WWI Movie Night: “The Lost Battalion”

Thanks for the memories, Willy

This brief note will be our contribution to the great weight of material noting America’s entry into the Great War a century ago this month. If you want to see a 90-minute film that captures the nature of the fight as well as the U.S. Army of the period, it’s hard to improve upon “The Lost Battalion,” made for TV in the late 90s (I think) but really very good. I had a memory of seeing some of it when it was new – almost 20 years ago – and then I re-watched it last year. It holds up.

Thankfully a random YouTuber has made the whole thing available for your benefit. Here’s hoping the link continues to work!

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A Very Long Season

Too much is happening these days to coherently discuss. So let us speak of the Cubs.

Let it fly. Since pigs must be.

Let it fly. Since apparently pigs can now.

Hyperbolic statements are generally not suited for those with pretensions to historical-mindedness, but I think this one will hold up: The 2016 World Series was one of the greatest in baseball’s history, capped off by a Game 7 that ranks in the top tier of baseball games every played.

And the Cubs are world champions. Repeat: The Chicago Cubs, they of the North Side, are world champions.

But now a word of warning to the Cubs. From America.

They love you now. But they will hate you.

(Ask the Red Sox if you don’t believe me.)

Everyone starts small like you did, Cubs. The United States rose from the rough-and-tumble colonial leagues in the late Eighteenth Century, gathering strength for a few decades to contend in the bigs. In the middle of the Nineteenth Century, the team nearly broke up over differing interpretations of the members’ contracts, but they worked it out after a bench-clearing brawl and changes in management. Rebuilding years followed, in which the U.S. was able to convincingly defeat the veteran Spanish team but still hadn’t completely broken out from the pack in the Western Hemisphere Division. Argentina, for one, was still able to attract many of the league’s best players.

The first half of the Twentieth Century, though, saw the playoffs come. After the French and British teams prematurely exhausted themselves, the U.S. defeated the Kaiser for the pennant and advanced to the World Series against the Nazis (same ball club, different ownership) a couple decades later. By 1945, it was the undisputed world champion, with the hardware to prove it.

However, no one likes a winner. They say they do, but if they don’t get to be the winner themselves, then they simply resent whoever does get to stand atop the podium. So the U.S. finished the season astride the world, but had to assume league-wide responsibility for keeping lesser sports from undercutting their own achievements. Insidious Russian soccer players had to be prevented from spreading their revolutionary game into baseball-friendly territories and stealing their fan base. No team but the U.S. had both the means to protect what they’d built, and the will to do so.

But soccer is seductive (“Look, all you need is a ball!”). Many countries could not stand up to the onslaught, or were willing to give in for expediency’s sake. Often those whom the U.S. was defending attacked the very efforts the U.S. was making on their behalf. Perhaps they’d have preferred those other games to the messy yet dignified one they grew up with. But perhaps not. Certain multi-sport athletes who’d seen both sides would have argued the latter. Ultimately, the U.S. did well in that struggle, and continues to try repeating its success in the current season. But no one’s work is less appreciated, no victory less valued by those it benefits.

So, Cubs, congratulations on long-delayed victory. But beware its fruits.

In the meantime, fly the W.

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Sea Power and the Greatest of Traveling Wilburys

Singer, songwriter, global strategist

Singer, songwriter, global strategist

With apologies to Roy Orbison, the idea popped into my head and could not be stopped. If you are not familiar enough with Orbison’s work to call yourself a real American, please view the below video first.

Reveille, reveille, every one of you
We got a lotta, lotta, lotta, lotta work to do
Pick up your sextant and your ammo can
Today you’re working for Mahan

We’re on the briny main
Got a force to sustain
We’re gonna make the unrep on time
Don’t relax
Now get out of your racks
As we approach the tanker from behind

’Cause you’re workin’ for Mahan
Workin’ for Mahan
In a combatant command
When you’re workin’ for Mahan

Maritime presence here, toward any trouble we steer
I believe we’ve been at sea for half of the year
And so commerce flows, but as everyone knows
We’d love some credit but we never make the shows

’Cause you’re workin’ for Mahan
Workin’ for Mahan
And alcohol’s banned
When you’re workin’ for Mahan

Well, the enemy’s fleeing from my fleet in being
Every time they see my battle line
With their fear of defeat, they choose to compete
Indirectly and Sun Tzu says that’s fine
So I dream with glee about crossin’ their T
’Cause I’m just abidin’ my time
For if there’s word from shore that we’re in a war
The seas are gonna be all mine

Yeah, I’m workin’ for Mahan
Workin’ for Mahan
While the Army pounds sand
I’m here workin’ for Mahan

I’m workin’ for Mahan
Workin’ for Mahan
Only partially manned
But still workin’ for Mahan

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Broadcast Notes

He's cute and cuddly and sucks you in...

He’s cute and cuddly and sucks you in…

As my time in the island Kingdom winds down – I have precisely one month to go – I wanted to record some of the unusual things I’ve seen on TV. Not that I watch a lot of local TV, but when I go to the gym I usually turn it on to pass the time. In any case, I’ve been able to make a few observations, placed in no particular order below.

First, I should say that in Bahrain there are some local channels, but all the English-language Arab channels I’ve been able to identify are out of Saudi Arabia, which is right next door (we also get the BBC and CNN International). So when I talk about Arab TV, really I mean Saudi.

  • It would appear Turkey has a bustling export market in soap operas. Turkish TV is subtitled, but they’re Arabic subtitles, so, aside from reading right to left, I’m lost anyway. What I have learned from them is that everything worth doing in Turkey happens within view of the Bosporus.
  • Back in the spring, one channel had a Star Wars-themed promotion for… something, I know not what. It was spectacularly unlicensed. The stormtroopers and Darth Vader looked pretty good (those are common costumes, after all) but Chewbacca was an absolute travesty of a man in a bear suit. A certain degree of sloppiness must have been required to avoid a lawsuit. The desert scenery, though, was quite convincing.
  • I can identify certain Arab actors across different commercials now.
  • At some point while channel surfing I found Hugh Laurie playing second fiddle to a talking rat in “Stuart Little 2”, which I suppose I could have seen in the States except there is no freaking way I would have ever seen this film if I hadn’t been in a Bahraini gym watching Arab TV showing lower-tier American movies (Dude, was that kid the “Jerry Maguire” kid? Yes, yes he was.).
  • According to the programming announcement, following “Stuart Little 2” were “Cool Runnings” and “The Big Chill”. Their catalogue is deep.
  • Camel racing really is a thing.
  • Saudi TV shows a lot of stuff that would be highly illegal on a Saudi street. Like women’s faces.
  • They censor the visuals but none of the audio. If you’re learning English you can learn to swear pretty well from Saudi TV.
  • Surprisingly they showed the carrot scene in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” but cut basically the entire rest of the movie.
  • I finally saw the end of “Antwone Fisher”! I mean, I kinda knew how it ends, but still…

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.

sweden_in_charge

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?

Parity.

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.

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Andrew Lloyd Webber, Call Your Agent

They're watching you...

They’re watching you…

Sailors and Marines come and go. Civilians stay longer but still have homes to return to. Even local hires don’t stay forever. Only one group can legitimately claim ownership of Naval Support Activity Bahrain – the cats.

They are everywhere, and they are in charge.

Cats roam outside the gate, and inside. Meowing, faint or sometimes very loud, can be heard at all hours of the day and night. They come up to people and look for company… or food. Signs warn DO NOT FEED THE CATS. But little piles of kibble can still be found here and there. I think it’s the Marines – they’re all softies at heart.

These creatures are not devoid of personality. One had kittens a couple months ago whom I see now and then. They are skittish. Others are more assertive; two of them were involved in a very loud confrontation behind a bush when one came shooting out in front of me into the street, with the other immediately chasing at high speed.

There’s another wily one that consistently hangs out by the back exit of the Navy Exchange’s mini-grocery store. People often stop there to re-pack their groceries into backpacks or bicycle baskets. This orange cat has figured out that some of these people are nice to it, and always gives attention to those who pause there. I don’t know if it’s ever paid off with a snack, but the cat is apparently confident it will.

AND they can burn you with their eyeballs!

AND they can burn you with their eyeballs!

I did the usual blog-level cursory research to see if cats are a big deal in Bahrain, and I was surprised to find they actually are. Meet the Delmun cat – it has its own website. Very few cats can code in HTML, but Bahrain trains them well. The name, also spelled Dilmun, alludes to the civilization that flourished on the island 4,000 years ago, a contemporary and trading partner of Mesopotamia. The cats are native to the island, though through the centuries there has been some interbreeding with visiting cats gone feral. In their purebred incarnation, they are well-adapted to desert life and low water intake, while at the same time, they have webbed feet. These cats are seriously conflicted about their preferred lifestyle.

Whether the Delmun cat would rather hunt in the southern desert or swim to Saudi Arabia, it’s obvious it doesn’t require people to help. So the very needy cats on base are probably a big embarrassment to the native cats. This must contribute to some pretty cutthroat intrafeline politics here. And so in the cats we find yet another intractable Middle Eastern dispute.

I knew there was a reason I never liked “Cats.”

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Movie Review in Six Lines: The Pentagon Wars

Watch this film.

Watch this film.

After years and years of references and allusions, I finally sat down and watched “The Pentagon Wars,” HBO’s 1990s movie about the (mis)development of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, starring Frasier Crane and Westley. It is on Amazon Prime and can be found perhaps less legitimately on YouTube. Here is my brief review.

Top Three Things It Got Wrong:

3.) Getting off the Metro at Rosslyn to go to the Pentagon? Hope you’re wearing good walking shoes!

2.) Saluting in the Pentagon? Your arm would fall off.

1.) A lieutenant colonel in the Pentagon having his own office? FICTION!

Top Three Things It Got Right:

3.) Ruminant Procurement.

2.) “No one goes to Fresno for vacation.”

1.) The entire plot.

That is all.

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Unintentional Lessons from TV

Put on your nerd hats, boys and girls.

Recently we discussed why a navy has to do more than just be able to fight wars – it has to be able to keep the peace, too. As an alternate means of making the point, let’s indulge in the Internet’s favorite habit of taking pop culture way too seriously and use TV shows to demonstrate the difference. Specifically, that is, Star Trek.

The Star Trek franchise is fifty years old in 2016 – meaning one of America’s favorite narratives of the future is, in fact, older than all of its current stars. I’m sure there’s a cultural statement to be made somewhere, but never mind (Ross Douthat already made it, albeit with a different series). I want to focus on two of its shows that, between them, ran from 1987 to 1999 – Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9). These two shows ably demonstrate the different roles of a naval organization, in this case Starfleet, the military arm of the United Federation of Planets.

TNG has many great episodes (I remember our sixth grade teacher showing us this one in class), but thematically it is actually kind of boring. Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the 24th century was intensely utopian, and there is essentially no conflict among the main characters, especially in the first couple seasons. The “alien of the week” appears, causes a problem, our fearless crew learns it’s all a misunderstanding, and they go about their merry way, and we never see the alien again (and then the holodeck breaks down, just to shake things up). It’s the sort of TV where you can watch it one week, take a six-month vacation to the Gobi Desert, and then watch another episode without really having missed anything. Characters come and go (especially if they’re named Crusher), but there’s no story to keep up with.

So if there’s no story, what is the show about?

In a word, presence.

A moment of high drama, probably.

A moment of high drama, probably.

Just because the Federation is an interstellar utopia doesn’t mean there are no problems. Different worlds still have different interests, and external forces still wish to assimilate the Federation’s territory. The apparently aimless travels of the Enterprise are, in fact, designed to address these contingencies. If we take a step back into the real world, the voyages of the Starship Enterprise overlap very much with the official missions of the U.S. Navy in the 2015 Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (see pg. 2), which is itself derived from the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance:

  • Defend the Homeland
  • Deter Conflict
  • Protect Maritime Commons
  • Strengthen Partnerships
  • Respond to Crises
  • Defeat Aggression
  • Provide Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief (HA/DR)

Arguably, Gene Roddenberry’s Enterprise performs all of these missions just as its real-world counterparts did. And all of these (even “Defeat Aggression” to a certain degree) can be done by a lone ship going about its business outside of a major war. Somewhere in the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, each of these missions is being done right now. And Starfleet did them all at some point too:

  • Defend the Homeland (Borg invasion)
  • Deter Conflict (calming excitable Klingons)
  • Protect Maritime Interstellar Commons (in this case, ensuring safe navigation)
  • Strengthen Partnerships (with colonists, aliens, or whomever)
  • Respond to Crises (like when aliens take a dislike to human colonists)
  • Defeat Aggression (those pesky Romulans)
  • Provide Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief (HA/DR) (often a side plot leading to other things)

Through these activities, no major wars occurred during TNG’s run – even the very destructive Borg invasion was a one-shot deal with no follow up (the Collective was a poor operational planner). The Enterprise and the rest of Starfleet managed to keep a lid on things by reminding member worlds that the Federation had their backs, and deterring outsiders from anything silly. This maintained the Federation as a legitimate authority for its varied members, and as a potentially prickly opponent for would-be aggressors. Thus, the chances of internal insurrection or external invasion were minimized.

But for the crew of Deep Space Nine, this fragile order breaks down. The darkest, but arguably best-told, of the Star Trek series follows the crew of a space station on the Federation frontier, overseeing a world rebuilding after a brutal occupation by a foreign power. Dramatically, DS9 is an oft-overlooked pioneer in the long-form narrative storytelling now common on television.[i] There were stand-alone episodes, more often in the first couple of years, but by the third of its seven seasons, the show settles more or less on a single storyline: the Federation’s increasingly hostile relationship with the newly-discovered Dominion. That benign six-month break for a TNG viewer will really mess with a DS9 fan.

Another day at the office.

Another day at the office.

The Dominion is different from the Federation’s other neighbors (most famously, the Klingons) because Starfleet presence and peaceful precedent is not a factor for them. In the show’s pilot episode, the new space station crew discovers they are positioned near the mouth of a wormhole, a gateway to some faraway corner of the galaxy. It is through this wormhole that contact with the Dominion is made. It’s as if Europeans only discovered the Pacific by digging the Panama Canal – and they find Hirohito’s Japan waiting for them. They share no border and cannot reach each other, nor even communicate, through any other route. The Dominion and Federation have no history with one another, and thus the Federation has no opportunity to set peaceful precedents through a naval presence. And since they don’t share a border or a mutually-accessible common area, the Federation can’t even conduct shows of force to deter the Dominion, since they would have no way to be seen except by actually pushing a large fleet through the wormhole, which could itself be considered an act of war.

So presence is a bust. Power projection it is!

The middle seasons of the show are a slow burn of escalating hostilities and shifting alliances, but impending conflict is never in doubt. The final two seasons depict a sustained total war, something that is otherwise never seen onscreen in the Star Trek canon. Viewers see fleet-on-fleet engagements, infantry battles, POW camps, and a host of leadership decisions the tea-drinking Captain Picard would be appalled at. It should not be too much of a spoiler to say the Federation wins in the end, but only by taking punishing casualties, building a massive battle fleet, and managing its allies. DS9 showed that victory isn’t easy, but when an opponent can’t be deterred, it becomes the only available option.

One series made for way better TV, but as a model for international relations, I’ll take the boring one any day.

Both shows are available on Netflix.

picard-boringSisko_not_boring

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[i] For “Babylon 5” fans: Yes, I acknowledge it existed at the same time as Deep Space Nine, and was another long-form show set on a  strategic space station. But I have never seen it, so I’m not going to write about it.