Sunday, January 31, 2016

Cleaning Up Our National Holiday Calendar

I take national holidays pretty seriously. A week before each one, I set my alarm for the morning of the holiday so I don't forget to put my American flag out before I leave for work. I have my own little traditions. I read the Declaration of Independence in its entirety on July 4 and I watch the "I Have A Dream" speech on Martin Luther King Day. My family makes a very big deal out of Thanksgiving. I probably enjoy teaching lessons about national holidays to my students more than I do any other aspect of teaching.

That said, I think that there are a lot of problems with our yearly calendar of national holidays as it presently stands. Perhaps it's not as big an issue as global climate change or the rising national debt, but allow me to present my thoughts on the subject, for whatever they're worth. Understand that I'm talking about our national federal holidays, not fun and rather silly holidays like Halloween or Valentine's Day, nor religious holidays like Christmas, Hanukkah or Easter. I'm talking about those particular days to which we assign importance in the "civil religion" that goes with being an American citizen, the holidays that all Americans, no matter their religious or ethnic background, share in common. So, here goes.

Let me start with the holidays that need to be left right where they are without being changed: Memorial Day, Veterans DayLabor Day, Independence Day and Thanksgiving. These are all wonderful and important holidays and there is no need to alter them in any way.

There are a few holidays, though, that I would tweak a bit. For starters, I would change Columbus Day to Discovery Day. I usually don't feel inclined to give in to political correctness, but I do think that we should acknowledge that it's the discovery of the Americas we are celebrating, not the person of Christopher Columbus. The Italian explorer was a thoroughly rotten person, even by the standards of his own time, who gleefully enslaved the Native Americans he found. He never quite grasped that he had discovered a "new world" anyway. I think the holiday needs to be broadened to encompass all of the daring explorers, not just Columbus, who awoke the European consciousness to the existence of two vast new continents across the Atlantic Ocean.

Second, I would change Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to Civil Rights Day. I sometimes worry that the focus on the single individual of Dr. King makes it easy for people to overlook the full story of the civil rights movement. We need to remember not just Dr. King, but Thurgood Marshall and Brown vs. Board of Education, the Greensboro sit-ins, the Freedom Riders, other civil rights leaders like Fred Shuttlesworth and Ralph Abernathy, and the thousands of brave people willing to march, go to jail, and face the water hoses and attack dogs of the segregationists in pursuit of their equal rights. I am reasonably certain that Dr. King himself would object to having the holiday named after himself. Fixing the holiday on January 15, Dr. King's birthday, would remain a way to focus particular honor on the great man (the other possible date would be the day the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted, but that would be July 2, rather too close to Independence Day).

I would change Presidents Day back to Washington's Birthday. That's what it was before the 1950s, anyway. Honestly, Presidents Day is currently a mass of confusion and it's not even clear who precisely is being celebrated or even the proper punctuation to use in writing the holiday's name. It is for Washington, for Washington and Lincoln, for every President, or just for the office of the Presidency? No one seems to know. I don't think that a holiday should exist to celebrate every man who has been President, if for no other reason than because lots of scoundrels and witless men have found their way into the White House (I'm not really anxious to honor James Buchanan or Richard Nixon, to be honest). Washington is bigger than all of this. He's bigger than the presidency itself, for he is truly America's great hero and the founder above all other founders. We should honor George Washington not only his role as the first President, but for the contribution he made as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolution and his role in the Constitutional Convention. He is undoubtedly the Father of the Nation and restoring this holiday to one centered exclusively around him is, I think, more than appropriate.

So, those are the holidays I would tweak. Let's move on. There are a few holidays that we currently recognize but don't really celebrate. A few of these need to be given greater attention and emphasis. Chief among these is Constitution Day, which is marked on September 17, the day that the members of the Constitution Convention signed the finished document in 1787. This day should be as grand a holiday as Independence Day, for the creation of the Constitution was as important an event in the founding of our nation as was declaring independence from Britain. In the civil religion we all hold as American citizens, both the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are essentially sacred documents and both need to be honored with proper, full-fledged holidays.

I also think that a greater emphasis needs to be placed on Armed Forces Day, which is held in mid-May. Few pay much attention to it, sadly. We have Veterans Day to honor men and women who have served in the armed forces and Memorial Day to honor those who gave their lives in defense of the nation. Armed Forces Day should be emphasized as an appropriate honor for the men and women currently serving in the military. However, I think it should be moved from its current place in mid-May (I honestly don't know why it's there) to June 14, which is the day in 1775 that the Continental Congress established the Continental Army.

There are a few days of the year which are marked by presidential proclamations and little else, but which deserve to be out-and-out national holidays. One such day that I would elevate is Religious Freedom Day, marked on January 13. It was on this day in 1786 that the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, written by Thomas Jefferson and guided through the legislative process by James Madison, became law in Virginia. By separating church and state in Virginia (over the bitter opposition of Patrick Henry), the act took away the power of the government to interfere in the religious practices of its citizens. It served as the model for similar legislation in other states and the Establishment and Free Practice Clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. It should be a point of pride for Americans that they are free to worship however they wish, or not worship at all, without fear of government coercion one way or the other. A national holiday to celebrate this glorious achievement is certainly well called for.

Two days mark victory in the Second World War, Victory in Europe Day is marked on May 8, celebrating the triumph of America and its allies over Nazi Germany and the liberation of Europe from the tyranny of Hitler and Mussolini. A separate holiday is marked on September 2 to commemorate the surrender of Japan, but it has gone by different names at different times. I would title it Victory in the Pacific Day, since that provides a neat corollary with Victory in Europe Day and "Victory Over Japan Day" has a triumphalist tinge somewhat inappropriate now that America and Japan are close allies. Celebration of these two days has faded in recent years, which is a great shame. They both should be raised to the level of full-fledged national holidays to celebrate America's role in the destruction of fascism.

Having discussed the holidays that need to be tweaked and the minor ones that need to be made into major ones, let me now move on to discuss a few holidays that currently don't exist, but which should. I'd start with making December 6 into a holiday called Abolition Day. It was on December 6 in 1865 that the necessary number of states ratified the 13th Amendment to make it part of the Constitution, marking the final and irrevocable end of slavery in the United States (ironically, it the was Georgia, one of the members of the defunct Confederacy, that passed the final vote needed for ratification). I've always found it a little odd that we do not have a specific holiday to commemorate such an important moment in American history as the abolition of slavery.

I'd make August 18 Voting Rights Day. It marks the day in 1920 that the 19th Amendment was ratified by Tennessee (by the very narrow margin of 50 to 49!), thus giving the right to vote to women. The right to vote is such an intrinsically important aspect of American democracy and it makes sense that we should have a national holiday to celebrate the achievement of voting rights for everyone.

I would make August 4 Freedom of Expression Day. On that date in 1735, John Peter Zenger, the printer of an early New York newspaper, was acquitted after having been arrested and charged with libel for having published editorials critical of the colonial government. At issue was not whether the statements Zenger had made were true or false; he had been arrested simply for criticizing the government. This established the precedent that if a journalist prints the truth, he cannot be convicted of libel. It was the first great victory for the concept of freedom of speech and freedom of the press in America, which would later become enshrined in the First Amendment and which continues to stand as a pillar of the American way of life.

I would make October 19 Yorktown Day. The defeat of the British Army at the Siege of Yorktown in 1781, which ended with the surrender of Lord Cornwallis on October 19, ensured the ultimate victory of the Americans in the Revolutionary War and solidified the independence that we had declared on July 4, 1776. It makes perfect sense to turn it into a holiday. Indeed, we might start celebrating on October 17, the date in 1777 on which General Burgoyne surrendered at Saratoga, and continue for three days. Another aspect of the holiday might be the celebration of the friendship between the United States and France, since Saratoga brought France into the war on the American side and Yorktown was a combined Franco-American operation, with each side making up roughly half of the victorious force.

March 24 should be Medal of Honor Day. It was on that day in 1863 that the first Medals of Honor were presented during the American Civil War. It seems to me perfectly fitting that we set aside a day to honor those who have won the nation's highest military honor, going above and beyond the call of duty in defense of the United States. 3,449 individuals have been awarded the Medal of Honor since its inception and 77 are still living. They deserve to be celebrated.

I also think that April 9, the anniversary of the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Courthouse, should be a national holiday, as it is conventionally accepted as the date the American Civil War came to an end (although one could argue against this). However, this proposed holiday is rather more tricky than the other commemorations I have suggested. In my view, it should be called Reconciliation Day. I don't think it should take the form of a triumphant celebration of the victory of the Union over the Confederacy, since it would not be appropriate for Americans to celebrate a victory over other Americans. Rather, it should be a day to commemorate the courage and suffering of the men on both sides of the American Civil War, North and South, and the fact that we have remained a united nation ever since.

I think the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, the date on which we hold national elections every other year, should be a national holiday simply called Democracy Day. This has actually been proposed in Congress, though the relevant bills have thus far failed to make it out of committee. In election years, this holiday would serve a genuine practical purpose in that having the day off from work would make it much easier for citizens to vote and would also allow larger numbers of polling places to be open as more people would be able to volunteer. During off years, civic groups could hold voter registration events, seminars on the importance of voting, training sessions on how to contact one's elected officials, and other such things.

There is one holiday I would actually get rid of: Flag Day. I confess I have never really understood why we have Flag Day in the first place. Don't get me wrong, I fly my flag every June 14, just like the flag code tells me to do. The America flag is one of the crucial symbols of our American civil religion, but why have a holiday to celebrate a symbol? The flag is supposed to be a tool to celebrate our ideals and represent our ideals, but it is not one of those ideals in itself. Besides, June 14 makes more sense as Armed Forces Day.

So, my calendar of national holidays would look like this:

January 13: Religious Freedom Day
January 15: Civil Rights Day
February 22: Washington's Birthday
March 24: Medal of Honor Day
April 9: Reconciliation Day
May 8: Victory in Europe Day
Last Monday in May: Memorial Day
June 14: Armed Forces Day
July 4: Independence Day
August 4: Freedom of Expression Day
August 18: Voting Rights Day
September 2: Victory in the Pacific Day
First Monday in September: Labor Day
September 17: Constitution Day
October 12: Discovery Day
October 19: Yorktown Day
Tuesday after first Monday in November: Democracy Day
November 11: Veterans Day
Fourth Thursday of November: Thanksgiving
December 6: Abolition Day

It's not a perfect calendar, obviously. There's a long stretch between Washington's Birthday and Medal of Honor Day. Labor Day and Victory in the Pacific Day will occasionally be on the same day (could we move Labor Day to early March, perhaps?). Religious Freedom Day and Civil Rights Day are too close.. Generally, though, I like it. Presently, we tend to shift the dates of our holidays around so that they fall on the nearest Monday, so as to give people a three-day weekend. I like three-day weekends as much as anybody else, but I feel that the specific dates of the holidays matter and that they therefore should be celebrated on the dates themselves.

I want to make clear that when I say national holidays, I seriously mean national holidays. Government offices, stock exchanges, banks, schools, and a hefty proportion of businesses should be closed. Local communities should organize parades, fireworks displays, and other celebrations. The day before, teachers should give special lessons devoted to the holiday. People should have their friends over for barbecues. Beyond all this, though, I would hope that the citizens of this great nation would embrace the true spirit behind these holidays and take the time to consider exactly what it is they are celebrating in the first place.

Some people will protest that expanding the national holiday calendar would be a bad idea because closing businesses on these additional days will hurt the economy. This is hogwash. Americans work far too much and too hard as it is. According to information available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans work longer hours and take shorter vacations than do people in Britain, France, Germany, or even Japan. I'd rather people enjoy more time off and spend it with their families and friends celebrating what makes our country great. If this means that we slip a bit in the global ratings of per capita GDP, I could not possibly care less. I have no doubt that if the American people were told they could choose between more money on one hand and more free time and less stress on the other, they would choose the latter every day of the week and twice on Sunday.

Perhaps this has all been a silly exercise. But it is one I have enjoyed and I hope I have given at least a few readers something to ponder.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Falkland Islands Are British

This is not a political blog. I see it primarily as a forum for me to talk about my particular interests in history and alternate history and as a way to communicate with the readers of my books. That being said, I do have very pronounced political opinions about many issues. I don't feel constrained from mentioning them every now and then, as I did when I shared my thoughts about Scotland's independence referendum and my belief that the District of Columbia deserves congressional representation. So today, I've decided I'm going to throw in my two cents about the Falkland Islands, the British territory in the South Atlantic that has long been claimed by Argentina.

Last week, Jeremy Corbyn, the leftist leader of the opposition Labour Party in the United Kingdom, suggested in an interview that the United Kingdom should reach some sort of unspecified "accommodation" with Argentina over the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands. According to today's issue of The Guardian newspaper, Corbyn has told the ongoing Argentinian ambassador to the UK that he wants a power-sharing deal in the Falklands. Needless to say, these comments have sparked enormous controversy in Britain.

Now, I'm neither British nor Argentinian, so one might say that I have no real dog in this fight. But this is an international dispute with deep roots in history and one in which I have always taken a peculiar interest. Allow me to lay out the facts for those who might not be well-versed in the dispute.

The Falkland Islands are a small, rocky, largely barren archipelago in the South Atlantic, a few hundred miles east of Argentina. They are sparsely populated, with only about three thousand people living on them, mostly engaged in sheep farming. They were uninhabited until French and English settlers arrived independently of one another in the 1760s. For decades thereafter, the islands were claimed and abandoned successively by France, Britain, and Spain. For most of this time, however, nobody particularly cared about the islands and few if any permanent settlers attempted to establish themselves on them.

When Argentina achieved independence from Spain in the 1820s, it staked a vague claim to the islands, though the British had never given up their claim of sovereignty. A German descended from French Huguenots, Luis Vernet, was commissioned by Argentina to establish a colony on the islands. He was careful to request permission from the British before setting out in in 1829. When Argentina officially declared Vernet to be the governor of the islands, the British objected, reminding all concerned that the British claim to the islands had never been rescinded, and firmly reestablished British control in 1833. When Argentina and the United Kingdom signed the Arana-Southern Treaty in 1849, intended to settle various disputes in the South Atlantic, the Argentinians made no protest over British control of the Falklands, tacitly accepting British sovereignty there.

For the next century-and-a-half, the islands constituted a coaling and repair station for ships sailing around Cape Horn between the South Atlantic and the Pacific. Their only brush with history was the Battle of the Falkland Islands in late 1914. A small fleet of German ships which had been stationed in the Pacific at the outbreak of the First World War was attempting to return to Germany and decided to destroy the coaling station along the way. Confronted by a more powerful Royal Navy squadron that they had not suspected was there, the German ships were destroyed.

History continued to pass the Falkland Islands by as the bulk of the British Empire was disestablished in the latter half of the 20th Century. That is, until April of 1982, when Argentina abruptly invaded the islands and took them over. The military junta then in power in Argentina was facing increasing domestic and economic troubles and, ignoring the lessons of history, thought that a foreign war would be just the thing to distract the people away from their failures. In doing so, they badly underestimated British resolve. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government was able to put together a Royal Navy task force and, displaying the courage and improvisation skills that have so often marked British military endeavors, took the islands back in a dramatic 74-day war. In reclaiming the Falkland Islands for Britain, 255 British servicemen gave their lives. 649 Argentinians, most of them poorly trained conscripts, died as well.

Since then, the British have taken the matter of defending the Falkland Islands much more seriously, posting a garrison there sufficient to deter another Argentinian invasion. The Argentine military, by contrast, has shrunk to the point where it's doubtful they could mount another invasion even if the islands were undefended. Argentina has never abandoned its claim to the Falkland Islands and the dispute has been a thorn in the side of diplomatic relations between Argentina and the United Kingdom.

People can argue over claims of sovereignty, dates of settlement, who had the right to do what, and so forth until doomsday. It seems to me that Britain clearly has the superior claim. The British claim dates back to the 1760s, long before Argentina even existed. Technically speaking, the Argentinian efforts to establish a colony on the islands between 1829 and 1833 (which never amounted to much of anything) constituted illegal trespassing on British territory. Spain and France both had much stronger claims to the Falklands than Argentina and both have long since given them up. Some seem to think that Spain's claim to the islands devolved upon Argentina when the latter achieved independence, but there is no reason for this to be the case. Argentina cannot be a "successor state" to Spain for the simple reason that Spain still exists.

Setting aside the matter of competing claims, the fact remains that the present inhabitants of the Falkland Islands are British and overwhelmingly desire to remain British. In 2013, a referendum was put to the islanders asking if they wanted to remain a British territory. A whopping 99.8% of the people voted yes, which is about as close to unanimous as is possible to get. International observers testified that there was no fraud involved in the referendum and that the result was completely valid. As far as the people who live there are concerned, the Falkland Islands are as British as London or Liverpool. Anyone who argues differently is being willfully ignorant or has a contempt for democracy.

I have heard some people suggest that the Falklands should belong to Argentina simply because the islands are located near to the country. One person with whom I debated the question asserted that it "simply makes geographic sense". This is absurd. Taking this argument to its logical conclusion, the United States should claim sovereignty over the Bahamas. The political status of any territory should be determined by the democratically expressed will of the people who live there. Nothing else really matters.

I was rather upset with President Obama in the spring of 2014 when he made a statement suggesting that some sort of negotiation between Argentina and the United Kingdom should take place to resolve the dispute over the Falkland Islands. I would much rather have seen my president affirm the right of the Falkland Islanders to decide the question of sovereignty for themselves and support their decision to remain British. The United States has no greater friend than the United Kingdom, after all. In an increasingly uncertain world, our two countries need to stand by one another now more than ever.

Argentina is officially designated a "Major Non-NATO Ally" (MNNA) of the United States. This allows Argentina a number of special military privileges not given to most other nations, including the provision of specialized training and priority access to American military hardware. I think that the United States should lean on Argentina to stop this childish nonsense of claiming a British territory that never belonged to Argentina and officially recognize that the Falkland Islands are British. If they refuse to do so, perhaps it would be a good idea to revoke their MNNA status.

After all, if we expect the United Kingdom to stand with us, then we need to stand with them.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

What If the Allies Had Won At Gallipoli?

A century ago this month, the Gallipoli Campaign ended as the Allied army quietly evacuated the small peninsula on which they had landed the previous April. The evacuation was well-planned and went off without a hitch. It was the only successful aspect of a campaign that had begun with high hopes but had turned into one of the worst Allied disasters of the First World War.

The campaign had been the brainchild of Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty. The Ottoman Empire had entered the war on the side of the Germans in October of 1914 and launched an offensive against the Russians in Caucasus Mountains. As Russia was already hard-pressed fighting on the Eastern Front against the Germans and Austro-Hungarians, they appealed to the British and French for a diversionary operation against the Turks. Churchill proposed a naval attack through the Dardanelles to capture the Turkish capital at Constantinople (today called Istanbul) and force the Ottoman government to surrender.

Success in such an endeavor would have had a number of positive results for the Allies. Pressure on the Russians on the Caucasus Front would have been relieved and a reliable line of supply through the Black Sea would have been established between the Russians in the East and the British and French in the West. This would not only have allowed war material from the Western Allies to flow to the Russians, but would have also allowed Russian wheat to flow to the outside world. The Balkan nations of Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece were uncertain as to whom they should support; the capture of Constantinople would surely swing them towards the Allied side, opening up another front against Germany and Austria-Hungary.

In February and March of 1915, a large naval force of British and French battleships attempted to force the straits. Although many Turkish forts were blasted to pieces, the Allies were frustrated by mobile Turkish artillery and naval mines. Several obsolete Allied ships were sunk by the mines, though with surprisingly little loss of life. The Allied commander, Admiral John de Robeck, felt he could not use his minesweepers to clear the minefields until the mobile Turkish artillery had been dealt with and this could only be done by ground troops. The attempt to force the straits by naval action alone was therefore abandoned.

Churchill was outraged and felt that de Robeck could have succeeded had he pressed his attack. Some historians have since suggested that the Turkish artillery was running low on ammunition when the decision was made to halt the attack and that a renewed naval attack might have broken through, though the evidence for this is somewhat doubtful. No one seems to have considered the difficulty of occupying an enormous city with warships that carried no soldiers.

This fiasco turned out to be only the beginning of a story filled with mishaps, mistakes, and misguided decisions. Allied troops landed on six different beaches on the Gallipoli peninsula on April 25. Fierce fighting erupted on some of the beaches, with bridgeheads only being secured after heavy casualties. On other beaches, however, there was no Turkish resistance and bridgeheads were established quite easily and with no losses. Yet the Allied commanders at those places made little effort to advance inland. This strange and inexplicable lassitude allowed Turkish reinforcements to arrive, some under the command of General Mustafa Kemal, later the founder of the Republic of Turkey. These troops were able to seal off the Allied bridgeheads after further heavy fighting and prevent any movement inland.

Then followed endless months of brutal trench warfare, equal to if not worse than the nightmare already unfolding on the Western Front in France and Flanders. Both sides suffered heavy casualties in an endless cycle of attack and counterattack, with the front scarcely moving more than a few yards in either direction. Some of Britain's finest regiments, including the Lancashire Fusiliers, the South Wales Borderers, and the Royal Scots, left their blood on the beaches and hills of Gallipoli. The Australian and New Zealand troops of the ANZAC Corps fought magnificently, earning a legendary place in military history at an enormous cost in casualties. Tens of thousands of French troops, whose involvement has been strangely overlooked by historians, also struggled and died in the Gallipoli trenches. Sikhs and Gurkhas from the Indian Raj played their part in the campaign. But nothing could break the solid Turkish lines.

A massive offensive in August, however, caught the Ottomans off guard. While the troops at the tip of the peninsula hurled themselves against the Turkish lines, a landing was made in Suvla Bay, north of the bridgehead, which came ashore against virtually no Turkish resistance. The troops at Suvla Bay were in a perfect position to outflank the Turkish defenders and collapse their entire position. For a brief moment, the prospect of an Allied victory in Gallipoli that would open the way to Constantinople suddenly seemed possible again. But the British commander at Suvla Bay, General Frederick Stopford, proved to be the very model of an absolutely inept and incompetent general. After landing, he made virtually no effort to advance inland. Turkish troops under General Kemal soon arrived and sealed off the bridgehead, just as had happened on the original landing sites in April.

The following months followed the same routine of trench warfare, boredom mixed with terror on an hourly basis. In the fall, the decision was made to evacuate the Allied forces from the peninsula. As already mentioned, the evacuation was well-planned and well-executed, the only operation of the entire campaign that was not an utter fiasco. The Allied forces left behind nearly 45,000 dead comrades, while nearly 100,000 Allied soldiers were wounded. As for the Ottomans, 250,000 of their men fell, dead or wounded, in defense of their capital city.

The Gallipoli Campaign was one of the great Allied disasters of the First World War. Not only had they suffered terrible losses for no gain, but they had been humiliated by the Turks, whom they had previously believed to be an inferior enemy. 1915 had been a year of unremitting disaster for the Allies. On the Western Front, the British and French armies dashed themselves to pieces against the German fortified positions. On the Eastern Front, the Russian armies were shattered in the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive and driven back hundreds of miles. Serbia, despite a gallant resistance, was crushed in the fall. The Allied defeat at Gallipoli was yet another humiliation piled on all the rest.

Of course, the Allies went on to win the First World War. They eventually crushed the Ottoman Empire and defeated Germany in 1918. But the price was horrific. Literally millions of people died. Russia collapsed into a chaotic revolution that eventually gave birth to the nightmare that was Soviet communism. Germany was put on the path that eventually gave rise to Nazism and set the stage for an even greater conflict twenty years later.

But what if the Allies had won at Gallipoli?

There are any number of ways in which an Allied victory in the campaign might have been achieved. Perhaps if Admiral John de Robeck had had the gumption to press on with his attack, the British battleships would have anchored off Constantinople in late March and dictated terms to a cowed Ottoman government. If the Allied commanders on some of the beaches on April 25 had shown a bit more initiative, or if Mustafa Kemal had not been on the top of his game, the Turkish defense could have fallen apart. If General Stopford had shown the least but of aggressiveness in August, the Allied could have turned the Turkish defensive position and bagged the entire Ottoman army. There are probably many more "point of divergence" that would have given the Allies, rather than the Turks, victory in the Gallipoli Campaign. What then?

There can be no doubt that an Allied success at Gallipoli would have been an enormous victory, perhaps even a war-winning one. By knocking Turkey out of the war, the Allies would have freed up hundreds of thousands of troops for service on the Western Front, who would otherwise have had to be deployed in Palestine or in Mesopotamia, while the Russians would have similarly been able to shift soldiers from the Caucasus Front to fight against the Germans and Austro-Hungarians. Allied control of Constantinople would have allowed munitions and supplies to flow to Russia from the British and French, while allowing Russian wheat to flow in the opposite direction, to the mutual benefit of both. This would have allowed Russia to escape from many of the shortages of military munitions that bedeviled it in actual history, while greatly easing the price of food in the markets of London and Paris (which might not sound important but which was essential for the winning of the war).

When the Gallipoli Campaign was launched, the Balkan nations of Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania were sitting on the sidelines, waiting to see whether the Allied powers or the Central Powers would emerge the victors in the conflict. In 1915, having witnessed the Allied bungling at Gallipoli, Bulgaria would opt to side with the Central Powers. Romania would side with the Allies in 1916, in the wake of the seemingly successful Brusilov Offensive, only to be smashed by the Central Powers later in the year. Greece would eventually wait until 1917 to cast its lot with the Allies.

Needless to say, the situation would have been very different had the Allies won at Gallipoli. With a Turkish surrender, it is entirely possible that Bulgaria, Romania, and Greece would have cast their lot with the Allies before the end of 1915. Serbia, which historically was crushed by a combined German, Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian invasion in late 1915, might have been kept in the war. Combined with a British and French expeditionary force, this would have constituted a powerful third front in the war against the Central Powers. A fourth, the Italian Front, was also about to open.

Putting all these factors together - more manpower available to the British and French on the Western Front and the Russians on the Eastern Front, the entry of the Balkan powers on the Allied side in 1915, the easy shipment of war material through the Dardanelles to Russia - it is easy to imagine that Germany and Austria-Hungary could have been brought to their knees in the middle of 1916, rather than late 1918.

Think of the momentous consequences of this. If the war ended more than two years before it did historically, many millions of people who died during the conflict would have still been alive in 1918. Into this number we should include the million or so Armenians who were ruthlessly slaughtered by the Ottomans in the wake of the Allied failure at Gallipoli. Saving all these lives would not only have been a miracle from any humanitarian point of view, but consider how many potential scientists, statesmen, engineers, poets, artists, and composers died in the trenches of the war. What might they have contributed to human knowledge and culture had they survived?

If the war had ended in 1916, Russia will quite possibly avoid the Russian Revolution and the Russian Civil War. This would not only mean that a Romanov Tsar might have still been on the throne of Russia today, but it would mean that Russia would have avoided the nightmare of Soviet Communism. Thanks to the "butterfly effect", which always must be considered when we ask ourselves serious alternate history questions, we can assume that Nazism would never have arisen in Germany, since it would not have had Russian communism to use as a bogeyman, nor would Maoism have arisen in China, since it would have not had the Soviet Union to serve as an inspiration. There would have been no Holocaust and no Cultural Revolution, sparing yet more millions of lives. As with the war itself, this would not only have been good in and of itself, but we have to stop and ask how many geniuses who would have lived to fulfill their potential were lost in those nightmarish massacres.

Gallipoli was the only major opportunity for an Allied victory in the First World War before the actual victory was achieved in late 1918 (and that only with the help of the United States). None of the French offensives on the Western Front in 1914 or 1915 were going to break the German line. Neither was the British offensive on the Somme in 1916. In 1917, both the French (at the Aisne) and the British (at Passchensdaele) launched massive attacks against the German lines and were thrown back yet again, suffering such heavy casualties that the French army mutinied and refused to fight further. Throughout the war, the Russians and the Italians proved so inept that they presented no serious threat to the Germans. If the Allies were going to win the war earlier than they actually did, Gallipoli had been the place to do it.

Speaking for myself, if they had succeeded at Gallipoli, we'd all be a lot better off today.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Forgotten Hero: Caesar Rodney

When we think of the "Founding Fathers" there are several names that immediately come to mind: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. Every educated Americans learns about (or, at least, is supposed to learn about) these people at school, for it was their wisdom and heroism that brought tour country into existence. Yet there were literally dozens of other men equally deserving of the title "Founding Father". These men may not grace our history textbooks, yet they all played critical and even decisive roles in the American Revolution and deserve to be remembered.

One such man was Caesar Rodney of Delaware.

Rodney was born on October 7, 1728, to a wealthy, prominent and politically active Delaware family. At an early age, he was already being elected to numerous local offices and serving as an officer in the Delaware Militia. Going against most of the members of his class and social background, Rodney aligned himself with the Patriot cause as the dispute between Britain and its American colonies gained momentum in the 1760s.

Rodney first stepped onto the national scene when he was selected as a delegate to the Stamp Act Congress in 1765. At the same time, he became a leader in Delaware's Committee of Correspondence, helping maintain contact with Patriots in other colonies in order to share information and coordinate joint political and economic measures against the British to pressure them to back down. He also served as Speaker of Delaware's state assembly. Under his leadership, almost immediately after news had arrived of the first battles with the British at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts, Delaware voted to severe all ties with the British Empire.

Rodney was one of three men sent by Delaware to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. His views leaned strongly towards independence and he became a natural ally to John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and the other advocates for a full separation from Britain. Yet all was not well in Delaware, where Loyalist activity was an ever-present danger, as it was in every American state. As a militia leader, Rodney was often absent from Philadelphia to deal with the Tory threat back home.

The two remaining Delaware delegates were divided on the issue of independence, with Rodney's friend Thomas McKean in favor and George Read opposed. Consequently, the Delaware delegation was unable to cast a vote as debate began in June, 1776, on the question of independence. Despite the hard work of John Adams and the other pro-independence delegates, the issue remained balanced on a knife's edge, with New York, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania uncertain as to which way they would vote when the time came.

McKean sent an urgent message to Rodney that he was desperately needed in Congress to cast the tie-breaking vote in the Delaware delegation. Immediately upon receiving the message on July 1, despite being ill, Rodney mounted his horse and took off on an epic ride through the darkness to reach Philadelphia before the vote was taken. He was slowed by an immense thunderstorm, but managed to reach the city. According to legend, he strode into the meeting hall with his boots and spurs still on his feet, soaking wet, just in time to cast his vote in favor, which in turn caused the state of Delaware to become a supporter of the motion for independence.

It's possible, though far from certain, that Rodney's action helped push South Carolina and Pennsylvania into the independence camp as the voting took place. The final vote turned out to be twelve for independence, zero against, with only New York abstaining. It was as close as they could get to a unanimous vote and history has so remembered it. Had Delaware joined New York in abstaining, which is what would have happened had Rodney not made his midnight ride, the situation would have appeared much less tidy and would have given the British and their Loyalist allies more encouragement. The United States of America owes a great debt to the heroics of Caesar Rodney.

Caesar continued to contribute to the cause for the rest of the war. He became President of Delaware (equivalent to the governorship) in 1778 and continued to play a large role in the state militia, as well as serving again in the Continental Congress. He bent his energies towards suppressing Tory disaffection, while raising troops and procuring supplies for the Continental Army. Ill and exhausted, Rodney resigned within a month of the final military victory over the British at Yorktown.

Worn out by his heavy exertions in the cause of American independence, Caesar Rodney died in 1784, having lived just long enough to see enacted the peace treaty recognizing the new nation he had done so much to create. Shamefully, history has largely forgotten Caesar Rodney. Considering how much we owe the man, we need to start rectifying that.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

What If Alexander the Great Had Lived to Old Age?

Alexander the Great died in June of 323 BC in the city of Babylon, which he had decreed would be the capital of his new empire. Having become King of Macedonia upon the assassination of his father, Philip II, in 336 BC, Alexander had secured control of Greece before setting out on a campaign to conquer the Persians. By the time he died, Alexander had built an empire that stretched from the Adriatic Sea to the Indus River, spreading Hellenic culture across an unprecedentedly vast territory.

During his campaign of conquest, Alexander fought and won four pitched battles and countless smaller engagements, while successfully besieging innumerable fortresses and cities. He and his army overcame tremendous geographic and logistical difficulties. In addition to the armies of the Persian Empire, he fought against vast hordes of Greek mercenaries in Asia Minor, Bactrian horsemen in the mountains of Afghanistan, and legions of Hindu warriors led by powerful kings in the Indus Valley. Not only did he set himself up as King of Asia, but was proclaimed Pharaoh of Egypt and, for good measure, had the Greek city-states declare that he was the son of Zeus.

Alexander was the greatest conqueror the ancient world had ever known. What makes his achievement all the more astonishing is the fact that, at the time of his death, he was only thirty-two years old.

There are conflicting accounts as to the cause of Alexander's death. Some historians believe he simply succumbed to an ordinary disease that emerged from the swamps around Babylon, such as typhoid fever. Others have linked his death to his habitual overindulgence in alcohol. Still others maintain that Alexander was assassinated by means of poison, his murderer being one of his Macedonian subordinates. Blame has been laid specifically at the feet of Antipater, the general Alexander left in charge of Greece during the campaign against the Persians, who had been accused of malfeasance by Olympia, Alexander's mother. To forestall his own execution, so the thinking goes, Antipater arranged to have Alexander poisoned. It is certainly a possibility.

Whatever the cause of Alexander's death, his empire died with him. As he lay on his deathbed, Alexander was asked by his generals to name his successor. According to the historian Diodorus, his reply was, "To the strongest." His generals took him at his word and spent the next few decades battling one another in a series of brutal conflicts known as the Wars of Diaochi. When the dust settled, what had been Alexander's empire had been divided up into a series of successor states ruled by various Macedonian families. These mini-empires would later prove easy pickings for the Romans.

The fact that Alexander had achieved so much and died at such an early age begs the question: what if Alexander had not died in 323 BC? What if, instead, he had lived to a ripe old age? Might his empire have survived and perhaps event expanded?

According to the ancient historians, Alexander the Great was planning another series of conquests when he died. He had given orders from Phoenician shipwrights to begin construction on a massive armada or warships in the ports of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, clearly intended for service in the Persian Gulf. His initial goal was said to be the conquest of Arabia.

On the face of it, the idea of conquering Arabia seems rather odd. Arabia was sparsely populated and politically disorganized. Aside from being a juncture of the ancient spice trade, it seemingly had little to offer. One can scan through the names of previous conquerors going all the way back to Sargon the Great, two thousand years before Alexander, and not find a single one who paid the least bit of attention to Arabia. Much more likely, Alexander's intention was to secure the various island in the Persian Gulf in order to provide a safe sea route between the Tigris-Euphrates delta in Mesopotamia and the Indus River Valley in what is today Pakistan, thereby created a good communication and transportation link with the eastern portion of his empire. What this says about Alexander's eventual intentions towards India is anyone's guess.

Once the Persian Gulf had been secured, Alexander's intention was apparently to extend his empire farther to the west. The historian Arrian tells us that, in the year before his death, Alexander received numerous embassies from Mediterranean countries, including Carthage and several in Italy, Sicily, and even as far as Spain. All brought gifts and some asked Alexander to adjudicate various disputes. One gets the impressions that these diplomatic missions were as much intelligence-gathering operations as anything else, sizing Alexander up to determine what sort of threat he posed.

It was a big threat, indeed. In addition to the fleet being fitted out for the conquest of Arabia, Alexander had given orders for a massive shipbuilding program throughout the eastern Mediterranean. The shipyards of Egypt and Phoenicia hummed with the steady labor of uncountable numbers of workers, who were charged with turning out no less than a thousand warships. Such an armada would have dwarfed even the vaunted navy of Carthage. Combined with the armies of Greek, Macedonian, and Persian soldiers at Alexander's command, it would have been by far the most formidable military force ever assembled up to that point.

If Alexander had lived long enough to set out on a new campaign of conquest, this time to the west, what route might he have taken? Might he have marched straight overland across North Africa from Egypt to Carthage, supplying his vast army by ship? If so, Carthage might have been captured in an epic siege after a brave but hopeless resistance more than a hundred and fifty years before it happened historically. In this case, the men storming over the Carthaginian walls would not have been Romans, but a conglomerate army of Greeks, Macedonians, and Persians.

Alternatively, Alexander might have crossed into southern Italy from Greece, as Pyrrhus of Epirus did in 280 BC, just over forty years after Alexander's death. Might Alexander have conquered the Greek city-states of southern Italy? Could this have brought him into conflict with the emerging power of the Roman Republic? Considering the vast forces at his command, it seems likely that Alexander could have made himself master of Italy. On the other hand, many people in the ancient world underestimated the Romans and later learned to regret it.

Assuming Alexander had lived long enough to campaign in North Africa, Sicily, and/or Italy, the eastern portions of his realm would have faced a terrible threat in the subsequent years. Around 320 BC, the great King Chandragupta came to power in India, establishing the Maurya Empire. Under his rule and that of his successors, the Maurya Empire would bring almost the entire Indian subcontinent under its control and continue to rule for over a century. Although not well known in the West, Chandragupta's achievements were no less impressive than those of Alexander himself.

Historically, Chandragupta conquered the Macedonian mini-empires that remained in the Indus Valley after Alexander's death. Conceivably, his efforts to consolidate control of India might have brought Chandragupta into conflict with Alexander himself if the latter had remained alive. We can only imagine what might have happened had these two men, both of whom rank among the world's greatest conquerors, met in battle at the command of two enormous armies. It surely would have gone down in history as one of the greatest battles in history.

Most speculation about what might have happened had Alexander lived a longer life focuses on what other lands he might have brought under his control. However, we should consider the possibility that his empire might have fallen apart anyway even if he had not died in 323 BC.

Although Alexander had brought Macedonia to unprecedented, indeed unimaginable, heights of power, it is clear that both his Macedonia generals and the Macedonian rank-and-file were largely disillusioned with Alexander by the time they returned to Babylon from their years of conquest. The great king's efforts to integrate Macedonian and Persian society by giving important positions to Persians and by encouraging Macedonian officers to take Persian wives was deeply resented by his longtime comrades-in-arms. All they wanted to do was return home and enjoy the fruits of their victories. Had Alexander called on them to embark upon another series of wars, would the have followed him?

Had he lived a longer life, Alexander might have led forth new armies and navies on another round of conquest, this time to the west rather than the east. Carthage, Sicily, and perhaps Italy could have fallen under his sway. But it's equally likely, if not more so, that Alexander would have died in the course of these campaigns or been done in by some Macedonian noble whom he had offended or who simply wanted to go home. Throughout his life, Alexander was severely wounded on a number of occasions and also seems to have been targeted by more than a few assassination plots. If he escaped death in 323 BC, he might still have died shortly afterwards.

In the end, the hopes for a long-lasting Alexandrian Empire would rest on whether Alexander the Great could create a stable dynasty. When Alexander died, his wife Roxana was pregnant with a child that proved to be a boy. He became a pawn of the Macedonian generals in the Wars of the Diadochi and was assassinated when he was thirteen-years-old. But if Alexander had lived, his son would have been raised with all the protection, education, and regal attention a prospective imperial successor could expect.

If Alexander the Great had not died in Babylon in 323 BC and had lived long enough to ensure a stable transition of power to his son, there is at least a chance that a long-lasting Alexandrian Empire could have been established. Perhaps the Mediterranean and the Middle East would have been fused together into a single cultural entity, rather in the same manner that Qin Shi Huang unified China in the 3rd Century BC. Needless to say, the subsequent history of the world would have been radically different than it turned out to be.