Sunday, April 10, 2005
There are three ways we look at history:
As nonfiction, where the historian, at least in theory, strives to describe past events as they happened.
As fiction, where the novelist or artist reimagines past events in dramatic form.
And, in military history, as simulation gaming, where, as closely as possible, the designer re-creates the exact circumstances of the event—personnel, weaponry, supply, terrain, weather, and so on—in order to be able to run strategic or tactical variants of the original actions. Gaming is sort of both fiction and nonfiction at the same time, which puts it in a different category
The problem with the first two categories above is that bias and subjectivity are inevitable in history, and necessary in art. We expect it. Everyone has a point of view. V.S. Naipaul says that nonfiction writers always lie, while fiction writers always tell the truth because they invariably reveal their own prejudices.
But on the other hand, one of the best things about simulation gaming is that a good design must be intensely faithful to the actual historical details. A game designer, one would think, has very little incentive to lie.
And this again is unlike the situation of the historian or the novelist, who are subject to pressures—psychological, ideological, commercial—to make the past conform to certain templates. Pressures can be anything from an academic’s desire for tenure all the way to—under certain governments—wanting to stay alive. And when a government wants its own version of history, it can bring enormous resources to bear: My favorite example is when Stalin had real units of the Soviet Army attack parts of Berlin in 1949 using live ammunition—because he wanted to add realism to the movie The Battle of Berlin.
This is all a bit of a preface to talking about another movie, namely the Crusades film by Ridley Scott, Kingdom of Heaven. Unfortunately, since 9/11, it’s impossible to depoliticize the Crusades. (“Imagine, then, my surprise when within days of the September 11 attacks, the Middle Ages suddenly became relevant,” said medievalist Thomas Madden, author of two books on the Crusades). There was already a sizable and growing controversy over the Crusades, which wasn’t helped when Bill Clinton semi-apologized for them in November of 2001:
Indeed, in the first Crusade, when the Christian soldiers took Jerusalem, they first burned a synagogue with 300 Jews in it, and proceeded to kill every woman and child who was Muslim on the Temple mound. The contemporaneous descriptions of the event describe soldiers walking on the Temple mound, a holy place to Christians, with blood running up to their knees.
Thomas Madden has pointed out cheekily that “the amount of blood necessary to fill the streets to a continuous and running three-inch depth would require many more people than lived in the region, let alone the city,” but let’s let that one go. The very idea of singling out one sack of one city in the Middle East in the Middle Ages as particularly barbaric, in a time and a region where putting a city to the sword was the rule, not the exception, is a veritable thermonuclear detonation of anachronism.
And, sadly, this particularly shameless anachronism seems to inform the shooting script of Kingdom of Heaven. For the film, the slaughter of innocents is a grotesque anomaly brought about not by tradition, or by human nature, but by religion itself. I’ll quote a New York Times article about the film which had me humming John Lennon’s “Imagine” as background music for the stirring dialogue repeated below:
In its many scenes of devastation, the script shows intransigence on both sides. "Will you yield the city?" the victorious Saladin asks Balian. He replies: "Before I lose it, I will burn it to the ground. Your holy places. Ours. Every last thing in Jerusalem that drives men mad.”…For a movie about holy war, "Kingdom of Heaven" has surprisingly little religious oratory, or even religious content. The only overtly religious figures are extremists: marauding Knights Templar on the Christian side and murderous Saracen knights on the Muslim side.
Nothing to kill or die for. And no religion too. Or, to quote an internet comment on the script, "Didn’t you know the Middle East was one big hippie commune until the Crusaders arrived?"
Not surprisingly, the script managed to tick nearly everyone off. The Telegraph quoted Professor Jonathan Riley-Smith, Dixie Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Cambridge University, said the plot was "complete and utter nonsense…" It sounds absolute balls. It's rubbish. It's not historically accurate at all. They refer to [Sir Walter Scott’s 1825 romanticized Crusades novel] The Talisman, which depicts the Muslims as sophisticated and civilised, and the Crusaders are all brutes and barbarians. It has nothing to do with reality."
Predictably, the Muslim pressure groups, who are trying hard to shape the current historical templates for this issue, weren’t palliated by the film’s portrayal of pre-Crusades Jerusalem as the ultimate idyllic utopia ever in the history of idyllic utopias. "I believe this movie teaches people to hate Muslims," says another history professor in an American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee press release, "In this climate how are people going to react to these images of Muslims attacking churches and tearing down the cross and mocking it?” The purpose of pressure groups like the AAADC is simply to exert pressure. They exist to influence the debate in a decisive way, to change the way we look at the past; arriving at the truth isn’t on the agenda.
The best comment I’ve heard on the whole Crusades mess is, again, from Thomas Madden: "The Muslim world remembers the Crusades about as well as the West–in other words, incorrectly." Which is why—if I can attempt to tie the various unconnected thoughts in this column together—we’d do better trying to dig up a copy of Richard Berg’s old SPI game on the Crusades than expecting objectivity anywhere else.
And then I wrote this commissioned article comparing two different pre-World War II American volunteer groups, the Flying Tigers and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade:
In the last few years, the John Walker Lindh story has brought the question of American volunteers serving in foreign militaries back to public attention. How—Lindh’s defenders ask—do we condemn Lindh for fighting with the Taleban while applauding past American volunteers like the Abraham Lincoln Brigade or the Flying Tigers?
The question on its surface is fairly easily disposed of by adding even the slightest moral dimension to it: To mince as few words as possible, Lindh was fighting for the bad guys.
But without that moral dimension—and we live in an age that requires us to pretend that there is no such thing—we’d have to look at the most obvious thing about earlier American volunteer movements: Namely, that there were hundreds of Americans who served in the Tigers, and thousands with the Lincolns, compared to a tiny handful who went to fight for the Islamic fundamentalists. That so many Americans volunteered to serve under foreign flags is significant, and worth examining. The Lincolns and the Tigers were the two largest single examples of overseas volunteer efforts by Americans, and a comparison of the two might be instructive.
That said, it’s almost unfair to compare the Tigers and the Lincolns, since their situations were so different. The Flying Tigers, officially known as the American Volunteer Group or AVG, were part of a tradition of unofficial American assistance to friendly governments at war, as with the Lafayette Escadrille pilots attached to the French forces in the First World War. And Tiger pilots traveled to Asia with more than just the blessing of the U.S. government, according to one dramatic contemporary report:
The men swore that as their ship plowed its way through the well-patrolled sea lanes of Japan, the dark shape of an American cruiser loomed up close beside them each night and fell away to the far distance just before morning.
By contrast, because the Roosevelt administration withheld recognition from the Loyalist Spanish forces, the Lincoln volunteers had to pile onto cheap steamers to LeHavre, France as tourists and take buses over the Pyrenees. There were a lot of them: All told, about 32,000 foreigners served in the International Brigades, about 2,000 of them Americans. They eventually ended up at the International Brigades’ training camp at Albacete where they received little to no training. Alvah Bessie’s Men in Battle describes the Lincolns’ attempts at drilling: "One squad would march off to the right, the second to the left, the third stand still, uncertain. We all laughed."
Of the Lincolns’ many problems, poor leadership was probably the most decisive, and most disastrous. Very few of the volunteers had any military training or experience: When they began operations, the highest ranking former serviceman was…a sergeant. There were Lincolns from all over the country (including 95 African-Americans), but a solid plurality of the Lincolns were Jewish New Yorkers with no military experience at all. Other Internationals had a larger proportion of war veterans (nearly all the Germans fought in the First World War, and they "marched like the Reichswehr," according to Ernest Hemingway.) But the Internationals, and the Spanish rebels as a whole, suffered from an extremely weak officer corps.
This translated into debacles like the Jarama offensive, where the Lincolns took heavy losses in a frontal assault on fortified trench lines without air or artillery support. On their first day at the front, they dug trenches against the skyline, making themselves easy targets for the Franco forces. They watched oncoming Italian bombers with no concern at all, expecting to be leafleted.
Symptomatic of the leadership problems was the man elevated to command of the Lincolns, Robert Merriman. Though his total military qualifications consisted of four years of ROTC courses in college, this graduate student in economics was named "chief of staff" for the Lincolns; ultimately, Hemingway used the photogenic Merriman as a basis for the Robert Jordan character in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Many Lincoln Brigade hagiographers swoon over his looks ("Merriman…was the focus of propaganda because he was tall and good-looking, not because he was a capable officer" says an unsympathetic observer but his troops soon took to calling him "Murderman" after Jarama.
It’s even more unfair, for any number of reasons, to compare Merriman to Claire Chennault, who led the AVG in China and Burma. It’s not just that Chennault was a real military officer and Merriman wasn’t. It’s that Chennault was a military genius, a man who anticipated Japan’s strategic planning and who, arguably, ruined the Japanese advance in continental Asia. "At no time in China," he wrote flatly in 1942, "At no time in China have I had as many as fifty fighting planes in operation to meet the full fighting air force of Japan…I have never lost an air battle against the Japanese." "At the end of four weeks of war," went a contemporary account, "The three squadrons had achieved one of the most extraordinary of all wartime records, destroying more than two hundred Japanese planes with losses of six men in combat." While the R.A.F., flying the superior Spitfire against the same forces in Burma and Australia, was breaking even, the AVG was killing Japanese planes in a 15 to 1 ratio. In essence, the Tigers popped fully formed out of the mind of one man: A brilliant pilot himself who had memorized Japanese fighter patterns, Chennault demonstrated the exact moves his men could expect to encounter; this was all in addition to his years of lobbying in Washington for the creation of the AVG.
The Lincolns, by contrast, were subject to that worst thing of all for the military man: Overbearing political considerations. These were the first Americans to have to fight under political commissars (predictably Americanized to "comic stars" by the men). The problem with commissars isn’t their combat usefulness or lack of same--the record of the Lincolns’ commissars is mixed, with at least two of them whom the men considered worthless--it’s that their primary concern isn’t victory over the enemy, it’s the maintenance of a proper political attitude. While the use of political commissars in the military is debatable in general, there is not a single doubt that in Spain the commissars were destructive to the war effort.
Research in the Soviet archives shows that it’s at least questionable whether the Comintern, which controlled the International Brigades in Spain, had any serious commitment to winning the war. Both archival records and contemporary statements from Comintern representatives show at least as much concern with the enormous propaganda value of the Internationals as symbols, as for the war itself. Friendly writers like Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, and Herbert Matthews had virtually unrestricted access to the Lincoln trenches. Celebrities like Errol Flynn got chauffeured cars with precious gasoline.
The other concern for the Comintern was ideology. The war in Spain coincided with the massive purges in the USSR against Trotskyists and other political opponents, purges that were largely repeated in Spain. Figures are unclear, but perhaps dozens of Americans were executed by the security services ("Chekists"—some of whom were Americans themselves) for various offenses, not just ideological ones but for things as simple as wanting to leave Spain at the end of one’s contract. One author quotes Merriman as asking his reconnaissance teams to execute men who wouldn’t make a charge.
Not surprisingly, morale was a big problem for the Lincolns. The first night on the line at Jarama, two Lincolns shot off their own toes on purpose, and another deserted. Desertion rates were extremely high (at least 100 and possibly more, about 4%)
This, again, makes for a huge contrast with the swaggering pilots of the AVG. Unlike the proletarian poverty that the Lincolns endured in Spain, the Tigers lived what for wartime was an impossibly good life:
I went shopping [in Rangoon] Saturday morning for a few essentials and had lunch at the Savoy. The races in the afternoon were not too good as they were all flat races and not as interesting as a steeplechase would be…In the evening we listened to the gay, brittle banter of the smart set at the Silver Grill, and retired eventually to the May Marine Club for the night.
The Tigers could live like this because of their generous wages paid by Chaing Kai-Shek: $600 a month, plus $500 for each Japanese plane shot down. They were, observed Newsweek sharply, "frankly mercenaries."
But they were effective ones. The Tigers cleared the northern part of the Burma Road of Japanese air assets. Nearly alone they kept the enemy out of Rangoon while many thousands of tons of strategic war materials went up the Road to China. They kept the skies above Chungking empty of Japanese planes for the first time in four years. Most impressively, they broke the Japanese offensive in the Salween Gorge, where AVG planes destroyed a pontoon bridge and the columns attempting to cross it in one of the greatest examples of air power dominating ground forces up to that time.
Of course, by the time of the Salween Gorge action in May 1942, the Tigers had been subsumed back into the U.S. Army Air Force, and the days of $500 bonuses were over.
Because of politics, or perhaps because they were such a sad-sack underdog army, the Lincolns have been written about far, far more than the Tigers. Death in the Olive Groves, Arthur Landis‘s 1989 revision of his 1969 book The Abraham Lincoln Brigade, notes that at the time of writing over 25,000 books had been published in all languages on the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. By contrast, there have been only a few monographs on the Flying Tigers. A 1983 Hoover Institution select scholarly bibliography on Claire Chennault contained exactly 12 items, including a Lou Zocchi article from S&T # 24. There was the one now-forgotten John Wayne movie Flying Tigers, but the Lincolns’—and the Spanish Civil War’s—cultural footprints are much, much deeper. That war became, particularly for the Left, a romantic, almost mythic paradigm, most recently parodied in one of the songs from the recent Christopher Guest movie A Mighty Wind ("I know that somehow, in the world /The workers must be free /
The toil and sweat, and tyranny /the fascist jeu d’esprit /Will only serve to keep us down, and make the bourgeoisie")
The comparison between the Tigers and the Lincolns is, simply, the difference between night and day. It’s the difference between success and failure, the difference between real soldiers and amateurs, the difference between seriousness and pretense.
American cruiser. Straight, p. 289.
Attempts at drilling. Bessie, p. 34.
32,000 foreigners, 2,000 Americans. Jackson, pp. 73, 75.
95 African-Americans. Cullum, pp. 63-98.
Jewish New Yorkers. Jackson, p. 83.
Hemingway and the Germans. Regler, p. viii.
Jarama offensive details. Eby pp. 57-67, Jackson p. 102.
Merriman details. Jackson, pp. 102-03, Eby pp. 30-34, Carroll p. 95.
"I have never lost an air battle…" Hessen, p. 17.
"One of the most extraordinary of wartime records…" Straight, p. 290.
15 to 1 ratio. Information from the Flying Tigers homepage, flyingtigersavg.com.
at least two of them whom the men considered worthless. Sam Stember and Harry Haywood. See Eby, p. 67, and Carroll, pp. 98-100.
Archival records. See Radosh, et al., throughout.
Executions. Richardson pp.166-67, Eby, p. 59.
Desertions. Eby, p. 45, Carroll, pp. 147-51.
"I went shopping in Rangoon…" Bright, p. 44.
Summary of AVG activity. Wolfe, p. 11.
25,000 books. Landis, Olive Groves, p. 6.
The Abraham Lincoln Brigade
Beevor, Antony, The Spanish Civil War. London: Orbis Publishing 1982.
Bessie, Alvah, Men in Battle: A Story of Americans in Spain. San Francisco: Chandler & Short, 1975.
Carroll, Peter N., The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: Americans in the Spanish Civil War. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994.
Cullum, Danny Duncan, ed., African Americans in the Spanish Civil War: "This Ain’t Ethiopia, but It’ll Do." New York: G.K. Hall, 1992.
Eby, Cecil, Between the Bullet and the Lie: American Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1969.
Jackson, Michael, Fallen Sparrows: The International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. Phildelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1994.
Landis, Arthur, The Abraham Lincoln Brigade. New York: Citadel Press, 1967.
----------------, Death in the Olive Groves: American Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. New York: Paragon House, 1989.
Radosh Ronald, Habeck, Mary, and Sevostianov Grigory, Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.
Regler, Gustav, The Great Crusade. New York: Longmans, Green, 1940.
Richardson, R. Dan, Comintern Army: The International Brigades and the Spanish Civil War. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1982.
The Flying Tigers
Bright, J. Gilpin, "From a Flying Tiger," Atlantic Monthly, 170, October 1942, pp. 42-48.
Hessen, Robert, ed., General Claire Lee Chennault: A Guide to His Papers in the Hoover Institution Archives. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1983.
Straight, Michael, "Claire Chennault: American Hero," The New Republic, 106, March 2, 1942, pp. 288-290.
Whelan, Russell, "Chennault: Tiger of the Skies," American Mercury, 58, 404-410.
Wolfe, Henry C., "Louisianan in Chungking," Saturday Review of Literature, 27, January 22, 1944, p. 11.
Unbylined, "Tigers Over Burma." Time, 39, February 9, 1942, pp. 25-26.
Unbylined, "Flying Tigers." Newsweek, 18, April 6, 1942, pp. 20-21.
Unbylined, "Tigers’ Last Leaps." Time, 39, May 11, 1942, p. 28.
Unbylined, "Magic from Waterproof." Time, 39, June 8, 1942, p. 30.