military history

Where Did the Weapons Come From?

Back in February, as the evidence grew that Putin was about to commit the great mistake, journalists were sharing stories like this:

Dmytro Skatrovsky said he had not been notified by text but had turned up anyway outside the Svyatoshynskyi recruitment centre, in western Kyiv. He spent three years in the army and took part in the 2014 battle to evict separatists from the port city of Mariupol, he said.

“I’ve bought two sniper complexes with good optics,” he added. “I’ve also ordered a drone on Amazon. It hasn’t turned up yet.” Skatrovsky said a group of friends had chipped in to get the rifles – at a cost of $10,000 (£7,370). US contacts had paid $2,300 for the drone, he said.

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/feb/23/business-brisk-at-kyiv-gun-shops-as-ukrainians-rush-to-buy-arms

Over on corporate social media, I see some people who are amazed and offended to see a wide range of kit in photos from the war in Ukraine, ranging from the latest and most fashionable rifles to Maxim guns on steel carriages and – well, I have not personally seen the 1903 Springfield rifles, and the WW II vintage Panzerfaust may have been stolen from a museum. I am not sure if that is as unusual as they think: the German army which invaded the USSR in 1941 has been described as a military museum on wheels, one of the machine guns in the Citadel at Halifax was removed from the museum collection circa 1991 because the Army needed it again, and an American National Guard veteran claims that his unit invaded Iraq in 2003 with old M3 grease guns last produced in 1945. In fact, if you looked at a random army sometime in the past few thousand years, I think you would see just such a diversity of arms, some bought from private sources, others made in rough workshops, others donated, and yet others purchased by the state.

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Some Thoughts on Kaplan’s “Imperial Grunts”

Yeehaw! Kaplan wants readers to think about paintings like “Coming and Going of the Pony Express” by Frederick Remington (1900) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Remington_Coming_and_Going_of_the_Pony_Express.jpg

Robert D. Kaplan, Imperial Grunts: On the Ground with the American Military, from Mongolia to the Philippines to Iraq and Beyond. Random House: New York, 2005 (Reprinted Vintage Books, 2006)

One night while cleaning an old Lee-Enfield rifle on a Bukhara carpet, Custer provided me his theory on the problem with the War on Terror as it was currently being waged in Afghanistan. … It wasn’t really his theory so much as everybody’s- that is, when people were being honest with each other.

Imperial Grunts p. 225

I wanted something silly to read in December, and Imperial Grunts delivered. This book is like a glimpse into an alternate universe, a world where steely-eyed, Protestant soldiers wander the world bringing order not chaos, where US military inventions are hindered only by journalists, metropolitan intellectuals, and the backwardness of the people they operate among, a world where Apple is a has-been and Microsoft is an important company (pp. 262, 263) It is based on the author’s travels as a reporter embedded in various US military units around the world from late 2002 to early 2004 (Yemen, Columbia, Mongolia, the Philippines, Afghanistan, and Iraq). But a considerable part comes from the author’s library and neo-conservative ideology. As I read it, I noticed a way of thinking which I have also seen in writings about the Achaemenids.

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Female Military Historians

soldiers in pleated kilts and helmets carry a beam, while others stand by chariots with spoked wheels
Detail from a New Kingdom relief of soldiers in the Museo Civico, Bologna. Photo by Sean Manning September 2018.

I have said that the ‘hoplite debate’ from 1989 to 2013 was an argument between people who were very similar to each other. One way they were the same was that they were almost all men. Is that because academic military history in general is male-dominated? That would not be a very good argument because military history is so marginal at universities that most people who do it have another research field. But more importantly, I can think of about two dozen 40 women who have made significant contributions to ancient and medieval military history. From my point of view, a doctoral dissertation, scholarly book, or several influential articles are enough to be significant.

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Evaluation of the Japanese Armed Forces on the Basis of the Fighting in China since July 1937

In June 2020, I read my first primary source from WW II in a language other than English. This is a Fremde Heere Ferner Osten “Evaluation of the Japanese Armed Forces on the basis of the fighting in China since July 1937” published in April 1938. Like many German texts from the National Socialist period,... Continue reading: Evaluation of the Japanese Armed Forces on the Basis of the Fighting in China since July 1937

The Nirvana Fallacy in Castle Studies

a keep and church on a foothill over a town in the valley on a foggy day, September 2020
A tower house of unusual size over the old silver-mining town of Schwaz, Tirol.

All kinds of historians commit fallacies, but I often read work in the field of castle studies which commits a specific one. It goes like this: “if a site’s defenses (as visible in the archaeological record) were imperfect, the defenses (which actually existed) were useless and merely for show.” This is related to false dilemmas, the Nirvana Fallacy, and “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” It is linked to the fashion among some Anglo intellectuals for declaring that human life is really governed by arbitrary social conventions and nothing so coarse as contact with the external physical world.

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Some Thoughts on van Creveld’s “Supplying War”

Martin van Creveld's "Supplying War" open at random

Martin van Creveld, Supplying War: Logistics from Wallerstein to Patton (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2007) ISBN 0-521-21730-X

What John Keegan did to the experience of battle in 1979, Martin van Creveld did to the logistics of modern European warfare two years earlier. I finally read this book in May 2021 and am glad that I did, although its perspective is different than mine.

van Creveld lays out a model of logistics which goes like this. Before the late 19th century, armies could easily carry all the ammunition and spare weapons they needed with them, so the main requirements were food and fodder. As long as an army kept moving and was not too large, it could get these things in the area of operations. The main differences between armies were whether they confiscated supplies or purchased them, and whether they got their food from individual villages and farms, hired contractors to collect and deliver it, or obtained it from local towns and governors. So armies could wander around freely but might get in trouble if they had to stop to besiege a town or because enemies had blocked their path. If an army did not want to pay, then it was better to operate in hostile territory than friendly territory, just as Sun Tzu says. In 1870-1871, the Prussian army only consumed 56 rounds of rifle ammunition per infantryman and 199 rounds per gun (p. 102). This was less than the army carried with it when it set out, so there was no need to bring trains of ammunition from Prussia to the army. Outside of North Africa and some Pacific islands, the Axis still relied on local food and fodder in WW II.

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Some Thoughts on “War: The Lethal Custom”

The holidays are a time for reacquainting oneself with old friends, both the living and the paper varieties. One of those was Gwynne Dyer’s book War: The Lethal Custom. Dyer’s writing has earned him a worldwide network and a middle-class living, but not the global celebrity of a John Keegan or Steven Pinker, and I think that is a shame. Dyer has something to teach anyone interested in human behaviour, and his book shows more respect for evidence than many popular works do.

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Some thoughts on Brouwers’ “Henchmen of Ares”

Josho Brouwers, Henchmen of Ares: Warriors and Warfare in Early Greece. Karwansaray Publishers: Rotterdam, 2013.

I can enthusiastically recommend Henchmen of Ares to anyone interested in ancient Greek warfare. It is beautifully made, backed by serious research, and clearly written, but its greatest value is that it comes from the perspective of an archaeologist. Most work on early Greek warfare is written by historians or literary scholars, so Brouwers provides an interesting alternative. While Brouwers clearly knows early Greek poetry, he also gives a prominent place to art, architecture, and funerary practice and puts Greek warfare in an East Mediterranean context. In particular, he emphasizes that the development of Classical warfare was bound up with practices in Lydia, Caria, Phoenecia, and Egypt. Not all hoplites were Greek, just as not all early Greek warriors were hoplites. He also makes a serious attempt to cover the period between the collapse of the Mycenaean palace kingdoms and the revival of cities which has left very little evidence (so little, in fact, that a minority of scholars think that it was much shorter than the 400 years allowed in most chronologies). And he explains his methodology, rather than simply telling a plausible story based on sources with a few brief remarks on the literary evidence.

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