proposals to the first service deliveries during WWII.) What went wrong?

We know; in great detail. How could we not? Basil H. Liddell-Hart, arguably the most influential historian writing in the English language in the Twentieth Century, devoted his life to the development of armoured warfare. He wrote an influential history of the war. Not only did he write a history of the Royal Tank Regiment, he did it at the behest and with the advice of a family he was closely associated with thanks to his friendship with Major-General Percy Hobart, a former Commandant-in-Chief of the Regiment. Hobart's sister, Lucy, married one of his brother officers, John Carver, and had a son, Michael Carver, who went on to become a Field-Marshal and chief of the defence staff before taking up military history in his retirement. After Carver's death, she remarried another army officer, the odd but able Bernard Montgomery. You may have heard of him. He had a good war.

Not surprisingly, then, Hart's personal collection of papers and correspondence was of some value. He donated it to King's College of the University of London, where it became the core of the Liddell Hart Archive, the home of military studies in the city of London, conveniently accessible to researchers working with the miles of official documents held in the Public Record Office at Kew. Hart was always keen to help researchers and students, and thanks to his connections and his good fortune as a writer, his resources were not small. No wonder that his web of friendships extended to famous WWII historians of the next generation such as Brian Bond, Michael Howard and Jay Luvaas.

At this point I can't help but reflect my generation and its formative influences: "not that there's anything wrong with that." Liddell Hart was a great military historian and a good friend to many good people. But there is some kind of dichotomy between "great" and "good" here, because look at page 18 of his History of the Second World War, where he says that Britain had promised to send four Regular divisions to France at the outbreak of the war. That is not true. It had promised to send its British Expeditionary Force of five divisions: four regular infantry, and one "Mobile" division. The "Mobile" Division became 1st Armoured, and it reached the front, as I have said, 9 months late. The reason for that, it seems, is not far to seek. Even when it finallly got to France, the 1st Armoured was inadequate to its task. The indictment, which you will see notices Liddell Hart's comments in The Tanks, includes the irrelevant (the tanks lacked some periscopes, and had to fit their machine guns on the docks instead of being shipped with them), the salient but hard-to-remedy (the tanks were inadequate), and the horribly telling: there was no infantry support group with the 5 regiments of tanks.

Consider: your squadron of tanks is driving down a road in the forest. It comes on a break where the road turns to go around an open field. Your tanks turn to follow the road. And an antitank gun begins firing from across the field! Obviously, this is not exactly a new situation. Replace the tanks with horse cavalry, and the fire element with some riflemen, and you have exactly the same problem. You need to shoot the shooters, or, if they are smart enough to hide behind a log or whatever, get close and stick them with your pointy things before you can move on.

We have all seen firefights on TV and at the movies, so we know what comes next. Grown men and women get down on their stomachs and begin crawling forward, while their fellow soldiers give "covering fire," which is meant to keep the enemy shooters' heads down. The horse cavalry can do that easily enough. Some troopers get off their horses. In general, you have to be careful about overloading horses, so you can't go crazy issuing the troopers with rifles, bayonets, ammunition and so on, but you can give them enough to get this job done.

By the same token, modern armoured formations make sure that they have some Armoured Personnel Carriers or Infantry Fighting Vehicles attached to the unit that carry infantry for just exactly this sort of work. But, apparently, 1st Armoured did not. It's a pretty indefensible thing to do, considering that French and German armoured divisions typically had between 1 battalion of infantry for every regiment of tanks to a 1 to 2 ratio. They even had armoured personnel carriers for some of them, even though you'd think that an armoured troop-carrying-box-on-tracks-with-a-motor would be a bit of a fuss for armies that couldn't yet afford all the tanks and guns and such that they needed. 1st Armoured did not. And no wonder, because the only people to think about the practice of armoured warfare in Britain between the wars are on record as thinking that tanks didn't need infantry support. To quote one excellent author reviewing the literature on the subject, J. F. C. Fuller, who retired as a Lieutenant-General after losing his appointment to command the first British experimental mechanised force in 1927, felt that infantry were obsolete. Liddell Hart at least thought that they would need some "tank marines" along.

Hey. Wait now. Liddell Hart? You mean, he was writing about armoured warfare before the war? And his predictions were wrong? Good thing he wasn't influential, or anything. Except, wait again. He was best friends with this Percy Hobart guy. So he was influential. Now I'm suspicious of this guy. Too bad that he's our only source, because nothing, nothing at all, was written about tanks except by him and his buddy, General Fuller.
It probably says a great deal about my research method, or lack of it, that I sometimes address questions like these by going to the library and looking in the relevant sections. Shiny new bindings tell us where the state of the art is, while fusty old bindings must be Fuller and Hart's books (or maybe some foreign stuff that British people didn't read, because, well, it was foreign).
Or, wait a minute:
There seems to be a few more titles on the shelves! What's more, it turns out that the British government didn't just hand out a gob of money to the army every year. They had to present a budget to Parliament with a massive report on how that money was spent and some kind of rationale for asking for more. If you look at this "Army Estimate," you don't have to just make up facts. You can look them up --lots and lots of facts.

Let's take a minute and look what might be in them.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Gather the Bones, Part One

So that last was a bit obscure. I'm trying to allude to something that I've said many times elsewhere, but, obviously, never here. This would be a place to talk about it. And I talk. So this is going to be Part One of a series of discussions.

So, I learned in school about the great prophet of doom for our time, Reverend Thomas Malthus. And by "learned in school" I mean that I learned about him many times over. The first time, I learned that he predicted that the population of the Earth was going to expand inexorably forever, until we were all living in cars in urban ghettoes. ("
The second time, I learned that he predicted that while "food production expands arithmetically, population grows geometrically." This sort of keys on the first. The "exponential increase" gives us those predictions of how humans will outmass the rest of the universe in 3000AD, or however it works. The bullet point summary, on the other hand, gives us the famous curve where a line graph climbs the "x=y" slope sedately towards the end of time, the "y=xsquared " curve crawls up from the bottom, intercepts the line of food
ncrease, and heads robustly for infinity and beyond. Translation: we're screwed. ("Soylent Green. Mmmm, people.")
The third time, I learned that Malthus' "Essay on Population" (1796) was specifically a reaction to a recent trend in what we would now call sociological literature that rejected the idea that populations had been declining since some past Golden Age, and that rising populations were bringing prosperity, mainly because new lands were being opened up to settlement. This thinking waved at America, above all, where to the wonder and sometimes consternation of British observers, population had been doubling every generation for the last century. But it was, above all, a contribution to the politics of the day. In short, the government ought to provide for the poor and the hungry, because eventually they would be contributing to the prosperity of the nation.
For people of this era, and especially for Malthus, life was, above all, agricultural. If people lived, it was because of farm-raised food. I they worked and accumulated wealth, it was because they worked on a farm. If they did not work, it was because there was no work on the farms. That did not mean that they died, however. Under British, and indeed most other laws, there was a "poor tax" levied by the local authorities on landowners. The poor who qualified under the act received money, or food directly from the county. If they had land, or a stable relationship with a landowner, they received "outdoor relief." If they didn't, they had to come live in a poor house ("indoor relief,") and this was usually a terrible life, leading to all sorts of "degeneracy." Many people graduated from poor houses to become vagrants, and the county authorities often swept in to pick up vagrants. Then, as now, there was no clear way to just "get rid of" the homeless poor, and many were the desperate expedients used over the years.
What all this meant  to Malthus was that he was deeply, deeply implicated. As a local clergyman, his basic living came from two main streams of earnings. First, there was land owned by the local parish. So, in part, his living came as a landowner. Second, part of his income came from a variety of taxes and levies, many of them ancient and customary. Those levies went to charitable functions in general, including both pay for reverends and support for the poor. Third, what he did for a living was service the people of the county. The easy part was to conduct divine services for those who came to his church. How did poor people come to his church? Those on outdoor relief might not be able to get to church (just because they did not have to go live in a poorhouse did not mean that they were free to come and go as they chose, and they might lack something like shoes.) Those on indoor relief were in a species of prison. Malthus, or someone, had to go to them. Which was a drag, and also an aggravation, because it exposed people like Malthus to rivals for the souls of the poor; rivals such as Catholic priests, to be sure, but also people with a different view of how the Church of England should work: the "high church." The distinction between Malthus' "broad church" and "High church" might be defined as the High Church being more Catholic-like. It also corresponds to a political alignment, in that the High Church was conservative. For Malthus, though, it all came down to "idolatry, superstition and Papish mummery." Broad Church Christianity was a religion of earnest sentiment and lectures from the pulpit, while High Church Christianity was all about impressive rituals and sonorous phrases spoken in dead languages, all leading up a veneration of the Eucharist that was mere idolatry in disguise. God hated idolatry, it said so in the Old Testament, and eventually He would get round to punishing Britain for its tolerance of idolatry.
There's also assorted pseudoscientific explanation for how idolatry cripples your mental faculties that I probably shouldn't go into.
So with all this context, one can begin to understand what Malthus was really on about. If the government were to push up poor taxes to provide better for the poor, it would not fix the problem. The problem was unfixable. Population grew faster than any possible increase in the production of wealth (food). America proved that: doubling every twenty years was the very definition of a "geometric increase." No matter how the labour of the poor and the capital of the rich were invested in Britain's land to increase its productivity, the doubling curve would still intercept the linear curve at some point, and all would starve.
And yet not every country experienced a doubling and redoubling of the population. Was this really an inevitable human tragedy? No, yes, and no. Clearly, in many stalwartly Protestant northern European countries, population was not increasing at this rate. And yet one need only look at Ireland, where the Catholic church was making its inroads, and population increases were underway. You see, the restraining factor was the strict and educated morality of (Broad Church) Protestantism, but as the poor were forced into the poor houses, they came under the influence of Catholicism and the High Church, and lost their moral self-restraint!
Not to be too cynical, then, Malthus' scientific theory of population increase boils down to the argument: "you shouldn't spend money on the poor directly, you should give it to Broad Church missionaries like me, who will feed the poor with some of it, and cure the root problems of population increase with the rest!"

But what if Malthus was wrong about America?

Monday, July 19, 2010

Dive in the river and go to a better place

I'm listening to this right now.

And recently checked this out:

Or how about this?

Why? Because I have terrible taste in music, and because I am reading about Cahokia. I don't think that there's anything special about American river songs. There are rivers everywhere. But, more especially, there were rivers in America before 1492, and they were very, very important to the people who lived there then. The question is, do those particular ideas about why rivers are important carry over into a new era? At Cahokia, when the flood went down and the corn was planted in the new year's silt, the community put a new layer of silt on the top of Monk's Mound, like Earth Diver building the world out of silt brought up from the bottom, a place for Sky Woman to give birth, there on the flood in the dawn of days. Afterwards, men played chunkey on the plaza to celebrate the Corn Mother's gift of fertility. Great warriors were one with Thunderbird, loosing his thunder from the sky.
Martin Byers
has described Cahokia not as a city, but as a "cult mall," by which he means a site in which various versions of a spring renewal cult ceremony was put on by a variety of non-kin associations. It sounds weird and alien until one replaces "association" with "fraternity."

Cahokia: a land grant university before there were universities (in America.) Come down to the river and be saved --or educated. It amounts to the same thing, and, either way, maybe you'll play in, or watch, the big game.

Friday, July 16, 2010

So the thing about history is that there's a tension between telling it how it really happened and the desire to "make it didn't happen." We all know about that last one. We do it every day when we edit our personal pasts to make us look --well, less dumb.
(Okay, I catch myself doing it all the time, but maybe you don't.)
Historians ought not fall into this trap, unless we are for some reason writing the history of me. Which you shouldn't do, I think. That is, you can, but you shouldn't pretend that it's history. Unless it's a memoir and
You know what, can't really defend that position, so never mind. The thing is, historians do sometimes write "make it didn't happen" history. Mainly they do it for political reasons. People get so het up over history. But military historians do it for another reason. They do it to make history cooler. Things that ought to have happened, didn't. Mongols didn't fight Roman legions. Iowa didn't face off against Yamato. Monty didn't punch Patton out and make him cry like a baby. We can't really make this stuff up. (Well, John Moser, Jacques Bacque and Victor David Hanson can. The rest of us, not so much.)
Or, we can. We can write "counterfactuals" or "alternate histories," where these cool things did happen. As a boy, I used to write or imagine counterfactual histories in which Britain and the Commonwealth did a great deal more of the dramatic heavy lifting during WWII. Don't ask why; I was a strange boy. Normal boys imagined alternate histories in which WWII went a great deal better for the Germans.
Now, I understand that, in some sense. The Germans were cool. Cool tanks, cool planes, cool uniforms. They make great enemies. It did always bother me, though. The Nazi state was arguably the worst thing that ever happened in the history of the world. (If you want to argue, you would probably point to Atlantic slavery, and the argument would be "which is worse, Nazis or slavery," and you'd be in pretty select territory of human evil.) My historical proxies were at least the good guys.
Except I was wrong. The only military counterfactual in which the horrors of Nazism did not take place is one in which the Nazis were defeated quickly and thoroughly. And only one nation, and one army, could do that. France.
I've never imagined, nor have I seen imagined, a counterfactual history in which France defeated the Germans in their "vabanque" attack of 10 May, 1940. And yet it could have happened. Many people blame the French for this defeat. And, indeed, mistakes were made. However, at least arguably, the key mistakes were made by my guys, my historical proxies.

Mistakes aside, the French did what the could. The British Commonwealth did not. It's a point I'm going to explore over several posts following, a few months too late to commemorate the fall of France.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

I love mornings. Especially mornings like this, where I manage to get up at 2AM and start the day job at 10. I should really be more productive than I am on days like this, but my downstairs neighbour let her cat out last night, and Lulu the cat demands attention!
But, hey, new post! Probably with cat keyboarding imminent.
So, American archaeologists think that Cahokia is a big deal. That's the site of multiple mounds, house excavations, garbage dumps and "mortuary sites." (Think dozens of skeletons deposited in piles. In other contexts we might call them "mass graves" instead, but, hey, let's not get all 21st Century bourgeois and judgmental about this.) Tim Pauketat keeps using phrases such as "Pax Cahokia," which inescapably implies a Cahokian Empire.
Well, fine. Andean archaeologists say that if 100000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000
--And there goes Lulu, who will not be further commemorated here, unless and until at some distant point in time I get over the big hump of learning curve and post a picture.
Anyway, fine, if it weren't for the conquistadores, an "Incan Empire" would be wild speculation, actually less well-attested in an architectural sense than a Cahokian one. On the other hand, Pauketat is engaged in trying to say something about Cahokia that doesn't implicate him in the use of inappropriate analogies from accessible ethnologies, never mind modern life.
Well, if we didn't have the Kultepe texts, we wouldn't know that there was an Assyrian business empire opeating in Anatolia in 1800BC. This is something that Polanyi and all of the Polanyists have had to deal with. If Homo economicus is a modern creation, why are Middle Bronze Age Near Easterners acting like they have economic motivations. Maybe the economic historians have a claim on a universal perspective? That is, perhaps economics is a human science? It's so crazy, it just might be true.
(I point to campus Departments of Economics, which instantiate "economist" ideologies in a lived political landscape. Can we call it mere hegemonic discourse once they constitute social reality? Not and save science without resort to a "real" reality that science is about. But then, poor naive fool that I am, I tend to go that way, anyway.)
Anyway, the point is, that once we stop avoiding words like "trade," we have an available analogy for Cahokia that is as close chronologically, climactically, and temporally as we are likely to get: the fur trade. How is Cahokia different from colonial Montreal or Philadelphia, or early post-colonial Washington, for that matter?