August 14, 2002



I love Steven Den Beste in full flight... I never miss a day if I can help it. But he's got to watch the military history generalizations when he goes off on a wild tangent on the way to his actual point. For instance:

By the end of WWII, the Germans and Americans and British armed all their infantry with at least semiautomatic rifles, with a rising proportion using fully automatic weapons.

Not true. Only the Americans were fully armed with semiautos. Likewise this:

Without going into painful detail, it [the Minie ball] made it possible for men with rifles to fire as often as muskets had, while at the same time being much more lethal than musket balls (which really were balls)

Although there is some evidence the .75 calibre musket ball, at combat ranges, left somewhat less shocking wounds than the .58 calibre Minie that replaced it, it's not as cut-and-dried as Den Beste makes out here. As well, the concurrent advance of military medicine (particularly the widespread use of ambulances) probably made Civil War battlefields substantially more survivable for the average soldier than Napoleonic ones. (Fredericksburg was probably the first major battle in history where all the wounded on both sides were gotten to a doctor within 24 hours, for instance.) You could argue from this that the rifle at best only redressed some of the advantage that had passed from the killers to the lifesavers over the same period. Yes, I know, I'm being pedantic...

All the infantry on both sides in the American Civil War were armed with rifled muskets, and suddenly musketry drastically increased in effectiveness.

A significant portion of both Confederate and Union units at Gettysburg, two years into the war, still used smoothbore muskets. Not to mention, Paddy Griffith and others have all but taken apart the "Minie ball" myth of the Civil War. Many historians now believe the perfection of breechloading weapons (which allowed soldiers to take advantage of cover) was far more revolutionary, and, based on an examination of engagement ranges and percentage of effective shots, that the rifled musket that preceded them has been somewhat overrated as a battlefield weapon.

And the vast majority of attempts by infantry to charge other infantry also failed due to the effectiveness of the defending gunfire. That's how Pickett's Charge failed at Gettysburg, for example.

Most historians now agree Pickett's Charge was defeated by Union artillery (still largely smoothbore) more than musketry. I could go on. But den Beste's piece is on why American government is the best possible form of government and the Internet is American in its sensibilities, so all these questions are tangents on tangents anyway. Den Beste would have been better to avoid the digressions altogether.

Nor is his intermediate point particularly convincing... that the best army, an army where leadership is pushed down to the lowest possible level, is a democratic army? You mean like the Nazi Wehrmacht, who first mastered the concept? And what does this mean:

It means that our governmental system is the collective result of millions of brains thinking about problems and millions of voices expressing opinions just like a modern army or a modern corporation.

Millions of voices expressing opinions? In an army? Is that really what he meant to say?

Posted by BruceR at 06:48 PM



Geez, I have never seen the blogosphere so completely lose its sense of humour before. I thought this piece was a reasonably witty way of sending up a lot of the anti-Iraq rhetoric. Bill, Glenn, lighten up.

Posted by BruceR at 05:29 PM



This is the kind of silliness that just pisses soldiers off:

With food choices ranging from the salmon fillets included in combat rations to a dish nicknamed "the lung," many of Canada's military personnel may be eating their way toward obesity, experts suggested yesterday...

Even the field, or combat, rations consumed on peacekeeping and other operations, are anything but gruel. One typical ration contains salmon fillet and lemon sauce, a strawberry drink, instant mash potatoes, bread, chocolate chip "combat cookies," tea and beef vegetable soup...

The variety of food is admirable but the abundance and portion sizes would appear to be a problem, said Elizabeth Snell, a Toronto nutritionist, after reviewing department meal information.

"It would be excessive for many in the military," she said.

The article takes two indisputable points: 1) Canadian soldiers could always be more fit (myself included); and 2) Field rations are high in calories, and disregarding any logic of causation, hypothesizes that field rations are making Canadian soldiers fat. Unfortunately, the writer never bothered to ask himself the essential question that would establish causality: are soldiers coming out of operations or intensive field training fatter than they went into it? Obviously, if the answer is no, then the whole article is crap.

And the answer is almost certainly no. I habitually lose a minimum of 10 pounds after the first week of a field exercise. The soldiers who come back from ops in Afghanistan or the like have lost almost all the subcutaneous fat on their bodies: if anything, more are dangerously underweight... maybe not Celine Dion underweight, but scary just the same.

I have never been issued a salmon fillet instant meal pack. I know they exist... I saw a colonel eat one a couple months ago, and you could smell the truck he'd been driving in for the rest of the afternoon several hundred metres off. I hear it's quite good. And no one in my experience has ever successfully eaten the cheese omelette breakfast... if the luck of the meal draw gets you that some day, you've basically missed a meal right there. But that's the whole point: in field training meals are hit and miss. If the supply system gets you meals at all, and if you have time to eat them (I've frequently chosen a precious 30 minutes sleep over an eating opportunity) and if you luck into a meal that's actually palatable, and if you actually consume every last calorie in the meal pack, including the box and plastic spoon... then, yes, maybe, you would get through that eight-hour period without losing some more weight. But if none of those things happen, you're dropping another pound that day, as your body slowly ingests itself. That's field soldiering, and it's not part of the problem.

So why do many Canadian soldiers feel they are overweight? The article sensibly points to, and then discards, the real reason... that recent cutbacks have all but gutted most full-timers' on-base physical fitness programs. Add to that other cutbacks in field training time, which used to help keep the weight down, an increase in desk-job soldiering generally (again, myself included), and fears that kicking people out for failing to keep up would appear to be discriminating against women or older soldiers, and you pretty much have your answer. But field rations, god help us, have nothing at all to do with the problem. And if Elizabeth Snell feels different, I challenge her to eat what little I'll actually manage to consume through the 11-day exercise I've got coming up and see how many pounds she gains.

Posted by BruceR at 04:57 PM