Monday, January 6, 2014

Fighting the Easy "War in Snow and Ice" Here in Chicago: Even the Italian Alpine Troops of World War One Would Likely Say That This is a Damn Cold Day

It is mighty, mighty, cold here in Chicago. I gave into curiosity and went for my traditional "snow walk" last night and today. I love the snow. I like a good blizzard. We ghetto nerds take any chance necessary to pretend we are on Hoth with Luke and Han.

I will spare you the obligatory "And I thought they smelled bad on the outside" joke. 

Even by my winter loving standards, 40 below zero turned me around as I sought shelter. May the fates have mercy on animals, the homeless, and any other folks who do not have ready access to warmth.

I am about to eat a homemade bowl of Vietnamese Pho soup, watch Netflix, drink some beer, and get ready for work on Wednesday. As I watched the temperature plummet to dangerously low levels here in Chicago, I was reminded that everything hurts in extreme cold, basic movements are made difficult, and simple tasks made complex.

For my ghetto nerds and grognards, can you imagine fighting a war in such an environment?

In most other countries, 2014 will bring public discussions and memorials for the one hundred year anniversary of World War One. America is a world onto itself. Thus, we do not concern ourselves with World War One because World War Two is the only war in human history that really "mattered".

The cult of the Greatest Generation was born out of American triumphalism at the end of the Cold War. Its blinders remain. American Exceptionalism will ensure their long-term hold on the country's sense of geopolitics.

Nevertheless, the 100 year anniversary of World War One has generated some great discussions both online and in print.

Michael Moran, writing at the globalpost, puts World War One in the context of a centuries-long ethnic conflict.

Niall Ferguson made a similar observation in his book and documentary The War of the World.

World War One brought the end of several empires and the subsequent redrawing of maps. We saw the mess that such events wrought in both World War Two and the present Middle East.

Many Americans are obsessed by the Civil War. World War One is a similar fixation for the British.

There is a spirited conversation in the British press between Nigel Farage, Chris Newton, Michael Gove about the leadership ability and skill of British generals during World War One. This is very rich debate as it signals how World War One's echos, and present day efforts to make sense of the slaughter and seeming (early) incompetence of the Allied forces, are located along current ideological divides in British politics.

Based on my growing knowledge of World War One, there seems to be a good amount of revisionist scholarship which is challenging the conventional wisdom about the "human expensive" military tactics of the era on the Eastern and Western fronts.

One school of thought suggests that the British and the French were not as inept in their war fighting as popular memory would suggest. Their tactics and strategies were simply not prepared for industrial warfare and mass mobilization. The generals soon learned to innovate. Unfortunately, millions of deaths later, technology had still created too great a gap between what the military leadership wanted to accomplish and what was feasible.

Other scholars argue that there was a culture of death that possessed the collective psyches of the British and French military leadership class. "Paying the butcher's bill" was tied to a sense of honor and national pride. This created a callousness toward human loss that left millions dead at Ypres, the Somme, the Marne, and Gallipoli.

The award winning graphic novelist Joe Sacco captures the banality of those grand theory and meta-level discussions, written a century or so later, for the soldier on the ground in his new work The Great War. Graphic novels and comic books are much more than pictures with words. His depiction of the Battle of the Somme contains some of the most moving images about World War One that I have ever seen. Troubling. Sad.

Trying to stay warm in Chicago reminded me of the "war in snow and ice" which was fought in the Alps during World War One by elite Italian and Austrian troops. The Italian mountain forces, who are among the best in the world, still serve today. At 40 below zero, "the Alpini" would probably consider the cold here in Chicago, and the Midwest, more generally, akin to a warm summer day. But then again, they would probably have the good sense to hunker down and stay warm. You cannot fight Mother Nature and win. Or can you?

How are you all enjoying (or not) the cold and ice?


Bryan Ortez said...

we just got the cold weather here in Eastern West Virginia (really more like Northern Virginia).

Last night I was thinking about the bitter cold of the midwest, I know our cold is not anything like the cold in Michigan, Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Montana, but I still don't like it, I'm from Texas where winter is all of a month long.

In thinking about this cold, my thoughts returned to a scene from a book called, "Chronicles of American Indian Protest," a great books with firsthand accounts of conflicts between First Nations and Europeans. The Sioux have names for each moon cycle, I believe the February cycle is "The Moon When the Snow Blows in the Tipi."

In the 1870's, the United States was trying to secure the mineral resources of the Black Hills from the Sioux in South Dakota, land they were blessed to have following their war with the United States in the 1860's. Land they have never been willing to give up to this day (look up the Black Hills, they have been granted money for the land, but they want the land, not the money).

So their Agent informs them the US government requires that they return to their reservation by January 31, 1876 so the issue of American trespassers can be resolved. The Agent knows the Indians will not comply because they need to hunt buffalo for their tipis, for food, and other items. If they don't, their winter will be incredibly difficult, as their lives had already become very difficult having been pushed around by a massive industrial society, the United States.

January 31 comes and goes, the US launches a war to round up the 'hostiles' on February 8. The Americans would attack their encampments, where women, children and the elderly lived, and burn their lodgings. The Sioux would have to pack their things and move. Many people froze to death in the march to reach Crazy Horse. While the young men were told strictly to leave American settlements alone, many young men raided American homes for food and other supplies, thus continuing the resentment from American's and further damning their people.

This is the war that killed General Custer. This is the war that killed Crazy Horse.

It must have been difficult to mobilize such a war while trying to keep your women and children and elderly with you, safe and warm in the cold winter. I couldn't imagine. I couldn't imagine.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

If you're interested in new works on the origins of the war, Christopher Clark's _Sleepwalkers_ is fantastic.

Bryan Ortez said...

Thank you and I understand your grievance. When distinguishing between groups and discussing history and contemporary politics, I try to be specific and respectful to the different groups I am talking about.

I don't know that any First Nations people could wear the label of American. I do know that any white person from the United States will refer to themselves as American, so I cannot help but refer to them (and myself) in that way.

As for people whose origins are truly only of the American continent, there are many different labels I have heard for them. The Sioux have many and I believe the preferred name for their group when speaking and thinking of themselves is Lakota.

The name America is European in origin. No American Indian or Native American would have referred to themselves as simply Americans. Most would prefer their tribal name, Navajo, Lakota, Cherokee (Most of these in English are much different than the actual terms for themselves respectively). Russell Means, of Oglala Lakota origin (named Wanbli Ohitika by his mother) preferred American Indian when referring to Native Americans as a group.

As I lack many diverse contacts in my social life, I will invariably make reference to people in a manner that is perhaps not suited to many personal preferences. Again I try to be specific and open minded when discussing history and contemporary politics, so if I am ever corrected in how I discuss marginalized people I will take those grievances into consideration.

chauncey devega said...

Is that about failed diplomacy and the ruling families' blindness to what was happening all around them in the lead up to WW1? I also want to read the book about WW1's beginnings in Africa. Looks good. How did this become "fun" reading for the bus and the bar? What lightning hit us?

chauncey devega said...

I vote 1. Or could have been the sight of all those dead and dying city buses like sad beached whales that were wallowing on the side of the road w. batteries dead and hazard lights on.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

WWI is the event that got me into history in the first place! I burned through Clark's book, even though it's well over 500 pages. I like that he talks about the war starting without assigning blame. I think with the 100th anniversary a lot of interesting stuff is coming out. What's the book on Africa called? Sounds interesting.

wawoo said...

And certainly not original with me as others with far more expertise have commented in the same vein but one cannot help but look at China and its provocations with all of its neighbors and our relationship with those neighbors esp. Japan, South Korea , Taiwan as well as deepening political ties to Vietnam and India without musing whether that part of the world will stumble into major conflict for no really good reason.Very much as WWI started.

chauncey devega said...

It is scary. Before WW1 so many experts thought that there couldn't be a war because the countries were so interdependent--and the royal families and elite class literally were related to one another. When those arguments are broached about China I shake my head too. America is a power in decline. China is a near superpower that needs resources and is looking to project power in order to protect its resources. We are the U.K. at the beginning of the 20th c. China is the U.S. in that same moment. Chills.

I am also worried about what will happen when/if China's overinflated economy bursts and all of the ethnic and other conflicts become too many to suppress. Won't be pretty.

Bryan Ortez said...

I have been pretty nervous about Syria. I thought if we made a move last summer, then there could have been global consequences. Part of me feels like the world is already fighting a global one, just not quite outright.

The Sanity Inspector said...

In most other countries, 2014 will bring public discussions and
memorials for the one hundred year anniversary of World War One. America
is a world onto itself. Thus, we do not concern ourselves with World
War One because World War Two is the only war in human history that
really "mattered".

Don't be so sure. I've heard that there are more memorials to World War I in New York City, and maybe in the whole U. S., than to any other war. It's true that we left it behind quickly once it was over, but back then it made a deep impression. A big round anniversary, skilfully observed, may revive the national memory.

Sidebar: In my small Southern hometown, there is an granite obelisk, raised in the 1930s, to honor local men killed in "The Great War". There is a long list of names on the front, and a slightly shorter list on the back--quite a lot of dead for a little mill town with barely a five digit population at the time. On the back of the obelisk, near the top, there is a recess where there once was a word, which was chiseled out sometime in the 70s. But I remember seeing it, when I would walk past as a child. The word was "Colored". The obelisk has been joined in recent decades by bronze plaques on plinths commemorating all the local fallen in all America's wars, without segregation.

chauncey devega said...

Point is. Many many years in the past. Unfortunately, the anniversary will be met w. crickets.

physioproffe said...

Dude, check out this Pho that PhysioWife made me last weekend!

chauncey devega said...

Will track down. Other suggestions?