Thursday, March 15, 2018

The Warnings of Cyrus the Great and Cato the Elder

When Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire and one of the great conquerors of world history, was at the height of his power, a group of nobles came to him with a question. The Persians had emerged out of a rough and resource-poor region where life was hard and uncomfortable. Now that they had conquered so many rich lands, the nobles thought it would be a good idea for them to relocate their royal court to somewhere more pleasant.

As the Greek historian Herodotus describes it:

“Seeing that Zeus grants lordship to the Persian people, and to you, Cyrus, among them, by bringing Astyages low," [said the nobles], "Let us now remove out of the little and rugged land that we possess and take to ourselves one that is better. There be many such on our borders, and many further distant; if we take one of these we shall have more reasons for renown. It is but reasonable that a ruling people should act thus; for when shall we have a fairer occasion than now, when we are lords of so many men and of all Asia?” Cyrus heard them, and found nought to marvel at in their design; “Do so,” said he; “but if you do, make ready to be no longer rulers, but subjects. Soft lands breed soft men; wondrous fruits of the earth and valiant warriors grow not from the same soil.” Thereat the Persians saw that Cyrus reasoned better than they, and they departed from before him, choosing rather to be rulers on a barren mountain side than slaves dwelling in tilled valleys.

Cyrus was making an excellent point that his ancestors would have done well to remember. In his own time, the Persians overthrew the empire of the Medians, then conquered the powerful states of the Neo-Babylonians and the Lydians, creating an empire that stretched from the Indus River almost to the Aegean Sea. Even after his death, with his people retaining a feeling of their roots, the empire continued expanding, with his son Cambyses bringing Egypt under Persian sway. But as centuries passed, the Persians lost their respect for the values that had brought them success and began to fall into decadence, just as Cyrus had feared. The tough generation of Persians that Cyrus had led eventually gave way to the enfeebled courtiers of Darius and Xerxes. The once mighty Persian Empire was defeated by the Greeks and, a century-and-a-half later, easily swept aside by Alexander the Great.

It's a story repeated many times throughout history. Take a look at Rome. In the centuries following the establishment of the Roman Republic in 509 BC, the small city-state on the banks of the Tiber River maintained its independence in the face of attacks by more powerful peoples, then embarked on a campaign of conquest that brought the entire Mediterranean under its control. For centuries, law and order prevailed over a vast realm in a way never since equaled. As with the Persians, though, the notions of virtus and pietas that had once characterized the Roman mindset eventually gave way to wealth and debauchery. When this process was completed, the Roman Empire collapsed under the weight of internal decay and the spears of barbarian warriors.

I was led to this line of thinking at a recent "professional development session" for history teachers (why we don't just call them "training sessions" is beyond me). To illustrate the problems faced by students for whom English is a second language, we were asked to read a passage in Italian describing simple facts about the solar system. Some words were obvious due to their close relation to English, others could be divined through context clues, while others remained mysterious. After we finished the activity, one of my colleagues pulled out her smart phone, took a picture of the paragraph, and held up the screen to reveal a perfect English version, done by a translation "app" in less than a second. Most people in the room were impressed, but I found it more than a little unsettling.

The English language happily provides me with sufficiently strong verbs - such as loathe, detest, despise, abhor, and execrate - with which to express my feelings about smart phones. I have many reasons for feeling so, not least because they are simply the most annoying invention ever created (their only possible rival being car alarms). But my fundamental problem with them is that smart phones are a manifestation of a seemingly unstoppable social trend: things are simply getting too easy and too convenient.

If our smart phones are capable of instantly and perfectly translating one language into another, what is the use of learning another language? Most people would simply consider it a waste of time, since it is far easier and cheaper to buy a smart phone than to endure the time and rigor involved in learning to speak and write in a language one did not grow up speaking. Many will applaud this, calling it progress. After all, it makes things easy and convenient, doesn't it?

It does, but therein lies the problem. Learning another language does far more for a person than giving them a practical skill. It also trains the mind, instilling a sense of cerebral discipline and preparing us for the rigor that comes with difficult mental efforts. This is why I encourage my middle school students to take Latin when they get to high school. In fact, if I had my way, no American student would be allowed to graduate high school without a firm grounding in Latin.

This problem is as real in our physical lives as in our mental ones. We used to worry about malnutrition, fearful that our children were not getting enough to eat and would go hungry. Now, our chief health concern is obesity, because we are simply eating too much. Worse, we are eating the wrong kinds of stuff, gorging ourselves on fast food and frozen pizza that consist more of chemicals than anything resembling food. Our forefathers grew or raised their own food, earning their calories with their own sweat and effort. It made their meals rather more meaningful, I expect.

Consider one of the most ridiculous inventions we have come up with: the "StairMaster". We invent elevators and escalators to free us from the burden of having to walk up stairs. We then realize that not walking up stairs has diminished the amount of physical exercise we get and is contributing to our increase in obesity. So we invent the StairMaster, put them into gyms all over the country, and now look ridiculous as we walk up an endlessly repeating flight of stairs that goes nowhere. If we simply got rid of elevators and escalators, we could toss all the StairMasters into the garbage. Indeed, we could toss all such exercise equipment into the garbage and simply take walks outside. If it's cold, hot, or raining, so much the better, as Americans need to toughen themselves up.

Everywhere we look, we see examples of the problem. I don't know if any academic study has been done about the prevalence of the words "easy", "hassle free" or "no need to worry" and other such things in our advertisements, but I think we can guess just how common they are. We see books titled "A Complete Idiot's Guide to [Insert Subject Here], suggesting that complicated and complex ideas can be easily packaged and understood without much trouble. TEDTalks, the popular online lecture series, tries to cram expert ideas on complicated questions into eighteen minute slots, which is frankly impossible and gives the false impression that mastering such things can be easy.

One of my heroes, whose picture adores the wall by my desk at work, is the Roman statesman Cato the Elder, sometimes known as Cato the Censor. He is most famous for coining the phrase Carthago delenda est ("Carthage must be destroyed"), with which he ended every one of his speeches in the Senate, no matter what the subject. Yet in his time, he was renowned for he adherence to the old Roman ways of virtus and pietas and his opposition to the steady encroachment of luxury and dissipation into Roman society. As wealth flooded into Rome after the conclusion of the Punic Wars, Cato strenuously opposed the repeal of wartime laws limiting the amount of jewelry and finery women could display, much to the anger of the city's females. He even prosecuted Scipio Africanus, Rome;s greatest general and the man who had defeated Hannibal, for corruption and what might be called conduct unbecoming a Roman general.

Cato was a wealthy man himself, being a successful farmer and businessman, but he always ate from the same bench as his slaves, consuming the same cheap bread and cheap wine as they did. He labored in his fields alongside them. He would never have considered wearing fine clothes, content to don the shabby tunics of the peasants. Yet he also could be generous, once dispensing the hard-won loot of a military campaign among his soldiers when he might have kept it for himself.

He was against the introduction of Greek philosophical ideas into Rome, worrying that they would contribute to the disintegration of the values that the Roman Republic had been built up. Rome had grown from a small city of the Tiber River to a powerful state dominating the Mediterranean because it had adhered to the values of civic virtue, agrarianism, and individual self-denial. Becoming fixated on Hellenistic culture, Cato believed, would bring no good and much ill into Roman society. Better, by far, to cling to the old ways.

Now, Cato the Elder is an extreme case. I highly doubt that reading Greek philosophy contributed to the fall of the Republic and its replacement with the autocratic Empire. But I believe Cato was correct when he worried about the decline of traditional Roman virtue and that this was the root cause of his society's eventual collapse. In America today, we face the same choice.

Does the convenience of using smart phones make up for the dependence and loss of self-sufficiency that inevitably goes along with it? Does the ease of consuming frozen food or drive-through meals compensate for the absence of meaningful connection between ourselves and our food? Do we really think we can read a single book or listen to a single brief lecture and obtain the knowledge of a topic that can only truly come from long and in-depth study?

We would be wise to heed the warnings of both Cyrus the Great and Cato the Elder. If we really want to build the kind of society in which we want to live, we are going to have to work for it. Nobody is going to do it for us. We have to abandon our obsession with ease and convenience and come to grips with the fact that we have a heavy responsibility before us. Unless we do this, the United States of America will eventually go the way of the Roman Republic.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Pizza and the Fate of the Republic

I moved into the home I currently occupy in Manor, Texas, right after my wife and I returned from our honeymoon. It's in a small place, barely a dot on the map just a little east of Austin. Manor's main claim to fame is that a few scenes from the 1993 movie What's Eating Gilbert Grape, starring Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio, were shot in the area grandly proclaiming itself "downtown" (it's about half the size of an ordinary city block). It's a quiet place, really.

When I arrived in town, there was a good diner, a good place serving old-fashioned Southern food, and two nice Tex-Mex places. A place that really stood out to me, though, was Papa Geno's Pizza. It was a locally owned business and one my wife and I frequented quite a bit in the first few months of our marriage. I am a man who appreciates good pizza and Papa Geno's made simply outstanding pizza. The pie crust was the perfect thickness, the toppings tasty, and the cheese melted in precisely the right way. Eating one of their pies was like taking a trip to pizza heaven. During our engagement and for a little while after we got married, my wife and I had many a lovely dinner sitting on the floor of our living room with a box of Papa Geno's pizza between us while watching episodes of The Office. Happy memories.

Not long after I arrived, however, Domino's Pizza showed up in town. Like all such national chains, of pizza or whatever else, the food was not bad but not especially good. However, it was cheaper than the pizza at Papa Geno's and had a drive-though window. Convenience won out over quality. Before too long, the locally owned pizzeria was out of business and gone forever, leaving the national chain as the king of the pizza hill in our town.

As with pizza, so with coffee. My wife and I had our first date at a wonderful Austin coffeehouse called Mozart's, on the shore of Lake Austin, and in my days as a political hack I had many a meeting over mocha lattes at tiny indie coffeehouses. The capital of Texas is full of such places, each with their own unique, funky character. Independent coffeehouses are things I like very much, so I was delighted when one opened in Manor about two years ago. It was called Zetroc Kaffee. Its coffee was good and it briefly served as a sort of meeting place for the local community, hosting karaoke nights, poetry nights, and a couple of meetings with local political candidates.

Like Papa Geno's Pizza, however, it also failed to last. Starbucks showed up. Zetroc Kaffee closed down.

A pretty good Chinese takeout place opened up in Manor a few years ago, with the rather unimaginative name of Beijing Bistro. I especially like its sesame chicken. A Panda Express has recently set up shop, though. We'll see what happens.

These little stories have been repeated again and again in towns and neighborhoods all across America over the past few decades. In many ways, harkening back to the "good old days" is imagining something that didn't ever really exist, but in this case there really were "good old days". Restaurants and businesses, whether we're talking about pizza shops, hardware stores, or anything else, used to be mostly locally owned. The guy who owned the place was usually to be found at the establishment itself, contributing his own labor to the success of the business, for it was his business.

This is about a lot more than just nostalgia. Consider the differences between a waiter at a locally owned restaurant and the one at a corporate establishment. The waiter at the locally owned establishment knows the owner of the place personally, having been hired by him rather than by some mid-level manager or supervisor. He goes to school with the owner's kids. The owner might even give him a bonus check when he graduates high school. In a very real sense, he is as deeply invested in the success of the restaurant as the owner. There is a genuine communal bond there.

Now consider a waiter at a Chili's or Olive Garden. He was not hired by the owners of the restaurants, who are faceless stockholders who likely aren't even aware their money is invested in the business. The waiter has never seen and will never see any members of the board of directors of whatever national company actually operates these restaurants, who wouldn't care about him anyway. The manager or supervisor or whatever wants the business to succeed because he wants to keep his job (though he might simply transfer to another store), but he has nowhere near the level of investment that an actual owner of a business has.

Near the church that my family attends is a sandwich shop called Hoody's. It's been there as long as my wife can remember. The sandwiches are delicious, but another thing I love about the place are the pictures of local high school sports teams along the walls, along with newspaper articles of their past victories. There's an actual connection to the local community at this place. You never see pictures of local high school kids on the wall of a Subway, do you?

A lot more is at stake here than I think people realize. Locally owned businesses enrich and enhance our communities in a way that corporate chains never could. They assert and maintain the unique character of each community, whereas chain establishments are identical no matter where they are found across the country. They have a solid link with the community, which corporate chains can never match. An independently owned bookstore might stock books by a local author, but Barnes and Noble won't do so unless it's approved by its national office. Moreover, economic studies have conclusively demonstrated that money spent in locally owned businesses tends to remain in the community, whereas money spent in corporate chains tends to flow out of it.

Strong local communities, with their own histories, traditions, and sense of self-respect, are the foundations of our republic. In our own day, they are slowly dying. If you get off the interstate highways onto the back roads, you often find yourself moving through a graveyard of once thriving towns that are now barren and empty, like the ghost towns of old Western movies. In innumerable neighborhoods of our larger urban areas, the story is much the same. Local communities with identities of their own are being replaced by a never-ending asphalt desert of the same chain stores and restaurants that you see everywhere else in America. We've turned into a plastic society. It's hard to find anything like civic virtue in such a place.

I am personally far from guiltless in all this, I should say. A Walmart, that energetic crusher of local communities, opened up one of their smaller stores in Manor a few years ago. I intensely dislike shopping there, but the nearest alternate means a round trip of about an hour. That's okay by me for a planned weekly grocery shopping trip, but if it's nine o'clock at night and we desperately need diapers or baby wipes, convenience will sadly win out over my principles. The obvious solution is to be more efficient in my weekly trips. I, like the rest of the country, need to get started.

We are right to worry about the fate of America. We look around a see all many of threats, from terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction, to climate change, to fiscal collapse, to whatever else. We often fail to see equally serious threats standing right in our face. The decline and fall of local communities in the face of corporate chain homogeneity is precisely one of those threats. Thankfully, though, it is one we can do something about every day by supporting our local businesses.

So the next time you think of grabbing a coffee at Starbucks, picking up a pizza from Pizza Hut, getting your car tuned at Pep Boys, and so on and so forth, stop yourself and ask whether or not there is a local alternative. Chances are there is. Spend your money there and don't fill up the coffers of the enemies of the republic.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

The Presidency and the Nuclear Genies of Death

On July 27, according to this article in the Associated Press, Admiral Scott Swift, the current commander of the United States Pacific Fleet, was asked at a press conference in Australia whether or not he would obey an order from the President to launch a nuclear attack upon China the following week. Without any hesitation, Admiral Swift said yes.

There is one word for this: terrifying.

Nuclear weapons are in the news lately, given the tensions our nation presently has with the regime of North Korea (I see on the BBC as I wake up this morning that the rogue nation has tested another nuke, even more powerful than before). For the first time in a long while, they were an issue in last year's presidential election, mostly in regards to Donald Trump's temperament. Nevertheless, nuclear weapons do not seem to constitute a problem in the eyes of the American people along the lines of healthcare, climate change, the debt crisis, and other issues. They should, for the threat posed by the continued existence of nuclear weapons remains the single greatest danger to the future of human civilization.

I've written on this blog in the past on the need for America to reduce its bloated nuclear arsenal. But the comments made by Admiral Swift lay bare another crucial problem with nuclear arms, that of control. Speaking bluntly, it is unacceptably dangerous for the President of the United States, a single individual, to have the authority to order an unprovoked nuclear strike.

It should be said right away that this problem is not specific to the current occupant of the White House. Yes, Donald Trump's personality is characterized by a lack of foresight, recklessness, and a fragile ego extremely sensitive to slights. He is probably the last person in the world whose finger I want on the nuclear trigger. But this issue is about far more than just Trump. Every single person is a flawed human being and the issue of presidential power when it comes to nuclear weapons has existed since Harry Truman. It will continue to exist until we do something to fix it. If we don't, the consequences will be catastrophic sooner or later. It's not a matter of if, but when.

I believe that Admiral Swift's position is, strictly speaking, unconstitutional. The Constitution clearly states that only Congress, and not the President, has the authority to decide whether or not the nation is to go to war. To say that launching a nuclear strike against a nation with which the United States is at peace is an act of war is to state to blindingly obvious. If Congress has not declared war on a country, the President has no constitutional authority to launch an unprovoked nuclear strike against that country. Any such order would be illegal on the face of it, and if presented with such an order, the duty of a military officer would be to refuse to follow it. After all, they take an oath of loyalty to the Constitution, and not to the President as an individual.

Keep in mind that we are talking about a nuclear first strike, not the retaliatory use of nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear strike against the United States. In such a case as that, when our early warning systems have detected incoming enemy missiles targeted on our cities, the time in which to determine a response can be measured in mere minutes. Our ability to deter a enemy nuclear attack depends on their knowledge that we would strike back instantly against any attack launched against us. Indeed, I would support extending this policy to cover a response to the use of chemical and biological weapons as well. Nor am I talking about a preemptive strike designed to take out an enemy's nuclear weapons if it became clear that they were about to be launched against us. What concerns me here is the current ability to the President of the United States to order a nuclear strike against another country for any reason whatsoever, simply because they feel like it.

The framers of the Constitution were brilliant men - more brilliant by far than any of our modern political actors - and they knew exactly what they were doing when they placed the power to declare war in the hands of Congress rather than the President. Men who were steeped in the classics of Greece and Rome, and with recent history in Britain and Europe to look to as an example, they understood clearly the ambitious and vain aspects of human nature and the tendency of leaders to get carried away with their emotions. Best to leave the ultimate decision of war to a deliberative body like Congress than place it in the hands of one flawed individual. In an age of nuclear weapons, when the power exists to quite literally obliterate human civilization from the face of the earth, the wisdom of the framers of the Constitution is all the more apparent.

If the president is empowered to launch a nuclear strike against anyone he or she wants, with no check whatsoever on this power, it opens up the biggest can of worms in world history. Setting aside all questions of constitutionality, what if the president is drunk? What if the president has had some sort of psychological breakdown? What if someone is holding a gun to the president's head, or the head of the president's spouse or child, and the general or admiral doesn't know it?

In 1973, a major in the United States Air Force named Harold Hering, a distinguished Vietnam veteran doing duty in Minuteman missile silos, raised a very obvious question during a training session. "How can I know that an order I receive to launch my missiles came from a sane president?" he asked. Simply for saying these forbidden words, Major Hering was kicked out of the Air Force. He later became a truck driver.

During the late days of Watergate scandal, President Richard Nixon was often drunk, utterly exhausted, or both. He was often heard trying to talk to paintings of past presidents on the White House walls. At the same time, a massive war broke out in the Middle East between Israel and its Arab enemies. The crisis quickly escalated as the Soviet Union threatened to intervene on behalf of the Arab states against Israel. With the world on the brink of a Third World War, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger had to advise the Joint Chiefs of Staff to ignore any orders from Nixon regarding nuclear weapons, as the president was not in his right mind.

During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump casually suggested using nuclear weapons as if they were no more unusual than ordinary conventional weapons. He even suggested that more countries acquire nuclear weapons, displaying a frightening lack of understanding on this crucial issue. What very nearly happened to Nixon seems quite likely to happen with Trump as well. And even level-headed presidents aren't immune from these problems, because each president is a flawed, individual human being.

Note that Admiral Swift's response to the question was not qualified by anything. If the president ordered him to nuke somebody, he would do it. Simple as that. If we take this logic to its obvious conclusion, the implications are truly daunting. Is the president empowered to launch a nuclear strike against France if he didn't like the souffle he ate at a Parisian restaurant? If so, why? If not, why not?

Clearly, having the authority to launch nuclear weapons in the hands of a single person is a disaster waiting to happen. It is long past time that Congress reclaim its war-decision power from the executive branch. There are many reasons for this, but the most important one above all is the prevention of an unnecessary and unprovoked launch of American nuclear weapons.

House Resolution 669 has been introduced in the current session of Congress by Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Congressman Ted Lieu of California. It would remove the president's ability to order a nuclear attack except in response to a nuclear attack on America or one of its allies by another nuclear state, or in the case in which Congress has issued a formal declaration of war. The bill has flaws, such as not specifying exact what "ally" means and perhaps not granting Congress the right to authorize nuclear weapons use with something short of a war declaration (something last issued in 1942). It should also be noted that its two sponsors are liberal Democrats pushing the legislation in the face of Donald Trump's assumption of the presidency. Nevertheless, it is a good start.

Unfortunately, the bill has next to no chance of becoming law in the present political climate. Since the issue is all but ignored by the media, the American people are largely unaware of the problem. And without the mobilization and organization of large numbers of voters, Congress will never lift a finger.

And in the meantime, we wait and worry.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Thoughts on Charlottesville

Like most other Americans, the events of this last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, made a deep impression on me and left me feeling profoundly discouraged. The image of hundreds of Neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members, and other assorted racists marching through the streets of an American town felt like the return of dark and vile creatures we thought had been cast into the ash heap of history. Infinitely worse, a brave woman there to protest racism, Heather Heyer, was killed by a white supremacist who intentionally ran over her with his car, a clear act of domestic terrorism. Several other people were injured. Two law enforcement officers helping contain the situation, Jay Cullen and Berke Bates, died when their helicopter crashed.

That the scene of this outrage was the town of Charlottesville pours salt into the wound, for it is no ordinary American town. It lies within sight of Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. It is also the location of the University of Virginia, the creation of which was the project of Jefferson's final years and the last of his many gifts to the people of America. Both the remarkable house and the great university are manifestations of Jefferson's vision of what America is supposed to be: a calm and civilized society in which issues were openly and respectfully debated and the freedom of the human mind was restrained by nothing. What happened in the town is precisely the opposite of what Jefferson thought America should be about. And of course, Jefferson's own story, in which his glorious vision was not matched by his own actions, is a window onto America's complicated history on racial matters.

I was extremely moved by a photograph I saw on the first night of the unrest. A large crowd of torch-wielding racists had encircled a much smaller group of counter-protesters, who had linked arms to form a human chain around the base of a statue of Jefferson, as if protecting it. This was quite fitting, for the counter protesters represent the genuine ideals of America as expressed by Jefferson, while the bigots surrounding them represent a dark, mutated offshoot of America that Jefferson would have abhorred.

Ostensibly, the purpose of the so-called "Unite the Right" rally was to protest the recent decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from a Charlottesville park. I myself have had mixed feelings about the removal of Confederate monuments. The monuments to individual army units that you see in courthouse squares all across the South, and on battlefields themselves, generally commemorate ordinary farmers who owned no slaves and had joined the army either out of a feeling of duty to protect their homes or because they had been conscripted (although some, such as the one in Denton, TX, are designed in such a way as to clearly express a racist message). Monuments to individuals need to be taken in the context of that particular individual. Confederate soldiers were not cartoon villains, but complicated individuals with complex motives, just like all of us.

Robert E. Lee is particularly problematic. Though his opposition to slavery and secession have been exaggerated by hagiographic biographers over the years, it is true that he was a man with many honorable qualities. Reading a young adult biography of him had a hugely positive impact on me when I was growing up, fixing in my mind the need to behave properly and conduct myself in a dignified manner. Lots of men could learn how to be better husbands, fathers, and sons by studying the life of Lee. At the end of the war, he ensured that the Confederate army would not attempt to carry on a guerrilla struggle that would have dragged the conflict out and cost thousands more lives. After the war, he urged reconciliation and refused to participate in any actions that might have stoked feelings of bitterness and resentment. There is much to admire about Robert E. Lee.

And yet, while we might admire certain Confederate individuals and respect the bravery of Confederate soldiers in battle, we cannot escape the fact that had the Confederate cause triumphed, the United States would have been shattered and the foul curse of slavery would have persisted. There is simply no getting around this, no matter how far you strain logic and how much you rewrite history. I may be the author of alternate history fiction set in a world where the South won the war, but the cause I believe in was born on Lexington Green in April of 1775, not at Fort Sumter in April of 1861. If you love America and despise slavery, as every decent American must, you cannot be on the side of the Confederacy. That has to be born in mind as we continue to debate how we should remember the sad chapter of our history that was the Civil War.

None of this, though, is really of any interest to the white supremacists who showed up in Charlottesville. Whatever they say, they couldn't care less what actually happens to the Lee statue. The issue was just a red herring to give them an excuse to spew forth their particular brand of hate. Indeed, their actions now virtually guarantee that the statue in question will be taken down in the near future and that there will be a renewed impetus to the movement to remove Confederate monuments nationwide. Even as I type this blog entry, the news is filled with stories of cities moving much more quickly to take them down. Who, after all, wants to be on the same side as Neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan?

But the issue of Confederate monuments is, frankly, now a sideshow to the bigger problem exposed by what happened in Charlottesville. How can people still hold such sickening opinions in the America of 2017? It's usually a cliché to call something "un-American", but in this case it's entirely appropriate. The Neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, and the rest of the villains who showed up in Charlottesville are deeply and profoundly un-American. They are traitors to the fundamental values upon which the American republic was founded.

Many of the racists marching in Charlottesville could be heard chanting "Blood and Soil!" This is a phrase stemming from European fascism and its intellectual antecedents in late 19th Century European thought. Its meaning is clear as day, defining nationhood entirely by race and territory. It was such thinking that led to nightmarish atrocities like the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, and the campaigns of ethnic cleansing during the breakup of Yugoslavia.

America is not defined by blood and soil. Indeed, America is not a nation in the traditional sense at all. We are, instead, a country founded upon ideas and moral principles, the only such country in the history of the world. The Declaration of Independence says that we are all equal and possess natural rights. The Constitution gives us all a balanced government designed to ensure a stable society in which individual liberty is protected. The Bill of Rights spells out the rights we possess. Those three parchment documents are the foundation of the United States of America. As our nation has matured, we have expanded these rights and protections to previously excluded groups, which is why the Declaration of Sentiments from the Seneca Falls Convention, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the "I Have a Dream" speech deserve equal places in our national lexicon.

America has no common ethnicity, language, or religion and our ancestors come from all over the world. To be an American is to pledge to uphold our moral and political principles. Nothing more and nothing less. If you do that, you're an American, whether your ancestors came over on the Mayflower or if you're a newly naturalized citizen who just took the oath of allegiance ten minutes ago.

The story of America is the gradual expansion of individual liberty and the creation of a diverse society held together by shared political values and a common constitution. We've made mistakes along the way and coming to terms with our original sins as a people was a painful process. But the story is far from over and, indeed, may only be beginning. Needless to say, though, there is no place for "Blood and Soil" thinking in this country. Such a concept is the antithesis of everything that America is about.

A few other thoughts I'd like to share. As a horrified nation watched the disorder and violence unfold in Charlottesville, there was a lot of chatter on social media about why the white supremacists were allowed to hold a rally at all. Shouldn't such demonstrations be banned by law, free expression be damned? This line of thinking must be halted at once. Our Constitution is sacred and untouchable. Amidst our justifiable righteous indignation, we must not lose sight of our principles and forget the fact that we are a nation of laws. If the First Amendment is to mean anything, it has to protect the speech of even the worst and most despicable kind, even that chanted by the worthless wastes of oxygen who marched through Charlottesville. The moment the government starts determining what sort of speech is allowed and not allowed, we will find ourselves on a slippery slope towards the loss of the right of free expression for everyone. The cure for bad ideas is not suppression; it's better ideas.

Similarly, I heard it suggested that the attorney assigned to defend the man who killed Heather Heyer and injured the others should resign from his post rather than take the case. This would be a grave mistake. Like freedom of expression, a foundational principle of America is that everyone, even the worst people among us, are entitled to legal counsel when arraigned in court. It was this principle that prompted John Adams to defend the British soldiers that carried out the Boston Massacre. Had SEAL Team 6 captured Osama bin Laden and taken him to the United States in 2011, rather than kill him, even he would have been entitled to a lawyer to defend him during his trial. I hope and expect the terrorist who killed Ms. Heyer to be found guilty and receive the punishment he deserves, but he has the right to the assistance of a lawyer as much as any other citizen. As with free expression, if we establish a precedent that anyone can be denied legal counsel, we will eventually deny it to us all.

I apologize if this blog post has been a little more rambling than what I usually write. I have not taken the time I normally take to complete it, for I have felt the need to get it out as quickly as possible. I think the best thing to take away from what happened in Charlottesville, aside from the obvious need to swiftly condemn hatred and racism, is a renewed focus on our common American values. We are the most diverse nation in the world, and there's nothing at all wrong with that, but there is also an ironclad core of beliefs that we all must share if America is to really live up to its stated principles. A challenge is an opportunity for us to live up to those principles. It's a challenge that will repeat itself again and again and we have to meet it successfully every time.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Samuel Adams, Martha Washington, and the Philadelphia Ball

The American Revolution was an event that called forth great sacrifice from the American people. Thousands of men left their chosen professions to shoulder arms with the Continental Army, while many of those who remained behind to till their fields served stints in the militia. The womenfolk had to see their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons off to war, their safe return uncertain. Imports from Europe were cut off by the fighting and the British blockade, forcing the colonists to do without luxuries and to make many previously imported essentials themselves. Inflation ran riot during this period, inflicting terrible economic hardship. The worst smallpox epidemic in American history raged across the land late during the war, carrying off thousands of victims. It was, indeed, a time of trial the likes of which America has not seen since.

No one understood the suffering being endured by the people better than Samuel Adams, the man who probably did more than any other single individual to bring on the Revolution. He was a man for whom wealth or material possessions meant little or nothing. Believing in the cause of American liberty with a fervency unrivaled and virtually unequaled among the other Founding Fathers, Samuel Adams saw the pursuit of money as a base and ignoble distraction from what really mattered. To him, the Revolution was a fiery trial sent by God through which they had to pass if they were to prove worthy of independence.

In November of 1775, Adams was serving as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. The war had begun at Lexington and Concord the previous April, with the bloody Battle of Bunker Hill having been fought in June. Adams's hometown of Boston remained under British occupation, loosely besieged by George Washington's disorganized and undisciplined army. The war was well and truly underway and the suffering had begun. Whether the American people would have the stomach to make the sacrifices necessary for victory was unclear. It was something that Samuel Adams worried about constantly.

That month, Martha Washington was going to pass through Philadelphia on her way to join her husband (she would spend every winter with the general over the course of the war, in fact). To the great concern of Adams, a fancy dress ball was scheduled to be held at City Tavern in her honor when she arrived. The big shin-dig was being organized by some of the wealthier members of the city's elite, as well as members of the Continental Congress. Many were upset when word of the scheduled ball leaked out, thinking that such elaborate and expensive celebrating highly inappropriate considering the ongoing war and the suffering being endured by the people. In particular, many objected that the party would violate the Eighth Resolution agreed upon by the First Continental Congress the previous year, which read as follows:

That we will, in our several stations, encourage Frugality, Economy, and Industry, and promote Agriculture, Arts, and the Manufactures of this Country, especially that of Wool, and will discountenance and discourage every species of extravagance and dissipation, especially all horse-racing, and all kinds of gaming, cock-fighting, exhibitions of plays, shews, and other expensive diversions and entertainments, and on the death of any relation or friend, none of us, or any of our families, will go into any further mourning dress than a black crape or ribbon on the arm or hat for gentlemen, and a black ribbon or necklace for ladies, and we will discontinue the giving of gloves and scarfs at funerals.

This resolution had been adopted as part of the effort to discourage imports from Britain in the run-up to the outbreak of the war, when it was thought that economic pressure might be sufficient to force His Majesty's Government to agree to end the crisis on reasonable terms. But for Sam Adams, it was much more than a merely practical expedient. What is was really about, as far as he was concerned, was instilling a sense of civic virtue in the American people. For without that, as he and many others fully realized, they would lack the moral fiber to endure the conflict with the British Empire.

Worried about how news of the ball would be received by the people of Philadelphia, Adams and a few others went directly to Martha Washington and asked her not to appear at the event. After speaking with them, she immediately agreed not to go. A wise woman if ever there was one, she grasped the argument Adams was making quite easily. As she was to have been the guest of honor, the event was scrapped, much to the irritation of the wealthy Philadelphians who had organized the whole thing. Adams, however, was pleased at the small but symbolic victory in the fight for civic virtue in America.

What is civic virtue? The very fact that we have to ask ourselves this question illustrates how far America has fallen into decline in the early 21st Century. In essence, it is placing the interests of the community ahead of one's own interests, whether on the level of the neighborhood or the level of the entire nation. Adams understood that the American people were only going to become a free and independent people if they pushed aside thoughts of merriment and amusement and focused their energies on serving the cause. As he once said:

A general dissolution of principles and manners will more surely overthrow the liberties of America than the whole force of the common enemy. While the people are virtuous, they cannot be subdued. but when once they lose their virtue then they will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader.

Nothing irritated Adams more than seeing his fellow Americans fall into dissipation and trivial entertainment when there was a war to be fought and won. When John Hancock (with whom Adams had a long and complicated relationship) was elected as the first Governor of Massachusetts in 1780, Adams was horrified by the great expense and celebratory pomp that went into the inauguration ceremony. What would have been wrong, Adams would have asked, with simply having a judge swear Hancock into office in a quiet, no nonsense affair?

One wonders what Samuel Adams would say to us today. Grave problems are bearing down us, with the inevitability of a train approaching a man tied to the railroad tracks. Among other things, our nation faces a mounting debt crisis, climate change, and an unstable world in which American military superiority can no longer be taken for granted. Compounding all these problems is the gridlocked political situation that blocks all efforts to deal with the multiple problems.

In spite of all this, we Americans continue to eat, drink, and be merry as though nothing was wrong. We devour our fast food and frozen pizzas, indulge in our clownish and inane popular culture, and breathlessly follow stories about the personal lives of entertainment celebrities. We we haven't left them plugged into brain-sucking smart phones and video games, we teach our kids strategies for taking standardized tests but not much in the way of useful or enlightening knowledge. Every year, our schools spend less time on civics and the history of our once great republic. Our elected officials, left and right, offer us endless enticements to get us to vote for them, but none have the courage to tell the American people the truth about the hard times that surely lie ahead.

It seems to me that our elected officials, our media, and our educational system are combining together to tell us, in effect, that Sam Adams was wrong, that it would be a good idea to put on the lavish ball in Philadelphia, that we should ignore the need for sacrifice and virtue, that the times are really not as bad as we think they are. The powers-that-be are sitting pretty these days and would rather keep dancing and enjoying themselves while they have the chance. One is reminded of the "soma" of Aldous Huxley.

In spite of everything, though, I still have faith in the wisdom and the virtue of the American people. It has been sorely tested at times, I admit, but it's still there. More and more, I think that my fellow Americans are seeing past the smoke and mirrors erected by the powers-that-be. In the coming years, I believe that they will brush aside the mirage that we should be defined by whether we are on the "left" and "right" of the political spectrum and remember the true wisdom of Sam Adams and the other Founding Fathers. The fate of our republic rests on our reacquiring of virtue and wisdom. That, and not the soma of mindless entertainment, is what will save America.

Sam Adams and Martha Washington were right in 1775 and they remain right in 2017. Let's cancel the Philadelphia Ball once again.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Seeing the Declaration of Independence as a Mission Statement

It is Independence Day, our great national holiday. The Fourth of July is supposed to be the day we set aside every year to celebrate the foundation of our great republic, trumpet our experiment in self-government, and come together as a people to remember the values upon which this country is founded. Though John Adams got the date wrong (he expected the holiday to be July 2, when the Continental Congress approved the resolution for independence), the "Atlas of Independence" was right on the money when he said:

I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty; it ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward, forevermore. 

And Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the glorious document signed on this day two hundred and forty-one years ago, had these words to say about the Fourth of July, in one of the last letters he ever wrote.

[M]ay it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the Signal of arousing men to burst the chains, under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings & security of self-government. that form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. all eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. the general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view. the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of god. these are grounds of hope for others. for ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.

(The fact that both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, was considered by many at the time to be a sign from the Almighty. Who are we to say it wasn't?)

Now, I love fireworks, drinking beer, and cooking out on the grill as much as anyone. But as with Memorial Day and Labor Day, I fear that we lose perspective when we fail to stop and appreciate what our national holidays are really about. On Independence Day, I think it's important to stop and think about what the American Revolution was really all about. Our nation is the only state in the history of the world founded upon moral principles, rather than some sort of ethnic or tribal identity, and those moral principles were spelled out in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, the thirty-five most important words ever written in the English language.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

July 4 is a day of patriotism. We live in a cynical age in which patriotism is all too often dismissed as old-fashioned of even bigoted. This is wrong. While we should never gloss over the many times America has failed to live up to its own ideals, and even committed the unspeakable crimes of enslaving African-Americans committing ethnic cleansing of American Indians, we should still love our country. Indeed, keeping our national shortcomings in our mind should spur us on towards the full realization of the words within the Declaration, which we have yet to achieve even in our own time.

The Declaration of Independence was much more than a simple statement that America would be an independent nation. It was a mission statement. It was not describing America as it was, but America as it is supposed to be. In writing those words, Jefferson was throwing a gauntlet down at our feet. Can we build a society in which a self-governing people are truly free and equal? Nobody knew better than he the difficulties of that challenge, for despite his best efforts he could never devise a solution to the slavery problem. It took a bloody war and the deaths of around seven hundred thousand Americans to purge that curse from our land. In doing so, we also determined that America was going to be a single republic rather than a confederation of individual states.

The destruction of slavery was only a single step up the vast flight of stairs towards the realization of the mission expressed by the Declaration. It took another century before full civil rights for all people regardless of race was enshrined in our nation's laws. In the meantime, a battle was fought and won for full political rights for women, though anyone who thinks this struggle is truly over is deluding themselves. Citizenship was not granted to American Indians until the 1920s. Even in our own time, we struggle with the granting of full equality to gay and lesbian Americans. The fight for true equality continues, but we can take justifiable pride when we reflect that the rights of all citizens have gradually expanded year-by-year over the course of American history.

We must resist efforts to gloss over the past failings of our nation, but we also must resist the temptation to reject patriotism as if it were narrow-minded nationalism. I love my country and I wish all other Americans did, too. The United States of America has been, is, and will continue to be a force for tremendous good in the world. In the 1940s, America led a global crusade against fascism that crushed the power of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, liberating millions of people who conquered and enslaved by those evil regimes. Through the long and dark years of the Cold War, the United States contained Soviet communism until the threat of that ideological disease collapsed of its own dead weight. The United States has led the way in scientific and technological advancement, manifested best by the footsteps of Neil Armstrong on the surface of the moon.

More than anything else, though, America really does continue to stand as a "city upon a hill". It remains an example of a people united not by ethnicity, language, or religion, but by agreed upon moral and political principles, and building a society in which people are free, equal before the law, and have the chance to strive for a better life for themselves and their families.

The Fourth of July is a day of celebration. Put on colorful shirts of red, white, and blue and go see fireworks with your family and friends. Enjoy your beer and grill some burgers and hot dogs. Belt out Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA!" Indulge in the fun of the holiday, by all means. But while doing that, take a few moments to reflect on the ideals on which our great republic was founded upon. More than anything else, though, remember that Jefferson's words in the Declaration were a mission statement and that it is incumbent upon all of us, as citizens, to do our part towards the fulfilling of that mission.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Is William Tecumseh Sherman Overrated as a General?

Since publishing my novel Shattered Nation in 2013, I have received lots of feedback from readers. Aside from a small number of angry people who have emailed to insist that the Civil War wasn't really about slavery (it was), the messages have been very positive and friendly. A few fine folks have been kind enough to offer constructive criticism and point out a few errors, which I have greatly appreciated. And some of these messages have led to friendly debates about varying plot points.

A few correspondents have politely suggested that I portrayed William Tecumseh Sherman in an unfairly negative light and that he was a better general than I give him credit for in the pages of Shattered Nation. I respectfully disagreed then and find my opinion only strengthened the more I consider the matter. Simply put: notwithstanding his obvious talents and his personal integrity, Sherman is perhaps the most overrated general in American history.

Let's consider Sherman's record over the course of the war. He started out as a brigade commander at the First Battle of Manassas, where actually did reasonably well despite the overall Union disaster. Lincoln was impressed enough to promote him and send him out west, where he ended up in command of Union forces in Kentucky. Here is where Sherman's troubles began. Convinced that he was about to be attacked by an overwhelmingly superior Confederate force (which, in fact, largely existed only on paper), Sherman had a nervous breakdown. He was relieved from command and went home, where he either considered or possibly even attempted suicide. Newspapers ran articles suggesting that Sherman was insane and his superior officers considered him unfit for further duty. Needless to say, this was not a promising start for Sherman's war.

Sherman spent a few months in what amounted to administrative duty, he was brought back to the field as a division commander under Grant in the aftermath of the Union victory at Fort Donelson. In the prelude to the Battle of Shiloh, Sherman failed to take adequate precautions for defense and ignored several signs of the impending Confederate attack. Though he fought well enough during the battle itself, the fact that the Union army was taken by surprise and nearly smashed must be blamed largely on Sherman.

Sherman's next major engagement was at the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou, north of Vicksburg. In an ill-judged frontal assault, Sherman's thirty thousand troops were soundly repulsed and trounced by a rebel force less than half its size. Sherman lost nearly two thousand men, while the Southern forces suffered roughly one-tenth the number of men. All things considered, it was a miserable and humiliating affair.

In the spring of 1863, Sherman was one of three corps commanders under Grant during the decisive phase of the Vicksburg Campaign. Generally speaking, however, Sherman's corps was kept out of the way while the formations of James McPherson and John McClernard did the hard fighting in engagements such as the Battle of Raymond, the Battle of Champion Hill. The only time Sherman's corps was heavily engaged was during the frontal assaults against the Vicksburg defenses on May 19 and May 22. Sherman's troops failed to make any impression on the enemy defenses, being repulsed with heavy losses.

Sherman next played a major role in the Battle of Chattanooga in November of 1863. Grant's plan for defeating the Confederate Army was for the Army of the Cumberland under George Thomas to feint at the Confederate center while Sherman, leading the Army of the Tennessee, smashed the enemy right flank on the northern end of Missionary Ridge. Despite heavily outnumbering the Southern defenders, Sherman's attack was a dismal failure, making no gains and suffering heavy casualties (in fairness to Sherman, the opposing commander was Patrick Cleburne, arguably the best division commander in the Confederacy). It fell to Thomas to win the battle by smashing through the enemy center.

To sum up, Sherman's record prior to being made commander of the Union forces in the West was largely one of failure. At Chickasaw Bluffs, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga, Sherman was bloodily repulsed in ill-advised frontal assaults that lacked tactical imagination. He had never been the overall director of military affairs, serving only as a loyal subordinate to Grant. Other generals, notable George Thomas, had much more impressive records. It seems obvious that Sherman received the command for the Atlanta Campaign almost entirely because of his personal relationship with Grant, rather than on his own merits.

Sherman's historical reputation today rests on his performance in the capture of Atlanta and the subsequent "March to the Sea". And it was here that his strongest military talents did indeed shine forth. Though I am writing this blog post as a criticism, one must be fair to Sherman and state without hesitation that he was an absolute master of logistics. Few other generals would have been able to keep his armies supplied with the necessities of war over hundreds of miles along a single, ramshackle railroad, without the benefit of water transport. That Sherman did so is very much to his credit.

And, of course, Sherman had the strategic vision to understand that the Confederacy would only be defeated when the popular will to go on with the war collapsed. That required the civilian population to experience the full brunt of the war. It certainly did help bring the war to an end, though whether it was an ethical approach will be debated as long as historical memory of the war endures.

But let us return to the subject. Though he was ultimately successful in capturing Atlanta, and thereby playing a major role in the defeat of the Confederacy, Sherman's record in the Atlanta Campaign is far from brilliant. Had Sherman been a better general, the Atlanta Campaign could have ended earlier and in a much more decisive manner, shortening the war by many months and saving thousands of lives.

In the opening stages of the campaign, the Confederate Army of Tennessee held a strong defensive position around the town of Dalton. But the Southern commander, Joseph Johnston, had made the inexcusable error to leave the vital Snake Creek Gap to the southwest almost entirely unguarded. Sherman dispatched the Army of the Tennessee under General James McPherson to move through the gap and cut the Confederates off from their supply lines. However, the force was too small and McPherson was too cautious to guarantee that the maneuver would be successful. Sherman should have sent a much stronger force and supervised the movement himself. Had he done so, the Army of Tennessee might have trapped and forced to surrender in the opening days of the campaign, almost certainly ended the war by Christmas. As it was, Sherman only compelled Johnston to abandon the Dalton position. It was a merely local success rather than the major victory it should have been,

Historiography of the Atlanta Campaign emphasizes Sherman's repeated flanking movements around the Confederate positions during the long approach to the city. It's therefore easy to forget that thousands of Union soldiers were killed or wounded in ill-advised frontal assaults on prepared positions during this phase of the fighting. At New Hope Church on May 25, Pickett's Mill on May 27, and above all at Kennesaw Mountain on June 27, Sherman hurled his troops against strong Confederate positions, needlessly suffering heavy casualties while inflicting little harm on his enemies.

As his army group finally approached Atlanta in mid-July, Sherman committed the grave error of dividing his forces in the face of the enemy, spreading them out so far that they were not able to support one another. This allowed the Confederates to concentrate the bulk of their army against only a portion of Sherman's forces, giving them a chance to fight on fairly equal terms. The subsequent Confederate attack at Peachtree Creek on July 20 was a botched affair, with the Southerners having only themselves to blame for their failure to crush the Army of the Cumberland. (My novel, Shattered Nation, deals with a scenario in which the attack is executed properly). Although a victory, Sherman deserves censure for placing his army in a position inviting defeat.

Two days later, at the Battle of Atlanta, Sherman missed a glorious opportunity to deal a fatal blow to the enemy army. After the Army of the Tennessee had repulsed the Confederate offensive, the Army of the Ohio was perfectly positioned to launch a counter attack into the enemy left flank. Had it done so, the Confederate army would have been shattered and Atlanta would likely have fallen within the next day or so. Yet Sherman inexplicably held back, despite being urged to attack by many of his subordinates. In his memoirs, Sherman offered the lame excuse that the men of the Army of the Tennessee would have been "jealous" if they had received aid from the other armies!

A bit over a month later, Sherman lost another golden opportunity to destroy the Army of Tennessee. Just after the Battle of Jonesborough, which doomed Atlanta, the Confederate army was badly divided across thirty miles of territory. Hardee's corps was far to the south, Stewart's corps had just evacuated Atlanta, and S. D. Lee's corps was somewhere in between. Sherman's army, minus only the XX Corps northwest of Atlanta, was concentrated in and north of Jonesborough. Sherman could easily have interposed his army between the divided segments of Hood's force, which were beaten and demoralized. Hardee and S. D. Lee would have been devoured for lunch and Sherman could have then had Stewart for dessert. The war in the Western Theater could have ended and the entire episode of Hood's invasion of Tennessee could have been avoided.

Finally, when setting off on his "March to the Sea", Sherman took the cavalry and all the best infantry, not to mention most of the equipment. This despite the fact that there was next to no enemy opposition left in Georgia. Sherman handed over the far more difficult task of defending Tennessee from Hood to George Thomas. To do so, Thomas had so little cavalry that his mounted arm had to be built up from scratch and so little infantry that divisions had to be brought in from other theaters before Thomas had the strength to beat Hood. Thomas succeeded in not only defeating Hood, but in destroying the Army of Tennessee as a fighting force. But it was no thanks to Sherman that he did this.

As stated above, Sherman had obvious military talents as a strategist and especially in the area of logistics. But as an army commander, he had serious flaws. He was below par on a tactical level, repeatedly being bested on the field by enemies he greatly outnumbered and using unimaginative tactics. He missed several opportunities to deliver a decisive blow against the Army of Tennessee, allowing it to fight on for several months after the conclusion of the Atlanta Campaign.

The thought has often occurred to me that, in the spring of 1864, George Thomas should have been given supreme command of Union forces in the West, with Sherman as his chief-of-staff. That would have been a winning combination and I would expect the Confederate forces to be overcome far earlier and more easily than they historically were.

What if...