Monday, April 28, 2014

Correcting a historic mistake

Give Obama credit for this move: the US has reached a deal with the Philippines to allow the US military to operate from bases there, like Subic Bay and Clark Field, once again. I'm certain this is in part due to China's aggressive actions in East Asia, of which the Philippines have been a victim.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Rule of Funny Hats

I am currently reading two books on Germany and Austria in World War I: Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire by Geoffrey Wawro, and The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary 1914-1918 by Holger H. Herwig. And they offer nice, logical, academic explanations for their failure in World War I (two-front war, rebellious nationalities in Austria-Hungary, the incredible deterioration of the Austro-Hungarian army: arrogant, abusive, backstabbing Magyars running Hungary, etc.) And all these explanations are probably correct. But perhaps they can be summed up in two pictures:

Uh, Kaiser Franz Josef and Archduke Franz Ferdinand, do you realize that entire flocks of birds do not have as many feathers as you do on your hats?
Someone in the Prussian-dominated German Empire managed to convince all these powerful grown men, including Kaiser Wilhelm II and Field Marshal August von Mackensen, to wear helmets with big spikes on top. This particular helmet was called the pickelhaube. Apparently realizing how stupid the pickelhaube looked, during the war the Germans began to switch to the (in)famous stahlhelm, but by then the damage was done.

There should be established a general rule of thumb for wars and military conflicts that, all things being equal, the side most likely to lose is the one wearing the funniest hats.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Rising Sun, Falling Skies Q and A

My first book, Rising Sun, Falling Skies: The Disastrous Java Sea Campaign of World War II, is now out in stores and places like Barnes & Noble and Amazon. Earlier this week, I did a Q and A with my publisher, Osprey, about the book:

1. What got you interested in the Battle of the Java Sea?
Somewhat of an odd story. I took a class on World War II when I was in 4th grade, and wrote a report on World War II in the Pacific when I was in 5th grade. My little 5th grade report had nothing on the Battle of the Java Sea because there was very little information available to me on it – remember, this was a time before the Internet, before Amazon, before Alibris, so we were very limited into what books and other information we could access from our local bookstores and library. When I was in 7th grade, my mom got me a compendium of the Pacific War called Combat Command, by Admiral Frederick Sherman, who among other things commanded the carrier Lexington at the Battle of the Coral Sea and a carrier task group at the Battle of Leyte Gulf. His was the first book in which I read a description of the Battle of the Java Sea. I found the story of the battle and the campaign completely enthralling, with this small group of servicemen from four different countries so far from home, so outnumbered, so outgunned, mostly cut off – and the only line against the darkness that was about to overtake East Asia and most of the Pacific. But the description in Sherman’s book was incomplete, somewhat generalized, and missing a lot of information, largely because the information on which the admiral based that description was incomplete. The problem for me was that I could find almost nothing else on the battle. For years, all I could find were general descriptions of the battle or snippets from it. I found it incredibly frustrating to find a wealth of information on so many other battles and campaigns and almost nothing on this. So for years I just grabbed any book, any report, and scrap of paper I came across that had any information about the battle. It became somewhat of an obsession. I was determined to someday figure out precisely what happened in this battle and this campaign.

2. What do you see as the difference between Rising Sun, Falling Skies and other books about the Java Sea Campaign?
The big thing I noticed over the years is that while there are quite a few very good books that deal with parts of the campaign – like the US cruiser Houston, the US Asiatic Fleet, Patrol Wing 10, the Far East Air Force, etc. – there is very little out there that deals with the Java Sea naval campaign as a whole. Each of these sources gives some good information and different takes on their individual pieces of the story of the Java Sea Campaign, but they are only pieces. Which is fine, because that’s what they’re intended to do. But a Dutch account won’t usually include the Battle of Balikpapan. A British account won’t often include the Battle of Badoeng Strait. American accounts don’t always get into the loss of the Prince of Wales and Repulse, let alone the controversy behind it. The naval accounts often mention the lack of air power in passing without a description of how exactly that lack of air power came about. The efforts of the submarines are often ignored. Yet these are all pieces of the same Java Sea Campaign. I’ve wanted for years to assemble these pieces into sort of a global account of the entire Java Sea Campaign, with analysis of my own that I had developed over time, in order to give each of these pieces big and small some context.

3. Rear Admiral Karel Doorman, the Allied commander, is usually seen as valiant but incompetent, at least in English speaking countries. You have a different view of him. Why?
There is this idea, especially in the US, that people should be judged solely by outcomes. For instance, in baseball, if a pitcher loses a game, it must be his fault. Doesn’t matter if he only gave up a solo home run and lost when his offense was shut out, it must be his fault. That thinking extends to history as well. But you can make every correct decision, every correct judgment, and still lose. Karel Doorman lost every battle in which his Combined Striking Force fought, it is true. But if you examine his decisions in the context of what he was facing, the information he had, and the orders he had, those decisions, which were mostly close calls with no obvious answers, were, for the most part, sound. At worst, they were defensible. Doorman was caught in a web of contradictions. His own take on the campaign – that it was hopeless without adequate air power – was contradictory to that of his Dutch superiors, but completely in agreement with his American and British colleagues – who were actually his biggest critics. He has been criticized for being both too aggressive and too cautious – often at the same time. He has been criticized for not training his ships – when, as his American superiors admitted, he had no chance to do so. In short, it seems like no matter what Doorman did or could have done, he was going to be ripped by a lot of people. And he seems to have known this. If one examines his conduct throughout the Java Sea Campaign, the single unifying theme is the protection of the men under his command so that they would not be sacrificed needlessly without a chance to cause significant loss to the enemy. When there was no chance to cause loss to the enemy, he would have his ships withdraw – at the cost of his own life in the Battle of the Java Sea. In the midst of an almost impossible situation, Doorman ignored the cost to himself and put his men first. That by itself is highly admirable, and he has not gotten nearly enough credit for it. Doorman seems to have been a very private person, with few people to defend him after he was no longer able to defend himself. It is time someone stepped up to defend him and call attention to the positives of this brave, intelligent, and humane officer.

4. Could the ABDA force have done anything to win?
Superficially, one would think so. At the Battle of the Java Sea, the forces were evenly matched on paper. But the ABDA Combined Striking Force was really a hollow shell. If you imagine the battle as two knights fighting each other, the Japanese were a samurai in polished armor with a sharpened katana and the Combined Striking Force was a knight in completely rusted armor with a dull sword and a cracked shield. Yes, they might have been able to do something to increase the likelihood of some sort of battlefield victory – Use their lone spotter plane? Drive straight toward the Japanese cruisers come hell or high water instead of turning away? – but they would have had to fight an absolutely perfect battle to do so. And no battle is ever fought absolutely perfectly. One shot from the Japanese and they would shatter. Which is precisely what happened.

5. Why is the Battle of the Java Sea significant?
Quite a few reasons, actually, so I’ll try to be limited. From the standpoint of the Pacific War overall, the Battle of the Java Sea was the first instance of the arrogance, overconfidence, and sloppiness that was slowly but surely infecting the Imperial Japanese Navy directly affecting its battlefield performance, although they won the battle in spite of it. Perhaps most enduringly, there was the Combined Striking Force itself, and, for that matter, all of ABDACOM – a multinational force that was not modular, as such forces had been throughout history, but was fully if imperfectly integrated. Over the years those imperfections would be sufficiently worked out to become the model for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. From a philosophical standpoint, the Java Sea Campaign is more evidence that in terms of defense and foreign policy, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. You can’t neglect defense for 20 years as the Allies did with shoestring budgets and wishful thinking and then adequately rearm when war is on your doorstep. The fighting men of ABDACOM paid the price, in some cases the ultimate price, for that neglect. Finally, there are some simple but often forgotten principles in today’s nuanced world: that when your friends are in trouble, you stand beside them and fight alongside them, and that, even if there is little or no chance of winning, there is inherent value in fighting evil – and make no mistake; in the Pacific War the behavior and objectives of the Japanese were nothing short of evil.

6. What do you hope to achieve with Rising Sun, Falling Skies?
Two goals, really. The first and far more important of the two is to get the story of these American, British, Dutch, and Australian fighting men out there. It should be emphasized that this is their story, not mine; I am merely the vehicle for telling it, for trying to put it into context. Instead of marching triumphantly to liberate the Pacific from Japanese tyranny, many of these men lost their lives or were forced to endure the horrors of Japanese POW camps. More than a few histories of the Pacific War almost – almost – skip over the Java Sea Campaign, going from the disaster at Pearl Harbor to stopping the Japanese advance at the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942 while blurring most of the unpleasantness in between, stopping briefly to mention the Bataan Death March and Corregidor. In my opinion, the men who fought the Java Sea Campaign have never gotten the credit they deserve. Rising Sun, Falling Skies is my own effort to help rectify that oversight in some small way. A secondary goal is to attract more people to the history genre. In writing Rising Sun, Falling Skies, I have tried to strike a balance between scholarship and readability. Despite the length and all the end notes to give authors proper credit and give readers a chance to check my work and decide for themselves as to the proper conclusions, I have also tried to keep the language somewhat informal, to keep the military terminology to a minimum, and to explain military or nautical terms to unfamiliar readers. I wanted the Rising Sun, Falling Skies to be approachable, especially to a new generation of readers. To attract them to history. The fastest and perhaps most accurate way to study history is to study its wars. History is not boring words about dead people. History is alive, exciting, even changing, and still affecting us today. Why are the Chinese and Japanese sparring over the Senkaku Islands? Because of the Pacific War. They never came to real terms with each other after the Pacific War or over the two wars they fought previously. And they are perhaps closer than many think to fighting their next war. We cannot have an idea of where we are going if we do not know where we have been.

Has the Santorini Bronze Age eruption finally been dated?

One of the biggest unknowns of the ancient world has been the catastrophic eruption of the volcano on the Greek island of Thera, now called Santorini, in the 2nd millennium BC. The eruption is now thought to have possibly been the largest in history, even bigger than Krakatoa in 1883 (or 535) and Tambora in 1815. It has been blamed for everything from massive climate changes across the globe to the destruction of the Minoan Civilization on Crete to the legend of Atlantis to the Plagues of Egypt described in the Book of Exodus. But because of the ambiguity of radiocarbon dating, no one has been able to precisely date the Santorini eruption, and thus no one has been able to confirm any of these hypotheses.

Now, they might be able to do so, because we may have documented evidence of the Santorini eruption, from the so called "Tempest Stela" of the Egyptian Pharaoh Ahmose:
An inscription on a 3,500-year-old stone block from Egypt may be one of the world’s oldest weather reports—and could provide new evidence about the chronology of events in the ancient Middle East.
A new translation of a 40-line inscription on the 6-foot-tall calcite block called the Tempest Stela describes rain, darkness and “the sky being in storm without cessation, louder than the cries of the masses.”
Two scholars at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute believe the unusual weather patterns described on the slab were the result of a massive volcano explosion at Thera—the present-day island of Santorini in the Mediterranean Sea. Because volcano eruptions can have a widespread impact on weather, the Thera explosion likely would have caused significant disruptions in Egypt.
The new translation suggests the Egyptian pharaoh Ahmose ruled at a time closer to the Thera eruption than previously thought—a finding that could change scholars’ understanding of a critical juncture in human history as Bronze Age empires realigned. The research from the Oriental Institute’s Nadine Moeller and Robert Ritner appears in the spring issue of the Journal of Near Eastern Studies.
The Tempest Stela dates back to the reign of the pharaoh Ahmose, the first pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty. His rule marked the beginning of the New Kingdom, a time when Egypt’s power reached its height. The block was found in pieces in Thebes, modern Luxor, where Ahmose ruled.
If the stela does describe the aftermath of the Thera catastrophe, the correct dating of the stela itself and Ahmose’s reign, currently thought to be about 1550 B.C., could actually be 30 to 50 years earlier.
“This is important to scholars of the ancient Near East and eastern Mediterranean, generally because the chronology that archaeologists use is based on the lists of Egyptian pharaohs, and this new information could adjust those dates,” said Moeller, assistant professor of Egyptian archaeology at the Oriental Institute, who specializes in research on ancient urbanism and chronology.
In 2006, radiocarbon testing of an olive tree buried under volcanic residue placed the date of the Thera eruption at 1621-1605 B.C. Until now, the archeological evidence for the date of the Thera eruption seemed at odds with the radiocarbon dating, explained Oriental Institute postdoctoral scholar Felix Hoeflmayer, who has studied the chronological implications related to the eruption. However, if the date of Ahmose’s reign is earlier than previously believed, the resulting shift in chronology “might solve the whole problem,” Hoeflmayer said.
The revised dating of Ahmose’s reign could mean the dates of other events in the ancient Near East fit together more logically, scholars said. For example, it realigns the dates of important events such as the fall of the power of the Canaanites and the collapse of the Babylonian Empire, said David Schloen, associate professor in the Oriental Institute and Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations on ancient cultures in the Middle East.
“This new information would provide a better understanding of the role of the environment in the development and destruction of empires in the ancient Middle East,” he said.
For example, the new chronology helps to explain how Ahmose rose to power and supplanted the Canaanite rulers of Egypt—the Hyksos—according to Schloen. The Thera eruption and resulting tsunami would have destroyed the Hyksos’ ports and significantly weakened their sea power.
In addition, the disruption to trade and agriculture caused by the eruption would have undermined the power of the Babylonian Empire and could explain why the Babylonians were unable to fend off an invasion of the Hittites, another ancient culture that flourished in what is now Turkey.
Some researchers consider the text on the Tempest Stela to be a metaphorical document that described the impact of the Hyksos invasion. However, Ritner’s translation shows that the text was more likely a description of weather events consistent with the disruption caused by the massive Thera explosion. Ritner said the text reports that Ahmose witnessed the disaster—the description of events in the stela text is frightening.
The stela’s text describes the “sky being in storm” with “a tempest of rain” for a period of days. The passages also describe bodies floating down the Nile like “skiffs of papyrus.”
Importantly, the text refers to events affecting both the delta region and the area of Egypt further south along the Nile. “This was clearly a major storm, and different from the kinds of heavy rains that Egypt periodically receives,” Ritner said.
Other work is underway to get a clearer idea of accurate dating around the time of Ahmose, who ruled after the Second Intermediate period when the Hyksos people seized power in Egypt. That work also has pushed back the dates of his reign closer to the explosion on Thera, Moeller explained.

The full article is available at JSTOR.