Thursday, July 3, 2014

Five Important American Events That Happened on July 4th

July 4th is the day we celebrate our independence, despite the fact that the actual act declaring independence passed the Continental Congress two days earlier.

Today, it's a day of fireworks, barbecues, and celebration.  In the past, however, it also was remembered for humiliating defeat, sad passings, and decisive victories.  Each involved one of America's most respected figures.

Fort Necessity at Great Meadows.  Here in a clearing in western Pennsylvania began a world war that transformed the British Empire and gave an American icon his first taste of military responsibility.

Europe had divided into two camps: Britain and her small club of allies against France and the most formidable empires on the Continent.  Any spark could set off a war covering the globe.  France and the British colony of Virginia both claimed the Forks of the Ohio, now Pittsburgh.  Virginia's colonial government sent 19 year old Major George Washington to set their claim on more solid ground.

Washington found Fort Duquesne already built at the forks, watched his Indian allies butcher a French patrol, then went to Great Meadow and built one of the worst fortifications ever constructed.  It sat near a source of water, but was surrounded by high ground on all sides, had large gaps in the wall, and had treelines within shooting distance.  The French could fire into it all day while hiding behind the massive virgin timber.

The Virginians fled the fort on July 4th.  French troops caught up, forced Washington to sign humiliating terms of capitulation, then sent him home to Virginia who immediately put him to work . . . building forts. 

July 4, 1754.  Proof that failure teaches better than success. 

One of the greatest friendships/rivalries in the history of this, or any other country.  John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

They knew each other for nearly 50 years, although no one would say they spent that long as friends.  Adams' careful editing of the Declaration of Independence chased Jefferson from the Continental Congress into a multi-year pout.

Jefferson's self-imposed exile eventually ended.  Both men spent the post war period struggling to represent the United States (one nation or 13, many asked before passage of the Constitution.)  Both Adams and Jefferson earned more respect as individuals than they could sell for their country.  Their intellects differed, Adams more pragmatic, Jefferson more idealistic, but they complemented each other at this point even as they mainly interacted through correspondence.

Later, Jefferson and Adams clashed.  Not so much when Jefferson served as a restive secretary of state and Adams an ignored vice president, but  certainly when both ran for president.  One of the few major flaws in the founding document gave second place in the Electoral College the vice presidency.  The Federalist Adams had to constantly fend off attacks from his own vice president in the highly partisan press of the time.

Both men ran again in 1800.  Reason turned some of the more vicious partisan statements into campaign ads. Their mutual hatred lasted for well over a decade after.

Eventually hard feelings softened.  The two preeminent American intellects of the early 19th century sat on the political trash heap, rarely consulted.  Adams' son John Quincy and Jefferson's political son James Madison assumed the stage.  Between the two men emerged a remarkable series of letters about a wide spectrum of subjects.  Much of the correspondence involved questions, answers, and responses to answers.  
Intellectual sharing grew into a fully reborn and close friendship that lasted until July 4th, 1826.  As Adams lay on his deathbed, his final words were, Jefferson still lives.

But Adams was wrong.  His former bitter rival and close friend had died the same day.

One thing often forgotten about the Civil War, the Union did not see its victory as inevitable until the very end.  Northern superiority in so many fields could not easily defeat a fully mobilized Confederacy fighting on its own soil.  

The Union in 1862 had come close to capturing the Confederate capital of Richmond, but had to retreat despite being in sight of its goal.  Antietam was technically a victory for the Union in the fall of the year, but left Lincoln frustrated because General McClellan seemed uninterested in finishing off Lee's army.

Meanwhile, social cohesion in the South deteriorated.  Most of the Confederate States saw their ability to enforce authority break down in the back country.  Lee knew that European help would not come and that the South would lose a war of attrition.  He gambled on a master stroke: striking north.

Meanwhile, Ulysses S. Grant hammered his own war of attrition against Mississippi Valley strongholds.  Like Lincoln, he understood the Confederacy would only lose when its armies were destroyed.  He ground away at strong points that the South felt compelled to defend, like Vicksburg.

Lee's three day assault on fortified Union lines near Gettysburg cost his army.  The best of his beloved Virginians died on the third day and his Army of Northern Virginia staggered home on July 4th.

Grant surrounded Vicksburg, last Confederate held position on the Mississippi.  Over several weeks, his tightening grip strangled Confederate resistance.  When Vicksburg ran out of victuals, its commander proposed surrender.  Grant refused to accept until the 4th of July.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

American Veterans' Center's Latest Videos: Remembering Some of Our Finest

American Veterans' Center just released a three part video series based on the remembrances of Colonel Edward Shames of the 101st Airborne in World War II

Part 1 describes the grueling and competitive regimen required to even qualify for Airborne training.  It involved a lot of hiking all over Georgia in the hot summer sun.

Part II describes deployment to England and the pivotal landing in Normandy

Part III takes viewers through the hard fighting in northern France as the Allies closed in on the Third Reich.

Colonel Shames tells his story with precise and entertaining detail.  AVC did a wonderful job editing in period music and pictures to make it come even more to life.

Thanks to the good people at AVC for bringing great stories of great veterans.


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

ISIS Versus the World?

Obama continues to gradually raise America's investment in protecting the tottering Maliki government in Iraq.  A total of 800 US troops, mostly Special Forces, have gone to help retrain the Iraqi Army to face this new threat.  According to Russia Today, widely seen as a Kremlin mouthpiece, Russia delivered five combat planes to Iraq to help in that nation's defense.

This comes as ISIS announced the formation of a caliphate.  In Islamic tradition, a caliph is a religious leader with somewhat less spiritual authority than a Roman Catholic Pope.  The closest Western approximation might be the Anglican title for the British monarch "Defender of the Faith."  Holy Roman Emperors also had similar combinations of temporal and spiritual authority.

According to Time, even Sunnis (whom the caliphate supposedly represents) have fears about the radicalism of the new movement.  Unease about new rules for worship and civil interactions could dampen enthusiasm for ISIS outside of areas it controls.

Control of Baghdad is key.  As the inheritor of civilized traditions reaching back 5,000 years, it would give legitimacy to the aspirations of ISIS terrorists.  This has spurred action from both the United States and Russia on the side of Iraq.

Russia has specific worries.  Around 20 million of its 142 million people worship in the Muslim faith.  Most of these live in the southern regions of the country.  The effect of a rising radical Muslim state must worry Moscow.  Similarly, Red China's Xingjiang Province has a high concentration of Muslims who have rebelled against Beijing.

Shi'ite Muslims have religious reasons to oppose the ISIS caliph.  Traditionally, they believe that it is blasphemous to name a caliph outside of the lineage of Mohammed.  Iran and much of Iraq worships in the Shi'ite tradition.  They likely would strongly resist rule by a Sunni caliph they found not only invalid, but a blasphemy against their faith.

The backing of Russia and the United States should boost the morale of the Iraqi government, so long as ISIS momentum can be dented.  Allegedly, ISIS plans to seize Africa north of the equator, Iran, India, and the rest of the Middle East and Central Asia.  Its designs include the conquest of three NATO states and parts of Russia, as well as Europe up to the borders of Germany and Poland.

Currently they control northeastern Syria and most of Iraq north of Baghdad outside of Kurdish territories.

Significant ISIS gains would likely bring together a number of states usually not on friendly terms.  Already, Iran has approached the United States to discuss a coordinated response, although working with the mullahs has its own danger.  Should Baghdad fall, likely many states would set aside differences in an international effort similar to the Boxer Rebellion expedition in 1898.

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Unlearned Lesson of World War I

World War I will always be remembered in history by many as a colossal waste.  Millions died; billions were spent.  The accumulated accomplishments of centuries of European history ground away to prepare for an era more known for evil.

The spark that lit it happened a century ago this month.  Serbian terrorist Gavrillo Princip assassinated the next in line to the Hapsburg imperial throne.

And yet, the war could not have been prevented.

Each nation involved played by the rules of national ambition and/or rose to defend historical obligations or interests.

Each followed a logical path that brought it into conflict with others.

Hindsight tells us that World War I's nihilistic effect on human history should render it tragically absurd, especially since that era had no leaders like Hitler and no nations with the ambition of 1941 Japan.  World War II actually may have colored our perception of what causes war.  Surely it must be an implacably evil madman behind it; no one could go to war otherwise.

No mad men here.  Truth be told, all of the major national leaders, Czar Nicholas II, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Franz Josef, H. H. Asquith, and France's premier of the month in the Third Republic were all fairly average men.  Not a brilliant visionary among them.

True, Germany under the Kaiser aggressively pushed itself into every territorial dispute and sought international parity with Great Britain and France. This, however, was one of many intertwining factors leading to war.

Anyone can look into the buildup to the war, but it would be challenging to find a decision made by any party which was not consistent with its national interest and explainable logically. One may not agree with the decision, but no country, for example, invaded peaceful and non threatening neighbors. Germany backed its ally, Austria-Hungary, Russia backed Serbia, Britain backed Belgium, and so on.

Point here is that the potential for war cannot always be discounted when all states have rational leaders.  States can avert war, certainly.  Pretending that major wars require some element of insanity or evil, however, remains a dangerous delusion.