March 12, 2004


Is it just me, or does anyone else suspect all this Spanish-American solidarity in the face of terrorism is going to be a little politically inconvenient, if this does turn out to be just an ETA/Basque thing? The United States policy under Bush has been quite clear on the distinction with international terrorists, that must be hunted down, and "local" terrorists, who are not a U.S. problem (hence Hamas, for instance, does not require Special Forces intervention). Just asking.

UPDATE: It's looking more and more like an Al Qaeda job, in fact, but that didn't stop the governing party from losing at the polls in the wake of it, which has led to another kind of backlash. Ah, yes, the left and the terrorists, hand in hand; trenchant analysis, that.

A couple facts you may not have noticed in the uproar:

*The Aznar-supported government slate wasn't promising to keep Spanish troops in Iraq, it was promising to dramatically increase their number (by around 1,000), to make up for an expected Polish reduction this summer, according to a Reuters piece (no longer online). In fact, one can expect the lion's share of the multinational forces to withdraw between now and the fall; the American military leadership has done next to nothing yet to include them in their strategic warplanning, or formalize their continued presence through NATO or the UN, so most are probably cutting their contributions back, anyway.

*The victorious Socialists under Zapatero, as far as I can discern, do not in fact, have any opposition to Spanish assistance in the NATO/UN-mandated ISAF force in Afghanistan... only to the non-internationalist coalition of the willing in Iraq. (They currently have 2,200 soldiers with NATO missions abroad: Bosnia/Kosovo, as well as Afghanistan.) So basically, their position now being condemned by a myriad of jingobloggers is... well, the Canadian position, actually: yes to Afghanistan, where there actually were terrorists once and where there is a world mandate, no to Iraq.

*The Spanish so far have given, assuming you accept the "war on Islamic terror" construct, 73 of their soldiers' and intelligence officers' lives to its prosecution in those two countries (including 62 in an unfortunate plane crash) by my count... more than any other non-U.S. country, including Britain. Maybe, just maybe, they've given enough? It is an entirely rational position, it seems to me, to wish your government focus on the terrorists at home that are actually killing you, rather than spend your blood and treasure supporting a distant war, that, as far as protection of actual Spaniards are concerned, may very well turn out to have zero actual value. Al Qaeda involvement in the Madrid bombings does not automatically make the Iraq adventure justifiable... and not trusting your adventurist government to protect you at home any longer does not necessarily mean you have lost sight of the big picture when it comes to terrorism.

Posted by BruceR at 05:12 PM


I also read Hugh Bicheno's Rebels and Redcoats this week. A revisionist history of the American Revolution, it is a must-read... quite possibly the most anti-American screed I have read in some time, systematically dismantling the American founding myth from the ground up. The introduction alone is devastating to anyone's pretense of Yankee exceptionalism, written by an author and skilled historian who doesn't just detail his personal contempt for what he sees as the layers of propaganda slathered on the "Founding Fathers," but positively revels in it. It is not only that remarkable thing, readable military history in the Keegan-Holmes vein; it is also probably the most subversive paperback in the bookstores today.

A few other thoughts on Bicheno:

1) As in all military books, some textbook figures come off as overrated, others are not. Bicheno leaves the reputations of many American generals more or less where they are. He savages Gates, Greene, la Fayette and Revere among many others, preferring the underrated John Stark instead. The four senior British generals in-theatre fare little better, but some of their subordinates shine, and for reasons I hadn't appreciated: Simcoe (like Stark, a protege of Robert Rogers), tricking Steuben himself out of a victory at Point of Fork; the always controversial Tarleton, about due for a burnishing; and the remarkable Mohawk Joseph Thayendanegea Brant, who in 1778 somehow managed to fight and win two major raids (Andrustown and Minisink) 100 miles apart, within two days of each other. If there's a comparable feat in the annals of footsoldiering at any time in history, I can't recall it.

2) Brant and Simcoe, of course, would later become major characters in the Canadian founding myth, as well, but in this country they are known as noble postwar peacemakers (Simcoe for freeing Upper Canada's last slaves for instance), not the brilliant soldiers they had been; Canadian texts rest little on their younger days, which is a great pity... it's great that high schoolers can read the diaries of Lady Simcoe, no doubt, but it's clear our own myths need a little "revisioning" of its own. Current Canadian high school history treats the Loyalist settlers who fled the Colonies in 1781-84 as essentially peaceful refugees; it's important for our own self-understanding to remember that these were in many cases hardened men, even in some cases what today we would consider war criminals.

3) For the record: my objections to the Gibson film travesty "The Patriot," which Bicheno also obviously detests, were not, in fact centered on the British being portrayed as excessively brutal, which was what so many in Britain objected to when the movie was playing. Yes, it's true, there were very few recorded events of off-battlefield brutality involving the bona fide English redcoats, and certainly nothing like the Oradour-sur-Glane ripoff the movie chronicles so flippantly.

However, anyone who thinks great cruelty was not a feature when homegrown Loyalist units were fighting the Rebels, and vice versa, is kidding himself. That includes Banastre Tarleton's troops "portrayed" in that movie, the self-titled "British Legion," in fact a unit composed almost entirely of American-born Loyalists (led, as was common, by a British commander).

When Loyalist troops were involved (or Scots, or Hessians), while there may not have been any Oradours, there were certainly numerous Malmedy-style POW massacres. (On the other hand, it's also true American mythmakers magnified some of their defeats in fair fight, such as Waxhaws and Paoli, into "massacres," as they had done before and would again afterwards, too.) It's also fair to say the closest real-life events to the movie massacre would probably be Rebel vigilante depredations against suspect blacks in Georgia in 1775, or against the peaceful "civilized" Indians at Gnadenhutten in 1782.

No my objection to that movie is to the bizarre caricatures of Tarleton and Marion/Morgan (Gibson), bearing no relation to the fascinating originals that I have read about, and in a just world that would be a pity, dammit. Tarleton, for instance, is the movie's thinly disguised murderer and arsonist; you can't even detect the same real-life man who, having raided Monticello in an attempt to catch Thomas Jefferson, would respectfully depart leaving it still pristine. Tarleton was by all accounts disturbingly good looking, loved by his men (and sundry women), only 26 years old when he was tangling with Marion and Morgan... character actor Jason Isaacs doesn't conjure him up well, at all, in those respects.

But the movie's depiction of a cruel war in general terms is not a wholly unfair one: it was cruelty from both sides, though, and as Canadians and inheritors of the losing argument, we might do better to remember that. This is our founding myth, too, after all.

4) It's nice, as I said above, to uncover a little bit more of some of those luminaries our own historians here ave been steadfastly burying for decades, such as the invincible Frederick Haldimand, first Governor of postwar Canada, probably more responsible than anyone for setting the conditions that allowed this country to grow into something, and possibly the most brilliant "British" commander-in-chief North America ever saw. (Quotes because Haldimand was, in fact, a Swiss mercenary-aristocrat.)

5) Bicheno raises fascinating and tantalizing questions throughout. He reasonably establishes that the Concord Raid wasn't to capture Adams and Hancock at all, but rather the three 24-pounder cannon Pitcairn found hidden there, weapons far more powerful than any other local militia had, or could be allowed to have. As the author points out, though, there is no explanation whatever for how they got there. This, and the fact Washington lost more cannon in the New York campaign than are known to have ever been put in his hands, suggests the covert military intervention of a foreign power (probably France) in American politics even before 1775. More research needed there, obviously.

Bicheno also makes the point in passing that, rather than being sniped by American marksmanship, British officer casualties in the war's battle were actually close to the norm... what wasn't was the American officer casualties, which were often surprisingly low compared to other armies, elsewhere. The implication should be obvious: but again, more research would be nice.

Anyway, best book of the year so far for me, bar none. If you've ever been able to read military history, buy this book. If not, at least try to choke down Bicheno's vicious Introduction in the bookstore aisle. You won't regret the resulting cranial freefall, not unless you've given up the whole "try to see all sides" thing somewhere along the way.

UPDATE: Edited this morning to fix, oh, all kinds of problems. Note to self and others: do not blog right after a long day's travel, when all the facts and names are mixed up in your head, and eight hours somnolence are obviously urgently required. Or, if you do, please fix it up first thing when you wake.

Bicheno is always an extremely controversial historian, and I would certainly not claim him ever to have the last word... his complete disinterest in sound sourcing can be maddening. But because he's an enfant terrible, I think some people tend to sniff at him too much. (My favourite Bicheno sniff-review is this one, which concludes with the masterful paragraph, "It is regrettable that faulty research and careless editing detract [sic] the text... It is unfortunate that the text was not proof read [sic] more closely. Gettysburg is [sic] insightful, challenging, and fresh approach to the study of the battle, yet simultaneously it is regrettable that faulty research and careless editing impair the text." Yeah, we all know how that can suck.) Anyway, I'd place him in terms of reliability about one step above his fellow iconoclast Christopher Hitchens. But I still read Hitchens, too.

Posted by BruceR at 01:23 AM


Sorry about the absence... army business took me out of circulation for a little while. The travel time gave me the chance to finish two books... more about the second in a minute. I just wanted to praise hidden Canadian treasure Robert Sawyer, whose novel "The Terminal Experiment" pleased and surprised me, as have many of his other works.

Regardless of what you may think of the science-fiction detective/philosophy vein he mines, I can think of no writer who has ever written as accurately, even lovingly, about Canada and particularly Toronto, as Sawyer does. He instils the place with more romance than it probably deserves, in fact. He is a true, and generally underappreciated, national treasure.

Posted by BruceR at 12:26 AM