Thursday, January 9, 2014

(Almost) 149th Anniversary of McNeill's Rangers' Raid on Cumberland (Story Told in Pictures!)

Sometimes things happen in war that are so gutsy that people on all sides tip their hat.

One such event was McNeill's Rangers' raid on Cumberland, one of the most daring of its kind in American military history.

By winter of 1865, the Confederacy was about to throw in the towel.  Ulysses S. Grant's army slowly constricted around Robert E. Lee at Petersburg.  But a number of Confederate groups remained free.

Like the partisan ranger unit commanded by Lieutenant Jesse McNeill

This unit specialized in causing mischief around Hampshire and Hardy counties.  Lee had one general order, though.  Go steal a lot of these as much as possible.

But in February of 1865, Jesse and his compadres had a different idea.  Pull a crazy stunt that would resound in the annals of war.  Kidnap three of the enemy's general officers.

They moved north from their bases near Moorefield, crossed the shallow and not very broad Potomac and went into the Maryland city of Cumberland

In Cumberland they aimed to kidnap three generals.  Two were staying at a swank hotel in town.

They got captured.

The third believed in sharing the privations of his troops, even in the bitter cold of a mountain winter.  He smartly slept in a freezing tent surrounded by thousands of freezing soldiers.  Safe and sound.

Maybe that's why Rutherford B. Hayes ended up president!

The other two ended up captured.

One was this man

He looked just as perturbed the whole time he was in captivity.  Brigadier General Benjamin Kelley was not a man who enjoyed a good prank.  Maybe because a wound he suffered early in the war never healed and ended up incapacitating him in the 1870s.

The other was this feller

US Army historians consider George Crook to be one of the best small war commanders in American military history.  He knew how to wage war in mountains, hollows, forests, and remote lands.  Crook treated enemies, both Confederate and Indian, fairly, but always fought hard.

Crook delighted his captors by congratulating them on a job well done and joining their gentle mocking of the scowling Kelley.

Getting the generals out was no easy task.  Mountain winters look like this

Although the capture was a humiliation for the Union, especially General Kelley, it produced no lasting effect.  It did not get Grant away from Richmond and it did not net Lee anymore beef.

But it did leave lasting memories of daring and bravado remembered in the Potomac Highlands down to today.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

West Va. Governor Earl Ray Tomblin and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio: Symbols of Division

Above are links to the State of the State Address of Governor Earl Ray Tomblin of West Virginia and Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City.  Read the two addresses.  They seem to come from men of different countries, cultures, and traditions.  Hard to believe that these come from men of the same political party in similar roles, in the same country.

Governor Tomblin proudly touted a record of avoiding tax increases, holding the line on spending, and building up a near $1 billion rainy day fund.  He noted the soon to be developed factories in the state that would create coal and natural gas by products.  Tomblin promised to hold schools accountable and promised modest raises for teachers.  Shout outs to veterans and the Boy Scouts of America punctuated his relatively short talk that was built around gardening metaphors.

Bill de Blasio comes from the wing of the Democratic Party that thinks the EPA had better monitor one's gardening.  He praises Sandinistas, not fiscal conservatism.  He fights to gobble up more wealth from the most heavily taxed producers in the nation.  He picks fights with horse drawn carriages instead of teacher unions wary of school ratings.

Governor Tomblin is a relic.  He is a Democrat, there is no doubt of that.  Tomblin approved the federally encouraged expansion of Medicaid. This is expected to hit the budget hard, but his administration plans to make cuts in other areas to face the shortfall. Regulations and tort problems still bedevil development, but Tomblin's wing of the state party understands that social programs need a productive private sector to function.

He also comes from the old school. The Mingo County politics of his youth functioned a lot like the old Tammany and Daley metropolitan machines.  They directly rewarded those who supported them, usually illegally.  But they also understood the common man.  They knew he needed cheap food, cheap energy, decent housing, and a decent job.  And that a good economy could make that happen. Old time Democrats had a lot of flaws, but they believed in their country and in many institutions, like the Boy Scouts, that helped to make it great.  Tomblin is not corrupt, but he does still embrace a pragmatic approach. Cato in 2011 gave him the same rating as the GOP governor of Virginia for fiscal responsibility.

Contrasts between Tomblin and de Blasio illustrate how much the national Democratic Party has changed.  It moved in the direction of federal control over not only state and business, but also individual life decisions. They rely on bureaucrats, lawyers, and businesses that benefit from the Byzantine system of regulations and controls.  They have an idea of the way it ought to be, and that way leads to the regimentation of the daily lives of everyone along certain lines.  To keep us from self-inflicted wounds, or what they would perceive to be wounds.

Has the Republican Party changed? Certainly.  It abandoned unquestioning support of big business.  It now has a robust discussion within its ranks about pot legalization and gay marriage.  It has embraced more tightly than so-called liberals the basic philosophy of the Earl Warren Court that it once hated and feared (conservative publications have made a cottage industry out of reporting police abuses.) The party of small government in the past seven years has worked to make itself more consistent.  And on almost every issue it has moved more toward the freedom of the individual rather than diminishing liberty.

Looking at the addresses of the two Democrats, considering the drift of both parties, it is clear that a broad divide exists in the United States.  We are a house divided again between liberty and control.  We have two cultures that have no common foundation, and, at risk of being overly repetitive, these divides even exist within the Democratic Party itself!

Even in West Virginia, Democrats like Tomblin are a dying breed.  Moderate and pragmatic Democratic voters abandon the party for independence or the GOP.  Tearing oneself away from family and community traditions is hard, but so is stomaching what national Democrats have done to jobs and industry in the state.  Eventually a left wing rump will remain after the defections are over.  It will be more loud and shrill, but less effective in influencing the state.

Perhaps the disastrous Obamacare rollout will enable what is left of the Democratic moderates to regain control. Or it may drive them to more extreme dreams of control. Only time will tell

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Ford Introduces the Future

Ford today unveiled a glimpse at the future of automobiles and the power that might get us from point A to point B.

Its latest concept car, described in Christian Science Monitor, features breakthrough hybrid technology combining batteries, a gasoline engine, and solar power.  The difference between Ford and other automakers is that this car carries the panels in its roof.

Engineers have to tackle the problem of cramming enough solar cells into the roof of the car to make it go.  They bolstered its capabilities by putting a concave plastic cover over the cells.  This acts as a lens to concentrate solar energy into the cells.

It takes seven hours to fully charge in sunlight, but can also be plugged in conventionally.  During optimal conditions, 75 percent of its power could come from the sun.

Solar panels should grow more efficient as technology advances. Paradoxically, all that stands in the way of progress is government support.  Subsidies encourage the status quo, which currently means solar panels that are not economically feasible in most situations.  They are either too expensive, or not efficient enough.  Market pressures would encourage more developments that could make them more prevalent in business, home, or automobile use.

Solar power is one of the few renewable energy sources that has a lot of promise.  If we can only refrain from giving it too much help, it could eventually fulfill the potential predicted of it.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Very Sobering Thought As We Embark on a New Year

Consider the situation as the 14th year opens in the new century.

The US economy is still recovering from a financial disaster in the previous decade.  It is also experimenting with new institutions that expand government control over the economy.

International terrorism struck hard at the United States early in the new century and also hit multiple European states.

The world's power structure has shifted powerfully in a short period of time.  Just a few years prior, a hegemonic power benevolently monitored the world.  It interfered imperfectly at times, but worked hard to maintain a balance between promoting world stability and self-interest.  It faced strong competition from rising powers across the globe, both economically and militarily.  Despite this, it has reoriented its military to confront low intensity conflicts on the periphery, rather than a mass war of nations.

Germany, poised to assume a much more powerful position on the European continent.  Russian expansion into Eastern Europe raises questions about the nature of its imperialism.  Terrorists, however, threaten to destabilize the country despite its attempts to grow into a respected nation militarily and economically.

Japan is once again restive and finds itself in confrontation with Far Eastern neighbors.

Technological advances have revolutionized ways of life and raised standards of living at an astonishing pace over the previous generation.

Although tensions abound throughout the world, few see any danger of a major war in the near future.

The year?  1914.  Seven months into the year came the most destructive war in history in terms of immediate and future impact.  It not only killed millions and consumed untallyable resources, it also served as the midwife of Soviet Communism and National Socialism.  These movements massacred tens of millions of innocents in their own right.

Czars, Kaisers (technically they are the same word), kings, presidents, prime ministers, and chancellors could not fathom the impact of the summer spiral that sucked in all the worlds' Great Powers eventually. Only the United States and Japan came through relatively unscathed.  America expanded its economy and decided in 1920 to abandon internationalism and "return to normalcy."  Japan added German colonies to its slowly growing empire. Meanwhile:

Russia descended into a horrific civil war that brought the murderous Bolsheviks to power.  They eventually murdered over 30 million of their own people under Lenin and Stalin.

Germany lost its ruling family, tried a democracy, and tumbled into Nazi totalitarianism.

France withstood the hell of a war of attrition on its own territory, killing millions of young men and destroying the northern part of the country.

Britain suffered more casualties per capita than any nation.  Its shell shock kept it from rising in time to meet the challenge from Hitler.

Italian chaos invited Mussolini's fascists.

Austria-Hungary disintegrated entirely.

It was not just Russia, Germany, and other countries that revolutionized in a span of five years, it was the world.  World War I brought the United States to the forefront, but also unleashed great evils.

Be prepared for an onslaught of World War I reflection and revision.  Niall Fergusson about a decade ago argued that Britain fought on the wrong side, that it should have stood beside the Germans to maintain the traditional balance of power in Europe.  This comes from the benefit of hindsight that tells us Russian population and resources wedded to ideology produced a powerful and long lasting threat to the continent.  Britain rarely exercised great judgment in its reactions to events and never attempted foresight.  Many spoke of the rise of Russia and America, but few pondered when or how that might happen.

Others will accept the immediate postwar analysis that the war sprung from some sort of madness of civilization.  At first glance, the sheer destruction and length of the war might reflect international insanity.

But that's not true.  If insanity or evil, like Hitler's drive to power, lay at the core of World War I, it could be safely consigned to history.  In reality though, World War I is much more terrifying than World War II because it resulted from each nation acting through its own logic and responding to lessons it learned from history.

Britain dominated the 19th century after the defeat of Napoleon.  For much of that time, it remained more interested in expanding its markets than its empire.  Except for three or four years of the American Civil War, it had the largest navy on earth.  Britain also dominated industrial production.  Most countries, especially the US, mildly resented British dominance.  Its world leadership, however, edged international relations toward more civility while restraining practices like piracy and slavery.

France remained hobbled by a hatred of Germany after their 1871 defeat and an unwieldy republican government that encouraged chronic domestic crises.

Germany did not exist as a nation until 1871.  Prussia plus several minor German states equaled the largest country on the continent besides Russia.  Under Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, it comfortably expanded production and trade, built the most impressive army, and enjoyed its unassailability.  No one wanted to challenge the Germans and, between the 1870s and the end of Bismarck's tenure, the Germans seemed content.  The young Kaiser William II in the 1890s found Bismarck's restrained policies anachronistic.  Envious of Britain and his royal cousins there, William wanted an empire of something besides islands and deserts.  Unfortunately, he resolved on boorish aggressive moves to obtain it.

Russia and Austria-Hungary struggled to bring centuries old dynasties into the modern industrial age.  Russia had the upper hand in the era of nationalism because of its dominant ethnic population.  Austria-Hungary contended with 15 different groups, most wanting equal treatment and recognition.  Their economies could not compete with Germany, Britain, or the United States.  Their struggles led them to seek external successes to build public pride.  Unfortunately, they faced off against each other trying to build influence in the Balkans.

Japan and the United States gradually gobbled island empires and developed their own industry.  Both expanded their regional power at the expense of defeatable nations.

Italy doesn't count.

France and Britain lurched from friendship in the 1850s to frenemies in the 1870s, to near war in the 1890s, then back to friendship.  Competition for colonial lands spurred animosity between the two and war could have happened had Kaiser William not abandoned Bismarck's approach.  William's strategy of brinksmanship was designed to bully France and Britain into begging him for an accomodation.  All it did was to push them together.

German prewar policy was based on a calculation of force and pressure, not nihilism and ideology like the Nazis.  It was not particularly defensible, but it also was not too much of a departure from traditional European practice, either.

Friendships coalesced into alliances.  France and Russia concluded an ironclad pact as did Germany and Austria-Hungary.  Britain had no direct obligation to anyone except Belgium, but worked with France on joint planning.  The war started, as most know, when Russian supported Serbia was associated with a terror attack on Austria-Hungary's ruling family.  Austria-Hungary eventually attacked, drawing Russia against it.  Germany protected her ally by attacking Russia's ally France, who wanted nothing to do with the war.  But previous French animosity left Germany convinced that she had to be neutralized in any conflict with Russia.  Britain wanted nothing to do with the war, but Germany's attack plan took her through Belgium, so...

A chain of logic led to war.  If the fact that it led to such a horrible event was omitted, the decisions would not look remarkably stupid (or remarkably intelligent either!)

Does 2014 look much different?

Economic instability

Persistent international terrorism

Relative decline of a hegemonic power

Rise of states opposed to the status quo (China, Iran, among others)

China is actively challenging a neighbor with whom it has long historical emnity (as Germany did with France) Like a hundred years ago, the disputes that China is picking are silly but must receive a response.

International agreements tie powers to smaller countries.  Where North Korea goes, China may have to follow regardless of how insane it is.  Germany's only friend in 1914 was Austria-Hungary.  China's is North Korea.

Digital age technology, like the industrial revolution, has changed nations, economies, militaries, and ways of life beyond recognition to someone thirty years ago.

The US military increasingly realigns to fight in Afghanistan or some other distant and unpleasant place.  Its shrinking, but still well-equipped and highly professional force resembles Britain's "thin red line" of 1914 relative to the size and population of each nation.

The seeds of a world war are planted today.  We cannot keep ignoring international problems such as the behavior of China.  Responding to China's belligerence with more belligerence will not help, but neither will accommodation and weakness.  The United States needs to build a firm economy at home to demonstrate strength and stability.  It also needs a wise foreign policy approach to handle the Far East sensibly.

Lessons from a hundred years ago are relevant now.  War can happen if today's Great Powers blunder into it as they did then.