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November 5, 2010
Marlborough to MalakandBy Greyhawk
Pashtun tribesmen in Malakand, circa 1897
That's mostly right. Britain maintained the largest Empire in history with an economy of force. According to Churchill biographer William Manchester, in Churchill's early soldiering days there were just thirty-one cavalry regiments in the whole of the British Empire. "By Continental standards, the number of men in uniform was tiny," Manchester wrote. "Asked what he would do if the British army landed in Prussia, Bismark replied: "Send a policeman and have it arrested.""
But England was too big to worry about big wars - that era had ended at Waterloo - and the spirit of the British colonial might be captured in the final lines of this excerpt from a poem of the day...
The Maxim Gun, and they have not.'*
The similarity to modern times is clear - while the existence of an "American Empire" is debatable, the point that we have a small army globally dispersed is not.
And for further cause for modern despair, the whole of Afghanistan was not part of Churchill's calculus - his "not enough" comment meant only for that mountainous region called the Northwest Frontier (direction reference from India) - the remote border area between what's now Pakistan and Afghanistan, where many believe Osama bin Laden could be found today.
But the Boston Globe author's characterization is wrong - Churchill actually dismissed the notion of occupation in force (for the stated reason - though some might conclude he was goading the reading public of the wealthiest Empire in history) and endorsed the policy then favored (or at least, announced) by the government in England. From Malakand:
"Dynamite in the hands of a child is not more dangerous than a strong policy weakly carried out" - a stinging rebuke - and the reproached "rulers of India, whether at home or abroad" it was aimed at were the very fine gentlemen who comprised the government of Great Britain. Among them, the Viceroy - who, Churchill wrote in Malakand, "belonged to that party in the State which has clung passionately, vainly, and often unwisely to a policy of peace and retrenchment. He was supported in his reluctance to embark on warlike enterprises by the whole force of the economic situation. No moment could have been less fitting: no man more disinclined." The benefits gained from reading Churchill's account today extend well beyond achieving a greater appreciation for the history of the region.
A summation of the whole affair from Churchill's later (mid-life) account of his younger years fits this discussion, too:
So a lot of people were killed, and on our side their widows have had to be pensioned by the Imperial Government, and others were badly wounded and hopped around for the rest of their lives, and it was all very exciting and, for those who did not get killed or hurt, very jolly.
But all that was well over a hundred years ago - we've advanced in many ways, and have great and wonderful things like color photography today.
Still, spend some time reading Churchill's musty old sepia-toned thoughts today and you'll find yourself stopping frequently to admire the passages he committed to paper, and to history - to us. Because he authored dozens of books and hundreds of speeches, such discoveries are not difficult or rare. Here's one from Marlborough: His Life and Times, Churchill's biography of his ancestor, the First Duke:
"But no battle ever repeats itself. The success of a commander does not arise from following rules or models. It consists in an absolutely new comprehension of the dominant facts of the situation at the time, and all the forces at work. Cooks use recipes for dishes and doctors have prescriptions for diseases, but every great operation of war is unique."
That was a response to those who'd speculated that most of the credit for Marlborough's military successes was due to the influence of his earlier commander, French Field Marshall Turenne. (Marlborough wasn't the first or last military leader to learn his trade fighting alongside the soldiers of a nation he'd gain fame fighting against.) The biographer Churchill acknowledged that influence, in-part. But "There is no surer road to ill-success in war," he wrote, (perhaps he had an aversion to the word "defeat," as some do to "victory" today) than to fit past lessons into novel situations.
If it isn't obvious from the above (or the entire series), there's much to be learned from reading Malakand, much that applies to our Afghanistan situation today. But that last quote isn't found in that volume, and it's one with which any Malakand-reading Iraq veteran should agree.
(There are other lessons worth learning from the life of Marlborough - a discussion that continues here...)
Posted by Greyhawk / November 5, 2010 6:32 PM | Permalink
(Continuing a discussion begun here.) Marlborough writing the Blenheim despatch to Sarah, by Robert Alexander Hillingford. "I have no time to say more but to beg you will give my duty to the Queen, and let her know her army has had a glorious victory."... Read More
November 26, 2010
I think anyone who's ever pondered the "comment" option - once only available on blogs and bulletin boards, now ubiquitous on almost any web site - will appreciate this:
The so-called faculty of writing is not so much a faculty of writing as it is a faculty of thinking. When a man says, "I have an idea but I can't express it"; that man hasn't an idea but merely a vague feeling. If a man has a feeling of that kind, and will sit down for a half an hour and persistently try to put into writing what he feels, the probabilities are at least 90 percent that he will either be able to record it, or else realize that he has no idea at all. In either case, he will do himself a benefit.
That's wisdom from the past, captured for posterity at the US Naval Institute, shared via the web on the institute's 137th anniversary.
From their about page:
"The Naval Institute has three core activities," among them, History and Preservation:
The Naval Institute also has recently introduced Americans at War, a living history of Americans at war in their own words and from their own experiences. These 90-second vignettes convey powerful stories of inspiration, pride, and patriotism.
Take a look at the collection, and you'll see it's not limited to accounts from those who served on ships at sea, members of the other branches are well-represented.
I'm fortunate to have met USNI's Mary Ripley, she's responsible for the institute's oral history program (and she's the daughter of the late John Ripley, whose story is told here). She also deserves much credit for their blog. ("We're not the Navy nor any government agency. Blog and comment freely.") We met at a milblog conference - Mary knew (and I would come to realize) that milbloggers are the 21st-century version of exactly what the US Naval Institute is all about. Once that light bulb came on in my head, I mentioned a vague idea for a project to her - milblogs as the 21st century oral history that they are.
"Put that in writing," she said (of course - see first paragraph above!) - and here's part of the result.
Shortly after the first tent was pitched by the American military in Iraq a wire was connected to a computer therein, and the internet was available to a generation of Americans at war - many of whom had grown up online. From that point on, at any given moment, somewhere in Iraq a Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine was at a keyboard sharing the events of his or her day with the folks back home. While most would simply fire off an email, others took advantage of the (then) relatively new online blogging platforms to post their thoughts and experiences for the entire world to see. The milblog was born - and from that moment to this stories detailing everything from the most mundane aspects of camp life to intense combat action (often described within hours of the event) have been available on the web...
And et cetera - but since you're reading this on a milblog, you probably knew that. And you know that milblogs aren't just blogs written by troops at war, that many friends, family members, and supporters likewise documented their story of America at war online in near-real time, as those stories developed.
The diversity in membership of that group is broad, the one thing we all have in common is the impulse to make sense of the seemingly senseless, and communicate the tale - for each of us that impulse was strong enough to overcome whatever barriers prevent the vast majority of people from doing the same. Everyone at some point has some vague idea they believe should be shared - we were the people who, from some combination of internal and external urging, found and spent those many half hours persistently trying to write it down.
But where will all that be in another 137 years? Or five or ten, for that matter. That's something I've asked myself since at least 2004 - when I wrote this:
Membership in the ghost battalion has grown in the years since, and an ever growing majority of those abandoned-but-still-standing sites are vanishing. Have you checked out Lt Smash's site lately? How about Sgt Hook's? If you're a long-time milblog reader you know the first widely-read milblog from Operation Iraq Freedom and the first widely-read milblog from Afghanistan are both gone from the web. If you're a relative newcomer to this world you may never even have heard of them - or the dozens upon dozens of others who carried forth the standard they set down.
If you have a vague notion that something should be done about that, (a notion I've heard expressed more than once...) then you and I and the good folks at the US Naval Institute are in agreement. Preserving the history documented by the milbloggers is just one of the goals of the milblog project, the once-vague idea that we're now making real.
And it's a big idea, if I say so myself - too big to explain in one simple blog post, so stand by for more. Likewise, it's too big a task to be accomplished by just one person. So if you're a milblogger (and exactly what is a milblogger? is a topic for much further discussion on its own) I'm asking for your help. All I'll really need is just a little bit (maybe just one or two of those half hours...) of your time, and your willingness to tell the tale.
We've already made history, it's time to save it.
(More to follow...)
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