Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Moral World of Twelve O'Clock High

This article originally appeared in World War II magazine, vol. 28, no. 6 (March/April 2014):75-76. Reprinted with permission. 

Twelve O’Clock High
, a justly celebrated film about the air war over Europe, shows barely any high-altitude violence. Even so, director Henry King and his actors expertly illuminate the complex burdens of commanding personnel engaged in the brutal grind of flying into combat repeatedly as the odds of survival shorten. The portrait they render of men under pressure achieves a timeless, unblinking clarity.

This is why, more than 60 years after its 1949 premiere, military educators still employ Twelve O’Clock High to talk about leadership. These conversations usually address such practicalities as command style, but the film offers insights on many other levels. During two years as a visiting professor at the U.S. Army War College, I showed my students—mostly colonels fresh from Afghanistan and Iraq— a key scene from the film in order to make them to think and talk about how the ethical reasoning in its imaginary world informs real-world officership.
Twelve O’Clock High begins with the fictional 918th Bomb Group returning from a disastrous raid against German submarine pens in St. Nazaire, only to have Bomber Command order a low-altitude run at the pens the very next day. Group commander Colonel Keith Davenport (Gary Merrill) protests to Brigadier General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck). “Those boys are flesh and blood. They’ll die for you but they gotta know they have a chance and they know they haven’t got one,” Davenport says. “They know a man’s chances run out in 15 missions. Somebody’s gotta give them a limit. A goal, some hope of living.” Savage reluctantly conveys Davenport’s misgivings to their superior, Major General Pritchard (Millard Mitchell), who with Savage confronts Davenport, an otherwise unimpeachable officer.
Here is where the film’s moral world comes into focus. The three officers, in the company of other men of the 918th, discuss the deadly mission, whose heavy losses they trace to a navigational error. Davenport tries to shield the man who made that mistake, but the mission’s navigator, Lieutenant Zimmerman (Lee MacGregor), steps forward. He forthrightly explains how his errors brought the 918th late to the target and into German anti-aircraft gunners’ sights. As soon as Zimmerman is out of earshot, Pritchard pressures Davenport to relieve him. Davenport refuses. Pritchard relieves Davenport, ultimately replacing him with Savage. Within hours, Zimmerman, off-camera, commits suicide.

Monday, November 05, 2012

My Twinkie

Back in June the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College chose my book The Hard Hand of War as "the book of the conference," meaning that all participants were asked to read it and a round table was convened specifically to discuss it.  That was a real honor and one I much appreciated.

Recently CSPAN-3 aired the roundtable.  Panelists included Susannah Ural, Keith Bohannon, Megan Kate Nelson, Brooks Simpson, and myself.  The whole thing is a bit over an hour in length, but for my money the most delightful moment in it occurred when Megan  remarked that the book was almost twenty years old, was still a standard work on the subject, and that it was "unusual for a book to have that kind of shelf life. . . . It's like a Twinkie.  It's still fresh."  I've never considered Twinkies to be exactly fresh, but they are certainly timeless.  I'm confident that they will survive a nuclear conflict, global warming, or pretty much any other calamity.  So it was really a very nice compliment.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Society for Military History Has a Blog

The Society for Military History, the flagship organization for academic military history, has recently re-vamped its web site and added a group blog.  Contributors include Bob Bateman, Brett Holman, Jamel Ostwald, Brian Sandberg, and myself.  I also serve as the blog's administrator.

The blog will produce about ten posts per month:  on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays one week, then Tuesdays and Thursdays the next, then back to Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.  The emphasis is on items that showcase or comment upon academic military history.

Someone recently asked me if my participation on this blog meant the end of my efforts on Blog Them Out of the Stone Age.  Not at all.  The chief impediment to regular posts on BTOOTSA continues to be the sharply limited time available these days (thanks in part to a one-year old daughter) and my discouragement over continued security issues on the primary blog.  Someday I'd like to get these resolved.  But it hasn't been easy, and my intention all along has been to author the blog, not get heavily involved on the technical side.

In the meantime, though, I'll try to post on BTOOTSA more regularly.  And of course I'll be posting on the SMH blog twice a month.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Spirit of Independence

A guest post by COL (Ret.) Charles D. Allen.

I had expected a traditional 4th of July holiday with the trappings of local and national celebrations, fireworks, and displays of patriotism coupled with family events.  For many of us, the mid-week holiday extended the observance to the following weekend.
I took the opportunity to visit Mom and siblings in Cleveland and, as is my habit, I picked up an audiobook CD for the 600-mile roundtrip.  The selection this time was David Hackett Fischer’s award-winning Washington’s Crossing.  The book captured my attention so much that I drove straight through to my mother’s house.  The next two days were spent checking in with my mom and her cousin (among the last of that generation), watching my brother grill and spend time with his grandkids, and sharing late-night reminisces with my sisters. After a hearty Sunday breakfast (prepared by my brother), I hit the road having counted the weekend an American success.

I inserted the next CD and continued to listen to Fischer’s remarkable work.  The next chapter of the book recounted the attitudes and reactions of American colonials in New Jersey in the face of the occupation by British and Hessian troops. I then remembered seeing signs for Shanksville/Somerset PA on my outbound trip and felt compelled to visit the Flight 93 Memorial on the way home.  A quick check of the GPS gave directions and time to the site, so I departed from my normal route on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

The park entrance is 3-1/2 miles from the Memorial Plaza and the road winds slowly to the impact site. From the parking lot, the quarter-mile walk begins with display boards that detail the events of the morning of September 11, 2001.  Most haunting are the faces on the placard, “The Crew and Passengers of Flight 93.” At the end of the walk are 40 marble panels inscribed with each name and the existence of an unborn child.

As I looked around the unfinished memorial and its landscape, it was clear that the unremarkable countryside belied the remarkable feat accomplished by the passengers who boarded the plane in Newark, New Jersey. Among the names on the display and marble panels were those of Jeremy Glick, Tom Burnett and Todd Beamer who assumed leadership roles on the plane when the threat to the nation became clear. Tom on the phone told his wife, Deena, “We can’t wait…we’re going to do something.” Voice recordings captured the memorable words of Todd, who was about to lead the group: “Are you ready? Okay. Let’s roll!”
It is striking how this band of civilians embodied the same spirit of the New Jersey colonists in 1776. That spirit is captured in the third verse of “America the Beautiful”:

O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife.
Who more than self their country loved and mercy more than life! 

This is important to remember each Independence Day—that our citizens are true heroes whom those in uniform have the honor to serve.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Military History Carnival #30

. . . is up and running at Cliopatria.

Israel and Iraq: The Wrong Question


by Garrett Jones

Garrett Jones is a retired operations officer with the Central Intelligence Agency. He spent extensive time in the Middle East and Africa and is a graduate of the U.S. Army War College.

On the 19th of February 2012, the New York Times had an interesting article pointing out the logistical and tactical problems the Israeli Air Force would encounter if it were to try to interdict the development of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. [1] The conclusion reached by the author was that the problems involved precluded Israel from making an attempt at derailing the Iranian nuclear program through conventional military means. While I largely concur with the logic in the article, I do not believe the Israelis ever have seriously considered a conventional military strike as an effective way of stopping Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. The more
pertinent question is: Will nuclear weapons be used by Israel against Iran?

Since the beginning of Israel’s own nuclear weapons program, the Israeli doctrine on nuclear weapons has been to reserve the employment of nuclear weapons for attacks or potential dangers that threaten the existence of the Israeli state. This is best demonstrated by Israel’s reaction to Pakistan’s announcement that it had acquired nuclear weapons in 1998. While there was no celebration of the development of an “Islamic Bomb” in Israeli circles, nor was there any public talk of retaliation or military strikes. While Pakistan was not an ally or supporter of Israel, it also did not develop nuclear weapons with much regard to Israel at all.

The development of nuclear weapons was focused on the threat from India, not Israel. While key players in the Pakistani nuclear program may have taken steps to promote the spread of the “Islamic bomb” to other Middle East players, it has been the unwavering stand of the Government of Pakistan, and, more importantly, the Pakistani Army that nuclear weapons were for self-defense — “from India” being the unsaid but clearly understood source of any threat requiring the use of Pakistani nuclear weapons. This was the weapon system to prevent the neighboring Indian Army from simply overwhelming Pakistan with its superior size.

While both distance and the support of the U.S. for both Israel and Pakistan by the U.S. also mitigated the threat of Pakistani possession of nuclear in regard to Israel, it is clear that the Pakistani’s nuclear program simply did not rise to the level of an existential threat to the Israeli state. I do believe, however, that as an unintended consequence, the Pakistani nuclear program is the current greatest existential threat to Pakistan.

The possibility of Pakistani nuclear weapons falling into terrorist hands is of major interest to the United States, but such a development is a survival threat to India. While the Pakistani Army may publicly express concern about the U.S. staging a special operation mission to deprive them of their nuclear weapons should the command and control of Pakistani weapons be threatened, it is far more likely the Indian Army will be there long before the U.S. feels compelled to move. In view of the history of conflict between India and Pakistan, the addition of nuclear weapons to the mix means that the next conflict which is more than a border skirmish, is almost by definition an extinction event for Pakistan. It would hardly be rational for the Indians to leave a defeated enemy on its very border in possession of nuclear weapons in the wake of a serious bilateral military engagement. Pakistan cannot hope to be a victor in any prolonged military engagement against India. Pakistani’s nuclear weapons were meant to create a military stalemate with India. Stalemates are great as long as they work. Loose nukes in Pakistan are an Indian survival threat long before any U.S. targets are held at risk in such an ventuality. I fully expect to see India move to destroy the Pakistani nuclear program should any serious question of uncertainty over the control of Pakistani weapons arise.

Much the same view should be taken in regard to the Iranian quest for nuclear weapons. The question is not whether Iran should be permitted by the West to develop nuclear weapons. The true question is whether Israel determines the Iranian possession of nuclear weapons poses an existential threat to the Israeli state. If it does, Israel will employ its nuclear arsenal to end the threat. If it does not, there will be no overt military action. The logistical and tactical problems outlined in the New York Times article dictate the use of nuclear weapons. What would have required hundreds of aircraft to neutralize with conventional weapons can be done by a handful of aircraft employing nuclear weapons. A nuclear mission against Iran is well within the capability of the Israeli Air Force.

Unfortunately, such a mission seems to be outside the limits of imagination of the West’s current national leaders. There has been little discussion of such an occurrence in public circles and I believe that reflects a lack of thoughtful consideration of the possibility. I believe most observers expect a violent and prolonged reaction against Israeli interests, and by extension the interests of Israel’s allies such as the U.S., should Israel carry out a conventional military strike against Iran. I believe it would be fair to say that such a reaction to a conventional strike will pale in comparison to the uproar caused by a nuclear strike. I also believe such a development would completely reset the relationship and positions of all the players in the Middle East peace process in an unpredictable manner. The current stalemate and fossilization of positions would be swept aside, for better or worse.

The Israeli government will receive condemnation and hostility from the other players in the Middle East no matter what sort of military action it takes against Iran. By the same token, Israel’s supporters in the U.S. are likely to back any action Israel takes, if it is cast in the form of the preservation of the Jewish state. “Never again,” reflecting the unique history of the founding of the state of Israel in the wake of the Jewish holocaust after World War II, is probably the most powerful phrase in Israeli politics. It is a slogan which will unite all parts of the political spectrum in Israel and the supporters of the Jewish state internationally.

No private citizen is truly in a position to judge the rationality and the intentions of a government such as is now in control of Iran. The opacity of lines of responsibility and decision making processes in Iran make such a judgment properly within the purview of national intelligence organizations of the various sovereign governments. With that said, the public statements of the Iranian leadership lead me to believe that they will not be diverted from their goal of achieving nuclear weapons. The same public statements also do not engender much confidence in the rationality or judgment of Iran’s leadership.

The history of the Israeli state and its location in a sea of enemies has in an almost unique way trained the leaders of Israel to think the unthinkable. If Israel determines the Iranian nuclear program is in fact a threat to its very existence, then it will strike, and strike in such a manner as to be successful. This will require nuclear weapons. If Israel determines it can live with Iran as a nuclear state, then expect there to be no overt military action but a continuing series of low-level sabotage and covert intelligence actions.

I believe the West and the current U.S. administration are again engaged in a failure of imagination. I do not think the current crop of Western leaders fully understand that Israel may well believe itself to be facing an extinction threat. This may simply be because since the end of the Cold War those currently exercising power in the West have not been faced with such a dilemma. In a very real way, they may not have sufficient practice in both “thinking the unthinkable” and preparing for the consequences of the “unthinkable.”



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Monday, February 06, 2012

New York University Seeks Elihu Rose Scholar


Assistant Professor/Faculty Fellow
Department of History
Arts and Science

The Department of History at New York University invites applications for the Elihu Rose Scholar in Modern Military History. The successful candidate will be appointed as an Assistant Professor/Faculty Fellow effective September 1, 2012, subject to budgetary and administrative approval. The appointment will be for one year, with the possibility of renewal for up to three years. Applicants who hold assistant professor positions at other universities are eligible to apply and may indicate their preference for a one-semester or one-year appointment while on leave from home institutions. The committee welcomes applications from military historians working on any geographical area. The Rose Scholar will teach one course per semester in military history, including one course on a major conflict of the nineteenth or twentieth centuries. The Rose Scholar will be provided with funds in support of research and to organize public events on military history. Applicants must hold a PhD in History at the time of appointment and must have received the doctorate no earlier than 2007. To apply, please visit, to submit a cv, a letter of application, three references, and a writing sample (article, book chapter, or dissertation chapter). Review of applications will begin on February 28, 2012. NYU is an Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Employer.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Naval War College Seeks Professor

The Naval War College is advertising for an associate professor in the maritime history department. As the ad makes clear, the individual hired to this position will eventually become the next Ernest J. King Professor of Maritime History.

What the ad does not say: the King Professor runs the department; Maritime History is a small department of three or four people; it is a writing and research department; there are no teaching obligations to this position; and the pay is pretty darn good.

Complete details are here.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

I Chose a Gun

General Petrus J.M. "Peter" van Uhm is the current Chief of the Netherlands Defence Staff. In November 2011 he spoke to an audience of scientists, artists and businessmen, etc., complimenting them on their commitment to building a better world and noting the instruments they had chosen to do it: microscope, pen, brush, camera, money, etc. He then states that he too is committed to building a better world, and then--as a soldier walks out on stage with a semi-automatic rifle and the audience titters in anticipation--explains why "I chose a gun."

One of my History of War students pointed out this clip to me in light of our frequent classroom discussions about the code of the warrior.

(Hat tip to Mike Kitching)

Friday, January 27, 2012

Reconstruction as an Insurgency

Mike Few, the editor of Small Wars Journal, recently interviewed me about Reconstruction as an insurgency. Here's his first question and my response:

Mike Few: Traditionally, social scientists, viewing conflict through the lens of the state, prefer to quantify wars as resulting in a win, loss, or tie; however, history shows that the construction, reconstruction, or deconstruction of the state following a conflict is often a long process with mixed results. Why did the Civil War not end after Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston surrendered to Union Gen. William T. Sherman at Bennett Place, Durham, NC and General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, at the home of Wilmer and Virginia McLean in the rural town of Appomattox Court House, Virginia?

Mark Grimsley: It’s important to acknowledge that in an important sense, the war did end in 1865, because the federal government’s two goals—the restoration of the Union and the destruction of slavery—had both been achieved. White southerners gave up the idea of an independent Confederacy, and they showed every sign of accepting the lenient terms for return to the Union offered by the administration of Andrew Johnson. The Republican-controlled Congress, however, believed that more stringent terms were necessary to achieve the fruits of victory. In the words of Richard Henry Dana, a prominent Republican, they insisted on holding the former Confederate states in “the grasp of war” until the political dominance of the Southern elite was eliminated. A key component of their plan to accomplish this involved the imposition of universal male suffrage for African Americans. Essentially, the Reconstruction insurgency was a successful effort to break the grasp of war and restore what Southern conservatives termed “Home Rule.”

A more clunky response, since you mention social scientists, would be to point to the Correlates of War Study, which defines a war as any event that results in a thousand or more battlefield deaths each year. If you substitute “deaths from political violence” for “battlefield deaths,” then several years during Reconstruction would come close to meeting this standard. In Louisiana alone, for example, an estimated 2,500 people perished between 1865 and 1876.

Full interview