It is a disturbing tale, full of violent late-teenage angst

Saturday, February 17th, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew RobertsNapoleon was a writer manqué, Andrew Roberts explains (in Napoleon: A Life), penning around sixty essays, novellas, philosophical pieces, histories, treatises, pamphlets and open letters before the age of twenty-six:

In early May 1786, aged sixteen, Napoleon wrote a two-page essay entitled ‘On Suicide’ which mixed the anguished cry of a romantic nationalist with an exercise in classical oratory. ‘Always alone and in the midst of men, I come back to my rooms to dream with myself, and to surrender myself to all the vivacity of my melancholy,’ he wrote. ‘In which direction are my thoughts turned today? Toward death.’


A few days after the successful conclusion of the shell-testing project, Napoleon wrote the first paragraph of his ‘Dissertation sur l’Autorité Royale’, which argued that military rule was a better system of government than tyranny and concluded, unambiguously: ‘There are very few kings who would not deserve to be dethroned.’


Luckily, just as he was about to send his ‘Dissertation’ to a publisher, the news arrived that Étienne-Charles de Loménie de Brienne, Louis XVI’s finance minister, to whom the essay was dedicated, had been dismissed. Napoleon quickly rescinded publication.

His writing mania extended to drafting the regulations for his officers’ mess, which he somehow turned into a 4,500-word document full of literary orotundities such as: ‘Night can hold no gloom for he who overlooks nothing that might in any way compromise his rank or his uniform. The penetrating eyes of the eagle and the hundred heads of Argus would barely suffice to fulfil the obligations and duties of his mandate.’

In January 1789 he wrote a Romantic melodrama, ‘The Earl of Essex: An English Story’, not his finest literary endeavour. ‘The fingers of the Countess sank into gaping wounds,’ begins one paragraph. ‘Her fingers dripped with blood. She cried out, hid her face, but looking up again could see nothing. Terrified, trembling, aghast, cut to the very quick by these terrible forebodings, the Countess got into a carriage and arrived at the Tower.’ The story includes assassination plots, love, murder, premonitions, and the overthrow of King James II.

Continuing in this melodramatic style, in March 1789 Napoleon wrote a two-page short story called ‘The Mask of the Prophet’, about a handsome and charismatic Arab soldier-prophet, Hakem, who has to wear a silver mask because he has been disfigured by illness. Having fallen out with the local prince, Mahadi, Hakem has his disciples dig lime-filled pits, supposedly for their enemies, but he poisons his own followers, throws their bodies into the pits and finally immolates himself. It is a disturbing tale, full of violent late-teenage angst.

It will be years before they can offer new, redesigned ADB headlights

Thursday, February 15th, 2024

In Europe and Asia, many cars offer adaptive driving beam headlights that can bath the road ahead in bright light without ever blinding other drivers:

ADB is a lighting technology that has been available for many years in other parts of the world including Europe, China and Canada, but not in the United States.

It can actually shape the light coming from headlights rather than scattering it all over the road. If there’s a car coming in the other direction, or one driving ahead in the same lane, the light stays precisely away from that vehicle. The rest of the road is still covered in bright light with just a pocket of dimmer light around the other vehicles. This way a deer, pedestrian or bicyclist by the side of the road can still be seen clearly while other drivers sharing the road can see, too.

In America, the closest we can get to that today are automatic high beams, a feature available on many new cars that automatically flicks off the high beams if another vehicle is detected ahead. But that still means driving much — or most — of the time using only low beam headlights that don’t reach very far. That can be dangerous.

US auto safety regulations enacted in 2022 were supposed to finally allow ADB headlight, something for which the auto industry and safety groups had long been asking for. But, according to automakers and safety advocates, the new rules make it difficult for automakers to add the feature. That means it will probably be years before ADB headlights are widely available in the US.

ADB-enabled headlights already are sold on some luxury cars in America. They just lack the software to perform the way they were designed to. Some American Mercedes drivers can enjoy a dazzling light display as they start up or shut off their cars at night. Moving streaks of light wash across the pavement or walls in front of the car like a glittering snowstorm. But, while driving, the lights work just like standard high beam, low beam headlights. Their adaptive capabilities aren’t enabled here because they still don’t meet US rules.

Some ADB headlights work like digital projectors, using a million or more LED pixels to project light patterns on the road. Even in the US, some Mercedes vehicles can project symbols like arrows or lines on the road to guide drivers. Less expensive systems in Europe and Asia use several thousand or even fewer light emitters, reflectors or shutter systems to create adaptive beams,

Until two years ago, US auto safety regulations, written for traditional headlights, simply didn’t allow for adaptive headlight technology at all. Light beams wrapping around other vehicles just wasn’t something the regulations could encompass so the technology wasn’t allowed here by default.

That changed in early 2022 when, after a decade of work on it, America’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration finalized regulations for adaptive beam headlights. But because the US regulations are so different from those in other countries, with requirements so difficult to meet, automakers still can’t offer it here. It will be years before they can offer new, redesigned ADB headlights that meet the standards, auto industry sources say.


NHTSA’s rules require the ADB headlights to respond extremely swiftly after detecting another vehicle within reach of the lights, much faster than other standards require in the EU and Canada. Also much faster than a human could switch off an ordinary high beam headlight. They also dictate extreme narrow lines between bright and dark regions.

He had little interest in equality of outcome, human rights, freedom of the press or parliamentarianism

Saturday, February 10th, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew RobertsBy the time Napoleon had spent five years at Brienne and one at the École Militaire, Andrew Roberts explains (in Napoleon: A Life), he was thoroughly imbued with the military ethos:

His acceptance of the revolutionary principles of equality before the law, rational government, meritocracy, efficiency and aggressive nationalism fit in well with this ethos but he had little interest in equality of outcome, human rights, freedom of the press or parliamentarianism, all of which, to his mind, did not. Napoleon’s upbringing imbued him with a reverence for social hierarchy, law and order, and a strong belief in reward for merit and courage, but also a dislike of politicians, lawyers, journalists and Britain.

As Claude-François de Méneval, the private secretary who succeeded Bourrienne in 1802, was later to write, Napoleon left school with ‘pride, and a sentiment of dignity, a warlike instinct, a genius for form, a love of order and of discipline’. These were all part of the officer’s code, and made him into a profound social conservative. As an army officer, Napoleon believed in centralized control within a recognized hierarchical chain of command and the importance of maintaining high morale. Order in matters of administration and education was vital. He had a deep, instinctive distaste for anything which looked like a mutinous canaille (mob). None of these feelings was to change much during the French Revolution, or, indeed, for the rest of his life.

The poor reap what the luxury belief class sows

Friday, February 9th, 2024

Troubled by Rob HendersonKay S. Hymowitz reviews Rob Henderson’s Troubled: A Memoir of Foster Care, Family, and Social Class:

In Rob Henderson’s first recounted memory in his new memoir, Troubled, he is three years old, screaming in terror and clinging to his mother as two policemen wrestle handcuffs onto her wrists. He had no idea why this was happening, of course; the scuffle likely had something to do with his mother’s incorrigible drug addiction. A Korean-born college dropout, she relied on prostitution to support her habit. When she and Rob weren’t living in a car, she would tie him to a chair in the apartment to attend to her customers. Her other two boys, Rob’s brothers, had different fathers; Rob would never know them or learn what became of them.


His life took a turn for the better when, lacking alternatives, he enlisted in the Air Force. Conventional wisdom has it that boys like Rob learn self-discipline and responsibility from military life, but Henderson has a different take. The military didn’t “transform” him, he argued — it merely stopped him from becoming a self-destructive basket case. Most kids with his background are not so lucky.


Later, he was accepted at Yale University. For all elite universities’ problems — Henderson spotted them quickly — Yale was rocket fuel for his under-exercised brain. Henderson sounded like the kind of student that professors pray for but rarely see: mature, mindful, and hungry for knowledge. He didn’t just “do the reading;” he tested the ideas he encountered against own experiences and observations.

Class by Paul Fussell

Henderson’s restless mind had been particularly stimulated by a 1983 book called Class: A Guide Through America’s Status System by the iconoclastic historian-critic Paul Fussell. Class opens Henderson’s eyes to the distance between forlorn places like Red Bluff and the towns of his Yale classmates’ upper middle-class upbringings. He noticed more than the obvious markers of privilege, like the students in $900 Canadian Goose jackets who strode around campus; he discovered the more subtle ways people like him were kept from moving up. Voguish words like “heteronormative” and “cisgender,” for instance, signaled that the speaker was a member of the educated class. Fussell had remarked that upper-class people often name their pets after literary or historical figures to flaunt their education. Sure enough, one of the first Yalies Henderson met had a pet cat named “Learned Claw,” a play on the name of jurist Learned Hand.

Henderson became fascinated by “class divides and social hierarchies,” adding Pierre Bourdeau, Emile Durkheim, and Thorstein Veblen to his reading list. His primary source, however, was Yale itself. In Red Bluff, hardly anyone went to college or even aspired to go; at Yale, he watched The Sopranos and was struck by Carmella’s dedication to getting daughter Meadow into Columbia. College, he realized, was the most powerful class signifier of all.

Troubled’s penultimate chapter, which might be subtitled “What I Learned at Yale,” is a tour de force that in a more rational world would be required reading for all incoming college students at elite schools. In it, Henderson developed his now widely cited concept of “luxury beliefs.” Yale students, appearing aware of their own advantages and compassionate to the downtrodden, would proudly repeat ideas that the boy from Red Bluff knew would harm the marginalized. Many of the parents of his childhood friends were drug addicts, yet his college peers cheered on drug liberalization, for example. And why not? It seemed enlightened and cost people like them nothing.

For Henderson, the most painful luxury beliefs were those that undermined families and the childhood stability he had so desperately craved. “Monogamy is kind of outdated,” a Yale graduate announced. She admitted that she had grown up with both parents and hoped someday to marry — monogamously, of course. In such people’s minds, to acknowledge the benefits of two-parent families and the stability that they are more likely to confer is to be insensitive to less fortunate families with different family structures. This attitude gets things backward, Henderson writes: “It’s cruel to validate decisions that inflict harm, especially on those who had no hand in the decision—like young children.” Luxury believers pay no price for ignoring the harms they endorse. In fact, it’s the opposite — they gain social currency at places like Yale. “The poor reap what the luxury belief class sows,” Henderson said.

Harvard is something of a national institution, and its admissions policies have become everyone’s business

Wednesday, January 31st, 2024

Harvard admissions should be more meritocratic, Steven A. Pinker, Contributing Opinion Writer, opines:

Thanks to its tax-exempt status, federal funding, and outsize role as a feeder school to the American elite, Harvard is something of a national institution, and its admissions policies have become everyone’s business.

Others argue that holistic admissions are necessary to avoid a class of grinds and drudges. But elite universities should be the last to perpetuate this destructive stereotype. It would be ludicrous if anyone suggested that Harvard pick its graduate students or faculty for their prowess in athletics or music or improv comedy, yet these people are certainly no shallower than our undergraduates.

In any case, the stereotype is false. The psychologists Camilla P. Benbow and David Lubinski have found that precocious adolescents with sky-high SAT scores grew up to excel not only in academia, medicine, business, and technology, but also in literature, drama, art, and music.

Instead of “holistic admissions,” I suggest using a transparent formula that is weighted toward test scores and high school grades, adjusting it by whichever other factors can be publicly justified, such as geographic and socioeconomic diversity, and allowing for human judgment in exceptional cases. (I recognize the arguments for including race, but that has been judged unconstitutional, so the issue is moot.)

Having garbage-strewn subways that effectively serve as mobile homeless shelters is no way to run a public transit system

Monday, January 29th, 2024

It’s always jarring to come home to the US, Chris Arnade notes, often from much poorer countries, to find that our infrastructure is infinitely worse:

But it was what happened after I left the airport that convinced me that America, and especially NYC, is broken.


The train, to be fair, was on time. But it was filthy. The carriages were mostly empty, except for three or four homeless guys in each who were either sleeping or passed-out. The dozen or so of us who got on at the first stop chose our seats carefully, positioning ourselves close to each other, for safety, and as far as possible from the sprawled-out guys and their piles of trash and puddles of urine.


I thought about Sofia, where the subways and buses — and other public spaces and resources — are so much cleaner, safer, and smoother. Where workers simply wanting to get to their jobs don’t have to deal with navigating the mentally ill, addicted and desperate every day. For context, the GDP of Manhattan alone is about nine times that of the entire nation of Bulgaria. But NYC’s problems only seem to be getting worse, especially for those who have the least. I don’t have to take the subway; I have the cash for an Uber. But I try to see, and to understand a little, the world as most people see and understand the world.


Eventually, that morning, a guy covered in old vomit and carrying a cane, his trousers only just above his knees, got onto the subway train, and went up and down each carriage, hitting every sleeping or passed-out guy on the legs, yelling at them to move on, to give the rest of us some space. Everyone else pretended it wasn’t happening, hoping it wouldn’t go south, focusing instead on the floor or their phones.


But having garbage-strewn subways that effectively serve as mobile homeless shelters is no way to run a public transit system. It isn’t fair on the riders who don’t have the money to avoid the subway. It also isn’t fair on the homeless, who are being encouraged — or at least not discouraged — to hang out on crowded trains, maximising the chances that bad stuff will happen.


One of the forces that influenced LA authorities, though they won’t admit it, is homelessness. They built La Sombrita, rather than a proper bus shelter, for the same reason NYC is taking benches out of Port Authority: they don’t want people to sleep there. It’s something you see more and more in American cities: a locking down of public spaces in an attempt to deal with the growth of the homeless population. A removal of resources for the majority, because of concerns over “misuse” by less than 1% of residents.


To get big-brained about it, something like La Sombrita could only happen in a high-regulation/low-trust society like the US. If regulations massively limit both bottom-up and top-down solutions, and if those solutions are expected to protect against all sorts of bad behaviour, you end up building the least to mitigate the worst — building things the majority doesn’t want, or doesn’t find useful.

The high-regulation part of the US is usually couched in the language of safety, but it’s really about not allowing organic growth, which is messy — even though, people being people, it tends to result in things the majority really wants. Ecuador, by contrast, is a low-regulation (although low-trust) society: here, you get ad hoc, bottom-up solutions. If there is a bus stop in the middle of nowhere, without natural shade around it, riders rig an umbrella to a pole, or throw some old seats under a tree. In the US, such solutions would be dismantled within days.

But also, in places like Quito, bus stops attract street vendors, who come with umbrellas, making people feel safer by their very presence. LA has some of that, but it’s against the letter of the law, and vendors are constantly hassled with fines, or threats of shutdowns. My favourite taco place was closed down twice during my short stint in LA, for bureaucratic reasons. All this is to say that in Quito getting the bus is a much more pleasant experience than in LA — even though the latter city is roughly 1,000 times richer than Ecuador, and the latter has its own serious troubles.

Regulations themselves aren’t the problem, though. Germany, like much of northern Europe, is a high-regulation society, but it’s also high-trust, compared to the US. Here, nice and fully functional things are built without fear of misuse. For Americans, who have both a high-regulation and low-trust society, this is all rather depressing; it’s the combination that means we can’t have nice things.

Drug and chemical warfare was sort of a parallel arms race

Friday, January 26th, 2024

Tripping on Utopia by Benjamin BreenUC Santa Cruz historian Benjamin Breen’s Tripping on Utopia: Margaret Mead, the Cold War, and the Troubled Birth of Psychedelic Science tracks the souring of the idealism once associated with the study of psychedelic drugs in the 20th century:

More concretely, it focuses on the intertwined lives of two cultural anthropologists — Mead and Gregory Bateson, who were married for 14 years — and the extraordinary circle of social scientists, psychoanalysts, artists and spies who gathered around them from the 1930s through the ’70s.


People in the ’20s and ’30s genuinely thought science could, for instance, lead to the formation of a world government.

Mead and Bateson thought that scientists would lead the vanguard of a revolution in bringing the wisdom and the experiences of other cultures into the modern world, the creation of a sort of global culture that would allow for some form of transcendence. World War II really changed their view.

So there was a strong belief that in the aftermath of the atomic bomb that the way to win a war was to never end up in actual combat. Psychological warfare was the way to go — you know, basically the idea of game theory. For instance, the American side imagined, “What if the Soviets have a mind-altering drug and they give it to the president of the United States or slip it into the ambassador to Moscow’s drink?” That concern actually prompted parallel work by the CIA and the U.S. military. Drug and chemical warfare was sort of a parallel arms race alongside the nuclear arms race.

And that is what we mostly associate today with MKUltra. But it was much bigger than that. There were many other programs. and I barely scratched the surface. For instance, the idea of dropping aerosolized LSD over cities was something people thought about, but also [to use it] as a tool of diplomacy, a way of interrogating suspected double agents, even as a way of inuring Americans in the State Department. There were many layers of paranoia.

European immigrants returned to their home countries in huge numbers between 1908 and 1925

Thursday, January 18th, 2024

The Jews were not like the Poles, Italians or Germans who arrived with them in New York harbor:

Polish or German families sent their young men ahead of the family to establish themselves and make the family’s arrival more comfortable. Italians who found the immigrant life too difficult returned to their home country in large numbers.

But Jews behaved differently. Once they decided to leave, they sold everything, boarded ships and arrived on America’s shores as whole families. They knew they would not be returning.

During the Panic of 1907, 300,000 Italian immigrants returned home to Italy.


European immigrants returned to their home countries in huge numbers between 1908 and 1925: 57% of Italians, 40% of Poles, 64% of Hungarians, 67% of Romanians and 55% of Russians.

Among Jews, the figure was just 5%.


In 1910, when the US had already absorbed some two million East European Jews, New York Immigration Commissioner William Williams ended his annual report with a warning: “The time has come when it is necessary to put aside false sentimentality in dealing with a question of immigration, and to give more consideration to its racial and economic aspects and in deciding what additional immigrants we shall receive, to remember that our first duty is to our country.”


In 1921, the US Congress decided to act. It passed the Emergency Quota Act and then the 1924 Quota Act, severely reducing Jewish immigration from over 120,000 per year to under 3,000 a decade later.

These places don’t want you

Wednesday, January 17th, 2024

Troubled by Rob HendersonRob Henderson was more than a little surprised to discover that none of the major bookstores in New York City or San Francisco would host an event for his new book, Troubled: A Memoir of Foster Care, Family, and Social Class:


All inquiries either outright declined or ignored altogether.

I scanned the websites of some of these bookstores. They are hosting events for authors with 2,000 Twitter/X followers and, in several cases, little to no online or cultural footprint beyond a perch at one of the many dying legacy media outlets.


I have 136,000 followers on Twitter/X. I have nearly 50,000 subscribers on this Substack. My writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, Psychology Today, and many other mainstream outlets. I broke myself in half to enlist in the military and then study at Yale and Cambridge.


If you grow up poor and aren’t willing to pledge fealty to the right causes, these places don’t want you. If you grew up poor, remake your fortunes, and then speak truthfully about the factors that fuel success (hard work, determination, sacrifice) rather than the factors elites speak about (luck, systemic forces, privilege), then these places don’t want you.


The kinds of people who work in these spaces claim to be open-minded. They claim they want to elevate and center voices from marginalized communities.

That’s what they claim.

Let me repeat a stat that doesn’t get shared enough:

Three percent of kids in the foster system graduate from college.


One of us somehow manages to join that minuscule group. And build a large enough platform to communicate about his experiences. And write a book about the obstacles so many young people face. A book that has been warmly endorsed by people across the political spectrum. A book that has received positive early reviews from professional reviewers. One of us manages to miraculously reach a position to communicate the difficulties of sidelined and struggling kids across the country.

But the people who run bookstores aren’t interested in hosting a conversation about it. Apparently, the people who run bookstores are more afraid of confronting my past than I am.

It was like walking into a mob scene

Sunday, January 14th, 2024

Elon Musk by Walter IsaacsonIn the early days of PayPal, Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon), Musk and Michael Moritz went to New York to see if they could recruit Rudy Giuliani to be a “political fixer” for becoming a bank:

But as soon as they walked into his office, they knew it would not work. “It was like walking into a mob scene,” Moritz says. “He was surrounded by goonish confidantes. He didn’t have any idea whatsoever about Silicon Valley, but he and his henchmen were eager to line their pockets.” They asked for 10 percent of the company, and that was the end of the meeting. “This guy occupies a different planet,” Musk told Moritz.

White recruiting has fallen

Thursday, January 11th, 2024

The Army missed its target of 65,000 new recruits in 2023 by about 10,000 soldiers, due to a sharp decline in White recruits:

A total of 44,042 new Army recruits were categorized by the service as white in 2018, but that number has fallen consistently each year to a low of 25,070 in 2023, with a 6% dip from 2022 to 2023 being the most significant drop. No other demographic group has seen such a precipitous decline, though there have been ups and downs from year to year.

In 2018, 56.4% of new recruits were categorized as white. In 2023, that number had fallen to 44%. During that same five-year period, Black recruits have gone from 20% to 24% of the pool, and Hispanic recruits have risen from 17% to 24%, with both groups seeing largely flat recruiting totals but increasing as a percentage of incoming soldiers as white recruiting has fallen.

Carl Bernstein spent six months looking at the CIA and the Media

Thursday, December 28th, 2023

After leaving The Washington Post in 1977, Carl Bernstein spent six months looking at the CIA and the Media:

The tasks they performed sometimes consisted of little more than serving as “eyes and ears” for the CIA; reporting on what they had seen or overheard in an Eastern European factory, at a diplomatic reception in Bonn, on the perimeter of a military base in Portugal. On other occasions, their assignments were more complex: planting subtly concocted pieces of misinformation; hosting parties or receptions designed to bring together American agents and foreign spies; serving up “black” propaganda to leading foreign journalists at lunch or dinner; providing their hotel rooms or bureau offices as “drops” for highly sensitive information moving to and from foreign agents; conveying instructions and dollars to CIA controlled members of foreign governments.

Often the CIA’s relationship with a journalist might begin informally with a lunch, a drink, a casual exchange of information. An Agency official might then offer a favor—for example, a trip to a country difficult to reach; in return, he would seek nothing more than the opportunity to debrief the reporter afterward. A few more lunches, a few more favors, and only then might there be a mention of a formal arrangement — “That came later,” said a CIA official, “after you had the journalist on a string.”

Another official described a typical example of the way accredited journalists (either paid or unpaid by the CIA) might be used by the Agency: “In return for our giving them information, we’d ask them to do things that fit their roles as journalists but that they wouldn’t have thought of unless we put it in their minds. For instance, a reporter in Vienna would say to our man, ‘I met an interesting second secretary at the Czech Embassy.’ We’d say, ‘Can you get to know him? And after you get to know him, can you assess him? And then, can you put him in touch with us—would you mind us using your apartment?”‘

The remains were put on display, but there was no media interest

Monday, December 18th, 2023

Swarm Troopers by David HamblingIf the Pentagon hates drones, David Hambling notes (in Swarm Troopers), the CIA seems to love them:

Drones have a unique capability to carry out deniable operations, which are important to the CIA. The Agency learned the hard way just how disastrous it can be when a spy plane mission goes wrong.


Four years after the U-2 incident, the Chinese shot down a number of Fire Fly drones in their airspace. The remains were put on display and, like the Russians before them, the Chinese denounced American imperialist aggression. But there was no media interest. The Chinese might well claim that the peculiar wreckage was from American unmanned spy planes, but where was the proof? There was none of the international outcry that had accompanied the Gary Powers incident and no embarrassment for the politicians or the CIA. Equally, there was no risk that the pilot would be interrogated and give away information. (The main long-term consequence was that the Chinese reverse-engineered the drones. They ended up with a clone called WuZhen, which kick-started their own unmanned aircraft effort).

When drones did eventually find a place in the US military, thanks to the success of the Predator, it was only with considerable assistance from the CIA.

Three men more than any others determined the outcome of the American Civil War

Saturday, December 16th, 2023

After I finished Bevin Alexander’s How Hitler Could Have Won World War II, I naturally moved on to How the South Could Have Won the Civil War: The Fatal Errors That Led to Confederate Defeat:

Given that the Confederacy had a third of the population and an eleventh of the industry of the North, the South’s defeat was, according to this view, unavoidable.

But that view is wrong. This book contends that the South most definitely could have won the war, and shows in a number of cases how a Confederate victory could have come about.

Beyond the actual opportunities presented to the Confederacy, we should remember a broader fact — there is nothing inevitable about military victory, even for a state with apparently overwhelming strength. The Greeks beat the Persians at Marathon, Alexander destroyed the Persian Empire, the Americans defeated the British in the Revolution, Napoléon Bonaparte hobbled huge alliances in his early wars. In all of these cases the victor was puny and weak by comparison with his opponent.


Three men more than any others determined the outcome of the American Civil War — the Confederacy’s president, Jefferson Davis, and two generals, Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Jackson figured out almost from the outset how to win the war, but neither Davis nor Lee was willing to follow his recommendations.


Davis was opposed to offensive action against the North. He wanted to remain on the defensive in the belief that the major European powers would intervene on the Confederacy’s side to guarantee cotton for their mills, or that the North would tire of the war and give up.


Lee, on the other hand, was focused on conducting an offensive war against the armies of the North. He did not see the war as a collision between the Northern people and the Southern people. He saw it as a struggle between the governments and the official armies of the two regions.


Recognizing the need to adapt to the new kind of war in which they were immersed, Jackson developed a polar opposite approach. He proposed moving against the Northern people’s industries and other means of livelihood. He wanted to avoid Northern strength, its field armies, and strike at Northern weakness, its undefended factories, farms, and railroads. His strategy, in short, was to bypass the Union armies and to win indirectly by assaulting the Northern people’s will to pursue the war. He proposed making “unrelenting war” amid the homes of the Northern people in the conviction that this would force them “to understand what it will cost them to hold the South in the Union at the bayonet’s point.”


Significantly, William Tecumseh Sherman won the war for the North by employing precisely the strategy that Stonewall Jackson had tried but failed to get the South to follow: he conducted “unrelenting war” on the people and the property of Georgia in his march from Chattanooga to Atlanta, and from Atlanta to the sea, in 1864. This campaign broke the back of Southern resistance.


But wars are not won by heavy losses heroically sustained. Wars are won by ingenious plans correctly implemented.


Three decades before the Civil War, the great Prussian strategist Karl von Clausewitz (1780–1831) argued that in a country involved in an insurrection or torn by internal dissension, the capital, the chief leader, and public opinion constitute the Schwerpunkt, or center of gravity, where collapse has the greatest chance of occurring.

Following this theory, the Confederacy’s most glittering opportunity lay not in defeating the Northern field army in Virginia but in isolating or capturing Washington, evicting Lincoln and his government, and damaging Northern industry and railroads in order to turn public opinion against the war.

British Colonel G. F. R. Henderson, the famed biographer of Jackson, made this point graphically in 1898: “A nation endures with comparative equanimity defeat beyond its own borders. Pride and prestige may suffer, but a high-spirited people will seldom be brought to the point of making terms unless its army is annihilated in the heart of its own country, unless the capital is occupied and the hideous sufferings of war are brought directly home to the mass of the population. A single victory on Northern soil, within easy reach of Washington, was far more likely to bring about the independence of the South than even a succession of victories in Virginia.”


Lee, who was named commander of the Army of Northern Virginia on June 1, 1862, after Johnston was wounded, sought from first to last to fight an offensive war—that is, a war of battles and marches against the armies of the North. After Davis’s rejection of invasion, Jackson turned to a new approach to warfare. Lee resisted this approach, which called for luring the Union army to attack against a strong Confederate defensive position, repelling that attack and thereby weakening enemy strength, morale, and resolve, and then going on the offensive by swinging around the flank or rear to destroy the Union army. Lee expressed his fundamental attitude about battle most cogently to his corps commander Longstreet on the first day of the battle of Gettysburg, on July 1, 1863. When Longstreet implored Lee not to assault the Union army forming up in great strength on Cemetery Ridge directly in front of him, Lee replied, “No, the enemy is there, and I am going to attack him there.”


Stonewall Jackson urged Lee to move the Confederate army north of Washington, where it would threaten Baltimore, Philadelphia, and the capital’s food supply and communications. If the Confederate army held such a dangerous position, Jackson said, the enemy would have no other option except to assault it. Lee rejected Jackson’s advice once again, deciding to move west into the Cumberland Valley, far away from the center of Northern power. There he expected to fall on the Union army, not wait for it to fall on his army.


Although Jackson’s death handed the South a devastating blow, the Confederacy could still have won if Lee had accepted Jackson’s defend-then-attack plan when he invaded Maryland and Pennsylvania a month later. James Longstreet believed he had extracted a promise from Lee to do just that. But at the very first challenge Lee faced in Pennsylvania, he reverted to direct confrontation. This led to head-on attacks on all three days of Gettysburg, July 1–3, 1863, ending with General George Pickett’s disastrous charge on the third day, which wiped out the last offensive power of the Confederacy.


My purpose is to show that, despite the odds, wars are won by human beings. When superior military leaders come along and political leaders pay attention to them, they can overcome great power and great strength. That is a lesson we need to remember today.

The eastern front is like a house of cards

Saturday, December 9th, 2023

The Red Army’s astonishing advances during the summer of 1944 had come to a standstill, Bevin Alexander explains (in How Hitler Could Have Won World War II), because the vastly overextended Russian supply line finally snapped:

Red Army commanders held up the final assault on Nazi Germany until the railways behind the front could be repaired and converted to the Russian wider-gauge track.


Soviet superiority was eleven to one in infantry, seven to one in tanks, and twenty to one in artillery and aircraft. Most important was the great quantity of American trucks delivered to the Russians by Lend-Lease. Trucks transformed a large part of the Red Army into motorized divisions able to move quickly around the Germans, whose mobility was shrinking by the day due to extreme shortages of fuel.

When Heinz Guderian, army chief of staff, presented the figures of Soviet strength, Hitler exclaimed, “It’s the greatest imposture since Genghis Khan! Who is responsible for producing all this rubbish?”


Hitler had not used the long stalemate in the east to build a powerful defensive line of minefields and antitank traps—such as Erwin Rommel had urged immediately after the battle of Kursk in 1943. His defensive system remained what it had been all along: each soldier was to stand in place and fight to the last round.


“The eastern front is like a house of cards,” Guderian told Hitler on January 9. “If the front is broken through at one point all the rest will collapse.” But Hitler merely responded: “The eastern front must help itself and make do with what it’s got.”


Hitler also turned down requests of field commanders that German civilians be evacuated from East Prussia and other regions likely to be overrun by the Russians. He said evacuation would have a bad effect on public opinion.


On January 25 Guderian tried to get Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop to convince Hitler to seek an armistice on the western front, while continuing to fight the Russians in the east. Ribbentrop replied that he did not dare approach the Fuehrer on the subject. As Guderian departed, Ribbentrop said, “We will keep this conversation to ourselves, won’t we?” Guderian assured him he would do so. But Ribbentrop tattled to Hitler, and that evening the Fuehrer accused Guderian of treason.


Speer requested a private interview to explain Germany’s desperate straits. But the Fuehrer declined, telling Guderian: “I refuse to see anyone alone anymore. Any man who asks to talk to me alone always does so because he has something unpleasant to say to me. I can’t bear that.”


Hitler now turned on his own people. On March 19 he issued an order that the entire German economy was to be destroyed—industrial plants, electric-generating plants, waterworks, gas works, bridges, ships, locomotives, food, clothing stores. His aim was to produce a “desert” in the Allies’ path.

Albert Speer, Nazi armaments chief, immediately petitioned Hitler. “We have no right at this stage of the war to carry out demolitions which might affect the life of the people,” he said. But Hitler, his own fate sealed, was not interested in the continued existence of the German people.

“If the war is lost,” he told Speer, “the nation will also perish…. It will be better to destroy these things ourselves because this nation will have proved to be the weaker one.”