Walls of Men

Looking back on 2023: The Year of Tidying Up

Yesterday we hosted a modest gathering by historical standards, but it was a welcome change from the lingering isolation of the pandemic.

In addition to the benefit of companionship, I like having people over because it acts as a spur to clean up the place.  It's easy to get complacent about the state of one's home.  So long as the kitchen sink is clear and the toilets aren't covered in grime, it's all good, right?

No.  I think the accumulation of dust and disorderliness can be felt, even if it isn't consciously seen.  So much stuff get set down here or there and then forgotten and finally buried.  It's nice to clear all that out and replace year-old papers with a plate of snacks.

That's somewhat my feeling about 2023 - it wasn't so much about starting new things as much as clearing out old ones.  While my retirement date was set at the end of 2022, it was not until mid-April that the wrangling with the Air Force was completed.  Only then did I receive my packet, certificates and formal notification.

Similarly, June saw the end of two decades of having kids in school.  I'm finally off the district email list.

Of course, Walls of Men published earlier this year, and due to the current domestic situation, I haven't been able to start anything new.  Walls of Men was something of a commercial disappointment to me.  I figured China's military history was a much more compelling topic than the Spanish Civil War, but I was wrong.

With books being out of reach, I've cranked out quite a few columns for Bleeding Fool, and these are getting more engagement, no doubt a function of their frequency and topics.

While I try to be hopeful and optimistic, I look forward to the coming year with a certain sense of dread.  Politics hold no interest for me, and our electoral system is breaking down.  I've little confidence that it will hold up to the strain.

That being said, God is the prime mover in all of this, and I will continue to work in deepening my prayer life and giving all of my trust over to Him.


The limits of eye-witness accounts

A friend of mine's father served in the 12th Armored Division during WW II, rising from the ranks to be a lieutenant.  Remarkably, he's still alive, having passed his 100th birthday.

Apparently the tank destroyer battalion in his unit was what used to be called "colored," that is:  black enlisted men, white officers.  He took a dim view of them, and this extended to black people in general, since he regarded the tank destroyers as fundamentally cowardly, since they never stuck around during combat.

The term "tank destroyer" is somewhat misleading.  Americans may associate this with some of the heavily armored German or Soviet self-propelled artillery, which were nearly invulnerable to frontal bombardment. 

However, U.S. doctrine treated tank destroyers as highly mobile fire brigades, designed to race to threatened points and attack enemy vehicles by ambush.  Once discovered, they would pull out and move to a new firing position.  Their unofficial motto was "hide and hope."

Thus, the tank destroyers were only doing what American doctrine required of them.  I should clarify that my friend's father became an officer via battlefield promotion; he had no formal officer training, so he would not have known armored doctrine.  All he knew was what he saw on the field, and he rose to command by virtue of being alive more than any other quality.

This points to the limited value of eye-witness accounts.  They are hugely important, of course, since they represent actual human experiences.  However, they can also mislead if we place too much reliance on them.  Context is always needed.  The account of this particular veteran is invaluable not because it's analysis is correct (it isn't), but because it reflects not just how troops perceived the role of tank destroyers, but also black soldiers in general.

In both Walls of Men and Long Live Death, I used such first-person accounts as I could find, but I also had to include the context.  The stories of American volunteers in Spain are heavily influenced by Communist propaganda, which also shapes the context of their service.  The high overall casualties of the International Brigades has been cited as proof of their professionalism, courage and fighting spirit.  However, a closer review indicates that many deaths attributed to combat were actually extra-judicial executions for political offenses.

Similarly, the general point of view that Nationalist Armies fought poorly against the Japanese is simply untrue.  By the time the U.S. entered the war, China was cut off from foreign aid, and its armies had suffered terrible losses.  The cream of their forces had died, but not without inflicting considerable harm on the Japanese, who were content to wait on events.  Few first-person accounts of the fighting has reached us, which is why this largely unknown.

That's why these experiences are important, even if they are fallible.


The Flowers of War: a disappointing movie about faith without much faith

I came to watch The Flowers of War through a rather convoluted course of events.  I'm not even sure how I stumbled over it.  I might have been browsing 80s movies and followed the breadcrumbs from Empire of the Sun through Christian Bale to The Flowers of War.  Alternatively, I might have been looking to see what Bale had done since the Batman films.

Having found the IMDB page, I was curious, but cautious.  The film is about an American mortician (Bale) trapped in Nanking during the Japanese assault and subsequent (gruesome) sack.  He, a handful of Catholic schoolgirls and a collection of prostitutes end up being holed up in the Nanking cathedral, and the only remaining priest has died.  Bale's character impersonates a priest in an attempt to protect them.

The trailer makes it seem as though Bale will have a conversion, becoming the thing he pretends to be.  Maybe the prostitutes will convert as well!

Nope, it's a muddled plot that seems to be based on a survivor's reminiscence of the Rape of Nanking. 

The Japanese are universally portrayed as murderous, rapacious and treacherous, which isn't out of line with their behavior at the time. 

What I found particularly interesting was the depiction of the Nationalist Chinese forces, who were appropriately wearing German M35 helmets and armed with Mauser rifles and Czech light machine guns.  These guys were a pleasure to watch, the the Chinese commander was a veritable John Rambo in terms of slaughtering the Japanese.  I much enjoyed this revisionist take. 

But the bulk of the film moved slowly, and uncertainly.  Bale's character is a lapsed Catholic who never utters a prayer or crosses himself.  He is shown in the pews at one point from a distance, and the narration describes him as praying, but despite all the harrowing circumstances, the schoolgirls never reflexively resort to prayer, nor does Bale try to lead them in it. 

As the peril increases, no one references God, it's all about deception and tactics. 

That's why I regard the film as a failure and a disappointment.  It was made in 2011, and I'm assuming the PRC played a role in its production.  This would explain the void where faith should have been.  Had I paid for a ticket, I would feel ripped off.  As it is, I liked the KMT John Rambo, and feel sorry for Bale, who seemed to struggle with what he was supposed to be and where the film was supposed to go.


The curse of Confederate cavalry raiders

As is my wont, I will sometimes browse the pages of Wikipedia to see just how uneven the site is.  The entry for Confederate General Earl Van Dorn did not disappoint:

He is considered one of the greatest cavalry commanders to have ever lived.

That's a remarkably bold statement for a someone whose resume was far from exemplary and whose career was so brief.

His entry exemplifies what I think is the unwarranted praise heaped on Confederate cavalry leaders, especially those known for raiding behind enemy lines.  I'm thinking in particular of Nathan Bedford Forrest and John Singleton Mosby.

Both men combined rapid movement, ferocious attacks with dauntless personal courage and their exploits are quite impressive.

However, there are some important caveats.  The first is that they were leading veteran first-line troops against rear-area security forces, rarely facing first-rate troops or leaders.  It was common practice in the Civil War to send troops forward without completing their training, the assumption being that it would be finished while in a quiet garrison post.  The Union also utilized short-term enlistees in these positions, troops whose length of service might be a short as 90s days.  They were therefore little more than armed civilians.

These troops were almost invariably infantry, meaning they were at a considerable disadvantage vs hit-and-run attacks.

The Confederates were also generally operating on interior lines, which meant the not only knew the terrain, they knew the people, who provided them with excellent intelligence.  Union troops, by contrast, were often isolated and had little knowledge of what was going on around them.

About the only advantage Union forces regularly had was numbers, which is of little use in countering hit-and-run tactics.

All of which is to say that the raiders' success was to be expected.

While it raised Confederate morale, and created iconic heroes, I think it was ultimately harmful to the Rebel cause.  There are two reasons for this.

The first is that capable Union commanders soon learned that they could have either secure lines of supply or freedom of maneuver, but not both.  Their solution was to pack their troops with ammunition and rely on foraging to feed them.  Ulysses S. Grant tested this method in his Big Black River campaign, and his lieutenant, William T. Sherman, further refined it during the subsequent Meridian campaign.

The culmination of this was Sherman's March to the Sea and subsequent march through the Carolinas. 

This brings us to the second unintended consequence: the devastation wrought be these forces.  Throughout history armies have foraged to sustain themselves.  While we think of them as looting and pillaging, this was not always the case.  Julius Caesar famously sent emissaries ahead of his troops to purchase supplies and thereby gain allies.  Of course, those who weren't willing to make a deal usually ended up getting plundered, but the point is that Union forces could have done the same had the local populace been open to it.

In the event, the standard practice was to take what could be carried and destroy what was left.  This inflicted great hardship on Confederate civilians, creating a refugee crisis throughout the South.

In the case of the Shenandoah Valley, the destruction was necessary because the prevalence of raiders and the asymmetrical terrain made it impossible for Union garrisons to sustain themselves.

Thus, while the raiders did inconvenience Union forces and arguably slowed the advance of Union forces, they also ensured that when they did advance, they would wreak untold destruction on the very people the raiders were trying to protect.

Throughout history, we have seen situations where a specific tactic is initially successful, but the counter proves more dangerous than what was happening before. 

I will also add that claims to world-historical status for minor figures like Van Dorn are particularly ludicrous when compared to the vastly larger scope of Chinese military history.


Thoughts on Mulan after writing Walls of Men

I'm spending a lot of time with the grandkids, and as part of that, we're dusting off the old DVD collection and showing them the kind of quality movies Disney used to make before they shifted their business model from family entertainment to pedophile-inspired grooming.

While the current age has me reflecting on elements of all the classic films, Mulan is of interest because since viewing it, I wrote a rather lengthy study of Chinese military history.

So with that additional knowledge, there are a few observations that I have on the film.

The first is that it correctly depicts that fact that Chinese conscription was usually by family rather than individuals.  Under several dynasties, a military class  was created, but unlike in Europe (or Japan), there was no particular social status accorded to its members.  It was simply an administrative function - instead of providing laborers, certain families had to provide soldiers.  The members remained part of the peasantry, and generally served in the infantry.

This is a significant difference between the European concept of a knightly class, which was echoed in both Japan and India.

The character of Mu-Lan is clearly motivated by Confucian filial piety; she impersonates a man not for glory or adventure, but to spare her father from the burden of a service he can no longer provide. 

As to when the story takes place, that is left a little vague.  The Huns have regularly been associated with the Hsiung-nu, but the link is tenuous at best.  If the Huns were the aggressors, the Han Dynasty Great Wall was certainly in existence, but it did not look like the later Ming version.  In any event, gunpowder was not employed until hundreds of years later.

Still, we must cut Mulan some slack, not only because Disney regularly makes mincemeat out of source material, but also because Chinese (and Western) legends seem to exist in a time of their own.  This is like the Renaissance art depicting Roman soldiers in contemporary armor.

I have to say that the film holds up well, and I particularly enjoyed the reaction of the Fa family ancestors to their daughter being a "cross-dresser."  Funny how only a few years later, such humor would be out of bounds.


Many ratings, no reviews

Over the last couple of weeks I've notice that a bunch of my books are getting more ratings on Amazon.  Some are good, others not so much.  Indeed, I've been surprised to see the Man of Destiny series pick up a bunch of ratings, but some are the lowest they've ever gotten.

Conversely, both Long Live Death and Walls of Men seem to be improving in their reception.

Perhaps this is the result of me taking on a higher profile at Dakka as well as Bleedingfool.com.  The more people who read my stuff, the more there are who may not appreciate it.  It comes with the territory.

The curious part is the lack of reviews.  The early versions of Long Live Death got punished because of the typos and editing errors.  I think Walls of Men has been spared this because the much more exacting editing process.

I'm aware that the Man of Destiny books are not as clean as they could be.  One of my goals it to release a second edition (perhaps an all-in-one with new cover art and some extra content). 

However, I don't think people are throwing out two- or three-star ratings because of that.  And since there are no reviews, I'm not sure what they could be objecting to.


Unreliable sources

The research for writing Long Live Death was quite challenging.  I quickly learned that there was lots of information on the Spanish Civil War, but much of it was false.  It is one thing to be biased, and portray various actions in the most negative way possible, but it another thing entirely to simply state things that are not true.

For example, Hugh Thomas has a clear bias in favor of the Republic, but his information is meticulously documented and generally reliable (though I did catch a couple of errors in his very complicated narrative).

Antony Beevor, on the other hand, is a total hack.  If he told me the sun was shining I would assume it wasn't until proven otherwise.  His bigotry and deception by omission renders everything else has written suspect.

The Romans recognized this the logic of this, enshrining the phrase: falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus (false in one thing, false in everything) in the Western legal tradition. 

I'm sad to say that when working on Walls of Men, this same principle destroyed my trust in a web site I had visited and enjoyed for years: strategypage.com.

I'm not entirely sure of who posts there now, but back in the day it was product of the longstanding collaboration of Jim Dunnigan and Austin Bay, two old-school wargamers who had collaborated in the best-selling A Quick and Dirty Guide to War.

During the Global War on Terror, the site had been very useful in providing updates on Iraq, Afghanistan and other hot spots typically ignored by the mainstream media.  However, over time I noticed that the site was often irrationally optimistic about American operations. 

To be fair, it was possible that their sources were simply lying to them.  After all, we know that a great deal of internal communication within the US military was fabricated to justify ongoing operations and conceal the magnitude of failure from the American public.

However, when I began to dig into the inner workings of the Chinese military, the errors were too glaring to ignore.  The breaking point for me was a post which described the Peoples' Liberation Army as being "all-volunteer" since the 1980s.  This is absolutely not true.  (I can't find the specific post because the site's organization is abysmal.)

Multiple published sources (which I used in my book) confirm this, and reputable web sites also state that conscription still happens, though no one is sure exactly what percentage of the PLA is recruited using it.  Either way, it's just plain wrong, and that kind of error casts doubt over everything on the site.  I now have to wonder how much else they go wrong, and while there may be some value to determining whether it was due to bias or ignorance, the inescapable fact is that they simply cannot be trusted.

 

 

 


My interview at Bleedingfool.com

Over the last couple of weeks I've been talking things over with Chris Braly of Bleedingfool.com and the contents of that interview are now available on the site.

Long-time readers of my blog will find few surprises, but it was nice to see the management step out side the normal comic/geek culture box and examine how geopolitics can shape American culture.

I'm pretty sure the Venn diagram of people interested in both Chinese military history and comic books has a fairly shallow overlap, but there is a connection.

As I note in the interview, Hollywood has largely abandoned middle America and has turned instead to the vast Chinese market for money.  This has allowed them make a fortune selling vapid super-hero movies, but the drive to put "woke" themes in everything is something the Chinese have proven far more resistant to than Hollywood expected.  This leaves the big studios (particularly Disney) in a place where their biggest market and the home market both hate their products.  Hence the layoffs.   Anyhow, read the whole thing.


To fiction or nonfiction, that is the question

It's only a week since Walls of Men went live, but already my mind is turning to the next writing project.  This is because writing is what I do to unwind, and without it I get really bored.  I'm trying to fill the empty hours with chores and watching vintage TV and movies, but that's only a stopgap.

Sooner or later, I'll take on a new project.

I'm thinking it will be fiction.  Long Live Death was actually very easy to write (took 6 weeks or so) and while post-publication corrections were a headache, they were also a function of my desire to see it in print ASAP because of its applicability to the political situation.

Walls of Men, on the other hand, was really complicated and stressful.  Add in the fact that both books didn't really provide the escape from reality that fiction writing does.

On the plus side, non-fiction doesn't take the same creative energy - you set your thesis, do research and write what you find.  No dead-end plots or unconvincing characters.  You have to describe a world rather than create one.

Inspiration is also important.  This is why have never written a "fantasy" book in the style of J.R.R. Tolkien - I don't know what I would say that needs saying.  I've got at least half a dozen story ideas in the genre, but none rise above the level of Dungeons and Dragons-grade fan fiction.

I'm sure in time, this will work itself out and in the meantime I'll see what I can draw from my viewing.


Walls of Men hits #1 for new release on Chinese History

As I'd hoped, Walls of Men: A Military History of China 2500 B.C. to A.D. 2020 has topped the new releases column for Chinese history.

This is wonderful news and I'm grateful to the people who have supported and promoted the work.   

Of course, the next question is whether people like it.  Given it's length, that may take a while to find out.