Category Archives: military

Afghanistan’s Communist Revolutionaries, 1978

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 2221-2259:

Taraki and Amin both belonged to the PDPA’s other faction, known as Khalq (“the People” or “the Masses”). Khalq’s ethnic basis was narrower than Parcham’s: Khalqis were overwhelmingly Pashtuns, and more often than not they hailed from a particular subset of the Pashtuns. Taraki and Amin were both members of a particular Pashtun tribal confederation, the Ghilzais, that had long chafed under the domination of more powerful Pashtun groups—and especially the Durranis, the dynasty that had dominated Afghanistan for centuries, right up until the Communist coup. (Both Daoud and Zahir Shah were Durranis.) The Khalqis tended to be far less vested in the existing system of ruling elites, and this helps to explain the radicalism that dominated their thinking.

Khalqis were, above all, dutiful Leninists. Like so many other would-be Third World modernizers, they detested their country’s backwardness, and they believed that the only reasonable cure was to frog-march it into the twentieth century by brute force, if need be. To be sure, Afghanistan didn’t really have a proletariat, and though many aspects of its agricultural system appeared backward and traditional, most peasants actually owned their own land. But no matter. There was one institution that could still serve as a revolutionary vanguard, and that was the army. For years the military had been one of the few structures in the country—along with the monarchy and a steadily expanding state educational system—that managed to coalesce the notoriously unruly Afghans around a sense of shared national destiny. The military was one Afghan institution that offered opportunities for advancement even to those who weren’t part of the traditional elites. And the upper ranks were filled with officers who had studied in the Soviet Union, which offered them a clear example of a primitive rural society that the Communists had mobilized into a modern industrial power.

The ideological differences between Parcham and Khalq were just part of the problem. There were also intense personal feuds at work. Karmal, the Persian-speaking patrician, despised Taraki and Amin as upstarts, and they were happy to return the favor. In the old, prerevolutionary parliament, Amin had been famous for his easy joshing with his opponents among the religious conservatives, who gave their atheist colleague the joking nickname of “Satan.” Karmal, a formidable orator once imprisoned for five years by the king, had emerged to become a political heavyweight courted even by Daoud himself, and he cultivated a self-regard that alienated just about everyone. As the new Communist regime got under way, Amin couldn’t help reminding the Parchamis that they had spent the “revolution” cringing in prison while the Khalqis got on with the job. The Parchamis, in turn, regarded the Khalqis as bumbling zealots who needed a bit of adult supervision.

The Afghan public at large knew little of this, of course. What they saw instead were slogans, revolutionary parades, and a burgeoning personality cult centered on Taraki. There is little doubt that the vast majority of Afghans—most of whom had no access to television or newspapers—regarded all this with bemusement, apprehension, or apathy. But the state almost immediately denied them the luxury of disengagement. Within weeks of seizing power, the new revolutionary government announced a series of far-reaching edicts that would tip Afghan society into a maelstrom from which it is still struggling to recover.

Decree Number One proclaimed land reform. The proclaimed intent was to uproot the supposedly feudal underpinnings of Afghan society, stripping power from traditional landlords and canceling unfair lending arrangements that had kept millions of people indentured to local power brokers. The political aim was to give the majority of Afghans—who overwhelmingly lived in the countryside—a reason to love the new government. A flurry of other new reform measures followed. A literacy campaign taught the benighted how to read and write. Women received full civic rights. It was a program that bore a striking resemblance to the shah’s White Revolution [in Iran].

It all sounded wonderful, on paper. The problem was that this blizzard of reforms, and especially the realities of their implementation, bore little or no relation to the society they were intended to change. Of course, everyone believed in the goal of literacy, but the catch was that the government had little in the way of resources to accomplish the task of educating the rural poor. So it relied, as Communist regimes so often had in the past, on a mixture of mobilization and brute force to fill the gap. Zealous young schoolteachers dispatched to the villages, invariably without proper textbooks or teaching materials, often ended up haranguing the locals on their backwardness. What particularly inflamed the locals was the newcomers’ insistence that women should take part in the courses, in classrooms that mingled both sexes. Mobs drove the arrogant outsiders away. In some cases the do-gooders then returned with escorts of government troops, and literacy classes then proceeded at bayonet point.

Leave a comment

Filed under Afghanistan, democracy, economics, education, Islam, military, nationalism, philosophy

The American Revolution as Proxy War

From Hessians: Mercenaries, Rebels, and the War for British North America, by Brady J. Crytzer (Westholme, 2015), Kindle Loc. 1016-1023, 3715-3731:

What had begun as a sectional rebellion in North America had grown into a major geopolitical shift thanks in part to the inability of the king’s commanders to snuff out the revolution in its infant stages. While the capture and occupation of New York and Philadelphia had been major benchmarks of Howe’s tenure on the continent, Washington’s penchant for escape had allowed a supposedly containable problem to spread. The loss at Saratoga and the entry of France had helped to legitimize the rebel cause. Now, with Washington’s army rejuvenated at Valley Forge, the British would have to not only deal with his rebels but also focus their military efforts elsewhere. As the Americans had no navy to speak of initially, they could not pose any meaningful threat to Britain’s island holdings around the world; the arrival of France, however, suddenly had George III fighting a defensive war, on land and on the seas.

French policy makers treated the American rebellion as a proxy war, an analog to the great struggle for influence and colonial control that was the defining theme of European conflict of the eighteenth century. With that commencement of hostility the war that began as a colonial uprising transformed into a global affair. Fueled by Old World rivalries and longstanding animosity over decades-gone wars, the planet was divided into theaters of combat that extended far beyond the initial shots at Lexington Green. The still smoldering kindling of over six centuries of periodic conflict between Great Britain and France reignited in a blaze ranging from the Caribbean Sea and Central America to the subcontinent of India. The two world powers had each lain in wait with long-standing strategic objectives and contingencies in place for capturing high-value possessions of the other, and with the formal declaration of war it did not take long for them to go into motion. Already by the time that the Waldeckers sailed from New York in November, the British East India Company had successfully orchestrated a ten-week siege to capture the highly profitable French-controlled port of Pondicherry on India’s eastern coastline.

War had come, and the Caribbean was equally on notice. It did not take long for action to get under way, and for the French it began almost immediately. Situated in the heart of the Lesser Antilles the island of Dominica was a long-standing reminder of the lingering animosity of the Seven Years’ War. Originally a French colony, Dominica was captured in 1761, and by 1778 remained firmly in British hands; the fact that it was nestled between the French islands of Martinique to the south and Guadeloupe to the north made this especially insulting. Although it was a painful memento of their past defeat, for the French high command it was now serving as a practical thorn in their side as well. It was no secret that privateers often used the island’s ports as launching points to raid enemy shipping, and if Dominica could be captured it would take away Britain’s vital toehold in the area. Along with disabling Britain’s overall effectiveness, French policy makers believed that reclaiming the island would greatly improve communication between the two island colonies that it separated.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, Caribbean, France, migration, military, nationalism, North America, U.S., war

A Cossack Mercenary in North America

From Hessians: Mercenaries, Rebels, and the War for British North America, by Brady J. Crytzer (Westholme, 2015), Kindle Loc. 1464-1476:

As was often the case, Ewald was aware that Patriot politicians had labeled his Hessian comrades as “mercenaries,” or soldiers of fortune. For this reason many Americans despised the German auxiliaries that fought alongside him. It was no secret that the Hessians had no real practical issue with the American rebels, and Ewald was only serving the British king under the wishes of his own Landgraf Frederick II. A mercenary, in contrast, fought for his own material gain and epitomized opportunistic soldiering in this period. Yet Diwizow was quite different as he was not German, Irish, or British. He asserted that he was a Cossack from the Don River valley in southern Russia. Ewald’s interest was piqued at this development. Diwizow explained that he was already well into his fifties, and the thought of retirement was simply not tenable. He had battled in one way or another for his entire life and as war was his primary income he was looking for a fight. At Ewald’s inquiry, the Cossack explained how his travels brought him to America. He had spent twenty-four years as an officer with the Don Cossacks, and had battled the Prussians in the Seven Years’ War. Ewald first saw action in that same conflict and his curiosity grew. Diwizow continued by claiming that his mercenary travels took him far and wide, from the jagged lands of Ottoman Turkey to the rich valleys of Poland. He fought for no flag and no country, merely for raw economic gain. Twenty years earlier Diwizow battled against the Polish, and as recently as 1774 alongside Yemelyan Pugachev, the royal pretender who led a massive revolt in Russia against Catherine the Great. If there was ever a mercenary in North America, it was this hardened Cossack.

Leave a comment

Filed under labor, migration, military, nationalism, Russia, U.S., war

Imperial Britain’s German, Irish, and Iroquois Warriors

From Hessians: Mercenaries, Rebels, and the War for British North America, by Brady J. Crytzer (Westholme, 2015), Kindle Loc. 1331-39, 1366-86:

The [Hessian] captain’s fascination with partisan warfare make his recollections especially insightful; nearby villages, most notably the former rebel post at Peekskill, were now all but abandoned. Surrounding him in the days that followed their victories were a motley collection of soldiers, none of whom could be identified as Englishmen. Along with his Jägers from Hesse-Cassel, Ewald noted that much of the fighting was accomplished by fellow Germans from Anspach as well as a multitude of Irish volunteers. Ewald would have been considered a hardened veteran of wilderness combat and his Jägers in their forest green had been on the continent almost continuously with him since 1776. In contrast, the Anspachers, who spoke his mother tongue in their royal blue jackets and tall black fur caps, had only been in America for days. Those representing the Emerald Isle were assembled from within existing provincial units by the Irish Lord Francis Rawdon-Hastings during the occupation of Philadelphia in 1777. These Irish volunteers had performed so well that they were named the 2nd American Regiment. Although the American Patriot politicians desired a clear enemy to vilify, King George’s imperial forces were actually something of a patchwork army.

It was soon revealed that this mysterious Loyalist ranger was in the service of Lieutenant Colonel John Butler, and he had seen more than his fair share of action. Butler, a native of New York’s war-torn Mohawk River valley, was for many the face of the Loyalist movement in the colonies. He led dozens of his “rangers” across the frontier, raiding Patriot homesteads and villages with extreme prejudice. Fighting with Butler in the service of the Crown were the warriors of the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, and Mohawk nations, collectively known as the Iroquois Confederacy. The Iroquois had been longtime allies of the British Empire before the conflict, and following the defection of the Oneida and Tuscarora to the Patriot side they were almost fully aligned with the king. The unified forces of Butler’s rangers and the Iroquois warriors saw some of the most brutal fighting of the entire war, and were considered a vital part of Britain’s overall strategy for success in the colonies.

Ewald was familiar with the exploits of men like Butler and Joseph Brant, sachem of the Mohawk, and his guest claimed to have served alongside both. Ewald proceeded to inquire into his experiences, and as a testament to his deep interest made a nearly exact transcription of their conversation in the glow of the campfire that evening. He began by asking about Butler’s overall strength; the man replied that he had fifty Loyalist Americans and upwards of five hundred Indian warriors on hand.

The tactician Ewald could not help but inquire as to how they supported such a large force of men in such difficult wilderness conditions. The ranger explained that in the beginning they lived entirely on the wild game hunted by the Indian warriors. As soon as they reached the borders of Pennsylvania and Maryland, though, they found provisions in abundance. It was clear to Ewald at that point that this man must have had a range of hundreds of miles during his guerilla campaign. But what of the ferocity of the Indians? The Jäger captain was a man of modern European military training, and the tales of the Indian fighting style was as ferocious as they were legendary.

The stranger explained that they rarely took prisoners, and every man, woman, or child was either cut down or carried off. He continued by claiming that the dwellings were plundered, devastated, and burned. He concluded his conversation by recalling that he and his Indian allies killed two entire regiments along the Susquehanna River with no thoughts of taking a single prisoner. To Ewald this was a great affront. The European tradition of war grew out of medieval chivalric values under which men who surrender were allowed the dignity to live to fight another day. The Indian tradition of war, however, was largely in place centuries earlier. It seemed that 1492 and its aftermath could do little to redirect it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, Germany, Ireland, labor, migration, military, nationalism, North America, U.S., war

British Surrender to Spain, Pensacola, 1781

From Hessians: Mercenaries, Rebels, and the War for British North America, by Brady J. Crytzer (Westholme, 2015), Kindle Loc. 5195-5220:

Finally on May 10, 1781, exactly forty-eight hours after the original surrender, Don Bernardo de Gálvez and General John Campbell met to negotiate the official capitulation of Pensacola. Flags flew on both sides and drummers added an air of ceremony to the proceedings, but for the British Empire there was little dignity to be found. From that day the rebellion that began in a tiny corner of New England had proven much more costly than ever anticipated and in a matter of weeks the Bourbon flag of Spain flew proudly over Florida once again.

THE CAPTURE OF PENSACOLA AND SUBSEQUENTLY ALL OF WEST Florida brought to a close one of the most controversial and misunderstood conflicts within the larger revolutionary era. Don Bernardo de Gálvez has been long admired by social organizations that commemorate the American rebellion; the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution have granted official status to Hispanic descendants of those who battled along the Gulf Coast. But from the historical vantage point there has been a struggle to place Spain’s role in the greater conflict and measure accurately how important it was. Some historians claim that Gálvez’s invasion of West Florida was entirely separate from the larger American rebellion, going so far as to call it the “Anglo-Spanish War.” Still others believe it was so vital that they refer to it as “George Washington’s Second Front.” As is typically the case in history, the truth is somewhere in-between, but important parallels can be readily drawn that warrant further investigation.

The actions of Don Gálvez along the Gulf Coast were not the sum total of Spain’s contribution to the rebel war effort, but merely an active part of it. Spain lent the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars to the would-be American nation, and like France that generosity was largely fueled by a desire for revenge from the Seven Years’ War a generation earlier. But regardless of the motivations behind the governor of Louisiana’s actions, the results are undeniable. The entrance of both France and Spain into the war drastically changed the way that administrators in London viewed the conflict; rather than it being a separatist rebellion it became a global struggle for imperial supremacy. By the end of the conflict King George’s focus was directed so much toward his old European enemies that the ongoing struggle in the colonies was considered by many to be less important and by some as a distracting afterthought. Following the surrender of Pensacola, Don Gálvez also maintained that the greater American struggle must continue, and he offered one hundred thousand pesos to his French allies so that they could head up to Virginia and aid in the siege at Yorktown.

The ultimate reconquest of West Florida would not be complete for the Spanish until the signing of the Peace of Paris in 1783, but Gálvez’s victory made immediate waves. Charles III made the young commander “Count of Gálvez” and subsequently promoted him to governor of Louisiana and the freshly acquired West Florida. It was a time of great glory for Spain, but ultimately it was only a spark in the darkness for a dying empire. For the people on the ground in Pensacola, however, the defeat was devastating. As part of the agreement, soldiers taken prisoner were not to be held in the legendarily cruel dungeons of Mexico or Central America but paroled back to British control.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, Caribbean, France, Germany, Latin America, military, nationalism, North America, Spain, U.S., war

Hessian Impressions of Creek Sachems

From Hessians: Mercenaries, Rebels, and the War for British North America, by Brady J. Crytzer (Westholme, 2015), Kindle Loc. 4585-4623:

[Hessian Chaplain] Philipp [Waldeck] had read about the Indian warriors of the southern frontier but he had never seen them in person, and when the proposed meeting took place he was certain to involve himself. He was by no means a thrill seeker, but such a rare and uniquely American experience as a native council was something he could never experience in Germany. He and a few of the officers looked on the delegation from a distance, taking note of their dress and weapons, and he was struck by just how familiar they all looked. From the German viewpoint the American Indian was the proverbial “savage,” and the chaplain used this term throughout his journal to describe the men he observed. He did not use it disrespectfully, in fact he wrote candidly of his admiration for them. These warriors were not the ravenous, cannibalistic caricatures that he had read about as a child in Waldeck, in fact they were quite European. They carried muskets that had clearly been manufactured in England bearing the bold “GR” insignia of King George, for George Rex, and they wore some European garments. Their outward appearance retained a wild quality, but they had more similarities to than differences with some of the more distant American frontiersmen. For chaplain Philipp Waldeck the events of this day would be nothing short of transformative.

The council began soon after the arrival of the Indian elders, or sachems, but General Campbell made it clear that he was not interested in taking part. Instead he ordered his subordinate and direct commander of the 3rd Waldeck Regiment Colonel von Hanxleden to sit in his place. By the time that Philipp finished his sacred duties the proceedings had already begun and he rushed to take part. The meeting itself was held in one of the large open halls of the city, and as the tardy chaplain entered the room a member of the Creek delegate was already speaking. In a moment of embarrassment the native speaker stood silent as though acknowledging Philipp’s lateness, and sensing the tension the chaplain quickly was seated next to his comrades. The scene before him occurred countless times in the annals of America’s colonial past and was an integral part of native power and politics. As the Creek sachem spoke he did so in short bursts so that a translator could relay the message to the other party; Philipp noted that this particular translator was very talented.

The agenda of the day seemed mundane, which was why General Campbell chose to occupy himself elsewhere, but for Philipp the spectacle was enthralling. The unnamed Creek delegate came to Pensacola to demand food from the British commander stationed there, and his justification was legitimate. Unlike the European settlers who were regularly supplied with goods from overseas, the great Indian nations of the South still depended on their own ingenuity to feed their families. While there were small pockets of subsistence agriculture in the colonies, most still relied on hunting. Since the outset of the American rebellion, though, the British had placed a great emphasis on wooing the natives to their side with offers of gifts in exchange for alliance; as the warriors were now operating in accord with the Crown they had very little time to attend to their own needs.

Philipp largely tuned out the proceedings and directed all of his attention to recording the visual details all around him. He wrote that most of the chieftains present were elders of the tribe and they all sat on the floor, he also noted that they each smoked a ceremonial tobacco pipe throughout the negotiations. The speaking was done by one person, and the man did so while waving a large red feather in his hand. All the while the sachem spoke he did not look at the German officer but only the interpreter so as to ensure that his exact meaning was expressed.

While the faces of these men were stern, they were also terribly scarred. To become an elder, a great sacrifice earlier in life was expected. That tally was only collected by proving oneself in battle, and Philipp saw that many of the men present carried tremendous battle scars across their bodies. As he studied their mannerisms and reactions the chaplain soon noticed one of the sachems was different than the others . . . he was white. Although the mysterious stranger dressed as a Creek headman and decorated his body similarly, he was certainly not of Indian blood. After asking around, Philipp discovered to his amazement that the man was a fellow German, formerly named Johann Konrad Brandenstein. Years earlier the forty-nine-year-old Brandenstein migrated from Germany to the New World and married a Creek woman. After his adoption into the community the expatriate proved to be a valuable asset to his communal brethren and there he sat in 1779 not as a German but a full member of the Creek Nation. While they sat in council Philipp was astounded by the fact that even though he was surrounded by his countrymen, Brandenstein never behaved as anything but a member of the Creek delegation.

The chaplain wrote that the sachems and warriors before him were physically strong and well built, and although they had varying interests they were fully behind King George. In reality the proceedings he witnessed were much more nuanced and the result of months of negotiations.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, education, Germany, language, migration, military, nationalism, North America, U.S., war

Killing Horses, Freeing Slaves at Yorktown, 1781

From Hessians: Mercenaries, Rebels, and the War for British North America, by Brady J. Crytzer (Westholme, 2015), Kindle Loc. 1999-2026:

While Washington believed that a joint American-French assault on New York was the best option, Rochambeau was less than convinced. Their tenuous strategy sessions changed, however, in August when the French commander received a message from the French Admiral Comte de Grasse. In his letter de Grasse claimed that he was en route to Virginia with twenty-nine warships and over three thousand troops, but with hurricane season at hand and other pressing matters in the Caribbean, he could only remain until October. Time was now of the essence, and Washington and Rochambeau believed that if the Admiral de Grasse could blockade Chesapeake Bay with his fleet, Cornwallis could be trapped at his new operational headquarters of Yorktown. On August 19, 1781, Washington and Rochambeau began their march to Virginia; it would be the first time that the American commander had been home in over six years.

By October 14, the scene that was playing out at Yorktown was the stuff of legend. The Admiral de Grasse had successfully blockaded the Chesapeake Bay, and the city itself was surrounded by almost nineteen thousand American and French soldiers. Like a great wall they fanned around Cornwallis’s forces, trapping them on all sides, and with de Grasse’s fleet in place the British were completely cut off from the outside world. For more than three weeks this had been the setting for General George Washington and the American rebels’ finest hour. It was also a welcome opportunity for the French to deliver a crushing blow courtesy of their world-famous brand of siege warfare.

Inside his headquarters in the besieged city, Cornwallis was growing desperate. His ramparts were being descended on at a rapid rate, and his food supply was running low. Clinton had sent reinforcements southward, but they would be unable to break the French blockade over the Chesapeake. To save vital stores for his men, Cornwallis had taken to extreme measures in a futile attempt to hold out for support. With supplies running low, the general ordered that all of the army’s horses be slaughtered at once and thrown into the York River. [Hessian Captain Johann] Ewald wrote that within days the tide brought the bloated carcasses back to shore, and his Germans were haunted by the somber and chilling sight. In the waning hours of what would be his last battle in North America, the British general took his desperate attempt to hold out a step further. After killing the camp’s livestock to save grain for his men, Cornwallis looked to further eliminate any usage of food that he considered unnecessary. His next demand though would trouble Ewald more than nearly any other experienced yet in America.

On October 15 the general ordered that all slaves, with no discrimination between men, women, or children, be expelled from the camp. In a wave of frenzy these people were thrust from behind British lines and abandoned in the no-man’s-land between Cornwallis and his besiegers. As the enslaved families scattered in the confused melee, Ewald could not sit back and watch. On his own initiative, the captain and his party of Jägers leapt from behind their defensive lines to drive the abandoned people to safety. Ewald recalled the event with great vigor and explained that he led a party of his men into the teeth of the firefight at their own risk. He continued by stating that in hindsight the order was far too dangerous to justify at the time, but he and his Germans could only think of the young families in harm’s way. They were overcome with the desire to usher them to safety.

ON OCTOBER 17, 1781, THE WHITE FLAG OF TRUCE FLEW OVER THE British position at Yorktown and Cornwallis had surrendered.

Today is the second anniversary of the sudden death of my closest brother, just one day short of his 64th birthday. He was a history professor who never got to finish his book on mercenaries (broadly defined) in Colonial America, including Capt. John Smith and Cmdr. John Paul Jones (who later fought for Russia against the Turks). My brother had many stories of mercenaries who proved more rational and humane than the citizen soldiers whose causes they were supporting. John Paul Jones, for instance, was horrified at Russian tactics against Turkish troops and civilians, and the Hessian captain Ewald in the passage above was as deeply disturbed by the barbaric tactics of the Iroquoian allies of the British as he was by Cornwallis’s decision to expel slaves from his besieged forces in Yorktown.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, food, military, slavery, U.S., war