Monday, November 2, 2015

Instructive Rock-umentaries

I just watched "History of the Eagles" (2013) & "Eagles: Hell Freezes Over" (1994).
In the second documentary, the group gives a press conference at the beginning of their European Reunion tour. Asked how much they are going to earn from the tour, band manger Irving Azoff says he has "not added it up" but the tour won't be "lucrative." Bandmates Don Henley and Glenn Frey thereupon pretend to get up and leave, only to break into smiles and sit back down.

Azoff's assessment actually alluded to the cost to the band in putting on a European tour. It cost them more to make concert arrangements in each country than they could assume they would make from ticket sales. From a financial point of view, Henley and Frey should have walked out and taken the next flight home.

This scene reminds me of another rock 'n' roll documentary, "Anvil: The Anvil Story" (2008) about the heavy metal band Anvil, who found, on their tour of Europe, that club managers often refused to pay them. What a contrast: This band could not get arrested anywhere else in the world, including their native Canada, but when they played Japan, they were sold-out in an enormous concert venue.

I am also reminded of the documentary, "Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon," about rock band manager Shep Gordon, who said that the three most important jobs of a good band manager are 1) get the money, 2) get the money, and 3) get the money.

Sausage Factory Department

I feel as if I did not need to know about the feud between Glenn Frey and Don Felder. Alpha male Frey and social moron Felder broke the band up in 1980 and could not get along when the band regrouped in 1994. (It had been said that the Eagles would not reunite until hell had frozen over, hence the title of the 1994 film.) Unfortunately, knowledge of their feud is key to the history of the Eagles and especially its first ending, and it is just too bad that bandmates who made such magical contributions to the music of the Eagle's could not put their pettiness and hurt feelings behind them. 

The history of the band is a series of joinings and leavings of band members. First the band came together right after Frey and Henley left Linda Ronstadt. They were joined in their new independence by Bernie Leadon, Randy Meisner and later by Don Felder. Leadon left over the band's quest for success and its drift away from country toward rock. Leadon left after he had dumped beer on Frey's head. He was replaced by Joe Walsh, a rock 'n' roll bad boy who could play mean guitar duets with Felder. Meisner left because he hated singing the same song over and over. He was the lead singer on "Take it to the Limit" and had to hit high falsetto notes which he found it difficult to guarantee. Finally, after Meisner repeatedly refused to sing the song, Frey told him to just go, and he did. None of this was enough to break up the group. Meisner was replaced by Timothy B. Schmit who later said, "In my experience, bands are always on the verge of breaking up." Nevertheless, Schmit soon found that he had gotten himself into a group that was being torn apart by conflict. He was with the group for perhaps two years or so before it came apart.

The Eagles made appearances in support of liberal California politicians, Sen. Alan Cranston and Gov. Jerry Brown, in 1980. (Brown was then dating Eagles mentor Linda Ronstadt.) This was a passion of Frey's to which all of the other band members acceded, except for Felder. It was not that Felder was a conservative, but rather that he was apolitical. His aversion to politics and politicians led him to make a rude remark to Senator Cranston at a fundraiser appearance in Long Beach, California, and Frey never forgave him for it.

After Felder stormed off the concert stage at Long Beach, Schmit waited a couple of days and then called Frey to ask whether the band was still together. "It's over," Frey told him.

When the group reunited two decades later, Henley and Frey insisted that they be paid more than the other band members, which makes sense to me since Henley and Frey had had the most successful careers independent of the band and, consequently, had the least need for any reunion. Felder, however, did not see it that way and particularly resented this arrangement. When the band got back together, Felder found living with the elephants in the room intolerable, and he either was ostracized by the rest of the band or else ostracized himself. Finally, he left the group for good. (The way the film is edited, Felder gets up and walks out on his interview in "Hell Freezes Over," not be seen again; but, notably, he walks out sad, not mad.)


The Eagles came together about 1970 after Frey and Henley had played back up for Ronstadt, who later helped make their song "Desperado" a hit even after the Eagles had failed to move it up in the charts.

The band came up with their legendary name during a peyote-induced holiday near Joshua Tree, California where the whole group was wowed by the sight of a great American bald eagle swooping over them. According to Native tradition, peyote was (and still is) used to discover one's animal spirit guide, and so the band decided unanimously that the eagle was theirs.

The average birth year of the seven Eagles members is 1947. (Five of the seven were born in 1947.) These boomers were just the right age (all just about 20 years old in 1967) to revolutionize popular music when the 1960s turned into the 1970s.

Unlike their ages, the band members' birthplaces are diverse. Early members came from Michigan (Frey), Texas (Henley), Minnesota (Leadon), Florida (Felder), and Nebraska (Meisner). Later members hailed from Kansas (Walsh) and California (Schmit). The group was formed, however, in California. Their musical mentors came from Michigan (J.D. Souther and Bob Seeger), Texas (Kenny Rogers), and Arizona (Ronstadt). Jackson Brown was a mentor who happened to be a U.S. Army brat born in Germany. These mentors tended to be not much older (or, in the case of Brown, slightly younger) than most of the Eagles, with the exception of Rogers who was born in 1938. Why does this interest me? Because many movers and shakers in  rock 'n' roll have had mentors who were five to ten years older, who taught them music genres from a slightly earlier period, which the younger musicians turned into "new" genres, which were unfamiliar and seemingly fresh to young audiences who did not recall the earlier music. Rogers may have had something of this influence on Henley, but not to any great degree. Henley had been steeped in both country and rock from his youth in Linden, Texas.

The Eagles were a country-rock band when that genre was taking off in the late '60s in southern California. Their move from the country side of country-rock to a more rockish style happened by the time, in the mid-1970s, guitar picker Leadon was replaced by rock guitarist Walsh. Leadon had been the most uncomfortable with the shift toward rock, and his playing had anchored the group in country. His influence was vindicated in the early 1990s when the album "Common Thread" came out and demonstrated that country artists could cover Eagles songs with ease. That was an influential album for me, but I had not realized that its popularity was a catalyst in getting the Eagles to reunite.

Sex, Drugs and Anything Goes
The Eagles, in their heyday, were of a time when traditional morality was being sloughed off, and they jumped feet-first down the rabbit hole. Actually, some of their debauchery may have been more show than substance. When they took on Walsh to replace Loaden, they were acquiring an expert trasher of hotel rooms who had apprenticed in this craft with internationally acclaimed rock ‘n’ roll hotel room trasher (and the Who drummer) Keith Moon. However, if one does $28,000 in damages to a hotel room and then the band’s accountants pay for it all, the act of destroying private property becomes more of a wasteful pose than a pseudo-political statement for which one might actually go to jail. In any case, the rest of the band did not trash hotels, instead taking vicarious street cred from Walsh’s exploits.
Similarly, the Eagles’ “third encore” party, featuring nubile women dancing naked around the musicians on stage, was, in and of itself, a pose, even if it apparently did move on to a suite full of women claiming to be twenty years of age. (If the age of consent in that state was twenty-one, then this was probably true, but if the lower age limit was eighteen then it probably was not.) Women were apparently free to go, as one did at two a.m. after complaining that the men smelled strongly of beer. (As well they might; they had filled a bathtub with the potable suds.)
The band's history of drug use is par for the course, although, British record producer Glyn Johns did insist, when he worked with the group in the early '70s, that there be no drugs or alcohol while the band was recording in his London studio, and at least one band member seems to have appreciated this, but most did not. A few years after the band began to work with Azoff as their new manager, they were held up by customs officials in the Bahamas. All but one member of the band was holding illicit drugs as they stepped off the plane, and customs wanted to search each of them thoroughly. At the last moment, Azoff took one of the customs officers aside, and afterward the band was allowed to go without a search. The Eagles claim not to know what Azoff said and Azoff is coy about it. (My girlfriend wisely suggests that it was probably not so much what he said as what he did; can you spell bribery?) In any case, afterward, Azoff became as a god to the band.

Guitar virtuoso Walsh seems to have had the most difficulty with drug addiction, and his rehabilitation was a prerequisite for his rejoining the band in 1994. (It should be mentioned that it was Felder and Azoff who drove Walsh to the clinic.) Happily, Walsh appears to have remained sober ever since, and possibly enjoys being reunited with his children as much or more than he enjoys his reunion with his bandmates. Indeed, and almost predictably, the Eagles today value their status as more or less sober family men more than they once did. Some have children, some of whom are now in the music business themselves.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Floyd Earnest Hubert

Born - Fremont Center, Sullivan County, New York, 22 Feb 1924
Died - Catskill Regional Medical Center, Harris, New York, 14 July 2002
(Spouse - Helen Goodrich Hubert, 20 Dec 1913 - 24 May 2013)

U.S. Navy Petty Officer Second Class (at least at one time - not sure this was his highest rank)
Ser. No. 800 32 21
Interior Communications Electrician - IC2 Rating [E5?]
I have his Sleeve Rating Patch (somewhat worn)

Citation (in quadruplicate):

The Commanding Officer takes pleasure in COMMENDING

Floyd Earnest HUBERT
Electrician's Mate Second Class
United States Naval Reserve

for services as set forth in the following


"For outstanding service in the line of his profession in connection with operations against the enemy while serving in the U.S.S. LEXINGTON from January 1944 to 15 August 1945. When his ship was hit by an enemy bomb and suicide plane off Luzon on 5 November 1944, and at other times while serving on the LEXINGTON, his professional skill and ability contributed greatly in repairing damage and maintaining a high standard of efficiency in the battle communication system. His conduct was at all times in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service."

Captain, U.S. Navy.

This citation refers to events of the Battle of Leyte Gulf during which the Lexington helped defeat a large Japanese naval force. The Lexington sank or helped sink several Japanese ships. On the afternoon of 5 November, a kamikaze plane (suicide plane) crashed into the starboard side of the flight deck where the bridge was located (known as "the island") and sent flames in all directions. The crew put out the fire in twenty minutes and vital communication repairs were made so that the carrier could be operational enough to continue its participation in the battle, launching planes and even shooting down another kamikaze that was heading toward a sister ship.

Other Documents relating to Bob Hubert:

Navy Department, Bureau of Naval Personnel
Service Schools
United States of America
This certifies that
Floyd E. Hubert
has satisfactorily completed the prescribed course of study at the
U.S. Naval Training School (Electrical), Naval Armory,
Detroit, Michigan with a mark of 79
this 26th. day of November 1943

M.R. Wortley, Captain, USNR.
U.S. Navy, Commanding.

Veterans Administration Certificate of Eligibility. Cert. No. 7558-NY-Albany, issued 29 Jan 1947, signed 25 Feb 1947.

1925 New York State Census

Household Members:
Peter S. Hubert 54
Lillian A. Hubert 43
Chas P. Hubert 15
Walter E. Hubert 14
Joseph Hubert 11
Catherine Hubert 07
Floyd E. Hubert 01

Friday, September 18, 2015

Supreme Court and Constitutional Questions

The term "judicial review" is tainted and fraught with bias because, from this doctrine's beginning in 1803, it has been used for partisan political purposes. The intent of the Framers of the Constitution was that judicial restraint and limited review be exercised, not a wholesale judicial repeal or rescuing of laws just because the justices or their partisan masters desired that they make certain findings. 

In both Dred Scott and NFIB v Sebelius, concurring opinions fundamentally disagreed with the Chief Justice's reasoning. This is not unusual, but shows that the concurring justices did not agree with the logic of the Chief Justice in his essentially one-man opinion.
Supreme Court Justices in 2010

Concurrent opinions in NFIB thought Supreme Court Justice John Roberts' rewriting of the law was unneeded. Dissenters thought it subversive. Dissenters and concurers in the 1857 Dred Scott case likewise thought the Chief Justice's logic was off base.

Roger B. Taney, Chief Justice 1836-1864

Amendments XIII and XIV may have been, at least partly, unneeded as the way of overturning Taney's decision. Amendment XIII abolished slavery and XIV, among other things, declared categorically that all African-Americans are citizens of the United States. It is a truism of constitutional thought that Taney's decision was overturned by these post-Civil War amendments but it could have been overturned by removing one justice, Taney. The Civil War itself put slavery on a fast path to extinction; the benefit of the Thirteenth Amendment was that it did cleanly put an end to slavery, completely and once and for all (at least in the West). However, Dred Scott could have been overturned in whole by a Court that recognized the logic of the two dissenting opinions written by John McLean and Benjamin R. Curtis. They did not agree with Taney that slavery was enshrined in the original Constitution. They did not need amendments to reach this conclusion, only logic.

It is frequently assumed in court opinions that other courts as well as legislatures knew what they were doing when they handed down a decision or passed a law, respectively. No doubt sometimes they do, but equally obviously, sometimes they don’t. Did the Framers of the United States Constitution and the members of the first Congresses know what they were doing when they kicked the can down the road on slavery? I think not. Would they have been horrified had they been able to look into a crystal ball and foresee the American Civil War and subsequent racial disharmony that resulted from their indecision? Many would have felt excruciating remorse. The cases of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin are illustrative: Jefferson had qualms about slavery even though he was a slave owner; Franklin had already decided that slavery was wrong when he went to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, but he held his tongue because he feared that if the issue of abolition was raised then there would be no United States at all.

Marbury v Madison (1803) was a Supreme Court (SCOTUS) decision tainted by partisan political bias. Chief  Justice John Marshall was a member of the Federalist Party and his decision favored members of his party against members of the Democratic-Republican Party. It is  a famous case for its establishment of the doctrine of Judicial Review, that SCOTUS may review laws in an unlimited way and that it could declare acts of Congress to be unconstitutional. The expansion of judicial power lay in the fact  that the Court need not present a reasonable legal argument but only the semblance of a reasonable argument. And there is no appeal of its ruling, however egregious, because it is the highest court in the land.

John Marshall, Chief Justice 1801-1835

Ever since, judicial review has often been tainted by political bias. Marbury was the first time that SCOTUS declared an act of Congress unconstitutional. Dred Scott v Sandford (1857) was the second. In one of the many examples of dubious opinion dragged into a SCOTUS decision, Chief Justice Roger Taney ruled in Dred Scott that the Framers had uniformly viewed African-Americans as "beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect." This was Taney’s opinion more than that of the Framers as a dissenting opinion by Justice McLean pointed out.

Taney also declared that whether slave or free, “no State can, by any act or law of its own, passed since the adoption of the Constitution, introduce a new member into the political community created by the Constitution of the United States." By this he seemed to mean that a slave could neither become free nor be made a citizen of a state; this seems a violation of state's rights, especially since one of the dissenting opinions in the case pointed out that several precedents made slaves into freemen and into voting citizens, as well. Even though Taney decided that Scott therefore had no standing and SCOTUS had no jurisdiction in the case, he went on to decide the very issues over which the Court had no jurisdiction. The absurdity of this was pointed out by both Justice Samuel Nelson in his concurrence and Justice Curtis in his dissent. Further exceeding the mandate of the case, Taney declared an act of Congress, the 1820 Missouri Compromise, to be unconstitutional. This act had already been superseded by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, but Taney, who personally preferred the outcome of the latter act, weighed in here to clear up any lingering doubt that the Missouri Compromise was a dead letter. (Erstwhile President Franklin Pierce had wished that the Missouri Compromise could be found unconstitutional as an alternative to Kansas-Nebraska; Taney was late but in earnest by giving the ex-president and others what they had wanted three years earlier.) In their dissents, both Justices Curtis and McLean pointed out that no Framer of the Constitution living at the time of the Missouri Compromise had objected to it on constitutional grounds.

To show how idiosyncratic these decisions can be, Justice Nelson wrote a concurrence that was a quasi-dissent in which he did not disagree with the outcome of Taney’s decision in that Scott remained a slave, but he did not declare as Taney had that the federal circuit court had had no jurisdiction to begin with or that the Missouri Compromise had been unconstitutional. Nelson was not as ambitious as Taney was to make new law that would uphold his personal political prejudices. 

Samuel Nelson

Benjamin R. Curtis*
John McLean
 Arguing from strong precedent, both Curtis and McLean argued that Taney’s statement that African-Americans could not be citizens was wrong. McLean in particular showed that African-Americans had already been able to vote in five states at the time of the ratification of the Constitution and were therefore citizens. Moreover, in an 1835 case, Marie Louise v Marot, the Louisiana Supreme Court had ruled that, once freed, a former slave could not be returned to slavery. (Something that allegedly occurred in the Scott case and which Taney had even entertained as a hypothetical but, which, nevertheless, did not change his opinion.) As the dissenting opinions indicate, Taney’s opinion in this case was far from temperate and was not in accordance with a sober interpretation of the Constitution.
It is often said (see, for example, the Wikipedia article on the Dred Scott Decision) that the Scott Decision was "overturned" by the 13th and 14th amendments, but was that really necessary? Although Chief Justice Taney wrote the opinion that was considered to be the governing one in the case, it is striking that every single justice on the Court wrote his own opinion whether he concurred or dissented. This implies that all of the other justices found something troubling in Taney's legal reasoning. At least four justices (Nelson, Grier, Curtis and McLean) strongly disputed his declaration that an act of Congress, the Missouri Compromise, was unconstitutional. It seems that the only thing needed to overturn that part of the Dred Scott Decision was the replacement of a single justice, Taney. The whole decision might have been overturned if another Court later saw that Curtis and McLean were correct and that their interpretation should have governed the majority.

The decisions in the Marbury and Scott cases seem to show that SCOTUS ruling Congressional acts to be unconstitutional has always been fraught and has actually unleashed a great deal of mischief in American history. (Scott, for example, has been called one of the immediate catalysts of the Civil War.) More recently, the decisions in NFIB v Sebelius (2012) and King v Burwell (2015) might suggest that  some subsequent Courts have erred in the exact opposite direction by trying NOT to declare a law unconstitutional even if it meant that the Court had to “help” Congress out of a cul de sac created by its own poorly written legislation.

In two different cases the Court bent over backward to preserve the same law (the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, that is, “Obamacare”) even though the law’s own language threatened to cause its collapse. To accomplish this, in NFIB, the Court redefined a penalty (unconstitutional) as a tax (constitutional). In the King case, SCOTUS said that the language of the PPACA that referred to exchanges "established by the state" really meant "established by the state and federal government.” In other words, both decisions essentially rewrote key parts of the law in order to preserve them. A philosophy of true judicial restraint and more limited authority to review would have led the Court to rule that the language as written in the law meant what it said and that if Congress could not bring itself to write a coherent law, then it is not up to SCOTUS to rescue it.

It is telling that, although it did not spawn the nine-way multiplicity of opinion that the Scott Decision did, nevertheless, NFIB saw concurring opinions that, like that of Nelson in 1857, agreed with the outcome of Chief Justice John Roberts' decision but basically disputed his legal reasoning as unnecessarily tortured.  Re-writing the law was not needed, in the views of Ruth Bader Ginsberg and the other justices who concurred. (And it was subversive in the eyes of the justices who dissented.)
Hudson v McMilian (1992) is a case in which the Court decided to apply the Eighth Amendment to a case in which prison guards had taken it upon themselves to beat a prisoner. Justice Clarence Thomas dissented on the grounds that there were plenty of remedies for the plaintiff short of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which only applies to judicial sentencing. Therefore, the amendment did not apply and the case should not have been heard. It is not the function of the Supreme Court to apply the Constitution to right every wrong in every case. (I would point out that it was not as if the judge who had sentenced the plaintiff to prison had made regular beatings by the guards an official part of his punishment; the guards, themselves, had violated state and federal laws in administering these extra-legal beatings.)

In Hudson, then, SCOTUS expanded the Constitution in ways that violated the meaning and original intent of the text of the law itself, twisting the Constitution to mean what it does not mean and to do what it was never meant to do. Thomas’ unheeded advice to the Court was not to hear cases where the Constitution does not apply.

This judicial restraint is an antidote to decisions that stretch the authority of SCOTUS beyond its intended limited review to a point where the implication of its decisions is best described by what the dissent in NFIB said about the Court’s application of the Necessary and Proper Clause in that case: “its application rests upon a theory that everything is within federal control simply because it exists.”

* A pet peeve of mine is noting the many good things done by President Millard Fillmore, the most under-rated president IMHO. One thing he did was to appoint Curtis to the Supreme Court.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The original debate over the Constitution: Weaknesses on both sides fateful for U.S. today

Insight from listening to “The Great Debate: Advocates and Opponents of the American Constitution” by Prof. Thomas L. Pangle (a lecture series produced by the Great Courses series):

The weaknesses on each side of the debate between the Federalists and Anti-federalists were mirror images. While the Federalist proposal  (what became the United States Constitution) over the long haul proved to be insufficient to protect the American people from a tyrannical U.S. government (internal threat), the Anti-federalists’ alternative was insufficient to protect the nation from potential foreign enemies (external threat). Today we have a national government ready to impose tyranny on its own people but unwilling or incapable of defending the country from its enemies. Today, we live in the worst of both worlds.

Currently, I am also reading Mark Levin's book, "The Liberty Amendments," something of a counterpoint to Pangle's lectures. While mentioning later historical developments, Pangle is primarily concerned with what those who debated the Constitution in the 1780s knew and could know as well as what they guessed might happen in the future. Levin is more revealing about what actually did happen as the Constitution became the object of wrangling, especially, but not only, by the courts.

Levin calls our current times "post-constitutional," because we have changed the Constitution through practice so much that it does not stand today, as it once did, as a bulwark protecting our liberties. Too many jurists and legal theorists have had their way in massaging and reinterpreting the Constitution so that it no longer means what it originally did, and the result would not be recognizable to the Framers.

James Madison, Father of the Constitution

Alexander Hamilton, one of the Framers of the Constitution
Most insidiously, the second guessing that has led to so much reinterpretation is often assumed to be harmless. This is still the United States and we still have the rule of law, which is the same Constitution. Right? Levin would say, no. The Constitution is more fragile than we assume. It is a balancing act, and we have upset the balance so that the Constitution cannot stand as a reliable bulwark against predations by any government foreign or domestic.

What we think of as the rule of law is more often a rule of whim. Someone in a black robe thinks he or she knows better how things should be run or what result should be achieved, and so they change the interpretation of the law in accord with a personal preference. They want this new interpretation to become the law of the land, but it is little more than a whim. (In one of the most remarkable assaults on the original interpretation, some Supreme Court decisions have begun to cite foreign legal precedents in support of changes in their interpretation of the Constitution.)

In my view, the problem goes back to Madison and the Constitutional Convention's invention of the Constitution. The most obvious tension in the post-Revolutionary period was that between the national and state governments. The natural thing to have done would have been to construct a constitution in which the states were given powers that allowed them to counter the power of the federal government. Instead, Madison designed a Constitution that primarily balanced against itself, with three branches meant to check each other. This system was intricate and clever, but it more or less ignored the more natural relationship of the states to the central government.

Over the succeeding two centuries, the checks and balances between the federal departments - executive, legislative and judiciary - have broken down. Part of the problem is that the people in these different departments have more in common than they have differences. Many of them are lawyers who often have ambitions to work in other branches of the federal government, they are all paid by the same Treasury, and it dawns on many of them, sooner or later, that if one branch scratch the backs of the other branches and helps them to increase their power, turn about will eventually lead the other branches to help the back-scratching branch to expand, too.

Meanwhile, the few features of the Constitution that did give the states even a limited ability to check the federal government have been taken away. Originally, the state legislatures chose U.S. senators and gave them instructions on how to represent the state in the upper house of Congress, but the Seventeenth Amendment, passed early in the twentieth century, changed that balance by making senators popularly elected. About six years ago, my district's then-representative in Congress, a Democrat, expressed stunned disbelief that anyone would think it better to have the legislature choose senators instead of the general voters. What could be wrong with the people electing their senators? My reaction was, "I thought the same thing when I was your age." (He is twenty-three years my junior.) I once thought the Seventeenth Amendment was an improvement in that it brought the people into direct electoral contact with their national senator who would then represent the people of his or her state, but I came to realize that this is not what senators were originally sent to the national legislature's upper house to do. We have Representatives in the lower house of Congress to do that. In the beginning, senators were supposed to represent their STATE and its interests.

Robert Livingston, initially strongly opposed Constitution

One of the ironies of the change wrought by the Seventeenth Amendment is that whereas it was once argued that the amendment was needed because the U.S. Senate had become corrupt, it is arguable that the Senate has become more corrupt since passage of the amendment. Part of the reason for this is that U.S. senators were set loose to represent whoever could get them elected. Senators beholden to their state legislatures for their positions were not as wide-ranging in their influence peddling as today's senators who are truly national in their orientation and connections. Rather than bringing them closer to the interests of their state and its citizens, popular election has put senators further away from their states and, necessarily, the interests of their supposed constituents. Senators not only live in Washington, D.C., but they tend to live more for D.C. and its encampments of special interests than for their states. Pork spending that sends federal tax dollars to their home states is necessary, of course, for vote buying, but the question of whether a useless statue or even a worthless bridge improves the welfare of the people of the state is no longer a question. It is just one station on a political pilgrimage along which schmoozing with wealthy donors - as likely from states other than one's own - is another and even more important concern.

Meanwhile, as Levin points out, the much celebrated doctrine of "judicial review" was actually one of the earliest assaults on the Constitution, which did not anticipate the judiciary taking unto itself so sweeping a right to judge the constitutionality of laws as the high court began to do with the 1803 Marbury v. Madison decision. This was a purely political decision that favored the Federalist Party over the Democratic-Republican Party. Chief Justice John Marshall, a Federalist, claimed his own right to favor Federalist appointees of an out-going Federalist president over the wishes of the incoming Republican president. The next time a Supreme Court found United States law unconstitutional was Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), a more outrageous decision than Marbury because Chief Justice Roger Taney 1) projected his own extreme racism onto the U.S. Constitution and its Framers and 2) declared an already dead federal law unconstitutional even though Framers still alive at the time the law had been passed never thought that it was.

In practice, the wide scope of this kind of judicial review has come to mean that, at any given time, five imperfect human beings can make a decision that interprets the law as it applies to everyone else, and there is no guarantee that they will follow logic or wisdom as they dictate how everyone else shall live henceforth. And there is no recourse except to wait for the Court to be replaced by a more judicious one. The term "judicious review" better describes what judicial review ought to mean but does not. Justices ought to look at what the Constitution says and what it means, and not reinterpret it on the quicksand of intellectual constructs that are alien to the genius of the Framers.

When conservatives complain that liberal justices are engaging in judicial activism of this sort, it is common to hear the rejoinder that conservative judges change legal precedent, too, and isn't that also judicial activism? Well, yes and no. It isn't in the sense that it is often restorative rather than changing the Constitution away from what it was meant to be; on the other hand, it is a counter-judicial activism in the same sense that restoring order, after a revolution has plunged a society into chaos, is counter-revolutionary by definition; the point being that no justice should have been practicing activism in the first place, and the conservative justice would not have to do it, too, if the activists did not start it process. Unfortunately, the taking of countermeasures to counteract dangerous innovations can be like swallowing a spider to catch a fly, making the Constitution - if not a Rube Goldberg machine - then at least a document that shows the signs of wear from having been tinkered with.

Of course, historically - especially when we understand that the too wide interpretation of judicial review itself is the problem - we see that it has little to do with left and right. Chief Justice John Marshall, who was responsible for introducing judicial review, was a conservative, at the time using judicial review to protect members of his own political party. Later, Chief Justice William Taney probably thought he was being conservative when he used judicial review to - in effect - pass sweeping edicts about the right of his fellow slave holders to spread slavery across the nation. Taney's decision thereby upset the truce between slave and free states that the Congress had worked out (albeit that agreement was arguably not constitutional, either) and thereby triggered the Civil War.

After expounding on the damage done by unlimited judicial review, Levin laments that the doctrine has been so engrained in our legal thinking that there is no realistic way of setting back the clock by trying to remove the doctrine from the armamentarium of the High Court. His solution is to nibble at the edges by limiting the length of time that a justice can serve and, intriguingly, giving the Congress and the states power to override Supreme Court decisions. This would indeed restore some democratic balance to the current system of judicial oligarchy, and it has the additional appeal of giving the states more of that power to check the federal government that was originally missing in the Constitution.

This is a topic worth returning to at some other time: The Constitution with its successes and failures, its fragility, and the tendency of people to take for granted that reinterpreting it on a whim will not really cause any damage.

Musical Chairs with Political Labels

BTW, the Great Debate over ratification of the Constitution was perhaps the first instance of a time-honored - if basically dishonorable - political practice: "Federalism" means a system in which the states remain largely sovereign in relation to a limited national government; yet, as one of the Anti-federalists complained, the Constitution has only enough federalism in it to lull citizens into thinking that it is federal; meanwhile it supports enough national government to overwhelm the states - exactly what has come to pass. The so-called Federalists, then, were actually "Nationalists" while the so-called Anti-Federalists were the real "Federalists." Naturally, once the Nationalists started calling themselves Federalists, the name was taken, and the opposition was forced to call itself the Anti-Federalists - even though one of the Anti-Federalist writers called himself  "A Federal Farmer" precisely because "federalist" was his true political stance.

This is what I call playing musical chairs with political labels, and it has happened again and again in history. For example, in the last century, the Progressives began calling themselves Liberals, even though a liberal is someone who believes in free market capitalism and universal civil liberties. The progressive dream, by contrast, is the centralized command economy and the dictatorship of an elite. Set adrift without a label, the old liberals eventually settled on the label "libertarian," which in countries and cultures outside the United States means "anarchist"; but although a few writers, such as Paul Goodman, had tried to introduce the term "libertarian" with its anarchistic meaning into the American political debate, that definition never took hold in this country; consequently, "libertarian" became available to the old liberals and their disciples.

Unfortunately, the magnetism of the anarchistic denotation and connotation of the word has led many, particularly young, libertarians toward  anarchism. Some don't even see Constitutionalism (as I do) to be of pragmatic value. I happen to see the U.S. Constitution as a bulwark against tyranny, which is exactly where progressive/socialist reinterpretation of the Constitution is leading us in what Levin characterizes as our post-Constitutional present in which the Constitution's protections are being watered down. Many libertarians seem not to see that without constitutional order, liberty itself is vulnerable to attack. (F.A. Hayek, one of the idols of many libertarians, wrote a book entitled "The Constitution of Liberty," it should be remembered.)

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Persistent Myth That the Branch Davidians Were All White

The website ran an article a couple of days ago about Gov. Rick Perry's bold approach to tackling economic policy by recalling a heinous racial incident in Waco, Texas, nearly 100 years ago in which a mob lynched an African-American who had been accused of murder.  Rick Perry’s unorthodox economic opportunity speech went there.  Perry's point was not just that things have gotten a lot better since then. Let Perry say it in his own words:

"I’m proud to live in a country that has an African-American President. But President Obama cannot be proud of the fact that the prevalence of black poverty has actually increased under his leadership. We cannot dismiss the historical legacy of slavery, nor its role in causing the problem of black poverty. And because slavery and segregation were sanctioned by government, there is a role for government policy in addressing their lasting effects. But the specific policies, advanced by the President and his allies on the left, amount to little more than throwing money at the problem and walking away."*

The comments on the article about Perry's speech--as comments so often do on any website--range widely if not wildly around and away from the topic. The tenth comment free associates to another "atrocity at Waco... just two decades ago," recalling the April 19, 1993, deaths of 76 members of the Branch Davidian religious sect near Waco:

"My recollection is that those victims were white, including women and children, and it was perpetrated by our government, not just a mindless mob."

Since I was unable to get logged on to that site (they had me register, promised to send me a password, but never sent me one), I was not able to dispel the fellow's misconception directly; so, I will have to try to deal with it here.

It is a persistent myth held by both defenders and detractors of the Branch Davidians that they were all white; yet, among the dead on the day their compound caught fire and burned to the ground--following a 51-day siege by the federal government (first the BATF and then the FBI)--there were several black women and children, as well as at least six Hispanic women and children and a Filipino couple (He was an America citizen but she was still a citizen of the Philippines). A number of the victims were foreign nationals, including not only the Filipina and an Israeli citizen, but some of the black women and children, who were British.

Anyone who closely followed the events as they unfolded back in early 1993 perhaps remembers D. Wayne Martin, the 40-year-old African-American Davidian who was one of the three members of the group who talked to FBI negotiators on the phone throughout the siege. Martin perished, along with his wife and children, on April 19.

In the years since the Waco Seige, I have had occasion to reflect on how convenient it was and continues to be for the Clinton administration in particular and the Democrats in general that most African-Americans, to this day, have never realized that black women and children were among the dead of Waco. It would seem that black lives--or, more to the point, black deaths--only matter when they are politically useful to the Democratic Party.

*I would go further and say that, in recent years, the Democratic Party has done nothing but tell African-Americans that nothing has really changed in the past century as a way of masking their dismal failure to lift the African-American community out of poverty. President Obama seems not so much unable to come up with strategies other than "throwing money and walking away" but actually enamored of strategies and policies that fan the flames of discontent among the poor while ensuring that these same people become even more disgruntled when their rising expectations in the Obama era are met with disappointment and deepening poverty. So sure is Obama that he will not be blamed for these policies--that somebody else will be blamed for them--that he welcomes the dissolution of the welfare state under the weight of his programs. His answer to the failure of his government programs will, of course, be more government programs. It remains to be seen whether this deceit will actually work, but the credulity of the victims of Obama's con game, so far, is no cause for hope that the blame will ever be put squarely where it belongs.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Pet Peeves: Historical Movies

I love movies and I love history, so you might think I would love movies set in the historical past (as if there might be another kind of past; once it is past it is history to somebody).

The problem, of course, is historical accuracy, or, more precisely, the frequent lack of it.

Historical inaccuracy does not always peeve me. Sometimes it actually amuses me. A case in point is Randall Wallace's well-researched dramatization, "Braveheart," about the career of William Wallace and his royal contemporaries, Edward I (called Longshanks) and his Prince Junior, Edward II. I say that Wallace (the screenwriter, not the character played by Mel Gibson) researched well not because the movie is an historically accurate presentation of actual events--it isn't--but, rather, because Wallace so clearly had to know what the actual history was in order to do what he did, which was to embroider a collection of true historical incidents taken out of context and stuck in a previous generation where they serve his dramatic purpose. Consider, for example, the scene in which Edward Longshanks, played by the late Patrick McGoohan, unceremoniously defenestrates his son's gay lover, Gaveston. That Edward II may have had a gay lover who was murdered is an historically plausible claim. Wallace obviously knew this, but he also must have known that the murder took place years after the death of Edward I. The historical perpetrators were acting on behalf of several barons who, like the old king, were jealous of Gaveston, but Wallace is right that it works so much better if Edward I does it himself.

Then there are the multiple problems posed by the character of Princess Isabella. If she had been married to the Prince of Wales, then she and not Diana would have been the first Princess of Wales. In historical fact, Isabella did not marry Edward II until after he became king. She was never Princess of Wales, though she was Queen Isabella. Which brings us to the problem of her age. When William Wallace was alive, Isabella was only five-years-old--and living in France. She only came to England years after Wallace was executed (William, not Randall).

So she did not bear Wallace's child after all? No, but consider the historical facts: King Edward II may have been gay, though this is controversial, and if he had no interest in doing his royal duty in producing an heir, then how to explain Isabella's four children? She may have decided that somebody else had to do it. If the father could not have been a Scotsman who had been executed years before, the most likely suspect seems to have been a Welsh nobleman named Roger Mortimer. Mortimer and Isabella eventually made their relationship obvious. The question was whether it had been going on all along. Several noblemen later hanged Mortimer. (Killing intimates of the royals seems almost to have been a sport.) While the real father of Edward III might have been a Welshman, Randall Wallace took the liberty of making him a rebellious Scot. Seems more dramatic, and makes me admire the screenwriter's art in moving pieces around on his chess board in order to make up his own story.

BTW, William Wallace's backstory in the movie, involving the murder of his father, the rape and murder of his wife, and his escape to the continent where, like Mel Gibson, he learned Latin, is not a rearrangement of historical facts; rather it is entirely made up. The truth is that, in the words, I believe, of British historian H.R. Trevor-Roper, Wallace appeared on the stage of history as if out of nowhere; nothing whatsoever is known about his origins.

Contrast this with the more recent but less memorable movie "Defiance." Having read the book (well, one of several of the books that formed the basis of the movie), I was looking forward to a cinematic retelling of the true story of the Bielsky brothers, East European Jewish partisans who not only hectored the Nazi occupation with their hit-and-run guerrilla tactics but also collected a community of Jewish refugees in spite of the fact that supporting so many small children and elderly people was a hardship for guerrillas who would have been better off not dragging around the dead weight of so many "useless" civilians.

By camping in an extensive forest, the brothers kept their charges safe from the Germans for a long time, but eventually the Germans sent not only foot soldiers but tanks to sweep the forest and flush out anybody hiding therein. So the Bielsky brothers led their people on an arduous trek through a huge swamp in the middle of which was an island of dry land. The movie almost succeeds in portraying how arduous this must have been--and how dangerous, since it was so likely that someone would have collapsed and died or been drowned in quicksand. It was a miracle that everyone made it to the island, exhausted but alive.

In the movie, having reached the sanctuary of the island, the Bielskys are almost immediately confronted by their worst nightmare. A Panzer tank attacks them. Heroically, but in a scene too much like similar ones in too many other war pictures, the brothers, through teamwork and a couple of well-placed hand grenades, subdue the steel behemoth, after which the filmmakers apparently thought that they had their crowd-pleasing ending, so they rolled the credits.

The bother, of course, is that the reason that the Bielsky brothers took the risk of leading old people and small children through a treacherous swamp was precisely because they knew that it was impossible for tanks to follow them through such an extensive mire. Where in blazes did the tank they encountered on the island come from? Was it dropped by parachute from a cargo plane? (Not something that was technically feasible until after World War II.) No. This ending made a pointless mockery out of the desperate heroism of the trek through the swamp. Thumbs down on this travesty of a picture.

Speaking of World War II, "Patton" seems to be the favorite movie of many conservatives, but I, for one, have come to despise it. The script by Francis Ford Coppola is based, in part, on Gen. Omar Bradley's memoir. Now, my father met Omar Bradley and liked him. Most people who met him apparently did, but one of the conceits of "Patton" is that Bradley and Patton were friends, which they were not at all.

The movie's deep flaw is that it pretends to take an unbiased view, based on Bradley's skewed view of Patton. Whatever Patton's many shortcomings, he was a strategic and tactical genius who probably could have shortened World War II's European conflict by six months if he had been given the top field position that was, instead, given to Bradley. Bradley loved his men, but he loved them too much. His fear of endangering them was paradoxically what put them in danger. His affection did not prevent them from being slaughtered in Field Marshall Montgomery's ill-conceived Market Garden Campaign, for example, a campaign which Bradley approved while Patton recognized it as a bad idea in a trice. Yet this movie persists in showing Patton through Bradley's biased eyes.

So, historically inaccurate movies either burn me or amuse me. Can't think of any examples of films that do both, probably because if one scene--especially the ending--bothers me, I am not going to be amused by the rest of the movie.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

World War I: Part III

Opening Gambits and Early Battles

The opening of World War I on the Western Front is usually divided into two main phases, the Battle of the Frontiers and the Race to the Sea, which together took place between August and November of 1914. Usually, historians describe the earliest phase from the viewpoint of the Germans because, at least in Western Europe, they were the most successful at the outset in moving against enemy territory. In a sense, it was their war to lose at this stage, and some historians believe that the ultimate failure of the Germans’ opening gambit doomed the Germans to defeat no matter what they did for the next four years. Although the Russian army had been mobilizing since the end of July—and turned out to mobilize faster than the Germans had anticipated, nevertheless, the first notable fighting of the war broke out on the Western Front when Germany entered Belgium on the 4th of August and soon thereafter moved into northern France. This first phase began mere days after Germany, Russia and France had traded war declarations. The Germans’ successful attempt to push their frontiers into France was not quite matched when the French tried and failed to push their own frontiers into Germany.

General Helmuth von Moltke, the Younger

German General Helmuth von Moltke, the Younger, launched the invasion of Belgium, a country that had not declared war on anyone, although he had declined to invade the equally neutral Netherlandsdespite the fact that the Schlieffen Plan, from which Moltke was working, originally called for an invasion of the Netherlands as well. (However, the railroads of the tiny neutral country of Luxemburg also fell under the control of the German invaders.) Moltke’s forces did not move as quickly as he had hoped, partly because of unexpected Belgian resistance, but the Germans soon reached France. In the face of this onslaught, both the French, led by Marshal Joseph Joffre, and their new British allies fell back. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was led by General Sir John French (who, despite his name, did not speak French and did not get along with some of the French generals). Sir John was reluctant to commit his army which was below strength. While some of his divisions fought along side French troops, Sir John himself held back until the end of August, often reacting with over concern to exaggerated reports of losses to his divisions. General Charles Lanrezac was extremely frustrated with Sir John, regarding the British commander as timid to the point of cowardliness. In Sir John’s defense, Joffre, Lanrezac and their fellow French commanders were in retreat, too; it was not as if Sir John was the only commander falling back in the face of the German onslaught. (And Joffre would soon replace Lanrezac for being too timid!)


The Schlieffen plan called for splitting German forces into two armies, one of which was to sweep across northern France while the other encircled Paris, closing a large loop around the French capital and the troops defending it. Moltke’s two armies were like two separate arms, and their progress seemed encouraging at first. Then two types of problems developed. One was that the logistics of the plan required troops and supplies to be moved in a coordinated fashion, and it proved to be impossible to keep the two movements synchronized. It was also important to keep the two different armies that were involved in the operation more or less synchronized, although this may have been a greater problem in the minds of the German commanders than it actually was. This leads to the second kind of problem which was the self-inflicted one of not following—and probably not understanding—the spirit of the original plan. To Schlieffen, it had been important to understand which of the armies was carrying out the main attack, but Moltke ended up turning Schlieffen’s secondary movement into the main one. In addition, Moltke felt the need to react to two trouble spots by siphoning off some of his troops to deal with them.


In mid-August, the first of these trouble spots appeared when Joffre attempted the execution of Plan 17, which, like the Schlieffen Plan, was a preexisting operation intended to recover the Alsace-Lorraine territory that had been taken from France by Germany in 1871, but this scheme underestimated the Germans’ ability to bring troops quickly to this front. Modern railroad trains would play a crucial role in World War I in getting troops to the battlefield even though they could not get the same troops across the battlefield, which still had to be done on foot (until the first successful use of tanks, which only came late in the war). Joffre’s attempt to recapture the territories collapsed. It did, however, distract the Germans and bought France a little time, and, although it caused the French enormous casualties, including many of the finest French officers, it did not prevent Joffre from later amassing enough French troops to defend northern France.


General Paul von Hindenburg
General Erich Ludendorff

The second trouble spot for the Germans was the Eastern Front where, as already mentioned, Russia mobilized faster than the Germans had expected, invading East Prussia in August and actually capturing German territory. Alarmed, Germany not only sent troops eastward from Belgium and France, but brought out of retirement General Paul von Hindenburg to lead the German troops against the Russians. His aide was General Erich Ludendorff, who had already distinguished himself in Belgium. The two generals would work so well together—despite differing personalities and styles—that later critics referred to them as the Siamese twins. The Russian army was numerous but not well-equipped and trained. At the Battle of Tannenburg, at the end of August, they made the mistake of sending radio transmissions about troop movements in the clear—that is, not as coded messages. The Germans gambled that these messages were not a ruse and took advantage of the intelligence, with the result that the Germans knew exactly where the Russians would be and where they were weakest and thus succeeded in dividing and conquering their armies. Russian troop morale, not terribly high to begin with, generally fell and never recovered. The defeat of the Russians at Tannenburg made Hindenburg and Ludendorff heroes to the German public to such an extent that both of them were able to leverage this regard into political power both during and after the war. After Tannenburg, Germany captured territory from the Russians in Eastern Europe, the occupation of which was to become a mixed blessing for the balance of the war. While necessary to Germany’s security, occupation of the region required large numbers of troops that otherwise were needed in the west. While the Russians’ attack on Germany succeeded at first but then crumbled before Hindenburg, they also succeeded in invading Austria-Hungary's province of Galicia, which was recaptured only with German assistance.

Meanwhile, a gap had opened and expanded between the two arms of the German advance on the Western Front. While this was to be expected to some extent, it grew to a degree that worried Moltke and his commanders, who finally decided to close the gap by bringing the army that was supposed to encircle Paris further east and closer to the other German army. In this way, Moltke gave up any chance of encircling Parisand, by turning his flank toward the enemy, invited the very counterattack he dreaded. By early September, Allied generals Joffre and French had brought enough troops to bear against the now exposed German flank so that they put the invaders on the defensive. Famously, the French used every mode of transportation, including taxi cabs and bicycles, to get troops to the Marne Riverwhere the Allied armies made their effective counterattack (Hence this was called the Battle of the Marne.), forcing the Germans to fall back to the Aisne River before making a stand. They dug shallow trenches—forerunners of the deep, fortified trenches that would be dug later on. In mid-September, Moltke was replaced by General Erich von Falkenhayn, but it was too late to reverse the collapse of Germany’s opening gambit. The virtually unbreakable stalemate on the Western Front had already begun to take shape.


The second phase of the war’s opening, which lasted from October to November, is called the Race to the Sea, although it was not anyone’s intention actually to reach the North Sea; rather, there were a series of attempts by each side to outflank the other and get around the northern-most end of each other’s lines, in order to force the forward edge of the enemy's line to flatten along an east-west axis rather than remain north-south. Each attempt to accomplish this, by whichever side, failed, each side kept extending its line northward so that the other could not get in front and turn them back. Finally, both sides reached the North Sea and the English Channel and could go no further. Indeed, both sides were prevented from getting all the way to the sea because the last few miles of land between them and the sea were below sea-level, and the Belgians simply opened the sluices and let water completely flood their fields, stopping the Germans from pressing any further toward the coast.


It is an interesting historical note, which would only later take on some significance, that during the Race to the Sea an obscure private in the Bavarian army first saw action. His name was Adolf Hitler, and he belonged to a lowly reserve regiment made up of middle-aged veterans and raw recruits like himself. After only a few weeks of basic training, during which they had been taught to shoot with obsolete rifles, the Sixteenth Reserve Regiment was outfitted with unfamiliar new rifles on the eve of battle and not given helmets at all. (They wore oil cloth hats that, from a distance, looked enough like the helmets of the BEF to invite a number of instances of friendly fire from fellow German troops.) During their first battle in Belgiumat the end of October, their commanding officer, Colonel List, was killed. Ever afterward, the unit was affectionately called the List Regiment by its members.


The opening weeks of the war everywhere saw a grim introduction between nineteenth-century-trained soldiers and twentieth century machines of war, but the slaughter of Austria-Hungary’s highly trained officer corps was, perhaps, the fastest and most thoroughly devastating. Austria-Hungarynever recovered from this loss of military talent. The Austro-Hungarians also suffered from the fact that many of their troops were from occupied territories within the empire. Czechs and Poles, for example, felt no national loyalty to the Emperor Franz Joseph (who was to die in 1916, before the end of the war) and feared that their ethnic cousins would likely as not be directly across the battlefield fighting for the other side. While other combatant nations could appeal in their propaganda to a sense of national pride and patriotism, this justification of Austria-Hungary’s war aims made no sense and was abandoned after ill-received initial attempts. Before very long, the empire had reason to regret the part it had played in precipitating the Great War, the outcome of which would not merely determine whether or not Austria-Hungary would be victorious but whether it would exist at all after the shooting stopped.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

World War I: Part II

World War I, or the Great War as participants came to call it, was a war of contrasts. From the beginning, reactions to the news of war were strong but sometimes opposite in character depending on where one stood. In the large cities of the Great Powers—cities such as Berlin, Munich, London, St. Petersburg, and Paris—there was great enthusiasm with spontaneous pro-war demonstrations in the streets that were almost completely unanticipated by the various governments. While it is true that there were some instances of protest marches against the war, these were dwarfed by the wave of pro-war demonstrations that came to be described as the “August Madness.” When the Kaiser of Germany, Wilhelm II, son of Wilhelm I, came out onto his balcony to see the pro-war crowds gathered at his residence in Berlin, he declared that he could no longer see different interest groups, religions or parties. “I see only Germans,” he said. This August Madness was less pronounced, however, in the countryside, where farmers realized that it was going to be harder to make a living or produce a crop with all of the young men being drafted into the army. Feelings about the looming war were even more ambivalent in the smaller and occupied countries that had no stake in war and saw only the likelihood that their lands would be invaded, occupied and destroyed, their lives disrupted or taken away. Soldiers would be drafted from among these occupied peoples, especially by the Austro-Hungarians, and many of these peoples resented having to fight for a distant emperor they only wished would leave them alone. The problem of being a colonized people expected to fight for one of the Great Powers also troubled those who were occupied by Russiaand Germany, especially those, such as the Poles, who had relatives fighting for the other side. The situation in the dominions of Great Britain and France were only slightly different in that many citizens of their colonies held out the hope that if they distinguished themselves in the defense of the mother country, they might earn some degree of autonomy or even independence as a reward at the end of the war.


World War I was also full of surprises and ironies, to put it mildly. If you asked each combatant country what they were fighting for, initially, many of them would have claimed to be defending their country against aggression. Both Franceand Germany made this claim against each other, but if each side was defending against an aggressor, then who was that aggressor and how could that aggressor also claim to be fighting a war of self defense? Part of the explanation is that everyone subscribed to the theory that the best defense is a good offense. In fact, both Germany and France felt that if they did not attack first they might be destroyed; so, they both made preemptive invasions of each other. The French effort would have driven into the middle of Germany, precisely at the point of her strongest defenses. This strategy collapsed quickly. Meanwhile, the German plan, meant to invade Francethrough the neutral nation of Belgium, was at first successful. Based on a plan that had been originally designed by the late General Alfred von Schlieffen and thus called the Schlieffen Plan, the invasion of Belgium was supposed to lead to an invasion of northern France, and it did stun French and British troops, pushing them back, if only momentarily. Then the German plan collapsed in place, resulting in a stalemate that lasted for most of the rest of the war. From the North Sea to Switzerland, with the Germans on one side and the British and French on the other, the combatants faced each other across a nearly static “no man’s land” that shifted very little and very rarely from where it was toward the end of 1914. In the larger picture, Germanyhad hoped to defeat Francequickly so that Germanycould turn its full attention to Russia, which presumably would take a long time to mobilize for war. This did not work out as hoped. Russia mobilized faster than anticipated and invaded East Prussiabefore the Germans fully realized that the Schlieffen Plan had collapsed. It had been precisely the hope of the Schlieffen Plan that it would prevent Germany from having to fight simultaneously on Eastern and Western Fronts.


There has been a long debate over the Schlieffen Plan and its execution. Many came to believe that the plan itself was hopelessly flawed from the outset. General von Schlieffen had worked out precise timetables to move troops by train to where they had to be in order for the plan to work. Some think that the failing of the plan was that this timing did not allow any leeway. On the other hand, some military historians believe that this is not the problem. They might say that the original Schlieffen Plan did not need to be executed perfectly, only that it had to be executed in more or less the way Schlieffen designed it. Instead, the German commander, General Helmuth von Moltke, the Younger (His father and namesake had been the able general who defeated the French in 1871.) radically changed the Schlieffen Plan, turning what was supposed to be a feint into the main attack and what was supposed to be the main attack into a lesser maneuver. These critics say that he thereby weakened the plan and that, had he followed the original scheme, it might have worked. Part of Moltke’s change of the plan was understandable if strained in its logic. The original plan had called for the invasion of both Belgium and the Netherlands. The invasion of neutral countries without even a pretext was a violation of the gentlemen’s agreement that had helped keep the peace in Europefor so long. The only reason the Schlieffen Plan called for it was the convenience of invading northern Francethrough borders where there were few defenses and a swift path toward Paris. (Actually, the plan called for a wide encirclement of Paris.) Germany decided to leave the Netherlands out because they thought that invading the Netherlandsas well as Belgium went too far, but, as every other country saw it, invading Belgiumwas so great an infringement that sparing the Netherlandsearned Germanyno advantage or favor whatsoever.


An early expectation of the warring nations had been that this war would be like other wars before it with cavalry charges across open fields of battle, sabers flashing as horsemen in colorful uniforms and plumed hats rode into the enemies’ ranks. This expectation was cruelly crushed by reality. Artillery barrages—made by the cavalrymen’s own side—pocked the fields with craters in which their horses stumbled. Additionally, before the cavalry reached enemy lines, they would be mowed down not only by rifle fire but by machinegun fire. The machinegun had previously been used to put down colonial rebellions, but now, for the first time, Europeans used it against each other, and it helped to change war forever. With surprising speed, the combatant nations put aside their colorful and flashy uniforms in favor of drab gray and khaki. Helmets became less decorative and more practical (although, the new helmet designs often borrowed from the look of medieval headgear). Officers’ uniforms became more like those of their men so that snipers could less easily spot the commanders.


Nothing changed the look and feel of war on the Western Front as much as the stalemate of trench warfare. The trenches were so complex that it was necessary to have a map of your own trench network—or, alternatively, a guide—in order to navigate them. There would be several rows of trenches from the rear toward the front, and they would be cut into the earth in a saw-tooth pattern so that an explosion at one point might be prevented from sending fire and debris all the way down the line. Because large areas of the battlefield were below sea level, the bottom of the trench was apt to fill with water, which made it difficult for men to keep dry and led to health problems. (Diseases of various kinds killed soldiers more often than bombs or bullets.) Men’s hairstyles were profoundly affected by this type of warfare. In the previous century, wearing one’s hair in a military fashion could have meant somewhat long hair and, especially, a beard or long side whiskers; now, in order to protect against lice, soldiers cut their hair very short and limited any facial hair to a small “toothbrush” mustache. Hunkered in the warren-like complexes of troughs that were dug into the bomb-riddled, rain and blood-soaked fields of Belgium (often referred to as Flanders), soldiers on both sides were subjected to an alternating pattern of boring routine and terrifying slaughter.


The generals on both sides were devoted to what historians have called the “cult of the offensive,” to which I previously referred as the sentiment that the best defense is an offense. The goal was to break through the enemy’s lines by shear force. The two stages of the typical attack, used again and again by both sides on the Western Front, was to bomb the enemy trenches with artillery, using a rolling barrage that began in the empty field or no man’s land in front of the enemy trenches, and then moved into the trenches from front to rear (sometimes continuing into the rear headquarters area). When the barrage stopped—or even beginning before it stopped—the attacking side’s infantry would march forward across no man’s land and attack the enemy trenches that had supposedly been “softened up” by the barrage. This idea of assaulting an enemy who is dug into a fortified network of trenches failed to work for several reasons:


1) The bombed trenches were not softened up at all, being well fortified so that most of the defending soldiers simply hid themselves and survived the barrage. Afterward, they came out and laid down fire against the attacking troops. Machinegun posts were especially well fortified, and their return to operation after the barrage was most deadly to the attacking side.


2) The barrage announced exactly where the attackers were going to send troops, giving the defenders plenty of time to call for reinforcements. The defending side could use trains and trucks to get reinforcements to the trenches before the attackers could slog across no man’s land on foot.


3) The same barrage that had failed to soften up the enemy made a mess of the battlefield so that attacking infantrymen had difficulty making it across the bomb-cratered landscape, which was often turned into mud that additionally slowed their advance.



The hope and faith that a large enough attack would break through the enemy’s strong center enthralled German, French and British generals throughout most of the war. The idea of attacking an enemy at his strongest point has been recognized by the best military strategists throughout history as the opposite of a wise tactic; it is far better to attack where an enemy is already weak. Only belatedly did any of the military commanders of World War I understand this. As a result, many fierce battles were fought on the Western Front with enormous casualties in exchange for gains and losses of only a few miles or even yards. The advantage of the defensive position became obvious to anyone who faced the facts. Unfortunately, it was enlisted men and junior officers who recognized this before the general officers did.


The traumatic stalemate on the Western Front so captured the imaginations of the combatant nations both during and after the war, that it was sometimes imagined that all future wars would be characterized by the phenomenon of stalemate. It was less well appreciated that this type of stalemate rarely occurred in other theaters of the Great War. Especially on the Eastern Front, where Central Power and Russian forces clashed, there were sweeping battles that achieved definitive victories for one side or the other, but there was also a seesaw effect whereby one side’s sweeping victory would be followed within weeks by a sweeping victory by the other side. Although the Russians attacked Germany more quickly and with greater initial success than Germanyhad anticipated, the German’s achieved their first great victory of the war at Tannenberg at the end of August 1914. At first the Russians had driven deep into German territory, but Tannenberg turned the tide. In 1915, the Russians would win one more great victory, but it would be their last.


Meanwhile, Great Britain’s entry into the war was a factor that Germanyhad not anticipated, and this made the situation for Germany more dire. (Some historians think that the participation of Britaincombined with the collapse of the Schlieffen Plan made German defeat inevitable after the first month of the war; no matter how long it might take for the allied Powers to defeat her, Germanyultimately could not win.) Britain’s entry was also less easily justified to the British people. Why should an island nation get involved at all when Germanycould not invade it as easily as it could invade Franceor even Russia? Britain had an agreement to help Francebut it also resorted to extolling the ideal of the sovereignty and independence of smaller nations. This cause was often justified by pointing to Germany’s invasion and occupation of Belgium. The real reason for British involvement, however, was a fear that German domination of Europe would mean German rivalry on the high seas at a time when Britainhad enjoyed worldwide naval supremacy for generations.

The early developments of the war led to shifts in strategy and especially in personnel. Following the failure of the Schlieffen Plan, General Moltke was replaced by General Erich von Falkenhayn as Chief of the General Staff of the German army. Falkenhayn settled into the supervision of the Western stalemate although he authorized and led several attempts to break it, leading to high casualties but no further territorial gain. Although he also supervised the Eastern Front, his service there was little needed. German management of the Eastern Front was already in the able hands of the so-called "Siamese twins"--generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff. (Later, Hindenburg and Ludendorff would play backroom politics within the German military and force the resignation of Falkenhayn, to be replaced by Hindenburg himself.) Early during the war a pattern developed in terms of the comparative strengths of the combatant countries. The opening of the war, with its unexpected wholesale slaughter on the early battlefields, hurt Austria-Hungary most of all. Her best professional army officers were killed in the first weeks of the war and were never replaced by men who were as good. The result was a dismal performance by the Austro-Hungarian army against the Russian forces. The only enemy forces against whom the Austrians did well were the Italians who entered the war in 1915. Even so, the Austrians were so weakened by the end of the war that even the Italians were able to defeat them. Time and again, especially against the Russians, the Austrians needed to be bailed out by the Germans. The Germans came to complain that they were "shackled to the corpse" of Austria-Hungary. Similarly, while the French army did well under the worst circumstances, facing perhaps its greatest crisis of the war during the ten-month-long battle of Verdun in 1916, the help of the British army was indispensable to France's survival. Consequently, the German predicament was that they might be able to fight the French alone, but not the British, too. German sentiment, which had held France in contempt for generations, turned its long-held distrust of Britain into an especially white-hot hatred.