He was worth a dozen rational, decent men

Friday, January 22nd, 2021

This Kind of War by T.R. FehrenbachIn Medic James Mount’s company, T. R. Fehrenbach tells us (in This Kind of War), there was a platoon sergeant named “Gypsy” Martin:

Martin carried a full canteen and bandoleer, but he also wore a bandanna and earring, and he had tiny bells on his boots. Gypsy Martin hated Chinese; he hated gooks, and he didn’t care who knew it.

In anything but war, Martin was the kind of man who is useless.

In combat, as the 24th Division drove north, men could hear Gypsy yell his hatred, as they heard his M-1 bark death. When Gypsy yelled, his men went forward; he was worth a dozen rational, decent men in those bloody valleys. His men followed him, to the death.

When Gypsy Martin finally bought it, they found him lying among a dozen “gooks,” his rifle empty, its stock broken. Other than in battle, Sergeant Martin was no good.


The values composing civilization and the values required to protect it are normally at war. Civilization values sophistication, but in an armed force sophistication is a millstone.


When Greek culture became so sophisticated that its common men would no longer fight to the death, as at Thermopylae, but became devious and clever, a horde of Roman farm boys overran them.


  1. Harry Jones says:

    I suppose this supports Kirk’s notion that the Army both consists and ought to consist of people who can’t rise to a normal level of functioning except by mindless drills.

    But Darwin got the last word on this guy. And aside from removing himself from the gene pool, what did he accomplish that an attack helicopter couldn’t have done better?

    “They didn’t have attack helicopters in the Korean War, silly!”

    And why didn’t they? Would it have been that much of a stretch? A little imagination, some mechanical skill, a welding torch and some power tools. They had helicopters. They had guns. Stick the gun on the helicopter.

    Here’s another thing that doesn’t seem like a stretch to me: this guy would have been a mad dog killer with or without a well pressed uniform. All that was needed was to point him at the enemy, hand him a gun and notify his next of kin.

    As for their military importance, there are a lot of these types defecating on the streets in a few select cities in the USA, but probably not enough to be decisive in a war. It just seems like there are a lot of them because they’re so noticeable. But in a war, we’d run out fast.

  2. Hoyos says:

    I honestly think this isn’t the best point, although CS Lewis does mention the phenomenon of men who were good in a “show” but kind of a menace in civilian life.

    Plus honestly the war records of “posh boys” in the Second World War puts paid to the idea that civilization screws up your ability to fight. David Stirling was a boarding school and Cambridge man until he left for Paris to be an artist. He would probably be called a “fag” by so called tough guys but he founded the SAS.

    George Patton was an old money rich Virginian, he certainly knew which knife and fork to use. Resistance hero Robert la Rochefoucauld was another aristocratic kid who was good in a show. I really could go on and on about civilized men fighting bravely and winning, there is no shortage, civilization doesn’t make you weak getting your values out of order does. Whether it’s a society that can’t outstrip its ennui enough to fight back or barbarians who worship strength but get slaughtered for not giving enough attention strategy and logistics.

    Sparta is held up as ideal by “tough guys” except Sparta as much as it worshipped being prepared for war, still lost wars all the time AND didn’t contribute much to civilization. It also had to be maintained by a form of slavery even the ancient Greeks found repulsive. The old order of virtues placed prudence above fortitude for a reason.

  3. Chedolf says:

    “David Stirling was a boarding school and Cambridge man until he left for Paris to be an artist. He would probably be called a ‘fag’ by so called tough guys…”

    I doubt it: “A tall 6 feet 6 inches (1.98 m) and athletic figure, he was training to climb Mount Everest when World War II broke out.”

  4. Kirk says:

    As usual, our resident Walt resorts to putting words into the mouths of others, when he really didn’t grasp the discussion in the first damn place.

    Nobody said what Walt, here, claims we did. Instead, what we said was that you don’t get to an end state, namely, an effective military via some magical incantation that just produces men who do what they need to do at the time they are needed to do it via wishes and pleasant thoughts. Doesn’t work that way historically, and it sure as hell doesn’t work that way with today’s spoiled rotten couch potatoes. Human nature being what it is, and which remains essentially unchanging, no matter how much “New Soviet Man” wishful thinking you want to indulge in.

    Walt ought to think carefully about Chesterton’s Fence–Which says “You ain’t removing that fence until you can tell me what it actually does…”. Walt looks at the traditional (and, highly effective…) methods of producing military discipline, and he sees things that aren’t there, namely lockstep mindless automatons being the intended product.

    Which is just like the usual stupidity that you hear from similar idjit types that there was ever such a thing as “Prussian kadaversgehorsam” in either their military or academia. By unfortunate fact, the German mentality spent rather more time inculcating independence of thought and action, initiative, and free thinking operational conduct than the equivalent systems in the UK, France, or the US. Where the hell that common stereotype comes from, I don’t know, but it sure as hell isn’t there in reality. German industry did not get where it got before WWI via lockstep rigidity, nor did its military do as much damage as it did against such fearful odds due to that fairy tale its enemies told themselves to comfort their sensibilities.

    Walt thinks that discipline means you don’t think; what it really means is that you stop and think what your actions are going to affect and effect, in terms of the plan. If your comrades on the left and right can’t count on you to do what is in the OPORD when the OPORD says it needs to be done, what then happens? Why, of course, you die in large numbers and lose the battle. A point quite beyond our Walt, who I seriously doubt served a day in his life, and if he did, he understood nothing of what went on around him.

    It’s a common enough syndrome; the spoiled brat thinking that he need not go through the same educational experience that others go through, because he’s soooooo much smarter and ever so much mo’ bettah than the rest of us. Trouble is, that same individual is usually completely untrainable, and utterly useless in any capacity within the military, simply because they a.) constitutionally cannot subordinate themselves to work within a chain of command, and b.) are utterly incapable of introspection or observation sufficient to enable learning to take place when they inevitably screw things up by the numbers.

    People who think that they can overturn the legacy of generations through being smarter than their ancestors are generally the dumbest creatures under God’s eyes. They think, unsupported by actual experience or self-created work product, that they are smarter than all of their predecessors combined–
    Which is really what they’re saying, whether or not they recognize that fact. Traditions become what they are not because of a lack of imagination on the part of one’s forebears, but because those traditions worked. Societies and institutions rarely propagate things that don’t work, particularly in the military. We don’t maintain what doesn’t work, and the fact that every functional organized military that we know from history essentially replicates these traditions despite the massive change in technology and circumstances ought to serve as what we might term “a bit of a clue…”.

    Of course, the Walts of this world are mostly defined by their essential cluelessness, so we should not be surprised at all by our own Waltish interlocutor being such an idjit…

  5. Hoyos says:


    Oh, I know, it’s to my point, he was actually a tough guy, and he was also a civilized guy and what might be called a “toff,” depending on who you ask. But I believe there are people that if you just tell the part of his background I did, will automatically view him as weak and soppy. I’ve met these people.

    The ideal is both, someone who can be like Lancelot, “meek in hall” and “fierce to foe man”. I’m just taking exception to the idea that toughness and civilization are at odds. Civilized countries usually trounce uncivilized ones in conflict, and the main reason they don’t now is rules of engagement and other weirdness. Even the author’s example of the Greeks being overrun by the Romans doesn’t consider it was one civilized people conquering another, not a pack of barbarians.


    I’ve seen you and Harry go at it, and I think you’re mostly talking past each other. I know military men like to think much of what they’re doing has been going on for centuries, and sometimes it has, and sometimes it hasn’t. I also don’t think anybody is against discipline and obedience. No force could survive without it. I think the idea is that if you enforce discipline through being arbitrary and petty, you get discipline, but you also teach men that authority is arbitrary and petty. If that’s the case you get a corrupting experience.

    You may have personal experience, but no one has enough personal experience to see the whole picture on that alone, not that you’re claiming that. There is a psychological weirdness going on in the military at times that reflects the problems of larger society. It’s not specific to the military, but I think of the west African scandal, where it looks like Navy SEALs murdered a Green Beret who caught them embezzling and taking prostitutes to safe houses. Or the number of Marine DIs who disobeyed standing orders in training and claimed they couldn’t train men without disobeying orders when they were caught.

    Or, on the more positive side, the Navy admiral, who, bless him, had to reintroduce sailing knowledge into basic training. It was only a couple of years ago, but it took an admiral to weigh in and say we ought to teach sailors how to sail! Firefighting, how to live on ships, etc.

    I think the idea is to teach discipline and obedience through teaching skills that could save lives. Close order drill made sense when soldiers had to fight like that. Roman legion training was just combat training, full stop, as far as I can tell, Spartan training as well. Of course I might be misunderstanding you both.

  6. Kirk says:


    I’m not “talking past Harry”, unless it’s taken as “talking past his level of intelligence”.

    You don’t take shortcuts to get men of any era to do what is required; only children think they can skip out on the early stages of anything, and still reach the pinnacle of performance at any task. Whether it’s martial arts or some craftwork, you have to put in the tuition. Period.

    And, in the military, the tuition is paid through initial rote obedience, which is most rapidly learned through things like square-bashing foot drill. This point is missed by a lot of people, but it is there. And, I speak as someone who is terrible at it, lacking any innate sense of rhythm. It was only in my later years as a senior NCO that I began to see the point of it all, and I really don’t see a way of overcoming the necessity for it, short of re-inventing the wheel to the point where whatever you wound up with would look just like the drill and ceremonies you threw away.

    Chesterton’s Fence, my friend. That’s the issue at hand–”Brights” like our Walt think they can do ever so much better than the old-timers, but the reality is, they don’t understand what the old-timers were even doing, so they’re hardly going to be able to better their outcomes.

    An effective soldier has to be able to slot themselves into a working hierarchy seamlessly, and without questioning things under exigent circumstances. There’s a time and a place for innovation and free thought, but it ain’t in the middle of a fucking firefight. You have to know that when you tell soldier “A” to do something that he’s damn well going to do it, and that confidence has to exist on both sides of the order. Idjits like our Walt think that sort of thing is either unnecessary or will just “happen”, when the reality is that it likely won’t.

    The point of the rote obedience being beaten into their little heads during initial entry training and early soldierization is not because the senior leadership enjoys exercise of power, but because we damn well know that you can’t have a flock of fucking individualists doing their own damn thing under fire. You have to be able to count on soldier “A” doing what you tell him to so that soldier “B” won’t be advancing under fire to his death because “A” thought it would be brilliant to do something other than what he was told to do… And, without “B” having full faith and confidence that “A” is going to do as he was told and provide covering fire, “B” ain’t moving from his nice, safe position.

    The whole thing is like the arguments between teaching “whole language” vs. phonetics. Whole language is how proficient readers read, taking in whole words or phrases at once. But, and this is the key point, they didn’t get to that point by that technique in the first place. They all put in the tuition using plain old, boring phonics, sounding out each letter and phoneme at a time.

    Likewise, you don’t get to the seamless integration of an apparently hierarchy-free Special Forces team by way of magical “it just happens”. Each one of those guys went through the mill, and learned to subordinate themselves and their desires the hard way, in order to even reach the point where they qualified for Selection. There’s a reason why there is such a shitty success rate for the men they take in off the street straight to Selection, and it boils down to that whole lack of “mindless discipline”, which is really a hell of a lot more “mindful” than men like our Walt grasp.

    You cannot lead until you can follow, painful as that might be. If you cannot bring yourself to subordinate your entire self to others and the mission, you’re not ever going to succeed at any military task or mission. It’s that simple–And, every military force that’s more than an armed rabble knows this fact. The means of building this sort of disciplined response into men are well-known and relatively simple, but the amateur always thinks there’s a shortcut or some way around the whole issue. There isn’t.

    Half of what you’re doing with square-bashing isn’t mental conditioning to follow rules, but developing the confidence that the men you’re going to rely on under fire are going to be there, doing the right thing, when you need them. That confidence is a critical necessity, and you don’t develop it at all easily. If anything, the square-bashing is a shortcut to what you’d have to do under fire, with the commensurate casualty rates required to learn it all the hard way…

    One really ought to review the precise history of the Yugoslav partisans and the French Maquis elements, and what they had to go through in order to actually create effective combat elements from raw civilians. The casualty rates were horrendous, far higher than traditionally-trained military forces. And, I propose that the reason for that was the lack of what is gained from all that rote discipline and useless square-bashing that our Walt so decries.

  7. Hoyos says:


    That makes sense, I was actually reminded of an old convo we had a while back I had to look up where you discussed “hooah-rrthan thou syndrome”. You strike me as having a good balance in that context. I have no experience myself but over time I’ve read the experiences of those who have and it’s striking the balance between too hard and too soft that’s challenging.

    Sort of off topic, I’ve often thought that something like the old DOSAAF program in the Soviet Union could do wonders, minus the commie propaganda. We don’t have enough recruits because there just aren’t enough young men who are squared away enough to start especially since PE was gutted out of schools decades ago. A program that allows more of a ramp up would be valuable. The Soviets took it so seriously that some of their “two year conscripts” were already qualified marksmen, radiomen, and in some cases parachutists, familiar with military protocol and discipline before they started day one of basic training.

  8. Kirk says:


    I’m not a fan of the sort of public militarization that DOSAAF was such an outstanding example of, along with the Hitlerjugend. There’s a line to be drawn, there–And, I come squarely down on the side of “That’s not the way to do it…”.

    At the same time, I agree that there’s a lot more we could and should be doing in this regard. I suppose that makes me an intellectual, able to hold two simultaneous and mutually exclusive ideas at the same time.

    The thing is that the state-supported things like DOSAAF and the Hitlerjugend tend to turn into vehicles for state-sponsored indoctrination and gatekeepers. In the Soviet Union, if you were a humble Kazakh peasant boy whose DOSAAF chapter didn’t have the funding and equipment to do cool things like skydiving, you were pretty much going to be relegated to the construction battalions upon conscription, regardless of your merits as a potential soldier.

    As well, there’s the fact that such state-sanctioned and supported affairs tend to cater to the lowest common denominator–I’ve actually talked this over with guys who came up through the system in the late Cold War, and they universally snorted derisively at the idea that DOSAAF did them any good, in terms of preparation for military service. While there were some chapters that managed to do some good things like marksmanship training, the reality was that there were constant shortages of things they needed to do real training with, like ammo, and there was a whole lot of “storming the norm” or what we call “pencil-whipping” in the West. One guy told me he got assigned the Dragunov as a designated marksman based entirely on his DOSAAF records, which were completely bogus–He’d never once been able to actually do marksmanship training with DOSAAF because they didn’t have ammunition, period. So, they pencil-whipped the whole thing, and the first (and, only…) time he fired an SVD was during an inspection, where the cadre took great pains to falsify his hits downrange.

    So, yeah… It looks like a wunnerful idea on paper, but the reality is often a lot different. I don’t think we’d do much better, were we to actually militarize things like Junior ROTC. The Brits seem to do fairly well with their “Boy Soldier” thing, but that seems to be a thing of the past.

    My own belief is that we need far more robust civil defense systems, anyway–And, that should be the mechanism we use to deal with this issue. The old-school militia movement that the National Guard acts suborned with deliberate malice is something we should think seriously about bringing back, if only for doing things like mobilizing for disaster relief and post-disaster security. You’re going to get what amounts to mob action, anyway, so you may as well get it under legitimate control of the authorities. A militia system would enable that, but I doubt that they’ll ever go for any such solution.

    You have to look at the National Guard enablement acts as something that the Feds did to castrate the states. Yeah, the old militia system produced some seriously spotty results, but the fact is that they also produced most of the forces that fought the Civil War, and were generally positive forces in the communities. Notwithstanding the times they spun out of control, and went out massacring the natives…

    I really don’t see a means of solving the issue you raise. Actually doing anything effective, that would support the idea of a “citizen-soldier” ain’t gonna happen because that entire concept scares the oligarchy out of its wits. They don’t want anyone with any real independence having access to organized armed force, and since that’s what the militia amounts to…? Yeah. There’s a reason we don’t have those any more, and it is the same one that we don’t have state-appointed Senators: The idea scared the crap out of the Progressives, who saw all that as a potential check on their powers.

    Wonder why Bill Clinton expended so much political capital on demonizing the militia movement? Wonder why the centers of power in the US are so scared of a citizenry that can oppose their programs? That’s it, right there: They fear the outcome, if the citizens are able to effectively oppose them.

    We could do with an effective civil defense-oriented militia, one that could train and feed into the Regular Army with personnel who’d at least been exposed to the idea of service. But, that’s too damn dangerous, and it ain’t going to happen. Ever.

    At least, this side of the Second American Revolution, which I suspect is going to be coming a lot sooner than any prognosticator thinks. Felching idjits that we have running the place, these days…

  9. Sam J. says:

    “…And, in the military, the tuition is paid through initial rote obedience, which is most rapidly learned through things like square-bashing foot drill…”

    Harry doesn’t understand. He thinks drill is everything or that I, and maybe Kirk, are saying drill is everything.

    An good analogy is IQ test. IQ test everyone would acknowledge don’t tell the whole story. Plenty of people can score high but have no common sense but…as an all around generalized quick way to find out where to place people for very low cost you can’t beat IQ test.

    All this drill is much the same thing. For me I did this marching and stuff in basic and a little in tech school and after that I never did it again but once when I was tasked to be the guard to lower the base flag once in the evening. This being a task that they just picked people on rotation like jury duty. And I did my share of cleaning toilets and lots of mopping of hangers but this stuff has to be done by someone.

    I also really believe that all this simple stuff like marching, folding clothes a specific size, making beds a certain way all this piddly stuff is a way they can weed out the worst trouble makers. I say again that I saw that people who would not even make an effort to do this basic stuff were fuck ups and I wouldn’t want them watching my back.

    I’m not sure why Harry gets so bent out of shape about this. There’s no doubt that some assholes in the military use this sort spit and shine discipline as punishment and to harasses people but name me any institution that doesn’t have assholes and people who abuse things of value to the institution. That the military is not perfect is not surprise and any effort to make it perfect will just wind itself into a knot like other “ism’s” like communism, libartardinism, and on and on.

    Drill is nothing more than a short hand way to get results with the least cost.

  10. Hoyos says:


    Ha! It’s the Soviet Union so I’m not surprised the books were cooked. I was basing what I said off Viktor Suvorov.

    The old militia system was really fascinating. I have an ancestor who left behind some writings about his life in 19th century Massachusetts and his membership in the militia was fascinating. It was kind of like the British TA system and very rooted in the community. They were a well off community so they were able to get one of the first shipments of Remington repeating rifles as I recall, delivered by a company rep who trained them in its use.

    I can totally see why the feds would quash it, it was unit by the community for the community and I get the idea from the Remington example that some of the richer cities might be better equipped than the regular army. If they ever felt the need to put the boot in on a place they’d be facing locals who train together, have strong bonds, have superior local intelligence, and maybe better equipment.

    Honestly on a ten thousand foot level, I’m surprised at how connected the man was to his community compared to the average American. Church, fraternal and professional organizations, the militia, it was like the colonial period. I’m not a conspiracy theorist but if you really wanted to bust up a community and make it malleable those are the things you have to take down, you’ve got to atomise men so they have fewer friends, fewer connections. Not just martial skills but these organizations are a ready made intelligence network in the event if a conflagration. You always know a guy who knows a guy that covers your whole local geography and local situation, industry, government, etc. You have higher average trust, you know a guy for years and he knows a guy the same way.

  11. Kirk says:

    I have to agree with Sam, here.

    I’ve had experience with trying to run an outfit filled with self-actuated “genious” types. It did not go well. You don’t have time to tell everyone every detail of a mission, and when you tell someone to do task “A” in a specific manner, and then they decide to do it “better” in such a manner that it screws up seven different linked tasks that they didn’t know about or account for…? Yeah. No military in the world has time for that, literally.

    I scored easily in the 95th percentile on the ASVAB. I am here to tell you that that does not mean squat, in terms of being able to “get things done”, because there’s this slight problem of what everyone else is doing–And, if they aren’t on the same sheet of music with you, you can be as “smart” as you like, and nothing good is going to come of it. Took me a couple of years to figure that out, and I’m also going to tell you that after I did, I discovered what a massive pain-in-the-ass people who think they’re smarter than everyone else and the system really are. I also found that I really loathed people who scored as well as I did on the tests, because they were universally the biggest impediments to actually getting things done, ‘cos they were so much smarter than everyone else. They always knew better, and could not just get with the program in any way, shape, or form.

    Innovation and smarts can work wonders in some circumstances, and you need that leavening of actually smart people to have an effective organization. But, the sad reality is, most of the time, they’re actually detriments to getting anything productive done, especially when they haven’t been properly disciplined or acculturated as soldiers. Sadly, all too many of them coming in the military for the latter half of my career lacked such discipline or acculturation, simply because other smart people like our Walt broke the system, not understanding how it worked or what it did.

    God save me from “experts” and the “smart”. When they write the epitaph for Western Civ, the one thing I expect to find in it is something to the effect of a plaintive “But, they tested so well…” when discussing our current kakistocratic idiocracy.

  12. Kirk says:


    Yeah, you have to take Suvorov with ye olde graine of salte… One must always remember that he was making a living off painting the Soviets as these ten foot-tall supermen, and that’s how he portrayed them. There is also the fact that I don’t think he really recognized the deficiencies, having grown up in the system and having bought into a lot of the BS about their military–Which was really about the only thing the Soviets had going for themselves. End of the day, the Soviets were really kinda shit at doing “army”. You should have heard some of the stories I got from my friend who’d been a Motorized Rifle Regiment member, and who later joined the US Army as a Combat Engineer. He was an interesting informant, because while there were a lot of things that we thought we knew that were bullshit, there was a bunch of stuff that would probably have been major issues for the Soviets and their “way of war”, being as they no longer had or have the bottomless founts of manpower they expended in WWII. So, yeah… Suvorov is an interesting data point, but you have to acknowledge that he’s not exactly the best and/or most accurate source of knowledge when it comes to things Soviet.

    The militia thing is something that has always struck me as being another one of those turn-of-the-century “reforms” that really… Wasn’t.

    The Second Amendment is worded the way it is because it addressed the very issue that we’re discussing, here–Not the possession of the means of self-defense, but the actual mechanism of armed force in a democratic republic. The men who brought in the National Guard system either knowingly or unknowingly destroyed that essential safeguard on the creeping power of Federalism in two key ways: One, they neutered the state militia forces, and two, they created an effective “standing army” with the National Guard that they could readily go out adventuring with. Under the old system, it would have been nightmarish to try to do something like we did in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and that wasn’t a bug–That was a feature. The militia was meant to be a huge pain in the ass to use as an expeditionary force, specifically because the Founders didn’t want such things to go on. The Mexican War was a perfect early example of why they didn’t want “forces in being” available to the Federal government–It encouraged foreign entanglements.

    It’s water under the bridge, now, but… It is valuable to be able to trace out what we lost, and how it effected change on the way to our current Federal untouchable and unelected tyrants. The fact that the Nancy Pelosis of our government could order National Guard troops to Washington DC to guard against imaginary insurrectionists and that Trump had his orders ignored by the elite scoundrels running the Pentagon is a very telling point, and one that demarks just how far down the rabbit hole we already are.

    Only thing that I find comforting is the knowledge that when the time comes, most of the people come to shoot at me are probably going to be more proficient at their Consideration of Others skills than their martial ones… Which will likely come as a nasty surprise to the oligarchy.

  13. Well, there have been real geniuses, who come in with no military background and yet show the military how it’s done — Forrest, for one. Of course he had such a low level of pompousness that he started by enlisting as a private soldier — not that that lasted long, but he let his ability and dedication to the cause speak for itself rather than demanding a high position. Admittedly the number of such geniuses is so low that someone who thinks he’s one almost certainly isn’t; and the people who are commonly called “elites” today wouldn’t even try to imitate Forrest, thinking him too low-class and too guilty. (Contrary to what Ted Cruz tweeted, Forrest did not start the Ku Klux Klan. He did disband it.)

    Oliver Cromwell was another of those few:


  14. Kirk says:


    In both your examples, you’ll note that both Forrest and Cromwell served their apprenticeships at the lower levels–Forrest as a mere private, and Cromwell as a cavalry troop leader.

    You don’t go from zero to what those two were without at least some grounding, and while they no doubt both benefited from being men of competence in the first place, they rose on their own merits rather than because they were selected by the “system”. Many of the Confederate Army leaders were former US Army types who were typified by Braxton Bragg, an amazingly incompetent graduate of West Point who’d earned a reputation as being incredibly difficult to work with, as well as being utterly incompetent.

    Lee wasn’t all that good, either. I’ve got a paper buried somewhere in all of my references which basically takes the position that the primary reason the Confederacy lost the war was precisely because so many former US Army officers went over to them, and they weren’t the good ones. Had Lee and Jefferson Davis (another “hero” of the Mexican-American War…) been truly competent, they’d have forced the Union to invade them, and conducted the war on interior lines. Instead, they took their tactical superiority and pissed it away with strategic stupidity on a colossal scale.

    Interestingly, that paper was written by a southern-sympathizing author, who reluctantly concluded that the South essentially committed “suicide-by-cop” when it chose the leadership it did. Davis was an idiot, and most of the military leaders he selected were equally doltish. What few really good generals they produced were like Forrest or Stuart, men that Davis considered outside his circle of friends and acquaintances.

    Also note that both Cromwell and Jackson were noted for their “relentless drilling” of their troops and a rather draconian attitude towards discipline. Go figure, huh?

  15. The American Muse says:

    Kirk, I am not of the opinion that Lee could do no wrong, but him being incompetent goes against everything I’ve learned in books or lectures or whatever other info is out there. Why you do you say that he “wasn’t all that good, either”.

    if you don’t feel like expounding here, feel free to point me to the direction of some serious history or a copy of that paper.

  16. GE says:

    The following is an excerpt from Ian Hay’s book The First Hundred Thousand that supports Kirk’s view of initial training.

    Again, if two privates are detailed to empty the regimental ashbin, a junior N.C.O. ranges them in line, calls them to attention, and marches them off to the scene of their labours, decently and in order. If a soldier obtains leave to go home on furlough for the week-end, he is collected into a party, and, after being inspected to see that his buttons are clean, his hair properly cut, and his nose correctly blown, is marched off to the station, where a ticket is provided for him, and he and his fellow-wayfarers are safely tucked into a third-smoker labelled “Military Party.” (No wonder he sometimes gets lost on arriving at Waterloo!) In short, if there is a job to be done, the senior soldier present chaperons somebody else while he does it.

    This system has been attacked on the ground that it breeds loss of self-reliance and initiative. As a matter of fact, the result is almost exactly the opposite. Under its operation a soldier rapidly acquires the art of placing himself under the command of his nearest superior in rank; but at the same time he learns with equal rapidity to take command himself if no superior be present—no bad thing in times of battle and sudden death, when shrapnel is whistling, and promotion is taking place with grim and unceasing automaticity.

  17. Bruce says:

    Kirk, wiki thinks the Dick Act that formed the National Guard was meant to make Jim Crow tougher. The act was mostly meant to make the militia less incompetent, say dropping artillery on themselves at Wounded Knee or failing to keep clean and boil their water in the Spanish American War. I think the act was also meant to make the National Guard tougher strikebreakers than the militia.

  18. Forrest was only a private for a matter of days, and that in a hastily-thrown-together volunteer unit. When a private shows up and starts buying weapons for the rest of the unit using his own personal funds, and already has a reputation for leadership and personal courage, it quickly becomes obvious to everyone that “private” is not the job for him; he was told to recruit his own unit. He did work his way up from there, learning as he went, but I think it’d be hard to name any mentor to whom he “apprenticed”, though of course he adopted military customs and procedures unless he had reason to deviate from them. He took the military profession seriously, which I think is the main thing you’re asking for.

    I’ve never seen what was supposed to be so great about Lee, either. A decent general, sure; but people speak far more highly of him than that. As for his “honor” forcing him to fight for the South, I’ve never seen any explanation of what part of what code of honor would dictate any such thing. Now, by the time of the Civil War he was in his late fifties, suffering from “rheumatism”, and less than a decade away from dying of illness. Such a thing might excuse, say, ordering Pickett’s charge; it’s a bit like Napoleon suffering from an attack of hemorrhoids at Waterloo.

    The need for military discipline really should be obvious: most tactics don’t work unless people act in sync with each other, and for that people have to obey orders. This happens plenty in non-military matters too, though usually not at such a fast pace nor as lethally. When it is at such a fast pace, as in sports, they do plenty of practice drills.

  19. Bruce says:

    Lee fought for slavery, the authorized ‘Memoirs of General Lee by his Chief of Staff’ say so. But he also fought to defend his home Virginia from federal troops, and the way New England spent the war of 1812 supporting the British made Virginia’s legal claim that these United States were a confederacy, okay to leave at will, reasonable. That’s why the abolitionists were behind Horace Greeley when he said ‘let the erring sisters go’. With the slave states out of the Union, abolitionists were no longer party to a covenant with Death and Hell and Slavery. Worked for them, and abolitionists were an annoying minority even North. Secession was about slavery, but it was all the southern boys wanting to kill a Yankee who made it the Civil War.

    Maybe someone on this forum knows a better engineering soldier in the 19th century than Lee? I don’t. He made the Mexico City defenses work against the defenders. He built a bunch of major forts before the Civil War, he cleared the St Louis rapids, he was accepted as the top US engineering soldier from the Mexican War to the Civil War. He spent the Civil War travelling with a pet engineering battalion that would march up and fix weak spots in the Southern line overnight, forting them up.

    You may read Sheridan’s memoirs for condescending praise at the way the Union enlisted swine were surprising less incompetent at improvised field fortifications their lives depended on than Sheridan expected. Certainly they got no help from Sheridan.-

    In open battle Lee made mistakes, but Chancellorsville was great generalship. He lost Gettysburg three days in a row by stupid frontal attacks three days in a row, it wasn’t just Pickett’s charge, but Lee and Longstreet spent their withdrawl afterwards praying the Slave Power Eternal the Union would attack them. Had the Union hit them, Gettysburg would have been a Southern victory. And the stuff against Grant was scary good for a general with no reserves. Very few but Grant with a bigger army could have beaten Lee. And McClellan wasn’t that bad, he was just up against someone much better making him look awful. McClellan would have beat Bragg.

    After the war, Lee led the party that favored getting along with the North. If he hadn’t, the Civil War would have dragged on longer, maybe a full million dead instead of a half million. Worth some statues. It’s also worth remembering that Frederick Douglass found some of the slaves Lee had flogged before rubbing salt water in their wounds.

    I do lectures on the Civil War without much prompting, so ignore this if you like.

  20. Kirk says:

    I’ve always felt that the Civil War was a lot like a Rorschach Test for people, in that what they believe and opine about it tells you rather more about them than it tells about the actual event they’re describing and discussing. It’s always amusing to hear the Southern whinging about Sherman’s March, while simultaneously ignoring the fact that he was marching through country built on the back of slavery that really held little back from abusing its victims.

    The other bit of hypocrisy is when the Unionists go on and on about the nobility of their cause, when the brute fact is, they mostly didn’t give a rat’s ass about the slaves and gladly looked the other way when it came to the post-war Jim Crow laws that came in, while simultaneously locking the blacks that moved north into what amounted to servitude not too far removed from what they had to put up with in the South under slavery.

    And, of course, there are the multitudinous hypocrisies of the blacks, who go after the slave owners and ignore the fact that they were only freed because other white men chose to fight over the issue of slavery. The white male is excoriated because some of their historical antecedents owned slaves, but nothing at all is ever mentioned of the (admittedly few…) black slave owners, or the men who gave their lives to end the practice. All that’s ignored, in favor of tagging every white male, even the ones whose ancestors weren’t even on this continent during the era of slavery, with the onus of having been a part of it all.

    All told, I’ve little patience for any of them. It happened well over a century ago, and all of the participants and victims are dead and buried. Let it go, and quit living in the past.

  21. Bruce, how does the following strike you for an engineering feat?

    “A mile north of Senatobia on the morning of the twentieth he struck the flooded Hickahala Creek–bankfull, sixty feet wide in the current. …he turned his cavalry into bridge-building engineering troops. The raw materials of his bridge were trees of the forest used for the supports of his suspension span; the wild grapevines festooning the trees, cut down and woven together to form the suspension cables; a small flatboat found at the crossing, used for a float or pontoon to support the center of the span where it hung lowest, and two bundles of poles, tied together with grapevines, placed as pontoons on either side of the flatboat; and, finally, the plank floors taken up from the ginhouses for miles about…to form the floor of this remarkable span–homemade, using the materials of nature which came to hand, and completed…in an hour.

    “Six miles beyond the Hickahala lay the Coldwater river, twice as wide, with banks brimfull, a booming current… there was nothing for it but another and bigger bridge, made of the same sort of materials and finished in three hours.”

    That was Forrest’s work, as described in the book “First With the Most” by Robert Selph Henry.

    By the way, it’s no surprise that Lee chose to fight on the same side as most of his friends and neighbors, nor particularly discreditable; it’s just the idea that “honor” demanded it that leaves me scratching my head: I’ve heard of various codes of honor, but none that will tell you which side to take in a civil war.

    As to why the North didn’t just let the South go: as far as I can tell, it was because they felt that the South wouldn’t just be content to leave, but instead would try to build up a slaver empire which could rival the North’s power: they had Cuba and Mexico in their sights, and conflict over the western territories of the US would be likely; better to put a quick end to this nonsense than to let the struggle drag on. In things like the Fugitive Slave Act and the Dred Scott decision, the South had shown itself wanting to not just preserve slavery but extend its reach. When they fired on Fort Sumter rather than patiently negotiating the issue, that was the last straw.

  22. Bruce says:

    Kirk, yes, everything is a Rorschach test.

    Norman, that’s good engineering, but one hour? Three hours? Stretchers.

  23. Gavin Longmuir says:

    Kirk: “And, of course, there are the multitudinous hypocrisies of the blacks, who go after the slave owners and ignore the fact that they were only freed because other white men chose to fight over the issue of slavery.”

    The biggest hypocrisy is over the issue of — Who Enslaved the Slaves?

    We know the answer to that question. It was fellow Africans selling into slavery the other tribes they had defeated in battle. Of course, the alternatives to selling their defeated foes to slave traders were to use them as their own slaves or to kill them — both of which were common practice.

    We also know that slavery was the standard practice for the human race for millenia, essentially until the development of fossil-fuel steam engines in the 1800s. We know that slavery in North America was a side-show compared to the order of magnitude larger slave trade to English, French, Spanish plantations in Central & Southern America. Further, we know that Trans-Atlantic slave trading was itself small beer compared to the much larger slave trade from East Africa to the Middle East & beyond.

    Spare a thought for the impoverished Europeans who escaped from the vile conditions in Europe to the New World by becoming indentures labor — treated worse than slaves because slaves cost money. And what about the Chinese & other Asians brought to the US to build the railroads — and treated as expendable because they were easily-replaced contract labor instead of expensive slaves?

    The sad fact is that African slavery does continue today, in places like Libya which Hillary Clinton destabilized. And there is the functional equivalent of slavery in the Uighur work camps of Western China. But woke Westerners prefer to rail against a past they cannot change than to get off their asses and do something positive about today’s injustices.

    Yes, the hypocrisy is deep, among whites as well as blacks.

  24. Yeah, I didn’t believe that bridge-building feat either at first; I had to check the sources before acknowledging it. Yet there it was. Forrest and his men were on their way to raid Memphis, and indeed caught the Union forces napping (in many cases literally), so time was of the essence; and with hundreds of men all working simultaneously, the times quoted are not impossible.

    I took a bit of a look into Lee’s engineering accomplishments, and while they seemed like good solid work, I didn’t see anything in the ‘wait, can that actually be real’ class.

  25. Kirk says:

    Regarding those bridge-building numbers:

    Off the top of my head, as a former combat engineer who would have been one of the guys tasked to do stuff like that “back when”, I gotta tell you it sounds really, really fluffed. A sixty-foot water obstacle at flood stage? In one hour, improvised materials?

    I could maybe see someone getting across something like that with modern prefab equipment in that time, but having to cut, sawyer, and transport it all? I’m gonna call “bullshit”. Maybe a full dawn-to-dusk day with all the willing hand labor you could want, but the described bridges strike me as being really implausible in pre-heavy equipment days, especially in those quoted timeframes.

    I can’t say for sure without seeing more information, like what the bridge sites looked like and how high and fast the water was running, but both of those described feats strike me as being highly implausible as described. I think someone either egged the pudding as they wrote that encomium, or they got their facts seriously wrong.

    Either way, it wouldn’t surprise me. Military history is filled with “historians” that have no clue about what really went on, or how things were actually accomplished. I think it was Wellington who quipped something like “The history of a battle, is not unlike the history of a ball. Some individuals may recollect all the little events of which the great result is the battle won or lost, but no individual can recollect the order in which, or the exact moment at which, they occurred, which makes all the difference as to their value or importance.”. You go back and interview the participants after the fact, and you’re going to get a different perspective and timeline from every one of them, and most will be highly inaccurate.

  26. Kirk says:


    I think I’ve recounted the story of my experience with a pair of genuine Nigerian first-generation immigrants participating in an Army “Equal Opportunity Sensing Session” here, before. Highly educational, that was–And, possibly the closest I’ve ever come to participating in a race riot while I was in the Army.

    Summary was that we had one of those typical group encounter sessions going on, and the guy who was leading it decided to get an affirmation from his “Nigerian Brother” who was in the audience. Said Nigerian really did not like American blacks, and he was at the end of his enlistment contract, out of patience, and he decided to burn all of his bridges and let the “black community” in our unit know his opinion of them and their lifestyles. It was not pretty.

    I wasn’t paying attention to how he started it out, but when he got to the point where he was telling all and sundry that their ancestors had been sold to the white man as slaves because they were inferior and very poor slaves for their African owners…? Holy damn, but did the cognitive dissonance start to flow. The fact that the other Nigerian we had, a lieutenant, also agreed with him and was highly critical of what he saw around him? Dude… It was almost amusing how it went down. All the white senior leadership was edging towards the doors at the rear of the auditorium, the malcontents were in shock, and many of the rest of the junior enlisted were just milling around in confusion going “Wait… What? What the hell did he just say…?”.

    You really do not want to get the full-bore, politically incorrect view of the slave sales from the African-who-did-the-selling perspective. You will probably not like the things they relate, and you really won’t like what they have to tell you.

    I look back on that as one of the more surreal experiences that I went through while before the flag. It was, to say the least, an eye-opener. The utter lack of respect that a lot of Africans have for American blacks, especially the ones from the more organized tribal societies? It’s palpable, and you don’t want to be in the room when they express it towards those American blacks. I’m honestly surprised that there wasn’t real violence, that day. I put it down to the shock factor. Of course, we basically had to tell our Nigerian informant that he should stay at home and not come in to work for the remainder of his time with us, and that he could expedite clearing post while he was at it… If he’d have stayed, I think he’d have had to go into protective custody or get transferred.

    Never going to forget looking over at all the other white senior NCOs, with all of us more-or-less mouthing “Did he really just say that…? Here? We’re all gonna die today, aren’t we…?”.

  27. Here’s another source (Wyeth) on that crossing:

    “[Forrest] had planned the crossing long before he reached the stream. He had sent in advance a detachment of his best-mounted troops with instructions to pick out some suitable place for a crossing, to fell four trees, two on either bank, leaving the stumps convenient for the support of cables, and to have cut, twisted together, and in place by the time he arrived a cable made of the heavy grape and muscadine vines which grow in great profusion and of unusual size and length in the fertile alluvial bottoms of the Missisippi country. These novel cables were all ready when he reached the stream. Twisted around and lashed to the stumps on either side, by their weight they curved down until they were only two or three feet above the water at the middle of the stream. Just under the middle the ferry-boat was anchored, and on either side of this a series of cypress logs were floated in and fixed at certain distances to add support where, by reason of the heavy weight of the flooring and of the troops passing over, it would sag in the middle. As the command approached within three or four miles of the Hickahala every gin-house and cabin was stripped of its flooring, and as each trooper rode up he brought on his shoulder his burden of planks.

    “Within an hour’s time of the arrival of the head of the column at this stream, the planks had been laid and the entire command had crossed over, the troops dismounting and crossing over in single file, each leading his horse.

    “Colonel J. U. Green, who commanded one of Forrest’s regiments, informs the writer that in crossing on one of these grape-vine pontoons the cables stretched or yielded until the center was well submerged before the last of the troops crossed over. Seven miles further north it became necessary to build a similar structure over the Coldwater, a stream twice as wide as the Hickahala, and here three hours were consumed in crossing. Notwithstanding all these hindrances, at dark, on the 20th, Forrest with his command had arrived at Hernando…”

    So by Wyeth’s account that “hour’s time” didn’t include the preparation time for the stumps and cables, nor for the gathering of planks; and I imagine the cables in particular took a fair bit of time to make. On the other hand it did include the time taken for the crossing itself (two thousand men leading horses in single file). Still over-egged? Perhaps, but there isn’t too much room for that: the day’s journey, including both bridgings, was from Senatobia to Hernando (about 15 miles), and even the non-bridging part was so muddy that it wore out enough horses that a quarter of the men had to be left behind.

  28. Kirk says:

    The preparation time puts that a lot further into the territory of “Yeah, that’s doable…”. If only because that’s really the lion’s share of the work involved.

    Anchorage system in place, materials stockpiled? Sure, assembly could have been done in an hour or so, with the right men. The first narrative you put up struck me as “Either there’s a lot left out, or someone is lying their asses off…”.

  29. Sam J. says:

    “…Had Lee and Jefferson Davis (another ‘hero’ of the Mexican-American War…) been truly competent, they’d have forced the Union to invade them, and conducted the war on interior lines…”

    This would have never worked.

    Your missing something. You can look at a lot of Lee’s frontal attacks and wonder what he was thinking. Well I know what he was thinking. The South had way less resources, industry and people and they knew the only way for them to win was to hit the North so hard it would demoralize them and force them to quit. If this did not happen then the slow grind of war would always favor those with the most resources and that’s exactly what happened. This was common knowledge I’m sure. It doesn’t take a genius to see this.

    Same thing happened to the Germans in WWI and WWII.

    Have any of you read Guns of the South? Sci-fi where a bunch of South Africans time travel to the civil war with AK-47′s and ammo to give to the Confederate army. Of course they win.

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