Fist Of History

September, 2013Archive for

Russia and Syria – the Specialist of Buddies

Friday, September 13th, 2013


With Syria recently dominating the news, both due to its ongoing domestic conflict/civil war and the diplomatic/military tensions over the use of chemical weapons in the region, it seemed a prudent moment to briefly explore how Syria and Russia became such close diplomatic buddies over the last fifty years.  It is one of the more amusing offshoots of the Cold War between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, these two states worked very hard from the 1950s until the late 1980s to cultivate allies/client states in the Middle East and Syria was part of a broader effort by the USSR to offset growing US influence in the region.  Interesting the center point of this Cold War diplomatic maneuvering was Egypt under President Nasser and his efforts to create a new pan-Arabic federation in the Middle East and the temporary union he was able to negotiate turning Egypt and Syria into one nation, at least on paper.


Nasser, concerned about the rising power of the Syrian Communist party in 1957 worked with the Syrian government to create a unifying alliance between the two nations, the United Arab Republic, which legally linked Egypt and Syria into one unified nation.  At the time Nasser was also courting economic and military aid from the USSR – Khrushchev in the USSR wanted to push as far as a formal military alliance between Egypt and the USSR but Nasser was not ready to go that far diplomatically in his connection with the USSR.  So the merger of the two nations in 1957 was an effort to keep Communist influence in the Middle East lessened and replace it with a new unifying political center.  Although the effort appealed to other Arab states in the region, including Iraq, the new United Arab Republic collapsed in 1961 when a military coup in Syria changed the government and ended the experiment.  This coup, with a strong leftist lean, pursued a tighter relationship with the USSR, specifically for economic aid but, more critically for military aid.  This desire for a closer military connection to the USSR, and pushing for greater Soviet aid, rested upon the Syrian goal of finding a superpower partner that would arm them to counteract US military aid to Israel.  The USSR, happy for the alliance the expansion of its strategic position in the USSR – with friendly nations in Egypt, Iraq, and now Syria, through the 1960s and 1970s poured billions in military aid into Syria.

The 1967 war between Syria (among others) and Israel, ending in Syria’s defeat, further tightened links between Syria and the USSR.  The 1973 war between Syria (and others) against Israel was another setback for Syria and another push for further military aid to Syria.  The close ties came to an end with Syria’s intervention in the 1975 Lebanese civil war and the rise of the Gorbachev era, when the USSR focused on cultivating tighter relationships with the western powers and reducing Cold War tensions.  That, followed by the collapse of the USSR in 1991, has left Syria without a superpower buddy, but the new state of Russia has worked to maintain its past influence with Syria by keeping a looser, but still present, diplomatic tie between itself and Syria.

The interesting question – which is not easily found – is how much Syria’s chemical weapons production might stem from former aid from the USSR?  The question I find particularly interesting is, if an investigation into the attacks turns up chemical weapons with a distinctive chemical signature, and they were released by non-government forces, might they have been acquired from the Russian black market?

Sources:  Jewish Policy Center article on Syrian-Soviet relations, Wikipedia page on Foreign Relations of the USSR (Middle East), Wikipedia on the United Arab Republic

September 11…1814 – the Battle of Plattsburgh

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013


Today on 11 September the United States takes a moment to honor and remember the events that occurred in 2001, unfortunately one of the pains of being a historian was captured by a comment by one of my instructors in graduate school, Professor King:  “Anything newer than fifty years isn’t history, it’s politics.”  People may argue the timeline but as I’ve gotten older I’m realized I agree with him to a high degree, the more recent the event the less information is present and the smaller the role of the historian.  However 11 September is a date that should resonate through U.S. history for multiple reasons and today I get to talk about one of my favorites, the Battle of Plattsburgh which took place on Lake Champlain during the War of 1812, helped greatly shape U.S. history, and was an incredible military victory for the U.S. against the invading forces of Great Britain.   This battle was the linchpin in an effort by the U.S. to defeat a British invasion from Canada aimed at marching southward through New York state and slicing the United States apart to weaken its war effort and gain a stronger position during the negotiations to end the war taking place in Ghent.  Great Britain’s major goal was to wrestle control of the Great Lakes from the U.S., establishing itself as a dominant economic force in North America by controlling access to the valuable growing trade in the the Midwest and newly acquired Louisiana territory.  The U.S. goal was to stop this attack, blunt the British advance, and push the British position back to where it was at the start of the war, i.e. not controlling the Great Lakes and certainly having no troops on territory in New York.


Historically speaking the land battle for the village of Plattsburgh itself is boring, a column of British regulars marched slowly into New York state along the western shore of Lake Champlain, being delayed by a smaller force of U.S. regulars augmented by poorly trained New York militia forces.  The fascinating part is the naval battle that took place for control of Lake Champlain itself, a vital part of the British plan to ensure their ground invasion force could remain supplied.  The U.S. fleet on the lake had only recently gotten larger than the British fleet and was outgunned in long range cannon, but matched the British in short range cannon.  The U.S. commander, Lieutenant Thomas Macdonough, tucked his ships into Plattsburgh Bay to force the British fleet to engage him at close range, he’d anchored his ships in place to present a fortified line.  The British, in turn, planned to engage the U.S. fleet by sailing into it and focusing on the ends of the U.S. naval line, to hopefully pound the line to breaking and force the U.S. fleet to scatter.  The winds were not with the British and several of their larger vessels ended up not able to implement the plan, leading instead to a slogging battle between the U.S. fleet and the British fleet.  In particular the two main ships, the HMS Confiance and the USS Saratoga, flagships of the fleet, had battered each other into near submission, the HMS Confiance only giving ragged fire and the USS Saratoga having all its guns facing the Confiance knocked out of action.


What made the battle a U.S. victory though was the plan by Macdonough prior to the battle to carefully rig the Saratoga with a complex anchoring scheme, anchors bow and stern to hold it in place, and sideways anchors called kedge anchors.  At the moment when both flagships were in their worse state Macdonough had his bow anchor lines cut and his men haul on the kedge anchors, allowing the Saratoga to pull a 180 degree spin and suddenly face the British with its undamaged side, all guns intact and ready to rock and roll.  The ensuing bonus round of heavy fire from the Saratoga smashed the British flagship, that setback combined with the general losses both sides had taken resulted in the British fleet surrendering.   With the loss of Lake Champlain the British land forces pulled out and the campaign to invade New York came to an end.

Although not historical I personally like to think of the British commander that day in purely modern gaming terms – cussing and yelling as he watched his American counterpart use some B.S. cheat mode to suddenly get his ship back up and running with full guns.  Macdonough was a national hero for his victory and, along with an elevation in rank, got a shiny gold medal of thanks from the U.S. Congress.


The British commander who was in overall command of the invasion of New York was relieved of his command of Canada’s armed forces and sent home.  What makes this battle particularly impressive though is the larger context, this victory took place at the same time that the city of Baltimore was under attack (a battle every U.S. citizen has heard of as it that victory is commemorated in the U.S. national anthem) and right after Washington D.C. got turned into a crispy fritter.  The United States at the time seemed to be in danger of coming apart at the seams and this victory was a key moment that proved that even in the face of such setbacks and dangers, the U.S. had the strength, and the resolve, to survive and even triumph in the face of incredible odds.

Source:  Wikipedia entry on the Battle of Plattsburgh and the Battle of Plattsburgh site on America’s Historic Lakes (with maps!)



The Resurrectionists – the Mortsafe, Body Snatching, Crime, and Market Forces

Tuesday, September 10th, 2013


One of my favorite parts about studying history is the study of what I like to call “gray history” – events and items that are not well documented because they are macabre, criminal, or hidden by various interested parties throughout the passage of centuries.  One example of this is the rise in the late 18th and early 19th century of body-snatching, the so-called Resurrectionist trade, criminals who took advantage of a rising demand that could not be supplied by legal means.  During this period, within the United States and Great Britain, there was a rising interest in modern medical education and discovery, fields that required a steady supply of cadavers to allow doctors to better explore the human body and students a chance to play with one and see how all the little fiddly bits fit together.  The challenge was in both the U.S. and Britain the only legal supply of corpses was from executed criminals and by the early 19th century, (and through most of the 19th century for the U.S.), there were simply not enough criminals to keep up with the voracious demand of the dissection labs of modern medical schools.   But the demand had to be filled, for science and education, and into that space slipped the professional body-snatcher, an individual focused upon stealing a freshly buried corpse and secreting it away to the willing physicians and professors who would pay them for their trouble and hard work.


Now the interesting legal loophole this feel into is that, although robbing a grave and stealing valuable was a felony in Britain (and a serious offense in the U.S.), stealing the corpse alone was a lesser crime, usually a misdemeanor at best.  So your professional body snatcher would find a fresh grave (bribery, sneaking around funerals, even paying women to grieve and case the burial site during the funeral were common tactics), steal into the graveyard at night, dig a small hole often near the head of the casket (taking pains to cover their tracks), pop the coffin and slip the body out.  Normal practice was to strip the corpse of its clothing and any jewelry and leave those items in the casket.  Because then it was just the corpse stolen and nothing else.  Rebury the empty casket and tuck off to sell your newly acquired corpse-swag goodness at the local medical college and you’d made a good chunk of money for a fairly low risk crime.  In many areas the legal authorities considered these crimes as feeding a legitimate need, specifically advancing the cause of medical science, so they turned a blind eye to the crimes in many cases.


Funny thing though about market forces, they swing both ways, and many families did not like the idea of their loved ones being stolen from their graves and spirited away to medical colleges to advance the pool of human knowledge.  A combination of Christian believes, ancestor veneration (even as late as the 19th century), and an emotional wish their deceased loved one not be chopped up lead to a reaction by the general populous.  Many demanded the authorities take action to curb the trade and others took a more direct route.  The appearance of the mortsafe took place during this time, expensive protective measures to deter grave robbers from breaking into a fresh grave to steal the corpse.  The province of the upper and middle class generally these fortified protections ranged from a heavy fitted stone covering on the grave to elaborate iron contraptions like those above.  Some churches got into the act and purchased these items and lent them out to people burying their dead for a reasonable rate, they stayed in place for a few weeks till the corpse was considered putrefied enough the corpse snatchers wouldn’t want the body.  During this period some cemeteries even went further, going to the trouble of building miniature fortresses or walled enclosures with guard dogs to protect the dead.  The poor, who couldn’t afford such elaborate means of protection, often would bury sticks in the newly interred grave to make them harder to dig up and organized volunteer patrols to keep an eye on things.


Like all good stories though the resurrectionist trade came to an end, specifically due to government intervention once more.  In Great Britain in 1832 the Anatomy Act was passed that allowed licensed doctors the right to oversee the legal collection of abandoned bodies and to receive donated bodies from the poor in exchange for a guarantee of burial post dissection for the corpse.  Sadly there are no easily found notes on if an underground trade in “donations” to poor families to help spark this along sprung up in Great Britain but with a legal means of gaining access to corpses now in place, in particular the corpses of the poor and imprisoned, the trade for the body snatcher came to an end.  It lasted in the U.S. far longer, well into the late 19th century in many areas, as similar laws took longer to pass in the U.S. and were instituted on a state by state basis.  However by the early 20th century even in the U.S. the venerated trade of corpse hustling came to an end.  Although, and this is fascinating regarding the U.S., evidence indicates that each medical college operating in the U.S. during this period that offered dissection courses was involved in the trade and the trade was extensive, even including the use of railroads as a means of smuggling corpses from an area that had them to an area that needed them.

That particular trade is not well documented but an interesting field for future research.

A final fun tidbit to carry you off – in the late 18th century the trade in body snatching angered many locals to the point that riots against medical colleges were known to occur.  Probably the worst in U.S. history took place in 1788 in New York.  A brisk illegal trade in African-American bodies fed the local medical college and the riot was sparked when two boys, hanging around the college, were shocked when one of the doctors within stuck an arm out of the window of the dissection lab, waggled it at the boys, and told them it had belonged to their mother.  When the boys ran home and told their father, a crowd formed in shock and stormed the dissection lab, it didn’t help matters that the corpse of the dead mother, along with other recognized relatives of the local African-American community, were on the slabs.  It ended up with violence when the local militia was called in, and augmented by volunteers, to suppress the angry and milling crowd.

Sources:  Wikipedia Articles on the Mortsafe, Body Snatching, the 1832 Anatomy Act, and the 1788 Doctors Riot.

Missile Strikes in Syria and Pearl Harbor

Thursday, September 5th, 2013


Originally this blog was conceived of as a means to address misuses of history to argue a modern political agenda – so when this gem came to my attention today it required an immediate response – in attempting to link Syria to the attack on Pearl Harbor this image makes many horrible and inappropriate links between the two acts.  First the attack on Pearl Harbor was not a “limited airstrike” in that it had a wide expanse of targets to attack, including naval ships on station, naval aircraft, and army aircraft on airfields throughout the main island of Oahu.  But, more specifically, as the attack proceeded without series setbacks for the Japanese airplanes flying over Pearl Harbor the pilots were released from flying air cover (to deter fighters that were not coming up to engage them) to engage their secondary mission – random strafing of targets of opportunity.  Japanese pilots willing shot up civilian installations, attacked civilian vehicles that were moving, and also strafed random military targets that caught their eye.  By definition the assault was not a limited airstrike against specific objectives, it was a multiple target assault with a bonus round built in if things went particularly well.

Second there were no “boots on the ground” on the actual island of Oahu itself, because that was not the objective of the Japanese military, however plenty of boots hit the ground from 8 December through 24 December 1941, with the Japanese taking the Gilbert Islands, Wake Island, and the Philippines from the United States in a series of progressive and highly successful invasions.  The attack on Pearl Harbor was part of a broader plan by the Japan to divest the United States of its Pacific holdings – to put it bluntly –  a plan to take, and hold, territory the United States either outright claimed or had a protectorate over.

A closer comparison to what this image is attempting to invoke would be if the Japanese government, learning that the United States Southern Pacific fleet, was routinely shelling Oahu to suppress a rebellion with disregard for civilians and launched an assault to reduce the fleet to a flaming wreck to prevent it being used in this manner.  Alternatively, if you prefer, had some rogue elements within the United States Navy captured the warships at dock, or brought their own into the harbor that they got on the black market, and began shelling Oahu regularly to try to provoke an intervention by Japan.  The assault on Pearl Harbor was an effort by one nation to reduce another nation’s military power and capacity to project that power into a contested geographic sphere, not an attempt to undermine another nations use of weapons against its civilians or an effort to intervene in a bloody civil war that might have escalated.

Hell the Japanese delivered a declaration of war to the United States after the attack, they screwed up and got it in after the attack began, but even Japan recognized that the attack on Pearl Harbor was an act of war, an act of war they argued was justified due to provocation by the United States against them prior to the attack.

Opinions are sharply varied within the United States on intervention into Syria, a valid and necessary part of the process of deciding if war is an option a democratic nation should embrace – but don’t drag past wars into this in an effort to make an adorable point.

Finally, and more broadly, if you step back what is this image attempting to argue – that the war between the United States and Japan from 1941 to 1945 was somehow a pointless bloody slog?  That it was an unnecessary war?  Perhaps that Japan was dragged into the war unwilling due to “mission drift”?  Perhaps it is trying to argue that an attack on Syria will explode into a far more dangerous and debilitating war than was initially expected by the attacking nation – in which case I can see it’s point – but it is also still wrong.  When Japan launched its attack on Pearl Harbor its government and military knew they would be facing the possibility of a long war, their hope was to buy enough time to knock the United States out of the fight to inflict a series of stinging defeats on the nation, break their will to fight, and bring the United States to the negotiating table to accept a peace that redefined the spheres of control between the two nations.  They gambled – that a swift war with massive victories would break the United States’ will to fight before a prolonged war would bring the economic power of the United States to bear upon Japan’s Empire.

Sources:  Wikipedia timeline of World War II 1941

Victorian Beard Culture – 19th Century Fuzziness

Wednesday, September 4th, 2013


Prior to about 1850 most men in Britain and the United States went with a solidly clean-shaven look and then, appearing out of almost nowhere, from about 1850 to 1890 suddenly men began sprouting facial hair with gusto and massive beards.  This sudden shift in male fashion trends is linked to a series of fascinating cultural impulses and events of the mid-19th century, but the core change is how Victorian males began to fixate on facial hair, specifically the beard, to reassert their masculine identity as shifts in the male working life and social demands, specifically in the growing middle class, were moving from “physically demanding labor” to the perceived more “effeminate” roles of administration, clerical work, and other office duties.  To put it simply – men grew beards during this period to reassert they were VIRILE, MANLY, PATRIARCHS!  How they got to this position, and how beards suddenly spiked in popularity and then died after only about forty years though is a fascinating story in and of itself.


Prior to 1850 the male beard had a highly negative association, being linked to Chartists and revolutionaries who were attempting to show their separation from the demands of proper Victorian society/working class revolutionary roots.  However with the Revolutions of 1848 safely crushed, and the Chartists crushed as a movement, the negative association with beards was broken in the common mind.  Which laid the ground for public acceptance of a series of articles appearing in the popular press that discussed the value of beards as useful symbols of masculinity – specifically as a symbol of a man’s ability to be a man – and as a device that provided “God Given” health benefits that fit the “male position” in society.  These included the belief that the beard afforded males: a natural protection against extreme climate and dirt, useful as MEN were expected to campaign and fight in the worst locations on Earth; it protected male throats from injury from cold, useful as MEN were naturally inclined by God to teach and publicly speak (while women, lacking beards, were supposed to learn and listen); beards provided a protection against bad vapors and illness, useful because MEN were to go into nature and conquer dangerous locations; and finally they could make a man with a weak chin look more masculine.

Beards were also seen as a symbol of the male as patriarch, it was argued they would inspire confidence in women that their male could protect them, and guide them, as a proper masculine leader of family and home.  This was partially as a reaction to the growing shift in Victorian family structures that began to emphasize men should play a more direct role in raising their children at home, previously almost solely the domain of the matriarch of the family, but also that role should maintain the stern distance of the male as guide and unemotional leader of the household.  Hence the beard, a powerful symbol, with Biblical associations, between masculine identity and the status of wise patriarch.


This viewpoint was repeated throughout many avenues of popular culture and spread – supported by Editors Opinion pieces in the daily press, magazines articles focused on men and masculinity, pamphlets produced by beard supporters outlining the virtues described above, and it got a boost with the Crimean War (153-1856) and how many of the soldiers in that war, particularly the officers, wore beards while on campaign.  To the point that the British military changed its regulations to allow beards for its officers, even some particularly fashionable units required beards of their officers and enlisted, leading to a small trade in fake beards for new recruits to wear while their own grew out to regulation requirements.  Finally the virtue of beards was argued from the pulpit, as part of the Muscular Christianity movement.


The beard passion finally began to die out in the 1890s with a new generation of young men taking the helm in the lower rungs of the middle class, although older views still prevailed for a while.  (You can trace the progress and decline of the beard movement in the faces of US Presidents for the most part if you are so inclined.)  Germ theory killed the idea of beards providing health benefits from bad vapors and the Muscular Christianity movement was more focused on sports for middle class men and physical fitness over beards – younger men embraced that aspect more willingly but were disinterested in the beards worn by the fathers.  The biggest change though was generational, men coming of age in the 1850s through the 1870s were concerned about the changing perception of masculinity due to shifts in working patterns, manliness being associated with rigorous physical labor, jobs that required a strong body and a strong mind, while shifting work patterns had more middle class males behind a desk working in an office.  The newer generation of men coming of age though from 1880 onwards were more used to a world where middle class jobs involved clerical labor and office work.  They sought out other symbols of masculinity than a bushy beard.

Finally by the 1890s the role of the father in a family had shifted away from the ideal of the stern, distant patriarch still involved with his children towards a more loving and caring father figure, more deeply involved in his children’s upbringing and being more willing to play, love, and embrace his role as a part of a family.  (Although still expected to strongly lead the family even in these shifting times.)

Sources:  The Beard Movement in Victorian Britain, Christopher Oldstone-Moore, Victorian Studies 48.1