Sunday, October 1, 2017

Pizza and the Fate of the Republic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 3, 2017

The Presidency and the Nuclear Genies of Death

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

There is one word for this: terrifying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And in the meantime, we wait and worry.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Thoughts on Charlottesville

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Samuel Adams, Martha Washington, and the Philadelphia Ball

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Seeing the Declaration of Independence as a Mission Statement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Is William Tecumseh Sherman Overrated as a General?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What if...

Sunday, June 18, 2017

George Mason Memorial Needs to be Cleaned Up

I recently wrote a blog entry about my trip to Washington D.C. with several middle school students and how it reflected the old Roman virtue of pietas. However, I neglected to mention the most unpleasant experience of my time in our nation's capital, because I felt it merited a separate blog post altogether.

Our group arrived at the Jefferson Memorial on the evening of June 12. As my friends and colleagues (and readers of this blog) know, Thomas Jefferson is one of my great heroes. I was greatly excited to visit the memorial to the author of the Declaration of Independence, but I also planned to sneak away from the group for a few minutes to pay my respects at another memorial, just a stone's throw away. It is much smaller and almost entirely unknown, dedicated to another man who I count among my personal heroes: George Mason.

Mason is one of the most underappreciated figures in American history. When people hear his name, they think of an above average university in Virginia that has a good basketball team, but they know nothing whatsoever of the man. This is a shame, for every American owes Mason a debt of gratitude that is almost incalculable. The men at the times, including such luminaries as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, were never in doubt of Mason's extraordinary contribution to the American Revolution. It's not too much to say that Mason built the philosophical pillars on which our experiment in self-government rests.

A bit of background. George Mason was born in northern Virginia in 1725. The nature of his education is somewhat obscure, but he clearly drank deeply the ideas of the Enlightenment and in later life proved to have one of the best read and most insightful minds in America. He lived the life of a wealthy rural gentleman in his beautiful home, Gunston Hall, from where he supervised his extensive land holdings. Like most men of his social position, he involved himself in local and colonial politics, being elected to several local offices and becoming a member of the House of Burgesses, Virginia's colonial legislature.

When the crisis with Britain broke over the colonies in 1765, with the passage of the Stamp Act, Mason stepped up and did his duty, soon becoming known as one of the key leaders of the opposition movement in Virginia. In 1774, Mason authored the Fairfax Resolves, laying out the constitutional argument of the colonies more clearly and concisely than anyone else had ever done before. He asserted that the colonists had the same rights in the colonies that Englishmen had in England and that Parliament had no authority to legislate for the colonies, that right being held only by the colonial legislatures themselves. He called for a complete boycott of British goods and for representatives of the thirteen colonies to assemble together to coordinate their resistance (which happened later that year, when the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia. Mason also took the opportunity to condemn the continuation of the slave trade. The Fairfax Resolves were among the most influential writings produced in the few years just before the war and helped steel American resistance in Virginia as well as other colonies.

Upon the outbreak of the war, Mason served on the Virginia Committee of Safety, playing a major role in organizing the war effort in Virginia. But his greatest contribution was his drafting of the Virginia Declaration of Rights. In this preamble to the new state constitution, Mason laid out the principles that have formed the American creed every since: the all citizens are created equal and have unalienable rights, that power rests with the people themselves, that hereditary power is illegitimate, that there must be freedom of expression, that there must be a separation of powers in the government, that there must be legal due process for all citizens, that the military must remain under civilian control, and that all citizens must possess religion freedom.

It's impossible to overstate the importance of the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Its ideas infused Jefferson as he wrote the Declaration of Independence just weeks later. Its principles are found everywhere within the Constitution itself. And it served as a template for James Madison when he wrote the Bill of Rights in the years immediately after the ratification of the Constitution. It influenced the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, the fundamental document of the French Revolution, as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights issued by the United Nations in 1948. Simply put, it is one of the most powerful and important assertions of human liberty ever created.

Mason always saw public service as a duty to be performed only reluctantly. In his heart, he always wanted to be home with his family at Gunston Hall. Despite the urging of his friends, he refused to leave Virginia to serve in the Continental Congress. He was never flamboyant and always preferred to work behind the scenes. When the war was over, he gratefully retired back to his estate, intending to live the remainder of his life surrounded by his children and grandchildren and contemplating his books.

Public service called Mason back, however, and he left Virginia for the only time in his life to serve as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. During the months of heated debate, Mason was one of the most important voices in formulating the new government. In the end, however, he became one of only three delegates to refuse to sign the Constitution, arguing that it should include a bill of rights. His opposition carried over to the ratification debates, in which Mason was cited as one of the most influential of the Anti-Federalists. Although Mason and the other Anti-Federalists lost the ratification debate, in the end his achieved his goal. In 1791, Congress and the states ratified the first ten amendments to the Constitution, thus incorporating what has become known as the Bill of Rights into the Constitution. Without Mason, it would never have happened. That accomplished, Mason stated that he was quite content with the Constitution.

George Mason's gifts to America and the world are incalculable. The Fairfax Resolves and the Virginia Declaration of Rights were, in a very real sense, the parents that gave birth to the three major founding documents of the United States of America: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Had Mason not initially opposed the ratification of the Constitution, it's entirely possible that the Bill of Rights would never have been added. He also was a principled opponent of slavery and the slave trade, being the only man in the Constitutional Convention who stood up and gave an explicitly anti-slavery speech.

The United States of America has honored George Mason. A prestigious university bears his name. A bridge over the Potomac River is named after him. His home at Gunston Hall has been lovingly preserved. And, in 2002, the George Mason Memorial was dedicated in Washington D.C., almost a stone's throw from the larger and grander memorial to his friend Thomas Jefferson. It is a quiet, reserved, and dignified memorial, exactly in keeping with Mason's own personality. Fittingly, it depicts Mason sitting calmly while reading a copy of Cicero, his hat and walking stick close by.

Unfortunately, when I entered the space of the George Mason Memorial, I was shocked and dismayed by its terrible condition.

The place clearly had not been maintained in any substantial way for a very long time. The fountain pool is empty of water. What is supposed to be a circular garden around the pool is nothing but empty dirt (I was told by our tour guide that there have been no flowers there for four years).



Weeds are beginning to grow up through the stones.



The etchings of quotes by or about Mason in the stone are virtually unreadable.



The statue itself is in decent shape (it's made of bronze, so it's hard to see how it could be otherwise), but a long line of muck has accumulated around the stone base.



A young couple who wandered in while I was there were similarly upset. "Don't they ever clean this place up?" the woman asked. It certainly didn't seem so. The pictures I have posted (taken by my good friend Jordan James) don't really do justice to the wretched condition the memorial is in.

This is a disgrace. The George Mason Memorial needs to be cleaned up and properly maintained. Anything less than that and we are dishonoring the memory of a man who gave so many gifts to the people of America. The Trust for the National Mall, a nonprofit partner of the NPS which helps fund restoration and maintenance projects for the memorials and monuments on the Mall, has announced plans to refurbish the George Mason Memorial, but with so many other projects competing for funds, it seems likely that the site will continue to lie as dormant as a fallow field unless people stand up and speak out.

I encourage all readers of this blog entry to take the following steps:

1. Contact the Trust for the National Mall. Tell them to make the George Mason Memorial their top priority. Their contact information is as follows:

  • Phone Number: 202-407-9408
  • Email: information@nationalmall.org
  • Mailing Address: Trust for the National Mall, 1300 Pennsylvania Avenue, Suite 370, Washington D.C. 20004
  • Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/NationalMall
  • Twitter: https://twitter.com/thenationalmall

2. Contact the National Mall and Memorial Parks. This is the unit of the National Park Service that administers the George Mason Memorial. Express your concern over the condition at the George Mason Memorial and ask that urgent work be done to clean it up. Their contact information is as follows:

  • Phone Number: 202-426-6841
  • Email: Through their contact webpage at https://www.nps.gov/nama/contacts.htm
  • Mailing Address: National Mall and Memorial Parks, 900 Ohio Drive SW, Washington D.C. 20024
  • Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/NationalMallNPS
  • Twitter: https://twitter.com/NationalMallNPS

3. Contact your representatives in the House and Senate. The monuments of the National Mall are the responsibility of the federal government. Members of the House and Senate are elected to serve as your representatives in Congress. Let them know that you are concerned with the condition of the George Mason Memorial and ask them to do something about it. After all, they are always on the lookout for easy, noncontroversial matters that their constituents contact them about.

  • To find your representative in the House, go here: http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/
  • To contact your representatives in the Senate, go here: https://www.senate.gov/senators/contact/

4. Contact the White House. It couldn't hurt, after all.
  • White House Contact page: https://www.whitehouse.gov/contact

5. Spread the word. Tell anyone you know who you think would care about this to follow steps 1-4 above. Feel free to forward this blog post to anyone and everyone.

The condition of a monument in Washington D.C. may not rank with climate change or the national debt as an issue. But neither should such things be ignored. As I said in a recent blog post, I truly think the underlying problems facing our nation stem from our drifting away from our common ideals, which used to unite us as a nation despite our political differences. We have lost our sense of pietas. Cleaning up the George Mason Memorial might not seem a particularly important matter at the present moment, when our nation is facing such great challenges. Yet in its symbolic value, it is very important indeed. For the thoughts and writings of George Mason represent the best of the American creed and it is incumbent upon all of us to respect and honor him if we are to be true to the values upon which our great republic was founded.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Pietas

Late last night, I returned from a four day trip to Washington D.C. that I took with one of my colleagues (my dear friend Jordan James, who was born to be a teacher) and fourteen truly amazing 8th grade students. It was a great honor to bring these budding citizens to visit our nation's capital. It was also an enormous amount of fun. Everything ran very smoothly and the fine folks who arranged our trip (School Tours of America) certainly knew their business.

It was a jam-packed trip. We visited Ford's Theater, where President Lincoln was shot, as well as the Petersen House across the street, to stand in the room where Lincoln passed away. We went to the National Archives, to see the original copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. We toured the Capitol Building and the Library of Congress. We went to the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian. We took two excursions out of town to see the battlefield at Gettysburg and the home of George Washington at Mount Vernon. We hiked around the Mall to see the memorials to Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King. And we paid our respects to those who have fought and died for the country at the World War II Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial, the Air Force Memorial, the Pentagon Memorial, and, on our last day, Arlington National Cemetery.

People who are overly pessimistic and cynical regarding the rising generation would have found their preconceptions happily shattered by the behavior of our students. Without exception, they were polite, inquisitive, and filled with excitement about what they were seeing. They bombarded me and Ms. James, as well as our various tour guides, with insightful questions and seemed to drink in the learning all around them. They goofed off every now and then, but whenever the occasion called for it, they were deeply respectful and serious. It was truly an honor and a privilege to take these wonderful young men and young women on this trip. When we all said goodbye at the baggage claim of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, it was heartwarming to hear them tell their parents what a wonderful time they had. Since then, Ms. James and I have received warm messages of thanks from their parents. We are already planning to take more students next year.

It was a fun trip, but that wasn't the important thing. For me, this trip was about far more than having an enjoyable time and seeing interesting stuff. As I told the students, it really was all about PIETAS.

It's a trick of teachers as old as time itself to use a word the students won't know so that they will ask you what it means, thus giving the teacher a chance to expound a bit. Pietas is a Latin term for which there isn't an exact English translation. It's the root of our word "piety", which means strong religious belief, and devotion to religion certainly is part of pietas. But for the Romans, it meant far more than that. Pietas might be described as the duty everyone has to be faithful and respectful towards their own families and, more generally, towards the foundations of their society. It was because of pietas that the Romans took such things as religious rituals, readings of omens, and ceremonies of state so seriously.

Pietas is everywhere in the buildings and monuments of Washington D.C. The FDR Memorial is entirely flat to reflect Roosevelt's status as the first president with a physical disability. The MLK Memorial is located halfway between the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials to symbolize Martin Luther King's synthesis of the ideas of the two presidents. The Rotunda of the Capitol Dome is covered with beautiful art depicting crucial moments in American history. The Freedom Wall in the World War II Memorial has a gold star for ever one hundred American lives lost in the global struggle against fascism; it contains just over four thousand stars. The statue of Rosa Parks donated by the state of Alabama to the National Statuary Hall in the Capitol Building pointedly depicts her seated rather than standing up. Although Ford's Theater remains an active center for stage productions today, the presidential box in which Lincoln was shot is never used and is as carefully preserved to its 1865 appearance as possible. All of this is pietas.

The simple existence of the battlefield at Gettysburg is a manifestation of American pietas. The land where the fate of the nation was decided in the summer of 1863 could, like the battlefields around Atlanta, been turned into residential areas, shopping centers, and golf courses. Instead, the nation made a collective decision to preserve the sacred ground as both a monument to the bravery of the men who fought there and to allow future generations to explore the battlefield in order to understand what happened there. The same applies to the preservation of George Washington's home at Mount Vernon, and, for that matter, Jefferson's home at Monticello, Madison's home at Montpelier, and other homes of great individuals of American history.

Two moments on this trip really stand out to me in terms of what I am talking about. At Mount Vernon, four of our students participated in a wreath-laying ceremony at George Washington's tomb. First, one of the girls read out the pledge of allegiance. Then two boys carefully raised and carried the wreath into the tomb itself, setting it beside the sarcophagus. Finally, a girl read a prayer written by George Washington, beseeching God to protect the United States and calling upon all citizens to love and respect one another for the common good. The four students who did this behaved impeccably and all described the experience as extremely moving.

The second took place on the last day of our trip. We visited Arlington National Cemetery, walking for miles among the thousands upon thousands of gravestones marking the final resting places of the men and women who fought to keep America free. We saw the eternal flame marking the grave of President John F. Kennedy, the mast of the USS Maine, and the markers for the astronauts who died on the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia. But what stayed with me more than anything was the site of the endless fields of grave markers, stretching away across the horizon, like the grain and corn fields of the Midwest. During our tour, we could occasionally hear three volley salutes being fired as part of funerals taking place while we were there.

But nothing at Arlington National Cemetery illustrated American pietas more than watching the Changing of the Guard of the Tomb of the Unknowns. I can't quite articulate what it is about the deceptively simple ceremony: an officer arrives, inspects the sentry arriving for duty, who then relieves the sentry who has been on duty beforehand. The perfection of their movements, the precision of their walking, the exactness of their uniform, were all orders of magnitude higher than they needed to be if the point was simply to keep people from vandalizing the tomb. Why? Because it's not just about guarding the tomb; it's about showing the highest level of respect for the men and women who died defending our country. The poignancy of the ceremony is a statement to those brave heroes: we thank you, we honor you, and we will never forget you.

My students were standing in the sun on an oppressively hot and humid day while we watched the ceremony, yet I heard not a word of complaint from any of them. Some of them described the ceremony as the most incredible thing they had ever seen. During the whole time we were in Arlington National Cemetery, as when we visited the memorials to leaders of the past or the fallen heroes of past wars, all of our students displayed the deepest respect. Ms. James and I were more proud of them than words can express.

Sadly, not everyone we encountered during our trip behaved in the same manner. Another student group was on the grounds of Arlington that day and acted atrociously, tapping away on their smart phones during the Changing of the Guard and competing to see who could successfully flip bottles up onto the marble benches of the Memorial Amphitheater. I recall a foul-mouthed twentysomething loudly telling a profanity-laced joke amidst the crowd at the Martin Luther King Memorial. Obviously, there were plenty of people who did not appreciate what these historical sites and memorials truly represent. I was inclined to be a bit more forgiving at the Smithsonian, which isn't hallowed ground, but even there I was dismayed at how many people preferred to be goofing off or playing with their ubiquitous smart phones rather than exploring the fascinating exhibits that surrounded them.

Clearly, not everybody senses the need to maintain a sense of pietas. I think of all the people who think that Veterans Day and Memorial Day are the same thing or the adult men who are unaware that they are supposed to remove their hats during the singing of the national anthem. I think of the businesses that neglect to take care of the American flags that fly over their establishments, until they are gradually reduced to faded rags. I think of those people who don't know the name of their own representatives in Congress or who shirk their civic duty by failing to show up at the polls on Election Day. I think of all the people who are reading celebrity gossip magazines when they could be reading the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, and especially all the teenage boys who go home to play computer games for hours on end when they should be reading books.

The problems facing our country today have little to do with to do with how many people are conservatives or liberals. They have little to do with which party controls the House of Representatives, the Senate, or even the White House. I think that our problems stem from a lack of respect, or even understanding, of what the United States of America is supposed to be about. They stem from a lack of pietas.

It's easy to become disillusioned about the state of things in the United States today. I am probably more guilty of this than the average person. Yet when I look back on the last few days I have spent in our nation's capital with these fourteen amazing young men and young women, I find myself reinvigorated and renewed. To me, this experience underscores for me my responsibility as a teacher of American to nurture and mentor the leaders of tomorrow. These kids have pietas. And if they had it, others can have it, too.

America needs champions. It needs heroes. I hope that I have played at least a small part in encouraging some young people to step up and become the kind of citizens our country so desperately needs. And if I get the chance, I hope to do so again in the future.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

What If Abraham Lincoln Had Not Been Assassinated?

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln was one of the most shocking moments in American history. It has been seared into the collective consciousness of the country in the same way that unexpected news of the death of parent is seared into a mind of an individual. We can all see ourselves in Ford's Theater, as Our American Cousin is being acted out on the stage, the President enjoying the production in his box seat above and to the right. We can almost hear the shocking sound of the gunshot, sense the confusion of the crowd as John Wilkes Booth leaps from the stages and shouts something before running away, and then feel the terror as Mary Todd Lincoln's piercing scream echoes throughout the theater. In that awful moment, Abraham Lincoln became the Christ-figure of the American civil religion, the man who had to die to exorcise the sin of slavery from the country.

It also created one of the most intriguing alternate history questions of all: what if Abraham Lincoln had not been assassinated?

There is no need for any elaborate "point of divergence" in this scenario. Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln were accompanied to the play by Major Henry Rathbone and his wife. Historically, Rathbone did not hear Booth as the assassin entered the box. The first inkling he had that something was amiss was when Booth fired the fatal bullet into Lincoln's head. He attempted to grab Booth and apparently struggled with him for a few moments. Booth seriously wounded Rathbone with a knife and leapt from the box onto the stage. For the rest of his life, Rathbone was torn by guilt over his failure to prevent the assassination. He eventually succumbed to complete mental instability and murdered his wife in a fit of rage, spending his remaining years in an asylum for the criminally insane.

What if Rathbone had heard the door open behind him and seen the shadowy figure of Booth approaching the President from behind? One can imagine the major, who was an experienced soldier, reacting quickly and accosting Booth before he had a chance to fire his gun. The President, no weak man even at the age of 56, would have reacted as any man reacts when his wife is threatened and jumped up to help Rathbone restrain the assassin. In all likelihood, Booth would have been pinned to the ground and President Lincoln would have ended the evening wiping a bit of sweat from his forehead and making a wry joke about Booth overplaying the role he had recently performed in Julius Caesar.

So what would have been the ramifications of Lincoln surviving the assassination attempt? To answer that question, we need to look at what the situation was on April 14, 1865. By that date, the American Civil War was effectively over. Robert E. Lee's vaunted Army of Northern Virginia had been forced to surrender at Appomattox. Joseph Johnston and the remnants of the Army of Tennessee in North Carolina were about to follow suit and the few remaining Confederate forces, scattered across the South, were either about to give up or simply falling apart. Attention was rapidly shifting from winning the war to securing the peace.

The Republican Party was of two minds regarding how to manage Reconstruction. Radical Republicans, led by men such as Congressman Thaddeus Stevens and Senator Charles Sumner (the latter will be a major character in my upcoming novel House of the Proud) were not interested in reconciliation. They believed that the South needed to be punished for secession, for bringing on the war, and for practicing slavery in the first place. They wanted to remold Southern society into something completely different from what had existed before. Lincoln disagreed, wanting Reconstruction to be as painless as possible and for normalcy to be restored as quickly as it could. His main goal was not revenge, but reconciliation between the North and South.

Lincoln's plan for Reconstruction had been articulated as early as 1863, after large portions of Tennessee, Arkansas, and Louisiana had come back under Union control. It was called the Ten Percent Plan. As soon as ten percent of a Southern state's voting population had sworn loyalty to the Union, those people could reform a loyal government and the state would be readmitted to the Union, provided that they accepted the abolition of slavery. Moreover, aside from a few high-level Confederate military officers and government officials, full pardons would be extended to those who had taken up arms against the Union. In Lincoln's vision, as the war was won, each rebellious state would come back into the Union as its territory fell under federal control. Once the Confederate armies disintegrated or were forced to surrender, it would a fairly straightforward matter for the states to be restored to the Union. The war would be won, slavery would be ended, and the Union would be restored.

The Radicals strongly disagreed with Lincoln's plan. Their view of Reconstruction was articulated most clearly in the Wade-Davis Bill, named for Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio and Congressman Henry Davis of Maryland. The bill required a majority of a state's voting voting population to take an "ironclad oath" that they had never supported the Confederacy before the state could be readmitted to the Union. This was clearly not going to happen, since the vast majority of the South's white population had supported the Confederacy. It would require a generation to pass before a majority of a state's voters could take such an oath and during all that time the conquered South would have essentially been subject to the rule of the Congress in the same way that the territories in the West remained subject to Congress until they became states themselves. In 1864, Lincoln pocket vetoed the Wade-Davis Bill, preventing it from becoming law and infuriating the Radicals.

So there were two competing Republicans visions of Reconstruction, those of the Moderates led by Lincoln, whose views were summed up in the Ten Percent Plan, and those of the Radicals led by Sumner and Stevens, whose views were summed up by the Wade-Davis Bill. The views of the Democrats, largely marginalized by the events of the war, were scarcely considered. The defeated Southerners, needless to say, could only wait and see what their Northern conquerors were going to do.

Historically, Reconstruction was essentially a failure. Andrew Johnson, the uncouth drunk who became President upon Lincoln's death, pursued the lightest possible Reconstruction policy. Former Confederates very quickly were returned to positions of authority in the Southern states, passing legislation known as "black codes" to prevent the newly freed slaves from exercising any real freedom. President Johnson actively opposed granting blacks the right to vote, utterly enraging the Radical Republicans. Aside from the bare fact that slavery was abolished and blacks were no longer the legal property of white people, it was almost as if nothing had changed since before the war.

Johnson's policies were so wildly unpopular that the Radical Republicans soon realized that they had sufficient strength in Congress to override the President's vetoes of their legislation and that they could pass anything they wanted. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 outlawed such state practices at the black codes, undermining the legitimacy of Johnson's Reconstruction policies. Not long after that, Congress attempted to throw Johnston out of office via impeachment. Though they failed by a single vote in the Senate, Johnson was so humiliated that whatever political power he retained was swept away. He remained an inert nonentity until replaced in the White House by Ulysses Grant in 1869.

Radical Reconstruction now began. The South was subjected to martial law by the occupying Union Army, which protected blacks from revenge attacks and ensured their ability to vote. Republicans gained control of the Southern state government via the electoral coalition of freed slaves, scalawags, and carpetbaggers. Former Confederates were largely disenfranchised. The 14th and 15th Amendments, ensuring equal rights to all citizens and guaranteeing that the right to vote would not be denied on account of race, were pushed through the ratification process.

Many of these efforts, such as the protection of the freed slaves and the passage of the constitutional amendments, greatly benefited the nation. Yet in treating the ex-Confederates as the people of a conquered province, rather than as wayward friends the way Lincoln had desired, the Radical Republicans were throwing kindling onto a dangerous fire. A ferocious anger and bitterness was instilled in the hearts of the proud Southern people, ensuring that they would take revenge as soon as Reconstruction ended.

And that's what happened. Reconstruction wasn't going to last forever, as the Radical Republicans should have realized. After the 1876 election, President Rutherford B. Hayes made a deal to break the impasse of his questionable election that removed the army of occupation from the South. Like bowling pins, the Republican state governments in the South were knocked over and replaced with Democratic governments dominated by former Confederates. Voting rights for the blacks were ruthlessly stripped away through such means as literacy tests and poll taxes, 15th Amendment be damned, The age of Jim Crow had dawned, which would last for nearly a century, until the age of Martin Luther King.

In my opinion, for Reconstruction to have been a real success would have required the voting rights of both the ex-Confederates and the freed slaves to somehow be protected. In this way, whites and blacks in the South would have had to learn to live with one another a century before than the civil rights movement. The ex-Confederates would not have been able to sweep their black neighbors under the political rug, but neither would they have been embittered by having their own rights stripped away from them by the Radical Republicans. If anything like a fair and stable society, on the road to equality for all people, could have emerged from the fires of the Civil War, something like this would have had to happen.

What if Lincoln had not been shot that awful night in April of 1865? What if he had served a full second term, only leaving office after the 1868 election?

Lincoln was perhaps the greatest political genius America has ever produced. He had a sense of perspective and a vision that no one else in American history has come close to matching. If anyone could have somehow created a political framework in which the voting rights of both blacks and the ex-Confederates were protected, it was Lincoln. Only he could possibly have navigated the minefield of Radical Republicans, ex-Confederates, Democrats, freed slaves, and all the other interest groups.

If Lincoln had survived and remained committed to his Ten Percent Plan, subsequent American history would have been radically different and, I believe, much more pleasant for all concerned. We should not think that the South would have been transformed into some sort of post-racial utopia in such a scenario, but it is at least possible that a surviving Abraham Lincoln would have been able to forge a political solution that would avoid the racial darkness of the Jim Crow era and set America on a more proper course.

In the meantime, with the war over, Lincoln could have pursued the goals of expansion and modernization that were his dream. It's often forgotten that more took place during Lincoln's presidency than the Civil War. The Homestead Act was passed, opening vast tracts of western land for settlement, and promoting the building of railroads to link the eastern and western sections of the nation together. He brought the National Academy of Sciences and the Department of Agriculture into being. His vision of a united America, in which distinctions of North and South were entirely secondary, was as clear as a shining star.

In firing the deadly bullet, John Wilkes Booth did more than just manifest his own hatred and bigotry. Booth crippled the United States of America for decades, perhaps a century. For that reason, his memory should be damned forever.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

What If Germany Had Won the First World War?

We are currently in the midst of the centennial of the First World War, a historical event of truly stupendous importance. The war marks a sharp dividing line between what came before it and what came after it and we are still living with its consequences today. It is right and proper that we should be reflecting on its meaning one hundred years after it took place.

The general outline of the war is easy for any person who paid attention in history class to reconstruct in their mind. Through a stupid mishmash of political miscalculations in the summer of 1914, tied together by a sinister system of interlocking alliances, Europe was plunged into a nightmarish war thanks to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary. Britain, France, and Russia, along with several smaller nations. were pitted against Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire.

The fiercest fighting of the war took place on the Western Front in France and Belgium and the Eastern Front in Russia, where armies numbering in the millions slugged it out over four years. Fighting also flared in the Alps between Italy and Austria-Hungary, in the Balkans, in the Middle East, and in the colonies scattered across the globe. It was warfare on an industrial scale, unlike anything history had seen up to that point. Technology was bent towards the purposes of slaughtering as many human beings as possible, with such innovations as tanks, submarines, poison gas, aircraft, and the mass use of machine guns extending man's ability to kill his fellow man by leaps and bounds.

In the end, of course, Germany went down to defeat. Its disastrous decision to implement a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917 brought the United States into the war on the Allied side. Even though Russia had collapsed into the chaos of revolution, Germany was running out of time, its war economy slowly being strangled by an impenetrable British naval blockade. A last gasp offensive in the spring of 1918 brought initial success and at times came close to rupturing the Allied lines. The Allied armies surged forward in the summer, overwhelming the German army and leading to the armistice of November 11, 1918.

The war was won, but the Allies lost the peace. The Treaty of Versallies imposed terms on the Germans that were too weak to permanently cripple it, but harsh enough to instill a ferocious desire for revenge. Combined with the Great Depression, it led directly to the rise of Nazism in Germany and plunged the world into another, more terrible world war just two decades after the first one had been concluded.

All of this begs the question: what if Germany had won the First World War?

There are any number of different scenarios that could have allowed Germany and her allies in the Central Powers to achieve victory over the Allies. Indeed, Germany had a much better chance of winning the First World War than it did the Second World War. Let me briefly sketch one general scenario and then flesh out what the ramifications of it might have been.

During 1916, the war seemed balanced on a knife's edge. Two battles on the Western Front, Verdun and the Somme, dominated the headlines of that terrible year. In the first, the Germans launched a massive offensive against the ancient French fortress city, not so much to capture it as to bleed the French army white in its efforts to protect it. In the second, the British hurled their army, the flower of their youth, against the Germans lines in what turned out to be a futile effort to break through them. Hundreds of thousands of French, British, and German soldiers died in these battles and the front lines did not move more than a few miles in either direction.

At Verdun, the Germans made the critical mistake of deviating from their original plan, which was merely to present a serious enough threat to the city so as to compel the French to commit the bulk of their army to defend it, thus luring it into a space where it could be devastated by superior German firepower. In the early stages of the battle, things seemed to be going according to the German plan. But, as happens all too often in war, the Germans lost sight of their true objective and lost their sense of perspective. The operation became an all-out effort to capture Verdun after all. The back-and-forth fighting that raged over the next few months therefore became just as costly to the Germans as it was to the French. Although the French suffered unspeakably heavy casualties, the Germans had also succeeded in bleeding themselves white.

On the Somme, the casualties of the British attackers were truly horrific. But the Germans, determined not to cede even an inch of ground, suffered almost as many casualties as the Allies in their ferocious counter attacks. In the end, although the Germans prevented the British from breaking through their lines, the battle can fairly be described as a stalemate rather than a German victory. Each side had basically torn the other to pieces and the fighting come to an end through mutual exhaustion.

Let us imagine that the Germans do better at both Verdun and the Somme than they did historically, which might easily have been the case. If they had never attempted a full-scale effort to capture Verdun and had they been more willing to cede useless kilometers of land along the Somme (territory they were to evacuate in 1917, anyway), they could have inflicted heavier losses on the Allies and sustained fewer losses themselves than they did historically. The front lines on the Western Front would have ended more or less in the same place when 1916 came to an end, but there would be a lot more dead French and British soldiers, and many fewer dead Germans. The offensive power of the Allies armies would have badly damaged.

Elsewhere on the fighting fronts, 1916 had gone rather well for the Central Powers. On the Eastern Front, they had turned back the Brusilov Offensive, albeit at heavy cost. The lines had held on the Italian Front and in the Balkans. The Turks had held their own against the British fairly well, though less so against the Russians on the Caucasus Front. In East Africa, German forces under the intrepid Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck continued their dogged resistance to the British. If the Germans had done better at Verdun and on the Somme, few intelligent observers would have denied that the Central Powers were winning the war at the end of 1916.

Historically, in early 1917, the Germans made the disastrous decision to resort to unrestricted submarine warfare against Great Britain. They that this would probably bring the United States into the war against them, but assumed that knocking the British out of the war would be worth the risk. In the end, the United States did declare war on Germany and Britain stubbornly refused to be knocked out of the war, dealing a double blow to the Central Powers and possibly ensuring their eventual defeat. In our alternate scenario, however, the Germans might not have felt the need to play the unrestricted submarine warfare card, as they would have felt they were on their way to winning the war anyway.

If the Germans never resorted to unrestricted submarine warfare, the United States would never have entered the war. This not only would have denied the vast manpower of America, but would have denied the British and French the financial credit that came from American loans. By 1917, the Allied nations were on the verge of bankruptcy and it was only American credit that saved them. Indeed, it can be fairly argued that the most important contribution the United States made to Allied victory was in the form of money rather than men. If the United States had not entered the war, the Allies would rapidly be running low on both.

Germany was not in any better shape in terms of manpower and money than the Allies were. But in 1917, three things happened that gave Germany a chance to win the war. First, in February of 1917, Russia collapsed into revolution and chaos. Although it would not officially withdraw from the war until the Bolshevik government signed the humiliating Treaty of Brest-Litovsk the following year, Russia's capacity to continue the war was clearly at an end. Second, after yet another failed offensive, the French Army was rocked by a series of mutinies in the spring, with entire divisions refusing to follow orders. Third, the German Army perfected the "Hutier tactics" of infiltration and rapid advance, which allowed them to inflict sharp defeats on the Italians and Russians over the course of the year.

In our alternate timeline, then, 1918 would dawn with the United States not in the war as a belligerent, Russia having collapsed, the French army even more weakened than it was historically, and with Germany ready to use its new tactics in a great offensive on the Western Front. We can imagine, then, that a decisive offensive in the spring of 1918 would have broken the British and French armies, led to the fall of Paris, and forced the French government to surrender. If the French throw in the towel, the British would probably seek a peace agreement as well, although from a much better than their allies.

What would a peace agreement under these circumstances look like?

Judging by the terms the Germans suggested when they sent a peace feeler out in early 1916, we have every reason to believe that Germany would have been as harsh with the French as the Allies were to the Germans in actual history. Tiny Luxembourg and Belgium would have been reduced to the status of a German protectorates, if not annexed altogether. Chunks of northeastern France, particularly the Longwy and Briey regions, with their rich deposits of iron ore. In expanding their own base of industrial resources, their goal would be to cripple the French as much as strength themselves. The Germans might have demanded control over some of the Channel ports, to present a greater threat to England.

In Eastern Europe, German expansionist dreams would be realized on an even wider scale. We now from the historical record that the Germans intended to annex the Baltic regions of Russia directly into Germany. They might have been content to resurrect a German-dominated Polish state as a buffer between them and the Russians, or they might have simply annexed the Polish regions of the Russian Empire outright. Russia, with whatever unstable government succeeded the fallen Romanovs, would have been in no position to bargain for better terms. Ukraine would have been set up as a German-dominated puppet. In the Caucasus Mountains, the Turks would have made gains at Russian expense as well, with the poor Armenians likely the ones to pay the heaviest price.

In the Balkans, the Bulgarians could be expected to gain the Macedonian territories from Greece, which the Germans had promised them as a carrot for entering the war in the first place. They might have also gotten bits of Serbia and Romania as dessert. Nothing fundamental would have changed in the Balkans, despite the thousands of lost lives. The ancient hatreds would fester on, ready to explode again some ways down the road. Sadly, it's hard to imagine any realistic alternate history scenario in which the Balkans are not a powder keg ready to explode.

Which brings us to Austria-Hungary, which had done more to cause the war than any other nation. It had imagined the whole thing as a short, preventative war to puts the Serbs in their place. Instead, it had rapidly gotten out of control and consumed the entire world. Unfortunately, even after losing hundreds of thousands of men, the polyglot empire of the Hapsburgs would not find its problems solved. Indeed, it might have found them made worse. If the powers-that-be in Vienna insisted on incorporating territory from Serbia, or Russia, or Italy into its realm, than the ethnic tensions that had already been pulling the empire apart before 1914 would only be strengthened.

The Germans learned during the war that having Austria-Hungary as an ally was more a liability than anything else. It would not be surprising if, after the war, it nudged the Habsburg realm toward a more federated structure, perhaps even pushing for it to be dissolved altogether. The Austrian portions, being ethnically German, might succumb to the German Empire, while the Kingdom of Hungary might be set up as a satellite state and the other, smaller entities that made up the empire before 1914 could be set up on their own. None of them, needless to say, would wield enough power to threaten overall German mastery of Central and Eastern Europe. With Russia reduced to irrelevance, Germany would be the only big kid left on the block.

What of the colonies? Because Britain remained unconquered and, thanks to the Royal Navy, unconquerable, we can expect that no British colonies to be turned over to the Germans. At best, the Germans might get the colonies taken by the British during the war returned to them. The fact that Lettow-Vorbeck was still in the field fighting against the British in East Africa would lend additional credit to the German negotiating position. The South Africans would surely balk at giving German Southwest Africa (today's Namibia), so perhaps the Germans would be willing to let it go in exchange for leeway on other colonial matters.

The French and Belgians, unlike the British, would have been in no position to bargain, being entirely at Germany's mercy. Belgian Congo would surely have been annexed in its entirety by Germany, raising the disturbing question of whether the Germans might have been an even harsher ruler of that unhappy country than the Belgians had been (read King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild for the grisly details of Belgian colonial rule). North Africa was outside the German sphere of interest and was too closely intertwined with France itself to be considered as a colonial reward. Still, combined with the cession of French Cameroon and French Equatorial Africa, an enormous German colonial empire would have been created across the central portion of Africa. Germany might have even made a play for Portuguese territory, if that nation had been foolish enough to enter the war on the Allied side.

And the Pacific? German New Guinea and many scattered German islands had been captured by the Australians and New Zealanders. Would the Germans demand their Pacific Islands back? Would they accept the loss of them in exchange for peace. One can imagine a back-and-forth exchange. Perhaps Germany would demand of the French the installation of German garrisons in the Channel ports of Dunkirk and Calais, presenting an implicit invasion threat to Britain, and give them up only in exchange for the return of its Pacific colonies. (This might also apply to some African territory, come to think of it).

The German colony of Tsingtao on the Chinese coast and the islands north of the Equator would present a more interesting problem, They had been conquered by the Japanese, who had not been defeated by the Germans and against whom the Germans had few options when it came to power projection. The Japanese would not be inclined to return their conquests just because the British and French had been defeated on the European Continent. What could the Germans have done about it? Perhaps they would see it as a better option to cut their losses in that part of the world in exchange for friendly relations with Japan. Or perhaps the issue would fester and set the stage for a future conflict between the two nations.

Britain, defeated but unconquered, would have stood warily across the English Channel, watching as Germany expanded its empire in Africa and its credibility with the "White Dominions" and its subjects in its colonies greatly shaken. Historically, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand began to drift from their allegiance from the mother country, having seen tens of thousands of their young men slaughtered to little gain thanks to British incompetence at places like Gallipoli and the Somme. In this alternate timeline, that incompetence would have been manifested more strongly, since they would have actually lost the war. What applied to the Dominions would also have applied to Ireland, where prewar political strife would also have to be added to the mix. Would the political glue that held the British Empire together dissolve more quickly?

Perhaps, but there's another consideration. Germany, triumphant on the European Continent, would remain a terrifying danger. Germany and Britain had engaged in a naval arms race before the war (indeed, it was a major factor in raising tensions between the two nations). With victory in war having validated its quest to become a superpower, Germany would surely have wanted to build up its naval power even more. This would pose a mortal threat to Britain, especially if Germany gained control any of the Channel ports in its peace agreement with France. The British would need their empire to stand by it in face of the German threat. Whether they would do so is an open question.

And France? In this alternate scenario, France would find itself in the same situation in which Germany found itself historically. It would be under the domination of another nation, much of its territory stripped away, its pride and national confidence deeply wounded. It would seethe with fury towards its own ruling class and burn with a desire for vengeance. The Third Republic would not last long, but what would take its place? It's not inconceivable that we might see a form of extreme nationalism similar to fascism take root in France in response to its defeat.

Russia would likely not be any happier in this timeline than it was in actual history (which is saying something). By the end of 1916, it was pretty clear that Russia was about to self-cannibalize itself in bloody revolution. But would it have followed the same path that it did historically, with the Bolsheviks being the last men standing and the nightmare of the Soviet Union forming out of the wreckage? Perhaps not. After all, it was the Germans who released Vladimir Lenin into Russia in 1917. Had they been on the verge of victory, they might have felt little need to do so. It might end with a military strongman winning a multi-sided civil war. Indeed, such a person might have declared himself the new Czar, but it seems extremely unlikely to me that the Romanov dynasty would have survived.

The Ottoman Empire would survive, though prewar problems of corruption and inefficiency in its administration would continue to be a problem. Enver Pasha and his cohorts in the Committee of Union and Progress would be the winners, rather than the losers, and would likely remain in control of the government. Would they efforts to craft a viable nation-state have been successful in this alternate scenario? It's difficult to say, since the leaders of the CUP seemed more interested in their own glorification than anything else. Whether the Turks would remain in control of the Arab territories is an open question, made more important by the rapidly increasing importance of oil to the global economy.

This, then, would have been the world in 1919. Germany dominant on the European continent, its borders greatly expanded and many less powerful nations reduced to satellite states. France, defeated but likely burning with a desire for revenge. Russia in chaos. A wary and disillusioned Britain perched warily on the edge of Europe, worried about an eventual German invasion, wondering as to the commitment of its imperial subjects. Japan expanding its power in the Pacific and no doubt casting greedy eyes towards China. As with the actual First World War, this counterfactual war ending with a German victory would likely set the stage for another, perhaps even more horrific, war in the not-too-distant future.

The United States would remain strong and free on its side of the Atlantic, reminding the victorious Germans of the Monroe Doctrine and warning them away from any imperial adventures in Latin America. Might it be willing to enter into an alliance with Britain and its Dominions as a check on further German expansion? How might it have responded to Japanese aggression in the Pacific in this scenario? Would the lack of American participation in the war have had any sharp effect on American culture, besides the obvious fact that Ernest Hemingway's best works would remain unwritten?

Interesting questions. And, as with all cases of alternate history, it is both fun and frustrating that they can never be answered.