Wednesday, April 26, 2017

You Work With What You Have

I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.”

“She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket.” 

- Philip Marlowe in Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler

Another Day In Baseball

Watch Chris Coghlan of the Toronto Blue Jays somersault over Yadier Molina of the St Louis Cardinals and reach home plate.  It happened last night.  In recent years we've seen this happen in the NFL a couple of times but, to my knowledge, it's never happened in baseball before. You can also watch it here.

It also prompted this tweet:

It was all part of what one writer called "The absolute craziest, strangest and saddest night of the season.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017


Today's the 100th birthday of the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald.  Ella was so good she could even intimidate Frank Sinatra, who thought her the premiere vocalist of the time and would not record with her because he felt he could not measure up.  The purity of her voice and tonal control across her broad vocal range remains remarkable.

Two songs for today.  The first is Bill Strayhorn's Lush Life with its difficult melody.  On this version the great Oscar Peterson is on piano.  The second is the upbeat They All Laughed.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Pictures Of Lily

Possibly the oddest (along with I'm A Boy) of the many odd singles released by The Who.  About a young man who becomes enamored of pictures stuck on his bedroom wall by his dad and is disappointed to find the young woman is long dead, Pictures of Lilly, released in the UK on this date in 1967 was another hit for the band, reaching the Top Five.  Released two months later in the US, it was yet another flop in that market.

Pictures of Lily was the eight single by the band, all of which reached the UK Top Ten.  It was their seventh failed single in the US, only the previous release, Happy Jack, achieving chart success.

It's likely that the Lily referenced in the lyrics is the actress Lillie Langtry, mistress of the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), who died in 1929.
(Lillie Langtry from wikipedia)

I used to wake up in the morning
I used to feel so bad
I got so sick of having sleepless nights
I went and told my dad
He said, "son now here's some little something"
And stuck them on my wall
And now my nights ain't quite so lonely
In fact I, I don't feel bad at all
I don't feel so bad at all
Pictures of Lily made my life so wonderful
Pictures of Lily helped me sleep at night
Pictures of Lily solved my childhood problems
Pictures of Lily helped me feel alright
Pictures of Lily
Lily, oh Lily
Lily, oh Lily
Pictures of Lily
And then one day things weren't quite so fine
I fell in love with Lily
I asked my dad where Lily I could find
He said, "son, now don't be silly"
"She's been dead since 1929"
Oh, how I cried that night
If only I'd been born in Lily's time
It would have been alright
Pictures of Lily made my life so wonderful
Pictures of Lily helped me sleep at night
For me and Lily are together in my dreams
And I ask you, hey mister, have you ever seen
Pictures of Lily?


Here are the boys goofing through a lip-synced version of the song on British TV:

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Madison On Property

A common modern criticism of the Founding Fathers is the claim that their priority in establishing the new nation was the protection of accumulated material wealth, aka "property" above all.  The early 20th century historian Charles Beard was the first to make the allegation and it's becoming an increasingly favored trope of Progressives and Marxist historians.

In reality, the definition of "property" was much broader in the late 18th century.  Property refers not just to land, equipment or money in a bank.  It is the ownership we have in our mental existence and in the right to try to better ourselves. The best example of what was actually meant by the term was set forth by James Madison in a short essay published in the National Gazette on March 29, 1792 which you can read in full here.

Madison informs his readers that the term has both a particular application to "external things of the world" as well as a "larger and juster meaning" which:
. . . embraces every thing to which a man may attach a value and have a right; and which leaves to every one else the same advantage.
Included in this larger meaning Madison references:
. . . a property in his opinions and the free communication of them.

. . . a property of particular value in his religious opinions

. . . equal property in the free use of his faculties and free choice of the objects on which to employ them

. . . a property in his rights
Madison goes on to say, "Conscience is the most sacred of property".

The role of government is to protect property of every sort.  A just government "impartially secures to every man, whatever is his own."  In contrast, an unjust government denies to "its citizens that free use of their faculties, and free choice of their occupations, which not only constitute their property in the general sense of the word; but are the means of acquiring property strictly so called."

Madison's thought is echoed several times in the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, where he uses the term "liberty" instead of "property" in support of the right to free exercise of labor and ambition.

The more restrictive meaning of the term "property" that arose in the 20th century was not an accident. By doing so it allowed Progressive thinkers and Marxist demagogue to impugn the ideas of the Founding and to set the stage for the artificial distinction between economic rights and personal liberty pioneered by the Supreme Court in the 1930s, in which rights in the former were severely restricted.

Ironically, as noted by Walter Dellinger (Solicitor General during the Clinton Administration) in The Indivisibility of Economic Rights and Personal Liberty, "the New Deal Court's elimination of any effective protection of economic rights seriously weakened the bases for protecting personal liberty as well", noting that the shaky rationale of Justice Douglas' "inept opinion" in the contraceptive ban case of Griswold v Connecticut was made necessary by the evisceration of economic rights.  As Dellinger points out, it was the justices accused by the New Dealers of being reactionaries in the 1930s, who in the prior decade wrote the decisions in Pierce v Society of Sisters and Meyers v Nebraska overturning state statutes which discriminated on ethnic and religious grounds, relying on theories of economic liberties. 

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Length Of The Game

The growing length of baseball games has become a frequent complaint in recent years, and the Commissioner's Office has shortening their duration a priority.  I also would like to see shorter games. 

In writing posts on mid-1970s games I saw in Fenway, I noticed how quick they were.  Mark Fidrych's duel with Luis Tiant took 1:57, while the game featuring Jim Rice's monster home run was over in 2:07.  Most recently I was researching a 3-game Red Sox-Yankees series I watched from the bleachers in June 1977 (subject of an upcoming post).  The game times were 2:27, 2:38 and 2:23; shocking for those of us accustomed to the four hour marathons these team routinely played in the 21st century.  The average game length in MLB increased from 2:29 in 1974 to 3:09 in 2014.

All of which prompted a deeper look at the length of Red Sox games in 1977 and 2016.  Bottom line: counting only nine inning games, in 1977 you were almost 17 times more likely to attend a game lasting less than 2:30 than in 2016.  In 2016 you were almost 8 times more likely to attend a game lasting more than 3:15.

The details:
The 1977 Red Sox played 154 nine inning games.
The 2016 Red Sox played 151 nine inning games.

Games Less Than 2:30
1977:  70 (45.5%)
2016:   4 ( 2.6%)

Games More Than 3:15
1977:  7   (4.5%)
2016:  53 (35.1%)

Games Between 2:30 & 3:15
1977:  77 (50.0%)
2016:  94 (62.3%)

Monday, April 17, 2017

Dereliction Of Duty

"The war in Vietnam was not lost in the field, nor was it lost on the front pages of the New York Times or the college campuses. It was lost in Washington, D.C, even before Americans assumed sole responsibility for the fighting in 1965 and before they realized the country was at war, even before the first American units were deployed."

from Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam by HR McMaster (1997)
When General HR McMaster became President Trump's National Security Advisor (NSA) I decided to take a look at his background.  Turns out McMaster holds a Ph.D. in American history from the University of North Carolina and his doctoral thesis was later published as Dereliction of Duty.  The book is a detailed, scathing indictment of the decision making of President Lyndon Johnson, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and the Joint Chiefs of Staff from the time of President Kennedy's assassination in November 1963 to the introduction of large numbers of American combat troops into Vietnam in July 1965. McMaster from wikipedia)

I decided to read the book to (1) learn more about this period of history, which I've spent little time on in recent decades, and (2) to gain some insight into our new NSA.  On the latter point, I came away feeling that McMaster is much better qualified for the role than his most recent predecessors, Michael Flynn and Susan Rice.  His approach to the roles of civilian and military advisers on national security issues is sound and it looks like he will not hesitate to stand up for his own views.  Of course, writing a book criticizing others does not guarantee you will not repeat their failures when put into the same position.

While McMaster's research is exhaustive, large parts of this ground have been plowed before, all the way back to the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971.  Nonetheless, it is a useful albeit depressing reminder of that history given added impact by McMaster's outrage as a serving officer on the failure of the Joint Chiefs during that critical time.  I'd forgotten much of this and don't think I'd ever realized quite how bad the decision making process was.

As an aside, reading Dereliction of Duty reminded me of two aspects of the Pentagon Papers publication.  When he learned of the New York Times plans to publish the documents, President Nixon's first reaction was to do nothing, as he felt publication would expose the flawed decision making and deceptions of his Democratic predecessors that had gotten America into the mess which they then left to Nixon to clean up.  Ultimately persuaded by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that the precedent of having such top secrets leaked created a bigger problem,  Nixon approved the government lawsuit seeking to prevent publication, a claim rejected by the Supreme Court.  Nixon should have followed his initial instincts.  By filing the lawsuit the focus of the story became the Nixon Administration, not its predecessors.  The second point is that the Supreme Court ruling is often misunderstood as a total victory for freedom of the press.  In fact, while the Court rejected prior restraint and allowed the publication to proceed, it also made it clear the Times remained subject to potential criminal prosecution as a result.  The Nixon Administration sought to bring such a prosecution until the Justice Department was persuaded that no jury in New York City would vote to convict.

McMaster's focus in Dereliction is the decision making process and he does not directly address the substance of the preferred Vietnam policy nor does he clearly indicate his belief as to the right policy.  I infer from some of his remarks that he may believe that military intervention under any circumstances was doomed to failure but I could be misreading him.  Because of the process focus it becomes especially important to always keep in mind the underlying substance.  You can get the process right and still be completely wrong on the substance.

Cast of Characters

Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).  Initiated on an informal basis by President Roosevelt during WWII, it gained formal status under the National Security Act of 1947.  In the early 1960s the JCS consisted of the Chairman, the Chiefs of Staff of the Army and Air Force, the Chief of Naval Operations and the Marine Corps Commandant.  Its purpose was to advise the President, Secretary of Defense and the National Security Council (NSC) on military matters.

JCS Members: 1963-65

General Maxwell Taylor, Chairman (1962-64); appointed in 1964 as Ambassador to South Vietnam
General Earle Wheeler, Chairman (1964-70) and Army Chief of Staff (1962-64)
General Harold Johnson, Army Chief of Staff (1964-68)
Admiral David McDonald, Chief of Naval Operations (1963-67)
General Curtis LeMay, Air Force Chief of Staff (1961-Jan. 1965)
General John McConnell, Air Force Chief of Staff (1965-69)
General David Shoup, Marine Corps Commandant (1960-63)
General Wallace Greene, Marine Corps Commandant (1964-67)

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (1961-68), former President of Ford Motor Company

Presidents John F Kennedy & Lyndon Baines Johnson

The Kennedy Prequel

While the critical decisions leading to making Vietnam an American war were during the Johnson Administration, actions by his predecessor paved the way.  The early 1960s were the height of the Cold War.  Growing up in that time many of us felt a nuclear war was distinctly possible, even likely.  In April 1961 saw the failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, followed immediately by Fidel Castro's formal announcement that Cuba was a socialist state.  Early June was the Vienna Summit between Kennedy and Khrushchev, a disaster for the young president whose weak performance emboldened the Soviet leader.  Later that summer was the Berlin Crisis, with Soviet and American tanks facing each other at Checkpoint Charlie, followed by the building of the Berlin Wall. In October, the Soviets tested a 57-megaton H-bomb, to this day the largest explosion ever created by humans, with a fireball 5 miles in diameter, 1,600 times the combined power of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, and capable of inducing 3rd-degree burns sixty miles away.  The next year brought us the Cuban Missile Crisis. And guerrilla wars were brewing in Laos and South Vietnam.

The tension was reflected in American popular culture.  1962 saw the release of The Manchurian Candidate.  That same year two best selling novels were Fail Safe, in which Moscow and Manhattan are targets of atomic bombs, and Seven Days in May, about an attempted military coup in the United States.  At the same time, director Stanley Kubrick was beginning work on a movie based on the 1959 novel Red Alert as well as being a satiric take on Fail Safe, released in 1964 as Dr Strangelove, the same year as the film versions of Fail Safe and Seven Days in May.

When JFK took office in January 1961 there were 900 American military advisers in South Vietnam.  The French had been evicted from Indochina in 1954 and Vietnam temporarily divided.  Planned elections did not occur due to the actions of South Vietnam president Ngo Dinh Diem and the United States, primarily because of concern they would result in a victory for the Communist government of North Vietnam.  Although there were attempts at the time and since to portray the Viet Cong insurgency in the south as nationalist led and the North Vietnamese government as more nationalist than communist it is clear from documents and testimony now available that both were much more communist than nationalist, though they skillfully played the nationalist card to gain support from their countrymen.  From the beginning, the Viet Cong organization was directed by the communist North and the goal always remained unification as a communist state.  For more on the North Vietnamese communist decision making process read Hanoi's Road to the Vietnam War: 1954-65 by Pierre Asselin.

JFK held little regard for departing President Eisenhower's policy of reliance on nuclear deterrence and reduction of conventional military forces.  The incoming president was enamored of new ideas around flexible response and unconventional warfare as better strategies to confront the communist threat.  One of the best known of the proponents of these new ideas was General Maxwell Taylor.  Taylor, commander of the 101st Airborne Division in WWII and Army Chief of Staff from 1955 to 1959, retired from active service because of his disagreements with Eisenhower. Taylor from wikipedia)

Within three months of taking office, JFK faced a humiliating fiasco with the failure of the Bay of Pigs operation designed to overthrow Fidel Castro.  Kennedy, furious with what he felt was misleading and ineffectual advice from the CIA and the JCS, asked Maxwell to lead an investigation on the causes of the failure.  This led to Taylor's return to active service as military representative to the President, an irregular position allowing JFK to bypass the JCS, who he increasingly distrusted.  A year later the President regularized Taylor's role by naming him Chairman of the JCS.  Along the way, the general became close friends with both the JFK and his brother Bobby (who named one of his children Matthew Maxwell Taylor Kennedy), as he later also did with LBJ.

The contrast between the nature of Taylor's relationship with the Kennedys, and later LBJ, and that of General George C Marshall with FDR, is striking.  Famously, FDR promoted Marshall to Army Chief of Staff over senior officers, despite the general having been the only military officer to disagree with him during a meeting regarding a presidential proposal (for more on the incident, read Management Lessons).  And while Marshall eventually became an admirer of FDR, their relationship during WWII was strictly professional.  Marshall and the president never socialized or interacted other than on military matters.

With Taylor's help, JFK began implementing his new anti-communist strategy and the place he picked was Southeast Asia; first Laos and then South Vietnam, where the number of American military advisers increased to 16,000 by the time of his death in 1963.

The events of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the fall of 1962 reinforced JFK's distrust of the JCS, as well as enhancing the prestige of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the auto executive who brought management systems and quantitative analysis to the Pentagon.  Throughout the crisis, the president resisted pressure from the JCS for military action against Cuba, instead following the path of "gradual pressure" advocated by McNamara, resulting in a peaceful and successful resolution. "Gradual pressure" referred to step by step ratcheting up of pressure which could be carefully controlled and which would compel an opponent to react in a predictable way until such time as the situation could be resolved.

JFK's next step in diminishing the role of the individual members of the JCS was to name Taylor as its Chairman in 1962.  The combination of Taylor's personal relationship with the president and his bureaucratic skills allowed him to dominate the JCS.  And, according to McMaster, Taylor arranged to have Earle Wheeler appointed Army Chief of Staff (and eventually his successor as Chairman), precisely because he was not a strong personality and leader.  McMaster characterizes Wheeler as lacking "the drive and energy to discharge his responsibilities to the fullest". Wheeler from history central)

The Taylor-Kennedy relationship, and the resulting marginalization of the JCS, as well as of the National Security Council (NSC) is, in McMaster's view, the fundamental mistake in the structure of the decision making process, one that carried over to the Johnson Administration.  In contrast, McMaster thinks the process driven system of the Eisenhower years was a better approach. 

Despite the growing American presence in South Vietnam, conditions continued to deteriorate and the performance of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) failed to improve.  Becoming increasingly disenchanted with the Diem regime, both for its military failures as well as alienation of the country's Buddhist majority Kennedy sanctioned a military coup (an action opposed by Lyndon Johnson) which took place on November 1, 1963 and resulted in the deaths of Diem and his brother.  Three weeks later, John F Kennedy was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald (for more on the assassination read A Cruel And Shocking Act, and you might want to take a look at a fanciful and interesting fictional take on the Diem and Kennedy deaths by former CIA operative Charles McCarry in Tears of Autumn).

What many participants failed to realize at the time was Diem's overthrow would saddle the United States with responsibility for the successor government and the war itself.

The Johnson Years

Two days after becoming President, LBJ met with Ambassador to Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge and asked him to inform the country's new leader, General Minh, he was "Not going to be the president who saw Southeast Asia go the way China did", referring to China's fall to the communists in 1949. LBJ was haunted by the fear that losing Vietnam would politically destroy his new administration.  Johnson's priorities were domestic, not international - win election in his own right in 1964 and pass Civil Rights and Great Society legislation.

McMaster puts it this way:
"What Johnson feared most in 1964 was losing his chance to in the presidency in his own right.  He saw Vietnam principally as a danger to that goal.  After the election, he feared that an American military response . . . would jeopardize chances that his Great Society would pass through Congress. . . McNamara would help the president first protect his electoral chances and then pass the Great Society by offering a strategy for Vietnam that appeared cheap and could be conducted with minimal public and congressional attention."
Johnson would see the Civil Rights Act enacted in 1964, win an overwhelming victory over Barry Goldwater that November, and obtain passage of the Great Society legislation the following year, but by mid-1965, Vietnam had grown from a nuisance to a land war in Asia with 150,000 US troops on the ground or enroute to that country.  It would ultimately cost LBJ his presidency, and nearly 60,000 Americans their lives.
                                                   (from THC family collection)

Over that 20 month period all of the critical decisions were made leading to the war and its result.  In McMaster's telling it took a president unsure of himself, distrustful of others (his National Security Advisor, McGeorge Bundy later wrote, "he was . . . the wariest man about whom to trust that I have ever encountered"), and unwilling to think long-term, always focused on Vietnam as a tactical, not strategic issue; a defense secretary too sure of himself and contemptuous of military advice; and an ineffective JCS, riven by interservice rivalries, too wary of confronting civilian leadership with the implications of its policies and too cowardly to resign when they knew those policies would fail, that together led to the failure in Vietnam.  In the end, they didn't just deceive Congress and the American people, they deceived themselves.

From the start there were major problems with the decision making process.  The first was the structural one, which marginalized the JCS, allowing McNamara (who comes off worse than anyone in McMaster's account) and Taylor to play them and screen unwanted opinions from the president, including deliberately misrepresenting the opinion of the JCS to LBJ.  Taylor and McNamara's efforts were aided and abetted by dysfunction within the JCS; lack of strong leadership and a situation where each member had his own solution to Vietnam involving an enhanced role for their branch of the service.  Looming over everything was a fundamental disagreement on objectives and strategy that was never resolved even as the military situation in South Vietnam deteriorated further in 1964 and early 1965.

It is striking how clearly in 1964 and 1965 the goal of civilian leadership had already become merely preventing a communist victory in the short run and maintaining US credibility, regardless of the eventual outcome, in the longer term.  Planners rationalized that committing the US military to a war in Vietnam and losing would be preferable to withdrawing, "They believed that if the US demonstrated that it would use military force to support its foreign policy, its international stature would be enhanced, regardless of the outcome."  This was expressed most directly by NSA McGeorge Bundy at a White House meeting on February 7, 1965 when supported sending American combat troops even though a favorable outcome was as low as 25% because he was 100% sure that, even if it failed, the policy would be worth it to preserve American credibility.

For a president who saw both withdrawal and major escalation as politically problematic, McNamara's strategy of "gradual pressure" seemed ideal.  Its successful application in the crisis of October 1962 misled officials to believe it would work in very different circumstances in Southeast Asia.  The Secretary was convinced that traditional military conceptions of use of force were irrelevant, "Aim of force was not to impose one's will on the enemy but to communicate with him.  Gradually intensifying military action would convey American resolve and thereby convince an adversary to alter his behavior."  McNamara believed he could precisely calculate the amount of force needed to achieve American objectives.

For the JCS, graduated pressure made no sense and would end up creating a worse situation for the United States.  As early as January 22, 1964 a JCS memo declared "victory" should be the goal and recommended bombing key North Vietnam targets and mining sea approaches.  The memo argued we were fighting in the enemy's terms and would ultimately need to commit US troops.  LBJ made it clear he would only commit enough to avoid South Vietnam losing the war. 

There were two different world views in play;
Those who believed in the application of systems analysis to military strategy thought it incorrect to argue that the enemy "will do his worst".  Instead planners should assume that the enemy "is in much the same position as we" and will "adapt his behavior". 
McMaster writes of the view that controlled, rational application of military force would result in the United States and its adversary reaching "simultaneously a judgment about what is the most reasonable choice for us to make and what is a reasonable choice for him to be making". As he concludes, they "failed to consider that Hanoi's commitment to revolutionary war made losses that seemed unconscionable to American white-collar professionals of little consequence to Ho's government", or, as lead JCS planner, Lt. General Goodpaster, told McNamara in the fall of 1964:
Sir, you are trying to program the enemy and that is one thing we must never try to do.  We can't do his thinking for him. from wikipedia)

By November 1964, the frustrated JCS wanted McNamara to tell the president a "disaster" would occur under current policy but were put off by McNamara's promises (never fulfilled) of a change in course.  The JCS never forced the issue, despite its misgivings, leading to the situation McMaster describes:
Instead of considering what deepening American involvement in Vietnam might ultimately cost or voicing individual doubts, the Joint Chiefs compromised, listing actions that would contribute to the war effort, and contented themselves with gaining incremental approval for them.  Everyone - the president, his closest civilian advisers, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff - had taken the path of least resistance.  As a result the most difficult questions about the nature of American involvement in Vietnam remained unanswered . . .
All of which was compounded because "Because the Great Society constrained the exploration of policy options in Vietnam, the probable consequences of the favored course [gradual pressure] - received relatively little attention." 

What is appalling is how much of what later happened in Vietnam was predicted by several of the participants.

The Army and Marine Corps JCS members independently concluded it would ultimately take 500-700,000 US troops and several years to prevail under gradual pressure, yet the JCS itself never undertook such a detail analysis and never informed the president of these views (though McNamara was aware).

In April 1964, the JCS war games division undertook an exercise to analyze the results of gradual pressure against North Vietnam; "In response to US military action, North Vietnam and the Viet Cong raised the tempo of attacks in the South and conducted terrorist attacks on US installations and personnel."  The officers who played North Vietnam in game banked on a lack of American resolve to see the effort through.  Participants concluded that America was underestimating North Vietnamese resolve and believed there were only two solutions, withdrawal or doing enough to convince the enemy "we really mean business".  McNamara rejected the results because they did not meet his criteria for systematic and quantitative analysis.

Another war game exercise was conducted in September 1964 at which observers included McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Under Secretary of State George Ball and Walt Rostow (Director of Policy Planning, State Dept.).  The results were similar.  Gradual pressure starting with increased air attacks resulted in the North Vietnamese escalating the ground war.  Bombing had minimal effect because of the enemy's low logistical needs and it stiffened their determination.  By game's end ten American combat divisions were deployed in Southeast Asia and an invasion of North Vietnam was being contemplated.  Participants concluded that escalation would erode public support in the US and that America would withdraw rather than risk protracted war.  The conclusions were never seriously studied because disengagement and escalation were ruled out (interestingly these were the two options presidential candidate Barry Goldwater was talking about at the same time).

Newly inaugurated Vice President Hubert Humphrey requested an intelligence briefing on the situation in Vietnam which he received on February 1, 1965.  He was concerned enough to send a memo to LBJ pledging that while he would support any decision made by the president he was concerned about deepening American involvement.  He said there was little hope for success and the United State would become "prisoner of events" and unable to maintain public support, citing the example of the Korean War.  Humphrey suggested the president's November landslide victory put him in a strong position to distance himself from Vietnam.  LBJ's response was to block any further intelligence briefings of the VP and exclude him from any deliberations on Vietnam.

In April CIA Director John McCone told that president that unless the US was willing to take out North Vietnamese airfields, aircraft and infrastructure ground troops should not be committed.  Once again LBJ rejected the advice and McCone resigned in frustration several weeks later.  It is at this point JCS Chairman Wheeler should also have resigned, in the opinion of McMaster.

A month later, McCone's successor, William Raborn sent a memo to the president advising that by sending combat troops, the US would be pinned down and face only bad choices.  The president forwarded the memo to Clark Clifford, presidential advisor and elder statesmen.  Clifford responded that troops should be kept to a minimum, warned Vietnam "could be a quagmire" and urged LBJ to pursue a negotiated settlement.

Johnson himself recognized the risks very early, telling McGeorge Bundy in May 64: 
 . . . looks like to me we're getting into another Korea. It just worries the hell out of me.  I don't see what we can ever hope to get out of this.  It was the biggest damn mess that I ever saw . . . It's damn easy to get into a war, but . . . it's going to be harder to ever extricate yourself . . .
Yet the president never came to grips with his own misgivings and remained unwilling to discuss the long-term with all of his advisers.  He never comprehended the fatal flaw in McNamara's gradual pressure strategy, that once ground combat troops were committed "the actions of the Vietnamese communist forces would determine the level of American effort necessary to prevent a collapse of the South Vietnamese regime."  In other words, the initiative would shift to the communists to determine whether and when escalation would occur.

Reviewing the sequence of events, with the growing sense by many of the participants (with the exception of McNamara) that the United States was on the wrong course, reminds me of similarities to Japan's decision to go to war with the United States in 1941 (for more read Japan Decides On War).

As 1965 started the pressures grew even more intense.  The president was obsessed with his planned Great Society legislation, which he saw as his legacy, more than ever seeing Vietnam as an issue that needed to be politically controlled resulting in his approaching it as a tactical, not strategic issue, not realizing that his lack of a strategy would result in locking him into a course of action.

Since the summer of 1964 there had been increasing discussions among his advisers about committing ground combat troops, though formal discussion was deferred until the election was over.  With LBJ's overwhelming victory, discussions on ground troops moved to the forefront.  Maxwell Taylor, by then Ambassador in Saigon, strongly opposed the move believing it would remove any motivation by the South Vietnam government to improve its own military, encourage them to let the United States carry the burden of the war, and transform it into an American war which would not be viewed favorably by most of the South's populace.  The ambassador also thought that the rationale for initially introducing combat troops could be used to justify unlimited additional deployments, precisely what happened.

The March 1965 Viet Cong attack on the American base at Pleiku in the central highlands region, near the Cambodian border, killing 8 servicemen and wounding 115, triggered the next step.  By the end of the month, Johnson approved the introduction of combat troops though, once again, there was no true strategic discussion between the president and his advisers.  The JCS limited itself to discussing tactical matters and as to the president, McMaster writes:
The president, however, would refuse to consider or even to acknowledge the consequences of his decisions, and thus still imagined that he could pursue a policy of gradual escalation without involving the US in a major war.
F77-20(Aftermath of Pleiku attack, from Healy Library, UMass Boston)

And, in McNamara's view, ground troops were just another element in gradual pressure, just like air power.

February also marked the beginning of bombing of selected and very limited targets in North Vietnam.  Though Bundy recommended the president speak to the American people about the bombing as a "major watershed decision", he rejected the advice.

By April 13, the president ordered a change in the mission of ground troops from providing security to offensive operations but directed this be kept secret from Congress and the public. In a meeting that month, LBJ instructed General Wheeler, ". . . to come back here next Tuesday and tell me how we are going to kill more Viet Cong."  Marine Corps Commandant Greene wrote of that meeting, "the president does not seem to grasp the details of what can and cannot be done in Vietnam!"  Nonetheless McMaster notes, "Killing more Viet Cong was a tactical mission which the JCS accepted".

Just six days before, LBJ gave a speech at Johns Hopkins University outlining a proposal for Vietnam, North and South, promising American support for Vietnam's own Great Society program, a proposal that was completely delusional in light of the realities and only emphasized Johnson's failure to view Vietnam in anything other than an American context.
(Marines coming ashore at Da Nang, 1965 from Hampton Roads Naval Museum)

In response to LBJ's request, Wheeler recommended deploying an additional 180,000 troops  The president, once again seeking the middle ground, authorize 82,000 on April 22.   On May 11, with one North Vietnamese division in the south and another on the way, the communists launched an offensive.  In early June the unstable South Vietnam government fell in yet another coup.

Throughout this period, the administration denied any change in the mission of ground troops.  This was not the first case of misleading by the administration.  The prior August, after the Gulf of Tonkin incidents, the administration and McNamara specifically misled and lied to Congress about the background of the incident and American involvement in South Vietnam attacks in the north.

Then, on June 8, a state department official asked about the mission responded that US forces would be used in offensive combat operations, prompting a NY Times editorial expressing surprise that "the American people were told by a minor State Department official yesterday, that, in effect, they were in a land war on the continent of Asia".  In response, White House Press Secretary Reedy stated "There has been no change in the mission of US ground combat units in Viet Nam in recent days or weeks".

Meanwhile, the situation on the ground was becoming so desperate, General Westmoreland cabled Washington asking for even more troops to avoid a disaster.  At a June 11 NSC meeting, the president approved an increase to 123,000.  His remarks illustrate continuing confusion about the situation and America's goals:
We must delay and deter the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong as much as we can, and as simply as we can, without going all out.  When we grant General Westmoreland's request [for 175,000], it means that we get in deeper and it is harder to get out.  They think they are winning and we think they are.  We must determine which course gives us the maximum protection at the least cost'."
All of which begs the question, for what purpose?

Events moved to a climax in July.

In early July, while McNamara and Wheeler were on trip to Vietnam the other members of the Chiefs met with House Armed Services Committee members in the offices of Chairman Mendel Rivers.    Under repeated questioning Army Chief Johnson said 250,000 troops would ultimately be needed, half the number he had already privately told others he thought was necessary.   Rivers asked why SAM sites and air bases had not been targeted, a question which the Chiefs, with the exception of Marine Commandant Greene, evaded.  They generally downplayed the significance of the new troop commitments.

According to McMaster, Greene, "torn between loyalty to the president and responsibility to the American people",  called the committee's lawyer later that day and told him the US was on the verge of a "major war" that would involve 500,000 troops, take at least five years, and cause a large number of American casualties. Greene from wikipedia)

In addition, the JCS had recommended a mobilization of reserves occur to backfill American forces so the country would have some ability to respond if urgent contingencies arose elsewhere in the world.  The president, not wanting to heighten scrutiny on the significance of his actions, refused.  The JCS went along though Army Chief Johnson told McNamara that "the quality of the Army is going to erode to some degree that we can't assess now", another accurate prediction.

In late July, in advance of a press conference at which the president would announce the deployment of additional troops, he met with Congressional leaders.  One of the concerns was the potential budget impact on the deployment.  The administration was aware it would cost an additional $12 billion (at a time when the entire Defense budget was only $55 billion), a figure which could endanger the planned spending for the Great Society.  At the meeting, the budget increase was understated by $10 billion.  As presidential aide Jack Valenti later wrote, "the last thing that Lyndon Johnson wanted was to make public his strategy about the Great Society and the war." Further at that matter McNamara lied about the number of troops being deployed (cutting it in half) and denied troops were already engaged in combat operations.  General Wheeler sat silent during the briefing.

On July 28, Lyndon Johnson told America of the troop deployment but assured the country that his action "did not imply any change in policy whatever".  By the end of 1965, 200,000 American troops were deployed in Vietnam.

Robert McNamara's focus on quantitative analysis led to the public reports that all of us remember from that era.  We were given a weekly tally of the number of Americans killed, along with the number of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese killed (always much higher than American), along with some other statistics on pacification.  It gave everyone a false sense of what was actually happening in the war.

At the same time, the weekly tabulation revealed the cost to America in the lives of its soldiers.  In November 1965 came the first major combat between the US and North Vietnam; a four day battle in the Ia Drang Valley during which 237 Americans were killed and 4 went missing (the battle is the subject of the 2002 movie, We Were Soldiers, starring Mel Gibson).

By early 1968, troops levels were a little over 500,000.  Almost 20,000 Americans were dead.  At the end of January, the communists launched the Tet Offensive and 480 Americans were killed in one week, with more than 16,000 deaths that year.  General Westmoreland requested an additional 206,000 troops to stabilize the situation but President Johnson refused to authorize any further increases.  On February 29, McNamara resigned.  On March 31, Johnson announced he would not seek reelection in 1968.

McMaster quotes a very insightful comment by Idaho Senator Frank Church on President Johnson's approach to Vietnam.
He [LBJ] played a role between the doves and the hawks, and he did it much the way he used to conduct his majority leadership.  He did it on the notion that here was some middle ground, always, on which the majority of the votes could be secured.  That was true in the Senate where you have to find that consensus in order to enact legislation.  But I think the role of the president is different from that of a senator and that this was a matter of policy that could not be cut down the middle.   
Earlier in this piece I mentioned a contrast between FDR and JFK/LBJ in their use of advisers, including the JCS.  There were other contrasts.  Roosevelt directly engaged his military leaders and they had some extremely heated and prolonged discussions, Marshall even threatening to resign at one point.  Yet the process forced discussion of the essential issues, something missing in the 1960s and it says something for the willingness of Roosevelt to engage and of Marshall, King and Arnold to be much more direct than their successors twenty years later.  Roosevelt and the Chiefs also had Harry Hopkins, a figure for which there was no equivalent in the 1960s.  Hopkins played a critical role as a back channel, trusted by everyone, who could help resolve issues (for more read, Who Was Harry Hopkins?).  Instead, McNamara and Taylor eliminated any back channels; everything was funneled through them, a danger in any organization.

McMaster's verdict on McNamara: 
McNamara refused to consider the consequences of his recommendations and forged ahead oblivious of the human and psychological complexities of war.
And on the JCS:
The Chiefs' inability to overcome the service parochialism that had plagued the JCS organization since its inception undercut their legitimacy and made them vulnerable to Taylor's and McNamara's tactics.
The JCS were unable to articulate effectively either their objections or alternatives . . . failed to confront the president with their objections to McNamara's approach to the war . . . accepted a strategy they knew would lead to a large but inadequate commitment of troops, for an extended period of time, with little hope for success.

The five silent men on the Joint Chiefs made possible the way the United States went to war in Vietnam.
The result was "American soldiers, airmen, and Marines went to war in Vietnam without strategy or direction."


Dereliction of Duty has some shortcomings.

You can easily tell its origin as a thesis.  It could have used better editing to reduce duplication and simplify the narrative.  For instance, as the story moves into 1965 there is a lot of talk about proposals for troop deployment, but the numbers are inconsistent and it is often not clear whether the figures relate to additional troops or include those already deployed.  It would help the narrative to have cleared this up.

The book could have also used some additional Cold War context.  As bad as the decision making process was, it becomes somewhat more understandable, if not excusable, if you are familiar with ongoing tensions with the Soviet Union and China.

I would have also liked to see more background on the individual members of the JCS to get a better flavor for their personal roles in the debacle.  Curtis LeMay, the gruff and outspoken Air Force Chief of Staff was a JCS member until January 1965.  My impression from readings elsewhere is that his advice was always aggressive but always focused on enhancing the role of the Air Force.  He is not mentioned often in the narrative, and the Chief of Naval Operations is almost absent from the book.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Tax Day

In honor of April 15 (yes, I know, taxes aren't due this year until April 18) a couple of stories to keep things in perspective.

The Continuing Sad! Saga Of Connecticut

Twenty five years ago, Connecticut instituted an income tax, losing its arbitrage advantage over neighboring states.  Taxpayers were told it was necessary to close a budget deficit and assured it would place the state's finances on a stable basis going forward.

Since then the top income tax rate has gone from a flat 4.5% to a top rate of 6.99% (that's so you don't think it's actually 7%) and the state has received a cumulative $126 billion in revenue it would have foregone under the old tax system.  The state budget has increased by 250% since then while the population has grown by less than 9%.  In recent years, the state has had the biggest budget deficits in its history, pension obligations are more underfunded than they were in 1991, and businesses and tax paying citizens are fleeing the state. Depending on which rating you wish to look at Connecticut is now considered somewhere between the 45th and 50th worst state from a fiscal stability perspective.

And what's the future hold?  Well, according to an article in the CT Mirror, reporting on an analysis (Weak Economy, High Fixed Costs Test Connecticut's Fiscal Management) by Moody's Investor Services:
Connecticut’s weak economy and surging retirement benefit costs are likely to plague state budgets and test the state’s fiscal management for several years to come.

“Connecticut’s fixed costs command roughly 30 percent of the state’s $18.9 billion non-federal governmental revenues (next fiscal year,) which is the highest percentage of all 50 states,” Marcia Van Wagner, a vice president and senior credit officer at Moody’s, said Wednesday.

Those costs, led by some of the most poorly funded public-sector pension and retiree health care programs in the nation, are expected to consume nearly 35 percent of General Fund revenues by 2018-19, the report states.

The Most Progressive National Tax System

. . . in the developed world is the United States!  That statement may seem surprising to some but it is true because of two factors.  The first is the gradation of tax brackets, which in the US are particularly steep.  Every Federal tax cut and tax increase since 1980, regardless of administration or party, has increased tax rate progressivity so that the wealthier are paying an increasingly large portion of overall income tax revenue.  For example, the last change in rates occurred in 2013, when President Obama decided to keep 80% of the value of the Bush tax cuts which accrued to lower income taxpayers and only raise rates on those earning more than $400,000 a year.

The second factor is that outside the U.S., most national tax systems rely on a combination of income tax and a VAT (value added tax).  As a national sales tax the VAT is highly regressive, resulting in  European countries have more regressive tax system, that is placing a comparatively higher tax burden on those with lower incomes.

Here's some background from a 2008 report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.  As mentioned, the findings still hold true in light of the 2013 federal tax changes.

Friday, April 14, 2017

You Belong To Me

Don't want to be a goody-goody . . .

Elvis Costello & The Attractions; the early years.  May 1978.  THC saw them perform on this tour.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

A Great War

A quarter century of war.  Chaos and upheaval.  One empire recovers from the brink of destruction.  Another plunges from heights undreamed of.  Mutual exhaustion in its wake.  A new power  arises.

Though World War One was initially referred to as The Great War before it became sadly apparent it was not to be the only 20th century war to quality for that title, there is another great war that took place 14 centuries ago and transformed history in ways, foreseen by none of the participants, that reverberate today.

By the start of the 7th century, Rome (republic, then empire) and the empires based on the Iranian plateau (Parthian, then Sassinid) had confronted each other for more than 600 years. Though the principals each had periods of weakness and strength, the borders did not change much during this entire period as the combatants found it impossible to put an end to each other.

The Parthian dynasty founded in 247 BC, seized Mesopotamia a century later, creating its new capital Ctesiphon along the Tigris River.  The Roman Republic entered Asia in 133 BC when Attalus III, King of Pergamum, the rich land on the eastern side of the Aegean, died childless and bequeathed his kingdom to Rome.

Rome became increasingly entangled in the East until Pompey the Great's famous expedition in the 60s led to his settlement of the affairs of Syria, Cappadocia, Pontus, Judea and Egypt.  Though it would be another century before the last of these lands were direct subjects, Rome was now a permanent fixture in the Mideast.

The first major conflict between Rome and Parthia was a stunning defeat for the former when Marcus Crassus, part of the First Triumvirate with Julius Caesar and Pompey, was killed and his legions destroyed by the Parthians in the Syrian desert near Carrhae in 53 BC.

Rome and Parthia fought occasional, and indecisive, wars during the next 150 years, mostly over Armenia, a mountainous kingdom to the north of Syria, laying in between the two.

In the second century AD, events seemed to tilt decisively in favor of Rome.  In 115-116, Trajan conquered all of Mesopotamia, reaching the Persian Gulf and dreaming of Alexander the Great.  His conquest was relinquished by his successor, Hadrian, but later in the century armies of Marcus Aurelius (165) and Septimius Severus (198) sacked the Parthian capital of Ctesiphon.  The latter campaign led to the Roman annexation of the northern part of Mesopotamia (modern-day eastern Syria and northern Iraq).

The frequent Roman thrashings emboldened internal challenges to Parthian rule and they were overthrown in the 220s by a new dynasty, the Sassinids, who were much more formidable opponents for the Romans.  In the middle of the century Shapur I (reigned 242-72) defeated two Roman emperors, capturing one of them, and leading a great raid culminating in the sacking of Antioch, one of the three great cities of the Roman Empire, during the 250s.

The tide swung back to Rome later in the century as Ctesiphon was sacked once again in 283 and another Roman campaign in 299, leading to further territorial consolidation in northern Iraq, where Roman lands now stretched across the Tigris, almost reaching the present boundary of Iran.

There was one last great Roman effort to defeat its rival.  Julian, the last pagan emperor, launched a massive campaign in 363.  Though the emperor reached the walls of Ctesiphon he was unable to capture the city.  Short of supplies and harassed by raiders he was killed in a skirmish while retreating, leaving his beleaguered army to negotiate its passage home by surrendering part of Mesopotamia.

For much of the 5th century the borderlands between the two empires remained quiet.  Things heated up again in the early 500s but the same pattern prevailed, indecisive conflicts.  A fortress falling here or there, a raid on a vulnerable city with the boundaries and balance of power remaining stable.

In 590 a new Sassanid king, Khosrow II, ascended the throne, but faced an uprising led by one of his generals, causing him to flee to Roman territory where he was welcomed by the Emperor Maurice who had ruled since 582.  The following year, Khosrow returned to his homeland, and with Roman help defeated the usurper and regained his throne.  In returned he ceded two recently captured fortresses and part of Armenia to Rome.  For the next decade relations between the two empires were peaceful.  As the seventh century began both empires appeared prosperous and stable.

(Roman and Sassinid Empires in 600)
The Great War

602 was to prove a violent year.  Maurice had been an effective, but parsimonious, ruler.  The Byzantine army, mostly deployed in the Balkans to confront the Avars (a tribe from the Asia steppes which migrated into the area several decades earlier), became increasingly disaffected, particularly after he cut their pay despite his heavy demands upon them; for the first time since the 4th century, Roman armies were crossing the Danube to fight the barbarians.  In the fall of that year, Maurice announced the army would remain north of the Danube for the winter rather than following the usual routine of moving south into comfortable winter quarters.  The outraged soldiers revolted and, under a general officer named Phocas, marched on Constantinople, dethroned Maurice, murdering he and his six sons on November 27.  Phocas became the new emperor.

Though the empire had experienced frequent upheavals due to its lack of rules for orderly succession, this was the first time since the founding of Constantinople in 330 an eastern emperor had been murdered during an internal uprising.
Image result for roman mesopotamia map

Khusrow, seeing an opportunity to avenge the death of his benefactor as well as to regain the territories he had ceded a decade before, mobilized his army, laying siege to the border fortress of Dara.  He also had a vehicle at hand to help him; whether real or not it is impossible to determine at this distance - Maurice's son, Theodosios.  According to Khusrow, Theodosios had fled the slaughter of his family and sought protection from the Shah who pledged to help him seek revenge.
(Coin depicting Khusrow II)

Of what followed we know only the bare chronology (and even that is uncertain at times), along with frustratingly few scraps of information providing brief illuminations of the events of the next two-plus decades.

The possible Theodosios was persuasive enough to convince Rome's general in Mesopotamia to support him and for some cities to open their gates to him.  In 603 the Persians laid siege to the great fortress of Dara which finally fell in 606.  Shortly after this "Theodosios" disappears from our narratives.  What was probably originally intended by the Persians as a limited action of sieges and raids along the lines of prior conflicts, and which had some of the characteristics of an internal war of succession among the Romans, began to take on a life of its own.

In 608 Khosrow launched an unprecedented raid into Asia Minor and his army reached Chalcedon, opposite Constantinople on the Sea of Marmara.  The same year Heraclius the Elder, Exarch (governor) of Africa (modern Tunisia) renounced his allegiance to Phocas and revolted.  He sent a cousin with an army to seize Egypt which fell in 609 and his son, Heraclius, embarked the following year on an amphibious attack on Constantinople.  The risky venture succeeded, Phocas was killed and the younger Heraclius proclaimed emperor (his father died the same year).

The death of Phocas did not stop Khosrow, who now saw an opportunity to recreate the Persian Empire of Cyrus the Great and to finally crush the Roman state.  During the Heraclian revolt the Persians captured the great Mesopotamian cities of Amida and Edessa and conquered the Caucasus on Rome's northeast border.
Heraclius, Byzantine emperor 610-641 AD(Coin depicting Heraclius)

Completing a major reorganization of the Roman administration and military, Heraclius felt confident in launching a counterattack in Syria during 612-3.  After initial success he was defeated, retreating to Constantinople.  Pursuing Persians once again drove deep into Asia Minor, burning the great city of Ephesus on the Aegean coast.  In 614, Khusrow captured Jerusalem (and, in a traumatic turn of events, seized the True Cross, reputedly a fragment of the Cross on which Jesus was crucified and Christendom's most sacred relic, "discovered" by Constantine's mother, Helen, during her visit to Jerusalem in 326, and taken it to Persia as a trophy), and annexing Syria and Palestine.  This was to be no mere raid.  Khusrow refused to negotiate with Heraclius, demanding his unconditional submission.  A purported missive from Khusrow to the Emperor begins:
From Khusro, beloved of the Gods, master and king of all the earth, son of the great Ahuramazda, to our slave, imbecile and lowly, Herakleios . . .
(The Finding of the True Cross by Agnolo Gaddi, 14th century)

Yet another raid into Asia Minor in 617 resulted in the capture of Chalcedon.  Though the Persians withdrew, they held onto Ancyra (modern Ankara) giving them a permanent base on the plateau.  Two years later they invaded and annexed Egypt, followed by the seizure of Mediterranean and Aegean islands, most importantly the strategic base of Rhodes, creating a Persian naval threat to Constantinople.

It was not only in the East that Heraclius faced catastrophe.  Upon his accession, Heraclius stripped the Balkans of soldiers sending them to confront the Persians.  The region now lay open to the Avars, along with their allied Slav warriors, and during the decade of the 610s they widely pillaged as far south as the Greek cities, capturing Belgrade, Nis and Sofia.  Some of our sources tell us the situation looked so grim that Heraclius considered abandoning Constantinople and moving the capital to Carthage in Africa.
(Sassinid Empire in 620 from wikipedia)

The emperor ultimately chose a different, and extremely risky, course of action.  Of Armenian descent, Heraclius left the capital on April 4, 622, traveled by sea to Pontus and established himself in the mountains of Armenia where he began to build a coalition of Armenians, Romans, tribes from the Caucasus and Turks, a newly arrived Asiatic tribe threatening Persia from the north.  The emperor was forced to return to Constantinople in 623 as the Avars, having overrun the Balkans, now turned their attention to the capital.  Heraclius bribed the tribal leaders with a huge payment that was raised by stripping the city's churches of their accumulated wealth but all knew the Avars would eventually return.  The Emperor left Constantinople a second time on March 25, 624.  It was to be more than four years before he returned.

Slowly building a new army in Armenia, Heraclius began undertaking small scale assaults and defending against Persian attacks, including the burning of the greatest of the Zoroastrian fire temples in retaliation for the sacking of Jerusalem.  He was determined to pursue a long-term strategy regardless of the risk to the rest of the empire.  And it was a great risk. In 626 a Persian-Avar alliance formed and attempted to capture Constantinople in the emperor's absence.  A Persian fleet sailed into the Sea of Marmara, while Persian and Avar armies laid siege on land.  Heraclius refused to relieve the siege with his new army, leaving the defense to his deputies in the city.  In a daring and successful ploy, the Romans deployed Greek Fire to destroy the Persian fleet, direct Avar assaults failed and the Slavs revolted against their masters, forcing the armies to lift the siege.
(Heraclius campaigns)

Meanwhile, Heraclius' coalition came together as he finally convinced the Turks to invade the Sassinid Kingdom.  He also convinced the Persian general, who led the unsuccessful assault on Constantinople and was subject to scathing criticism from Khusrow, to remain neutral. In 627 he launched an offensive, moving south into Mesopotamia, defeating the Persians in a great battle at Nineveh on December 12, in the wake of which he issued an ultimatum to Khusrow:
I pursue and run after peace. I do not willingly burn Persia, but compelled by you. Let us now throw down our arms and embrace peace. Let us quench the fire before it burns up everything. 
The defeats triggered a revolt against Khusrow, who was killed by his eldest son in February.  However, negotiations to formally end the war dragged on. Heraclius was in a vulnerable position as major Persian forces still occupied Syria, Palestine, Egypt and Roman Mesopotamia. Changing tack, Heraclius turned his support to a rival Sassanian general and encourage civil strife within the kingdom, which led to a final treaty in 629; under its terms the frontiers of 602 were restored.  Seemingly nothing had changed after the long conflict.  But everything had.


In March 630, Khusrow's successor was killed by an usurper who, in turn, was murdered 40 days later.  The Sassinid Kingdom's descent into chaos and civil war eliminated it as a threat to the Romans.

The True Cross was returned under the terms of the Peace Treaty.  Heraclius took it first to Constantinople where it was received with jubilation.  He then traveled to Jerusalem.  On March 21, 630, walking and not wearing the usual imperial regalia, Heraclius carried the True Cross into the city.  The Cross was to be captured by Saladin in 1187.  Last seen in Damascus several years later, it is now lost to history. 

When the Treaty was signed in 629, Persian troops still occupied Syria, Palestine and Egypt.  We have no documentation but the process of evacuation must have taken some time and not been complete till some time in 630 or even 631.  Heraclius faced a massive task of reconstruction, reestablishing the Roman administration and reinserting a military presence to protect the regained provinces.  Hampered by the debts incurred in financing the counteroffensive of 624-28, the continued need for funds to support the army against the Avars threat in the Balkans, reconstruction proceeded slowly.  From a military perspective, the focus was on defense of the Mesopotamian frontier.  With the Armenians and Turks not interested in providing soldiers for the rest of the empire, the desert defenses of Palestine and Syria were left to Arab tribes held in low regard by the Romans.  The desert frontier forts constructed in the second and fourth centuries by Trajan and Diocletian remained mostly abandoned (for more on the early Roman frontier with Arabia read Madain Saleh).

In 632, chroniclers noted the first "harsh and strange" raids by Arabs into southern Palestine.  In the same year, a revitalized and ever more strongly Christian Roman empire saw an edict from Heraclius mandating the forced conversion of Jews and Samaritans.

Two years later, the unforeseen storm broke.  Arab forces attacked Palestine and Syria. Initially, the Romans may not have realized the significance of these events as during unstable periods Arab raids were not uncommon.  Two years later Mesopotamia and the Sassinid Kingdom were under assault.

Within a decade, Jerusalem, Palestine, Syria, Egypt and Armenia were lost to Rome, while the Sassinid dynasty had been defeated, Mesopotamia occupied and Arab armies advanced across the Iranian plateau.  In 651 the last Sassinid monarch, reduced to a fleeing refugee, was finally hunted down and killed.  Forty years later, the Arabs ruled North Africa, had almost reached the Atlantic, were laying siege to Constantinople, and approached the borders of India and China.

We know little of the origin of these events or why the Arab armies achieved such quick success.   Historians of the Enlightenment era used to refer to Islam as the first religion born in the full light of history, but we now know how dim and flickering that light was.  The original sources, Greek, Syrian, Armenian, and Arabic are few and all have severe limitations on their reliability.  We've realized there are many questions about early Islam and its conquests for which we do not have answers, and it is unlikely, given the difficulties Western scholars face in researching its origins and the even greater danger faced by any Muslim scholar attempting to seek answers, anything new will be learned under present conditions.  These questions include:
What role, if any, did Mecca play in the origin of Islam?
When was the Qu'ran written?
How much of what is considered Islam today existed at the time of the initial conquests?
Were Jewish tribes involved along with Arabs in the initial attacks?
How did the Arabs consolidate themselves so quickly into an effective military force?
What role did the Arab tribes formerly guarding the Roman and Sassinid frontiers play in the attacks?
What we do know is the Arab conquests were the third, and final, of the hammer blows that destroyed the classical Greco-Roman world.  In the 5th century, the Vandals, Franks, Goths, Alans, Burgundians, Angles, and Saxons ended the Roman world in Britain, Gaul and Spain.  Ironically, it was the Byzantine reconquest of Italy, and the Gothic Wars it triggered in the mid-6th century, that closed the classical era in the land of the Eternal City (for more, read Belisarius Enters Rome).  The Arab invasions terminated the classical world in Syria, Palestine, Egypt and North Africa.

The surviving rump of the Byzantine Empire was crippled.  Heraclius, having gone from the facing extinction in 620, to resurrection and triumph less than a decade later, and then plunging to defeat after defeat and the loss of his empire's richest provinces, died in 641. For the next two hundred years a much poorer realm would fight for its survival (it would be more than a century before a Byzantine army defeated an Arab army in the field), no longer a world power, with the last remnants of its Roman character shed in the desperate struggle.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

A Burial At Sea

An unusual war story, from 72 years ago . . . 

April 11, 1945.  The U.S.S. Missouri, the largest American battleship, was offshore Okinawa, providing support for the fleet and troops ashore.  American forces had landed on the island on April 1.  Before the battle ended in mid-June, 12,000 Americans and 75,000 Japanese would be dead.  Five thousand of the U.S. dead were from the Navy which had been subject to unrelenting kamikaze attacks by Japanese pilots on suicide missions.

At noon on April 11, radar spotted a "Zeke" (Japanese Zero aircraft), nearing Missouri.  The pilot is believed to be 19-year old Setsuo Ishino or Kenkichi Ishii, volunteers given rudimentary pilot training, sitting wedged between two 550-pound bombs.  Hit by anti-aircraft fire, the Zeke seemed to falter, then picked up speed before hitting the side of the battleship, with much of its wreckage ending up on Missouri's deck, though it fortunately caused no American casualties.  While cleaning up and pushing the wreckage into the sea, sailors came across the body of the pilot.  About to push the remains into the sea, the sailors were halted by the Missouri's commanding officer, Captain William M Callaghan. Callaghan ordered the ship's medical team to prepare the body for burial.  A Japanese flag was sewn, placed over the body, and the following day the Japanese pilot was given a formal burial at sea with a salute from the American crew who the pilot had been trying to kill the prior day.

You can see photos of the incident below:

On April 12, 2001 a memorial service was held aboard Missouri at Pearl Harbor to commemorate the 56th anniversary of the funeral for the remains of the pilot found on the ship. . The memorial service attendees included retired Admiral William Callaghan, Jr., son of Missouri's Captain Callaghan, and two relatives of 5th Kemmu Squadron pilots other than Ishii and Ishino, who also died in battle on April 11, 1945.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Hot 'Lanta

The Allman Brothers Band at their finest.  From the Fillmore East 1971 with the original lineup before the deaths of Duane Allman and Berry Oakley.  Saw them perform this a few months later at the same venue and it was electrifying.  Amazing how with two drummers they could play so tightly intertwined and let the music flow (compare for example John Bonham's drumming with Led Zeppelin which turned every song into a plodding stomp).   Duane and Dickie Betts on guitars match the drummers and Oakley contributes some fine bass.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Big Light

If you are curious about how to build a water-cooled 72,000 lumen LED flashlight and how much it would illuminate, you've come to the right place.  From Twisted Sifter:

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Sealed Train arrives at the Finland Station)

‘It was with a sense of awe that they turned upon Russia the most grisly of all weapons. They transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland to Russia.’

- Winston Churchill
It is one of those moments on which history turns.  Tens of millions would die as a result in Russia, eastern Europe, China and elsewhere.  Hundreds of millions would be oppressed.  It is ironic that although Marxist theory is predicated on iron rules of history in which individuals are of little import, that development in Russia and for the rest of the world during the 20th century, would have taken a very different direction if the German government had not taken the decision to inject Vladimir Lenin into Russia.  It was one of two catastrophic decisions made by Germany in April 1917 (the other being declaring unrestricted submarine warfare leading to America's declaration of war), the consequences of which led to its defeat in two world wars (see April 1945: Germany's End), and unlike the submarine decision, it was also a disaster for humanity. 

Lenin's return and the Russian provisional government's reaction raises a fundamental question.  Under what circumstances should a democratic government resort to non-democratic means?  Without the presence of Lenin, it is very unlikely the Bolshevik Party would have seized power later in 1917.  As the historian Edward Crankshaw wrote in the October 1954 edition of The Atlantic:
The Bolshevik Party in crisis was nothing but Lenin's will and the men who were prepared to submit to it absolutely. If Lenin had resigned after his return to Russia in 1917 it would have lost its identity, swallowed up by the Mensheviks and the "Compromisers." Lenin would have formed another party, but too late to win for himself the government of Russia; there would have been no Soviet Union. On the other hand, had Lenin given in to the popular demand and allowed his most trusted colleagues to persuade him into compromise, he would have lost his own identity and Bolshevism would have lost its meaning; there would have been no Soviet Union.
Should the Kerensky government have arranged the killing of Lenin (and perhaps of Leon Trotsky), saving millions of lives?  The provisional government knew Lenin was plotting its overthrow, yet shied away from extreme measures.  So much depended on one man and his unshakeable will.

Anxiously watched events in Russia from his decade long Swiss exile during the early months of 1917, Lenin feared his moment might pass.  In February a revolution had overthrown the Czar and a provisional government was in place under Alexander Kerensky.  In today's political taxonomy the new government would be considered of the left, dominated by democratic socialists.  Lenin's party, the Bolsheviks, was explicitly not democratic, but was small, weak and leaderless, a relative nonentity.  Its leader was frustrated, separated from the events he had dreamt of by Russia's enemy Germany, with no way to reach his homeland in the midst of the fourth year of the great European war.

By 1917 each of the countries in the Great War was like a punch drunk boxer.  Exhausted but blindly staggering on, refusing to be knocked out.  With the war in stalemate, Germany was under great pressure.  The military High Command, with the approval of the Kaiser, was willing to role the dice in the case of both America and Russia, in a final attempt to win the war.  They needed Russia out of the war, allowing them to move millions of soldiers to the west to defeat Britain and France. They sensed the war weariness of the Russian people, the revolutionary chaos and the weakness of Kerensky's government.

At Zurich on April 8,  Lenin and his entourage entered the train provided by Germany.  Across Germany, then across the Baltic and through Sweden, entering Russia via Finland, which was then a part of Russia, and arriving at the Finland Station in Petrograd (St Petersburg) on April 16.   Lenin's objective was already set - overthrow of the provisional government and establishment of a Bolshevik dictatorship.   He smashed any thought of compromise within the Bolshevik ranks.  One observer summed up a speech Lenin gave two days after his arrival:
"He swept aside agrarian reforms, along with all the other policies of the Soviet. He demanded that the peasants should themselves organize and seize the land without any governmental interference. We don't need any parliamentary republic. We don't need any bourgeois democracy. We don't need any government except the Soviet of workers', soldiers', and peasants' deputies.'"
He was unswerving.  After a failed coup attempt in July, the Bolsheviks regrouped and succeeded in overthrowing the provisional government in October.  With armed soldiers they forcibly disbanded the first fully elected parliament in Russian history.  They triumphed in the Civil War that followed, with Lenin instituting the Red Terror, mass executions to instill terror in the populace.  As his Justice Minister explained, "Execution of the guilty is not enough, execution of the innocent will impress the masses even more".  As we now know from Solzhenitsyn and others, it was Lenin who created mass terror and the Gulag as Soviet institutions; Stalin merely expanded and perfected his predecessor's work.  Lenin's example was followed by every communist regime of the 20th century and was carefully observed as a model by the growing Nazi Party in Germany.

Would you have ordered a bullet for Lenin?

Friday, April 7, 2017


For the Trump administration.

1.  Syria.  Should have sought Congressional approval before strike.  No imminent threat to U.S.  On substance, I am against intervention as these tend not to go well in the Mideast.  In this specific instance there is a reasonable argument in favor of action, though it does not carry day with me.

2.  Justice Gorsuch.  Terrific nominee.  At least as good as Scalia on 4th and 5th Amendment rights for individuals and may be better standing up to oppressive government agencies.  Much better than Progressive nominees who favor big government over the little guy.

3.  Healthcare.  Glad Ryan/Trump proposal got nowhere.  Let's see if this bunch can actually come up with something better before Obamacare collapses on its own.

4.  Russia.  Hopelessly confused about the narrative.  Administration and Democrats both look bad.  As a practical matter looks like worries that Trump will be in Putin's pocket are groundless at this point.

5.  Trump.  Remains unpredictable and impulsive (not good traits).  Still can't stand to listen to him.  Wish he'd stop that twitter stuff.

6.  White House.  Glad Bannon out at NSC, but worried that Kushner and Ivanka are Democrats Lite.  Given lack of Trump ideology this may be problem.  On the other hand, implacable Democratic opposition may close off this avenue for them.

7.  Appointments.  They need to move much faster on getting rid of Democrat appointees in the agencies.

Summary; Administration still erratic, GOP Congressional leadership mostly incompetent (though McConnell handled filibuster well) and Democratic Party, along with its media affiliates, insane.  Who knows where this is going?

Monday, April 3, 2017

Something New On Opening Day Once Again

Last year I attended Opening Day for the Arizona Diamondbacks.  In anticipation of our move to the state, this year I decided to watch on TV the D-backs first game.   Turned out to be pretty good.

For the second straight year, the D-back opener featured something happening for the first time in the history of baseball.  In 2016 it was Trevor Story of the Colorado Rockies becoming the first rookie to hit two home runs on opening day.  Yesterday Madison Baumgarner of the San Francisco Giants became the first pitcher to hit two home runs on opening day.  And quite the homers they were - with exit velocities of 112 mph, the hardest hit balls by a pitcher since StatCast was deployed on opening day in 2015.  The performance was a continuation of the Giants hurler's batting skills as he'd hit 12 taters in the prior three seasons.

Baumgarner threw a perfect game into the sixth inning and left after seven, having given himself the lead with his second homer and fanning 11 D-backs.

The Arizona team picked up a run in the 8th to tie the game and then inserted 40-year old reliever Fernando Rodney to pitch the 9th.  In a nightmare debut with his new team, Rodney gave up two hits and two walks along with the run to give the Giants a lead but managed to get out of the inning leaving the bases loaded.

The Giants, who fell out of contention last season because of a terrible bullpen, signed closer Mark Melancon to fill the role this year.  Entering the game in the bottom of the ninth, Melancon got two quick outs and then gave up a double and three singles to lose the save and the game 6-5.

The D-backs are in a rebuilding stage in the wake of the club's downfall under the management team of Dave Stewart and Tony LaRussa but for now they are 1-0 and leading the NL West!

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Making (No) Sense Of It All

Perhaps more true than we would like.
Sooner or later there's a pattern.
Sooner or later everything falls into place.
If I didn't believe that I wouldn't want to wake up tomorrow morning and see the sun rise.

Every crime has its own pattern of logic.
Everything has its own order.
If we cannot find that order, it is not because it doesn't exist, but because we have incorrectly examined some vital piece of evidence.

Let us examine the evidence.

Number 1: In the past 6 months, there have been 345 homicides committed in the city.  The victims have ranged variously in age, sex, social status and color.

Number 2: In none of these homicides, have we been able to find a motive.

Number 3:  Consequently, all 345 homicides remain unsolved.

So much for the evidence.

A subtle pattern begins to emerge.  What is this pattern?  What is it that these 345 homicides have in common?

They have in common 3 things:
A.  They have nothing in common.
B.  They have no motive, and
C.  They remain unsolved. 
From the off-Broadway play and 1971 film, Little Murders, written by Jules Feiffer and directed by actor Alan ArkinMurders takes place in a dystopian urban setting where random violence is the new norm and order is falling apart.

The clip below contains the monologue quoted above, given by Lt. Patience (played by Arkin).  He first appears at 1:25 and the monologue begins at 3:15.  Following Arkin's outburst there is a bizarrely compelling and still relevant monologue from Vincent Gardenia.   I saw the film when it was first released.  It left you feeling very uneasy.  It still does.