The Costs of War

This week ran an interesting article on the cost of the Iraq and Afghan Wars. To my mind, the most important observation made in the article is that the wars have been notable removed from the American population, with a small percentage of the population actually involved and a small part of the American GDP spent. Unlike World War 2, where over a third of the GDP went to the war and far more soldiers were committed. Vietnam had a comparable financial cost, but a draft brought the war home to a far greater degree.

It is an interesting note, especially in regard to how often America is at war and the danger that ‘limited’ wars could become more common as the costs are not directly related to the American people. As one historian cited in the article noted: “the army is at war, but the country is not.”


Perhaps the most notable naval battle in history is that of Trafalgar, where the most famous naval officer, Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, reaffirmed the British predominance on the high seas. The queen of the oceans would hold this position for another two hundred years.

Surprising as it may seem, both Copenhagen and Aboukir were more revolutionary in tactics than Trafalgar, but Trafalgar was the nail that sealed the coffin. At Aboukir and Copenhagen Nelson pioneered a maneuver where he sailed between the land and the enemy fleet while it lay at anchor, demolishing their line of battle without much opposition (at Copenhagen he did it despite the shore fortifications protecting the enemy fleet), but at Trafalgar, the French and Spanish were ready for the tactic, they had better ships and a larger fleet, yet Nelson’s superior training, sailing and gunnery won the day.

In part it was the mystique of the British navy and that few of the French captains were comfortable facing Nelson. Another aspect to the victory was that, unlike Napoleon’s admirals, Nelson simply set his course and doggedly pursued it. The short form of the battle is that Nelson approached the Combined Fleet in two columns, which he planned to intersect at two points, sail behind and smash the way he had at Aboukir. This was expected by his opponents, but he sailed up to and through the line without firing while the Combined Fleet wasted its shot. The first broadside tore apart the Combined Fleet and then the battle devolved into close range gunnery duels which favored the British.

Likewise, it is probably a good thing for the British that Trafalgar was so decisive, since Nelson died in it and while there were other capable officers in the fleet, there was not necessarily another Nelson.

One of the recurring themes in the history of warfare is that sometimes simply acting–setting a course and sticking to it–is what is best. Of course prudence requires you to know when to cut your losses.

Great man or Individualistic History

“Let him who cuts individuals out of history but pay close attention and he will perceive that either he has not cut them out at all, as he imagined, or he has cut out with them history itself.” ~Bernadetto Croce (On History 107)

One of the problems with history is that it is fundamentally a study of people, yet historians often try to extricate persons from history. “People”, that amorphous concept which encompasses us all and strata (classes) of society are acceptable, but the person is not. Gone are the days where the history of the world could be defined as the lives of all the great men. No, for it to be politically correct a history of the world needs to be a history of every single person ever to live upon it, and since that is far too impractical we will speak in term of “peoples” and “strata.”

Sterilized history is the result. Sure, the details can get nitty and gritty, especially when examples are made, but to just speak in these terms is sterilized, a-historical history. Instead of an art and an exercise in thought, it is an attempt to make history a science, justifiable in its own right and explanatory. And I find it much duller. Sure, this sterilization can provide trends, themes, explanations and valuable insights into what is going on, but even when this is done, it is through human examples and specific instances that demonstrate the scientific analyses.

What is my point? I am not sure I have one. Just that if the individual examples are going to be used anyway and at a fundamental level history is about humans, why is there a need to invalidate histories of the individual? If well done, the history of the individual will need to account for these other schools too.

History should not have to be valuable in its own right. For as long as there is a government there will be at least some impetus for history, no matter how biased. If that is not a good enough reason, the past has value and the academic historian needs to teach forthcoming generations to think, to write and to have open debate. Despite movements to the contrary,the world still needs the liberal arts; science alone is insufficient.


I finally read Harry Potter. I own the books and sort of see what all the fuss is about. And I have reread them. I still don’t like Harry Potter (the character), but I did enjoy the books. This is old news, but for those who know my history of staunchly refusing to read them for the better part of ten years, it may come as a shock. The motivation for reading the books was prompted by a Greek assignment to read the first book. In Greek. Trying to figure out what is going on and who this Dursley character was just by reading a Greek version proved a challenge, so I broke. I read them all and enjoyed them. I have since re-read them and will probably do so about once a year from here out–I also do the same with The Wheel of Time, Song of Ice and Fire and Lord of the Rings. But I still haven’t seen the movies of Harry Potter, and have little interest in doing so. These days I am still taking ignorant stances about books, but now it is Twilight and similar books. If one of my professors decides to make me read Twilight in Greek I am dropping that class and may have to consider a new line of work.

As much as I protest against this genre of ‘porny vampire books’ and am thoroughly turned away by a variety of contemporary literature, this is a personal issue. On a broader level I want people to read. I want them to read a lot and often. Not everyone will read A Tale of Two Cities in fourth grade and come away with an implacable hatred of Dickens, but it worries me when I meet people who don’t read books. The more intelligent the person, the less of an excuse I feel they have, but it bothers me the same. Given the choice between death and reading Twilight I would have to stop and think, but that is because I see them (and most modern ‘literature’) as bad books. This doesn’t make the people who read them bad; on the contrary, the very fact that they are reading is an encouraging sign. I hope they grow out of Twilight, or at least read other books, too, but any book that gets people (old, young, middle-aged, young at heart, and everything in between) to read has some sort of value. I have certainly read more than my fair share of bad books, I just (usually) don’t keep going back to them.

This is markedly similar to my stance on kindle and other e-readers. I like books. I like the smell of books, the feel of the paper. Some of my most used books have been dropped from trees, duct-taped back together, re-covered (one of those covers has comments from Yoda (Good book, it is) and Osama bin Laden (Blow up America!), written just before 9/11) and drink stained. With one or two exceptions, I don’t write in my books but rather enjoy books that others have written in, the more profound or more mundane the comments, the better. The only way I like to mark my books is through use and through love, otherwise I want them to remain in the condition which I found/purchased/received them. In fact I love books too much to ever switch to an e-reader, but e-readers have value if they get other people to read. Just don’t take my books out of print.

Who can critique

One of the required courses in nearly every graduate history department is Historiography, in one form or another. At Missouri, this takes the form of a co-taught course, one Americanist, one Europeanist, who select a book a week and then discuss the ideas, theories and methods of those works. Some of these actually cover topics of historiography (though rarely theory), while others simply are topical and from a wide range of subjects, styles and methods.

My own thoughts on the discussion, purpose and failings of the course aside, the intent is to make us think about what we are doing, and to expose us to a wide range of styles and methods. The department is distinctly anti-theory for reasons I will not broach here, and so the thrust of the course is this: “The better your method is–including languages–the more viable your research will be.” Bits and pieces actually address method and some (though not enough) of the class discussion is directed to this end, but realistically this assessment is self-evident or should be.

One of the issues that arose this past semester was over who can and should criticize scholarship. The book in question was well researched and conducted through a study of numerous languages and documents. The method and the research was generally sound, but I, at least, had some problems with the application at various points. Nonetheless, the class was repeatedly told that we were not qualified to critique the method. None of us were familiar with the other research in the field (which was characterized as a political agenda covering for shoddy scholarship), or the languages to properly critique the book. If someone without the proper credentials attempted to challenge the method and findings, they would have no basis for doing so.

Though I agree that method is important and that proper language use is essential to history, this argument that one must be credentialed to critique a work is nonsense. Someone with more credentials will bear more weight, but anyone is qualified to critique any book, and in fact they should. To not do so is the opposite end of the spectrum from accepting something because of a political agenda and as bad. Nothing should be taken for granted. This is true in history, as in any field. I am perfectly qualified to critique theater or cinema, even though I don’t necessarily have the ‘proper’ vocabulary. Some people will find my review helpful and accurate, while others will staunchly disagree. In some instances I will find myself corrected by so-called experts, while in others I will assert my right to hold an opinion. The point is that I can still do it; feel free to disagree.


How often does a military defeat set a standard for excellence? How often does a defeat create an aura of invincibility? Even a defeat like The Alamo just became a rallying cry, and the Roman republican defeats showed both their weaknesses and their resiliency, not their invincibility.

The only defeat with this result was the Battle of Thermopylae where 300 brave Spartans (and several thousand other Greeks) held off the main Persian army for days while the Greek force collected and came out for the main battle, or while Athens evacuated. What a marvelously successful propaganda effort this was. The Spartan force was slaughtered, but for two men, and other losses were heavy. High command was splintered and thus no expeditionary force was forthcoming. Likewise, if the Greeks had truly meant to hold the pass as a delaying action, why was this force sent instead of the massive force sent to Tempe the year before?

An answer may be that this was a rogue action taken by Leonidas in order to drag the Greeks out of complacency and force an engagement. If a Spartan king and hundreds of his peers met with Persia, surely the main Greek army would come out and fight with them, but of course that did not happen–and yes, the army had been basically assembled, albeit without most Athenian aid since they were manning ships at the time. Sparta lost 298 full citizens, including a king (for comparison, Sparta went to the negotiating table for peace in the Peloponnesian War when just over a hundred Spartans were captured), and with a successful propoganda campaign this catastrophe became a heroic sacrifice for the liberty of Greece. Spartans at the forefront of the campaign, suffering losses, but fighting like madmen and never surrendering, never retreating and only losing when impossibly outnumbered. Furthermore the number 300 stands out because this same propoganda campaign that pushed the Spartans as the saviors of Greece likewise de-emphasized any other states involved. The very fact that it was just 300 redoubled the heroism of this ‘sacrifice’.

Granted, the images of Thermopylae, from Frank Miller’s 300 to Stephen Pressfield’s The Gates of Fire to Herodotus to Plutarch’s Sayings of Kings and Commanders, are visually stunning. When the Persian emissary asks Leonidas for his weapons, the answer is blunt: molon labe . Warned that the Persian archers would cloak the sun with their arrows, Leonidas or another veteran Spartan responded that this is good, they will have their battle in the shade. The original thin red line holding back an onslaught (with other Greeks by their side), and when the Persians found an alternate path, most of the army was sent home while the Spartans and a few others held a hilltop until they were all killed. But looking beyond these images, the battle was a waste. It was a fleeting pause in the Persian advance and nothing more. No decisive land battle happened that year and the deaths were wasted.

Act: Nice

People should learn manners. Too often in this country there is a lack of politeness. If people would more often say please and thank you, the entire moral tenor of this great nation would be improved.

In this same vein I would like to propose legislation. It is well established that the government cannot and has no right to control what people think, but within some broad bounds it may guide the expression of those thoughts. Therefore the law will reward good manners, while punishing poor manners and foul language. In order to keep costs down, most of the enforcement will be handled by people in service industries, police officers, teachers, and management, as well as mechanisms for all citizens to participate in enforcement.

I. Good Manners

The initial focus of this bill is to improve manners, therefore that behaviour needs to be rewarded. Whenever pleases and thank yous and other kindnesses and appropriate manners are given, a cookie, about the size of a cookie crisp cookie, but available in several different varieties, will be given. The giver will be the teacher, service person, teacher, or other approved agent who observed the kindness. If none of these are present, the recipient of the kindness may text or call 1-UBE-NICE, fill out the form at, or email to to pass along in the hope that all good manners will be rewarded. Centers will be set up for cookie collection in these instances. Though the cookie is small, those who practice good manners continuously over the course of the day will find they have as many cookies as they could wish for.

In the event that cookie companies lobby against this, they may be granted government contracts to make these cookies.

II. Foul Language and Poor Manners

Just as there is a carro…cookie to reward the desired behavior, there also must be a punishment. The same people who may dispense reward also have the right to inflict punishment. This punishment is a 25 cent fine for each instance of poor manners and/or foul language. Officers may ticket for each offense, and the citizen action information is 1-UBE-NBAD, the poor manner form at, or email

There will be a review center, mostly automated, that will track the complaints and praise in order to avoid abuse of the system. If the computer flags a recipient of either more than a standard deviation above the norm, a human agent will review the file and, if necessary, make a direct, face-to-face review to discover if this person is actually a particularly good or bad person, if it is simply an anomaly or if there is an abuse. In the cases of abuse, that person will be barred from the system for six months. Immediate reward or punishment by appropriate authorities may still be given, but the automated system will automatically refuse to acknowledge inputs.

In order to encourage participation each state will be ranked for politeness, weighted by population. The winning state will receive a statewide ice cream party funded by the losing states, again weighted by population. The initial funds will be credit vouchers to the ice cream suppliers and, the states will provide the requisite funds and then, if the state is running too large a deficit to cover the cost, it will be added as a Act:nice Fee on the yearly state tax return.

In this manner, the manners of our great nation will be improved.