Book Review: The English and Their History

The seeds of world power

The seeds of world power

It took a couple months, but I recently completed “The English and Their History” by Robert Tombs, a professor of history at Cambridge. It is 899 pages of that history, plus a hundred pages of notes – so he didn’t skimp.

Understanding the history of England is key to understanding the modern world. This statement is not intended as an assertion of cultural superiority or defense of imperialism, but simply a fact. English influence is so pervasive as to go unnoticed, starting with the language this sentence is written in, but extending to such commonplaces as sandwiches, soccer (or football), and styles of formal dress. The global trade-based economy is essentially an English innovation, with contributions from others around the world.

And, yes, the book is specifically about the English. The terms “Britain” and “British” are used often enough, but they are not interchangeable with “England” or “English.” The Welsh and Scots are certainly important in the history of the Isles and the world (hello, Adam Smith), but they all speak English and fall under a monarchy with English roots – and, in any case, the English were always the most populous and wealthy of Albion’s inhabitants. So Tombs chose to write a book about the largest nation in Europe without its own state. If the notion of an independent English state seems laughable, that simply reflects how well the English have integrated historically with their neighbors (at least, the non-Irish ones) to form the idea of a greater Britain.

The roots of England’s traditions and outlooks are also vital to understanding the American Revolution, why it fundamentally differed from the French Revolution, and the subsequent development of American political traditions. The English always fancied themselves a free people from time immemorial. The monarchical state was always too small to manage local affairs across the island, so locals took on public duties themselves. While showing deference to the crown, they also asserted their rights against it, as expressed by such documents as Magna Carta. The American rebellion was viewed by both American revolutionaries and English conservatives such as Edmund Burke as a reassertion of the colonists’ historic rights as Englishmen, not a creation of anything new. The French Revolution, on the other hand, had little use for the past, seeking to uproot all tradition, from the monarchy to the church to the calendar, and in so doing create a new idealized world (so now I’m reading Burke’s “reflections” on the revolution across the channel).

In addition to being informative, Tombs also provides a great read that keeps the reader engaged. Despite a litany of kings, MPs and religious dissenters across the centuries, it flows together in a neat continuity. Occasionally I start a history book and can’t finish because it’s simply so bad – this is not that book.

One part that most impressed me is I cannot characterize Tombs as a Tory, Labourite, Liberal, Fabian, UKIPer, or time-traveling cavalier, roundhead or Whig. As a foreigner, I probably missed some cues a native would pick up on (certainly most references to British TV went over my head), but I don’t think there were many. He offers copious criticism of the past, but also explains why certain decisions were made or how English actions fit in the context of the contemporary world. While the pictures isn’t rosy, it is almost always rational and never judgmental.

England has been a lucky country throughout its history, and its history is lucky to have such a fine chronicler.


World Peace and Swedish Pop

School starts soon – I’m taking an online elective from the Naval War College. That has nothing to do with what follows, except that I’d better get used to spending evenings readin’ and writin’ even when I don’t really feel like it, and what better way to practice than to write a blog post?

Refer back to the last post, about global defense spending. I’ll wait. There’s a wonderful graphic showing the relative scale of different countries’ defense spending, and, even with a low-resolution screengrab, it is clear that the U.S. easily dwarfs anyone else. An easy inference to draw from this is that a bit of American retrenchment on this front won’t hurt anyone.

“Bit” is the operative word here. I’d like to put in a word of caution about going much further. History offers examples of both parity and disparity in the world of peer competition. Let’s go through some numbers, after which the choice of which is better ought to be clear.


King Gustavus Adolphus dominated 1620s Northern Europe with his keen ear for a good beat. And cannons.

Finding information on pre-modern defense spending is difficult. But I think most people are familiar with the Great Powers, right? Think of expansionist or imperial-minded European countries – generally, this would be France, Spain, Portugal, England/United Kingdom, Russia, occasionally Sweden (which basically took over the world via ABBA) or the Netherlands, and eventually Germany and the United States.

So check out this excellent table of Great Power conflict:

Century Number of wars Average duration of wars (years) Proportion of years war was underway, percentage
16th 34 1.6 95
17th 29 1.7 94
18th 17 1.0 78
19th 20 0.4 40
20th 15 0.4 53
Source: Charles Tilly. Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990-1990. Cambridge, Mass: Basil Blackwell, 1990. I found it online here.

It is noteworthy that so many wars of great length were fought in the earlier years, keeping many states in an almost permanent state of war, in which the winner rarely got to take it all. The frequency and length of wars drops off in more recent times, where protracted affairs like World War II are balanced by brief conflicts like the Persian Gulf War (one month) or the Falklands War (about ten weeks).

There are, of course, many reasons for such a broad trend, but of paramount importance is the simple notion among the aggressors that they could afford to take a chance. Who would start a war in which they weren’t confident of victory?

Why were they confident of victory?


Arguably France was the most powerful single European country until the fall of Napoleon, but, that said, there was always a combination of allies that could balance it (a role England mastered as the consummate “offshore balancer”). Among the Great Powers, constantly jostling for advantage, there was nearly always a path to victory, whether through severing the enemy’s colonial ties, allying with a neighbor who sent an SOS, or invading their home soil outright. No one was so dominant that military victory over them was unthinkable.

But then something unusual happened in 1815 – Waterloo. If World War One can be called the end of the Nineteenth Century, Napoleon’s defeat can be considered its start. For it was after Napoleon’s exile to St. Helena that the United Kingdom emerged as the first true global superpower, unchallenged on the waves and able to manage a globe-girdling empire with minimal troopers and a Colonial Office of a few dozen people.

Most wars of Nineteenth Century Europe were wars of national unification, with the Crimean War as an odd exception. There are, of course, many reasons for the relative calm (not least of which, France was in utter disarray most of the century), but prominent among them was the dominance of the U.K. Whether their supremacy was genuine or merely a perception, it was a functional reality. And it is not coincidental that the Nineteenth Century was one of the longest periods of global peace in world history. Terrible conflicts did indeed rage (looking at you, ‘Murica) but they were mostly internal or on imperial frontiers, and did not threaten to engulf the world as Napoleon’s had, or as the Kaiser’s would.

While the Twentieth Century presents clear differences of bipolarity and nuclear weapons, there are still parallels between the U.S. and U.K. experiences for those who take the time to look. But knowing me and knowing you, I trust that most readers are familiar with that history and I won’t take extensive time to review it here.

In a future post we’ll examine the present day, why the U.S. is pressed to allocate so much money, money, money to defense, and why it’s probably best if, of all the countries in the world, only one of us has to do that.


Some Easier Math

Show me

Show me.

What’s going on in the world of international security? A good way to get a feel for things is to follow the money. I don’t mean “follow the money” in the cynical sense of tracing a series of transactions to the Masons pulling worldwide strings from the Vatican basement. Come on, people. I mean you can just look at where countries are spending their money. Expenditures represent monetary cost, but also opportunity cost; funds spent on one thing cannot be spent on anything else. Defense is an especially tough sell since it doesn’t produce anything and thus explicitly takes away from other needs. Budgets indicate priorities, and changes in defense expenditures offer clues to the mindset of the people signing off on them.

In the past week, two important insights into the current environment emerged, courtesy of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

1.)    Global defense spending is up for the first time since 2011.

2.)   Saudi Arabia overtook Russia as the third-biggest spender (behind the U.S. and China).

You can read the SIPRI press release for the highlights (in Catalan, if you choose), but those two points were the news makers.

With the opportunity cost represented by such spending, it means leaders all over the world – but especially the Middle East – are evaluating their situations according to varying circumstances, and coming to the conclusion they need to fund defenses from external threats.[i] This is important enough they’re willing to take away from other things they’d perhaps rather be doing.

Take our new bronze medalist, Saudi Arabia. Amid plummeting oil revenue, the government is cutting the subsidies its population regards as a birthright, looking to raise taxes and other levies, and all the while boosting defense spending to unheard-of levels. It is a stark example of shifting priorities.

We can visualize this through the good work of the analysts of PwC (the artist formerly known as PriceWaterhouseCoopers). This is one of those products that restores one’s faith in the consulting industry. I wish I had made it and hope I have half the brain of those who did. I also wish I could show it bigger (so view the original):



Just think on that for a bit. Check out the original report to view it bigger, or for definitions of some of the terms they use. It’s a few months old so they missed Saudi Arabia surpassing Russia, but overall it’s still pretty accurate.

Where are expenditures growing? Shrinking? How do those countries view their role in their region or the world? What are the implications?

I have other thoughts… but one post at a time. Just admire the chart and consider.


[i] I specifically say “external” because certain authoritarian regimes like, say, China’s, retain immense internal security forces that are not counted with defense figures.

“Math Is Hard” Is Not an Excuse (Updated)

Another year, another breathless headline about suicide in the Armed Forces: “U.S. military suicides remain high for 7th year” reported USA Today on April 3.

Yes, suicides remain high. This is one of those situations where one is too many, and we should be aware of risk factors to watch for in those we know or even ourselves. But any military is a reflection of the society from which it is drawn. So while gross numbers of suicides may remain high as an absolute figure, where does it rate in comparison with the general population? Does the military have a uniquely intense problem?

USA Today states there were 265 suicides among Active Duty personnel in 2015. It is too soon to have national figures for 2015 yet, so the article looks to 2012 for comparison, and the Army population in particular. In 2012, there were 30 suicides per 100,000 Soldiers. In comparison, the national rate was 12.5 per 100,000 people. That sounds pretty bad.

How do 2015’s numbers translate into a rate? Well, one odd omission in the article is it never does that easy conversion; it simply provides the top-line number. To get the rate, we need to know how many people served. For simplicity’s sake, here are the figures from the end of the year. The grand total is just over 1.3 million. For a population that size, 265 suicides equals a rate of 20.4 suicides per 100,000 people. This is definitely better than the Army’s 2012 rate, but still way over the national level.

But isn’t the military different in some small ways? Isn’t there some large percentage of the U.S. population that doesn’t even meet basic requirements to serve? Have we accounted for this?

Well, to use the two most obvious discriminators, the military is both overwhelmingly young

The kids are alright

The kids are alright

… and resoundingly, ludicrously male.

Pac Man!

Pac Man!

(Interesting demographic note: Although it is by far the smallest service, the Marine Corps takes young maleness to such absurd extremes that it skews DoD averages on pretty much everything. Oo-rah.)

Well. Now that we’ve established this, does it really make sense to compare the military rates of just about anything with the general population? Really, we’re concerned with males under 30 years of age.

So let’s have a look. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a searchable database with numbers up to 2013, so we will use that as our reference year (above Defense demographics are also from 2013). The CDC’s reporting tool makes it easy to look at rates adjusted for age and even military status. Only 17 states contributed data, but, this is a blog post, not a thesis, and really it just go to show what resources any news reporter has if they’re willing to take an hour to browse the Internet.

All that said, the suicide rate for the entire population of these 17 states in 2013 was 12.84 per 100,000. This is in line with the national average.


Next let’s filter by age. It allows the user to select ages 20-29. Looking at just that age group gets us up to 15.22 suicides per 100,000.

But what happens if we filter out the women?

BOOM. Twentysomething males are at 24.57 suicides per 100,000.


The suicide rate for a superficially similar population in the general public is 20 percent higher than that of its military cohort (remember, 20.4 per 100,000 last year). The implication your humble blogger takes away is that to prevent suicide, you should tell the college-age males in your life to join the military!

There are, of course, many further ways to control statistical variability. As mentioned before, the military doesn’t take most applicants, and really we should be looking at only the population that is actually eligible for service, i.e. those not in jail, free of chronic illnesses, with high school diplomas, etc. And, on the military side, we need to look at who exactly is committing suicide, as there are many communities and demographics within the services themselves. A more rigorous analysis would account for these factors, but that is beyond my resources here. The point is that someone being paid to spend their time doing this stuff has the ability to add a little bit of context, even if it is basic. There is no excuse in the Internet age for such shoddy work.

Well, actually maybe there is. Military suicide, as a journalistic topic, falls in the eye of a perfect storm of media sensationalism and partisan hackery. The mainstream media gets to talk up a scandal, the Left gets to further its false narrative of damaged veterans, and the Right gets to blame everything on the Left (at least until January 2017). No one has an incentive to say that, actually, this military problem merely reflects, and is possibly less severe than, a societal one.

Every military suicide is a tragedy. Sadly, so is almost every piece of journalism about them.

UPDATE 4/19: The Navy’s “Health of the Force” report for 2015 was recently distributed. It covers a great many topics, from recruiting to physical fitness, and among includes suicide rates. Conveniently, they did the normalization I speculated about above. BEHOLD!


So, yes, adjusted for age and other factors, the suicide rate in the general population is considerably higher than in the Navy, and even the Army rate which we calculated in the original post.

With suicide rates already so much lower than the normalized national average, one must ask if additional allocations of the Armed Services’ time and money are bumping into the law of diminishing returns. The recruiting process itself apparently screens out a large degree of suicide risk; some basic peer education and a great Chaplain Corps logically reduce it a bit more; but beyond that, how much more  difference can we make from such a low baseline?


Hail to the Chief (Petty Officer)

On April 1, 1893, Navy General Order 409 established the rank of Chief Petty Officer. Today, the CPO ranks (E-7 through E-9 on the payscale) are generally considered the backbone of the Navy – senior enlisted men and women who combine their technical experience and leadership skill to execute the Navy’s myriad missions.

For young junior officers, who supervise and at the same time learn from their chiefs, there’s really only one way to approach things:


The junior enlisted who work for the chiefs might be a little more ambivalent:


Happy 123rd Birthday, Chiefs!