Friday, March 25, 2016

Battles Long Ago: Tollense Crossing 1200 BCE

Not really one of my usual "battles" pieces, but I came across this and found it truly fascinating.

The short version is that at some time around 1200 BCE some sort of combat took place along the bank of the Tollense River on the north German plain.

The Tollense valley is glacial and about half a kilometer wide. At the time of the fight it was getting increasingly marshy as Holocene post-glacial sea level rise lifted the level of the Baltic and inundated the plain.

In Bronze Age times the streambed was broad, and flat, and probably studded with alder and birch.

The surrounding forests were dominated by oak, ash, lime, and elm. Jantzen et al (2010) says that "The Bronze Age environment can be described as a partly open landscape that showed limited human impact. However, flax, barley, oat and wheat pollen indicate some farming activities (nearby)".

We don't know who the combatants were who met in the Tollense valley in that year near 1200 BCE, or why they fought, of what the outcome was. The most common explanation is some sort of pitched battle between warbands:
"About 3200 years ago, two armies clashed at a river crossing near the Baltic Sea. (T)his was no skirmish between local clans. Thousands of warriors came together in a brutal struggle, perhaps fought on a single day, using weapons crafted from wood, flint, and bronze, a metal that was then the height of military technology.

Struggling to find solid footing on the banks of the Tollense River, a narrow ribbon of water that flows through the marshes of northern Germany toward the Baltic Sea, the armies fought hand-to-hand, maiming and killing with war clubs, spears, swords, and knives. Bronze- and flint-tipped arrows were loosed at close range, piercing skulls and lodging deep into the bones of young men. Horses belonging to high-ranking warriors crumpled into the muck, fatally speared. Not everyone stood their ground in the melee: Some warriors broke and ran, and were struck down from behind.

When the fighting was through, hundreds lay dead, littering the swampy valley. Some bodies were stripped of their valuables and left bobbing in shallow ponds; others sank to the bottom, protected from plundering by a meter or two of water. Peat slowly settled over the bones. Within centuries, the entire battle was forgotten."
This is not the only explanation and, frankly, is hard to square with the presence of elderly and infant remains among the dead.
Another possibility is that this was a crime rather than a war; robbery on a massive scale as a raiding party bushwhacked a merchant party and its armed guards:
"A Silesian caravan transporting large quantities of tin and other metals was moving...along the Tollense river...protected by armed guard which consisted of both horsemen and infantrymen. The caravan was attacked by a gang or even a which probably came from the north west, probably from the Jutland peninsula or even further north. These people were armed with more primitive weapons, arrows with flint arrowheads, wooden spears and wooden clubs. Denmark and Sweden have huge flint deposits so it is quite possible that the attackers came from there.

The attackers...launched a surprise attack from the forest which surrounded the river. They first pelted the caravan with arrows, targeting the mounted soldiers first. This is why we have dead people mixed with dead horses. Remember the clustered bronze arrowheads mixed with human and horse bones? Were they the arrows which the horsemen never got to take out of their quivers? I believe that the arrows with the bronze arrowheads were fired by mounted archers. The proof for that is the bronze arrowhead which was found embedded in a skull. This arrowhead could only have been fired from a position above the head, which would indicate that the archer was on a horseback.
Also the flint arrowhead which was found embedded in a humerus (upper arm) bone is embedded under such angle that the shot must have come from below, meaning that the arrow was fired by a foot soldier shooting a mounted warrior.

(After the exchange of bowfire) the frontal assault ensued which resulted in hand to hand battle. It is most probable that the attackers won. The number of dead would suggest that this is what happened. The attackers killed all the people from the caravan, collected all the metal, metal armor and weapons and other valuables and remaining pack animals and returned back to wherever they came from. They left all the dead Silesians where they fell."
This interpretation is in the minority. The bulk of the scholarship gleaned from the Tollense concludes that this was the clash of arms; feuding tribes, or even more - the assembled warbands of a local king, perhaps, or remnant of a mass migration produced by the stress of changing climate. The women and children? Camp-followers; Bronze Age logistical support elements.
Jantzen et al (2010) conclude that this battle that may have taken days or possibly even weeks:
"The number of individuals (~100) so far identified from the Tollense Valley, who were probably killed during a conflict over some days or weeks, is on a larger scale than earlier examples for potential violence (see Thrane 2006: 278). It is unclear whether we are dealing with professional warriors. Some women and children are also present in the sample; according to ethnographic data they could have supported the men in fighting, for example by organising food or by carrying weapons (Keeley 1996: 35). The considerable number of individuals involved does not support the scenario of a small-scale conflict of local farmers or small war bands (Osgood 2006). Some bronze pins of Silesian types (Ulrich 2008) found in the Tollense Valley indicate close contacts with this region (~400km) to the south-east. First results of δ13C and 15N analysis of the human remains indicate millet to be part of the diet, which is uncommon during the Early Bronze Age in northern Germany, and might suggest invaders from the south."
Or the the travelers were from the south and the invaders were from the could one tell from the bare bones and metal and stone? The answer is that we can't.
No, we will never know the answers. Never know the who, or the why. Those are as lost to us as are the people who fought and died along the Tollense all those thousands of years ago.

Which, in its way, is a good reminder. That for all that we think of "history" as the great events, the memorable and the remembered, history is made up largely of people like you and me, living ordinary lives and dying ordinary deaths and being forgotten, leaving nothing behind us but our bones.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Strategic Bombing

For the record; Brussels is the EU capital, and the EU is and has been deeply involved in fighting in North Africa and the Middle East. The Belgian "air component" (the air arm of the Belgian armed forces) has been bombing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Obviously, none of that "justifies" blowing up women and kids in train stations and airports.

But at the same time let's be adults; if you're part of fighting a "war on terror" you shouldn't be surprised when terror fights you back.

I thought we learned that sixty-odd years ago. The people who died under the bombers in London and Berlin and Tokyo were "innocent civilians", too, and they died in their job lots for their leaders' policies. For American politicians to act outraged about this is an insult to We the People's intelligence. This is war, the war our politicians have argued for and supported for years now. This is as expected and expectable thing in a war as the sun rising.

Innocents die in war. If you don't like that, your only real option is not to fight one.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Trump is No Andrew Jackson

Trump needs less press, not more, so this will be brief. 
Recently, I've heard some folks that want to do the comparison between Donald Trump and Andrew Jackson.

Over at Sic Semper Tyrannis: Is it 1828 again? and Jackson Part Two By Richard Sale
And also at Fabius Maximus: What the press won’t tell you about Trump and populism
Also the NYTimes: Donald Trump's Secret? Channeling Andrew Jackson

The similarities between these men is so superficial that I find the comparison more illuminating of those making the comparison than of Donald Trump.

Just consider this 'similarity' from the NY Times Article
In an 1806 duel, he shot and killed a man who had insulted him in a newspaper. Mr. Trump’s Twitter broadsides at his critics are gentle by comparison.
Really? 'Twitter broadsides' vs shooting a critic? 
Here's what I learned of their similarities from these articles. First, they focus very much around the 'nationalist' / 'populist' nature of Andrew Jackson and Donal Trump.  They are 'vulgar' and 'of the people' and are opposing sclerotic party apparatchiks.  They appeal to southern whites in Appalachia more than elsewhere and promise to support the common man and protect them from harmful elites.  They are all of a single 'style' nature.

Now let's explore just one of the incredibly important and massive differences between the two.

Andrew Jackson, before he ran for President, was a war hero and a general who fought several important battles and secured a huge amount of territory for white settlement in the American South. He came from abject poverty, built a fortune on the edge of civilization, was a huge part of erecting government services and spent many years in public service.  Jacksonville, FL and Jackson, MS are cities that bear his name because of his importance to those states. Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Florida owe him a huge debt.  Native American tribes rightfully see him as an archenemy.  The slave economy would not have been possible without him and his acolytes getting things done.
Donald Trump is a relatively successful real estate developer, he is a successful reality TV star, he's a serial entrepreneur and an occasional political schemer.  He was born rich and stayed rich.  He's done pretty much zilch for anyone else.  Donald Trump is an entertainer who is playing a political rabble-rouser.

The profound difference between the two is that one did shit and the other just talks shit.  Talking up Trump as a Jacksonian only obscures the fact that our political system and American society in general is in serious crisis. 
His success doesn't require outlandish political and historical analogies to explain his victories.  The horrendous mess that our politics are explains it just fine.  Donald Trump is major news and a serious contender because he is competing against political midgets.  Every single Republican candidate would have been chased off in our past political ages early and often.  And the Democrats have a very similar problem. 

The other things to consider is that for all the racism and prejudices in our older society, it was a nation that was hacking out civilization on the frontier.  Venturing west of Appalachia in the 1800s was the undertaking of bold and foolhardy people.  To what degree does that boldness continue in the creation of apps and the consumption of luxury goods?  Does our society still have the material from which to produce great politicians for the people?

Trump/Jackson comparisons bury the lead in all cases.  The desire for a Jackson is greater than the capacity of any current candidate to produce.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

American Military Weakness!

In the comment section to the previous post Sven from Defence & Freedom makes some good points. He notes that, while in overall power projection the US armed forces may be unmatchable that the force structure itself (and many of the elements therein) have some issues. Among those he includes:

- infantry strength
- partially obsolete field artillery (L/39 field howitzers and SPGs with low RoF)
- few high-end fighters
- USN using plenty quite obsolete munition concepts
- questionable anti-tank defences (overreliance on Javelin)
- inability of services to design and introduce all-new combat aircraft, battlefield helicopter, armoured combat vehicle or even only all-new assault rifle since the mid-1980's (F-22 being the little-produced exception and F-18E/F if you consider it as all-new)
- lack of truly silent submarines (SSI instead of SSNs)
- poor mine countermeasures at sea
- naval AEW&C is painfully slow and hardly survivable
- sluggishness and incredible hunger for supplies of the U.S.Army
- lots of support aircraft (Boeing 707/ XX-135 series) are about to fall apart due to old age

Some of these I would consider more problematic than others. Infantry end strength, for example. The US hasn't had anything like sufficient infantry strength to fight an extended conventional war for decades now. That, however, doesn't suggest to me that the US needs more infantry maneuver units. It suggests to me that the US Army has neither the plans nor the intentions to fight an extended conventional infantry war. The problem I see with that is that the only real need for mass infantry would be in 1) a major land war with a peer foe. That would be the major powers, Russia, or China, and the probability of someone panicking and going nuclear makes such plans effectively suicide, or 2) a LIC/rebellion-suppression-type action. If we haven't learned from Iraq/A-stan that those are a mug's game for Great Powers, well...

Or take the low-rate-of-fire legacy FA systems like the M109 Paladin series (which is what I'm assuming Sven refers to as the "L/39"; the 155mm L/39 calibre system mounted on the M109 and its variants). Again, while I'm sure that the FA would have loved to field the Crusader system I'm not sure that rate-of-fire is a serious issue. Even when I was in the FA branch a decade ago the US was moving away from high-volume fires outside of the MLRS batteries to lower round-count FFEs based on first-round FFE. The need for putting a shit-ton of rounds downrange was already on the way out, and that was the LAST generation of fire direction software.

Infantry antitank weapons? Again; a peer conflict would be no more thinkable than it would have been in 1985, and everyone else's AFVs are a generation behind. Frankly, our ATGMs have sucked since we lugged around the M47 Dragon back in the 1980's. Total effect on US ground operations? Zero.

But...after that Sven gets to what I would consider real problems.

But not real problems that are the result of some sort of deliberate neglect of the US armed forces as opposed to the ridiculously awful procurement process. In other words it's not some sort of "the (Blank Administration) has gutted our military" problem. It's something that observers have noted since the Fifties that has gotten exponentially worse, and largely due to the Congressional need to get a piece of the action and defense contractors' needs to ensure unkillable programs. It is, as Sven points out in his comment, largely not an issue of pure budget SIZE but, rather, the increasing lack of the political process to make critical decisions about budget priorities.


Here's my question: can these problems be fixed, in the current political and geopolitical climate?

If so, what should happen? When you look at Sven's list, do you see anything that should be an immediate priority? What? And what should we do to go about solving the problem?

Or do you think that this is something that is just beyond effective solution at this point?

Monday, March 14, 2016

Make America Fearsome Again?

One thing that has struck me about this year's U.S. election campaign is what - to me, anyway - seems like a very odd political meme. That is the whole business of "Rebuild the U.S. military!" that seems to be a feature of every Republican candidate.

Let me preface this by saying that I think that many of the bog-standard GOP talking points are nonsense. No, the Islamic State is not sending frogmen up the Mississippi to free the Gitmo detainees if they are shipped to Joliet. No, the gummint isn't coming to grab your guns. No, lowering taxes on rich people doesn't raise revenues.

But I'll accept that these are all debatable points. That's just me. I don't agree with them, but I won't argue that nobody should agree with them.

But the pathetic, horrifying, debilitating, globe-spanning weakness of the U.S. armed forces?

...the fuc..?

Where the hell did THAT come from?

Back in February Mike Zenko wrote up a good piece in Foreign Policy that sums up this whole nonsense and who was saying it. The answer? Pretty much everybody with an (R) behind their name.

The frustrating thing about this is that I know that most American voters don't bother to really think or know anything about actual military capabilities. They wouldn't know an Abrams from a deck chair. They tend to run on what they hear on the television and read on the Internet, and when you have enough people telling you something it takes a very hard-headed person to go counter to that. I hear from "conservative" acquaintances how "Obama has trashed our military" and I can't figure out what the hell they're talking about.

Is it because we have fewer armored divisions than we did in 1945? Or fleet carriers? Or heavy bomb wings?

Because when you think of it...why would we want that?

If we've learned anything from the ridiculous waste of blood and treasure in the Middle East over the past fifteen years we should have learned two things:

First, that there's no power on Earth short of the two other Great Powers, China and Russia, that has a hope in hell of challenging the U.S. in a conventional stand up fight, and that there's no point in arming up to fight either of those polities to a conventional "victory". The U.S. has more than enough conventional power to manage a local or small regional shootout, and anything larger has far too high a chance of going nuclear to be worth risking.

Second, that there's no power on Earth too weak to tie the U.S. into knots if it gets sucked into a local rebellion, civil war, or regional low-intensity spat. A low-birthrate, high-income nation like the U.S. simply doesn't generate enough spare bodies to form the sort of infantry-heavy constabulary units needed to fight such a war and as a news-permeated, middle-class-sensibility polity lacks - hopefully - the sort of callous brutality needed to prosecute such a conflict to a "successful" conclusion.

In other words, the U.S. has military power and more to handle any military adventure it needs to get into, and doesn't need to get into any military adventures it would need more power than that to handle.

I realize that the reason that these Republicans are saying this stuff is to make people afraid and make them run to vote Republican.

But the GOP posits itself as the "grown-up" party, the party of responsibility.

It would seem to me that a grown-up, responsible citizen would be very, very skeptical of all this military scare-mongering.

So why aren't more people saying that? The public press has no reason to simply repeat GOP talking points. Why give them a pass on this?

I cannot think this bodes well for my country.