Sunday, March 27, 2016

George Washington and General Howe's Dog

The Battle of Germantown, fought on October 4, 1777, was bloody and terrifying. Above all, it was confusing, the entire battlefield being shrouded in a thick early morning fog made worse by an immense amount of gunpowder smoke. The Continental Army under George Washington attacked the British army commanded by Sir William Howe, which was deployed outside Philadelphia, the American capital which had recently been captured. The Americans hoped to rout Howe's troops and retake the city. Had they succeeded, the Revolutionary War might have ended in a single afternoon.

They failed. Washington's plan, which involved multiple columns of troops converging in the same place at the same time, was probably too intricate to have worked even under the best circumstances. Amid the thick fog, the plan fell apart in the opening minutes of the battle. Fierce British resistance was encountered, especially at a stone house known as the Chew Mansion, where one hundred British soldiers stubbornly resisted American attempts to dislodge them. Amid the swirling fog and gunpowder smoke, American units accidentally fired on one another, increasing both the confusion and the casualties. As British reinforcements began to arrive, Washington ordered a retreat.

Bizarrely, in the midst of the chaos and bloodshed, American soldiers apparently encountered a dog. The details are a bit sketchy. One can imagine a terrified hound bounding about in confusion, barking at anything and everything, desperately searching for its master amidst the swirl of battle. Perhaps a kindhearted soldier took pity on the poor creature and carried it off during the retreat. Perhaps it took a liking to somebody and followed them. Nobody knows. In any event, the dog ended up in the hands of the Americans. Later on, someone studying the animal's collar found that the dog belonged to none other that Sir William Howe.

George Washington was informed. He could have easily dismissed the matter as not being worthy of his attention. He was reeling from yet another defeat, his fifth in seven pitched battles against the enemy. He was absorbed with all the heavy duties that came with being the commander of the Continental Army, with the success of failure of the American Revolution resting on his shoulders. He knew that many members of the Continental Congress were questioning his leadership. Needless to say, he had much more important problems to deal with than a captured dog.

On October 6, Sir Howe received the following message from Washington sent under a flag of truce.

To General William Howe, 
General Washington's compliments to General Howe. He does himself the pleasure to return to him a dog, which accidentally fell into his hands, and by the inscription on the collar appears to belong to General Howe.

General Howe was the commander of the enemy army, a man who had been been Washington's great adversary for more than a year, who had humiliated him on more than one occasion, and who was bending all his energies to depriving Washington and his nascent nation of their freedom. Yet in the midst of all his troubles, Washington took the time to return the man's pet and include a polite note in the bargain.

Can anyone imagine such a thing as this taking place today?

George Washington was a gentleman, in the pure 18th Century sense of the word. It came from his upbringing among the landowning upper class in the Northern Neck of Virginia. Washington would never have considered not returning Sir Howe's dog, because returning the dog was the honorable thing to do and acting in anything other than an honorable manner was simply unthinkable to Washington. This attitude was evident in almost every action Washington took throughout his eventful life. When he was a young man, he laboriously copied out one hundred and ten rules of civility and right conduct. His hospitality at Mount Vernon was legendary, with literally thousands of guests enjoying his kindness there over the years. There is no record of his ever accepting a bribe. Though he appreciated the social company of beautiful women, there is no hint of his ever being unfaithful to his wife. His integrity was ironclad and his sense of decency and propriety knew no bounds.

On many occasions during the war, British and Hessian troops were ordered by their officers to slaughter American soldiers even if they tried to surrender; Washington never issued such an order. American prisoners died by the thousands in rotting prison hulks in the East River of New York; Washington always treated British and Hessian prisoners were decency and respect. Five signers of the Declaration of Independence fell into British hands during the war and were brutally mistreated; when Lord Cornwallis surrendered his army at Yorktown, Washington treated him with civility and even invited him to dine at his table. If George Washington ever felt any inclination to sink the same level as his enemy, it was more than outweighed by his horror at the idea of acting in a dishonorable manner. He never compared himself to other people, but only the standards he had long before set for himself.

These days, the concept of being a "gentleman" is so foreign that we put the word on the doors of public bathrooms, as if all a man has to do to be a gentleman is possess the ability to urinate.  We live in an age where politeness, dignity, and civility are disdained as old-fashioned or simply ignored altogether. The so-called "stars" of sports, music, and reality television are expected to debase themselves and arrogantly ridicule one another and we, the American people, are expected to be entertained by it. Shoppers are so inconsiderate that they don't even bother to push their shopping carts to the return area, simply leaving them in the parking space instead for somebody else to deal with. People boom the base speakers of their cars as they drive about, simply because they enjoy annoying other people. There are a thousand examples I could cite. If Washington could have been brought forward in time to look around for a little bit, he could be forgiven for concluding that we have degenerated into a state of barbarism.

It's customary these days to dismiss the Founding Fathers as "dead, white, European males" who have nothing to say to us in the modern world. It's true that they lived in a time much different from our own and, being trapped in the 18th Century, they held ideas about race and gender which we have rightfully cast into the ash heap of history. Nevertheless, the Founding Fathers have an enormous amount to teach us. In more ways than one, our country has lost its way since the days of its founding. One lesson that the Founders left us is that no representative republic can survive if its people do not maintain a sense of civic virtue. Washington exemplified civic virtue in his every action and he warned us, in his Farewell Address, that we needed to hold fast to it if our country was going to survive.

As a thought experiment, imagine if one of us somehow came into possession of Sir William Howe's dog under similar circumstances as did Washington in 1777. What would we do? Why, we'd whip out our cell phones and take some "selfies" with the dog, grinning like idiots and giving thumbs-up signs, then post the the pictures to social media along with some swaggy messages like "This Is What Awesome Looks Like". The idea of taking care of the animal and then sending it back to its rightful owner without comment would probably never ever occur to us.

We're always told that we need to look to the future. Sometimes, though, we need to look to the past.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Name An Aircraft Carrier After Congressman Sam Rayburn

According to the warship naming conventions of the United States Navy, aircraft carriers are supposed to be named after admirals or major politicians, the latter usually but not always being presidents. Our country is currently in the midst of a decades-long process of replacing our venerable Nimitz-class aircraft carriers with new ships in a class which has been named after President Gerald Ford. The USS Gerald Ford is scheduled to be commissioned later this year, with new ships being commissioned every four or five years until all ten Nimitz-class ships have been replaced.

While I personally question the wisdom of maintaining such a vast and expensive fleet of aircraft carriers all around the world, the issue I want to raise this week is rather more down-to-earth. As we build new aircraft carriers, we are going to have to give them names. I'd like to make a case for naming one of the new aircraft carriers after one of America's greatest yet most unappreciated statesman: Congressman Sam Rayburn, who was America's longest serving Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Rayburn has long been a political hero of mine and I think his example is one we desperately need in this day and age. He was a Texas Democrat of Scots-Irish descent, who spent most of his life representing the farmer folk of Fannin County in the northeast part of the Lone Star State. He served three terms in the Texas State Legislature while he was still in his twenties, being chosen as Speaker during his final term. As a representative, he fought against the railroads and banks, making a name for himself as both a champion of the people and a man of unrivaled integrity. During this time, he also worked his way through the University of Texas School of Law. Even at this young age, he told friends that his greatest ambition in life was to be elected to Congress and become Speaker of the House of Representatives.

In 1913, he was elected to Congress, where he would remain for nearly half a century, until his death from cancer in 1961. His time in Congress began during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson and ended during the presidency of John F. Kennedy. I'm personally a supporter of term limits for the House of Representatives, but if I had to name the best argument against them, I'd probably simply say, "Sam Rayburn."

He was a man of sterling integrity. In Austin, he refused to take the free railroad passes that were given out to all members of the state legislature as a matter of course. When he was offered a check for his portion of his law firm's regular retainer from the Santa Fe Railroad - which was perfectly legal and routine - he simply refused to accept it, explaining that he could not tolerate even the hint of impropriety. Gifts given to Rayburn by wealthy people seeking legislative favors were returned without comment. The mere mention of lobbyists was said to make Rayburn furious. In an age when politicians are bought and sold by the special interests, Rayburn's example of honorable integrity is something that needs to be remembered.

Yet Rayburn was not some starry-eyed populist. He was, above all else, a pragmatist and a realist who believed in getting things done. He believed that everyone, from the ordinary farmers of his beloved Fannin County to the richest Wall Street bankers, deserved a seat at the table and that common ground could always be carved out. As a Texan, he was an active and energetic support of the oil and gas industry, not because he accepted their bribes (he didn't), but because it brought prosperity to the Lone Star State and gave jobs to his constituents.

He was a master of the legislative process. He made relatively few speeches in his long congressional career, yet exerted an enormous influence on the bills that moved through the House of Representatives. Contrary to what is often said, issues that came before Congress were no less complicated and complex during Rayburn's time than they are today. Whether he was dealing with utility regulation, securities fraud, tariffs on agricultural produce, or military procurement, Rayburn strove to get to the bottom of the question and find the best solutions to the various problems with which he was confronted. He would never have claimed to be a genius, yet he possessed an attention to detail and an amazing work ethic that allowed him master even the most complex pieces of legislation.

In 1931, Rayburn became Chairman of the House Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee. In this role, he became a chief ally of President Franklin Roosevelt as the complicated and controversial legislation of the New Deal worked its way through Congress. He played a key role in the passage of the Rural Electrification Act, bringing power to thousands of family farms and small communities which had been ignored by the utility companies up to that point.

After more than a quarter of a century in Congress, Rayburn achieved his life's ambition at the age of 58 in 1940. In an act which would be unthinkable today, the members of the House, Republican and Democrat alike, voted unanimously to raise him to the position of Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Aside from two momentary lapses when the Republicans briefly regained control of the House (1947-49 and 1953-55) Rayburn would remain as Speaker until his death, twenty-one years later, in 1961. In total, Rayburn was Speaker for seventeen years, two months, and two days, longer than any other Speaker. In contrast to the bitter partisanship of today, Rayburn saw himself as the leader of the House rather than as the Democratic Party leader. He remained close friends with Congressman Joseph Martin, the Republican party leader. The ferocious ideological battles that rage in Congress in own time would have struck Rayburn as inexcusable wastes of time and a disservice to the American people. He never expected ironclad loyalty from anyone, reminding younger members of the House that their first duty was to their constituents and that they needed to vote for the interests of their districts.

He was a quiet and unassuming leader, preferring to work behind the scenes rather than hog the spotlight. One of his most effective tools of his leadership was the so-called "Board of Education", a group of Congressmen who would meet with Rayburn in a secluded Capitol room to discuss political events and simply enjoy one another's company over whiskey and cards. It was in such an atmosphere that Rayburn did his work best.

Rayburn led the House as America waged a global struggle against fascism in the Second World War. He worked closely with President Roosevelt to speedily pass military appropriations and other critical legislation. He kept the fractious Republican and Democratic representatives united when the pressures and controversies of the war might have torn them apart.  He was among the very few men outside of the military who were privy to the secret of the Manhattan Project, whose funding he helped arrange and whose secrecy he helped maintain. Of all the major figures in Washington, few did as much to win the Second World War as did Rayburn,

As the war against fascism ended and the long Cold War against global communism began, Rayburn again played a critical behind-the-scenes role. He built a close working relationship with President Truman, whom he had befriended during the latter's tenure in the Senate. He later worked equally well with Dwight Eisenhower, proving that honorable men of good will could set aside party differences for the good of the nation. Rayburn played a role in garnering congressional support for the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe as a bulwark against the Soviet Union, securing military appropriations to fight the Korean War, and generally being a pillar of the anti-communist establishment. He never let his opposition to communism blind him to reality, however, and was a determined foe of McCarthyism.

Rayburn represented a conservative, rural, overwhelmingly white district, so when the fight for racial equality became the most important domestic issue in the mid-1950s, he did not join the civil rights bandwagon right away. Yet Rayburn was one of the few Congressmen from the former Confederacy who refused to sign the pro-segregation Southern Manifesto of 1956 and he later helped guide the Civil Rights Act of 1957 through the House (its passage in the Senate was masterminded by Rayburn's protege, Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson). A man more comfortable with the prewar than the postwar world, he never quite fit in with the civil rights camp, but he recognized that the country was changing and that he needed to change with it. Rayburn could never have been a 1960s radical, but his evolving views on race were shaped by his fundamental beliefs in fairness and equality.

Speaker Sam Rayburn was a statesman of the old school. He eschewed political dogma of any kind, believing that an office-holder's only duty was to act on behalf of the people in general and their constituents in particular. His example is one that is sorely needed in the times in which we live. There would be no better way to accord the man the respect he deserves, and perhaps send a message to the country about the need for us to remember his example, than to christen one of our new aircraft carriers the USS Sam Rayburn.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Fifteen Decisive Battles of History, Part Three

Welcome to the third and final installment in our series of the fifteen decisive battles of history. The first ten, as we've discussed in the two earlier posts, were as follows: the Battle of Salamis, the Battle of Gaugamela, the Qin conquest of the Chu, the Battle of Zama, the Battle of Yarmouk, the Arab Siege of Constantinople, the Battle of Hattin, the Conquest of Goa, the Siege of Tenochtitlan, and the Defeat of the Spanish Armada. So, here we go with our final five: Poltava, Saratoga, Valmy, Atlanta, and Dunkirk.

Poltava, 1709
Before the reign of Czar Peter the Great, Russia was an enormous yet backward country, far behind the intellectual and technical development of the Western nations. In one of the clearest proofs that the Great Man Theory of History is no fiction, Peter the Great essentially hauled Russia into the modern world through sheer force of will. Having toured Western Europe early in his reign and learning how far behind other countries Russia was, he resolved to modernize his realm.

He also set his sights on expanding Russian power and territory. The result was the Great Northern War, in which Russia under Peter the Great was matched against Sweden, then at the height of its power and under the rule of the dynamic, ambitious, and brilliant King Charles XII. In the early years of the war, Russia suffered one defeat after another at the hands of the Swedes. Most notably, at the Battle of Narva in 1700, a Swedish army of only 10,000 men utterly destroyed a Russian force roughly four times its strength.

Rather than give in, however, Peter the Great became determined to gain revenge. While Charles XII, in one of the great miscalculations of history, turned toward Poland and ignored Russia for the next few years, Peter the Great worked to modernize and train his army, establishing war industries, and slowly retaking territory back from the Swedes. Finally turning his attention to Russia again in 1708, Charles XII invaded Russia in the hopes of smashing its army and forcing Peter to surrender. The following year, the two opposing armies met at Poltava.

The battle was a brutal and bloody slugfest. Despite having superior numbers, Peter was wary of the tactical skill of Charles and carefully choose a defensive position. Charles, overconfident, attacked with gusto. Yet the Russian army was not the same force that had been defeated at Narva years earlier. They stood up to the Swedish attack, held it, and then counterattacked. By the end of the day, the Swedish army had been effectively destroyed as a fighting force. Only Charles and a handful of soldiers escaped.

Poltava marked the emergence of Russia as a major power upon the world stage, a position it has held ever since. Had Russia lost the battle, it might have continued its unenlightened slumber and remained a backward state. Instead, having crushed its most dangerous enemy, Russia developed a confidence and awareness with which it marched forward to play a major role in Europe and throughout the world right down to the present day.

Saratoga, 1777
In 1761, the British Empire appeared well on its way to becoming the dominant world power, having defeated its great rival France in the globe-spanning Seven Years War, taken control of India and North America, and having no rival when it came to sea power. Yet a series of unforgivable political blunders by British politicians alienated their subjects in the American colonies and led to the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1775, with the Americans declaring themselves independent the following year.

At first, it looked like the military might of the British Empire would crush the rebels. The British easily took New York and, though they suffered some setbacks in the winter of 1776, went on to win the Battles of Brandywine and Germantown in 1777, capturing the rebel capital at Philadelphia. At the same time, a large army of British regular and German mercenaries under the command of the bombastic General John Burgoyne was pushing down the Hudson Valley from Canada, on the way to cutting the colonies in two.

Suddenly, unexpectedly, the tide turned in favor of the Americans. Burgoyne's advance was slowed by Continental soldiers as American militia rapidly mobilized and swarmed around the enemy force like white blood cells attacking a bacteria. Although the Americans were technically under the command of General Horatio Gates, the real leadership was exercised by Daniel Morgan and Benedict Arnold (later the great traitor). The engineering genius of Polish volunteer Thaddeus Kosciuszko also proved pivotal. Fighting with unconventional tactics, making use of the cover of the woods, the army of citizen-soldiers brought the army of Burgoyne to a halt. In a series of battles, the strength of the British was worn down and they were caught in a position from which they could not retreat. On October 17, Burgoyne surrendered.

This proved the decisive battle of the American Revolution. France, sensing that an American victory was possible and wanting revenge on their British enemies, joined the war as an ally of the United States. French troops, French ships, French money, and French arms and munitions would now play their part in the conflict. Although the war would go on for four more years and see many more battles, it was the American victory at Saratoga that proved decisive in the end. Had America lost at Saratoga, our national anthem would today be God Save the Queen rather than the Star Spangled Banner.

Valmy, 1792
In truth, the Battle of Valmy was not much of a battle. Yet its effects were so profound that all of subsequent history was fundamentally different. In a sense, it divided history into two great ages. Before Valmy, history was largely the story of kings and emperors; after Valmy, history was mostly the story of nations.

The French Revolution had broken out in 1789. By 1792, it had gone farther than anyone had ever imagined. The power of the king and the nobility was gradually whittled away, feudalism was abolished, the Church was disestablished, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen were proclaimed. French society had been turned upside down and the rulers of the other European nations were understandably fearful that the contagion of revolution would spread to their countries as well. In the summer of 1792, the revolutionaries stormed the royal palace, massacred the king's Swiss Guard, and took Louis XVI prisoner. All of this was too much for the other European monarchs, who invaded France in order to restore the king and destroy the Revolution.

The feared Prussian Army spearheaded the invasion, sweeping aside disorganized resistance until it came upon the French force at Valmy. Heavy rains had turned the ground very muddy, limiting the maneuver options. The resulting battle scarcely deserves the name; "engagement" might be a better term. The two sides exchanged ineffectual artillery fire for a little while. The Prussian infantry advanced towards the French lines, then concluded that an assault over the muddy ground probably wasn't a good idea. The battle then simply sputtered out. Total casualties were only a few hundred killed or wounded. Tired and at the end of their supply lines, the Prussians fell back to the east.

The battle might have been anticlimactic, but the Prussian withdrawal following the engagement at Valmy marked an epochal moment in world history. The reactionary forces of the European royal courts had lost their chance to strangle the French Revolution while it was still in its cradle. In subsequent years, French armies would rampage across Europe, bringing their revolutionary ideas with them. Not until Napoleon's final defeat at Waterloo in 1815 would peace return to Europe and by then it bore little resemblance to what it had been before 1789.

Atlanta, 1864
Conventional wisdom about the American Civil War tells us that the decisive turning point took place in early July of 1863, when Robert E. Lee's army was defeated at Gettysburg and, just a day later, the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg surrendered, giving the Union complete control of the Mississippi River. I respectfully disagree with the conventional wisdom, however. The South could still have won the war after the twin disasters of Gettysburg and Vicksburg, whose importance (particularly in the case of the former) has been generally overrated. Indeed, the Confederacy has a much greater chance of winning its independence in 1864 than in 1863, due to that year's presidential election in the North. Had the South simply hung on and caused sufficient Northern casualties in 1864, Northern political will to continue the war could have collapsed, Lincoln could have been voted out of office, and a negotiated settlement could have been negotiated by a new administration. The fighting in the first half of 1864 went the Confederacy's way, with multiple Union disasters at Cold Harbor, Kennesaw Mountain, the Crater sapping Northern public morale to the breaking point.

Confederate hopes for victory collapsed when William Tecumseh Sherman captured the city of Atlanta on September 2, scarcely two months before the election. It was the end result of a series of bloody battles around the city - Peachtree Creek, Atlanta, Ezra Church, and Jonesboro - between July and August. On July 17, President Jefferson Davis had replaced the careful and cautious Joseph Johnston with the aggressive John Bell Hood, who proceeded to lose every battle he fought against Sherman despite the courage of his men, thereby fatally weakening the Army of Tennessee in the process. The victory at Atlanta, combined with other Union successes in the summer and fall, restored Northern popular will to go on with the war and brought a landslide victory for Lincoln in the fall elections.

If the Confederates had held Atlanta, perhaps by keeping Johnston in command of the defending army (the plot of my novel Shattered Nation) it's entirely possible that Lincoln would have lost the election and a Democratic administration would have been willing to negotiate a peace. The consequences of this are hard to overestimate. If the United States had fractured into two and possibly more nations, the subsequent course of the 20th Century would have been so different as to be unrecognizable.

The last hundred years have been "The American Century" in more ways than one. It was the power of the United States that allowed the Western Allies to destroy Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, then face down the threat of Soviet communism during the Cold War. American popular culture today sets the tone for the rest of the world, American education and economic practices are copied in almost every country, and the military power of the United States remains paramount (though perhaps not forever). All of this essentially dictated the course of the 20th Century. Had the country been fractured by an independent Confederacy, everything certainly would have been changed.

Dunkirk, 1940
The story of the 20th Century is largely the story of the struggle between democracy and totalitarianism. At no point were the forces of democracy closer to total defeat than in the spring of 1940. In late May, Nazi Germany was in the process of crushing France, had gained both the Soviet Union and Imperial Japan as de facto allies, and would soon be joined in the war by Fascist Italy. The United States remained stubbornly neutral, with large majorities of the population expressing a strong desire to stay out of the war. The only force holding the line for freedom was Britain, under the determined leadership of Winston Churchill.

Yet in the last days of May, the British army was trapped on the French shore in and around the port city of Dunkirk, along with thousands of isolated French and Belgian troops. The German panzers, heretofore invincible, inexplicably halted on Hitler's orders (the reasons for this order remain the subject of historical dispute to this day). It seemed that the trapped Allied forces would be forced to surrender, which would effectively mean the end of Britain's ability to continue the war. On May 28, Churchill darkly warned the House of Commons to prepare for "hard and heavy tidings".

It was at this critical moment, when the forces of totalitarianism appeared on the brink of triumph, that the Miracle of Dunkirk occurred. The Royal Navy, aided by an amazing fleet of civilian vessels that included fishing boats and pleasure yachts, swept to the rescue in what was called Operation Dynamo. As the gallant First French Army fought a desperate rearguard action at Lille and the Royal Air Force sortied to blunt air attacks by the Luftwaffe, the ships began picking the men up on May 27. Planners had initially thought they'd be lucky to rescue 40,000 men. By the time the evacuation ended on June 4, however, no less than 338,000 men had been rescued and all of Britain rejoiced at the deliverance of their army.

Dunkirk, as Churchill was careful to point out, was an evacuation and no battlefield triumph. But having rescued its trapped army at a moment when all seemed lost, the morale of the British people survived the catastrophic fall of France and remained strong enough to weather the storm that was to come. More practically, the thousands of troops saved at Dunkirk formed the core of the rebuilt British Army that would go on to fight the Germans and Italians for the rest of the war.

Ultimately, though, the most important consequence of Dunkirk probably occurred in the meeting rooms of the British War Cabinet. While the evacuation was ongoing, Churchill was challenged by the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, who argued that the war was a lost cause and that approaches should be made to Hitler for a negotiated peace. Halifax had already opened some back channel communications through the Italians. After days of deliberations, Churchill firmly rejected the idea of peace talks, saying, "If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground."

If the Dunkirk evacuation had failed, however, and the British Expeditionary Force had been either wiped out of forced to surrender, it is likely that Churchill would have been forced out as Prime Minister and Halifax or some other person put in his place. The collapse of morale and the lack of troops would have made the situation appear hopeless. The new British leader would have faced irresistible pressure to make the very sort of peace approaches to Germany that Halifax proposed and some sort of armistice would almost certainly have resulted. In that event, Hitler would have solidified his position on the Continent of Europe, with France and many other nations under his heel, Italy as a dutiful ally, and now Britain disarmed and powerless. Hitler would have been free to turn against the Soviet Union with all his strength, against which the Russians could not have prevailed. The history of the rest of the 20th Century would have been very, very dark, indeed.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Fifteen Decisive Battles of History, Part Two

Time to continue our series on the fifteen decisive battles of history. In the first installment, we discussed Salamis, Gaugamela, the Qin conquest of Chu, Zama, and Yarmouk. This time, we shall discuss the great Arab Siege of Constantinople, the Battle of Hattin, the conquest of Goa, the fall of Tenochtitlan, and the epic of the Spanish Armada.

Arab Siege of Constantinople, 717-718
As briefly described when we discussed the Battle of Yarmouk last week, history was forever changed in the 7th Century when, without warning, the mighty armies of Islam exploded out of the Arabian peninsula and embarked upon an astonishingly successful campaign of conquest. Less than a century after the death of Mohammed, the followers of Islam had subjugated the Byzantine territories in what is now Israel, Jordan, and Syria, destroyed Persia and incorporated it into the Islamic fold, taken control of Egypt and moved out across the vastness of North Africa. In the early 8th Century, Muslim armies even crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and began the conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. This wave of Islamic conquest came crashing to a halt, however, against the legendary walls of Constantinople.

In the summer of 717 AD, an immense army of more than one hundred thousand Arab Muslims and more than two thousand ships laid siege to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire and the greatest city of the Christian world. They had not reckoned on two things, however. First, the massive walls which protected Constantinople (called the "Theodosian Walls" after the emperor who built them) were without question the strongest fortifications in the medieval world. Against them, the armies of Islam crashed in vain. Second, the Byzantines had a secret weapon, a mysterious substance known as "Greek Fire", a flammable liquid something like napalm which the Christian naval forces used to set aflame the Arab ships (the exact composition of Greek Fire remains unknown to this day). With their armies stymied and their navy wrecked, the Arabs were forced to abandon the siege in the summer of 718.

18th and 19th Century historians, including the great Edward Gibbon, have often pointed to the Battle of Tours in the year 732 as the event that halted the great Islamic advance into Europe. Notwithstanding its importance, the Byzantine victory at Constantinople in 717-718 was the true turning point. By turning back the heretofore irresistible Muslim tide, the Byzantines ensured that Southern and Eastern Europe would be safe from Islamic conquest until the advent of the Ottoman Turks, more than half a millennium later. By that time, the development of strong kingdoms and nation-states in Europe meant that Western Civilization was able to defend itself. Had the Arabs conquered Constantinople in the 8th Century, while Europe slumbered through the Dark Ages, there would have been nothing to prevent them from taking over the whole continent.

Hattin, 1187
What the 8th Century Siege of Constantinople was for the Christian world, the Battle of Hattin in 1187 was for the Islamic world.  In the late 11th Century, the Christian forces of the First Crusade had stormed into the Middle East and captured Jerusalem, subjecting its Muslim and Jewish population to a brutal massacre. In the wake of their victory, they had set up several Crusader states, carving out their own petty kingdoms along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, in the heart of what had long been Muslim territory.

The First Crusade had succeeded largely because the Islamic world was divided between the Shia Fatimid Caliphate in Cairo and the Sunni Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad. By the late 12th Century, however, the great Muslim leader Saladin had united the two halves of the Muslim world under the new Ayyubid dynasty and set his sites on the reconquest of Jerusalem.

The decisive battle between Saladin and the Christian armies of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, led by its inept king, Guy of Lusignan, took place on July 4, 1187, at a place with the sinister-sounding name of the Horns of Hattin. Saladin's military brilliance combined with an extraordinary amount of stupidity on the part of Guy produced an overwhelming victory for the Muslim forces. Saladin tricked Guy into halting his army in a position where water could not be obtained, then subjected in to concentrated attacks by mounted archers. The Crusader army fell apart, most of its men were massacred, and Guy of Lusignan himself was taken prisoner.

The Battle of Hattin effectively snuffed out the military strength of the Crusader states. In the months that followed, Saladin surged forward into Crusader territory, retaking city after city. On October 2, the Christian defenders of Jerusalem surrendered to Saladin. In contrast to the Christian capture of the city nearly a century before, there was no slaughter of innocent people; the Christian population was allowed to depart in peace, taking their property with them. Although more Crusades would follow, including the epic drama that was the Third Crusade, never again would the powers of Christian Europe threaten Muslim domination of the Middle East.

Goa, 1510
The European domination of Asia, which began during the Age of Exploration and arguably only came to a final end with the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China in 1997, began with the Portuguese conquest of the Indian city of Goa in 1510.

Portugal was a poor country at the fringe of Europe in the early 16th Century. Compared to the giants of Spain, England, or France, it was a pigmy. Yet it had something that no one else had: knowledge of the sea route from Europe to Asia. The 1497 voyage of Vasco de Gama, following in the wake of many other daring Portuguese explorers, had demonstrated the feasibility of sailing all the way around the southern tip of Africa from Europe to Asia, thereby opening up untold opportunities for trade. . . or conquest.

Knowing that they needed a sizable port city to serve as a base for their imperial ambitions in the East, the Portuguese turned to their great admiral Afonso de Albuquerque, known to his contemporaries as "The Lion of the Seas". In a series of battles, a tiny Portuguese army and a small but highly effective fleet defeated the Muslim rulers of Goa and secured it as a fortress. Portugal would continue to rule Goa until 1961.

The Portuguese conquest of the Indian port city of Goa in 1510 solidified the European presence in Asia. In their wake would come the Spanish, then the Dutch, then the English and French, and finally (very late in the game) the Germans. Over the next few centuries, almost all of Asia would be chopped up by the European powers into colonies, protectorates, and spheres of influence. This would have enormous long-term impact on Asia. The Philippines is a Catholic nation, the economic system of Hong Kong and the legal system of India are based on British models, cricket is the most popular sport in Pakistan, and the most popular beer in China is made in the German style. More fundamentally, of course, is the fact that, for centuries, the political destinies of millions of Asians would be decided in faraway places by people they would never see.

Tenochtitlan, 1521
If the Portuguese capture of Goa in 1510 solidified the European hold on Asia for the ensuing centuries, the Spanish destruction of the Aztec Empire at Tenochtitlan in 1521 did the same for the European domination of the Americas.

The story of how Hernan Cortez conquered the mighty Aztec Empire with a pitifully small number of Spanish soldiers is well-known. Thanks to gunpowder and steel weapons, the frightening use of their horses, the deadly spread of smallpox, and the recruitment of Indian allies, Cortez was able to capture Tenochtitlan and destroy the Aztec Empire, replacing it with a Spanish dominion that would last for three centuries. Pizarro's conquest of the Inca followed upon the success Cortez had in Mexico, as did almost all colonial ventures in which the Spanish engaged in the New World.

But while history marvels at Cortez's victory, it often overlooks the fact that the Aztecs came close to crushing Cortez on more than one occasion. And having taken the measure of the Spanish, a victorious Aztec Empire might have been able to reorganize itself in order to present an effective defense against any future encroachments upon its territory. The Spanish victory over the Aztecs was not foreordained, for nothing in history is. Had events gone differently, the Aztec Empire might still be with us in the 21st Century and the course of history would have been very different.

As it was, though, the fall of Aztecs made it almost certain that the destiny of the New World would forever be determined by European peoples rather than native ones. Unlike Asia, the Europeans were never driven out.

Spanish Armada, 1588
Historians today tend to play down the importance of the Spanish Armada, denying that it was nearly as important as generations of British historians imagined it to be. These modern revisionists are wrong. The defeat of the Spanish Armada was a decisive turning point in world history and fully deserves a place among the fifteen decisive battles of the world. Along with Gaugamela and Poltava, it is one of three battles from Sir Edward Creasy's list that I think actually deserve a spot.

By the 1580s, the Reformation had swept over Europe, dividing the Continent between Protestant and Catholic. Religious disputes quickly morphed into political and military conflict. France descended into civil war, Germany plunged into chaos, and the Protestant Netherlands exploded in rebellion against Catholic Spanish rule. England, under the rule of Queen Elizabeth, had come firmly into the Protestant camp (despite much opposition from English Catholics) and made it a policy to assist Protestants fighting against Catholics on the Continent of Europe. This was especially true of the Netherlands, where a small English force played a major role in the fighting.

King Philip II of Spain determined to crush England and restore it to Catholicism. To achieve this, he assembled a powerful fleet, the titular "Armada". The plan was to take control of the English Channel, then transport a Spanish army from the Netherlands, under the command of the fearsome Duke of Parma, across the Channel to southern England. Once landed, the army would conquer the country. England's land army was weak and Philip II expected English Catholics to rise in rebellion against Elizabeth's rule the moment his men set foot on English soil.

It never happened. A combination of English pluck, outstanding seamanship, and incredible good fortune prevented the Spanish Armada from taking control of the Channel. Famous English sailors like Francis Drake, John Hawkins, and Martin Frobisher led their outnumbered but technically advanced and more agile ships against the Spanish. In a series of opening battles, the English sniped at the Spanish but were not able to inflict much damage. Then, an attempt to attack the Spanish with fireships, though it inflicted no real damage, disrupted the Spanish formation and caused many of the Spanish ships to cut their anchor chains. At the Battle of Gravelines on August 6, the English were finally able to attack effectively and the Spanish lost five ships. This was not a significant portion of the Armada, but its commander, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, lost heart and decided that his only recourse was to return to Spain by circumnavigating the whole of Britain. Much of the fleet was wrecked in storms on the coast of Ireland during the return voyage and thousands of Spanish sailors were drowned.

England had weathered the threat of invasion without the loss of a single ship. In retrospect, the defeat of the Spanish Armada would be recognized as a watershed of English history. It can be fairly said to date the birth of the British Empire, which had a greater impact on the history of the world than any other political entity. For all its mistakes and even crimes, the British Empire spread the concepts of representative democracy, free market economics, legal systems based on the common law, the philosophical concepts of the English empiricists and the Scottish thinkers of the Enlightenment and, as an added bonus, association football.

There would be many other battles that marked the rise of the British to their preeminent position: Blenheim, Plassey, Quebec, Trafalgar, Waterloo, and many others. But it all began with the glorious defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Had England lost, the British Empire would have been snuffed out of history before it had properly been born and the subsequent course of history would have been unimaginably different.