Category Archives: military

Evaluating Romania’s Antonescu

From In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond, by Robert D. Kaplan (Random House, 2016), pp. 139-141:

Who was Antonescu, really?

A French assessment of him in 1922, when Antonescu was forty and a military attaché to Paris, stated: “A well-tried intelligence, brutal, duplicitous, very vain, a ferocious will to succeed … an extreme xenophobia, [these are] the striking characteristics of this strange figure.” To read Deletant, Hitchins, and others, we can say that Antonescu was a realist, militarist, nationalist, and authoritarian, who had no use for parliamentary democracy. But neither was he strictly fascist: he purged the fascists from his regime early on and had a disdain for pageants and parades. He believed in order, but not as a prerequisite to freedom, only as an end in itself. His support for Hitler was heavily determined by the calamitous international situation he inherited from Carol II and Romania’s tragic position on the map between Nazi and Stalinist empires. Antonescu made the cold calculation that an alliance with Germany was simply the best option for regaining territories that Romania had lost to the Soviet Union. As Antonescu reportedly told journalists a few days after Pearl Harbor: “I am an ally of the Reich against Russia; I am neutral between Great Britain and Germany; and I am for the Americans against the Japanese. But at the same time, Antonescu could also say that “Europe has to be liberated once and for all from the domination of Free-Masons and Jews.”

If not a proponent of the Final Solution itself, Antonescu was among the twentieth century’s great ethnic cleansers. He spoke about the need to “purify” and “homogenize” the Romanian population, and rid it of “Yids,” “Slavs,” and “Roma.” (Antonescu’s deportation of the Roma people to Transdniestria—where some 20,000 died of disease, starvation, and cold—was not a result of German pressure, but something he had initiated on his own.) One of Antonescu’s ministers stated that the circumstances of German military successes provided Romania with a unique opportunity for a “complete ethnic unshackling.” Antonescu himself saw the Jews as a “disease” and as “parasites,” in Deletant’s language, “to be cleansed from the body of Romania.” The deportation of Jews from quasi-historical Romanian lands of Bukovina and Bessarabia to Transdniestria, a region where Romania had few historical claims, should be seen in this light.

And yet it cannot be forgotten that Antonescu kept, by some statistical reckoning, the largest number of Jews away from the Final Solution in Axis-dominated Europe. He did so in large measure because of “opportunism” and extreme nervousness as to his own fate, as the Soviets and Western Allies began to tighten the noose on Hitler’s war machine. The end to deportation and mass murder in Transdniestria and the decision not to send Romanian Jews from inside the country to death camps in Poland were all actions taken after the Nazi defeat at Stalingrad, when Antonescu began to realize that Hitler might not, after all, win the war. Radu Ioanid might refer to this as “opportunistic mercy.” Antonescu was more of a realist than a fanatical fascist, and so he was always sensitive to shifting geopolitical winds. There was also Antonescu’s own proud and autocratic character. The idea of the Führer ordering him from abroad to give up his Jews did not sit well with him. As someone in direct contact with Antonescu at the time observed, the Marshal “did not like receiving orders; he liked giving them.” There was also pressure brought to bear upon Antonescu from Romanian intellectuals, from the queen mother, Helen, and from the National Peasant Party leader Iuliu Maniu to save Romanian Jewry. Again, this all must be seen in the context of Soviet and American victories on the battlefront.

Antonescu was toppled in a palace coup on August 23, 1944, just as the Red Army was already marching triumphantly into Romania. He was tried by pro-Soviet Romanian authorities, duly convicted, and executed in 1946 by a firing squad at Jilava Prison near Bucharest. Antonescu was a mass murderer without strictly being a fascist. The fact that he kept an astonishingly larger number of Jews from death cannot erase the fact that he killed an astonishing number—in indescribable suffering. There is no moral ambiguity in that.

Georgetown University professor Charles King, an expert in these matters, remarked that the best thing which can be said about Antonescu is that he was a conservative anti-Semite, not a millenarian one like Adolf Eichmann or Alfred Rosenberg.

Upon Antonescu’s removal from power, the Romanians switched sides in the war. For the remainder of the war Romania contributed more troops—538,000— to the Allied cause than any other country except for the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and the United States. Romanian casualties against the Nazis in 1944–45 were some twenty-five times greater than those of Italy, another country that fought first for the Axis and then against it. Of course, Romania’s change of heart was a consequence of its need to regain all of Transylvania from Nazi-occupied Hungary. Self-interest dominates foreign policy thinking most of the time in most places. Yet rarely has national self-interest been applied so nakedly as by Romanian regimes during World War II, descending as it did to the level of sheer opportunism. It also bears repeating that the shamelessness of Romania evinced during the war was, in turn, partly a function of its impossible geographical position, especially after Munich, when Chamberlain abandoned Central Europe to Germany.

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European Naval Tactics, 1702

The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down, by Colin Woodard (Mariner Books, 2008), Kindle Loc. 739-785:

In the spring of 1702, England went to war, siding with the Dutch, Austrians, and Prussians against France and Spain. By doing so, they were setting the stage for the greatest outbreak of piracy the Atlantic would ever know….

In the early years of the conflict, the English and French navies clashed in two massive fleet engagements. These battles involved only the Royal Navy’s largest vessels, the ships of the line: enormous, lumbering, wooden fortresses bristling with three stories of heavy cannon. These ships, the first-, second-, and third-rates, were too slow and cumbersome to use in more subtle operations such as convoying merchantmen, attacking enemy shipping, or patrolling the unmarked reefs and shoals of the Caribbean. They were built for one purpose: to join a line of battle in a massive set-piece engagement….

Each of the navy’s seven first-rate ships had a crew of 800 men, who were crammed into a 200-foot-long hull with a hundred heavy cannon, and months of supplies and food stores, including live cows, sheep, pigs, goats, and poultry…. [Each] massive ship maneuvered into the line of battle, two hundred yards ahead of one ship, two hundred yards behind another. The enemy ships lined up in similar fashion and, after hours or even days of maneuvers, the two lines passed each other, discharging broadsides. The ships would sometimes pass within a few feet, blasting thirty-two-pound cannonballs into each other’s hulls. These balls punched straight through people, eviscerating or decapitating, and spraying the cramped gun decks with body parts and wooden splinters. Cannon trained on exposed decks were generally loaded with grapeshot or with a pair of cannonballs chained together, either of which could reduce a crowd of men into a splay of mangled flesh. From the rigging, sharpshooters picked off enemy officers or, if the ships came together, dropped primitive grenades on their opponent’s deck. Above and below, every surface was soon covered with blood and body parts, which oozed out of the scuppers and drains when the ship heeled in the wind. “I fancied myself in the infernal regions,” a veteran of such a battle recalled, “where every man appeared a devil.”

These early engagements took the lives of thousands of men but they were hardly conclusive. Seven English and four French ships of the line fought a six-day battle off Colombia in August 1702, for example, with neither side losing a single ship. Two years later, fifty-three English and Dutch ships of the line squared off with some fifty French vessels off Málaga, Spain, in the largest naval engagement of the war; the daylong bout of fleet-scale carnage ending in a draw.

By happenstance, the Royal Navy wiped out its French and Spanish rivals early in the war. In October 1702, an English battle fleet trapped twelve French ships of the line and most of the Spanish navy in a fjordlike inlet on Spain’s northern coast, destroying or capturing all of them. Five years later, an Anglo-Dutch force captured the French port of Toulon and so many men-of-war that the French were unable to engage in further fleet actions. Thereafter on many English ships of the line, crewmen had substantially reduced odds of dying in battle, though disease, accident, and abuse still carried off nearly half the men who enlisted.

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Top Secret WWII POW Camp in Hawai‘i

Honolulu resident John Bond, who has done a lot of historical research on the Ewa area of Oahu, has posted on the Ewa Battlefield blog a long compilation of his findings about a top secret World War II POW camp near Iroquois Point. Here are a few excerpts.

Camp Iroquois was unique as a Japanese POW camp with a philosophy of winning the “hearts and minds” which helped play a significant classified, secret role in winning the Pacific War. Americans usually heard very grim and brutal stories of the treatment of American prisoners in the hands of the Imperial Japanese military.

Japanese military POW’s arriving from the Pacific island battlefields were relatively few in numbers due to the fact that they were expected to never allow themselves to be captured alive. Huge numbers killed themselves by suicide attacks or killing each other.

Those that were captured early in the war usually were the result of incapacitating wounds or ship being sunk, such as at the battle of Midway where the Imperial Japanese Navy lost four aircraft carriers, among other fleet ships. Those survivors that could be picked up were brought back to Pearl Harbor to be interrogated for their military knowledge.

Then they were screened for a possible interest in cooperating with the United States to win the war by saving Japanese lives and preparing for the future democratic government of Japan.

Additionally, the alumni of the Camp Iroquois project became some of the most important ambassadors, academics and writers that greatly influenced future American Japanese relations and the establishment of many organizations developing diplomatic and cultural relationships and a solid mutual defense partnership….

Camp Iroquois really should be a part of the telling of the Honouliuli Internment and POW Camp story. Fortunately a lot of the story has actually been saved in great detail by the US Navy Japanese/Oriental Language School Archival Project, University of Colorado at Boulder Libraries in newsletters called The Interpreter.

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The Last Soviet Troops Leave Afghanistan, 1989

From Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89, by Rodric Braithwaite (Oxford U. Press, 2011), Kindle Loc. 4897-4916:

At nine o’clock Gromov called in his adjutant to check that his uniform was in order and at nine thirty he gave the order to move. The battalion’s armoured personnel carriers passed before him on to the bridge. Some of the soldiers were weeping. At nine forty-five Gromov followed them in his command vehicle, carrying the banner of the 40th Army. It was the last vehicle across. The withdrawal was complete.

The other side of the river was crowded with local Party and government officials, hundreds of Soviet and foreign journalists, and the relatives of soldiers who had not returned, hoping against hope to get news that they had perhaps been found safe and well at the last minute. Among the crowd was Alexander Rozenbaum, a young journalist from Severny Komsomolets, the Archangel youth newspaper. Fifty-nine boys from Archangel had been killed in Afghanistan and Rozenbaum’s moving report of the ceremony at the bridge ended with the questions which everyone was now asking: Why did we go in? Who are the guilty men?

People embraced the soldiers, kissed them, threw flowers under the tracks of their vehicles. Gromov’s son Maksim was there, and ran to embrace him. Then there were speeches, a meal in a nearby café for the officers. Gromov phoned Yazov, who congratulated him unenthusiastically. And then, apart for the administrative chores, it was all over.

Even now the official press was still peddling the old myths. In those very last days Pravda wrote, ‘An orchestra played as the Nation welcomed the return of her sons. Our boys were coming home after fulfilling their international obligations. For 10 years Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan repaired, rebuilt, and constructed hundreds of schools, technical colleges, over 30 hospitals and a similar number of nursery schools, some 400 blocks of flats and 35 mosques. They sank dozens of wells and dug nearly 150 km of irrigation ditches and canals. They were also engaged in guarding military and civilian installations in trouble.’

But there was no one from Moscow to greet the soldiers at the bridge – no one from the Party, no one from the government, no one from the Ministry of Defence, no one from the Kremlin. Years later their excuse was that it had been a dirty war, that to have made the journey to Termez would have been in effect to endorse a crime. It was an extraordinary omission – very bad politics, as well as very bad behaviour. The soldiers never forgot or forgave the insult.

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From Soviet Soldier to Muslim Convert

From Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89, by Rodric Braithwaite (Oxford U. Press, 2011), Kindle Loc. 4326-4349:

Aleksei Olenin, who was serving in a transport battalion, was kidnapped as he was relieving himself by the Salang Pass. He was beaten up, tried to escape, tried to hang himself, and was finally incorporated into a mujahedin detachment led by a greybeard called Sufi Puainda Mokhmad. After two months in the mountains, Olenin converted to Islam: ‘No one made me do it. I simply realised that since I was still alive I must have been preserved by some power … I would have adopted any faith that was available: after all, up to then I had been a Young Pioneer, a Komsomol, and was preparing to join the Party.’ He was given the Muslim name Rakhmatula.

In the course of the next six years four other Russian soldiers were brought into the detachment. One of them was Yuri Stepanov, who was renamed Mukhibullo. He too had been captured on the Salang Pass when his zastava was attacked.

Then the news came through that the 40th Army was leaving Afghanistan. The members of the detachment returned to their farms, and Olenin went with them: ‘In those days we grew wheat. The poppies only came with the Taliban.’ Sufi Puainda, who still regarded the Russians as his property, decided that they should all take wives. The Afghan fathers were reluctant to surrender their daughters, because the Russians could not afford the bride price, and because they feared that the girls would be dishonoured when the Russians eventually abandoned them and went home. But one poor man was willing to give Olenin his daughter Nargez. By now Olenin thought that his chances of returning home were in any case at an end.

He was wrong. Before the marriage could take place, the Russian government had successfully negotiated for the return of prisoners. General Dostum (1954–), the Uzbek commander in the north of the country, was anxious to strengthen his relations with the Russians and arranged for Olenin and Stepanov to travel home. He first brought their mothers to meet them in his stronghold of Mazar-i Sharif. Olenin’s mother fainted when she saw him. The prisoners then left via Pakistan, where they were received by Benazir Bhutto (1953–2007): one story was that she had provided the money for their ransom. Olenin arrived back in Otradnoe in May 1994, to find a country transformed beyond his recognition by the collapse of the Soviet Union. His mother paraded the local girls before him in the hope that he would marry one of them and settle down. But his conscience weighed on him and after six months he went back to Afghanistan to find and marry Nargez. He intended to take her back to Russia. But the arrival of the Taliban in power meant that he was once again trapped in Afghanistan. His small business profited, his wife bore him a daughter, and it was not until 2004 that he finally returned again to Otradnoe, this time with his family. He remained a Muslim and the women of the village noticed that he worked harder and drank less than the other men in the village. Musulmanin (The Muslim), a film made in 1995, explores just such a theme: the contrast between the orderly piety of a Russian Muslim convert from Afghanistan and the disorderly and dysfunctional life of the family and village he left behind him.

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Initial Soviet Goals in Afghanistan, 1979

From Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89, by Rodric Braithwaite (Oxford U. Press, 2011), Kindle Loc. 1386-1394, 2000-2025:

In 1968 the Soviet Union had deployed eighteen divisions, backed by eight Warsaw Pact divisions – some five hundred thousand men – to invade Czechoslovakia, a country with a much more forgiving terrain and no tradition of armed resistance to foreigners; a country moreover where, unlike Afghanistan, there was not already a civil war in progress. The government and the KGB initially believed that the job could be done with some 35–40,000 soldiers. The generals naturally wanted more. During the planning phase, under pressure from General Magometov in Kabul and others, the number was increased, and the force which crossed the frontier at the end of December consisted of some eighty thousand soldiers. Even this was nothing like the number that the soldiers believed would be necessary: Russian military experts later calculated that they would have needed between thirty and thirty-five divisions to stabilise the situation in Afghanistan, close the frontiers, secure the cities, road networks, and passes, and eliminate the possibility of armed resistance.

The task before the 40th Army and its commanders as they swept into Afghanistan may have seemed simple, clear, and limited. The Russians had intervened to put an end to the vicious feuding within the PDPA, and to force a radical change in the extreme and brutally counterproductive policies of the Communist government. The aim was not to take over or occupy the country. It was to secure the towns and the roads between them, and to withdraw as soon as the Afghan government and its armed forces were in a state to take over the responsibility for themselves.

This may have looked like a strategy, but it turned out to be little more than an impractical aspiration. The Russians understood well enough that the problems of Afghanistan could only be solved by political means: Andropov had after all argued right at the beginning that the regime could not be sustained with Soviet bayonets. But they also hoped that the Afghan people would in the end welcome the benefits they promised to bring: stable government, law and order, health, agricultural reform, development, education for women as well as men.

They discovered instead that most Afghans preferred their own ways, and were not going to change them at the behest of a bunch of godless foreigners and home-grown infidels. The Russians did not, and could not, address this fundamental strategic issue. The vicious civil war which greeted them had started well before they arrived and continued for seven years after they left, until it ended with the victory of the Taliban in 1996. It was a war in which loyalties were fluid and divided. Individuals and whole groups switched sides in both directions, or negotiated with one another for a ceasefire or a trade deal when the opportunity arose. Fighting and bloodshed erupted within each of the Afghan parties to the war as leaders and groupings struggled for advantage. The Russians found themselves fighting the worst kind of war, a war against an insurgency which they had not expected and for which they were not equipped or trained. All sides behaved with great brutality. There were executions, torture, and the indiscriminate destruction of civilians, their villages, and their livelihood on all sides. Like others who had entered Afghanistan before and since, the Russians were appalled at the violence and effectiveness of the opposition which faced them almost immediately and which made a mockery of their hopes.

One day, both the Russians and the Afghans knew, the Soviets would go home. The Afghans would have to go on living in the country and with one another, long after the last Russian had left. Even those Afghans who supported the Kabul government and acquiesced in the Soviet presence, or perhaps even welcomed it, had always to calculate where they would find themselves once the Soviets had departed.

And there was another fundamental weakness in the strategic thinking of the Soviet government. They had underestimated – maybe they had not even considered – the eventual unwillingness of their own people to sustain a long and apparently pointless war in a far-off country. They were never of course faced by the massive popular movement in America which opposed the war in Vietnam. But a growing disillusion inside and outside government sapped the will of the leadership to continue a war that was brutal, costly, and pointless.

These two misjudgements were sufficient to nullify the military successes of the 40th Army.

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Soviet Reluctance to Invade Afghanistan, 1979

From Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89, by Rodric Braithwaite (Oxford U. Press, 2011), Kindle Loc. 793-810, 980-992:

The legal basis for any Soviet military intervention was shaky. Under the UN Charter, a country could ask for external assistance if it had been the victim of aggression. But there had been no such aggression. What was going on was an internal struggle, a fight within the revolution, of one group of the population against another.

Andropov weighed in forcefully. If Soviet forces went in, they would find themselves fighting against the people, suppressing the people, firing upon the people. The Soviet Union would look like aggressors. That was unacceptable. Kosygin and Ustinov agreed. Ustinov went on to report that the Soviet military were already doing some prudent contingency planning. Two divisions were being formed in the Turkestan Military District and another in the Central Asian Military District. Three regiments could be sent into Afghanistan at short notice. The 105th Airborne Division and a regiment of motorised infantry could be sent at twenty-four hours’ notice. Ustinov asked for permission to deploy troops to the Afghan frontier and carry out tactical exercises there to underline that Soviet forces were at high readiness. He was, he nevertheless reassured his listeners, as much against the idea of sending troops into Afghanistan as everyone else. Anyway, the Afghans had ten divisions of troops, and that should be quite enough to deal with the rebels.

As for the Afghans’ demand for Soviet troops, the more the Soviet leaders thought about it, the less they liked it. No one had entirely ruled it out. But when they put the arguments to Brezhnev, he made it clear that he was opposed to intervention, remarking sourly that the Afghan army was falling to bits and that the Afghans expected the Soviets to fight their war for them.

And so the final conclusion was that the Soviet Union should send military supplies and some small units to ‘assist the Afghan army to overcome its difficulties’. Five hundred specialists from the Ministry of Defence and the KGB would reinforce the five hundred and fifty who were already in Afghanistan. The Russians would supply 100,000 tons of grain, increase the price paid for Afghan gas, and waive interest payments on existing loans. They would protest to the Pakistani government about its interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. Two divisions should go down to the border. But no Soviet troops should be sent to Afghanistan itself.

The KGB had long experience of dealing with Afghanistan, many covert contacts there, and its own ideas of how things should be handled: it was in many ways the lead department. It had invested much of its capital in the Parcham faction, and tended to reflect their views, even though these were a comparatively small proportion of the membership of the PDPA – fifteen hundred out of fifteen thousand.

The rest of the membership was from Khalq. That was also the faction to which most of the Communist officers in the army belonged, men whom Amin had made a special effort to cultivate. The result was a growing contradiction between the views of the KGB, who came to favour intervention and the replacement of Amin by their man, the Parcham leader Babrak Karmal, and the views of the Soviet military, who were prepared to live with Amin because they believed that the main thing was to retain the support of the Khalq officers in the army, many of whom had been trained in the Soviet Union and had good professional relations with their Soviet military colleagues. These disagreements were exacerbated by poor personal relations between senior KGB and army officers, and by rivalries between the KGB and the army’s own intelligence organisation, the GRU.

All this had an increasingly negative effect on the formulation and execution of policy, including the decision to invade Afghanistan in the first place, and the management of policy in the nine years after the invasion took place. Afghan government leaders naturally took advantage of these differences to play one faction off against the other.

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