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Book Review: The White War

[ 0 ] August 9, 2009 |

In May 1915, Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary in an effort to detach and seize several mountain provinces, as well as Trieste and portions of the Adriatic Coast. Since the beginning of the war, Italy had engaged in negotiations with both the Allies and the Central Powers. Although initially attached by treaty to Berlin and Vienna, neither the Germans nor the Austrians viewed Italian intervention as decisive or likely. The Austrians made some offer of territorial concessions, but this did not include Trieste. Moreover, Italian nationalism viewed the “Italian” lands held by Austria as far more integral to Italy’s “natural” status than similar areas in French hands. Eventually, with minimal debate and without substantial public support, pro-war Italian factions had engineered a declaration of war against Austria. Three and a half years later, Italy would win Trieste at the cost of 650000 military dead, a percentage higher than that of the United Kingdom. Mark Thompson’s The White War examines the Italian campaign in depth, and is harshly critical of Italy’s civilian and military leadership.

The idea of war against Austria was not particularly popular in Italy in 1915. The Italian state was itself relatively new, and had considerable difficulty winning the loyalties of locals and creating a cohesive Italian identity. The notion that Trieste and a few Alpine areas were necessary to create the “real” Italy was alien to the bulk of the Italian peasantry, and wasn’t particularly popular to the working class. The intellectual class, however, ate it up. Although not fully united behind the idea of war, Italian intellectuals by and large saw Trieste and environs as belonging to Italy by right, and believed that war was the only way to win it. This is to say that they believed that war was a positive good; Italy wouldn’t simply gain more by fighting, but any gains were better won with blood than won through negotiation. Gabriele D’Annunzio was the chief exemplar of the Italian intellectual warrior-caste; in addition to cheer-leading, he participated directly in the butchery by ineptly leading several bizarre military effort during the war. The control by the war-party of the Italian intellectual class, and accordingly its control over the media, meant that it was possible for the Italian government to wage an aggressive war with the genuinely unenthusiastic support of the bulk of the country. World War I was unpopular in Italy, but control of the media was able to substantially obscure this fact.

Enthusiasm aside, Italy was not prepared for a major war. Its soldiers were poorly trained, it lacked artillery and infantry equipment, and its senior leadership was substantial behind the curve. The first offensives were, accordingly, disastrous. For an obsolete empire, Austria-Hungary fought well enough for three years. Imperial forces were consistently outnumbered by the Italians, and usually suffered from severe material shortages. The army of Austria-Hungary was a hodgepodge of different nationalities, each with its own reasons for fighting. Nevertheless, working with the benefit of forbidding defensive terrain, the Austrians did very well against the Italians. Italy threw its army repeatedly against fortified Imperial positions with little or no effect apart from the general massacre of its men. Italy won exactly one of the twelve Battles of the Isonzo, even then gaining only trivial Austrian territory. Nevertheless, the relentless Italian pressure put the institutions of the Dual Monarchy under severe strain, and limited Austria’s ability to prosecute the war against Serbia and Russia.

In October 1917 the Germans decided that they had had enough, and took command of a combined German-Austrian operation on the Italian front. With troops fresh from the collapsing Russian front, the Germans and Austrians were able to build up a substantial numerical advantage. When the offensive was launched, the Italian response was hopeless. Italian territorial gains were lost within days, and the Central Powers pushed almost all the war to Venice. The Italians were simply incapable of fighting a modern foe when that foe had sufficient equipment and reserves. A young officer named Erwin Rommel won glory in this campaign, capturing some 9000 Italian soldiers while commanding a battalion. The most memorable parts of A Farewell to Arms, for my money the most memorable Hemingway, also cover the Battle of Caporetto. The German and Austrian failure to exploit the victory is one of the great “roads not taken” of World War I. Italian lines had not fully solidified when the Caporetto offensive slowed, and it’s possible that more vigorous prosecution could have effectively destroyed the Italian Army as a fighting force. Instead, the Germans withdrew to prepare for their spring offensives on the Western Front, and the Austrians were unable to make up the slack. In hindsight, there can be little question that a Central Powers strategy of serially knocking Allied countries out of the war would have been better than the gamble of unrestricted submarine warfare; by late 1917 the Germans and Austrians had essentially defeated Serbia, Rumania, and Russia, and breaking Italian resistance might have driven France and the UK to terms.

Although Thompson doesn’t dwell on the point, he does bring up the relationship between Catholicism and Italian nationalism. Italian nationalists viewed the Catholic hierarchy with great suspicion, largely because of its resistance to Italian unification in the 19th century. The fact that the Dual Monarchy was Catholic only served to increase the level of suspicion, and priests in occupied areas came under surveillance. Some were even interned. After the death of Emperor Franz Josef, Charles I of Austria took efforts at mediation through the Pope, although these came to nothing. Italy’s other regional and class divides also received attention from the state, although it’s worth noting that there was no general worker or regional uprisings to the extent seen in Germany or Austria-Hungary.

Thompson is harshly critical of the Italian high command for most of the war, and repeatedly makes the point that the Italian Army itself was incapable of fighting a major war against a modern opponent. It is possible for both of these things to be true at the same time, but of course there is some tension between them. Offensive infantry action against a determined and entrenched opponent is possible, but it requires a great deal of training and social trust. The Italian Army lacked such training, and also lacked the national social cohesion that helped facilitate military effectiveness. Given that a defensive position out of the gate wasn’t an option (why would you declare war, then go on the defensive?) I’m not completely convinced that Italy’s generals deserve quite the degree of condemnation that Thompson accords. Of course, this isn’t to say that the fault lies with the individual soldiers; Italians fought with extraordinary bravery against insurmountable odds, and experienced precisely what happens when a resistable force meets an immoveable object. I also wish that Thompson had included some discussion of the naval war. Although it wasn’t decisive, it was taken seriously by both sides and had some effect on the larger war. It also included some events that were compatible with Thompson’s thesis on war and Italian nationalism, such as the destruction of the Viribus Unitas.

Thompson doesn’t shy away from parallels between Italy’s vicious war party and modern American neoconservatives. Neocons don’t sing the praises of war as a postive act, or at least they don’t do so publicly, but they do romanticize force in a manner reminiscent of D’Annunzio and his ilk. Neoconservatives also mirror the Italian war party in their view of the role of the media, which in war is understood to be one of maintaining fighting enthusiasm rather than telling anything approaching the truth. It bears mentioning that this approach to the media isn’t just bad for democracy and bad for truth, but is also bad for war; in both the Iraq War and in Italy’s experience of World War I, media control almost certainly produced a less capable military force, by obscuring the failures of military organizations and reducing incentive to change and adapt.

Finally, Thompson’s White War illuminates the folly of the Cult of Will; the idea that objectives are achievable if we simply want them hard enough, and if that failure is the result of insufficient enthusiasm. The Cult of Will was present in full force in Italy in 1915, and anyone who pointed out that throwing poorly trained conscripts against prepared defensive positions in mountainous was stupid was immediately denounced as a traitor and enemy of the nation. But of course, all the enthusiasm in the world was insufficient to break the Austrian position; the Italians finally made meager gains only when the entire Central Powers collapsed in late 1918, an event which was not precipitated by the succession of inept Italian offensives. In the end, the fact that you really want something (and even that you want it more than the other guy; many of the Imperial soldiers couldn’t give a rats ass about either the Hapsburgs or the Alpine provinces) doesn’t meant that you’ll actually get it. The Will to Win is great, but I’ll take artillery if given the choice.


One cheer for the Homerdome

[ 0 ] August 9, 2009 |

Perhaps my standards are minimal to non-existent, but I’ve always kind of liked the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome for reasons that are expressed quite well here. In spite of its overwhelming and obvious deficits as a baseball venue, tickets have always been insanely inexpensive by comparison with the rest of the league; wags might point out that any price was too high to watch the team during most of the years I spent in Minneapolis (’93-’02), but $4 nosebleeder seats were just fine by me, especially when the ushers clearly didn’t mind anyone slipping behind the dugouts after a few innings. Not a bad price to pay for seeing Brad Radke win his 20th in 1997, or to see the last major league hits by Kent Hrbek, Paul Molitor, and (less happily) Kirby Puckett.

Several fans quoted in the Deadspin article mention the prevailing lethargy of Twins crowds, a condition that certainly took some getting used to. I don’t know how much of that can be chalked up to the emotional habitus of the upper Midwest and how much to the fact that the team was just rotten throughout the 1990s, but no one ever gave me shit for passing a Sunday game while reading the New York Times. Moreover, the Dome was probably the only stadium I’ve visited where the alcohol-free “Family Section” was completely unnecessary. It was just as well, I suppose. When crowds did get riled up — as they did during the closest thing we ever had to “Ten-Cent Beer Night” — it was because they were temporarily larded with mooks who inexplicably lobbed hot dogs and batteries at a guy who’d split the team four years earlier in exchange for a couple of players (Eric Milton and Christian Guzman) who’d actually helped make the team competitive again. (I paid $4 to see that game, too.)

I rarely make it back to the Twin Cities anymore, though I did manage to catch this nearly-unwatchable outing last month when I was in town for a few hours. Though it was nice to see A-Rod robbed of a grand slam, I’m a bit concerned about the bigger picture — you see, the last game I’d caught at the Dome was in 2002, when the Twins lost an afternoon game to the Angels, who of course went on to win the World Series a few months later. It’s bad enough that my final visit to the Dome was marred by a Yankee win, but if my attendance in any way presages the outcome of the postseason, any lingering affection for the place will completely evaporate…

England Cricket Has Reassuringly Returned to Normal

[ 0 ] August 8, 2009 |
England 102, Australia 196-4, close of play first day, fourth test.
England 102 & 82-5, Australia 445 all out.
This is carnage. England are toast. This test ends tomorrow, two days early, likely Australia winning by an innings.  Creeping into the tail, I don’t see how England will make up the 261 runs they are down to force Australia to return to bat for the five minutes it would take them to win. 
32, 30, 0, 3, 4 is the score line for the first five batsmen, all now out.
Look for Bopara to be dropped, he contributed one entire run in his two innings.  However, without Pietersen, and now Flintoff looking unlikely, who to replace Bopara with?
This is looking a lot more like 2006/07 series than the 2005 series.

Sarah Palin cranks the crazy up to 11 . . .

[ 0 ] August 8, 2009 |

. . . and then rips the knob right off the amplifier.

I imagine that being a non-Wingnut Republican these days is like being in one of those hyper-dysfunctional families where Uncle Bob always gets trashed at family gatherings and moons everybody before falling face first into the jello mold.

You just sort of have to close your eyes and pretend you didn’t see that.

The Last Of The Big 3

[ 0 ] August 8, 2009 |

Looks like it’s the end of the road for the final active member of the core of the best starting rotation of my lifetime, and the best post-season pitcher of the three. Even though he spent most of his career sticking it to the teams I was cheering for, he was a class act, and it was sad to see him go out that way. And it’s not like he was hanging on well past his prime; remarkably, this will be the first year Smoltz hasn’t had an ERA+ over 100 since 1988. It was a reasonable gamble by the Red Sox but it just didn’t work.

Given the Yankees’ improved rotation Howard may not want to make out annual reverse-hedge bet for charity. But if I may be permitted to state the obvious, the Yankees are going to win the division this year. With Ortiz probably done, Varitek burnt to a crisp (or Casey “If You Liked Dave Stapleton” Kotchman), Bay and Drew unlikely to be anywhere near 100%, and utterly non-competitive shortstops, I just don’t see them having the offense to win in the East, especially since their excellent top 4 isn’t as good as New York’s either (and neither is their rotation.) The real question is whether they’ll stay ahead of Tampa, who have probably been the best team in the division this year.

…and what a classic game. Normally, they would only have played about 5 innings by midnight…

Ruining it for everyone

[ 0 ] August 7, 2009 |

Great. Another dead celebrity giving blow a bad name. This will doubtless give comfort to those who argue that cocaine does more than make you the hilarious, if somewhat jittery, life of the party.

England Won the Toss and Decided to Bat

[ 0 ] August 7, 2009 |

and it’s been reassuringly, precipitously, downhill since that moment.

England 102, Australia 196-4, close of play first day, fourth test.
Unless the English bowl the Australians out quick, and then somehow re-learn how to bat overnight, this test is as good as done.  A first innings of 102 all out is ludicrous, the scorecard embarrassing.  The following small numbers represent, in order, the run contribution of the English batsmen for the first innings: 3, 30, 1, 8, 0, 37, 3, 0, 0, 3, 0.  With Flintoff out for this test, the English tail is effectively lengthened by one.  Not even a half century from your first five batters combined ?  Even I, as an American, recognize this as perhaps not an advisable approach, unless you believe that luring your opposition into a false sense of giddy security represents your only chance.
The flip side of course is that one of the Ozzie bowling lines stands out: Siddle 21-5.  However, four of those five came from picking off the final four English batsmen (Swann, Harminson, Anderson, Onions), which in baseball terms is rather like pitching to four straight pitchers.  However, Siddle’s dispatch of Strauss on only three runs off of 17 balls set the tone for this innings.  Strauss has been having an effective Ashes in 2009.  Clark’s 3-18 is perhaps more impressive as he secured the wickets of both Cook (for 30) and Collingwood for a duck.
While Mike Atherton wrote in The Times the other day that the 2009 edition of this series lacks quality of any sort compared to 2005, Simon Barnes replies in the same pages that the drama is more important than the relative quality, and this series does have the potential to match 2005 on that criterion.  Or at least did, because if Atherton is correct in another observation, that who wins this test at Headingly will win the series, then it’s looking rather over.   An England win would capture the Ashes for England, but a Australia win will even out the series, requiring an outright England victory at the Oval in the final test to win the series.
As with previous tests, I’ll write one followup to this post towards the end of the test.  Which very well could be in only a couple days at this rate . . . 
In other obscure sports, Celtic managed to win away in Europe for the first time in over six years on Wednesday, which I somehow managed to watch.  Indeed, it was a historic victory for the Bhoys, as they had never recovered from an initial home defeat in a two-legged European tie before.
The reward for a job well done?  Drawing Arsenal in the playoff round of qualification for the Champions League proper.  Not impossible, but highly unlikely.  And in one of life’s delicious ironies, the BBC reports that in this final round of qualifying:

If two of the four – from Arsenal, Lyon, Sporting Lisbon and Panathinaikos – fail to qualify, Rangers will move up from the third pot to the second, in theory giving them an easier group.

Meaning if Celtic overcome Arsenal, it could directly help their occasional light-hearted rivals from across town.

But…They’re Totally In My Face!

[ 0 ] August 7, 2009 |

I suppose it’s nearly tautological to note that Jack Shafer’s attempted defense of Mouthpiece Theater (or, at least, his argument that the Post should continue to waste its resources and credibility by producing it) completely fails. The first thing you’ll notice is that he didn’t even try to argue that it was funny, or insightful, or had any merit at all — which is sensible, but rather critically undermines his argument. The second thing is that his other examples fail, because none of them were as unequivocally offensive or devoid of political or satirical content. I happen to agree that Robin Givhan’s extensive analysis of Clinton’s cleavage was both stupid and offensive, but she was trying to make a point rather than just using slurs. (And, of course, none of the examples resulted in any consequences, handily refuting Shafer’s attempt at a slippery slope argument.)

But the biggest problem with Shafer’s argument is his assertion that The Poochie and Poochie Show was “edgy.” We’re not talking about Richard Pryor circa 1974 here. We’re not even talking about Parker and Stone. Mouthpiece Theater‘s shallow reiterations of Villager non-wisdom were as thoroughly corporate as you can get. It exemplified what is was allegedly satirizing. The error the Post here was that they actually thought it could be edgy, not that they pulled the plug when the awfulness became too much even for the people who sign Richard Cohen’s paychecks.


[ 0 ] August 7, 2009 |

A nice tribute.

Mercenaries and Civilization

[ 0 ] August 7, 2009 |

I appreciate international society’s need for mercenary companies. Developing military institutions is difficult and time consuming, and even though mercenaries are expensive, they can provide short term emergency relief. Mercenaries have been a part of the domestic and international scene since time immemorial, and they’ve never really disappeared; they receded a bit during the Golden Age of the Nation-State, but have re-established their importance in the last twenty years. I also appreciate, to some degree, the desire of the US military to outsource some of its responsibilities to mercenary companies. The drive for privatization of government function in the 1990s was absurd and destructive, and cut many capabilities that necessarily should have remained public, but it’s true enough that there are some tasks performed by the military that can be done well enough by private firms. Finally, I think that there’s potentially a role for mercenary companies in shipping protection, anti-piracy, and similar endeavours.

All that said, I wonder if the notion of a “civilized” mercenary company is simply an oxymoron. This is to say that, while we can identify situations in which a mercenary company might be useful, it’s virtually impossible to create a functioning organization that can abide by the rules of the civilized world. As Huntington tells us, military organizations are about managed violence. The professional managers of violence are tempered by their loyalty to nation and state; even when they stray, they tend to do so in the name of the state. Norms of professionalism keep professional military personnel within certain constraints, as do the policy preferences of the state. A organization which replaces loyalty to the state with pursuit of profit may be notionally possible, but I suspect that taking loyalty to the state out of the equation unglues military professionalism. When the military professional has many potential clients, and especially when the military professional is detached from a culture of self-sacrifice (all military professionals understand that they must be willing to accept danger and death as part of their jobs) I think that the professional norms may disintegrate.

The Blackwater Xe experience resulted in an organization that was plainly unfit for operation even in the anarchy of Iraq. I doubt that the allegations listed in the Scahill article will be the last to come to light regarding Blackwater’s operations, and of course Blackwater wasn’t the only mercenary company in Iraq. It may turn out that Blackwater was just uniquely terrible, but I have my doubts.

John Hughes 1950-2009

[ 0 ] August 7, 2009 |
NYT bit here.

It may be a generational thing, but when I think about John Hughes, there’s a certain subset of his oeuvre that I think about.  In some ways, these films are nothing more than a guilty pleasure, in others, evocative of a certain time and place, (naturally).  Having graduated from high school in 1986, I was a card carrying member of his target market.

Oddly enough, I think a line from Dylan Moran’s Black Books captures, in a sense, Hughes’ characterization of high school:

Bernard: “But you hated school, you had a terrible time.”

Fran: “I’ve never said that.”

Bernard: “You didn’t have to say anything, I just look at your life now and work backwards.”

My favorite of Hughes films is Home Alone, erm, Some Kind of Wonderful, if only because I had a crush on Mary Stuart Masterson.  (But then SKoW is a guilty pleasure; Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is a clearly superior film).

Military Boondoggles?

[ 0 ] August 7, 2009 |

This is an interesting list, but the concept doesn’t strike me as quite right. From Wikipedia:

It also refers to government or corporate project involving large numbers of people and usually heavy expenditure; at some point, the key operators have realized that the project is never going to work, but are reluctant to bring this to the attention of their superiors. Generally there is an aspect of “going through the motions” – for example, continuing research and development – as long as funds are available to keep paying the researchers’ and executives’ salaries. The situation can be allowed to continue for what seem like unreasonably long periods, as senior management are often reluctant to admit that they allowed a failed project to go on for so long. In many cases, the actual device itself may eventually work, but not well enough to ever recoup its development costs.

A distinguishing aspect of a boondoggle, as opposed to a project that simply fails, is the eventual realization by its operators that it is never going to work, long before it is finally shut down.

The five projects are the Type 45 destroyer, the Bulava SLBM, the Chinese CV, the French CV, and the A400M cargo aircraft. I don’t think it would be correct to say “one of these is not like the others”; rather, I’m not sure that they have much in common at all. Of course, if you believe that, in general, modern major nation-states spend way more on defense than they should, then you could identify any major project as a boondoggle; that’s fair enough, but probably not useful in terms of thinking about the five biggest boondoggles.

Anyway, I’m not convinced that the Type 45 destroyer falls into this category. The Type 45 project is certainly troubled, and the fact that the ships won’t be able to fire missiles until 2011 is problematic, but I wouldn’t say that its been given up on; I don’t doubt that the Type 45 destroyers will eventually deploy and do their jobs capably. They may be the only ships in the Royal Navy to do so, but nevertheless. I’m also uncertain about the inclusion of the two CV projects. If it’s true that every CV should be considered a boondoggle, given technological advances in the field of carrier-killing, then the British CVF and the US Gerald Ford class should have honor of placement ahead of a pair of projects that haven’t yet resulted in a single ship being laid down. If CVs aren’t of necessity a boondoggle, then I don’t know that it makes sense to call out the French and the Chinese for what might otherwise be considered justifiable caution regarding technical and strategic issues.

The criticism of the Bulava and the A400 is fair, I think. The Bulava is simply a disaster, and I’m not sure why the Russians want to waste additional money on it given that they already have perfectly serviceable SLBMs. It is kind of surprising that the missile development has gone so poorly; the Topol-M (the ICBM model for the Bulava) seems to work just fine, and the Russians have a history of good outcomes with missile technology. The A400 is kind of a disaster, in particular because I’ve never quite understood the necessity to build radically capable and modern cargo aircraft; they have one job to do, and they don’t fight each other.

Here’s my list, in no particular order:

  1. Bulava Missile
  2. Admiral Gorshkov CV conversion
  3. US land-based missile defense
  4. A400
  5. North Korean ballistic missile/nuclear weapon program