Sunday, February 8, 2015

What Is To Be Done?

As we begin the year 2015, we are hearing echoes of a century ago.  Many people are asking themselves why we should concern ourselves with “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing” – and I will discuss that further in a future posting.

But what is actually at stake here right now?

Obviously, the future of a free, independent, and democratic Ukraine;

As well as the future of a still hoped for free, democratic, and independent Russia;

And probably the as yet unsought future of Belarus;

And quite possibly the freedom, independence, and peaceful future of small states in the Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Balkans, Easternmost Europe, and the Baltic Littoral.

When I left Russia in 2000, after four years of living and working there – as I later came to put it, in the late-Yeltsin/early Putin years – Russian friends explained that ‘we’ll get another chance at democracy in 20 years.  For some time now I’ve consoled myself with that thought, but it’s a comforting thought that has now worn thin and threadbare.

Putin’s actions in Russia’s near-abroad and his domination of the various media in Russia have created a situation in which a besieged Russian population sees itself surrounded by enemies frequently acting at the behest of a hegemonic United States.  We are now the wolf howling at their door for many Russians who know little or nothing of anything beyond this narrative.  Even if we are able to peacefully resolve our conflicting ambitions on behalf of Ukraine and its people, we may well lose at least another generation of Russians who will buy in to Putin’s narrative.

Putin must be intelligent enough to realize that in an actual war with a US-led Western coalition, Russia would lose much of its hard won restored military might (such as it is) and quite possibly Putin would lose power.  It is hard to be certain exactly what his generals and intelligence chiefs are telling him, though it is worth remembering that many of them are graduates of the same schools who turned out a group of general officers who told Brezhnev that they could easily take control of Afghanistan.  It would be a costly and bloody victory for the West regardless and it would cement Russia’s position in impoverished opposition for a century and devastate Ukraine and any other country that ‘hosted’ such a conflict.

So for the best interests of the West, Ukraine, and that still hoped for democratic Russia and its many neighbors – how do resolve this ongoing dispute?

The answer given to us by history is that we convince Putin, his generals, and his intelligence chiefs, that the US and the West will fight them for the future of Ukraine.  We need to make it clear that collectively, including Ukraine, are willing to risk just as much and probably more than Putin is willing to risk – and he appears in fact to be risking almost everything – in order to prevent Putin from achieving his goal of blocking the emergence of a free, independent, democratic Ukraine integrated into Europe.

Whether we end up in actual conflict with Putin’s Russia, this contest will one way or the other define the 21st Century for much if not all of the world – whether shaped once again by a ‘far away quarrel” or shaped by a peacefully resolved contest of wills in which ‘the West’ awoke and demonstrated its resolve.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Soldier Poets of The First World War - 2nd Lt, Wilfred Edward Salter Owen MC, 5th Bn. Manch. R., T.F., attd. 2nd Bn.

British poet and soldier Wilfred Owen was killed today in 1918, one week before the end of the Great War.  He was 25 years old.  He wrote this poem in November, 1917, the year before his death.  He and his men came under enemy fire as he led them across the Sambre–Oise Canal in France.

Apologia pro Poemate Meo

I, too, saw God through mud—
            The mud that cracked on cheeks when wretches smiled.
            War brought more glory to their eyes than blood,
            And gave their laughs more glee than shakes a child.

Merry it was to laugh there—
            Where death becomes absurd and life absurder.
            For power was on us as we slashed bones bare
            Not to feel sickness or remorse of murder.

I, too, have dropped off fear—
            Behind the barrage, dead as my platoon,
            And sailed my spirit surging, light and clear
            Past the entanglement where hopes lay strewn;

And witnessed exultation—
            Faces that used to curse me, scowl for scowl,
            Shine and lift up with passion of oblation,
            Seraphic for an hour; though they were foul.

I have made fellowships—
            Untold of happy lovers in old song.
            For love is not the binding of fair lips
            With the soft silk of eyes that look and long,

By Joy, whose ribbon slips—
            But wound with war’s hard wire whose stakes are strong;
            Bound with the bandage of the arm that drips;
            Knit in the welding of the rifle-thong.

I have perceived much beauty
            In the hoarse oaths that kept our courage straight;
            Heard music in the silentness of duty;
            Found peace where shell-storms spouted reddest spate.

Nevertheless, except you share
            With them in hell the sorrowful dark of hell,
            Whose world is but the trembling of a flare,
            And heaven but as the highway for a shell,

You shall not hear their mirth;
            You shall not come to think them well content
            By any jest of mine.  These men are worth
            Your tears.  You are not worth their merriment.

November 1917

Sunday, October 19, 2014

A Film Review - Fury

I went to see Fury today and I can highly recommend it, especially for the lovers of tanks and World War II movies.  My personal MOS when I attended the Fort Knox School for Boys was Armored Scout Observer, though being National Guard oh those many years ago, I never served in that role in anger.  I enjoyed the film very much and it held my interest so well that I hardly noticed the film’s over two hour length. 

It is a fantastic thing to watch a movie about World War II in which I am not asked to pretend that an M-48 Patton tank is a German Tiger tank or that an M-24 Chaffee is a Sherman.  The last movies that come to mind to do that were “A Bridge Too Far” and before that “Kelly’s Heroes” (courtesy of the Yugoslav army and Tiger mock ups built out of Soviet MT-LBs) or some of the various Soviet era movies about their “Great Patriotic War.”  Of course, Soviet filmmakers had an advantage because the Red Army never threw away any of their T-34s, etc (they gave away a lot of them and one could get nit-picky about what year different model T-34s entered service, but hey they were still T-34s!).

The depiction of the weaknesses and strengths of the Sherman tank and the tactics that had to be used to overcome or take advantage of those are also reasonably well portrayed (as are the tricks and habits of living and fighting in the same place – your tank).  This was especially true of the battle by 4 Shermans against a lone Tiger tank firing from ambush.  Obviously, it helps when you are able to draw upon the resources of The Tank Museum at Bovington in the UK which has the only running model of the Tiger tank in the world plus the staff who know how to fight those two model tanks against each other.  (The Tank Museum at Bovington ranks as one of the top armored fighting vehicle museums in the world.  Two others are the Central Museum of Armored Fighting Vehicles at Kubinka, Russia and the Tank Museum at Saumur, France.  Much of the collection at the Patton Museum at Fort Knox, Kentucky has been moved to Fort Benning, Georgia and is not yet on display there.  I've had the happy opportunity to visit all of these museums personally, though there are others still on my bucket list.)

The story told in the movie takes place in April, 1945 though perhaps they don’t make that sufficiently clear, especially how every combat arms soldier in the American (and British) armies by that time is  desperately trying to not be the war’s last casualty.  The characterizations are all pretty well presented within the world view framed by the film though a couple of moments might be considered rather overdrawn and exaggerated, especially by those accustomed to the more classic Hollywood portrayals of American GIs.   Just about every incident depicted in the film can probably be demonstrated to have actually happened during the war – but the filmmakers exercise fully their capability to concentrate them all within a roughly two hour film rather than burden the viewer with the long hours and even days of military routine and boredom that were also a part of the reality of World War II.  The film also makes every effort to expose the viewer to the mud, blood, gore, and noise of the war, though the movie cannot share any of the myriad smells of war and a battlefield nor the blinding feel of the smoke from fires and explosions.

SPOILER ALERT:  The climactic battle of the movie brings to mind a Soviet tankisti epigram learned from the film “The Beast” (aka “The Beast of War”) about a Soviet tank crew (including a World War II veteran) fighting in Afghanistan, “Out of commission, become a pillbox. Out of ammo, become a bunker. Out of time, become heroes.”  With complete recognition that “it’s only a movie” I would suggest that it also shows why a cannon-armed armored vehicle will remain an important battlefield weapon for some time to come as five men in a tank engage several hundred lightly armed infantry supported by man-portable anti-tank rockets, crew-served weapons, and thin skinned vehicles.  (Personally, I might have dismounted the two turret mounted machine guns and positioned them to either flank of the tank and the road it sat on – but that’s perhaps just me and we never learn whether or not they have the mounts to use.)