Thursday, July 16, 2015

George Washington's Military Genius By Dave Palmer

George Washington's Military Genius
By Dave Palmer

“Washington or no Army” 
Continental Army toast page 74

Back to non-fiction for a bit and given the recent holiday (that being July 4th or the American Independence Day) think a book about George Washington is called for.  Ah, Washington, the first and greatest of our founding fathers and perhaps the most mythologized.  The US has been prone to over reacting in how we see our founders, in recent times two groups have staked out their ground and gone to brutal war over it.  The first group holds up the founders as flawless demi-gods sent down from the shining heavens by the Almighty Lord God himself to lovingly hand craft the pure and wonderful city on a hill that would become the United States.  The second group decries them as a pack of ingrate wealthy elitists grown fat upon the suffering of slaves and natives who turned snarling upon the poor innocent government of the United Kingdom for meekly suggesting that the colonists should pay taxes.

My own position is bluntly that both groups are so ridiculously out of touch with reality that it is a wonder they even got the names of the people they are worshiping or slandering right.  The founding fathers were men, as such they were flawed and imperfect.  They did things that were to be frank immoral and wrong.  They also were gifted men, who did things great and amazing and acted with charity and goodness.  Such is the nature of humanity.  They crafted through messy compromise and dickering and titanic labor a nation that would prosper, grow and become one of the mightiest nations in history, whose impact on culture and history can only be denied by the stupid, blind or extremely ideological blinkered, but I repeat myself there.  Entire fields of art and science have been invented in this nation, deeds good, great and worthy of remembrance have been done here.  I cannot deny that shameful and horrible things have been done.  I also cannot deny that many people have suffered unjustly simply for their gender, race and more... I do believe that erases nor eclipses the good. I will stop here as this is suppose to be a book review not a political polemic.

As for Washington himself?  I would argue that he is worthy of praise for one simple reason, he surrendered power.  That doesn't sound like much... Until you compare him to the great number of successful revolutionaries who did not and the price their nations paid for that.  Compare Washington to Castro, or Mugabe or others and suddenly praising him for that doesn't seem so silly does it?  Disregarding that, as the book doesn't concern itself with that, I have never considered Washington to be among the great military generals and strategists of the world or even the United States.  Lt. General Dave Palmer (retired), veteran of two tours of Vietnam, former superintendent of West Point and a noted historian of the American Revolution in his own right seeks to change my mind in this book.  Let's discuss if he actually pulls it off.

Palmer starts the book by addressing the general facts of war and society in Washington's time.  Pointing out that when we peer back through the centuries we are viewing a much different time.  This war happens before the industrial revolution, an event that so dramatically changes human life on this planet that some historians have suggested that the generation of the founding fathers have more in common with the men of the Roman Empire then us, who live a mere 240 some odd years later.  War was certainly different as were the armies that carried it out.  Europe was still shaking off the memory of the destruction of the 30 year war and trying it's level best to avoid any total wars.  Armies were expensive and as such battle was something to be avoided.  A victory where your army took heavy loses (loses that would take years to replace) could lose you the war.  European armies were usually made up of economically unproductive classes (that is the aristocracy and to be blunt the criminal and jobless) press ganging (basically kidnapping someone into service) was common and as such desertion was epidemic.  This was because every man in the army was a man not on the farm or doing other more economically productive things.  The gulf between enlisted and officer class was wide and deep, with the enlisted being in the main uneducated, rough, very low class men and officers being to the manor born. The American Revolutionary army was different in the sense it was made up of volunteers from all walks of life serving for a cause.  In some ways it was a warning ripple of what the French Revolution would unleash in some decades time.  For that matter the war itself was more like the French Revolution in that society itself had to be brought into the war.  For most of the wars of 1700s, society was incredibly uninvolved.  In fact citizens often didn't know or care if their nation was at war or at peace.  It was normal to carry on trade and commerce with nations your government was at war with.   The Americans wouldn't have that luxury but would be involved in the war whether they wished to be or not.
Palmer then proceeds to introduce us to the important facts of the ground.  The nature of life and the set up of the colonies.  How the population of some 2.5 million was shotgunned across the eastern seaboard.  Despite that there were cities, Philadelphia in the 1750s was the 2nd largest city in the British Empire for example, the vast majority of Americans lived in small settlements in a large wilderness.  We are also introduced to the British government of the time of the revolution and frankly, it is unimpressive. For example two quotes about King George:

“Had he born in different circumstances it is unlikely that he could have earned a living expect as an unskilled laborer,” British scholar page 36

“He was lethargic, apathetic, childish, a clod of a boy whom no one could teach” also page 36

We also learn an important fact, at this point in time, the British Army numbered roughly 50,000 men.  These men had to police an empire stretching from Canada to India.  This I think fully explains what is come next. These sections of the book are very informative and well written, I really enjoyed the first 25% of the book and I even managed to learn some things.

The next part of the book is where Palmer proceeds to make his argument.  He divides the American Revolution into 4 phases.  The first phase which was from April 1775 to June 1776, where the revolutionaries take the offensive and eject royal government administers from the 13 colonies and directly engage the British Army.  Here he argues Washington takes the led by pushing for aggressive action against the British army in Boston and elsewhere.  While Washington was able to gain success in New England, the revolution army in Canada ending up failing.  At the end of the 1st phase we see the royal government and the British army forced out of the colonies and into Canada.  Following on the heels of this comes the Declaration of Independence in July and phase 2.

The 2nd phase was intensive defensive with Washington working overtime to keep his army in the field and intact.  This phase ran from July 1776 to December 1777, part of the reason for the defensive nature of the war was to put bluntly an extreme failure to estimate the British response.  The Continental Congress had estimated that King George III would send 22,500 redcoats, 10,000 to hold Canada with the rest coming into to invade New England.  In order to be able to meet this army on the field, the Revolutionaries in Congress determined they needed a 2 to 1 advantage at least in numbers.  They set a goal of recruiting 65,000 men.  They managed to raise an army of 25,000 and they would be meeting a British/German army around 48,000 strong. The Germans of whom over 30,000 would serve in the newly made US came from all over, their appearance enraged the colonists who believed that proper Englishmen did not sic foreign mercenaries on each other (this suggests that they were unaware of large chunks of English history but side issue). At this point if the Continental Army was destroyed the field, that would be the end of the Revolution.  Recognizing that the Hudson river and control of it was vital, he fortified it (including founding West Point itself) and proceeded to deny a decisive battle to the British Army that was now twice his size, better trained and better equipped.  However he also refused to break contact, constantly shadowing the British Army staying just out of reach of a lunge that would bring him into grips. I have to admit this is an amazing achievement.  I have some idea of how hard this would be from my own military experiences, where it is the tendencies of firefights to grow bigger.   My own experience is limited to that of a junior Corporal in the Marines though, I did not have to control militia during a retreat.  Washington did and he did it well enough to avoid destruction.  It was during this period that he received a nickname from the British Army, they would call him 'Old Fox.'  As a bitter winter fell on the US in 1777 and Christmas came near, it was the opening of Phase 3.

Phase 3 opens with Washington crossing the Delaware River to make his now famous attack on Trenton and would continue until October 1781.  A major change was an open military alliance with the French and the fact that the French fleet would be operating in the Atlantic against the British.  Additionally the flow of armies and perhaps more importantly money from France, gave Washington room to risk.  If he suffered heavy causalities, he would have the time and space to replace them.  With the French money came a stream of European Officers willing to serve and train.  Within Valley Forge those officers would hammer out the first professional American Army and Washington would use that army to attack.  Cities would be retaken and the British Army would find itself under constant attack. Facing newly aggressive American forces and a French fleet prowling along their rear, the British began to retreat from many of their toe holds in the colonies. 1780 would prove to be a year of major set backs for the Revolutionaries as the British would invade the southern colonies and internal problems threaten to have the colonies fly apart, notable was the betrayal of the Revolution by Benedict Arnold.  Washington was just able to keep the army and therefore country intact to strike back in 1781.  The South was retaken, a French army arrived to fight alongside the Continentals and at last came the victory of Yorktown.

The final phase, phase 4 was mostly negotiation between the British and the Americans. Washington had to work to keep the United States from losing the peace as the final peace treaty was hammered out and to ensure that the army didn't turn on Congress.   Something I can state is a mighty tempting idea at times even today (I might still be bitter about that veterans jobs bill guys).  Considering that many of the men of the continental army hadn't been paid in months and most of them never would be, it must have way more tempting than I could possibly imagine.  Still it was achieved and it might have one of the important things Washington has ever done.  Well stepping down from the Presidency was more important but this one is close.

The book has a lot of interesting information and presents a thought provoking argument.  As an overview it works fairly well.  The division of the war into the 4 phases makes a lot of sense and is well thought out.  However, Palmer clearly assumes his reader knows the details of all the campaigns he mentions because he never bothers providing any on his own.  This weakens the book deeply in my view making a history book that needs to be paired with at least one other book to be of any use to anyone who is not already well aqquinted with Revolutionary war history.  Frankly the lack of examination of the individual campaigns weakens the case, without showing us the actions that Washington preformed to justify calling him a military genius... It's a just a generalized argument.  It's a strong argument, and it's enough to make me say I have to rethink my stance on Washington's tactical and strategic skills but the book should have spent some more time examining the campaigns Washington undertook.  As it stands I don't believe the premise is supported by the book all that completely and frankly, I remain unconvinced that Washington should be called a military genius. Despite that it's a good basic overview of the war and gives an examination of both governments and explains of the reality of war in the time very well.

Because of that George Washington Military Genius by Dave R Palmer gets a B-. Read it, but read a book with a more detailed overview of Washington's campaigns first.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Judging Eye by Scott Bakker

The Judging Eye by Scott Bakker

This book was a recommendation to me by a very good friend. I had read the preceding series, the Prince of Nothing books on his recommendation and found them to be frankly... Disturbing masterworks. Bakker started with the idea of the 1st Crusade set in a world that is somewhat like our own but at the same time completely and utterly different. The events of that trilogy I will leave be other then to tell you that before reading this review you owe to yourself to pick up at least The Darkness that Comes Before and give it a read. If you like that book you'll like the rest.

Let me talk about Scott Bakker, who may be one of the best writers in fantasy today. I certainly believe him to be one of the more under appreciate writers which is saying something because fantasy and science fiction teem and seethe with under appreciated writers. Born and educated in Canada, he has degrees (a bachelors and Masters) in literature and theory and criticism from the University of Western Ontario. He also entered but never finished a PhD program for philosophy in Vanderbilt University. I was unable to find the reason he left, but I do wonder if a story I heard that several of his professors liked to harass him for writing children books was part of it. There is no proof of that, but it does point to rather infantile view some people have of fantasy and science fiction. If someone tells you that fantasy books are just for children or to live out teenage power fantasies, do me a favor and hand them Prince of Nothing and take a video of their faces as they read. Then send it to me because I will treasure it.

His education shows in his works, these books are dense and at times deep works who are at times preoccupied with ideas of the self, fate and humanity. They are balanced out and kept from becoming pretentious by the inclusion of harsh, unforgiving violence and a stark embracing of various hard truths of life especially for the underclass in a world that lacks the empathy and sympathy of the 21st century. In a world where famine still stalks even the wealthiest of men, such empathy is a luxury not even emperors can afford after all. At the risk of making a political statement I will state this, make no mistakes the empathy that the first world displays in it's constant quest to create a more fair and just world for all of it's citizen is a luxury. One afforded to us by the infrastructure and actions of our forefathers, who if nothing else built a world where famine and plague are unknown to their children in the 1st world. I do not say that is a bad thing, or that because it is a luxury that we shouldn't continue in that quest. Only that we should recognize that it is our wealth and security that affords us the ability to do so. But back to the review.

Little back story on this world, long ago when the best of men wore skins and worked in flint and the rest couldn't do that much, an alien ship crashed on our world. It was full of monsters. The book has a different name for them, but bluntly they're monsters in every sense of the word. These were creatures who had damned themselves and had objective proof that hell was a real place that you could end up in. They had one goal, stay out of hell at all cost. Their plan? To slam shut the gates of hell and heaven alike by killing enough of the sapient creatures of the world that there simply wouldn't be enough souls to keep the gates open. That's plan A guys, which frankly tells me they earned their damnation the old fashion way. They would opposed by the non-men, a long lived prehuman race that had already achieved a level of civilization sufficient enough to opposed them. They warred for eons until the monsters came up a simple plan. They would trick the non-men into destroying themselves and inherent the world. They came to the non-men offering peace and tricked them into asking for a gift. A gift of immortality. A gift that would later come to be called the plague of wombs, suffice to say that at the end, the non-men were a species of immortals without sisters, daughters, mothers or wives. Every female member of the species died. The non-men didn't take this lying down. They hunted down and killed everyone of the monsters expect for two who fled back to their ship and went into stasis.
The non-men then went insane as a species due to their brains being built to retain the memories of a mortal existence not being wired to deal with immortality. The only memories they could retain were usually the most traumatic and awful ones. The non-men civilization already on it's last legs would be pulled down by men. Who built their own civilization, with the mightiest being in the north where they had the most contact with the non-men. Some men developed sorcery, an ability to reshape the universe with your will, in exchange for damning yourself. A group of wicked sorcerers found the alien ship and woke up the monsters. They learned they didn't have to be damned... All they would have to kill 99.99% of sapient live and enslave the rest. They accepted and created the Consult. They then crafted the most terrifying weapon, Mog-Pharau, the No-God. It's very existence prevents the birth of new life, it is so awful and terrifying that every living person knows where it is instinctively. It dominates and controls the creatures of torment and war that the monsters bred. For the Tolkien fans, this is Morgoth unlessened by his corruption with the gloves off. It was slain by the no-men and men working together but only after the majority of mankind had been slain and the greatest civilizations of the time, the shining north was ground into powder. 2000 years later the Prince of Nothing takes place. 20 years after that the Judging Eye takes place.

Kellhus has conquered most of the known world and united it into a single empire for one reason. To assemble and supply the largest army in history that he will lead into uncharted wilderness to find the crashed ship of the Consult and kill them all before they can recreate the No-God and doom us all. To give you an idea, imagine someone at the time of the 1st Crusade united the Christian and Muslim world and assembled an army bigger then even the ones the Romans and the Persians could field and marched that army into western Siberia. Oh and western Siberia is full of man eating tool using monsters.

The revolves around four characters.

Drusus Achamian, the sorcerer who taught the current God-Emperor Kellhus of man sorcery and more... And lost his wife to him. Drusus has spent the last 20 years holed up in a tower, abandoning his school and civilization to peer into the dreams that he and the other Mandate Sorcerers suffer every night reliving the first war against the No-God. He has gone deeper and further then any Mandate schoolmen before him, beginning to see not the fall of the north every night but bits and pieces of the life of the founder of his school. This leads him on a quest to discover the origins of Kellhus by hiring the most vicious band of adventurers he can find. Men who make their living by selling Sranc (more on them later) scalps. They will venture beyond the northern limit of the world men into the ruins left behind by the No-God to find the Dunyain, the sect of rationalist monks that bred and raised Kellhus. I'm incredibly sympathetic to Drusus and frustrated with him just like I was in the Prince of Nothing. He's intelligent, brave and at times cunning but is weak against temptation and has problems controlling himself. I nicknamed the last series Drusus Achamian is not allowed nice things and it seems to be holding true here. That said... Damn it Achamian if your will were equal to your intelligence, you would be the one ruling the world.

Esmenet, former whore and lover of Drusus Achmian. Esmenet is a living indictment against her society. Born as a lowly street whore, she was trod upon, ignored and reviled for being a whore. A role that society forced her into. It is one thing to disapprove of prostitution or even prostitutes, it is another entirely to force people to be something and then despise them for it but it is a historically accurate attitude sadly.  She wasn't taught to read until nearly 30 and afterwards she became one of the most read and educated women in society. Kellhus seduced her in cold blood because he believed that children from a mother of her intelligence and his inherited abilities (he's the product of a 2000 year eugenics program) would be useful. They are, but I'm honestly sure that they're all insane. She is now the Empress of humanity but uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. Kellhus has taken his armies to the north on a desperate crusade to save the world and while he is gone revolution and worse simmers. Surrounded by people she isn't sure she can trust and heartsick, she has to try and keep Kellhus' empire with little support form him. Esmenet reminds me of people I've known, smart but damaged by events that occurred in their early lives, they keep making horrible decisions and trying to fix those by making worse ones. It's not really her fault, but there are times when you want to scream “Damn it Woman! Stop it!”

Psatma Nannaferi, Mother Supreme of the secret cult of the goddess Yatwer, the only divine being who seems to give 3 fucks about the lower classes. Psatma has been blessed by the goddess to destroy Kellhus empire and kill him. Which honestly doesn't sound like a terrible idea... If not for the fact that Kellhus is the only guy who can lead the army that is the only chance of stopping the end of the world. There's terrible timing and then there's this. I mean seriously Yatwer, it's gonna be hard to be a goddess of slaves when they're all dead or reduced to meat puppets. You're a fucking goddess wait 5 years and let Kellhus finish his damn job. Bluntly guys, this part of the book has me wondering just whose side are the gods of this world on. I'm told they cannot perceive the No-God, but surely they realize Kellhus marched an army into the wilderness for a fucking reason.

Varalt Sorweel, son of the king of Sakarpus, the last city before the endless wilderness. Kellhus conquers it so he can use it as a supply base. His father dead, Varalt is made king of a conquered nation and brought into the army as a hostage. He is forced to try to come to terms with the conquest of his people and Kellhus. Most of his part of the book is really just foreshadowing and built up, although there is a hell of a pay off in this book that I'm not going to spoil.

All four of these characters to lesser and greater extents are revolving around Kellhus. Kellhus shows up in this book, but we don't spend anytime behind his eyes. Which heightens the mystery and makes him less human. Which is a good idea given his role in the plot. Knowing who he is lying to and who he is telling the truth to would remove almost every element of mystery in the book. I am in some circles considered a pragmatic man and I am willing to forgive a lot when the goal is preventing the extinction of all human life on the planet but Kellhus is a character who takes me to the very edge of what I am willing to forgive. Partly because I often find myself doubting that all this was necessary. Kellhus is the kind of guy who makes you wonder just what means saving the world really excuses?

That would I think be a bad idea. Another character in the book worth mentioning is Esmenet's daughter Mimara, who Esmenet gave birth to during her time as a whore and ended up selling Mimara into slavery during a famine. Mimara ended up a whore before agents of Kellhus rescued her. She is still bitter about this, additionally, she has the gift of sorcery. She tracks down Drusus and ends up accompanying him on his quest. She's an interesting character, understandably full of sharp edges and angry but not inhumanly so.

My favorite part of the book is Drusus with the Skin Eaters, the adventurer company Drusus hired to take him to ruins beyond the edge of the human world. They end up venturing into an old no man mansion under ground called the black hall. I am told that at first it was meant to be a call back to his days playing Dungeons and Dragons but has he realized there was no way to avoid a comparison to the Mines of Moria he decided to embrace it. I enjoyed the quest through the black halls, which exposed us to terror and wonder and the sheer weight of history on Bakker's world. It's a heavy weight that the inhabitants are at times barely aware of. The Skin Eaters themselves are an interesting group, although I have mixed feelings about them. Many of their rules for being out in the field (or the slog as they call it) make perfect sense. They are in the wild beyond hope or help up against monsters that would make the Reavers of Firefly say “Whoa, hey slow down, no need to be that cruel.” A certain amount of ruthlessness is called for if you want to survive the experience. That said some of their actions are brutality for brutality's sake. These are very flawed men, but honestly only flawed men would choose to live such a life wouldn't they? Bakker doesn't shy away from following the logical outcome of such a conclusion.

That sentence could be used to sum up all of Bakker's writing. Bakker is one of the better writers I've seen. Better then Larry Correia. Better then Katherine Addison. Better then George RR Martin. He refuses to shy away from any of the implications of his world or work, which can make his books somewhat disturbing. The Sranc are a perfect example of this, created by the alien monsters as biologic war machines, their sex drives are linked to murder and torment. They are Tolkien's Orcs with every ounce of humanity and dignity mercilessly scoured away and replaced only with the savage desire to torture, rape and murder and feed on the still warm and cringing remains. Where has Tolkien was unable to create a race beyond salvation because of his personal beliefs Bakker carried it out to the finish. Because Bakker's train has no damn breaks. For me the most vivid example of that lies on page 285, when a sorcerer tells Varalt that before Kellhus he was damned to hell but his faith in Kellhus has saved him. Or more exactly “But now I am saved.” If you have the vaguest idea of what Christianity is about you should understand why I howled. Both in anger at Kellhus for daring such blasphemy and in appreciation of Bakker's willingness to take his story that far. Which was the logical end point of Kellhus deciding a religion was the best way to get the army and empire he needed. I was exhausted and wrung out after finishing the Prince of Nothing series and I found myself a bit tired after reading this book. Still it remains one of the better books I've read in the last 2 years.

The Judging Eye gets an A. A well done book by a great writer. The only real compliant I have is some fool of an editor stuck the prologue “What Has Come Before” section in the very back of the book! Stop that! Short sections that give background needed to understand the story go in front! Where the reader can see them and understand before being confused as hell.