Brian Micklethwait's Blog
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Category archive: War
I love What If? History, and here is another What If?, from Jonathan Dimbleby’s book, published just this year, about The Battle of the Atlantic. I have only just started this, but so far it looks most promising. In particular, it promises to place this campaign in the wider context of the war as a whole, as this excerpt from the preface (pp. xxiii-xxvii) well illustrates:
Those responsible for the direction of the war on the Allied side were swift to appreciate the critical importance of the Battle of the Atlantic but rather slower to give their navies the tools to finish the job. In the early years of the war Winston Churchill juggled with many competing priorities as he sought to safeguard Britain from invasion and to defend a global empire. As a result, the nation’s resources were stretched to the limit and sometimes beyond it; to the profound frustration of the prime minister, who found it exceptionally difficult to reconcile his boundless ambition with the fact that the men, the armour, and especially the ships were not available in sufficient force to achieve everything at once. Nonetheless it remains one of the great conundrums of his leadership that, although he was to reflect that ‘the only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril’, he failed to follow through the logic of this foreboding until it was almost too late and certainly well beyond the point at which that ‘peril’ could have been eliminated. For every month from the start of hostilities until the early summer of 1943, Britain was losing merchant ships at a faster rate than they could be replaced, largely because they were inadequately protected against the Third Reich’s rapidly expanding U-boat fleet. From the British perspective, the story of the Battle of the Atlantic is in significant measure about a prolonged struggle between the Admiralty and the Air Ministry which became so fierce that a senior admiral was driven to comment that it was ‘a much more savage one than our war with the Huns’.’ Their hostilities were suspended only when, after three and a half years of war, Allied losses in the Atlantic reached such an alarming level that for a while it looked as though the U-boats were on the verge of severing Britain’s lifeline, a prospective catastrophe which forced a resolution in favour of the Admiralty.
This damaging clash between two branches of the wartime government owed much to Churchill. In the summer of 1940, as the Battle of Britain raged overhead, the new prime minister was naturally obsessed not only with the need to stiffen national morale but also to orchestrate action against Germany which would reverse Britain’s fortunes and, in time, lead to victory. As he cast around for a means to this end, he swiftly concluded that ‘an absolutely devastating, exterminating attack by very heavy bombers from this country upon the Nazi homeland’ was the ‘only one sure path’ to the defeat of Hitler. The ethical controversies provoked by this misapprehension have persisted to this day. By contrast, the consequences for the course of the Second World War have received less scrutiny. Yet Churchill’s failure to insist that an adequate number of aircraft be released from the bombing of Germany to do battle against the U-boats in the Atlantic until it was almost too late was a strategic error of judgement that made a fateful contribution to Britain’s failure to nullify the U-boat threat until many months later than would otherwise have been possible. The price of this delay may be measured in the thousands of lives and hundreds of ships which were lost unnecessarily in consequence. It may also be measured in terms of its strategic implications.
There is a tempting, indeed mind-boggling, scenario for those students who are lured by the ‘what if’ or ‘if only’ school of historiography: if the U-boat threat had been aborted several months earlier than it was, could the mass transportation of American troops and armaments from the United States to Britain have started in time to countenance a cross-Channel invasion of France in the autumn of 1943? Might the Allied armies have advanced deeper into Germany before the Red Army’s own push towards the German capital in the summer of 1944? If so, would the Allies have been in a position at Yalta to ensure that the Cold War map of Europe was drawn more nearly to reflect their own strength on the ground, greatly to the strategic advantage, therefore, of not only the post-war West but also those millions of Europeans who later found themselves entrapped behind the ‘Iron Curtain’?
It is a tempting vision that is explored later in these pages. What is surely beyond doubt, though, is that the prospect of an earlier victory in the Atlantic - by, say, the early autumn of 1942 rather than the early summer of 1943 - would have had a powerful impact on the fractious debate between London and Washington over Allied strategy in the prolonged build-up to D-Day (which this book also describes in some detail). In a cable to Roosevelt, which he despatched in July 1941, Churchill made it clear that he foresaw the liberation of Europe by a seaborne invasion ‘when the opportunity is ripe’. The single greatest obstacle in the way of this undertaking was the threat posed by the U-boats to the Atlantic convoys. Had this threat been eliminated earlier than it was, the strategic disputes between the Western Allies would have been even fiercer than they became by 1943; in particular the British would have found it far more difficult to persuade the Americans that victory in the Mediterranean (via North Africa and then Sicily) should precede the cross-Channel invasion of France. As it happened, of course, all such speculation, however intriguing, is rendered profitless because the prime minister was unwilling to prioritize the destruction of German U-boats over the destruction of German cities.
Churchill was a titanic leader whose strategic vision has often been unjustly disparaged but, in relation to the war at sea, his impetuous nature led him to embrace a false dichotomy. Contrasting the indubitably ‘offensive’ character of strategic bombing with the ostensibly ‘defensive’ task of forcing a lifeline passage for the convoys through U-boat infested oceans, he invariably favoured the ‘offensive’ initiatives hatched in the Air Ministry over the ‘defensive’ role assigned to the Admiralty. However, the prime minister was not alone in making this misleading distinction. Not only was it shared by his colleagues in the War Cabinet but also by the British chiefs of staff, including the First Sea Lord, Admiral Pound, who had most to lose. Although Pound became increasingly dismayed by Churchill’s refusal to withdraw from Bomber Command the aircraft needed to nullify the U-boat onslaught, he fatally weakened his case by failing to question the prime minister’s underlying premise. This collective mindset was evidently unable to recognize that the Atlantic convoys were no less ‘offensive’ in character than the wagon trains which opened up the American Midwest in the nineteenth century or (to borrow a twenty-first-century parallel) the military escorts which forced a way through the Taliban-infested deserts in Afghanistan to succour front-line towns and settlements. As it was, the Battle of the Atlantic soon materialized into a conflict that essentially was an asymmetric conflict between the convoys and the U-boats, a struggle in which, for month after month, the pendulum of triumph and disaster swung wildly from one side to the other.
I just sent out the email plugging a talk to be given at my home this coming Friday (the 29th) by Patrick Crozier, on “The Political Consequences of World War One” (as already flagged up here in this posting).
The email included this:
Many libertarians of my acquaintance talk about World War One as the great libertarian historical What-If? As in: Surely, surely, the world would have remained far more libertarian-inclined if only ... World War One not been blundered into by its deluded protagonists. Everything bad about the modern world, for many libertarians, has its origins in that fateful and fatal moment of mass mobilisation, for massed war, in August 1914. War is the Health of the State! And with war, modern statism just grew and grew.
But has this growth in statism happened because of war, and because of that war in particular? Or did war merely accompany the growth? Was this causation, or merely correlation?
Patrick Crozier writes regularly for Samizdata, specialising in World War One, and in events of WW1 that happened exactly one hundred years before the time of his postings. Just recently, Patrick has been, as it were, extricating himself from the trenches and from purely military issues, to look also at wider political developments, on the home front and beyond. So he seemed to me to be the ideal person to be asked, as I did ask him earlier in the month, this question:
Was the rise of statism in Britain and the West seriously accelerated by WW1, or would such stuff have happened anyway, with or without war?
Were there big moves being made towards statism before the outbreak of war, and not even in anticipation of war? Did neutrals also do lots of statist stuff at the same time as the war’s protagonists?
Sounds good to me. But then, these talks always do, because if at talk doesn’t sound good to me, I keep on looking until I find another that does.
If you didn’t get the email but would like to attend, or would like to get this and future emails, leave a comment or send me an email. To do the latter click where it says “Contact”, top left.
Anyone trying to fly a UAV over the outdoor sets where the next installment of the Star Wars saga is being filmed in Croatia might be met by drones owned by the production company.
I knew there were such things, but it’s good to actually read about them.
The fun really starts when drones on spy missions like this are also armed, so they can fight off the drones that attack them.
Drone v drone fighting is going to be a spectacular sport, just as soon as it starts getting organised.
When me and the Transport Blog gang visited the Farnborough Air Show, way back when we did, it was good, but it felt rather antiquated. Drone v drone contests – real contests – would liven that up no end.
I am greatly enjoying the progress of Soon-To-Be President Trump. File under: guilty pleasures. My libertarian friends mostly express horror at Trump’s irresistible rise, and his terrible opinions, and his terrible hair, but surely you never really know what you’ll get with a new President. During the Thatcher years some of the people who most agreed with me did very little that I liked, while others, impeccably governmental sorts, who were just doing what seemed sensible to them, did quite a lot of good things. See: privatisation. Maybe Trump will turn out like that. Maybe he will even decide to have dignified hair.
Trump seems to me like he’s going to be the USA’s first Television President, by which I mean someone who got to be President via television. Didn’t they have one of them in Brazil not so long ago? Some guy who had got well known by being some kind of TV talent show host, or some such thing, and then, to the horror of the Horrified Classes parlayed that into being President. It was probably a disaster, but Brazil usually is. And now, Brazil has one of the strongest libertarian movements in the world, does it not? Maybe that’s how libertarianism wins. First you have a crazy TV guy, and then libertarianism. I can hope.
Anyway, Trump. This piece about Trump by Scott Adams is a good laugh, as are comments on it like this:
I liked the one in Arkansas when the manager of the facility announced that Trump broke the all time attendance record set by ZZ Top in 1978. lol
He is certainly a canny operator, as Adams explains very cannily, cataloguing Trump’s many previous successes, such as a best selling book on how to negotiate.
Part of the skill of getting the Republican nomination is to behave like a guy the Mainstream Media are confident they can easily destroy, in due course. Which means that instead of destroying you straight away, they destroy all the other fellows, who they thought were stronger than you, which by definition they can’t have been, can they? You have to be like Russia, and look either much weaker than you are, so the media don’t bother with you, and then much stronger than you are, so the media then grovel, as they do when they face a force of nature, in other words a force bigger than them.
I could of course be quite wrong, but I reckon Trump is going to walk it, when he gets around to dealing with whichever car crash of a candidate the Dems stick in front of him. And it will either be Clinton or that old socialist guy, the ones already in the race. Nobody else will want to join, because the prize for winning the Dem nomination will be getting Trumped all over, and who needs that? Those two old crocks both joined the race while Trump was still in his ridiculous phase.
The following picture explains (a) why all my cameras must have a zoom lens permanently available, as powerful as is within the bounds of sanity, and (b) why this zoom lens must be instantly usable. In other words why I will not tolerate faffing about with hand-attached lenses. Which means that all my cameras have had to be “bridge” cameras rather than DSLRs. I need wide-angle one moment, and then the next moment, by which I often mean the next second, I may need zoom and tons of it.
Here is the picture, which Antoine Clarke took, Twittered, and then phoned me about because he reckoned I would like it:
And I do like it. A lot. A lorry, with a panoramic photo-view of London on the side? What, as people now like to say, ‘s not to like?
But Antoine’s attached Twitter verbiage reads as follows:
What’s a Japanese torpedo bomber doing there?!?
What Japanese torpedo bomber? The world wants Antoine to zoom in on the Japanese torpedo bomber, to prove that there is indeed a Japanese torpedo bomber present.
I hoped that the photo above would download itself from Twitter, and it did. Good. But, it was only 640 pixels wide. (This Blog is 500 pixels wide.) Not so good.
When I expanded what I took to be the Japanese torpedo bomber, I got this:
If you already know that you are looking for a Japanese torpedo bomber, then you will, just about, maybe, see a Japanese torpedo bomber. But a zoomed in close-up would really have helped.
I know how hard it can be photoing vehicles that are, as it were, zooming past. Often one shot is the best you can hope for, and equally often not even that. Yesterday a Wicked Campervan zoomed, as it were, past me, with “DRINK TILL SHE’S PRETTY” written on its arse, and I completely missed photing it. (But no worries. I think it was the van in a photo you can find by scrolling down in this grumpy article.)
But something about the exact composition of Antoine’s shot tells me that Antoine’s lorry was stationary, or nearly so. So, Antoine, is there a bigger version of this shot available, more like 4000x3000 than 640x480? (4000x3000 being what my Panasonic Lumix FZ200 cranks out.) That would supply some Japanese torpedo bomber detail. Or is there even a close-up of the Japanese torpedo bomber?
Failing that, does Antoine know what enterprise this lorry was working for? Maybe they have a website, with photos?
Okay, now I’m being grumpy. It took me a long time to get into the habit of photoing all the incidental detail around a good photo, for future internetting purposes. But, with apologies for immediately demanding more when given something nice, … Antoine?
The German conductor Herbert von Karajan probably did more to popularise classical music after WW2 that any other single person. His LPs and then his CDs and DVDs sold in their millions. I have many Karajan CDs myself. So, the question of whether he was any sort of Nazi and if so what sort remains a hot topic.
Playwright Ronald Harwood, author of a play about Wilhelm Furtwängler, was recently interviewed on BBC4 TV. During this, Harwood mentioned, in contemptuous passing, that Karajan was obviously a Nazi. Furtwängler was interesting because it wasn’t clear, hence that play. Karajan? Not interesting, because clearly he was. He hired a Jewish secretary after the war. What more do you need to know?
Well, I for one needed to know a bit more than only that, so I did some googling and came across this by Peter Alward, former vice-president of EMI Classics:
I first met Karajan in 1976, and we remained friends up to his death. He was one of EMI’s flagship artists in the late 70s and early 80s; most of his operatic work was for us, his symphonic work for Deutsche Grammophon. Yes, he cultivated the cult of the maestro - he was a shrewd businessman and recognised his market worth. He was not slow in coming forward and speaking his mind, but no conductor is a shrinking violet. I feel he was misunderstood. There was the glamorous image - the jet-set lifestyle - but this was all a defence. He was really very shy, a simple man with simple tastes. I vehemently oppose the theory that he was a Nazi. He was an opportunist. I’m Jewish, and if I believed otherwise, I wouldn’t have spent a minute in his company.
Opportunist sounds about right to me. Karajan, like all conductors, needed power, over an orchestra. Needing this sort of power, he had to avoid antagonising whoever the politicians were, the ones with the more regular sort of power. But he did not care about politics for its own sake, merely as a means to the end of his music making.
Trouble is, you can surely say the same for a great many other servants of the Third Reich. I bet plenty of rocket, airplane, tank, bomb and ship designers were equally opportunistic, and equally free of any positive desire to be Nazis. But whoever happened to be Germany’s politicians, these people would have served them. All they cared about was rockets, airplanes, tanks, bombs and ships. Classical music was not as important to the Nazi regime as armaments were, but it was quite important. Karajan did help.
The most interesting titbit I learned from this little burst of Karajan-googling was that apparently his second wife, Anita, whom he married in 1942, was burdened with a Jewish grandfather. But hKarajan wasn’t merely “burdened” thus. He burdened himself. Wikipedia:
On 22 October 1942, at the height of the Second World War, Karajan married Anna Maria “Anita” Sauest, born Gütermann. She was the daughter of a well-known manufacturer of yarn for sewing machines. Having had a Jewish grandfather, she was considered a Vierteljüdin (one-quarter Jewish woman).
Just marrying a quarter-Jewess, before that was dodgy, is one thing. Being a celeb and marrying a famous heiress with a famously rich and half-Jewish dad, and doing all that in 1942, is something else again. That’s more than just hiring an entirely Jewish secretary after the war.
When I read about such people and about such times, I don’t feel inclined to condemn. I merely wonder how I might have behaved, or misbehaved, had I been confronted by such pressures and such temptations.
One of the key themes of Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature is that moral advance has on the whole not been lead by religion. Religious people have often defended ancient moral positions, as when defending slavery, for instance. Only when persuaded by secular moralists of the wrongness of slavery did religious people then become fierce and very vigorous opponents of slavery. But the secularists lead the way when it came to winning the argument in the first place. All of which is unsurprising, if you look at what it says in the Bible about such things. Which Pinker does. One of the most remarkable passages in The Better Angels is Pinker’s description of what the Old Testament actually says (pp. 7-14). If you get tired of all the mayhem and slaughter, at least skip to the end and read Pinker’s final paragraph. As he says, he is not accusing Christians of believing this stuff. Christians pay the entire Bible “lip service as a symbol of morality”, but they no longer believe in the morality that is actually contained in the first half of it:
Like the works of Homer, the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) was set in the late 2nd millennium BCE but written more than five hundred years later. But unlike the works of Homer, the Bible is revered today by billions of people who call it the source of their moral values. The world’s bestselling publication, the Good Book has been translated into three thousand languages and has been placed in the nightstands of hotels all over the world. Orthodox Jews kiss it with their prayer shawls; witnesses in American courts bind their oaths by placing a hand on it. Even the president touches it when taking the oath of office. Yet for all this reverence, the Bible is one long celebration of violence.
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. And the Lord God took one of Adam’s ribs, and made he a woman. And Adam called his wife’s name Eve; because she was the mother of all living. And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain. And she again bare his brother Abel. And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him. With a world population of exactly four, that works out to a homicide rate of 25 percent, which is about a thousand times higher than the equivalent rates in Western countries today.
No sooner do men and women begin to multiply than God decides they are sinful and that the suitable punishment is genocide. (In Bill Cosby’s comedy sketch, a neighbor begs Noah for a hint as to why he is building an ark. Noah replies, ‘How long can you tread water?’) When the flood recedes, God instructs Noah in its moral lesson, namely the code of vendetta: ‘Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.’
The next major figure in the Bible is Abraham, the spiritual ancestor of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Abraham has a nephew, Lot, who settles in Sodom. Because the residents engage in anal sex and comparable sins, God immolates every man, woman, and child in a divine napalm attack. Lot’s wife, for the crime of turning around to look at the inferno is put to death as well.
Abraham undergoes a test of his moral values when God orders hm to take his son Isaac to a mountaintop, tie him up, cut his throat, and burn his body as a gift to the Lord. Isaac is spared only because at the last moment an angel stays his father’s hand. For millennia readers have puzzled over why God insisted on this horrifying trial. One interpretation is that God intervened not because Abraham had passed the test but because he had failed it, but that is anachronistic: obedience to divine authority, not reverence for human life, was the cardinal virtue.
Isaac’s son Jacob has a daughter, Dinah. Dinah is kidnapped and raped - apparently a customary form of courtship at the time, since the rapist’s family then offers to purchase her from her own family as a wfe for the rapist. Dinah’s brothers explain that an important moral principle stands in the way of this transaction: the rapist is uncircumcised. So they make a counteroffer: if all the men in the rapist’s hometown cut off their foreskins, Dinah will be theirs. While the men are incapacitated with bleeding penises, the brothers invade the city, plunder and destroy it, massacre the men, and carry off the women and children. When Jacob worries that neighboring tribes may attack them in revenge, his sons explain that it was worth the risk: ‘Should our sister be treated like a whore?’ Soon afterward they reiterate their commitment to family values by selling their brother Joseph into slavery.
Jacob’s descendants, the Israelites, find their way to Egypt and become too numerous for the Pharaoh’s liking, so he enslaves them and orders that all the boys be killed at birth. Moses escapes the mass infanticide and grows up to challenge the Pharaoh to let his people go. God, who is omnipotent, could have softened Pharaoh’s heart, but he hardens it instead, which gives him a reason to afflict every Egyptian with painful boils and other miseries before killing every one of their firstborn sons. (The word Passover alludes to the executioner angel’s passing over the households with Israelite firstborns.) God follows this massacre with another one when he drowns the Egyptian army as they pursue the Israelites across the Red Sea.
The Israelites assemble at Mount Sinai and hear the Ten Commandments, the great moral code that outlaws engraved images and the coveting of livestock but gives a pass to slavery, rape, torture, mutilation, and genocide of neighboring tribes. The Israelites become impatient while waiting for Moses to return with an expanded set of laws, which will prescribe the death penalty for blasphemy, homosexuality, adultery, talking back to parents, and working on the Sabbath. To pass the time, they worship a statue of a calf, for which the punishment turns out to be, you guessed it, death. Following orders from God, Moses and his brother Aaron kill three thousand of their companions.
God then spends seven chapters of Leviticus instructing the Israelites on how to slaughter the steady stream of animals he demands of them. Aaron and his two sons prepare the tabernacle for the first service, but the sons slip up and use the wrong incense. So God burns them to death. As the Israelites proceed toward the promised land, they meet up with the Midianites. Following orders from God, they slay the males, burn their city, plunder the livestock, and take the women and children captive. When they return to Moses, he is enraged because they spared the women, some of whom had led the Israelites to worship rival gods. So he tells his soldiers to complete the genocide and to reward themselves with nubile sex slaves they may rape at their pleasure: ‘Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for your-
In Deuteronomy 20 and 21, God gives the Israelites a blanket policy for dealing with cities that don’t accept them as overlords: smite the males with the edge of the sword and abduct the cattle, women, and children. Of course, a man with a beautiful new captive faces a problem: since he has just murdered her parents and brothers, she may not be in the mood for love. God anticipates this nuisance and offers the following solution: the captor should shave her head, pare her nails, and imprison her in his house for a month while she cries her eyes out. Then he may go in and rape her.
With a designated list of other enemies (Hittites,Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites), the genocide has to be total: ‘Thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: But thou shalt utterly destroy them ... as the Lord thy God has commanded thee.’
Joshua puts this directive into practice when he invades Canaan and sacks the city of Jericho. After the walls came tumbling down, his soldiers ‘utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.’ More earth is scorched as Joshua ‘smote all the country of the hills, and of the south, and of the vale, and of the springs, and all their kings: he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded.’
The next stage in Israelite history is the era of the judges, or tribal chiefs. The most famous of them, Samson, establishes his reputation by killing thirty men during his wedding feast because he needs their clothing to pay off a bet. Then, to avenge the killing of his wife and her father, he slaughters a thousand Philistines and sets fire to their crops after escaping capture, he kills another thousand with the jawbone of an ass. When he is finally captured and his eyes are burned out, God gives him the strength for a 9/11-like suicide attack in which he implodes a large building, crushing the three thousand men and women who are worshipping inside it.
Israel’s first king, Saul, establishes a small empire, which gives him the opportunity to settle an old score. Centuries earlier, during the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, the Amalekites had harassed them, and God commanded the Israelites to ‘wipe out the name of Amalek.’ So when the judge Samuel anoints Saul as king, he reminds Saul of the divine decree: ‘Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.’ Saul carries out the order, but Samuel is furious to learn that he has spared their king, Agag. So Samuel ‘hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord.’
Saul is eventually overthrown by his son-in-law David, who absorbs the southern tribes of Judah, conquers Jerusalem, and makes it the capital of a kingdom that will last four centuries. David would come to be celebrated in story, song, and sculpture, and his six-pointed star would symbolize his people for three thousand years. Christians too would revere him as the forerunner of Jesus.
But in Hebrew scripture David is not just the ‘sweet singer of Israel,’ the chiseled poet who plays a harp and composes the Psalms. After he makes his name by killing Goliath, David recruits a gang of guerrillas, extorts wealth from his fellow citizens at swordpoint, and fights as a mercenary for the Philistines. These achievements make Saul jealous: the women in his court are singing, ‘Saul has killed by the thousands, but David by the tens of thousands.’ So Saul plots to have him assassinated.” David narrowly escapes before staging a successful coup.
When David becomes king, he keeps up his hard-earned reputation for killing by the tens of thousands. After his general Joab ‘wasted the country of the children of Ammon,’ David ‘brought out the people that were in it, and cut them with saws, and with harrows of iron, and with axes.’ Finally he manages to do something that God considers immoral: he orders a census. To punish David for this lapse, God kills seventy thousand of his citizens.
Within the royal family, sex and violence go hand in hand. While taking a walk on the palace roof one day, David peeping-toms a naked woman, Bathsheba, and likes what he sees, so he sends her husband to be killed in battle and adds her to his seraglio. Later one of David’s children rapes another one and is killed in revenge by a third. The avenger, Absalom, rounds up an army and tries to usurp David’s throne by having sex with ten of his concubines. (As usual, we are not told how the concubines felt about all this.) While fleeing David’s army, Absalom’s hair gets caught in a tree, and David’s general thrusts three spears into his heart. This does not put the family squabbles to an end. Bathsheba tricks a senile David into anointing their son Solomon as his successor. When the legitimate heir, David’s older son Adonijah, protests, Solomon has him killed.
King Solomon is credited with fewer homicides than his predecessors and is remembered instead for building the Temple in Jerusalem and for writing the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs (though with a harem of seven hundred princesses and three hundred concubines, he clearly didn’t spend all his time writing). Most of all he is remembered for his eponymous virtue, ‘the wisdom of Solomon.’ Two prostitutes sharing a room give birth a few days apart. One of the babies dies, and each woman claims that the surviving boy is hers. The wise king adjudicates the dispute by pulling out a sword and threatening to butcher the baby and hand each woman a piece of the bloody corpse. One woman withdraws her claim, and Solomon awards the baby to her. ‘When all Israel heard of the verdict that the king had rendered, they stood in awe of the king, because they saw that he had divine wisdom in carrying out justice.’ The distancing effect of a good story can make us forget the brutality of the world in which it was set. Just imagine a judge in family court today adjudicating a maternity dispute by pulling out a chain saw and threatening to butcher the baby before the disputants’ eyes. Solomon was confident that the more humane woman (we are never told that she was the mother) would reveal herself, and that the other woman was so spiteful that she would allow a baby to be slaughtered in front of her - and he was right! And he must have been prepared, in the event he was wrong, to carry out the butchery or else forfeit all credibility. The women, for their part, must have believed that their wise king was capable of carrying out this grisly murder.
The Bible depicts a world that, seen through modern eyes, is staggering in its savagery. People enslave, rape, and murder members of their immediate families. Warlords slaughter civilians indiscriminately, including the children. Women are bought, sold, and plundered like sex toys. And Yahweh tortures and massacres people by the hundreds of thousands for trivial disobedience or for no reason at all. These atrocities are neither isolated nor obscure. They implicate all the major characters of the Old Testament, the ones that Sunday-school children draw with crayons. And they fall into a continuous plotline that stretches for millennia, from Adam and Eve through Noah, the patriarchs, Moses, Joshua, the judges, Saul, David, Solomon, and beyond. According to the biblical scholar Raymund Schwager, the Hebrew Bible ‘contains over six hundred passages that explicitly talk about nations, kings, or individuals attacking, destroying, and killing others. ... Aside from the approximately one thousand verses in which Yahweh himself appears as the direct executioner of violent punishments, and the many texts in which the Lord delivers the criminal to the punisher’s sword, in over one hundred other passages Yahweh expressly gives the command to kill people.’ Matthew White, a self-described atrocitologist who keeps a database with the estimated death tolls of history’s major wars, massacres, and genocides, counts about 1.2 million deaths from mass killing that are specifically enumerated in the Bible. (He excludes the half million casualties in the war between Judah and Israel described in 2 Chronicles 13 because he considers the body count historically implausible.) The victims of the Noachian flood would add another 20 million or so to the total.
The good news, of course, is that most of it never happened. Not only is there no evidence that Yahweh inundated the planet and incinerated its cities, but the patriarchs, exodus, conquest, and Jewish empire are almost certainly fictions. Historians have found no mention in Egyptian writings of the departure of a million slaves (which could hardly have escaped the Egyptians’ notice); nor have archaeologists found evidence in the ruins of Jericho or neighboring cities of a sacking around 1200 BCE. And if there was a Davidic empire stretching from the Euphrates to the Red Sea around the turn of the 1st millennium BCE, no one else at the time seemed to have noticed it.
Modern biblical scholars have established that the Bible is a wiki. It was compiled over half a millennium from writers with different styles, dialects, character names, and conceptions of God, and it was subjected to haphazard editing that left it with many contradictions, duplications, and non sequiturs.
The oldest parts of the Hebrew Bible probably originated in the 10th century BCE. They included origin myths for the local tribes and ruins, and legal codes adapted from neigh boring civilizations in the Near East. The texts probably served as a code of frontier justice for the Iron Age tribes that herded livestock and farmed hillsides in the southeastern periphery of Canaan. The tribes began to encroach on the valleys and cities, engaged in some marauding every now and again, and may even have destroyed a city or two. Eventually their myths were adopted by the entire population of Canaan, unifying them with a shared genealogy, a glorious history, a set of taboos to keep them from defecting to foreigners, and an invisible enforcer to keep them from each other’s throats. A first draft was rounded out with a continuous historical narrative around the late 7th to mid-6th century BCE, when the Babylonians conquered the Kingdom of Judah and forced its inhabitants into exile. The final edit was completed after their return to Judah in the 5th century BCE.
Though the historical accounts in the Old Testament are fictitious (or at best artistic reconstructions, like Shakespeare’s historical dramas), they offer a window into the lives and values of Near Eastern civilizations in the mid-1st millennium BCE. Whether or not the Israelites actually engaged in genocide, they certainly thought it was a good idea.
The possibility that a woman had a legitimate interest in not being raped or acquired as sexual property did not seem to register in anyone’s mind. The writers of the Bible saw nothing wrong with slavery or with cruel punishments like blinding, stoning, and hacking someone to pieces. Human life held no value in comparison with unthinking obedience to custom and authority.
If you think that by reviewing the literal content of the Hebrew Bible I am trying to impugn the billions of people who revere it today, then you are missing the point. The overwhelming majority of observant Jews and Christians are, needless to say, thoroughly decent people who do not sanction genocide, rape, slavery, or stoning people for frivolous infractions. Their reverence for the Bible is purely talismanic. In recent millennia and centuries the Bible has been spin-doctored, allegorized, superseded by less violent texts (the Talmud among Jews and the New Testament among Christians), or discreetly ignored. And that is the point. Sensibilities toward violence have changed so much that religious people today compartmentalize their attitude to the Bible. They pay it lip service as a symbol of morality, while getting their actual morality from more modern principles.
How much you learn from something that you just read depends not only on what it says, but on what you knew before you read it. And for me, this short paragraph cleared up several big blurs in my knowledge of Olden Times:
The new technique of fighting which had won the battle of Hastings for the Normans was also adopted in England; instead of standing or riding and hurling the lance overarm, these new warriors, the knights, charged on horseback with the lance tucked beneath the arm, so that the weight of both horse and rider was behind the blow and the weapon was reusable. Though it required discipline and training, giving rise to the birth of tournaments and the cult of chivalry, a charge by massed ranks of knights with their lances couched in this way was irresistible. Anna Comnena, the Byzantine princess who witnessed its devastating effect during the First Crusade, claimed that it could ‘make a hole in the wall of Babylon’.
That’s from the second page (page 8) of the first chapter of Agincourt, by Juliet Barket.
That bit in school history where they explained what a knight was and what knights did and how the knights did it … well, I missed it. And ever since, everyone talking about such things has assumed that I knew it very clearly, when I didn’t. It’s so obvious. How would someone like me not know it?
Oh, I sort of knew it, from having seen a hundred films where film actors did this, in film battles and in film tournaments. But I had not realised that it was a military innovation like the phalanx or gunpowder or the tank or the airplane or the atom bomb. I had not properly realised that the essence of Knighthood was collective action rather than mere individual virtue, the point being that it was the former which required the latter. And I had not realised that it was what won the Battle of Hastings. Or, even more interestingly, I had not realised that it was what won the First Crusade. (After which, I’m guessing that the Muslims then copied it.
Medieval society did not give rise to Knights. The Knights technique of fighting gave rise to Medieval society.
I remember reading Tom Holland’s Millennium, and being presented right at the end with the result of the First Crusade, without there having been any mention (that I recall) of how a European military innovation was what won it. (That doesn’t mean Holland does not mention this, merely that I don’t remember him mentioning it.)
So, at the heart of the European years between Hastings (1066) and Agincourt (1415 (when I now suppose the Knights to have met their nemesis in the form of the next big military innovation, the Archers (hence the picture on the front of Agincourt))) was a technique of fighting. Like I say, I sort of knew this, but have never before isolated this fact in my head, as a Big Fact. Instead, I have spent my whole life being rather confused about this Big Fact, reading a thousand things where the Big Fact was assumed, but never actually explained.
Why did I not correct this confusion decades ago? Because, not knowing it properly, I had not realised what a huge confusion it was.
You can tell that drones have arrived because now they are being turned into a sport
Marc Morris on how the Bayeux Tapestry ought not to exist
The receiving station at Swains Lane (and the previous version of it)
Paul Kennedy on centimetric radar
The Bayeux Tapestry small enough to fit in this blog
Photo-drones fighting in the Ukraine and a photo-drone above the new Apple headquarters building
The Bayeux Tapestry – the ultimate horizontalised graphic
Sixty Charlie Hebdo demo signs that say something other than “Je Suis Charlie”
Quota photo from Paris (also a selfie)
The Poppies (2): The crowds
The Poppies (1): What they look like
The illustrations for Christian Michel’s talk this Friday (plus some thoughts from me)
Michael Jennings at the Rose and Crown
Is it practise or practice? (And: would perfect communication actually be perfect?)
PID at the Times
Russian tanks in London
The Not-V2 at London Bridge Station
VC DSO DSO DSO DSO
South Bank signs
How hydrogen bombs work
Jane Austen’s naval brothers
The Times of May 24th 1940
Antoine Clarke on life and libertarianism in Britain in 1913
Bookshops as Amazon showrooms
Me and the Six Nations under the weather
Classical CDs from Gramex
Bomber Command Memorial pictures
How gun control works and how it will defend Libertaria
Remembrance Sunday photos
76 operas and a monument in the wrong place for Hermann the German
That’s what I call a Health and Safety Notice
Absolutely not a private navy (except that it probably is)
Climate science as make-work for former Cold Warriors
Bouncing bombs and spinning cricket balls
Brianmicklethwait Dot Com headline of the day
Links to this and that
Anti-aircraft guns may not have killed many enemy airplanes but they did point them out
Peaceful time in war zone
303 Squadron in the movie and on the telly
Three Gorges Dam picture
Separating the men from the toys - the future of warfare and of sport?
The cats from out of town that cleared out the rats during the siege of Leningrad
Luxembourg church in hill and Luxembourg footbridge
Frank McLynn: “Counterfactual history is the essence of history …”
Death to all who try to tiptoe past our guards while wearing giant baby costumes!
Thoughts concerning FDR’s warmongering nature
Wingtipping a V1
They aren’t complete idiots all the time
“Who are you going to sell it to if we don’t buy it?”
Resizing Slim with Expression Engine
Switching from dumb bombing to smart bombing
If the Jews have been running the world they haven’t been doing it very successfully
Terence Kealey on the Wright brothers and their patent battles
Ed Smith on how baseball defeated cricket in America
A soundbite to describe Britain a hundred years ago
Probably not right - but definitely written
Short posting with short photograph
Did Hitler have a plan to conquer the USA?
A conversation - and another outage
American war memorial by the sea at St Nazaire
Cold War winner
Islam was peaceful and tolerant until the Christians attacked it
Will twentieth century aerial warfare be repeated by toys?
What are the world’s biggest problems?
Another link to a friend and that’s your lot today
And further talk at Christian Michel’s about water and power
World War One talk at Christian Michel’s
Geoffrey Blainey on Ivan Bloch - the man who predicted World War One
“Liberty might be defended, after all” - Tom Holland’s account of the Battle of Marathon