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.