Thursday, August 23, 2012

USS Constitution ("Old Ironsides") and Guerriere. Was it a fair fight?


The sea battle between the USS Constitution and the HMS Guerriere occurred 19 August 1812, exactly 200 years ago.  It was   a great morale booster for the young American republic, occurring so soon after America became independent of Britain.

But was it  a fair fight?


Compare the size and armament of the respective ships.  

The Constitution was 1576 tons and carried 44 guns with 950lb of broadside (ammunition). The Guerriere was 1092 tons and was rated as 38 guns, with 526lb of broadside.

The Constitution had a complement of roughly 450 including 55 Marines and 30 boys, as compared to the Guerriere's 272.

The Constitution's 24-pound cannonballs felled the Guerriere's mast, which turned the British ship into a sitting duck; while the British vessels' 18-pound cannonballs had trouble penetrating the Constitution's hull. 

It doesn't look like a very equal struggle.  However Britain had been waging war with France for some nine years and British ships had considerably more experience of sea warfare than the Americans. Despite the diference in size and armament of the respective frigates, the British captain considered it an equal struggle ; accordingly, it was a traumatic defeat for British sea power.

But here's the kicker:


A sailor's memoirs of the struggle record how one cannonball seemed to slightly penetrate the ship, before dropping into the sea.  The sailor then called out the quote that would give the Constitution its nickname, "Huzzah, her sides are made of iron!  See where the shot fell out!"

The hull of the "USS Constitution" was made of Georgia live oak sandwiched between two layers of white oak, and was 21 inches thick.  The Guerriere had been built in France, using European oak of poorer quality than the Georgia oak, which tipped the scale of the conflict in favor of the American.

It was a tradition that when a ship was captured in battle, it would retain the name it had before the capture.  The British navy had captured the Guerriere from the French.  It never became an American vessel because it burned and sank immediately after the battle with USS Constitution.

Rebellion in Syria. Father's Love


TAL RIFAAT, Syria — Abdul Hakim Yasin, the commander of a Syrian antigovernment fighting group, 37, had been a clean-shaven accountant before the war.  He had lived a quiet life with his wife and two young sons.  Now he had a thick beard.  The war had hardened him.

In July, his father, Jamal, had been arrested by the soldiers.  He suspected it was because the government knew his son led an armed group; he said he expected his father would be killed.

His father had just called to say his jailers had released him and he needed a ride out of Aleppo.

Abdul Yasin shouted that his father had called and said he had been unexpectedly let out from prison.  They needed to rush to retrieve him.  The rebels climbed onto trucks, loaded weapons and drove on nearly deserted roads toward a city under siege, to reclaim their leaders father.


Mr. Yasin was pensive as he drove, worried that the call was a ploy to lure him and his fighters into a trap.

In the lead truck, Mr. Yasin repeatedly tried to call a friend he had sent ahead in civilian clothes in an empty freight truck.  He was expecting a trick, and wanted the lead driver to ensure that his father actually was free and there was no trap.  Then the fighters could drive in.

At the outskirts of the city, he reached the other man, who reported that he was with Jamal Yasin, driving north.

In the darkness of the abandoned road, the other truck approached and stopped.  Jamal Yasin (Abdul's father) climbed out.

Jamal Yasin said he had not been tortured.  But the prison cell was tiny and so overcrowded that he almost could not sleep.

Abdul Hakim Yasin admitted to his worry.  “I was 99 percent sure it was an ambush,” he said.


His father listened, then gently admonished his son. “You really think if it was an ambush I would call you?” he said.  “Even if they were slitting my throat?”

From a New York Times article
Published: August 20, 2012

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Montaigne and Glory. Death in a ditch.

Montaigne's tower, in which he wrote his 'Essays'


Glory in battle.  It's all about luck.  To what do Caesar and Alexander owe the infinite grandeur of their renown if not to luck.  How many men has fortune  extinguished in their first encounter with battle, at the very beginning their life's journey.  Yet through so many great dangers that he encountered Caesar was never wounded; whereas a thousand have fallen in lesser dangers than the least of those he went through.


Men do not write histories of things of little moment, of the things that happen to the common soldier.

A man must have been a general in the conquest of an empire or a kingdom; he must have won two-and-fifty set battles, (and always outnumbered), as Caesar did.  Ten thousand brave fellows and many great captains lost their lives valiantly in his service, whose names lasted no longer than their wives and children lived.

"When beggars die there are no comets seen.
The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes."
(Julius Caesar, Shakespeare)


To gain renown in battle, a man must be seen to do great deeds; but the fact is he is not always on the top of a breach, or at the forefront of an army, where his general can see him, as if he were an actor on a stage.

Reality is different.

A man is often surprised between the hedge and the ditch; he must run the hazard of his life against a hen roost; he must root out four paltry musketeers from a barn; he must go out alone from his company, and do his job as the need arises.  And whoever will observe will find it true by experience, that occasions that are the least brilliant are ever the most dangerous; and that in the wars of our own times there have been more brave men lost in trivial, unimportant occasions, fighting over some little shack, than in places of greatest importance, and where their valour might have been more honourably employed.

So that's the nitty-gritty of battle in France in the 1500's - an inglorious and unseen fight to the death, between a hedge and a ditch.

From Montaigne's essays.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Cinderford. 1943. Mustard Gas.

Under a forest canopy. 


The debate between Roosevelt and Churchill on the subject of whether to use Nerve gas lasted throughout the war.  Roosevelt was opposed, and in June 1943 he sharply reaffirmed United States policy on gas warfare: "Use of such weapons has been outlawed by the general opinion of civilized mankind.  This country has not used them, and I hope we will never be compelled to use them.  I state categorically that we shall under no circumstances resort to the use of such weapons unless they are first used by our enemies."


Nevertheless, in 1942 the Army's Chemical Warfare Service (CWS) received one billion dollars and had more then sixty thousand employees.  Its tasks included preparing for gas and bacteriological warfare, as well as producing incendiaries for bombing, flame throwers, and other devices.


In December 1943, after the bloody Battle of Tarawa, which had cost the United States more than thirty-four hundred casualties in four days, the chief of the CWS pleaded with Army superiors to start using gas.  He argued that in view of american air superiority, there would be no danger of reprisals.  

There was some popular support for this view.  The New York Daily News declared , "We should gas Japan".  The Washington Times Herald asserted, "We should have used gas at Tarawa" because "You can cook 'em better with gas".  But this was a minority opinion.  About 75 percent of Americans still opposed initiating gas weapons.

It was on military grounds, not moral, that the Army decided against their use.  The argument that won favor was that this was a two-theater war, and the use of gas against Japan might provoke Germany "To gas in retaliation."


About a week after D-day, Germany launched a massive V-1 rocket assault on Britain, killing twenty-seven hundred people, injuring ten thousand, and damaging the homes of more than two hundred thousand.  Eager to punish Germany and hoping likewise to deter future rocket attacks, Churchill wanted to "drench the cities of the Ruhr and many other cities in Germany (with gas) so that most of the population would be in constant need of medical attention".

Churchill informed his military advisers: "It is absurd to consider morality on this topic when everybody used it in the last war without a word of complaint from the moralists or the Church.  On the other hand, in the last war the bombing of open cities was regarded as forbidden.  Now everybody does it as a matter of course.  It is simply a question of fashion changing as she does between long and short skirts for women."

But not yet quite ready to cross what many considered a moral threshold, he qualified his statement indicating that he would use gas only if "it (is) life or death for us, or (if) it would shorten the war by a year."

Note on the Battle of Tarawa:  There were between 10,000 and 12,000 casualties out of 160,000 troops landed on the Normandy beaches on D-Day,

He directed his military advisors to come up with a "cold-blooded calculation as to how it would pay us to use poison gas...I want the matter studied in cold blood by sensible people and not by that particular set psalm-singing uniformed defeatists which one runs across now here now there'

Disappointingly for Churchill, his advisors argued that aircraft would be diverted from their more effective utilization in bombing Germany's industries and cities.


In 1945 as the war in Europe was winding down, General Marshall, the Army Chief of Staff, wanted to initiate gas warfare against Japan.  British opposition prevented him.  It was feared that Germany, involved now in the last few weeks of the war, might be tempted to resort to gas in Europe.


After the War, it was revealed that the United States had produced 135,000 tons of chemical warfare agents, Germany about 70,000 tons, Britain 40,000 tons, and Japan had 7,500 tons.

From the American Heritage Magazine.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Quotations from the Olympics Closing Ceremony Floor


"Rage, rage against the dying of the light"

From 'Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night', by Dylan Thomas.

"The rest is silence"

Last words of the play, Hamlet

"When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life."

Samuel Johnson

"To be or not to be"


"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times"

'A Tale of Two Cities' by Charles Dickens

Friday, August 10, 2012

Montaigne on Fate

Montaigne 1533-1592


Words to give courage in battle.

I have seen a great many commanders encourage their soldiers with talk of the necessity of fate; for if our time has been fixed to a certain hour, then neither the enemies' shot nor our own boldness, nor our flight and cowardice, can either shorten or prolong our lives.

See also Stonewall Jackson and fate.

That's easily said (says Montaigne), but see if anyone is that easily convinced.  Indeed, if a strong faith is evidenced by the strong and brave actions that it inspires, then this faith we so much brag of in this day and age of ours, must be a very light weight faith.  He's talking of religious faith four hundred and fifty years ago, but he could be speaking of today. 


The Bedouins.  Their bravery.

So it is, that to this very purpose the Sire de Joinville, as credible a witness as any could be, tells us of the Bedouins, a nation amongst the Saracens, with whom the King Louis fought in the Holy Land.  He says that they, in their religion, so firmly believed the number of every man's days to be from all eternity prefixed and set down by an inevitable decree, that they went naked to the wars, excepting a Turkish sword, and their bodies only covered with a white linen cloth.

When they wished to curse someone, the greatest curse they could invent in their anger was this : "May you be cursed like the man who arms himself for fear of death".


A young Turkish lord, who had performed a notable exploit in the sight of both armies, being asked by the commander Amurath, that being so young and inexperienced, (for it was his first sally into arms), what had inspired him with so brave a courage, replied, that he had learned his valor from a hare.

"One day," he said,  "I was out hunting, and I found a hare sitting.  I had some excellent greyhounds with me, yet I thought that the surest method of killing the hare was with my bow, for she seemed an easy target.  So I let fly my arrows, and shot forty that I had in my quiver, not only without hurting, but without even startling her."

"At last I let loose my dogs after her, but to no more success than my arrows.   By which I understood that she had been kept safe by her destiny; and that neither arrows nor swords can wound without the permission of fate, which we can neither hasten nor defer."

The Turkish historians say that the strong belief that the people of their nation have imprinted in their minds of the fatal and unalterable prescription of their days, gives them a great feeling of security in the midst of dangers.

See Lawrence of Arabia, the Movie.


Montaigne's discussion of God and fate.

Men say: "Since God foresees that all things shall so fall out, as doubtless He does, it must then necessarily follow, that they must so fall out"

So how do we tie our own free will to this argument of a certain and inevitable necessity:

Seeing anything come to pass, as we do, and as God Himself also does (for since all things are in the present for Him, He rather sees, than foresees), is not to compel an event.

For us knowledge of fate is always after the fact.  We see because things do fall out, but things do not fall out because we see: events cause knowledge, but knowledge does not cause events.

That which we see happen, does happen; but it might have happened otherwise: and God, in the catalogue of the causes of events which He has in His prescience, has also those which we call accidental and voluntary, depending on chance or our free will.   He has given us our free will, and knows that if we do amiss, it is because we have chosen to do so.

Stonewall Jackson and Fate.


General Stonewall Jackson was fearless in battle.  He believed very powerfully that the time and place of his departure from life had been fixed in advance by God, and nothing he did could change that predicated moment.

Speaking to Captain John D. Imboden (24 July 1861), as quoted in Stonewall Jackson As Military Commander, by John Selby, p. 25:

"Captain, my religious belief teaches me to feel as safe in battle as in bed.  God has fixed the time for my death.  I do not concern myself about that, but to be always ready, no matter when it may overtake me.  Captain, that is the way all men should live, and then all would be equally brave."


"You know."

You know how people are always mixing the phrase, "you know" into their conversation; well, it's not a new thing.  It was the same in Jackson's age, one hundred and fifty years ago.  Persons who, while speaking with Jackson, interlarded their conversation with the unmeaning phrase “you know” were often astonished by the blunt interruption that he did NOT know.

See also Montaigne on Fate.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Lawrence of Arabia, The Movie and "It is written"

Peter O'Toole as lawrence and Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali.

Lawrence as painted by Augustus John.


In the 1962 movie, Lawrence of Arabia, Lawrence (played by Peter O'toole), has convinced a bandof Arabic warriors to cross the Arabian Desert, to attack the Enemy port of Aqaba from the undefend rear.

The crossing is treacherous - searing heat in the "Sun's Anvil"; dust storms and swirling cyclones - an endless trek that exhausts and kills some of the men.  As they begin to reach the end of the desert, it is noticed that one of the camels is riderless.  Lawrence unhesitatingly insists on going back for the rider, Gasim.

Sherif Ali (played by Omar Sarif) says to Lawrence, "If you go back, you'll kill us all.  Gasim you have killed already."

Another man says, "Gasim's time is come, Lawrence.  It is written!"

Lawrence replies, "Nothing is written."

Sherif Ali says to Lawrence, "You will not be at Aqaba, English.  Go back, blasphemer!  But you will not be at Aqaba!"

Lawrence replies, "I shall be at Aqaba.  That is written...(He points at his head.) here!"

In a triumphant sequence, the heroic, courageous Lawrence retraces his steps, finds the half-dead Gasim (who has been wandering aimlessly), rescues him, and returns to the oasis/camp with Gasim clinging to his saddle.  The "Englishman" gives a penetrating, searing look at Ali, and before drinking from water offered to him, he defiantly and proudly repeats himself:

"Nothing is written."


Read about the courage of the Bedouin in about the year 1600 in Montaigne on fate.


Now comes the twist of fate which shows that Lawrence is after all an instrument in the hands of fate, and that indeed, "All is written":

In their camp the night before the attack on Aqaba's undefended landward side, a potentially divisive event occurs that could split the rival tribes into a bloody feud.  One of the Harith Arabs has murdered a man from the other tribe.  Only Lawrence, as a non-Arab neutral who stands above petty tribal rivalries and age-old blood feuds, can even-handedly execute the offender.

As the offender raises his head, Lawrence sees it is Gasim - the man whose life he saved in the Nefud desert.  With a look of shock, he cold-bloodedly fires all six shots from his pistol into Gasim's body.  The two rival chieftains exchange words about the just execution and the emotional uncertainty displayed by Lawrence:

Auda: What ails the Englishman?
Sherif: That man he killed was the man he brought out of the Nefud.
Auda: Ah, it was written then.  Better to have left him.
Sherif (to Lawrence): You gave life and you took it. The writing is still yours. (Lawrence throws the gun away in disgust.)

Gasim had been fated to die in the desert.  Lawrence had cheated fate by rescuing him, but in the end, it was only a short reprieve, and death came to Gasim as had been written.


A verse from The Rubaiyat of Omar khayyam, written about 1120 AD.

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Women and Children Last.


The chivalrous code "women and children first" is a myth that has been nourished by the Titanic disaster," say economists Elinder and Erixson of Uppsala University, Sweden, in a paper titled "Every man for himself!"

The two economists analyzed a database of 18 peace-time shipwrecks over the period 1852–2011 in a new study into survival advantages at sea disasters.  They considered the fate of over 15,000 people of more than 30 nationalities, and they found that more women and children die than men in maritime disasters, while captains and crew have a greater chance of survival than any passengers.


Being a woman was an advantage on only two ships: on the Birkenhead in 1852 and on the Titanic in 1912.

It was the sinking of the troopship HMS Birkenhead off the coast of South Africa in 1852 that inspired the tradition of "women and children first."

The soldiers' commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Seton, ordered his men to help get the women and children on board the three lifeboats as the Birkenhead began sinking in shark-infested waters off Cape Town, South Africa.  A survivor reports that, Lieutenant-Colonel Seton, drew his sword to keep the way free for the women and children (Addison and Matthews, 1906).  All 13 children and 7 women onboard were saved.   Not a single woman or child was lost.

So the ‘women and children first’ protocol came into existence based upon the iron discipline of one chivalrous British Colonel, and the lives of only twenty women and children. 

 About 20 minutes after striking the rock, the Birkenhead had disappeared from he surface.  At this time, the soldiers had been given the order to abandon the ship.  Of the some seven hundred people on board the doomed ship, 40 survived by climbed the rigging, 76 escaped in lifeboats, 9 escaped in the gig and 68 had reached the shore swimming by swimming the two miles or floating on debris.

This went down in maritime history as the Birkenhead Drill - women and children first - and it deeply influenced the behavior on the Titanic.


When the luxury liner Titanic sank in the North Atlantic on April 14, 1912, the captain E.J. Smith admonished the men to "Be British," letting women and children leave first.  In the best romantic tradition, he did go down with his ship.  1,496 of the 2,208 people aboard died as the 46,000-ton vessel plunged to a depth of 12,400 feet.

"Women had a quite remarkable survival advantage over men in this disaster; 73.3 percent compared to 20.7 percent.  First class passengers had a survival rate of 62 percent, second class 41.8 percent and third class 25.4 percent.  Children had a higher survival rate than adults,"  wrote Elinder and Erixson.

The Titanic stands out in that an unusually high percentage of women escaped death — a direct result of the ship's officers making their safety a priority.

It was the last time that women benefited from the Birkenhead tradition.


Continuing their investigation, Elinder and Erixson found that women had a lower chance of survival in 11 out of 18 shipwrecks.  Women fared worse also in recent times; during the sinking of the Russian river cruise MV Bulgaria in 2011, for example, they had a survival rate of 26.9 percent, opposed to 60.3 percent of men.

Migrants and pilgrims of low socio-economic status who traveled by ship were very often not given the dignity of being divided into men and women.  They were simply regarded as mobs, crowds or 'cargo.' You very rarely had women and children of this class and racial background being given precedence in shipwrecks.

These are the survival rates from the eighteen disasters used for the analysis:

Crew 62 %, Captain 43%, Male passenger 38%, female passenger 28%, child 16%.


From the above statistics it can be seen that the crew and the captain had the best odds of survival on average - a rule confirmed by the recent Costa Concordia disaster.

"Only seven out of 16 captains went down with their ship," said Elinder

What really seems to matter is the behavior of the captain, who has the power to enforce behavior.  "His policy, rather than the moral sentiments of men, determines if women are given preferential treatment in shipwrecks.  This suggests an important role for leaders in disasters," the researchers wrote.


Women would have been better off if they had avoided British ships.  In contrast with the notion of British men being more gallant than men of other nationalities, women fared worse in shipwrecks involving Union Jack ships.

"Based on our analysis, it becomes evident that the sinking of the Titanic was exceptional in many ways and that what happened on the Titanic seems to have spurred misconceptions about human behavior in disasters," Elinder and Erixson concluded.


Ships used for the analysis:

HMS Birkenhead 1852 Grounding Indian Ocean                     British
SS Arctic 1854 Collision North Atlantic                                   US 
SS Golden Gate 1862 Fire Pacific Ocean,                                US 
SS Northfleet 1873 Collision English Channel                         British
RMS Atlantic 1873 Grounding North Atlantic                         British  
SS Princess Alice 1878 Collision River Thames                       British 
SS Norge  1904 Grounding North Atlantic                               Danish  
RMS Titanic 1912 Collision North Atlantic                              British  
RMS Empress of Ireland 1914 Collision St Lawrence River    British  
RMS Lusitania 1915 Torpedoed North Atlantic                       British 
SS Principessa Mafalda 1927 Technical Atlantic Ocean           Italian 
SS Vestris 1928 Weather Atlantic Ocean                                  British 
SS Morro Castle 1934 Fire Atlantic Ocean                               US  
MV Princess Victoria 1953 Weather North Channel                British 
SS Admiral Nakhimov 1986 Collision Black Sea                     Russian 
MS Estonia 1994 Technical Baltic Sea                                     Estonian  
MS Princess of the Stars 2008 Weather Philippine Sea             Philippine 
MV Bulgaria 2011 Weather Volga                                           Russian 

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Death. The Inevitable Appointment.


There's a poem, perhaps by Browning, in which the inhabitant of a certain town spots Death in a crowd, gazing at him with a look of surprise on his face.  He is stricken with terror and leaves his town in a panic to hide from Death in a neighboring town.  Three days later, in this new town he again sees Death but this time Death comes up to him and touches him on the shoulder and speaks to him:  "Three days ago I saw you in your hometown.  The look you saw on my face was a look of surprise, because my appointment with you was here, three days later."


In the earlier days of dueling, before the specific code duello was created with specific norms to follow, it was common to agree on all sorts of unusual conditions.  In one bizarre incident, an Englishman abroad was challenged to a duel by a wealthy resident of the particular area in which the Englishman was travelling.  Unable to avoid a duel, the Englishman agreed to a meeting with pistols in the challenger's baronial hall - but he specified that it be held in complete darkness.

He was determined not to hurt his opponent, so the Englishman waited till the challenger fired first, and then, slowly and carefully, he felt his way around the wall until he found the large fireplace that he had noted before the darkness.  Then he carefully discharged his pistol up the chimney.  To his horror the body of his overly cautious opponent dropped down to the hearth with a sickening thud.

From The Treasury of the Gun, by Harold l. Peterson


More popthems needed to illustrate further this unavoidable encounter with Death.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Lord Byron and the Rolling Stones.


Lord Byron was the original "Bad Boy", and this 150 years before the Stones founded their band.  He was barred from Long's Hotel on Bond St. in London.  The regrettable incident for which he was barred is that, "On a cold wet night, Lord Byron deemed the hall to be a less inclement place than an uncovered yard".  What he did is left to our imagination.

The source for this is "For your Convenience" via "Cleanliness and Godliness"


In March, 1965 three of the Rolling Stones were spotted urinating in the forecourt of the Francis Service Petrol Station in East Ham.   A private summons was issued against Mick Jagger, Brian Jones and Bill Wyman.  In court it was said that Wyman had asked if he could use the petrol station lavatory, but had been refused.

A mechanic, Mr Charles Keeley, then asked Jagger to remove his group from the forecourt, but Jagger had brushed him aside, saying: "We will piss anywhere, man."  The rest of the group then began chanting "We will piss anywhere, man" while carrying out their threat.

As they drove off they added insult to injury by “making a well-known gesture”.

Each of the three Rolling Stones was found guilty and fined £5 with 15 guineas costs on March 18th.