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Clueless civilians talking about military stuff

I'm not one of those poeple who makes a fetish out of military service.  To me, it's a job like anything else.  To be sure, it can be very dangerous and very necessary, but for the most part it's tedious and not particularly exciting.

The experience of military service has many benefits, though, and one of the ones I've come to appreciate is a better understanding of history.  I generally enjoy watching some of the history buffs on youtube offer their opinions, and often they are smarter than the "professional" historians.  However, sometimes they are wrong in a very civilian way.

Lest anyone accuse me of arrogance, I will freely admit that I was just like them.  I didn't enlist until my mid-20s, so I had plenty of time to beclown myself in various ways, both in analysis and fiction.  A lot of what I thought I knew from books and movies was just flat-out wrong.  There were some things that I had correct, but for the wrong reason.

Just to be clear, I'm not talking about the experience of battle of which I have none.  I'm speaking of the culture, how leadership works, and the minutae that seem insignificant but actually make up a huge part of service.

I'm also going to acknowledge that there are historians who don't fall into this trap.  I'm speaking specifically of people who simply assume that they're smarter than everyone else who came before them.

A great example of this is uniforms and equipment.  It's hard for people who have never had to carry or wear certain gear in a certain way to understand how much you come to hate it.  Civilians relish wearing helmets, masks, uniforms, belts, etc. but people who are compelled to can't wait to take the stuff off.  There is a reason modern body armor actually comes with labels saying "ALWAYS WEAR THIS!  DON'T TAKE IT OFF!"

Civilians look at that and shake their heads in confusion, but it's pretty simple: the stuff is heavy, can trap heat and unless you think you need it right now, it's more comfortable to have it off.  That goes doubly for the helmet.

What further complicates matters is that veterans themselves may seem inconsistent, relishing wearing their gear (particularly boots) while hiking, camping and so on.  The crucial difference is that when one is off-duty, you can take the stuff off whenever you feel like it.  That's not the case when you're under orders.

This experience carries over into military history, even though the eras may seem very different.  Body armor has changed quite a bit since 1066 or 476, but it's still heavy, often hot and it's always easier to move around without it.  Armor is  a compromise between protection and comfort.

The thing about armor is: you only need it if you're going to get hit.  Naturally, you're going to work pretty hard to ensure that it doesn't happen, but at the same time, you can only do so much in the chaos of battle.

Thus there are lots of examples of armor that modern civilians look at and say:  "Why didn't they wear more gear?  They clearly had the materials, were these people stupid?"  Nope, they simply wore what they felt was adequate.

Modern reenactors are likewise both good and bad.  On the positive side, they can shine light onto archeological discoveries and help us understand how things were put together and fit.  At the same time, they can introduce biases because when their weekend encampment is over, they go back to the day job and their gear goes back into the closet.

Moreover, their gear is often built to standards that aren't all that realistic.  Much replica gear is built to withstand steady, repeated use over a long time.  Whether the combat involves live steel or sticks or whatnot, it has to be built strong enough to provide a modern level of protection that was unknown in history.

Now contrast that with actual military gear used in action today.  The body armor and helmets have no such expectation of durability.  If your helmet stops a shell fragment or bullet, that's great and it's now time to get a new one.  The vests work the same way - one use and then you toss it aside because it's too damaged to trust again.

Imagine how heavy your gear would have to be to take repeated gunshots over many years and still be safe!  That kind of bias would totally distort your understanding of what troops carry.  Future historians may well puzzle over how kevlar could take bullet after bullet and keep working - or why it couldn't, when clearly just stopping one bullet or fragment wouldn't be enough.

Ancient armor apparently was quite thin and had minimal padding because it was only expected to stop one or two blows.  The best-preserved stuff is sport armor (such as for jousts) which is entirely different.  That was expected to see repeated heavy use, and wasn't designed for anything else than the tournament scene.   It was basically reenactor grade stuff.

This also ties into my earlier point about wearing a helmet.  Yes, they can save your life, but they can also hamper your vision and hearing, which can be even more dangerous.  There's also the question of giving commands and letting your followers know you're still alive.  I've seen some folks ridicule Hollywood for wanting to show actors' faces rather than covering them with visors, but history is chock full of episodes where a king or general tears off his helmet or hat so his men can see his face and know he's with them.

The same thing is true with weapons.  Swords in particular were disposable items.    Even a well-made sword will get pretty mangled if you spend several hours banging on shields and helmets with it.  One reason why there are stories of 'magic' swords is likely that there were certain alloys that could withstand the punishment better, breaking or cutting through inferior grades of metal.

It's interesting to read historic accounts and poems because they sometimes spend as much time on broken weapons as they do on people getting killed.  Some of it is a rhetorical flourish, but battlefield finds bear out that there's a huge amount of breakage in combat, and this is still true.  The Petersburg museum in Virginia had a section of the battlefield that had been excavated preserved in a special exhibit and you could see broken rifles and all manner of junk where it had fallen on the ground.

We think of people having a personal sword or spear like King Arthur or Achilles, but in fact your average trooper probably needed steady replacements after each battle.  Breaking one's sword may have symbolic importance in legend, but it was a very real occurrence.

Here again we have a modern bias, not wanting to damage our premium expensive historic reproduction blade by blunting it against your expensive historic reproduction helmet (or another blade), but that was the reality of war back in the day.  Not only did you expect that sort of clash to happen, you counted on it.  A key factor in combat was the quality of ones weapons and there is a reason that certain regions were highly-respected for the quality of their metalwork. 

When sword meets sword, it's an extra bonus to know that yours isn't going to be the one getting dented.

To be clear, I'm not saying that everyone who ever wore a uniform has some sort of unique insight that is denied to a lifetime student of history.  Instead, I'm saying that having a bit of both is best - the lived experience of military life combined with the study of history can give insights that are hidden from those who only know what they've read in books and/or picked up in their Living History group.

That's certainly been my experience.

I still enjoy watching these presenters, but it's just something to keep in mind.

 


A minor update to my catalogue

Hitherto, I've been content to link my various articles over at Bleedingfool.com on an individual, named basis.

Last week I broke down and created a Geek Guns page.  This in turn led me to think:  "Gosh, if only there was a way to link all of my items there at once..."

Which I've now done on the main page.  You'll likely have seen that before you get to this, but if you've visited here before, you might have missed it.

So I'm pointing it out to you.  Enjoy!


The much-needed change of the seasons

A couple of weeks ago I was talking to a friend in Texas and he lamented the sheer monotony of the weather there.

Coupled with COVID precautious, which essentially leech the fun out of just about everything, he felt as though he was stuck on a treadmill, re-living Groundhog Day, as the metaphor goes.

Being a Michigander, he asked how the weather was and I said the change of the seasons was underway, with the first harbinger of fall showing up in cooler nights.

Since then, the weather has taken a more decisive turn, dropping into the 60s during the day and touching the 40s in the evening.

This is what I consider Ideal Weather.  I love it.

Like just about everyone else, I figured the disease would be bad, but short-lived, as such things historically have been.  What I did not foresee is the political leadership deciding to make the precautions indefinite.  It's profoundly disappointing.

Yet, there are some bright spot.  My diocese reports that not a single case of COVID spread can be traced to Mass attendance.  Not one over months.  So maybe we can loosen things up, perhaps?

Also, I'm glad to see Big Ten football is coming back.  I was all-in on the college game a few years ago before burning out, but now I like the background noise and the occasional game.  Plus, the sports pages are a welcome change away from the howling madness of contemporary politics.

Above all, for me autumn is about tradition, times gone by and fond memories.  It is reflective and comforting.  See it locked up and shut down is particularly hard to take.

We are only getting a glimmer of light, but sometimes that all we need.  Like the distant star peeping through Mordor's gloom, it reminds us that evil can never fully triumph: somewhere, light will still shine unsullied.


Behind the curve on Bleeding Fool

The publication of Long Live Death left me a bit distracted, so I forgot to link to my two latest posts over at Bleeding Fool.

Those who remember my fondness for North and South will be amused to see that I've broached the topic over there - albeit in a shorter, funnier format.

Going back almost a month ago, I did a fun nostalgic romp on Zardoz.  Embrace the strangeness while you still can!

Apologies to anyone who missed out, now you can catch up!


A little reorganization around here

In response to some queries, I've added a new category to help people who share my interest in the Spanish Civil War.

I call it:  "Spanish Civil War."

Speaking of which, I'm still right on schedule, producing 5,000 words a week.  I don't have a projected deadline because I'm not sure how long the book will actually be.  Unlike with a novel, I don't have a story arc that needs completing, I'm instead trying to pull pieces of information together and I often find something new when I'm looking up something else.

Which is to say, I keep hopping backwards and forwards, and also breaking up chapters as I get more information.

For example, I originally was going to have one chapter on foreign involvement.  I now have five, each taking a deeper look at the issue.

I personally believe you need at least 40,000 words before you can call writing "a book."  So it will be at least that long.  The page count will be bigger because I will have to add a bibliography and index - two things that will I'm sure take time.

I'm also thinking of doing a sequel to The Vampires of Michigan as my next project (sorry Beowulf fans!) but we will see.


Memorial Day in semi-lockdown

I haven't commented here on Michigan's lockdown situation because the topic typically conjures of visceral reactions.

I bring it up today only because it's unavoidable.  There are no memorial services, no parades, none of the usual observances.

This I find difficult to take.

Michigan is sweltering under a heat wave, and it seems a lifetime away from the dark, cold days of early March when we were told millions would die of this new pestilence out of the East.

Would that we could loosen things up as fast as we cinched them down.

In any event, remember our Fallen and those who mourn for them.


Happy (Quarantined) Easter!

Amidst all that's going on, it's important to remember that the tomb is still empty.

With church services outlawed, our family has been going through the various liturgies as best we can.   If nothing else, my children have a commanding knowledge of the scriptures that are traditionally read this time of year.

I'm one of those Catholics who, now and again for perfectly awful (but I pretend they're good) reasons, skips going to mass.   Sometimes I go during the week to compensate.

I'm keenly feeling the absence.  It's just another element of the environment that leads to a general sense of irritation.  The only consolation is that the weather has been getting better and everyone in my family is okay (so far).

I hope you are similarly blessed and wish you and yours the happiest of Easters.  The doom and gloom will pass, because in the Big Story story, the Good Guys win.

Happy Easter!


Days of Disasters Passed

Though it seems far longer, Michigan's anti-pandemic measures are not even a week old.  The colleges went to remote classes a week ago, school was out last week, but subsequent orders regarding bars, theaters, churches and now nail salons are merely days old.

Things are moving quickly, but slowly.

Winston Churchill wrote that the thing that scared him most during World War II was the Battle of the Atlantic.  The heroism of Royal Air Force pilots and the unflinching courage of the British people could not prevail against the primordial forces of starvation.

There were no dramatic turning points to that battle, just lines on a chart.

That's where we are today - watching lines on a chart to see if we are winning or losing.  The moments of courage, fear and loss can tug at our hearts, but the real battlefield is an impersonal spreadsheet.

As I watch civil authorities struggle to pull resources together and fight an impersonal and implacable enemy, my mind goes back to the "war" against another, similar enemy.

In that case, it was an oil spill.

I guess that's what happens when you get old - you think you've seen it all before.  And maybe you have, but back then there were some people saying it was a sign of certain doom and others claiming it was nothing but hype.

The risk is when you think you've seen it before, and it looks like it, but you didn't.  There's something new, and doing things the same old way might not work.

I'm not one for overtly public professions of faith, but I hope you and yours are doing well and keeping your spirits up.  


Thanksgiving after a health scare

One of the kids hurt her leg this week so we were off to the hospital. 

Strange to think that not even three months ago I was sitting there wondering what was going on with my heart.

It turns out, not much.  A unique combination of a virus and overexertion caught me sideways.  I'm a bit more cautious about both now.

Naturally, having a scare like that leaves one with a greater appreciation for the little things in life, and so this Thanksgiving I'm thankful for just being here.

I hope everyone enjoys their holiday.  Happy Thanksgiving!


A very snowy Veterans Day

Today I will continue my tradition of playing "Taps" out at Veterans Memorial Park (that's the big monument in front of the Hall of Justice).

It's never a good performance because playing a brass instrument in the COLD is tough.  Doing it with snow flying only adds to the degree of difficulty.

Still, the forms must be observed, and I'm honored to do it.  In fact, I started playing "Taps" while a student at MSU and it never occurred to me when I was doing it back then that I'd be a career military guy.  Strange are the fates.

I encourage my fellow vets to avail themselves of some excellent deals today, and of course - thank you!