Friday, May 14, 2010

A Visit to Craonne

People who know me are possibly aware of my interest in military history. A while back, I read Major-General Sir Edward Spears’ memoir Liaison, 1914 – the general’s account of his experiences as a British cavalry lieutenant (and intelligence officer), assigned to the staff of the French Fifth Army during the opening campaign of World War I.
Despite his (then) junior rank, Spears had tremendous influence: his credibility with both the British and French high commands doing much to insure these allies cooperated, after a fashion, in the early days of the war. Spears continued, in one position or another, as a liaison officer between British and French high commands throughout the First World War; ending it as cabinet liaison between the French and British war cabinets. During all this activity, he was wounded four times, mentioned in dispatches, and found time to marry an American heiress.
Spears, a great friend and supporter of Sir Winston Churchill, played a similar role in the Second World War, serving for a time as the go-between between the Churchill government and DeGaulle’s Free French.
In any case, Spears was a superb writer. Liaison, 1914, is his account of the opening campaign of World War I. I will have a fuller review later, perhaps, but for now, to give you a flavor for Spears, his times, and his writings, I will leave you with part of his visit to the town of Craonne, between the rivers Aisne and Ailette, northwest of Paris, in Champagne, during the “Great Retreat” of 1914:
I shall never forget arriving at dusk, at Craonne…It was quite impossible to get into the town except on foot, and that was not easy. An endless column of motionless cavalry completely blocked the road. The great towering cuirassiers, clumsy and massive in helmets and breastplates, sat impassive on their horses. Not a man dismounted. In the still evening air, the booming of the guns seemed very near. A gust of wind animated the horsetail plumes that hung down each man’s back, then the long steel-clad column was still again. . .
Headquarters was installed in the small Ch├Ąteau where Napoleon stayed, so it was said, a hundred years ago when attempting to stem the tide of another invasion.  
I went on the terrace where dinner was being served. It was an ideal situation and a perfect night. The view extended over the Aisne and across the plain to where the lights of Reims could be seen gleaming 20 miles away. . . 
There was a faint clatter outside, a metallic jingle, the beat of iron-shod hoofs on the steep street of the little town; the cuirassiers were moving off at last. . .
On every road leading south the endless columns marched on and on without halt and without rest.
Over Paris a German aeroplane dropped a message announcing the arrival of the enemy in three days’ time. . .
Years later, when the war was over, I found myself in the same neighbourhood, but there was no trace of Craonne to be seen. Not a wall, not a stone where the pretty little town had stood. I came on a post to which a board was affixed which bore the word “Craonne”. That board, and those green mounds and hummocks, were all that was left of the place through which the great retreat had once swept
Maj.Gen., Sir Edward Spears, Liaison 1914 (Da Capo 2000, 316-18).

The New World That's Coming. . .

While we get ready to enjoy our weekends, it is all too easy to forget the concerns of the wider world. Most Americans, on some level, probably wish the rest of the world would just go away -- and with good reason. Life here is pretty sweet. Unfortunately, for us and our children, we may not be interested in the world, but the world is very interested in us -- like it or not, the US is stuck up to its eyes in absolutely everything. Here is a sampling of today’s headlines at the webpage/aggregator “Real Clear World.” Today's headlines are not atypical.
Many of us have been privileged to spend our lives growing up, living, working and raising our families in the greatest, richest, most powerful country ever to exist in the history of the world. Even America’s poor of today are rich beyond the wildest imaginings of nine-tenths of the humans who have ever lived. Americans have always worked hard, but to a great, often underestimated degree, we owe our national prosperity to a unique set of favorable conditions, chiefly the undisputed military and economic control by a more or less unified population of a whole continent’s worth of resources and space; as well as the outcome of both the world wars, in which the Europeans succeeded in exhausting themselves and handing the US financial and military control of the west. For the past 100 odd years, the world has been our oyster.
Now, those underlying conditions are shifting. America’s power is in relative decline, while that of others rises. Shifts in the relative power positions of nations and groups of people, historically speaking, are seldom peaceful.
There’s a lots for us to think on, and big new world coming, that we need to try to get our children ready for. It can still be good, for America, but we need to get our house in order, and so far, we're not even in the game. Well, we are --because you can't get out of the game, which goes on forever -- but we're not really playing). The people who govern us -- from both parties, are living in a fool's paradise, squandering our children's splendid birthright for a mess of pottage. Enjoy your weekends, but remember that the future’s out there being written. It doesn’t care whether we like it or not.
The End of the West as we Know It.
Natural for Russia to Flex Her Muscles.
UK Must Reject Anti-American Lib Dems
Iran Risks Multi Front War.
Venezuela is Crumbling.
America is Not Greece.
Hezbollah Remains Armed & Dangerous.
BRIC Nations Won’t Conquer the World.
Syria Asks Russia to Pressure Israel.

While we’re at it, here are some headlines from today’s Real Clear Markets:

Second Debt Storm: Who Bails Out Nations?
American Solvency Hinges on Low Interest Rates.
Look Out, Asia is Emerging Stronger.
Take One Guess What Greece Has to Jettison for a Bailout?

Monday, May 10, 2010

The President's Interesting Supreme Court Choice

To virtually no one's surprise, the President has nominated the present Solicitor General of the United States, Elena Kagan, to the Supreme Court seat of outgoing Justice John Paul Stevens.
Given the composition of the Senate, the odds overwhelmingly favor Ms. Kagan's confirmation, despite her total lack of judicial experience. Ms. Kagan has plenty of impressive credentials -- she is the former Dean of the Harvard Law School, where she was also a professor of law. She has also been a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, and former Associate White House Counsel under President Clinton. But the lack of real judicial experience, much less the lack of non-academic, non private sector experience, are weaknesses in her resume that will no doubt draw some criticism.
I think, however, that Ms. Kagan's real vulnerability will turn out not to be her resume, but her tenure as Dean of Harvard Law School. In her capacity as Dean, Ms. Kagan barred US military recruiters from the Harvard Law campus, apparently because of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy as to homosexuals.

Ms. Kagan's views on this subject are right in line with elite opinion in most of academia, the media and the bar, but probably not with the American public, which supports the military; and is likely to weigh barring military recruiters from Harvard higher than misgivings about unfairness to homosexuals. At any rate, Ms. Kagan's reluctance to accept recruiters on her campus will reinforce flyover country's doubts about this administration, its choices and the worldview of our present political elite. For that reason, Obama's political wisdom in making this appointment, in an election year in which his party, is (to put it mildly) in a corner, is questionable.
However, without more, Ms. Kagan is likely to be confirmed -- the Democrats simply have too large a majority in the Senate for the appointment to be blocked. Moreover, the appointment is not necessarily vital to balance on the Court, Ms. Kagan replaces Justice Stevens: the nomination trades liberal for liberal. Unless the case for Kagan completely disintegrates, there is not necessarily a reason for Republicans to pull out all the stops, this time. Too many Democrats would have to be alienated from the choice. Still, Ms. Kagan's current position is a bad omen -- the last Solicitor General to be nominated to the US Supreme Court was Robert Bork.