Friday, August 8, 2014

The White War

I have just finished reading The White War, a book about the Italian Front during WWI. The only word that comes to mind is wow. The Italians sent roughly the same amount of men into the fight as Britain, yet executed far more of them. Their military justice system made a mockery of its name, they did not send any food or supplies to their POWs (and actually blocked any items sent by family), ruthlessly suppressed dissent at the home front, got most of what they wanted in the post-war settlement, and were still not satisfied. If any nation could be said to have fought the First World War ignobly, then Italy is it.

Italy's entry into the war was inauspicious. They took bids from both sides and once they determined the Allies could give them more of what they wanted (the Trentino region in Northern Italy, with the possibility of Tyrol), the Italians threw in their lot with Britain, France, and Russia. This attitude extended into the war itself. The Italians were more than happy to accept Allied aid, but bristled at any attempt by the Allies to ask for simultaneous offensives.

Beyond the nakedly mercenary aims of the Italian war (in contrast to every other belligerent, who claimed self-defense), the Italian army was in no way ready to fight even Austria. Their command structure was antiquated, their arms were lacking, and their doctrine (full frontal charges) was especially unsuited to mountain warfare. The Italian forces did improve throughout the war, especially once Cadorna was sacked after the Capporetto debacle and once Allied equipment and soldiers began to arrive from the Western Front.

Based on Italian performance in the Second World War, it is no surprise that Italian equipment and command were not great, but what is surprising is the sheer brutality that the Italians displayed. Here are some examples:
  • The Italians set up blocking units, similar to those used by the Soviet Union. This meant that any Italians that tried to retreat against orders were machine-gunned by Italian troops. In contrast, British blocking stations merely ensured the men were returned to their lines. 
  • One man was executed for saluting an officer while smoking a cigar
  • When the Austrians occupied part of Northern Italy late in the war, the Italians refused entry to the refugees (Italian citizens!) because they made good cover for spies, and they would cost the Austrians resources trying to feed them.
Finally, the Italians actually tried to wrestle parts of the Dalmatian coast away from Yugoslavia after the war, which the Allies prevented.

In sum, the Italians were technically a Great Power, but no one took this seriously except the Italian leadership.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Empires of the Sea

I just finished listening to Empires of the Sea by Roger Crowley (author of City of Fortune) today. It is supposedly about the Siege of Malta and the Battle of Lepanto, but these events actually make up about half the book. The larger narrative focus is on the Ottoman and Christian efforts to dominate the Mediterranean Sea throughout the 16th century.

Though many are familiar with corsairs such as Barbarossa, they were part of a larger Ottoman strategy for control of the Mediterranean. They terrified Christian civilians and took thousands of them into slavery from France, Italy and Spain. Combined with Ottoman naval dominance, the Turks ruled the eastern Mediterranean.

The Christians were not as fortunate. They were often too divided to engage in any concentrated action against the Ottomans, for even if an alliance was formed, it would soon fall apart because of bickering and differing objectives. The Knights of saint John were the closest Christian counterparts to the corsairs, and they continued to be a thorn in the Sultan's side even after they were ejected from Rhodes.

The corsair raids and Ottoman naval victories caused Christian morale to crater, which is why the victories of Malta and Lepanto were so important. They both showed that the Ottomans could be defeated. The Ottoman defeat at Malta was important for another reason as well. It permanently divided the Mediterranean into Muslim and Christian zones (though this was not apparent at the time). The Ottomans would hold sway in the east, while Spain held the West.

Lepanto, much like the Battle of Tours, was once held as a turning point in saving Europe from the Islamic onslaught. That this interpretation has fallen out of fashion in recent decades should not diminish the importance of Lepanto. Not only did it prove to the Ottomans and Christians alike that Christian navies could meet Ottoman fleets on equal terms, the battle destroyed the Ottoman fleet. While they did rebuild the very next year, the experience seems to have stolen the wind from theirs sails. Henceforth, Ottoman competition with the Hapsburgs would be primarily through attacks on Hungary and Vienna.

A good book overall, but I found that it did not discuss the ramifications of each battle in the long term, preferring to stick to the years after the battles, sketching out the lives of the participants and leaving the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. On the other hand, I did enjoy the background leading up to the two battles, which did much to explain why they were fought where they were and how they were.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

American Uprising

I just finished listening to American Uprising by Daniel Rasmussen, which traced the largest slave revolt in North American history, from the society in which it sprang, to the revolt and its suppression, to the end of slavery in the 1860s.

The first part of the book covered Louisiana plantation society before and after the Louisiana Purchase. I had not previously thought of the impact that the purchase had on the residents of Louisiana, and the book it was very interesting to learn the ways in which their society differed from that of the United States. Naturally, this led to tensions between the governor (William Claiborne) and the aristocratic planter class.

The second part of the book focused on the rebellion itself and its failure. While three ringleaders managed to kill two plantation owners, raze several plantations, acquire militia uniforms, and field an army of about 1000, they were ultimately defeated by planter militia, with help from the US Army. The retribution, as expected, was savage. The leaders had their heads stuck on pikes and 18 were sentenced to death. Several trials were held, but the verdict was preordained. These trials were, in my opinion, to allow the slaveholders to give their actions a veneer of legality, and therefore separate them from the summary executions that the slaves performed.

By far the most interesting part, in my opinion, was the explanation of the events surrounding the revolt. For example, at the time the revolt erupted in January 1811, the US Army was engaged in a highly illegal campaign to seize Florida from the Spanish, hence the lack of troops in Louisiana when the revolt broke out. The acquisition of Florida is usually ignored in US history books, so it is good to see the treatment here. In addition, the author points out how Claiborne, despite doing very little to help quash the uprising, used the event to show the planters the benefits of accepting American power. Henceforth, Louisiana would embrace US authority as a means to deter slave revolts. This is why they joined the Confederacy in 1860; with the US no longer seeming to guarantee their right to own slaves, the planters of Louisiana joined a government that would.

Finally, the true strength of this book is to put the revolt into the context of mid-nineteenth century American expansionism. In less than half a century, the US bought Louisiana, stole Florida from Spain, wrenched more than half of Mexico away, and acquired Oregon and Washington. These territories were acquired using methods that the US had practiced in the aftermath of the uprising of 1811: application of force, extension of the legal system, and coopting local elites. As a result, the US looks less like a nation that happened to be at the right place at the right time than a nation that was ruthlessly expansionist. 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

New Word for the Day: Hatevasion

I think I have discovered the only case in world history where the perceived humiliation of one world leader by another led to the mobilizing of an entire country and the deaths of tens of thousands. Toyotomi Hideyoshi's second invasion  of Korea was ostensibly to complete the goals he had failed to complete with the invasion of 1592 (integration into the Chinese world order, trade privileges, etc.) but according to accounts of the time, when the Ming sent a peace delegation and Konishi Yukinaga tried to hide the true terms from him, Hideyoshi flew into a rage. He expected to be made ruler on par with the Ming emperor (despite his lack of battlefield success), and felt the Koreans and Chinese were snubbing and mocking him. He was so angry, in fact, that he ordered a second invasion of Korea far more brutal than the first. The Japanese entertained no thoughts of making this a part of their empire anymore, but pillaged, razed, and murdered their way through the Korean countryside. Luckily for Korea, Hideyoshi was succeeded by the less vain Tokugawa Ieysu, who did not invade neighboring countries purely out of spite.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

What I'm Reading Now: A Dragon's Head and a Serpent's Tail by Kenneth M. Swope

The book I am reading now (as you probably guessed from the title), is called A Dragon's Head and a Serpent's Tail. It covers the Japanese invasion of Korea in the 1590s (what the author calls the First Great East Asian War). I first read a book on the subject for a class in college and when I tried to hunt down a copy of the book I had read (Samurai Invasion by Stephen Turnbull), it was too expensive for me and was not on Kindle. So I found Swope's book and started to read. I am only about 30 percent of the way through, but it is already proving to be an illuminating work about a little-known period of history.

The book traces the development of Ming military fortunes before the conflict, as well as those of Japan and Korea, but the focus is clearly on the former, detailing the Chinese struggles with rebellious vassals in the northeast and southwest. When it comes to Japan, Swope gives a bit of explanation regarding the unification under Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi's assumption of his mentor's mantle as the imperial regent (Kampaku) of Japan. The author also explores the weaponry of each of the combatants, noting that the Japanese generally had greater man-for-man firepower because of their widespread adoption of the harquebus  and katana, while the Koreans and Chinese had naval and artillery superiority. In fact, Swope asserts that the Japanese were probably among the best armies in the world in terms of doctrine and equipment, an assertion which seems valid when compared to the equivalent European armies.

Of course, the bulk of the book is taken up with an examination of the war itself, and this book is a blow-by-blow account of the Japanese conquest, and Ming reconquest, of the peninsula. The litany of names makes it hard to follow if the reader is not well-versed in East Asian history, and the lack of maps often reduce each place to insignificance for the general reader.

The pattern of Japanese aggression that culminated in that nation's defeat by the Allies in 1945 can perhaps be seen to have started during this period. The rationale employed by Hideyoshi (to grant land to loyal retainers, acquire more food and living space, and to gain an empire) were used in the Meiji period to justify wars against the Chinese and Russians, and in the 1930s and 1940s to justify the invasion of China and the attacks against Dutch, British, and American possessions in Asia.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Seismic Shifts

                It is interesting to examine how many world systems have collapsed in the span of human history. Among the most familiar, of course, is the collapse of the Roman Empire. It reduced a highly centralized economy that funneled income from the provinces to a parasitic Italy to a localized economy and political structure in Western Europe. Though the West eventually regained the same structure it had under the Roman Empire, it experienced such a shift that it seems inconceivable to us today that an entire way of life could simply collapse. The truth, however, is that it happened more frequently than we would like to believe.

Colin Renfrew of Cambridge postulated the conditions that lead to a failure of entire systems. These include the collapse of central administration, the disappearance of the elite class, collapse of a centralized economy, and a population decline and shift in settlement patterns.

An especially vivid example, since we have the records of both the people whose world changed unrecognizably and the instigators of this change, is the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. In the space of little more than several years, the entire religious and political order of the Aztec peoples was decimated and replaced with something entirely different. However, it was not without glimpses of continuity to the past. The Castilians (not Spanish, for the Aragonese were treated as foreigners in the Americas) kept some of the Aztec nobility elevated to that rank because they served as useful community leaders and focal points of contact between the two cultures.

All of Renfrew's conditions were met when Cortes destroyed the Aztecs. He eliminated Emperor Montezuma, many of the nobles had been killed in the Siege of Tenochtitlan and the ensuing epidemic, the economy that was focused on tribute collapsed, and the population that was still alive fled Tenochtitlan and migrated into smaller villages.

The aftermath of the Roman Empire fulfilled these conditions, as did the fall of the Maya. However, there are some points in history that do not meet these criteria. The fall of the Soviet Union, for example, did lead to the collapse of the Soviet administration and destruction of the centralized economy that the Soviet model was based on. However, the traditional elites (such as Vladimir Putin) stayed in place, and the population did not substantially decrease or demographically shift.


Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Could Austria Have Prevented the First World War By Moving More Quickly?

Still in the midst of "July 1914" and one of the passages made me think. Could Austria have kept the invasion of Serbia to a localized conflict if the Dual Monarchy had mobilized and invaded Serbia right after the assassination of the Archduke?

It may seem preposterous, but the approach has merits. If the Austrians had invaded immediately after, than the act would be seen as direct result of the killing of Franz Ferdinand, instead of a power grab to reduce Serbia to a client state. There were plenty of voices urging just this, most notably Conrad and other Austrian cabinet members. So why did it take almost a month to send the ultimatum to Serbia, a month in which the goodwill and sympathy of Europe had dissipated? It was the work Of Tisza, the leader of the Hungarian government that slowed down the process. Since the unique structure of the Dual Monarchy meant that the approval of both Austrian and Hungarian governments needed to approve such decisive action, Tisza put the brakes on the whole process. To be fair, there were other factors, such as the fact that Austrian divisions had been dispersed to complete the yearly harvest, but these only came into play after Tisza began to drag his heels.

Though acting with the best of intentions, Tisza did eventually cave into the demands of the more belligerent members of the government, and a series of demands were dispatched to Serbia, demands that the Austrians hoped would be rejected and provide them an excuse for invasion. Thus, he cost his government nearly a month before they could take action against the Serbs. This delay ensured that the invasion and ultimatum were seen as Austria settling old scores with the Serbs, while cynically using the killing of Franz Ferdinand to mask their objectives. Of course this was the case, and would have been true even if the Austrians had invaded in the immediate aftermath of the murder.

In my opinion, the possibility of the Entente letting Austria mobilize against Serbia, even if undertaken in anger, would have been remote. This would have challenged the balance of power in the same way that the later Austrian mobilization did, and it is unlikely that the Powers would have let this happen.