February 04, 2002



Alistair Cooke's latest "Letter from America" has "officially ended" the Guantanamo dispute, quoth Andrew Sullivan. Hardly... unless you're still silly enough to still believe the trumped-up allegations of mistreatment, as opposed to the American disregard for legality, was ever the issue. But even then Cooke makes a hash of his history.

[Cooke's chum] had done what many failing scholars do - he'd decided to take Military Subjects A. He was going to be a soldier. So throughout his last year I would find him in mid-morning actually buried in a book, just one book, but a strange one.

Cooke should have borrowed the book. His grasp of military history is notably weak. There are four flagrant errors in the following two sentences: can you see them?

Transport and tactics transformed by the revolutionary invention of the railroad, naval strategy by the steamship and the ironclad and the torpedo, infantry warfare by the repeating rifle and - a point I'm sure was stressed in this compulsory textbook - the device or invention of entrenching. The Southern armies, on the defensive from the start, made possible the lengthening of war by resting between battles in the trenches.

1) Railroads: Actually the railroad had already had a profound influence in a previous war... the 1859 French victories of Louis Napoleon (two years before Sumter) were due in part to France's rapid railborne mobilization. The Americans utilized the rails more than anyone up to that point, but they didn't invent the idea. 2) Steamships: Steam-powered shell-firing frigates were devastating as far back as the battle of Sinope (1853). (Cooke is right about the ironclads, of course.) 3) Torpedoes: if Cooke is talking about the spar torpedo (ie, explosives on a long stick), yes, that was sort of a Civil War invention... admittedly one that never caught on, or really revolutionized anything. If he's talking about the self-propelled torpedo, that was first taken into service by the British in 1871, six years after the Civil War. 4) Entrenching: Tell anyone who survived Crimea (1854) that the Europeans didn't know how to entrench a battlefield. Now, Cooke is partly correct, that the advent of rifled artillery (less so the overrated rifle-musket) meant concealment was more of an issue than ever before. But it's wrong to give the South the sole credit. If anything the South should have paid more attention to the value of entrenchments, instead of throwing the flower of their youth away in suicidal charges at Malvern Hill, Shiloh, and Gettysburg, to name a few. Even in the Sevastopol-like sieges of Petersburg and Vicksburg, the South still attacked out of their entrenchments as often as they defended them.

I'll give Cooke a pass on the repeating rifle claim. Yes the late-war Union Cavalry was the first ever large body of men armed with repeating rifles, and they showed how to use them, too... never mind that after the war they were all but withdrawn from service from armies all over the world for another generation, as they were seen as too wasteful of ammo. An idea ahead of its logistical time, yes, but still a legit Civil War innovation. And as I said, he is right about the ironclads. Still one-and-a-half correct assertions out of six is not a strong record.

Cooke continues, about the battle of Solferino in 1859, which launched the Red Cross movement:

There was one memorable battle, not for any tactical novelty but for its outrageous casualties

Well, other than the tactical novelty of being the first battle EVER where both sides were armed predominantly with rifled firearms (no doubt contributing to the high casualty count, btw), no I suppose there wasn't anything important about Solferino, no. Geez... You know. that guy should watch more PBS, don't you think?

I don't think Cooke's a bad eggo, nor do I disagree with his thesis... that it's very hard for either warfighters, or those who would regulate them to predict the next turn of history, whether it's Al Qaeda or whatever. I just believe, like Den Beste, that the truth shouldn't have to be distorted to bolster any argument, for good or bad.

Posted by BruceR at 08:39 PM



A fellow named Patrick wrote in to ask me, in light about what I said below about American hesitancy in the Congo, what I thought about Canadian general Romeo Dallaire's work in Rwanda. For those who don't know, Dallaire was the controversial UN commander in Rwanda when the genocide broke out. He had warned the UN a calamity was coming, and once it started did what one man could in the general flight of white Westerners from Kigali to save lives. But in the chaos, ten Belgian peacekeepers were savagely killed by Interahamwe militias while guarding the life of the country's leading moderate Hutu politician. Opinions on Dallaire range wildly: to some he was a manifestly unqualified, ineffectual catatonic, to others a tragic Cassandra figure, to others a good soldier who could have done so much more if, immediately post-Somalia, the West had any interest in going back to Africa again. I know and respect people who take each of those beliefs to heart. This is ONLY my own take:

Patrick, I can't tell how much you've read on Dallaire from your question, so I'll keep it simple: opinion, at least within the circles I travel in, is profoundly mixed.

On the one hand, you have the Belgian accusations, not without evidence, that as UN commander in Rwanda he failed to divert resources to save the Belgian soldiers who were then captured and massacred. On the other hand, you have the collective opinion of most commentators on the war as a whole, who see Dallaire as doing everything to save RWANDANS that could possibly be done, before and after the genocide, given the support he was granted from New York.

Dallaire will always be compared, favourably or unfavourably, to that other Canadian UN brigadier, Mackenzie, who was seen, conversely, as putting the protection of his troops ahead of civilian relief during his coincident intervention in Sarajevo. Even in the most favourable interpretation, Dallaire, by contrast, clearly put the mission of trying to preserve peace in Rwanda ahead of the concerns he should have had for his soldiers' safety. By doing so he provided the unwitting archetype in one of the oldest command decision debates in any army: balancing continuing with your mission vs the risk of losing soldiers' lives.

Personally, I'm torn. As a soldier I'm appalled by reluctance to intervene positively for fear of losing lives (a la the Powell Doctrine), but I'm equally appalled by interventions that waste lives to no purpose (a la Black Hawk Down). The middle way seems to be the best course... and Dallaire, by that reasoning, a cautionary example of going too far in one direction. But I wasn't there with him. And it's hard for me to totally crucify someone who made the wrong decision under that kind of pressure and imperfect foresight. He was a soldier. He made the best decisions he knew how to. And yet the mission was lost, and an unfortunate number of his men died. The history books are littered with failed generals, who like Dallaire, will never get a second chance on the most important decisions of their lives. Would a different soldier (like Mackenzie) have made different decisions? Almost certainly. The overall result in Rwanda, most likely, would have been the same, except maybe with fewer dead Belgians. But I don't believe anyone could have foreseen that so clearly at the time.

Dallaire himself is certainly a wartime stress casualty. After at least one very public suicide attempt and countless hospitalizations for PTSD, he'll never hold a serious job again. You can't say the guy isn't paying a personal price. (Mackenzie, by contrast, is a very successful speaker and commentator.)

In artillery messes, where I hang out the most, Dallaire is not a good topic of conversation, as he was an artilleryman before he was a general, and by all accounts an excellent gunner and peacetime officer. But there's no doubt the Mackenzie-Dallaire dichotomy will remain a centerpiece of how thoughtful Canadian officers define themselves and their actions abroad for decades. It definitely merits further study by any soldier who wonders for himself, "what would I do?"

A good summary of the accusations against Dallaire, and the beginnings of a brief for the defence, if you're curious in reading more, can be found here. Here's another.

Posted by BruceR at 05:31 PM



Steven Den Beste has culled the popular sites out of his blog links at USS Clueless. Fortunately (unfortunately?) I'm still there.

Interesting this comes on the same day Perry the H is castigating Jonah Goldberg for his bad form in not linking to bloggers he mentions. There seems to be a left-right continuum developing on the linkage question: Left (den Beste): sort of a socialist-philanthropic "from each according to his ability" fading to working-class liberal (Perry): "the rising tide of linkage lifts all blogs" turning into an advocate for sheer elitism (Goldberg), who evidently feels some of us have risen above all those working-class social conventions...

Well, as a thankful recipient of linkage handouts, I blame my self-evident failure to rise out of the blogger welfare class on a lack of pretty-girl pics. Time for an update on Shakira, I guess...

Posted by BruceR at 05:05 PM



I have no idea from whence Glenn Reynolds' recent hate-on for the International Red Cross comes from. I thought maybe someone had stuck him with a needle the wrong way, but of course he knows the national Red Crosses have little more than a name in common with the Swiss ICRC, which is responsible under international law, among other things, for monitoring prisoner-of-war detentions, right? Maybe there's some other reason he detests the land of finely honed timepieces, useful knives, and chocolate?

First there was his out-of-thin-air, and completely unsubstantiated "briefcases of unaccountable cash" accusation.

Then there was:

But to be fair I believe that all the Guantanamo noise has been made by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is not the same as the American Red Cross.

Okay, so now we know Glenn does know the two are different. And what is the "Guantanamo noise" the ICRC has made exactly? Someone might want to read their one and only official statement on the Guantanamo internment to date. Hell, it's so short I'll quote it in full:

Geneva (ICRC) On 18 January 2002, four delegates of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), including a medical delegate, started visiting the prisoners transferred from Afghanistan and detained by US forces at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station. The delegates will register the prisoners and document the conditions of their arrest, transfer and detention.

Under an agreement with the US authorities, the visits are being conducted in accordance with the ICRC's standard working procedures, which involve talking to the prisoners in private and giving them the opportunity to exchange news with their families by means of Red Cross messages.

These procedures include submitting strictly confidential written reports on the delegates' findings to the detaining authorities. In no circumstances does the ICRC comment publicly on the treatment of detainees or on conditions of detention. The ICRC delegates will discuss their findings directly with the detaining authorities, submit their recommendations to them, and encourage them to take the measures needed to solve any problems of humanitarian concern.

That's it. The ICRC has said nothing else officially on the subject (True, a couple officials have been quoted unofficially pointing out possible Geneva Convention violations in the Afghan prisoners' treatment so far, particularly the long-accepted ban on taking prisoner photos without consent). Oh, yeah, that's noise making...

Finally (in a piece mentioning the entirely legitimate criticism of the ICRC that it doesn't give equal pride of place to the Jewish Star of David as it does to the Muslim crescent, a question the organization itself is currently deeply divided over), Glenn writes:

Yeah, and they're not very good at telling the difference between an extermination camp (which they stayed away from in World War Two) and a humane prison camp like Guantanamo, either.

The actual history of the ICRC v. the Nazis is much more complex (not unlike that of the Catholic Church and the Nazis: some good, some bad, some heroic). There's a good, impartial writeup of it here. Basically the ICRC had to deal with a lack of any international law in 1939 prohibiting the genocide of one's own population; an ongoing war which prevented free travel, and forced them to rely on the German Red Cross for any intervention in Germany; a refusal by the Nazis to allow them anywhere near the concentration camps; and a perfectly understandable fear that protesting too much would result in Nazi reprisals against German Red Cross members, Allied prisoners-of-war in German hands, or even neutral Switzerland itself. At least one small-scale ICRC intervention with the more pliable Hungarian government certainly saved thousands of Jews. Could they have done more, sooner? Maybe. But Reynolds is wrong to suggest their behaviour in the 1940s and now has not been self-consistent: they've politely asked Germany and the United States to live up to the letter of their international commitments. The difference (to the Americans' great credit) is that the Americans don't mind being asked, much.

Come on, Glenn. Stop this irrational hatred of all things Swiss. There's more holes in your arguments than... well, you know...

UPDATE: In case you were wondering, the ICRC itself believes its actions re the Jews were "a failure" for the organization, one that prompted a lot of re-examination about what they really stood for. It should be noted that individual ICRC members were frequently heroic... as well as the Hungarian intervention, one might want to mention the husband-and-wife ICRC delegation that was executed by the Japanese for trying to reach Allied prisoners-of-war.

Posted by BruceR at 02:02 PM



No, I wasn't hacked, like Stryker. Just couldn't get near a computer all weekend.

Posted by BruceR at 01:23 PM