Category Archives: military history

October 23, 2013, 1:57 pm

Burning the Midnight Photovoltaics

One of my students is working on a paper on how much solar power each branch of the military uses. It’s a fascinating topic, as the military has gotten (partly because of outside pressure, partly because of the usefulness of mobile energy sources like solar power for fighting wars) extremely interested in renewable energy. This chart graphically suggests the scale of the challenge and the sheer size of the American military:

Chart from Schuyler Null, “Defense Sustainability: Energy Efficiency and the Battlefield,” Global Green USA, February 2010.


The Pentagon consumes as much energy as Portugal, and more than Nigeria and Denmark and New Zealand. The US military is responsible for 1% of American energy consumption. That’s a lot.

October 1, 2013, 10:00 am

Machine Love

An article at Salon notes that American soldiers and marines have anthropomorphized their battlefield robots, bestowing both names and emotions upon them:

As the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts have unfolded, the military has been expanding its use of robots on the battlefield. Often, these mechanical helpmates are deployed to carry out high-risk tasks related to the inspection, detection, and defusing of explosives. Their benefits are obvious: They save human lives, cannot be harmed by biological or chemical weapons, and don’t get tired or emotional. But are soldiers becoming too invested in their AI buddies? And could such sentimental attachment cloud their decision-making?

Julie Carpenter, a recent Ph.D. in education from the University of Washington, will explore this question in an upcoming book about human/robot interrelations. She interviewed 23 explosive ordnance personnel—2…

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September 19, 2013, 9:34 pm

Uncle Sam’s Peace Doves

A 1907 photograph of American warships:


“Uncle Sam’s Peace Doves”: ships being readied for Teddy Roosevelt to send them around the world. The Great White Fleet, as they later came to be known, were new American warships,
on a mission of peace, and a mission of warning. America was powerful, now.

The warning was particularly for Japan, who had lately beaten the Russians soundly in the Russo-Japanese War, and who, Teddy Roosevelt thought, might need to have their memories refreshed. “I thought it a good idea,” Roosevelt said, “that the Japanese should know that there were fleets of the white races which were totally different from the fleet of [the Russians].”

September 11, 2013, 7:19 pm

Teddy Roosevelt And Syria

Lovely spot for a canal you’ve got there
1376002 theo3

The world began in 1945. Or so many American pundits would have you believe. The predisposition is actually a bit more complicated than that: American history, pundit-style, often starts with the Revolution and Founding Fathers, jumps briefly to the Civil War (Gettysburg!), and then segues directly to Pearl Harbor, D-Day, and then the Cold War. That tendency has been on display in the Syria debate. James Fallows points to a Walter Shapiro article on President Obama’s decision to go to Congress for approval over Syria, which starts Presidential “evisceration” of Congress’ war-making abilities with Harry Truman:

For more than six decades, the war-making powers of Congress have been eviscerated by presidents of both parties. Which brings us back to Truman, who in 1950 balked at asking a Congress weary after World War II for approval to…

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September 9, 2013, 2:53 pm

You May Not Be Interested In Digital Humanities, But The Digital Humanities Are Interested In You.

(Guest post! Michael Doidge is a historian at the Combat Studies Institute where he created the U.S. Army’s first digitally interactive military history. Here he tells us about how he went about it. With bonus Russian Reversal title!)

VanguardvalorDuring the first days of my MA, my professor asked the incoming classes to go around the room and say something about ourselves. The student sitting next to me casually stated, “I can read and speak several languages.” It was my turn next. I had nothing to follow that act, so I offered a meek and self-deprecating riposte.

“I am also fluent in several languages.”

As expected, the professor asked which ones.

“C, C++, Visual Basic, Java, Pascal…”

The class got a laugh, the nerd in me smiled, and the digital historian working ten years later thinks “And that ain’t bad.”

In March of 2013 the Combat Studies Institute (CSI) released…

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August 29, 2013, 8:55 pm


Burning the White House, 1814

Dan Drezner posted a list of his nominations for the 10 worst foreign policy decisions in American history, using William Shatner’s The Transformed Man recording as a measure of appalling awfulness:

In honor of the above clip, what are the “Shatners” of American foreign policy? I mean, what are the true clusterf*cks that constrained U.S. actions, haunted future generations of American policymakers, and wreaked the greatest costs on the rest of the world?

The list is good, but post-World War I centric. I’d like to nominate a few from earlier:

1) Taking the Philippines after the Spanish-American War. At one stroke it sucked the United States into the eastern Pacific, put us athwart the lines of supply for Japanese raw materials and basically helped lead to World War II. All for a decision that President McKinley claimed he made by pulling an …

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August 16, 2013, 2:06 pm

Suicide in the Military

The suicide rate in the military has been in the news over the last few years. Last year’s total number of suicides, 349, were higher than the number of combat fatalities for the year. More members of the military killed themselves than were killed by their official enemies. The traditional explanation for this has been that the stress of war and repeated deployments away from family has taken its toll. See, e.g., here. A new article in The Journal of the American Medical Association can’t find that linkage:

The findings from this study are not consistent with the assumption that specific deployment-related characteristics, such as length of deployment, number of deployments, or combat experiences, are directly associated with increased suicide risk. Instead, the risk factors associated with suicide in this military population are consistent with civilian populations, including…

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August 15, 2013, 4:10 am

The Chivalry of the Rebel General Lee

Having returned from my vacation (the Jersey shore; very restful. To keep up my military history credentials, I went and took a look at Bunker 223:


It’s not actually terribly interesting as it looks mostly like a giant hunk of concrete from the outside and it’s not possible to get inside), I was drawn into a conversation (on Facebook) about Robert E. Lee and treason (sparked by this article). During the course of it, I found an article in the Times from 1864 called “The Chivalry of the Rebel General Lee” that had a quite remarkable statement about Lee and treason:

The simple truth is that the very fact of a soldier’s abandoning his flag involves an abandonment of character. LEE received his military education from the Government, had been constantly honored and trusted by the Government, and it was the extreme of perfidy in him to turn traitor against the Government. The soul…

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July 25, 2013, 5:58 pm

Vomiting is Present! Man Overboard!

Sometimes, two forms of communication don’t mix:

When the National Park Service wanted to dress up the U.S. Navy Memorial here, officials decided to fly signal flags, a colorful but archaic form of ship-to-ship communication. Visitors to the site today encounter two flagpoles designed to look like ships’ masts, on which 14 signal flags are arrayed in four groups. Each flag represents a letter. Together, they are supposed to spell: U-S-N-A-V-Y-M-E-M-O-R-I-A-L….[Unfortunately], there are several different ways to read signal flags. “Vomiting is present. Man overboard,” the flags on one yardarm would read. M-E-M is the signal for vomiting. O means someone has fallen into the sea.

A local yachtsman, who drives by the memorial regularly, complained to the National Park Service about the multiple messages. The memorial has settled on leaving the flags up, preserving a message that can be…

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July 24, 2013, 5:52 pm

Annual Deaths in the US Military, 1980-2010

Not all deaths in the military come from combat, or during wars:


Interestingly, in the raw numbers, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had death counts that were actually matched or surpassed by those of the military in the early 1980s, when the US was mostly at peace. When the graph is by deaths as a percentage of the active duty military, that changes:


In this case, the percentage of deaths rises higher during the 2000s than it was during the 1980s.

Some of the differences come simply from size. The military of the 2000s was about two-thirds the size of the military of 1980s and thus, by demographics alone, that larger population would see more deaths. But what is most notable is the way that both accidents and homicides have gone down.

Accidents (average):

1980-85: 1459
2005-2010: 528

Murders (average):
1980-85: 123
2005-2010: 53

Accidents from 2005-2010 averaged…

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July 18, 2013, 8:46 pm

Annual Number of Americans Drafted, 1917-1973

From here. Interesting in chart form:


Emphasizes for me just how much World War II was an outlier in terms of national effort in the 20th century.

Update: Now draft numbers as a percentage of total population:


April 12, 2013, 6:50 pm

Mine Eyes

On this day in history, I note, the South started the Civil War by shelling Fort Sumter, South Carolina. The war, which went on for four years, was over the “peculiar institution” of slavery, and ended with over 350,000 Americans dying (as did over 300,000 Confederates). It was the largest, most violent war in American history and saw the work of the greatest general in American history, Ulysses S. Grant.

April 11, 2013, 9:07 pm

Would Sir Like Some Mustard Gas With His Cod?


Almost seven decades after the end of the war, residual explosives that were hardly taken seriously for a long time are now coming to light in the North and Baltic Seas. Experts estimate that there are 1.6 million metric tons of conventional and chemical ammunition in German territorial waters alone, unexploded time bombs lying in or on the sea floor. The unexploded ordnance (UXO) includes giant aerial bombs weighing hundreds of kilograms, 15-kilo shells, small high-explosive shells, hand grenades, detonators and ammunition rounds, for a total of more than 50 million individual items.

Nothing like a little mustard gas to spoil your fishing trip.

(h/t Jonathan Beard)

March 20, 2013, 11:35 pm


Ezra Klein is a national treasure. Kenneth Pollack is not. He’s not because of gems like this (which, I’m sorry to say, E.K. brought into)

I supported Kenneth Pollack’s Iraq war.
In 2002, Pollack, a Persian Gulf expert who’d worked at the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council, published “The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq.” Pollack’s argument, in short, was that Saddam Hussein was an unusually reckless, cruel and self-deluded dictator who either had weapons of mass destruction or was very close to attaining them. His past, which included catastrophic wars with Iran and Kuwait, murderous rampages against his own people, erratic personal behavior and a clear aspiration toward regional hegemony, suggested that he wasn’t the sort of tyrant who could be contained or reasoned with, and so Pollack’s reluctant, unhappy conclusion was that he …

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March 19, 2013, 2:45 pm

Women in Combat: One Sentence Answers

G.S. Newbold, a retired Lieutenant General in the Marines, has an article in Time, entitled “Seven Myths About ‘Women in Combat.’” Like most articles with the word “myth” in the title, it implies that it is offering a clear-eyed and tough look at the issue. What it’s really doing, instead (and unsurprisingly), is giving a fresh coat of paint to the standard line of opposition to women in combat.

I can’t be bothered to do much more than offer a one sentence comment, response, or translation to his myths. I promise no fairness at all. After all, as Lt. Col Newbolt points out gravely, “‘Fair’ is not part of the direct ground combat lexicon,” although I’m unsure if “direct ground combat lexicon” is a book, a language, or a disease.

Here it goes, in order*: 1. No, it’s about women in combat, were you not there for the powerpoint? 2. What’s with this ‘women as wilting flowers who can’t …

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