Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Looking Back at Rheinübung

Edit: Oops, missed a reference!

There's this new thing called "entangled history," which per Wikipedia auf Deutsch is post-world-history. I'm going to take the metaphor as an excuse to go historiographic, and plunge into the middle of a network of discourses that link future and past and yanking the threads to see where they lead. (Dangerously misleading metaphor, meet ill-digested understanding.) Then after the self-indulgence, I'll talk about steam plants and radar  and stuff.

Anyway, if you're going to understand the Bismarck campaign that ended 70 years ago the day-before-yesterday (yes, I'm late, but on the bright side, I have a nice chunk of overtime pay to show for it) you could start with worse than Johnny Horton's 1959 hit. Not because it's accurate or anything, but because of the entangling. Horton's song entered my consciousness thanks to a Star Fleet Battles scenario. Then I learned that the favourite song of my geographically closest nephew's (very early) childhood was by the guy who recorded this catchy bit. Which is an ambiguous sound to Canadians, at least youthful nationalist Canadians who have been led down the garden path by George Grant.

Take it another way: this may be just my personal obsession, but given that the becoming of Canada and the United States was a cultural event rather than one of colonisation and settlement, is it perhaps time to consider how Johnny Horton's Battle of New Orleans came to replace The Hunters of Kentucky, a song that, as recently as a few months ago, lacked even have a Youtube version. (As opposed to this haunting performance.)

If there is innocence to 1959, it's a willed innocence. The downside of the will to innocence is that Hunters of Kentucky went down the memory hole. The upside is that  you can change the hunt for the Bismarck from a sideshow of the real war into an epic of the sea. Which it was.

(Apologies to fellow Canadian CBC nerds for not posting the Stan Rogers original. Notwithstanding the maudlin introduction, I like this one better. Also this, BTW.)

After the break, no more music blogging.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Fall of France, 4: The Armoured Division, II

Now where was I?

Trashing Basil Liddell Hart? Well, he was a pundit, after all. His job was to give professional cover to the Prime Minister's decision to neglect the army during the rearmament boom. That was a mistake on Neville Chamberlain's part, but hardly an ill-considered one. Naval and air rearmament was complicated. It crowded out exports and threatened the balance of payments, but the reason that it did so was that these services bought items produced by the "high tech" export industries of the future. Service contracts could capitalise factories, and just meeting those contracts would build up labour force experience. Although the technical services would need more skilled labour to get bigger,  both  air force and navy had provided for force expansion by creating trade schools and squaring the unions away.

The army had not. Or rather, it did not have enough schools, of the right kind.  Mechanisation had transformed its manpower requirements and created a sudden demand for heavy duty mechanics, fitters, and riggers. The only way to rapidly increase the armoured force would be to go into the market and compete for skilled labour, driving wages up. From the management side of the table, it seemed that the threat was sector-wide upwards pressure on wages, and inflation that would rebound on rearmament efforts. Over time, as the army completed its transition to a mechanised force (and that meant converting India as well!) this would change.

So when Hart turned into a historian, he might have done us the favour of a clear account of this era. That he chose instead to obfuscate does not reflect well on him. But that's not what's important here. We are talking, instead, about the tricky nexus of social and institutional history that is the transition of the cavalry branch into the Royal Armoured Corps: and what might have gone wrong.

The problem here, as I see it, is here.

Nice tune; but, seriously, "let every cavalier who loves order and me...?" I was "taught" politics in a different school. Life has left me with the suspicion that my  Silent Generation teachers were a little naive, that their working lives, at least, went a little too smoothly, leaving them a little too casual and trusting about what libertarian politics are likely to mean in practice. But that's a long way from tugging the forelock to the squire ("squatter?" Australians are crazy) as he rides by. And if awesome books and articles (Joanna Waley-CohenRoger B. Manning) are pointing in any direction, it's towards a deep cultural history of cavalry, horses, riding, surveying, and hunting that enacts as inescapable a social hierarchy as one can imagine, embedded in credit and science.

Since I'm exploring those ideas mainly through the lowest form of Internet activity known to humans (not porn, so get your minds out of the gutter!) I won't say any more about that here and now, just try to peel it back through the military history.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Master Kong Reads the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Trashing Robert Ferguson's Hammer and Cross

In the good old days, homemade genealogies were even crazier than they are now. Having read more than a few from his era, I can relate to the  seventeenth century Lorrainer jurist who ruled that obscure descent proved noble status, as long as it was before the fourteenth century or so. Who would have heard of them, otherwise? Absence of evidence was evidence.

Hermeneutic circle? Hermeneutic schmirckle! Historians must like that move, because we do it all the time. Take intellectual history. Have a first, famous, author? Presumably he's decent, or calculating, enough to give his teachers due credit. And that's our founder! We might know (next to) nothing about Pythagoras and Confucius, but they must have been hot stuff!

If I had to guess, Confucius and Pythagoras are attractive figures because they are blank canvasses, or perhaps inkblots. For example, we get Pythagoras as a founder by counting back from Plato. And how we do that, I think, is starting from the fact that Plato was gay and on the make. That seems like an amazing fact given that his writings have been handed down to us through some pretty homophobic times; but, on closer examination, it's the opposite of surprising. We get that Plato is consciously writing at two levels, to potential lovers on the one hand, his peers on the other. The stakes for a gay man facing a potential death sentence for sodomy may be rather greater than some bashful heterosexual, but, basically, we all do the same. Life prepares us to look for "esoteric" readings, and Plato signals very hard that we can find Pythagoras hiding in there. So what do we find? Secret geometries? Heliocentric cosmologies? Anti-democratic political messages? Who cares? (Unless it turns out that Plato wants your phone number. If you have a time machine and are into Greek guys, well, who knows? Alan Bloom, probably not so much.) The point is that the fun is in the looking, which develops close reading skills that can be used coding, researching, lawyering, and building merchandising displays.

Now, the way we arrange things, Pythagoras is "us," and old Confucius is "other." The translations are weird and off-putting, his concerns a little strange. Which is odd, because according to the Kinsey report, Master Kong's concerns and anxieties are roughly eight times more common than Plato's.

Master Kong needed the money, so he had to work for a living and put up with pointy-haired bosses who left him precious little time or freedom to do more than  compile the writings of others. (Although it's complicated.) The most that he could do is steer the best of them down less awful paths, and in the annals of the State of Lu, he did his best to do so, through one of the most adroit exercises in moral education through sarcasm in the history of literature.
Oh, I know that the modern scholars take  the Spring and Autumn away from Master Kong, claim that he never reorganised the annals into clever patterns of "praise and blame." That's a crazy way to treat a chronicle, right, the kind that only some incomprehensible foreigner would do.

Well, here's the thing. I'm struggling through a very frustrating book right now, and I've had just about as much as I can take of Robert Ferguson. How can an author start out by noting, and sometimes even using, modern source criticism while proclaiming that he's not going to go too far, lest he lose the coherent story presented by the sagas. Dude. What if the story is wrong? I mean, not to go all psychoanalytic here, but there's only so much of praising hard, manly Vikings for cleaving the soft, effeminate flesh of monks and priests with their longswords that you can do without people asking questions.

 Anyway, here is praise; what about blame? I think I'd like an outsider's perspective, here. Someone who isn't embedded in the narrative, who can see bishops as Machiavellian operators, monks as hardbitten killers; and  "Viking" as a  heuristic to be deconstructed.
 Master Kong, can you read the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles for me?

Friday, May 13, 2011

Sacrificial Zones

On Thursday, in a posting that I hope eventually comes back, as currently it is still a sacrifice to Google's attempts to get Blogger working again, I talked about canals and deserts and civilisations.

These are things that you can talk about as history, but also, as has been done, as a proxy for more properly private obsessions. I didn't quite get to Karl Wittfogel, but that's not for lack of trying. There's just too much crazy out there. Today, though, the news comes that the Premier of Manitoba is in trouble for putting off the breaching of the misengineered Assiniboine River dykes to Saturday. People with farms in the selected sacrificial zones are understandably angry that their homes will be flooded instead of others. It is not easy for a politician to opt to flood a hundred homes to save several hundred more. The way people think about these things, he is more likely to be punished at the polls than rewarded.

The flooding in the Red River country is small beers compared with the disaster that overook Queensland four months ago, or that is unfolding on the Mississippi right now. But they remind me, as they always remind me, of the absurdity of proclaiming that "hydraulic civilisations" exist only in the deserts of some vast Asian east, outside of history, before democracy, when water spills on the dry earth because god kings will it so. Because, dude: the Thames Embankment? The Corps of Engineers? There are dykes, and for that matter, irrigation ditches, in Europe, too.

Is that a revelation? Probably not, but back when I started my dissertation, so long ago,with this guy, and this book in mind, it took my mind in directions that I hope are a little more novel. The thesis, such as I had one, came out of this book. See, there were student riots in Paris in 1820, and lots of the rioting kids turned out to be brilliant, published authors and whatnot. So the riots were a particularly heroic moment! Was it in the air? In the "culture?" Spitzer argues that, no, it comes down to demographics. Could the argument be extended to the "end of the Scientific Revolution," (boring historiography/indefensible SSK alert)? The dissertation committee, in the fullness of time, said no. But long before that, I was wrestling with making sense of the War of the Spanish Succession. And that's when I came across this book.
Still available from the UCP

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Running Away to the Air, 4: Deep Radio


In his appreciation in the 1946 special "Radio and Radiolocation" issue of the Journal of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, Robert Watson-Watt claims that 1% of the population of the United Kingdom worked with radio for war purposes, half that on radar. And the country shone like a dark star; peak output of Chain Home alone was 100kW of meter-length radiation. (I gather that this is the total power draw; by 1943 there were megawatt-range radar emitters installed at places such as Scapa Flow, but this would be pulses of a few micro-seconds duration.)

It's --look, here's the thing. The argument about whether wars are good for economies is on again. (AKA "does WWII prove that quantitative easing is a good idea?") So this might be a good time for a historian of technology to chime in and ask if we really understand exactly how WWII affected the economy.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Plantation of the Atlantic, III: Erik the Red and all that.

(Edit: The risk of posting on a zombie day is that you get even more incoherent than usual. So, some edits here. Besides, I forgot to link to a Paul Anka video.)

So I'm doing my best to be deliberately provocative and even political in this series. Why not? I've just completed a tax return and a census. Soon, I need to deal with the new phone company to which my old phone company just sold me and introduce their annoying-voicemail department with their internet-payments department. I have an identity and the state wants to know what it is. That being said, I am most definitely not allowed to choose an identity that lacks a credit card or a taxable income. Although I know for a fact that people manage to pull that last trick. Somehow, we need as a society to prevent people from choosing "wrong" identities.

We can make fun of them, but as a historian, I'm more concerned with a trick where you tell people stories with a good narrative hook.  Like Vikings. Big, blond barbarians all into the plunder, rapine, and rape? Sexy! What's not to like? Well.... Stories can go bad places.

So I think that it's important for historians to escape the web of narrative. It does our search for historical truth a disservice, and we're  letting people get away with cheating on their taxes! (Page 17ff here.) And things might get worse. Some people ended up on a cotton plantation, and it's not clear that they've escaped yet.

My guide through this tangle of obfuscation is the history of technology and the history of grass. This particular series of posts begins with Susan Ronald's absolutely convincing case that "plantations" started out as fishing camps, in which case the story really does start with the Vikings. Of course, Vikings are themselves a historical construct, and I can't start with the beginning, but rather in the middle of the action. Can what people actually did provide a better guide to history than our grand essentialist narratives? Yes!

So. Sometime in the late summer of 985 (the date is traditional, and contested), Erik Thorvaldsson led a fleet of 14 ships bearing 2000 settlers to the head of Tunulliarfik Fjord in southern Greenland, at 61°14′40″N. Trondheim in Norway, by contrast, is at 63°36'N, Holar in Iceland north of 65.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Fall of France, Manpower, Part 7: How Does One Solve These Problems? A Solution From 1904

On 2 December 1906, HMS Dreadnought was commissioned into the Royal Navy in the latest of a series of highly publicised events. It must have been obvious by this point that her belt was submerged with a combat load on board, making her somewhat dubious ship of the line, and you certainly didn't want to run those ungeared turbines any harder than necessary! Worse, the choice of an armament of 10x12/45" in 5 twin mountings and 27 12-pounders (76mm) guns leaving her deadly in line of battle against other battleships but virtually helpless at night, in poor visibility, or in torpedo flotilla action. Kept out of harm's way as Channel flagship during WWI, her life came to a premature end as she was decommissioned in February 1919 to save on costs and manpower.

Well, that's one story of HMS Dreadnought, in which she features as a classic example of the military-technological process of "failing forward." Too many innovations in one design meant gravely deficient fighting power. The other story, of course, is precisely that of all those innovations. The world naval community rushed to replicate Dreadnought's many innovations, and in general it is said that a "Dreadnought Revolution" followed, even though many of the first "Dreadnoughts" launched in response, in particular those from American and German builders, lacked turbine engines, while conversely both had the good sense to eschew Dreadnought's effectively all-or-nothing big gun armament. (Thus, they wisely ignored the sillier ideas of British naval strategists while failing to replicate the breakthroughs of British marine engineers. Is there a way to recall an entire historical literature?)

The question remains: why? It was hugely controversial at the time.  And it has been controversial since. The doyen of the field, Arthur Marder, offered what I recall as being some pretty nuanced explanations --but it's been a long time since I read Marder, and everything I say below is probably just going to end up repeating him, I suspect. The same cannot be said of Jon Sumida, who revisited the facts and, as far as I can tell, sent the literature down entirely the wrong track with his ideas about a fire-control revolution, occasioned by financial difficulties. The frighteningly prolific Andrew Lambert  thinks it is down to torpedoes.

It is interesting, therefore, to see that the Admiralty's answer came down to manpower: not enough men to man all the useless, old warships, not enough men to man all the ships. The second-to-last class before  Dreadnought, the King Edward VII, carried 4x12", 4x9.2", 10x6", 12x76mm, and 12x47mm guns. It also had a peacetime complement of 777 men. The next class laid down, the Lord Nelson, had 4x12" guns, 5x9.2", and 24x76mm, and a peacetime complement of 750. Dreadnought was designed for a complement of 700. Now, the number of men borne in the fleet is a hugely important factor in driving the naval budget up, and the new Liberal government that took office in 1904 was eager to cut the Naval Estimates. It turned out that Dreadnought's small complement was funny book-keeping, although it was unquestionably a major step forward in the man/tonnage ratio in battleship design, and thus a major gain in fighting power/man. That being said,  the unspoken implications of Dreadnought's greater speed and range was equal sea power through fewer battleships. Fisher embraced that idea and we got the battlecruisers, and controversy ever increasing since. The idea was that technology would maintain Britain's control over the seas.

But it's more complicated than that if we take the Admiralty seriously.
(Warning: explicit scenes: Work/Family friendly substitute here:)

When the Toronto Blue Jays won the World Series --for the second time, I think, in the fall of 1993-- I was watching at a friend's apartment in downtown Toronto with some graduate school buddies. Game gloriously over, we headed out on Yonge Street to mingle with the crowds. They were deliriously happy, but there was no trouble, in part because of a massive police presence. Every cross-street was blocked with barricades and a small police detachment. As we washed up on several of these groups, I began to notice a strange thing: the police were all hanging out with big, scruffy bikers. Eventually, it dawned on me that the Toronto PD must have called in the plainclothes detectives. They weren't all dressed like bikers, but those were the ones that I noticed. You don't see many big, bearded guys in police ranks in video of a major, modern demonstration, but that's usually because these days they plan for these things and bring in extra officers from other jurisdictions.

Manpower: it's the Achilles heel of government control and surveillance. I'd use gender-neutral language at this point, but I'm seeing signs of a gendered or sexualised reading of the question at issue in the video, and I'll make some feeble attempt to honour the theme as I talk about the crisis of naval manpower and the genesis of HMS Dreadnought below.