The Telegraph’s Best War and History Books

Saturday, December 20th, 2014

The Telegraph selects the best war and history books ever written, starting with some obvious classics:

The next selection, 1066 & All That — subtitled “A Memorable History of England, comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates” — seems exceedingly English, in a good way.

Whenever I see All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque, on a list like this, I immediately think of how Storm of Steel, by Ernst Jünger, rarely makes such lists. The story I’d always heard was that All Quiet was acceptably anti-war, while Storm was too pro-war — but now that I’ve read Storm, I’m not sure I’d call it pro-war at all. It simply feels like a sincere war memoir — although I’ve also heard that different editions had very different tones.

Legion of the Damned, on the other hand, sounds like a very different book from the others on the list:

Written in highly suspicious circumstances by a highly suspicious author (or perhaps his wife, or editor) this is the first in a series of novels that became cartoonish, yet for all that it packs immense power, describing the misadventures of a group of German soldiers on the Eastern Front.

I got a chuckle out of how the Telegraph included the cover for the Warhammer 40k novel of the same name.

Anyway, enjoy the whole list.

Parasympathetic Backlash

Saturday, December 20th, 2014

Under the stress of combat, the body shifts resources to the sympathetic nervous system and away from the parasympathetic — for a while, as David Grossman (On Killing) explains:

The sympathetic nervous system mobilizes and directs the body’s energy resources for action. It is the physiological equivalent of the frontline soldiers who actually do the fighting in a military unit.

The parasympathetic system is responsible for the body’s digestive and recuperative processes. It is the physiological equivalent of the cooks, mechanics, and clerks that sustain a military unit over an extended period of time.

Usually these two systems sustain a general balance between their demands upon the body’s resources, but during extremely stressful circumstances the “fight or flight” response kicks in and the sympathetic nervous system mobilizes all available energy for survival. This is the physiological equivalent of throwing the cooks, bakers, mechanics, and clerks into the battle. In combat this very often results in nonessential activities such as digestion, bladder control, and sphincter control being completely shut down. This process is so intense that soldiers very often suffer stress diarrhea, and it is not at all uncommon for them to urinate and defecate in their pants as the body literally “blows its ballast” in an attempt to provide all the energy resources required to ensure its survival.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to guess that a soldier must pay a heavy physiological price for an enervating process this intense. The price that the body pays is an equally powerful backlash when the neglected demands of the parasympathetic system become ascendant. This parasympathetic backlash occurs as soon as the danger and the excitement are over, and it takes the form of an incredibly powerful weariness and sleepiness on the part of the soldier.

This brings us to the criticality of the reserve:

Napoleon stated that the moment of greatest danger was the instant immediately after victory, and in saying so he demonstrated a remarkable understanding of the way in which soldiers become physiologically and psychologically incapacitated by the parasympathetic backlash that occurs as soon as the momentum of the attack has halted and the soldier briefly believes himself to be safe. During this period of vulnerability, a counterattack by fresh troops can have an effect completely out of proportion to the number of troops attacking.

It is basically for this reason that the maintenance of an “unblown” reserve has historically been essential in combat, with battles often revolving around which side can hold out and deploy their reserves last. The reserve has always played a vital role in combat, but du Picq was one of the earliest advocates not only of “holding out a reserve as long as possible for independent action when the enemy has used his own,” but he also insisted on the revolutionary concept that this process “ought to be applied downward” to the lowest levels. He also perceived the technological process of increasing lethality on the battlefield which continues today. “There is more need than ever to-day, for protecting… the reserves. The power of destruction increases, the morale [of human beings] stays the same.” Clausewitz further understood and put great emphasis on the danger of reserve forces becoming prematurely enervated and exhausted when he cautioned that the reserves should always be maintained out of sight of the battle.

These same basic psycho-physiological principles explain why successful military leaders have historically maintained the momentum of a successful attack. Pursuing and maintaining contact with a defeated enemy is vital in order to completely destroy the enemy (the vast majority of the killing in historical battles occurred during the pursuit, when the enemy turned his back), but it is also valuable to maintain contact with the enemy as long as possible in order to delay that inevitable pause in the battle which will result in the “culmination point.” The culmination point is usually caused as much by logistical processes as anything else, but once the momentum of the pursuit stops (for whatever reasons) there are severe physiological and psychological costs to be paid, and the commander must realize that his forces will begin to immediately slip into a powerful parasympathetic backlash and become vulnerable to any enemy counterattack. An unblown reserve force ready to complete the pursuit is a vital aspect of maneuver warfare and can be of great value in ensuring that this most destructive phase of the battle is effectively executed.

Real Athletes Throw Knives

Friday, December 19th, 2014

When I saw Christopher McDougall (Born to Run, Natural Born Heroes) claim that real athletes throw knives, I almost dismissed him, because throwing knives are cool, but they’re not at all practical — but he was way ahead of me:

Brewster came to my house one afternoon to teach me no-spin knife throwing. He mounted a slice of log on an easel, pulled out three knives, and — as he whipped them in from all kinds of angles and distance — demonstrated why no-spin might be the answer to one of the great riddles of modern anthropology. It goes like this:

Hitting a target is an amazing act of calculation, because often you’re not aiming where something is; you’re aiming where it isn’t. You have to factor angles, directions, and muscle force, all of it in a blink.

We’re the only animal that can pull it off, and once we did, it changed everything. Learning to throw transformed us from prey into predators. Better hunting gave us more food; more food grew us bigger brains. We also upgraded our software:

Throwing taught us the kind of sequential thought that would become the human imagination and spur the creation of language, technology, medicine, and art.
So explain this: If humans are such natural marksmen, why are the majority of us like Shaq at the free-throw line?

“Yeah, that was me,” Brewster says. “I had all the cards stacked against me. Never played baseball, no real sports background at all. First time I threw a knife, I failed miserably.” He’d seen videos of expert throwers, the kind who send knives flipping end-over-end toward showgirls, but when he tried to copy them, he clanged all over the place. Then one day while working construction, Brewster began monkeying around with a screwdriver. If he held his finger straight up along a screwdriver’s spine, he could fling it perfectly into the ground. Every time. A quick Internet search later, Brewster found himself in the midst of an entire tribe experimenting with the same throwback throw. There was Roy Hutchinson, aka “The Great Throwzini,” and Xolette, a high-school science teacher in Florida who likes to no-spin butter knives across her kitchen.

Brewster explains that the spin technique — the kind of throwing you see at every circus and Vegas show — is inherently flawed. It’s not natural. Spin is terrific for long tosses, and it can be supremely accurate, but only under artificial conditions. For a spin to work, both you and the target have to be stationary, and you can only be a precise number of steps away. Shift even a little and you shank.

But with no-spin, you cash in on the fact that your index finger is neurologically wired to your eyeballs. In fact, you can learn no-spin with startling ease. You’ll need a target, naturally. Any solid chunk of wood will do. I just sawed a round slice off the end of a log and bolted it to an old picnic table turned on its side and braced with a two-by-four. (So easy, it almost took me longer to write it than do it.)

Next up: your blades. One of the beauties of no-spin is that just about anything will do. Steak knives, butter knives, screwdrivers, metal chopsticks, nails — if it’s got a point, you can fling it. For ease and safety, though, Brewster recommends a tempered-steel knife that won’t shatter or feel weird in your hand. He makes his own by hand (and sells them at FlyingSteel.com) and brought me a set of three of the simple black shanks he calls North Wind.

The best place to start is so close to the target you could almost reach out and touch it. “The nearer you are, the less you’ll try to overpower the throw,” Brewster explains. “You’ll let the knife sail on its own.” For your first throws, face the target slightly in profile with your left foot forward (opposite for lefties). Then remember these four steps:

  1. GRIP the knife lightly, with your index finger straight up.
  2. EXTEND your arm back and high over your head.
  3. Push your ELBOW forward, not your hand.
  4. RELEASE when the knife passes your ear and the point is still aimed at the sky.

As soon as you get the feel (and don’t be astonished if it only take two or three throws) you can begin stepping back, adding distance each time and experimenting with angles. With a little practice, you’ll soon be letting fly the way your ancestors did: fast, on the move, from any direction.

Bungling the Conclusions to Wars

Friday, December 19th, 2014

Insurgencies aren’t going away, so we should work toward doing counterinsurgencies better, Max Boot argues:

The first lesson may sound like a no-brainer, but it has been routinely ignored: plan for what comes after the overthrow of a regime. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the George W. Bush administration failed to adequately prepare for what the military calls “Phase IV,” the period after immediate victory — an oversight that allowed law and order to break down in both countries and insurgencies to metastasize. Yet Obama, despite his criticism of Bush’s conduct of the Iraq war, repeated the same mistake in Libya. In 2011, U.S. and nato forces helped rebels topple Muammar al-Qaddafi but then did very little to help the nascent Libyan government establish control of its own territory. As a result, Libya remains riven by militias, which have plunged the country into chaos. Just this past July — almost two years after U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed in Benghazi — the State Department had to evacuate its entire embassy staff from Tripoli after fighting there reached the airport.

This is not a problem confined to Bush or Obama. The United States has a long tradition of bungling the conclusions to wars, focusing on narrow military objectives while ignoring the political end state that troops are supposed to be fighting for. This inattention made possible the persecution of freed slaves and their white champions in the South after the American Civil War, the eruption of the Philippine insurrection after the Spanish-American War, the rise of the Nazis in Germany and the Communists in Russia after World War I, the invasions of South Korea and South Vietnam after World War II, and the impetus for the Iraq war after the Gulf War. Too often, U.S. officials have assumed that all the United States has to do is get rid of the bad guys and the postwar peace will take care of itself. But it simply isn’t so. Generating order out of chaos is one of the hardest tasks any country can attempt, and it requires considerable preparation of the kind that the U.S. military undertook for the occupation of Germany and Japan after 1945 — but seldom did before and has seldom done since.

Welcome to the War

Friday, December 19th, 2014

David Grossman (On Killing) introduces the role of physiological arousal and fear with this anecdote from Six War Years 1939–1945:

And then a shell lands behind us, and another over to the side, and by this time we’re scurrying and the Sarge and I and another guy wind up behind a wall. The sergeant said it was an 88 and then he said, “Shit and shit some more.”

I asked him if he was hit and he sort of smiled and said no, he had just pissed his pants. He always pissed them, he said, just when things started and then he was okay. He wasn’t making any apologies either, and then I realized something wasn’t quite right with me, either. There was something warm down there and it seemed to be running down my leg. I felt, and it wasn’t blood. It was piss.

I told the Sarge, I said, “Sarge, I’ve pissed too,” or something like that and he grinned and said, “Welcome to the war.”

104 Yards, Strong Hand Only

Thursday, December 18th, 2014

A few weeks ago an active shooter shot up downtown Austin, but that’s not the interesting part, Chris Hernandez explains:

Sergeant Johnson shot him from 104 yards away, with one shot from a pistol, firing one handed, while holding the reins of two horses.

A few comments I’ve read online suggested the 104-yard pistol shot was an Austin PD conspiracy, because such a shot is impossible. I’ve also heard people say Johnson must be lying or exaggerating. You just can’t shoot someone with one shot, one handed with a pistol from over a hundred yards away.

My own experience and training leads me to a different conclusion. That shot would be amazingly difficult, but not impossible.

Most police officers never train to shoot past twenty five yards. I’ve worked for three departments, plus served as a United Nations police officer in Kosovo, and I can’t recall ever shooting a pistol at long range during police training. But I’ve taken a few pistol courses from private training companies. One of them was at Tiger Valley, near Waco, Texas.

The owner/instructor, TJ Pilling, lined us up on the pistol range one day and said we were going to have a competition. He told us to fire one shot at our targets, which were half-size steel silhouettes. We were at twenty-five yards, and we all hit. He backed us up to thirty-five yards and told us to fire again. We all hit. Forty-five yards. A few missed. Fifty-five yards. Only I and one other officer hit. Sixty-five. I was firing a .40 Glock 22, and aimed just over the top of the target’s head. I missed. The other officer hit.

TJ asked me if I aimed high. I told him I did. He said, “Aim center mass.” I did, and shocked the hell out of myself by hitting the target.

TJ walked us to a bay with a full-size silhouette target at 110 yards, and said, “If you have a 9mm, aim center mass. If it’s a .40, aim at the neck.”

The guys with 9mms started pinging the crap out of the target. I fired several shots standing and couldn’t get a hit, so I went prone and tried again. Eventually, after a spotter helped me walk the rounds in like a mortar, I made repeated hits.

I was, to put it mildly, surprised. I’d been a cop for twelve years at that point, and all my training had focused on shooting twenty-five yards and closer. I’d been in the military seventeen years but received almost no pistol training from either the Marines or Army. Conventional wisdom taught me pistols were last-ditch, close-in weapons, and shooting at someone even twenty-five yards away was stretching it. I had struggled to make accurate hits at twenty-five, had missed a target at that range more than once, and had seen cops and soldiers miss numerous shots even closer than that.

Small Caliber Rounds! What Are They Good For?

Thursday, December 18th, 2014

In today’s world of .22-caliber infantry rifles, it can be hard to remember that .30 caliber used to be small caliber, as this 1891 New York Times article makes clear:

In further comment, Captain Surgeon Marsh points out that, inasmuch as the resisting surface offered to the face of a small-calibre bullet has been thus reduced, the ball penetrates and passes through the tissues without having expended much of its energy in their destruction. Its track is so narrow that there is practically no destruction of substance in its path. Such a ball might pass through a large joint without touching the bones, or between the two bones of the forearm or leg without injuring them in the slightest, thus producing nothing more than a simple flesh wound, not grave enough to place the wounded man hors de combat.

A larger calibre ball, say of the Martini type, .45 calibre, striking in similar situations would inevitably shock the system and shatter the bones to such an extent as totally to disable the soldier for many months, if not for life. In adopting a lighter and smaller calibre ball there is sacrificed to a great extent the stopping power and shock possessed by the larger missiles.

Hazel’s Leadership Style

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

Richard Adams (Watership Down) does an ask-me-anything on Reddit and gets asked about Hazel’s leadership style and whether it was inspired by somebody he knew in real life:

Yes! I had the good luck to get accepted for service in airborne forces during world war 2. Not everybody who put their name forward was accepted for it. I felt tremendously proud. I went as an officer to 250 light company RASC airborne. The commanding officer was a Major called John Gifford. I admired him tremendously. He was very quiet – in fact one of the quietest I’ve ever known. Regardless all of his commanding officers respected him and obeyed him without question. All his officers were parachutists whether they were commanders or not. My point is that everyone in 250 light company respected and admired him, and he certainly influenced Hazel. He was so sensible. Not all commanders are sensible! I would even say his officers loved him.

How to lose great leaders? Ask the Army

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

Tim Kane recommends that we move our military to a total volunteer force — one that treats officers as human capital with autonomy rather than as physical capital in inventory:

High quit rates are just a symptom of the deeper problem that too many military members are mismatched with their jobs.

In truth, military officers are only volunteers for one day: the day they sign up. Afterwards, they’re treated with the same kind of inflexible, coercive management that has defined militaries since history began. No electronic “job boards” list openings for the thousands of available jobs in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. No junior officers know where their next job assignment will be, or if it will fit with their interests, strengths and talents. And no commanders are trusted to directly hire the subordinates they feel their teams need.

Rather, junior officers are generally limited to rank-ordering the base locations they prefer. Commanders are limited to making a “by-name request” of some officers, but this is more often than not ignored by higher-ups. Labor supply is coordinated with labor demand by large bureaucracies that haven’t changed much since Harry Truman was president in the 1950s.

Why does this nonsensical and anachronistic approach persist? The mantra from the central planners in the bowels of the Pentagon has always been that the “needs of the military come first.” That’s dumb. Smart organizations in the private sector have learned that putting employees’ needs first — ahead of corporate ones — only seems unproductive to short-term thinkers.

This stat caught my eye:

Since the 1950s, America’s defense budget shrank from 17 percent of GDP to less than 4 percent today.

Defeating the Enemy’s Will

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

David Grossman (On Killing) discusses defeating the enemy’s will:

Defeating the enemy’s will is not too far removed from the process of inflicting psychiatric casualties on the enemy’s soldiers. In fact it would come very close to the mark to say that maneuver warfare (as opposed to attrition warfare) seeks to inflict psychic as well as physical damage upon the enemy, and a brief examination of the psychological price of modern war would be an appropriate place to begin our study of the psychological underpinnings of maneuver warfare.

In his book, No More Heroes, Richard Gabriel outlines the staggering “psychic” costs of war. “In every war in which American soldiers have fought in this century, the chances of becoming a psychiatric casualty… were greater than the chances of being killed by enemy fire.” In World War II, America’s armed forces lost 504,000 men from the fighting effort because of psychiatric collapse — enough to man fifty divisions! We suffered this loss despite efforts to weed out those mentally and emotionally unfit for combat by classifying 970,000 men as unfit for military service due to psychiatric reasons. At one point in World War II, psychiatric casualties were being discharged from the U.S. Army faster than new recruits were being drafted in. Swank and Marchand’s World War II study determined that after 60 days of continuous combat, 98 percent of all surviving soldiers will have become psychiatric casualties of one kind or another. (Swank and Marchand also found that the 2 percent who are able to endure sustained combat had as their most common trait a predisposition toward “aggressive psychopathic personalities.” The importance of this statistic will be addressed later.)

These factors contribute to the psychic costs of war:

The impact of physiological arousal and fear. Appel and Beebe are but a few of many, many observers in the field of the behavioral sciences who hold that fear of death and injury is the primary cause of psychiatric casualties. Richard Gabriel is among many who make a powerful argument for the impact of physical exhaustion caused by extended periods during which the sympathetic nervous system is activated in a continuous “fight or flight” response.

The weight of exhaustion. Among actual veterans, many accounts seem to focus on the fatigue and exhaustion they experienced in combat. The psychologist Bartlett states definitively that “there is perhaps no general condition which is more likely to produce a large crop of nervous and mental disorders than a state of prolonged and great fatigue.” The British General Bernard Fergusson stated that “lack of food constitutes the single biggest assault upon morale.” And Guy Sajer (The Forgotten Soldier), a German veteran of the eastern front in World War II, is one of the many veterans who learned that cold was the soldier’s first enemy. “We urinated into our hands to warm them, and, hopefully, to cauterize the gaping cuts in our fingers… each movement of my fingers opened and closed deep crevices, which oozed blood.”

The stress of uncertainty. The initial results of extensive research on the 1991 Gulf War indicates that one of the major stressors on individual combatants was the tremendous uncertainty of war. This constant state of uncertainty, which is a major part of what Clausewitz referred to as the “friction of war,” destroys the soldier’s sense of control over his life and environment, and eats away at his limited stock of fortitude.

The burden of guilt and horror. Richard Holmes, on the other hand, spends a chapter of his superb book, Acts of War, convincing us of the horror of battle, and the impact of the guilt associated with it: “Seeing friends killed, or, almost worse, being unable to help them.” And Peter Marin accuses the field of psychology of being ill prepared to address the guilt caused by war and the attendant moral issues. He flatly states that, “Nowhere in the [psychiatric and psychological] literature is one allowed to glimpse what is actually occurring: the real horror of the war and its effect on those who fought it.”

An aversion to hate and killing. In addition to these more obvious factors of fear, exhaustion, uncertainty, guilt, and horror, the less obvious but absolutely vital factors represented by the average human being’s aversion to hate and killing have been added here. These two factors are the most difficult to observe, but the very fact that they are not intuitively obvious makes them in many ways more important. These interpersonal aggression processes are the riddle that lies deep in the heart of darkness that is war.

Why the Battle of the Bulge Still Matters

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

This month marks the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, Michael Peck notes, but we can still learn valuable lessons from what may have been the greatest battle ever fought by the U.S. Army:

First, never, ever underestimate the enemy. The Western Allies did have every reason for confidence in December 1944. France and Belgium had been liberated, the German armies in the West had been decimated, and U.S. troops were fighting on German soil. With the Red Army relentlessly crushing the Third Reich from the east, final victory seemed just a few weeks or months away.

But there is a fine line between confidence and overconfidence, and the ordinary GI paid the price that dark December. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the last time. MacArthur believed the Communists were licked in Korea, until Chinese human wave assaults proved otherwise. In Vietnam, the “light at the end of the tunnel” was abruptly extinguished by the Tet Offensive. And “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq turned out to be anything but. Should America go to war with China, Iran or North Korea, the question is when—not if—they will unleash some surprise tactic or weapon unforeseen by the Pentagon.

Second, just because you think an idea is crazy, doesn’t mean the enemy will. Even Hitler’s own generals thought his Ardennes offensive was lunatic. Who would be insane enough to send immense columns of tanks, guns and trucks down narrow, ice- and snow-covered roads, fight through densely forested hills and over rivers, and then drive 125 miles to capture the vital port of Antwerp? A more realistic German plan would have been a spoiling attack to encircle and destroy a few American divisions to disrupt the final invasion of Germany.

Nonetheless, Hitler pursued his hopeless plan—and inflicted more than 80,000 casualties in a month. It was equally crazy for the Viet Cong to come out in the open and expose themselves to overwhelming U.S. firepower during the Tet Offensive. But they did, and the political repercussions helped turn the American public against the war. North Korea’s rulers are certain to have zany schemes that they believe will defeat the United States. But lunacy does not equal ineffectiveness.

Third, don’t ignore intelligence. There were some indications that the Germans were preparing some kind of attack (Eisenhower’s own intelligence officer warned of them), but most Allied commanders and their staffs were so blinded by victory fever that they ignored them. Similarly, there were indications that the Mao would attack in Korea, or that the Viet Cong would launch the Tet Offensive.

The Bulge also foreshadowed the excessive American reliance on technical intelligence. Allied ULTRA codebreakers had been reading German radio messages for years. But ULTRA didn’t detect German preparations, which was taken as an indication that nothing was happening. Even with the capabilities of the CIA and NSA, America was still surprised by Osama Bin Laden on 9/11.

Fourth, flexibility is everything. As bad the Battle of the Bulge was, it could have been a lot worse. Once the Allies recovered from the shock, they moved quickly to stop and then roll back the German penetration. The 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions were moved into the path of the offensive (the 101st reached the vital crossroads of Bastogne just in time), while Patton moved his divisions with remarkable rapidity to strike the German southern flank. Despite bad blood between American and British commanders, Field Marshal Montgomery deployed British troops in an example of coalition warfare that worked.

19th-Century Terrorism

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

To understand the terrorists of today, we can look at their forgotten forebears from the 19th century:

I discovered the secret through reading about 19th-century history, particularly the years from the 1848 revolutions to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. The key was Bismarck, the Prussian minister-president who unified Germany. If you want to learn about Bismarck, you will probably pick up a book by some historian of international relations, such as A.J.P. Taylor. That’s the right place to start. But it means you can read a lot about Bismarck before finding out about the time in May 1866 when a guy shot him.

Ferdinand Cohen-Blind, a Badenese student of pan-German sentiments, waylaid Bismarck with a pistol on the Unter den Linden. He fired five rounds. None missed. Three merely grazed his midsection, and two ricocheted off his ribs. He went home and ate a big lunch before letting himself be examined by a doctor.

But even the books that condescend to mention this triviality may not tell you about the other time a guy shot Bismarck: A young Catholic tried to kill him in July 1874, during the anti-Catholic Kulturkampf Bismarck had engineered, but only managed to score his right hand with a bullet.

The point is not that Bismarck was particularly hated, although he was. The point is that this period of European (and American) history was crawling with young, often solitary male terrorists, most of whom showed signs of mental disorder when caught and tried, and most of whom were attached to some prevailing utopian cause. They tended to be anarchists, nationalists or socialists, but the distinctions are not always clear, and were not thought particularly important. The 19th-century mind identified these young men as congenital conspirators. It emphasized what they had in common: social maladjustment, mania, an overwhelming sense of mission and, usually, a prior record of minor crimes.

It has become a pastime of mine to pick major royal or ministerial figures from 19th-century continental Europe and look up the little-known assassination attempts against them. Even in peaceful, isolated England, there were no fewer than seven attempts to shoot Queen Victoria. Russian czars, French presidents and Bulgarian prime ministers make particularly fertile ground.

Just try, for example, either Napoleon. A bomb designed to kill the first on his way to the opera injured or killed roughly 30 people around Christmas 1800; the conspirators were pro-Bourbon legitimists. Exactly the same thing happened to the third in 1858: A bomb planted by Italian revolutionaries killed eight and injured 142, while barely stopping the emperor’s carriage.

Biographies will often omit these events totally, much less note the astonishing Napoleonic parallel. Yet all this bombing and gunfire must have had a profound psychological effect on the leaders who were targeted, along with peers elsewhere. The prevalence of assassination obviously influenced the gory histories of the emerging Balkan states and, once you unlock the secret, you can see the imprint of terror on the history of Germany, with its countless princelings and kinglets — all of them frightened all the time, and thus predisposed to political overreaction.

No one sees the murders of three U.S. presidents between 1865 and 1900 as part of the same phenomenon, but it was. And the bad news is that the First World War, which began with a famous assassination, was in some ways a culmination of this tendency to desperate, violent action.

A New Laser Age

Monday, December 15th, 2014

The nature of directed energy weapons — lasers — favors surface troops, Jonathan Jeckell explains:

The U.S. and Israel have had increasing success lately testing lasers to intercept missiles and artillery. We could be entering a new laser age — with huge implications for American military power.

But it could be a mostly defensive, ground-based laser age, to begin with. Aerial energy weapons need a lot more work and could lag far behind.

In December, the Army shot down 90 mortar rounds and several drones using a truck-mounted laser. The Navy is adding an experimental laser gun to its Persian Gulf base ship Ponce. The Army and Navy weapons work today. The Air Force, by contrast, is planning to install an energy weapon on jet fighters around the year 2030.

[...]

Unlike missile defenses using projectiles — which must fight against gravity and require storage space and sophisticated manufacturing — lasers require only the requisite energy and the ability to shed excess heat.

Lasers also move at the speed of light, meaning the target would have no warning or opportunity to maneuver before it strikes. Suddenly the energetics that have favored air power are reversed.

Historically the high ground lent decisive advantages in combat because gravity works in your favor. Anti-aircraft shells and missiles flying up to intercept aircraft must struggle against gravity to approach their target. They lose energy, and the ability to maneuver, as they ascend.

Meanwhile, air-launched ordnance uses gravity to its advantage, increasing its range so it can often strike first and from a standoff distance. This has been a major factor in helping aircraft fend off increasingly sophisticated air-defense systems.

Lasers will level that field, as surface forces will have effective lasers first. Placing energy weapons on planes runs up against serious constraints on the weight and space needed for shedding waste heat and providing energy to the laser. The Air Force Airborne Laser project, for example, used up nearly all the interior space in a 747 for a laser capable of shooting down just a handful of ballistic missiles.

Better lasers might eventually solve these aerial problems with more compact cooling and improved energy generation — but these advancements will also enhance ground-based systems that don’t suffer gravity’s constraints. With energy weapons, the conditions are set for air defense to leap ahead of air attack.

Use of Force

Monday, December 15th, 2014

Back when Todd G. was in law school, he had a wonderful opportunity to teach his classmates about use of force:

For a project in one of my criminal law classes I was invited by the DEA tactical training cadre to bring half my class (and professor) down to the FBI/DEA “Hogan’s Alley” force on force training village in Quantico, Virginia. This was during the time that Waco & Ruby Ridge were being investigated by DOJ and federal law enforcement UOF rules were under severe scrutiny.

Our group was put through a number of exercises ranging from the classic Tueller drill (attacker 21 feet away charges at you with a knife) to team room-clearing.

A few days later I had to present my paper to the entire class. The half that attended the force on force (FOF) exercises sat on the left side of the room and the other students sat on the right.

Just a few minutes into my presentation I brought up the danger of a knife wielding attacker. The right side of the room grew indignant immediately and argued that someone twenty-one feet away — the length of an entire room — simply couldn’t be a deadly threat to someone with a gun. Before I could even reply, the left side of the room erupted in angry shouts: “You’ve never been there!”

Next we discussed opening a closet door to find a stranger holding a pistol that was pointed down toward the ground. Again the students on the right side of the room insisted he couldn’t be threat because he wasn’t pointing the gun at anyone. And again the left side of the room lost its collective mind: “Do you have any idea how fast someone can point a gun at you from that position? It’s faster than you can see it and respond before you get shot!”

It was the easiest presentation I’ve ever given.

South African Burglaries

Saturday, December 13th, 2014

American expat Patrick McGroarty was covering the Oscar Pistorius trial in Pretoria when his home in Johannesburg got burgled. They came back for more the next month. Around the same time, robbers killed the South African national team’s goalie — leading the nation to wonder “why South Africans take from each other, and why these desperate assailants are so quick to kill.”

In this discussion of “South Africans,” McGroarty brings up the touchy subject of race exactly once:

Though the murder rate has fallen by more than half since the end of white minority rule in 1994, the number of people killed in South Africa each year still ranks among the highest in the world.

McGroarty’s family moved into an apartment complex with 24-hour security.