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Category: Robert Farley

Memorial Day

[ 39 ] May 30, 2011 |

Like Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day has now lost its original meaning. I’m generally against detaching remembrance holidays from the wars that generated them, because generalizing does damage to the experience of the particular. Rather than hazy recollections of all US wars (and of all US military service) Armistice Day and Decoration Day once represented the very genuine horrors of World War I and the Civil War, with the latter honoring Union servicemen in particular.

But then time passes, generations fade away, and we can’t very well have a holiday for every war. And so while enjoying your Memorial Day in whatever fashion you see fit, spare a moment for American soldiers who have died in all of the nation’s wars, and an extra moment for those who died in the Union cause in the Civil War.

Sunday Book Review: Killing the Bismarck

[ 15 ] May 29, 2011 |

Iain Ballantyne’s Killing the Bismarck undertakes the almost absurdly difficult job of saying something new about the Royal Navy’ hunt for the German battleship Bismarck. I’ve mentioned Ballantyne’s book a couple of times before, and I should note with for the purposes of full disclosure: Iain Ballantyne is my editor at Warship: International Fleet Review. On one occasion, he shared more than a few pints with myself and Dave Brockington at a series of Plymouth pubs. In spite of this unsavory company, Ballantyne has managed the very difficult, and has given an important new account of how the Royal Navy hunted and eventually destroyed Bismarck.

The microfoundations of warfare remain understudied, even if the best military historians have brushed by them. Thucydides gave the microfoundations of the phalanx, probably without precisely appreciating how his approach differed from contemporaries. Hans Delbruck employed an explicitly micro-perspective on warfare, to the extent that one could have been explicit before the development of the vocabulary of neo-classical economics. Delbruck explained and elaborated Thucydides’ approach, contrasting it with that of Caesar and other ancient historians. The phalanx functioned as it did, Delbruck interpreted, because of the natural tendencies of individual swordsmen to protect themselves. A micro approach to warfare suffers from the same limitations as a micro approach to anything else, but this shouldn’t obscure its power. An understanding of German military power in the 20th century, for example, requires close attention to both macro and micro factors, from the close relationship between German industry and the German military, to the functioning of a German infantry squad.

In naval warfare, however, the tracing of the microfoundations of military power has lagged. There are some exceptions to this, including a few ancient explanations of the effectiveness of particular groups of rowers, and so forth. For the most part, however, accounts of naval warfare have concentrated on macro level factors, from procurement and technology, to doctrine, to the crucial decisions of important men. To the extent that we have any micro explanations, the unit of analysis tends to be the individual ship, which is itself, of course, a collective with its own rules and processes. Again, there are exceptions; in the interwar period Japanese naval architects argued that the individual characteristics of Japanese sailors (smaller, “tougher”) saved enough weight to pack more armor, engines, and weapons onto Japanese cruisers. The macro approach to naval history tends to end when the ship sinks; we have many accounts of how sailors act when they’re in the water and close to death.

Ballantyne, traveling extremely well-trod ground, watches the hunt for Bismarck from the perspective of British sailors. Through interviews and other personal accounts, he explains how attitudes towards Bismarck shifted from fear to hatred. The sailors on Hood, Prince of Wales, Suffolk, and Norfolk all had their reasons to fear an encounter with Bismarck. Hood’s crew was well acquainted with her age and shortcomings, just as Prince of Wales crew understood that the ship was not yet ready for battle. After Hood’s destruction (and Ballantyne gives an excellent account of the survival of Ted Briggs, Robert Tilburn, and William John Dundas), the attitude in the Royal Navy changed. The crews of Rodney and King George V wanted a chance at Bismarck, though they doubted until the end that they’d have the shot. When they caught Bismarck, which had destroyed Hood and 1415 of hew crew, the desire for vengeance was as important as the need to destroy a major unit of the Kriegsmarine. The attitude at Number 10 was rather the opposite; Churchill was eager to catch Bismarck, then utterly terrified of the possibility that Bismarck might (to great embarrassment) escape “justice.”

This perspective gives him particularly good perspective for asking the key question of the book: Was Bismarck trying to surrender to HMS Rodney? Ballantyne doesn’t concentrate over-much on Bismarck, instead keeping his gaze on the Royal Navy. However, he discusses good evidence that morale collapsed aboard Bismarck in its last night, with officers opening the stores to the men and discipline relaxing. He also pays careful attention to the human costs of the final battle, noting the likely effect of each of Rodney’s shell hits on Bismarck’s crew. Part of the crew remained utterly untouched by the battle, deep within the ship far from harm. Most in the upper parts, however, were torn apart by British shelling. In this context, the idea that some portion of Bismarck’s crew may have attempted to strike the colors is hardly unreasonable. Parts of the crew simply wanted to MAKE THE SHELLING STOP. Other elements, relatively untouched, continued to execute their duty. The destruction of communications (and of the senior officers) onboard Bismarck meant that there was no one left to coordinate defense, or surrender. Of course, those that may (or may not) have witnessed the effort at surrender had little sympathy for the crew of Bismarck, who were held collectively responsible for the destruction of Hood.

Under such circumstances there was no chance that the British would accept a surrender, even if offered. Both macro and micro factors prevailed against it. Nevertheless, an appreciation of how the sailors both on Bismarck and on the task force that destroyed her understood the final battle is most definitely a good contribution to the literature on the destruction of Bismarck.  Killing the Bismarck thus manages the very difficult; saying something new and interesting about one of the most well known operations in naval history.

Johnson on Humphrey

[ 61 ] May 27, 2011 |

Part of Rick Perlstein’s ode to Hubert Humphrey:

Was Humphrey really as hawkish as all that? Johnson didn’t think so; he actually preferred that Nixon win the election. He didn’t trust Humphrey to hold firm on the war.

Hadn’t read that before, but then I have yet to finish Nixonland. Certainly has some implications for interpretations of Johnson that suggest he understood the war as necessary evil to achieve his domestic priorities.

Game Over?

[ 34 ] May 27, 2011 |

I suspect we’re coming to the end of the road.

@RT_com: Medvedev at G8: Gaddafi has lost his legitimacy and must step down

See also.


[ 7 ] May 26, 2011 |

Seventy years ago this evening, engineers on Bismarck were frantically trying to repair her damaged rudder, as she turned away from France and toward a Royal Navy task force.  They would fail, and it became apparent to everyone as the night went on that Bismarck would not return to port.  I have some thoughts on the obvious* parallels between the hunt for Bismarck and the hunt for Osama bin Laden at WPR. Long story short, there are at least some theoretical productive comparisons to be made with regards to the law of surrender…

…and, on a tangentially related point, this.



Libya Update

[ 90 ] May 25, 2011 |

Been a while, but apparently there’s a war on:


HMS Hood

[ 31 ] May 24, 2011 |

Seventy years ago today, HMS Hood met her fate. 1415 of her crew died within a few minutes of the explosion. Ted Briggs, last of the three survivors, died in October 2008.  The hunt for Bismarck would last three days.  I’ll have a bit more on potential parallels between a notion Bin Laden attempt at surrender and Bismarck’s possible attempt at surrender.

An Prestigouis Univeristy Degere

[ 15 ] May 23, 2011 |

There are lots of reasons why aspiring foreign policy students should consider the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce over the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. One of the most important is that the administration of the University of Kentucky is consistently able to spell the word “university.”

[ 0 ] May 20, 2011 |

Friday Daddy Blogging… Elisha and Miriam

The Raid

[ 17 ] May 19, 2011 |

Latest account of the raid on Bin Laden is a good read.   Two thoughts:

  • While it’s best to view any account of a raid like this with skepticism, I grow weary of “they changed their story AGAIN” headlines.  There can be no single story of an event like the Bin Laden raid, because all of the actors have different perspectives and different interests.  These differences can make certain factual claims seem plausible and others not so much.  Indeed, I’d be more concerned about veracity if the administration had put forth one coherent story from the beginning and then stuck to it.  Operators and decision-makers will undoubtedly be arguing about the details for the next thirty years…
  • Those of us who remember Eagle Claw (and I do, believe it or not), can appreciate how wrong this raid could have gone.  If the helicopter had gone down badly, a dozen SEALs might have been killed.  Bin Laden might not have been present at the compound, civilians might have been killed in the process, Pakistan might have intervened, etc. The raid was extremely dangerous in both an operational and a political sense. It is entirely reasonable to praise both the expertise, capability, and courage of the SEALs, and the willingness of the administration to take a huge diplomatic and political risk.

Junior Faculty Exercise

[ 11 ] May 19, 2011 |

Interesting article on junior faculty and exercise:

In the quest for tenure, physical activity is the first casualty, according to a recent study of Canadian assistant professors that its authors believe applies to junior faculty at institutions in the United States as well.

The analysis, “Are New Faculty At-Risk of ‘Letting Themselves Go’ due to the Demands of their Profession?,” which was published online in Academic Matters, the magazine of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, traced the exercise habits of 267 assistant professors in Canadian universities. The paper, which has in recent weeks attracted attention from some American bloggers, found that professors starting out in their careers engaged in physical activity far less than others in their age group.

Some thoughts:

  1. As the article notes, tenure-track faculty often get married and have children (having delayed both), substantially reducing the amount of time available for traditional forms of exercise. In my experience, a successful exercise program depends on the development of good habits of exercise. Anything which disrupts the process of habit formation has a disproportionate effect on the exercise program.
  2. Technology matters. My acquisition of first an iPhone and then an iPad has increased my exercise time, because I feel more productive while exercising. Of course, it also channels exercise into particular forms; I can’t read my iPhone while running, even on a treadmill, and an iPad isn’t exactly friendly to a weight lifting program at a traditional gym. Still, picking the right technologies can reduce the tension between exercise and academic work. This will be less available to senior graduate students who have the same time problems, but less loose cash.
  3. This situation is deeply unsettling for departmental athletic teams. When junior faculty arrive in a department, they are often healthy, young, and somewhat athletic. This makes them ideal for departmental basketball, football, and softball teams. By the time the junior faculty achieve tenure, they’re broken down and virtually useless. As a discipline, it behooves political science to remedy this issue.


[ 23 ] May 18, 2011 |

My WPR column this week is an extension of this post from last week:

What has been absent thus far, however, has been the strategic use of airpower: airstrikes designed to induce the regime to concede or collapse without reliance on ground forces. The absence of a strategic airpower element to the Libya campaign is odd, given that most recent air campaigns have included strategically oriented targeting and operations. Air planners in the Vietnam War, Gulf War I and the Kosovo War all hoped that the enemy would concede without the deployment of ground troops. This idea still animates much thinking in the United States Air Force (.pdf).

Incidentally, John Andreas Olsen’s biography of John Warden is really quite good. I particularly recommend the chapters on Warden’s participation in air campaign planning during the Gulf War, and his tenure as Commandant of the Air Command and Staff College. Review when I get a chance…

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