Wednesday, May 30, 2012

That's Amore!

This little video seems to have gone viral, and if you watch I think you'll see why.Even my friends jim and Lisa, hard-headed realists that they are, were captivated (which is where I found this - thanks, guys!)

Anyway, you know I'm a sucker for romance, so I'm getting viral like everyone else. But...in a sense, this is both sweet (since this guy obviously wanted their engagement to be really, really memorable) and scary. Because this little skit took dozens of friends and must have taken hours of rehearsal; who the hell has the time and energy for that?

After they have kids they're gonna look back on this in wonder; where the hell DID all that time go..?

Monday, May 28, 2012

De Morituris

I have a post that has been my standard for Memorial Day for years. But this year I'd like to think less about those gone than those still here.
Since 2003 the U.S. seems to have slipped into a bizarre schizophrenia. Our attitude towards the expeditionary wars we have ginned up since the end of the punitive campaign in Afghanistan has varied between a cynical resignation to a hesitant distaste. Meanwhile, our attitude towards the ridiculously small, self-selected group of people who have fought them "for" us has varied between a sort of passive bumper-sticker patriotism to an exaggeratedly disproportionate "gratitude". Charlie Pierce has a fairly good summation of this;
"Now, for the veterans of the two wars of the past decade, we're giving them all kinds of favors and goodies and public applause, and maybe even a parade or two, overcompensating our brains out, but, ultimately, what does all the applause mean at the end of the day? We are apparently fine with two more years of vets coming home from Afghanistan, from a war that 60 percent of us say we oppose. But we support The Troops. Will we become a more skeptical nation the next time a bunch of messianic fantasts concoct a war out of lies? Perhaps, but we support The Troops. Will we tax ourselves sufficiently to pay for what it costs to care for the people we send to one endless war and one war based on lies? Well, geez, we'll have to think about that, but we support The Troops."
The Army I joined, the post-Vietnam, pre-Reagan Army of the early Eighties, had a pretty cynical attitude. We'd seen our brothers, the men who were our platoon sergeants and First Sergeants, used up and then tossed away in RIFs after the end of a war that we tried desperately to pretend that we'd "won" because we were never beaten in the field. We referred to the Army as "the Green Machine" and had a pretty good understanding what the priority of "accomplishing the mission" meant to the "welfare of the troops" if the mission meant that a lot of those troops would die for and in the usual ratio of "pointless" to "contributing-to-the-accomplishing-the-mission".
We understood - because we'd seen it or lived through it - that our "leaders" both civilian and military would "lead" us into unprofitable wars, lie to us about their cunning plans to "win" them, and then toss us aside like used contraceptive devices after the inevitable ugly mess ensued. We had heard the rhetoric about "freedom" and "peace" and knew that as often as those terms meant their face value they were a happy-face sticker for "whatever advances our policy" and "make a wasteland". We were ready to do the things our government told us to do while being pretty cynical about the combination of ambition, distraction, uglification, and derision that determined the way our government would decide what those things were and how they would sell them to the herd.

This stands in fairly dramatic contrast to the current volunteer force, where supposedly: "Six out of seven soldiers and Army civilians, [a new study] reveals, trust their senior leaders to make the right decisions for the Army, and 90 percent of those surveyed remain willing to put the Army’s needs above their own."

This trusting and sacrificing seem both disproportionate and inappropriate after the concatenation of lies, damn lies, and statistics that have characterized the "War on Terror". It would seem to me that having watched one administration lie it's way one war and another continue a second long after it's sell-buy date that it would behoove my country and all Americans to pause on the day we set aside to honor those killed in wars and consider just exactly what it means to "trust" their "leaders" with the lives of their fellow citizens absent any indication that that government, and those leaders, are willing to do the hard calculus to ensure that the exchange of those lives in return for the advancement of the national interest is a transaction that justifies the cost in wrecked lives and shattered bodies.

So. I'd like to think that this Memorial Day that my fellow citizens would do more than just pat the yellow-ribbon magnet on their bumper in a hat-tip to those of my fellow soldiers who went to do their nation's bidding and never returned. I'd like to think that those citizens would remember that the intent of the Founders and Framers was that We the People are supposed to be sovereign.

That it is supposed to be in our names those lives are given or taken, and that if we allow - or, worse, encourage - those who we elect to throw those lives away in the pursuit of lies, or impossibilities, and then once those lies and that nonsense are exposed, do not hold those people and ourselves to account, then we have failed to honor our pledge to them, that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
And, hey; I like tradition as much as the next guy.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

From The Forehead of Zeus

I want to invite everyone here to visit our friend Labrys for a trip in the U.S. Army M7TARDIS to Ft. Maclellan, Alabama for Women's Army Corps Basic Training, 1974.
"I hate running, I hate hot weather. So how on earth did I end up in Women's Army Corps Basic Training in Ft. McClellan, Alabama in August of 1974? I would have done most anything to get the hell out of Kansas. My father laughed and said "So my little girl is joining the Whore Corps."
As much as there is very little that remains of the Army I knew, Labrys brings to life an Army that literally no longer exists except in memory, and does it with her usual frank brilliance.
I can't recommend her post too highly, both for her subject as well as her writing. What better way to begin the Memorial Day remembrance? Go; read. You won't regret it.

And don't forget to ask her to keep going - she remembers another place and time that have almost vanished; the U.S. Army, Europe in the Seventies, and the Bavarian glories of Flint Kaserne. Hoch, hoch, Labrys!

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Army I Knew: Indigestion on Honeybun Hill (SFQC 2)

So when we last peeked in on the U.S. Army and PFC Chief circa 1981 we were loafing around the 1st COSCOM area over on the far side of Smoke Bomb Hill and the piney woods of Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, waiting for the opportunity to become a one of America's Best, the Green Berets.

(First - I should tell you; I have no photos of the actual places and people of this part of my story. I have, instead, used images of the places I went at other times, and with other people)

What I was actually doing was officially known as "pre-phase" and was the holding unit for the JFK Special Warfare Center and School's first phase of the SF enlisted Qualification Course.
(This guy, by the way, is supposed to be the "Special Forces Memorial Statue" and in my day he stood outside the front of JFKSWC and was universally known as "Bronze Bruce" or "The Gay Beret" from his limp-wristed posture)

Now the Army hates idleness in general and idle enlisted scum in particular, so though there really was no instruction to be done there the troops foregathering amongst the Cosmonites were kept as busy as the Army and USAJFKSWCS could keep us.

Which principally involved PT.

We PT'ed in the morning and again in the afternoon. Between the pushups and sidestraddle hops we ran, everywhere, and were introduced to the specialty of the special forces, speed ruck-marching.

This was a particularly grueling torture, involving a relatively light load - about 20 to 30 pounds in the rucksack plus the LBE (the "load bearing equipment" harness that supported our essential fighting tools; ammunition pouches, field dressing, compass, and canteens). The luckier among us had been issued the old cotton web belt and suspenders. These had one drawback - they tended to absorb sweat in the summer - offset by the immense plus of being cuddly soft and flexible.
(N.B. - this is me, two years later but still wearing my old cotton web LBE)

The less fortunate had to put up with the newer artificial fiber variety, which was supposed to be more durable but was also nastily stiff and rough; it was misery under the rucksack where the V-strap shoulder harness would gouge and tear at your neck. Although most of the more experienced guys - the E-4's and above - knew enough to pad their necks with an OD sling bandage (known in GI slang as a "drive-on rag") the cadre were like all cadre everywhere and were death on the drive-on rags. You could wear them, but only if you could keep them tucked down under your collar.

So loaded up, drive-on rags tucked safely away, we would take off at a fast marching pace. And by fast I mean fast; when we were moving well we were striding out just short of a moderately slow jog. These rucks were usually at least as long as a PT run; several miles, and sometimes more. And while the primary object was speed, the other requirement was murder - keeping formation.

Because like almost all route marches, our column was nearly constantly stretching and collapsing.

The GI term for this is the "accordion effect". Truly well-trained units can reduce the number of times it happens and the severity of the accordion. But I suspect that even the best marching outfits get hit now and then.

It's worst for the guys in the back, largely because they usually can't see what's going on up ahead, and especially if the guys in front slow down gradually so that the slowdown isn't really noticeable.

Because what happens is that the leaders get going again, and the guys behind them take a moment - a fraction of a second or so, maybe - to see the front guys speed away and close the gap. Every successive rank in the column adds another fraction of a second or so to the lag, so by the time the guys in the back start moving the front of the column is pelting away at a run. The poor bastards in the back then have to beat cheeks like their hair was on fire and the water bucket was in the road ahead, rucksacks slamming up and down, equipment flapping and jouncing.

Repeat this four, six, or seven times over the course of a couple of miles.

You can see how the guys in the back might get a trifle winded.

And that was pretty much that; runs, rucks, and a handful of offhand "classes" simply designed to get bodies in shape for the real business; Phase I of SFQC.

My Phase I started the way most of everyone's training adventures started back in those days; with the arrival of the "Silversides" 80-Pax trucks.
I hope you're impressed by the picture - I had to hunt like hell to find it. That is an "80-Pax", "cattle truck" or "Silversides" - I honestly I have no idea whether the Army still uses these things, but they were everywhere in the Eighties. They were just like the picture suggests they were; a civilian-type tractor and slab-sided trailer with two tall doors on the right side and rear. They had no seats other than benches down the center and along the sides, but you never sat down in them unless you were pulling some sort of Hollywood detail. You stood, grabbing the vertical poles or horizontal rails, or someone's head, or the side of the truck. They were hot in summer, freezing in winter, and rode like their suspension was made of steel rods. As a method of moving objects, they were efficient and practical.

As transportation for humans, they pretty much sucked.

I rode them to and from ranges and everywhere else in Basic and AIT, and later as a paratrooper we rode them down to Green Ramp at Pope Air Force Base to get 'chuted up to jump, or to fly off to high adventure
(that is, to somewhere usually dank and dirty, where we spent anywhere between several days to several months getting tired, bored, and filthy - adventure generally means reading about someone else's misery a long way away and long time off)
in distant lands. Just seeing the image slams me with the memory of vicious exhaustion, the reek of sweaty cotton and unwashed GIs, and distant angry voices shouting "Get the fuck in there, you fucking numbnuts! Stand on your rucksack! We need to get another fifty people on this goddamn truck!"

This trip was no different; we were jammed into these things and driven off into the piney woods for an hour or so, and then dumped out into some sort of backwoods shotgun shack village, shoved into line, and shaken down by a band of screaming lunatics.

That was my introduction to Camp Mackall, North Carolina
(Later I did some research and found out that Mackall really has a hell of a history. For all that Fort Bragg and Fort Benning like to preen about their Airborne pedigrees the real "Home of the U.S. Army Airborne" is Camp Mackall. Pretty much all the WW2 airborne troops trained there, and the post, knocked together in 1942 from pine woods and peach orchards, was the training and staging area for the 82nd Airborne long before the artillery gave up Ft. Bragg to the east.)
the location for the 1st and 3rd Phases of the SFQC.
(Here's Mackall - actually, then "Camp Hoffmann" - in 1943)

And that was very much the style of the first week of Phase I; lots of running, lots of screaming, and lots of frantic - but, in retrospect, pretty pointless - action.

This was the effect of the privates, I suspect.

The thing is that nothing we did in those early weeks of Phase I really did anything to make us smarter, more efficient, more cunning, ruthless soldiers, make us more clever at working with foreign fighters, make us into more intelligent individualistic soldiers.

It weeded out the frightened, the completely unfit, and unwilling, and - occasionally - the merely unlucky.

But it was not really a very smart way to make "special" soldiers.

And I'm convinced that is because so many of us really shouldn't have been there.

Many of us - the genuine trainees - just didn't have anything that would have helped us learn what we should have been learning. We were essentially civilians with a lick of O.D. paint on the outside.

We had, most of us, done little real work, and had little or no experience with real hardship, or with gutting out a difficult task under stressful conditions. Most of us had never been hungry, or sleepless, for any real time. We had no experience with the simplest of tactical tasks, or even living outside, other than the sad simulacrum we had enjoyed in Basic Training.

So the SF cadre had to treat us, and did, like fools, that is, like recruit privates. And that's not what a special forces soldier is supposed to be, but that's what we were.

The 1981 Phase I SFQC consisted or roughly eight weeks.

Two weeks of "general subjects", which was just more physical conditioning with some idle crap and fairly ridiculous "hand-to-hand combat" thrown in because, I'm convinced, somebody saw something like it in some World War 2 commando movie.

Two weeks of Land Navigation,

Two weeks of Starvation Survival, and

Two weeks of Patrolling.

I can't really tell the story of the whole course, so I'll try and give you just what I remember as the highlights.

The thing I remember most about the first couple of weeks were just the small change of living at Mackall.

The "barracks" were wooden shacks without doors or windows; just rectangular cutouts at the ends. They had concrete floors and metal-frame bunks with plywood planks for "beds"; you just rolled out your rubber lady (the old green rubber inflatable air mattress, although the foam sleeping mat was coming in to replace the "deflatable" piece of shit just as I arrived) and your fart-sack or your poncho liner and there you were.

They kept out the rain, though.

The latrines were real special, though; the only fourteen-hole pit toilet I've ever seen in a lifetime of camping and military service.

I shit you not; the actual crappers were arranged like a ginormous horizontal ferris wheel, each conventional toilet seat screwed down to a huge plywood disc that sat over a ten-foot diameter concrete pipe stuck vertically into the ground. You just walked up, smiled to your neighbor grunting and farting away two seats over, sat down, and opened fire.

They were fairly foul, and were made worse by trooper's habit of taking sodas onto the crapper (later in cycle when we got "pop privileges") and then hucking the empties down the hole. The suck-truck that came every week or two to drain the vile broth inside these hellmouths continually plugged and broke down trying to suck up these cans. At one point later in my cycle all the privates were marched off to have a swim and the student-NCOs (who had been tasked with enforcing the no-pop-cans-in-the-shitters rule) were offered buckets and ropes and told that they could choose to clean the cans out of the unspeakable wheatina down in the latrine-holes...or terminate the course right there; choose to drop out of the course with no chance of ever retaking it or joining the Special Forces.

I'm told that two sergeants rode back to Ft. Bragg that night.

From used food my thoughts turn to actual food, which was an obsession with all of us by that point.

I can honestly say that SFQC may well have been the longest, hardest continual work I ever did, in the Army or elsewhere. We were awake something like 15 to 17 hours a day and doing some sort of physical work almost all during that time, including some of the most demanding running and ruck-marching I've ever done. We must have been using somewhere on the order of 4,000 calories a day, and in General Subjects week we got probably about 2,000 or 3,000 going in; two cooked ("hot A") meals for breakfast and dinner and a canned food ("C-ration") at noon.

We were all constantly hungry.

The breakfast was, as Army hot A breakfasts usually were, the best meal of the day; eggs, bacon or sausage, flapjacks or waffles, toast or biscuits (and, this being the Army which meant you ate "Southern" wherever you were, cream gravy), and lots of damn hot, damn black coffee.

Oh - and I can't possibly forget this - the entire time we ate chow the cadre played the entire "Ballad of the Green Beret" album by SSG Barry Sadler over the PA system.
You've probably never heard this shit, but, I swear; if every copy ever pressed was suddenly and instantaneously destroyed - not all that bad an idea, really - I could reconstruct it, instrumentals and all, I heard it, every freaking day, over and over, to the point where thirty years later I STILL remember the horrible songs. You can't imagine how sad that makes me.

It's an awful country-western sort of thing. The famous song is the ballad of the title, you know, the one that talks about "fearless men, who jump and die"? That one? But there's more, so much more. There's an awful song about Saigon. Another one about nurses. And one about "garritroopers" - those REMFs that have sat around behind every army since Marius' day - only it's misspelled "garet trooper":

"He’s got a hip knife, a side knife, a boot knife, a shoulder knife
And a little bitty one that’s a combination flare gun, dinner set,
and genuine police whistle..."


Ugh. Barry Fucking Sadler; if he hadn't shot himself in the head in Guatemala I'd have to shoot him myself.

Let's get the hell off this subject.

Anyway, of all the yummy SF breakfast treats the big local delicacy was - and this was when the company was purely a local Southern thing - Krispy Kreme pastries; nasty oversweetened dough slathered with a layer of sugar so thick that when cool it solidified into a waxy white rind that cracked when you bit into them.
For a hungry soldier, they were fucking outstanding.

The Krispy Kreme products were so beloved that the last incline leading back to the camp gate was known as "Honeybun Hill" after the most disgustingly over-sweet fat-pill offered at morning chow. I'm not sure about anyone else, but the thought of getting outside of those evil things dragged me up that hill more than once.

And that was pretty much that; lots of healthy exercise and Army training. And then it was on to Land Nav.

Land Navigation was both genuinely challenging and good training. A low-ranking U.S. Army soldier, for all that we like to talk about how individualistic and well-trained our troopers are, isn't in practice that much better off than his old Soviet counterpart who couldn't read - not maps, anyway - and drank antifreeze strained through a bread loaf. Most of had passed some little piddly compass courses in Basic, of course, and had the rudiments of map- and compass-reading, but SF Land Nav was hard, really hard, and it forced you to learn how to move long distances through rough terrain and get where you were going.


The training I got at Mackall has stayed with me, and served me well, all the rest of my life. But ask me to remember "Land Nav" and what I recall is desperately trying to lope down the firebreak roads in the dark fearfully eying every bush and oddly-shaped tree for fear it was one of the cadre trying to catch a "road-runner".

We were warned never to use the firebreaks. If I had been more veteran I would have understood that roads and trails were places where enemies would place mines, or site ambushes, and that to use the roads and trails was to ask death to sit down and share a honeybun with you.

But at the time, all we saw were trackless tangles of wait-a-minute vines and shitty terrain alongside lovely, open, level sandy roadways. So we ALL tried to run the roads, and the cadre tried to catch us. Some got caught; the first catch was a warning, the second, automatic "re-cycle" - a return to COSCOM and beginning the next Phase I all over.

None of us wanted to be recycled.

We learned to read the terrain, to interpret the topographic lines as ridges, hills, and gullies. We learned to shoot azimuths on the run, and dodge around obstacles first left, then right, to stay in a rough line. We learned how to find our way through a place we had never been with nothing more than a piece of paper and a magnetic needle, and that's no small thing.
Next was Survival.

We called it "Starvation", because midway through Phase I we were reduced to two C-ration meals a day. A C-rat (and the Eighties C-rats were held by the Vietnam guys to be practically haute cuisine compared to the earlier C's, although they all bitched about not getting the issue cigarettes, especially Camels) contains about 1,500 calories if you eat every fucking scrap including the O.D. metal shavings inside the Beef With Spiced Sauce can.

Picky gourmets that we were, we usually ate just the main meals - although even starving nearly everyone still rejected the awful "Ham and Eggs, Chopped", a disgusting yellowish loaf widely believed to have been pressed from used diapers - the canned fruit, jam, and the candy.

The crackers and toffee-chocolate bars sucked the fluid right out of you, and outside the pound cake the various "dust rolls" (supposedly cinnamon and chocolate nut rolls) acted like sponges and sucked up a canteen of water just in the chewing.
So we were now getting something seriously less than 4,000 calories a day and still working like mine slaves; the weight melted off us. We were so starved that we had no problem eating pets and livestock.

OK, well, rabbits aren't exclusively "pets", but you get the idea. We learned how to kill and clean small game as well as getting some pretty ludicrous instruction on trapping and hunting that might have kept us alive had we been forced to live off a captive game farm. However, as a nice suburban kid I did learn that, no, meat doesn't come from a store and have never since been squeamish about butchering my own meat. When you think about it, that's not a bad lesson, either.

The largest single meal we ate during the entire two weeks came in the form of an entire haunch of goat for our squad.

This animal, a rather bold-smelling billy, was used as a teaching tool on how to kill and butcher a medium- to large animal. We sat through the last moments of the goat and the ensuing lecture with barely-contained frenzy; the minute the lesson concluded were bounded away to choose our method of preparing our meaty bounty; smoking? Roasting? How should we treat this scrumptious largesse to best produce the appropriate gorging glut of protein.

We had settled on smoking, constructed our smoker to U.S. Army specifications, and were already salivating at the delicious goaty flavor drifting up with the ash smoke when the camp commandant arrived.

We had little prior contact with this exquisite, who lorded it over us with Olympian detachment, but he seemed to look on us at that moment as fellows, as his comrades. He asked us how we were doing (wonderfully, we all said loyally, of course). He made some observations about our smoker.

And then he began to tell us about Lucky, the goat.


Lucky, it seemed, had been the most precious and adorable of kids. As a goat, he had been grown to be everyone's pet, a figure of universal love and tenderness, the very embodiment of a sort of goatish Special Forcesness. The commandant described Lucky's many playful antics, his gentle and loving nature, and his long and faithful service as the Camp mascot. Through the years he had proven to be a goat of precocious ingenuity, almost human lovability, and had followed the commandant with the devotion of a faithful dog.

And now we were going to fucking eat him.

I'd like to say that we felt too guilty to consume the backside of this wonderful goat. I'd like to tell you we sobbed as we bid farewell to the quarter of the beloved Lucky that had become ours. But I won't kid you.

We just felt a little crummy afterwards.

That, and the fact is that smoked goat tastes a lot like goat smells.

Then there was bunny baseball. But, hell, this story is long enough as it is.
Finally there was Patrolling.

As a medic this was the hardest part of Phase I for me. I had no idea what we were doing when we started. I had to learn in a week what the infantry guys had been doing for months. It's a tribute to the cadre that I learned it and can still, to this day, remember how to write a five-paragraph operations order. I learned as fast as I could - and I learn pretty fast - and tried damn hard to become an infantry sergeant in two weeks.

Unfortunately, two weeks is not a long time, learning is not the same as knowing, and trying not the same as doing.

And on top of the patrolling we added a new stress to go with the hunger; sleeplessness.

Prior to Patrolling Week we had been going on five to seven hours of sleep a night. Now we were reduced to catnaps of two hours or less. Four hours of unbroken sleep was an unspeakable luxury. Most of us were - although we didn't realize it - operating a something like 40 to 50 percent of our peaks. We were still going, however, still pushing ahead to that tantalizing doorway to Phase II and (for the medics) nearly half a year of poontang and playtime at the paradise of Fort Sam Houston.

But for me, it didn't happen.

I failed my first graded patrol; as assistant patrol leader I was in charge at the Objective Rally Point as my PL and his squad leaders went to recon the objective. As I made my way around the circle of bodies the pine woods exploded with a single shot; one of the M-60 gunners had been fooling with his charging handle and had let the bolt go forward, firing a blank round.

I stumbled on, as a regular troop; raids, recons, movements-to-contact, wedge formations, ranger files, ORPs, passages of lines...finally I got a second chance. As Patrol Leader all I had to do was move a short distance, find a hide position, set up a patrol base, and wait.
I fucked up.

I set the guys in place - in groups of three, "33%", so two could sleep while one pulled security - knowing how stoned we all were. I went around and around the perimeter, shaking and kicking troops awake. Finally, I was beat. I woke my APL, told him to give me fifteen minutes sleep, and laid down on the bare ground.

I was shaken awake by a grinning trooper of the 82nd.

"You die, GI!" he crowed, dragging his finger across my throat, and ran on.

All I remember of the next day was walking across a sunny clearing with the machinegun on my hip, and the instructor-walker pulling me aside; literally pulling me, as I was responding pretty much to direct stimuli only. Sitting on the ground listening to him explain that I had failed my second graded patrol, and was being recycled. Getting on the deuce-and-a-half and feeling the early summer sun warm on my face and wondering if the sky was ever so blue anywhere else.

I don't remember feeling peculiar, or unusual, or anything different than my what-I-thought-of-as-my-usual-self on that ride back to Ft. Bragg. I sat, and made idle talk, and dozed; I didn't understand why the guys in there with me, the other recycles, kept looking at me so oddly.

It was much later that one of them told me that all the while I was in the back of that truck chatting, and napping, and sitting I was crying constantly but silently, without so much as a sob or sniffle, just the two bright tear-falls that never stopped.

He said it was the creepiest thing he'd ever seen.

And so I returned to the old wooden WW2 barracks on COSCOM Hill having failed to do something I desperately wanted to do for the first time in my life. To find that the rest of my life had been waiting for me there.
(Next time: Almost Airborne, or, Are You SURE That Hat's Supposed To Look Like That?)

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Some son-of-a-bitch would die

Filed under the heading of "can we have a better effing media" is this article from the LA Times; L.A. gun buyback yields rocket launcher, assault weapons.
"A $2,000 pair of pocket pistols and a military rocket launcher -- sans rocket -- were among the 1,673 firearms that Los Angeles residents traded in for gift cards in the city’s gun buyback this weekend."
reads the first paragraph of this little item.

Charlie Pierce goes wild with this, asking;
"Who in the holy hell goes out and buys a freaking rocket launcher? What are you hunting? Traffic helicopters? And then, who in the holy hell turns it in to the cops? Shouldn't this engage the interest of the FBI's crack Set-Up-The-Loonies unit that has been so successful elsewhere?"
and on the face of it, given the newspaper article, his concern seems like a legitimate one.

But - speaking as someone who has had his rocket launchers in the day - wellll...let's just say that there are "rocket launchers" and "rocket launchers".

If this thing was, say, the "launcher" section from an RPG-7, well, that's bad. That really is a "rocket launcher"; you get your hands on the grenade round and you're in business.
But if this thing was - as I suspect it was - the dunnage from an old LAW or an AT-4, well, frankly, that's just a piece of fiberglass pipe. It's expendable, and is somewhere between difficult and impossible to reload. It's issued as a unit, launcher and projectile, and once it's fired the "launcher's" only real use as a weapon is as a bludgeon and not a very effective one, at that.
I will not disagree that the U.S. is pretty freaking ridiculous on who can tote around what weapon and why, but not sure that the whole "rocket launcher" thing here is really the cherry on the top of the self-licking ice cream sundae.

But you'd never know that from this article, and I suspect that there's one of two reasons for that;

First, it's possible that the LAPD did not produce the "rocket launcher" for the reporter, or describe it other than as such. In which case, one would think that the stupid fucking reporter would have asked an actual question, you know, like reporters in movies do, about the exact nature of this weapon.

Or, second, it's possible that the police DID produce the thing, and the reporter stared at it like a cow at the minutes of the Council of Trent, and ambled away as fucking clueless as he was before seeing it.

It's hard to tell which is worse.

But what is telling is that Charlie had a neat little quote from James Madison in his blog the following day:
“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

-- James Madison to W.T Barry, August 4, 1822
which sums up the utter fuckupitude that this little newspaper article represents.

In our current civilization We the People are asked to make many decisions on issues we have no personal knowledge of, in places we have never visited, and with information perforce supplied by others.

And the only way we can arm ourselves with the power of knowledge on these issues, from wars to traffic law, is through the reportage of others.

But if this article does anything, it shows how a simple question of physical fact - one that could have been clarified with a single, simple question - can be rendered not just completely, utterly useless but actively misleading - "OMFG, there are rocket launchers out there on the streets of LA!!!!" - through the total incompetence and ignorance of one local reporter.

And this is to completely elide the pernicious influence of maliciously deliberate liars of the Glenn Beckian sort.

It remains in me, therefore, no real sense of wonder that we are so thoroughly fucked.

Update 5/24 p.m.: In the Comments section over at Milpub where this was cross-posted, Andy (one of our most reliable regulars here - the next round's on me, Andy...) does his usual thorough job of fact-finding and tracks this nonsense down further. He finds a photo of this fearsome weapon of mass destruction at the Bakersfield TV station site and notes that it is, as suspected, an inerted training aid - in this case, of a U.S. AT-4.
So, no, the streets of LA are not in danger of becoming Beirut or Ramadi, LA Times, as a few simple questions would have established.

Grrrrr.

Why, oh why, can we not have a better fricking media?!?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Die Wacht am Rhein

Apropos of U.S. military junketing, for all the minimal level of public discussion regarding the adventuring going on in places like Yemen and Libya, what I find even more fascinating is the utter lack of discussion regarding the fact that more than twenty years after the last mechanic stopped wrenching on the last T-80 assigned to the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany the U.S. still has something like 50,000 troops stationed in the kasernes they occupied when the Red Horde was poised to roll through the Fulda Gap.
Not advocating one way or the other - seriously; I really have no idea whether or not moving these troops or leaving them where they are would have an impact on either the defense budget or the policy of the U.S. - but IMO the complete indifference of any of the usual suspects here in the Land of the Free Because of the Brave to even mentioning the subject is an interesting non-comment on the state of the "public discussion" regarding What Should We Be Spending That Precious Tax Money On.

But perhaps the citizenry and "leadership" is deeply immersed in the important business of discussing what naughty ladies do with their lady parts to make unborn babies, and are thus distracted.

(n/t to Atrios, who brought this up)

Monday, May 21, 2012

Sunday to Monday: Random Runnings

The merely-gray Sunday promised us by our weather mystics (whose work, admittedly, is nastily complex in the autumn and spring around here - form does not hold in the Northwest between April and June and then again between October and early December) appears to have slid sideways into a drizzly and chilly morning. The small ones are mesmerized by something on the phosphorescent screen (called "Winx Club" and involving, I believe, fairies, though the title clubmembers appear indistinguishable from standard-issue television glamor girls so far as I can tell) and my bride appears to be stirring restlessly, though to what end I cannot tell.

I sat down here with the intent of writing some sort of post, but I have spent at least fifteen minutes just farkling about, so I am coming to the conclusion that an actual coherent post on a specific subject is not in me. All the same, I do feel the urge, like a chum salmon swimming through the barest purl of fresh water in the cold darkness of the Humbolt Current and feeling the neural spark of need to return to its natal freshet, to write something.

Sadly, the cool, sweet inspiration of blogging is not upon me.

Part of this is pure frustration. I cannot think of what earthly good I am doing talking about politics or military affairs. Based on the state of U.S. politics and foreign affairs we seem bound and determined to find a meatgrinder labelled "Return to the Gilded Age" and jam our collective (insert pendulous body part here, depending on your gender, dear reader...) into it. Better bloggers than I have pointed out the Madness of the Republic Party in insisting on a return to the social and economic paradigm of 1895, and the craven fecklessness of the other political party in refusing to shout "Fire" as the teabaggers set the social contract we have lived with since 1932 alight.

And the preceding post is a speaking example of my frustration with our supposed foreign policy. The U.S. 2012 is a de facto empire. A "soft" empire, but, still, we share a lot of similarities with the imperial Great Powers of history. So I think to just assume that we will NEVER intervene in places around the world where our "leaders" believe that U.S. interests demand or will benefit from military intervention is unrealistic.

But ISTM that our rationales for many of our more recent interventions has been increasingly iffy. Libya baffles me - what was the point there? Even a "successful" intervention, as it was organized, wasn't going to do anything but decapitate one side of a civil war. How we figured that would end well - when the OTHER side was a mixture of shambolic, vicious, and Islamic - completely eludes me.

I understand that there will always be mistakes - the government of the RVN probably looked no worse in 1965 than the government of Lebanon looked in 1958. But some situations are clearly impossible; look at 1983.

One the one hand you had a "perfect case"; Grenada was tiny, isolated, and weak. It was an irritant, no more, but an opportunity to remove that irritant with minimal cost, and it worked as planned.

On the other hand, Lebanon was clearly a mess; open intervention from untouchable foreign powers (Syria and Israel), an utterly incompetent "government", a multi-sided civil war that we were somehow going to "stabilize"...who the hell COULD have thought that was a good idea?

And ISTM that our recent run; A-stan, Iraq, and Libya - share a lot more with Lebanon than Grenada. Just seems like we've lost the ability to think coherently about how to parse these out, lately...and I have no idea how my writing anything more about this clusterfuck is actually "helping".

And here Sunday has drifted into Monday, and I'm still adrift. So I will turn to the last refuge of the outmatched blogger, the random free association. So.

My little girl had a birthday last month, remember?
Err, maybe not - I'm not sure I blogged it. Anyway, she did and is now a proudly grown-up six-year-old.

For her birthday several of her little girl friends gifted her with Barbies. Those Barbies, I am proud to say, have already been tossed into the lascivious tangle of naked Barbies heaped in the bath toy cistern. The Girl is frou-frou in some ways, but Barbies are not one of them.

Although this particular Barbie made me grin;
Oh, speaking of kiddos, I have been remiss in my update of KidVid tastes. The big news is that the Star Wars Era is now officially Over. We're done with all things Lucas. The latest faves are; My Little Pony - Friendship is Magic and The Legend of Korra.
Here's the most awesomest cool part about that, though; both of these are actually fun for adults, too. Yes, I'm admitting it; I likes me some ponies.
The thing is, these aren't your and my ponies. A freelance graphic artist named Lauren Faust reimagined the old Seventies ponies (that really WERE an awful, helium-and-cotton-candy-stuffed atrocity right up there with the other eye-gougingly-cute Seventies crap like the SmurfsTM and Care BearsTM) and came up with a witty, fast-thinking take on the earlier fucking disaster.

Her Ponies are still cute. But they're cute in a smart, funny way. Pinkie Pie is delightfully, completely, nuttily utterly random, Fluttershy is painfully shy but occasionally mad butch, Rainbow Dash is waaaaay too cool, Rarity is the complete Drama Queen, and the other two pals are there to be the ballast. They can make me laugh until I cry, and that's pretty damn rare for me outside Young Frankenstein and a handful of old beach movies.
And that's not even going into the fun that other people have with the New Ponies.
Ponies. Heh. Good stuff, and you can say I said so.

Now, Korra...
I think I mentioned the last time we talked about the kiddos' viddy stylings Avatar; The Last Airbender? Okay, well, Korra is by the same people who did the original Avatar. It's not in the same broad style. It's darker, more grown-up. There's (yuk!) kissing.
But outside those it's just as well-written and entertaining as the old Avatar. It's exciting without being vicious, gentle without being sappy. And the writers have already hooked me with their incredible cunning five minutes into the first episode; what the hell was the incredible story that happened to Zuko and Asula's mother!?!
And - just off the top of my head - who the hell thought it was such a good idea to make a movie, a ginormous, full-length feature film, of the forty-year-old board game Battleship?

I mean, really?

Speaking of awesomely shit movies, we caught another kaiju movie the other day; Godzilla vs. Megaguirus.
(Reeeeally bit, just for the record, and I say this as a lover of kaiju movies and the Big Green Guy in particular, although I can't not mention the incredible "kaiju ferachio" scene where the G puts this ninja move on the evil Megaguirus just as the big meanie is about to spear him with his protuberant tail-stinger and clomps down on Mega's poker-pecker and...well, let's just say I winced at the big finish. Yeeowch.)
But I can't just pass this one by without giving a shout-out to the leading lady, boss of the G-Graspers played by one 田中美里 (Tanaka Misato), and, specifically, her ears.

Because this gal has one frigging ginormous set of cranium fins. Seriously; this picture give you an idea but just doesn't do them justice. I shit you not, Ms. Tanaka has one prize-winning pair of earflaps.
Like sails, this girl's listening lugs. Worth the price of admission, if you ask me. Amazing ears. Really. Life of their own, those ears. That and kaiju ferachio, with biting.

Joe Bob says; check it out.
Speaking of women who can do amazing stuff, the trickster above is Patty McGee, a giant of the early skateboarders and the first woman to make national news for riding the asphalt waves. The website at the link has this brilliant telephone commercial (remember when landlines actually advertised?) with Patty skating through the house.)
I think what I like about the whole magilla is the homemade feel to everything, from the crude skateboards to the bare feet to the do-it-yourself story of how Patty pretty much invented her own craft.

The other interesting thing, to me, anyway, is how fragmented our culture has become since 1965. I mean, there are LOTS of skateboarders today; you see skateboards everywhere. But there's no broad impact on us, skateboarding, like so much else we do, is a subset of something and for some people - it's a little cul-de-sac of pop culture. By professionalizing and sleeking down and mainstreaming Patty's craft it seems a lot more...trivial. Does it, or is it just me? But I can't think of a skateboarder making the cover of People magazine or USA Today or getting his or her own commercial.

Hmmmm.

For some reason my hip has chosen to be vindictive today.

It always aches, at least a little, but that's pretty much a given when the ball-and-socket at the top of your right leg is fairly thoroughly rusted out. But some days it just seems to enjoy giving me a little extra kick in the ass.

And I mean that literally; my right quad, and hamstring, and gluteus, ache and burn like...well, like you'd think your leg muscles would feel when your bones decided to quit on you. And deep inside the little fucker roars and hammers and does its level best to make me sour and angry.

I think I'm starting to understand what chronic pain does to people. It's...difficult...to be happy and friendly when your ass is aching.

I learned as a kid, and have always believed, that difficulties and pain are to be endured, at best, with dignity and at least with silence. And, really, what good would a long whine of complaint do for me? There's nothing to be done, short of surgery, and that best left until this can not be endured a moment longer. And it's not to that point yet. The good days are decent and the bad days not unbearable.

But when the damn thing decides to be miserable it sure tends to make for a long, long day.

Mojo, too, has had a bit of a long day.
She's caught the griping cold that has been meandering through the kid's school, smacking a kid here and there and a parent or a teacher unwary enough to forget for a moment that elementary schools are the Industrial Age version of the pesthouse, full to bursting with pathogens of the rankest sort.

She managed in her usual undramatic way; fetching kiddos from school, entertaining, disciplining, feeding, and supervising the small ones until I got back from a long day at work. But then she pretty much folded, and was a wan shadow of her usual self until collapsing into bed.

You have to feel pretty tender towards a sleeper not to feel at the least, a trifle superior to them. Sleeping humans are not generally lovely objects. Movies lie; the most gorgeous woman and the studliest man are ridiculous in sleep; they snort, they twitch, their faces are slack and uninhabited, an open invitation for the waking being to feel a nasty little desire to tweak some part of them or play cruel tricks on them.

If we feel any sort of human empathy we feel no such pettiness in the presence of the Big Sleep of death. We are, most of us, silent, humbled, and belittled by the end of all things, the terminator of delights.

But sleep, the petty cousin of death, brings with it no such awe. A stranger sleeping is a hand waiting to be dunked in a pot of warm water, or a nose to be pinched, or at the very least a buzzing snorer to be afforded an irked glance.

But the sky changes when the sleeper is someone dear to you.

My little girl is a very neat sleeper. She is usually curled into a comma, her wild tousle of midnight hair at one end while the other is lost in the tangle of soft blankets she demands. She seldom stirs, and never, to my knowledge, makes noise.

The Boy, on the other hand, is a sprawl, all long arms and legs buried amid the mountain of stuffed animals that share his bed, or, rather, dominate it. He mutters and tosses, restless even asleep, his limbs moving in the slow locomotion of dreams.

My bride is neither graceful nor akimbo but, rather, like her waking self a very compact, purposeful sleeper. She has recently made a soft, plush throw for herself and is swallowed within moments of unconsciousness, a small bundle of warm blue velvet.

Tonight, though, her sleep is troubled; perhaps the effect of the cold medication, or perhaps some random uneasiness sparking the cold synapses inside her dreaming head. I sit with her for a moment, and speak quietly, and she settles quietly, whatever the trouble was receding, her breathing slowing and deepening.

For just a moment I sit beside her. All that is visible is the curve of her head, the perfect bowl of skull softened by her short dark hair, all scattered by her tossing and the shot-threads of gray shining in the light from the kitchen across the hallway. The faintest hint of jawline disappears into the welter of blankets and sheet below.

For that moment I'm seized by an enormous tenderness, a deep and passionate shiver of desire for her; not as a woman but as this woman, my wife of a decade and mother of our children, this woman sleeping next to me, her unruly shock of gray-black hair, her sharp nose and pale-fire eyes that are already beginning to look like her mother's at forty, her sure, short, slender fingers and skin like pale satin that tans poorly and burns like flash paper. With her touchy need for respect and the way she jumps and shrieks at sudden sounds, with her strength and her fears, her rough desires, her uncaring of the immediate and the transient, and her deep well of knowledge.

On the top of the blue plush blanket her hand twitches once and relaxes into the motionlessness of deep sleep, her fingers releasing the passing evening. As I turn to go she sighs, sinking into the smooth black river of night and drifting through the darkness towards tomorrow's daylight.

Friday, May 18, 2012

A Foreign Affair

According to the reportage of the New York Times, bombing and strafing Libya has, shockingly, failed to weed the garden of Liberty and let freedom reign.

All of this post-intervention militia-fueled chaos had, also shockingly, failed to make so much as a blip on the national geopolitical "discussion". The same people who advocated bombing the Gaddafi regime have been, shockingly, silent about the mess that followed or the very poor prospects for the former dictatorship to go anywhere but down into failed-statedom. Their adversaries - who were fine with bombing so long as it was in Iraq or Afghanistan - are likewise mute. Nobody seems to want to talk about this outside Libya and there, they're too busy shooting the place up to bother.

So we have, on the one side, the neocons and their coterie that advocated "more rubble, less trouble" as an excuse for ginning up a war in southwest Asia that turned a marginally pesky dictatorship into an all-but-Iranian ally and turbulent mess, have not been rebuked, are not repentent, and appear to have suffered no significant consequences for being oh-so-wrong.

And on the other, the liberal interventionists that argued that "helping" the Libyan rebels by flying overhead bombing and strafing their enemies was the functional equivalent of Treaty of Alliance of 1778 and, likewise, appear neither abashed nor upbraided for the mess they have, if not made, at least done little or nothing to solve and may have, in fact, contributed to.

All of this suggests that regardless of which faction rules in Washington the Washington Rules will continue to apply. The U.S. will continue to send its military into foreign disorders, rebellions, and civil wars.

So, as a private citizen I would ask; what should I hope for, at least, in a future foreign intervention to assist my country in spending it's treasure and (perhaps) it's blood wisely. If we're going to play the Game of Thrones, how and where should we play?

To think about how do this, let's look at the history of just major U.S. interventions since WW2 and see if we can find any common threads of success and failure - just the U.S. examples to keep it simple.

Here's the interventions I'd like to look at, starting in 1945. We won't count the occupations of Germany and Japan (though those were extremely successful interventions) as being, in effect, continuations of WW2.

Korea 1950-1953: Success (U.S. objective to deter capture of ROK by DPRK, attained and maintained at present)
Vietnam 1955-1975: Failure (U.S. objective to establish separate RVN not attained)
Lebanon 1958: Success (U.S. objective to back Lebanese government of President Camille Chamoun attained, status quo maintained for 18 years until civil war of 1975)
Dominican Republic 1965: Success (U.S. objective to "stabilize" DomRep post-Trujillo attained by "election" of caudillo President Joaquín Balaguer, 22 years of one-man rule)
El Salvador 1980-1992: Success (U.S. objective to bolster existing Salvadorian government attained, rebellion defeated)
Grenada 1983: Success (U.S. objective to remove remnants of New Jewel Movement and cut ties between Grenada and Cuba attained)
Lebanon 1983: Failure (U.S. objective of supporting the Lebanese government in the ongoing civil war not attained)
Panama 1989-1990: Success (U.S. objective to remove remnants of Torrijos regime and install U.S.-friendly government - recently led by, ironically, the son of Omar Torrijos!)
Kuwait 1991-1992: Success (U.S. objective of restoring territorial integrity of Kuwait attained)
Bosnia 1992-today: Success (U.S. objective of containing Serbia and stabilizing Bosnia/Croatia attained and maintained to present time)
Somalia 1992-1993: Failure (U.S. objective of stabilizing Somalia/Mogadishu not attained)
Kosovo 1999: Success (U.S. objective of functionally supporting Kosovar independence from Serbia attained)
Afghanistan 2002-today: Undetermined, initial Success, but probably long-term Failure (U.S. initial objective of dispersing Al Qaeda and AQ-friendly Taliban regime attained, long-term stability of successor Afghan government in doubt)
Iraq 2003-today: Undetermined, but largely Failure (U.S. initial objective of replacing Hussein regime with compliant pro-U.S. government only partially attained, long-term stability of successor Iraqi government in doubt)
Libya 2011: Undetermined, initial Success, possible, even probable long-term Failure (U.S. objective of removing Gaddafi dictatorship attained, long-term stability of successor regime in doubt)

Where are the successes, and what do they have in common?

Korea, Lebanon 1958, the Dom Rep, El Salvador, Grenada, Panama, Kuwait, and the Balkans all had one or more of the following:

- a relatively stable society and economy, and, often, an extended period of of stability prior unrest and U.S. intervention (even if the stability was dictatorial, or transient; even the Balkans, chaotic as it was in 1992, had been quiescent under Tito showing that civil society was possible again after the shells stopped falling and the Croats and Bosnians were able to use the USAF as their air force to beat the Serbs. The exceptions to this I can think of - El Salvador and the Dom Rep - were not genuinely sound economies, being tilted strongly towards an elite governing class at the expense of the majority that provided one of the central causes of their rebellions. The former has made some land and economic reforms while the latter has not, but in both cases the underlying economic grievances weren't really "solved". Also in both cases it didn't matter - the strong central government and the army aided by U.S. largesse made continued rebellion untenable.)

- a coherent and functional local government for the U.S. to ally with (i.e. someone on the ground to seize and/or hold power once U.S. forces had completed their operations. In the case of Grenada this had to be more-or-less created, but the NJM had not scorched the earth and local politicians were in place to take over.)

The failures are also similar in lacking these elements;

South Vietnamese society was deeply divided between the Francophone/Catholic elites and the Buddhist/Vietnamese populace, and it's economy was similarly imbalanced. Lebanon was well on it's way to being a failed state by 1982, and Somalia was a failed state in 1992. The "economy" of Afghanistan appears to be a huge and largely unaddressed problem with the long-term stability of that mess, and in both Iraq and Libya we see the problems with a petroeconomy in a weak or failing state in that most if not all the benefits are typically hijacked by corrupt, kleptocratic elites.

The failures - especially Lebanon, Somalia, and Libya - are also typically pre-Westphalian (tribal or immediately post-tribal) societies. Strong tribal and sectarian divisions are present in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Similar problems were present in the Balkans, but I think a large part of the difference is that by the time of the U.S. intervention in 1992 an extended period of ethnic cleansing allowed rough homogeneity to coalesce into the Bosnian/Serbian/Croat territories once U.S. airpower helped defeat the irredentist Serbs. A similar process allowed a similar success in Kosovo, and has allowed what success has been attained in Iraq - the end of the insurgency owes as much to the fact that there are no more Shiite and Sunni enclaves for rival militias to make war on as it is the Baghdad government gaining control.

In terms of governments, well, Somalia and Libya just don't have any and never did after their respective dictators were overthrown. South Vietnam had a real problem in that it's government was largely the relict of the French colonial elite. Lebanon in '83 had no groups strong enough to securely hold political power until the Syrians intervened. We established a Shia-majority government in Baghdad but the country has effectively fragmented into a Kurdish mini-state in the north and a south whose relations with the Sunni minority are still problematic. Similarly, the Northern Alliance-based government of Afghanistan is troubled with internal divisions and fundamental kleptocratic dysfunction.

So what do I think should the take-home lesson for our future U.S. global policeman be?

Obviously, the initial calculation should be, as it always should be, is the gain worth the risk? Is there a benefit on the ground to be had from the commitment of U.S. lives, wealth, and political standing?

But, second, I would opine that there are two fundamental conditions to be assayed.

Is the locale fundamentally stable, is there a real, or at least potential, underlying social and political cohesion, and is there a competent local ally available NOW to work with?

If so, then the chances are that the problem really is some sort of transient issue, and that the application of force is capable of destroying divisive or chaotic factions - people and organizations - that are producing the instability and producing an outcome favorable to U.S. geopolics. And once those factions are attacked, the rebels killed or imprisoned, their organizations degraded or destroyed, the local ally is capable of imposing itself on the polity and continuing that favorable outcome at least in the medium-term.

This is likely to be ugly and brutal for the locals, but, remember; we're thinking not like human beings but like a Great Power here. What matters is "results", not human lives.

But...if those conditions are NOT present...

Then the only reason I can see for intervening is if the potential for continued local troubles has a high probability of causing larger, regional or global trouble for the U.S. in the short- or medium-term, or the effort involved will be utterly trivial, and the likely bad outcome will be likewise insignificant. The alternative is that any U.S. intervention will need to be a genuinely massive one; an occupation-of-Germany sort of thing. And even if we try that, as we did in Vietnam, the outcome is still pretty dicey if the local conditions are as poor as they are, say, in Somalia, Libya, Liberia, or the Congo.

So I'd argue that under this rubric the interventions in Lebanon 1983, Iraq, Somalia and Libya would probably not have happened, and the intervention in Afghanistan would have likely been confined to a punitive expedition in 2002. Or all the above would have been expanded to full-on post-WW2-style long-term occupations (and I'll carry your ruck from here to the Halls of Montezuma if you think the U.S. public would have gone all-in for that...).

Do I think this will happen?

No - as I said at the top; nobody who supported or supports the present system, the one that has produced this hit-or-miss pattern of interventions since 1990, has paid a political price for the lack of geopolitical rigor involved in picking our fights.

But...should it?

What is the appropriate process, and policy, for a Great Power - especially a supposedly-republican Great Power - to do in an increasingly multipolar world? How do you go about re-writing the Washington Rules?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Don't Fear The Reaper

The summer has finally arrived in Portland.

Now generally this is a Good Thing. For all that we made our bones being cold and rainy, we Stumptowners like the warm sun as much as anyone. We like trading our raingear for shorts and T-shirts, and our boots for flip-flops and topsiders. And especially this year, with the winter SO wet and lingering so long.

The only downside is that the grass then begins to grow.
And in the fertile valley at the end of the Oregon Trail, the bastard doesn't just grow. It metastasizes like a frigging green melanoma; a verdenoma that goes utterly bugnuts when the sun arrives to warm the rich soil and all that rain-soaked vegetation.

And this is what has happened to the little "Rain Garden" at my kids' elementary school. By last Saturday the grass was, in some places, two feet high.

Now that in itself is kind of sad.

First, take a look at the linked page to see what the big deal about this "Rain Garden" is. When we first moved here the courtyard between the wings of the school was this fugly asphalt rectangle; awash in the winter, baking in the early autumn and late spring, and just butt-ugly all year round.
The school district took about $100,000 and ripped out the asphalt and made the thing over into a garden designed to work in Portland's cool-wet-winter-hot-dry-summer climate.
The idea was that rather than a typical lawn (which, around here, would be dead grass and dandelions by August) the thing would contain "...trees, shrubs, grasses, and wildflowers selected for their tolerance to dry and moist soil conditions."
Here's a picture of what it looked like when it was finished.
And here is was Saturday afternoon:
The first couple of years a group of parents who were involved in the construction continued to look after the Garden; weeding, watering in the summer (since despite what the brochure says the "hand pump" was never installed and the cistern was used as a compost bin, so the watering required City water), raking leaves in the fall.

But after their kids moved on to middle and high school that group fell away. Last Saturday there were four adults there to try and attack the mess; Mojo, and myself, and two other moms.

And it IS a mess.

Three years without attention and rough field grass have overtaken the native plants almost everywhere. Weeds - especially our hated Himalayan blackberry - have grown up in the planters. The mound at the west end - what I call "Hamburger Hill" - is covered in knee-high grass that makes walking or sitting on it a chore.

Because of the uninhabitable condition the teachers have stopped using the Garden completely. Mojo did a quick survey two weeks ago; not a single teacher was interested or willing to use the Garden in its existing condition.

For all practical purposes, over one hundred thousand dollars and hundreds, probably thousands, of parent, teacher, and donated contractor work-hours are, at present, utterly wasted.

My bride, lovely woman that she is, has taken an interest in this patch of weeds. She, and two of Missy's kindergarten pals moms, hauled me and the kiddos over on Saturday and began to hack away at the rampaging sea of grass with hand tools and a tiny residential trimmer.

I could have sat down and cried.

First, because there are something like 500 kids at Astor Elementary school. Assuming that half of them have two involved parents the potential labor pool runs to about 750 adults. And yet here were four people giving their time to try and rescue this expensive, wasted space. We were not just the 1 Percent; we were the 0.53 Percent. Of the some 750 parents with children at that school no more than four - and two of those parents of the same kids - could find time on a weekend to pitch in to gift that school some of their time and labor.

And, second, because much as I admired the gals' intentions, I couldn't believe their methods. Faced with a weedy Hannibal running wild they were trying to beat him by picking off one Carthaginian at a time with a boot knife.

Well. Sod THAT for a game of soldiers. The Army didn't teach me tactics and logistics for me to pull grass one clump at a time.

I told them flat-out that I had no intention of squatting on my hams like Luke the Gook pulling one clump of grass at a time.

And than I drove up to Columbia Boulevard and rented a big-ass gas-powered weed whacker, returned that afternoon and waded into the grass with my wailing scythe and reaped the damn stuff like Alaric.
So now Hamburger Hill is mown as level as a fairway, and the remainder of the Garden is flat as a putting green.
Until the next time.

Because there is still nobody at Astor in charge of the place. There is nobody to coordinate, implore, cajole, and direct volunteers, like me, to continue to maintain the place. There is nobody to coax teachers into using it, or children to visit it.

So while it has been reaped, there is still nothing in place to sow the future of this once-lovely little Garden. Instead it lies fallow, slowly deteriorating under the warm early summer sun.

And I put it to you that the story of the Reaper in the Rain Garden is one of America, circa 2012, writ small.

Begun with great publicity, on grant money and borrowed labor, and then thrown away through a combination of inattention, mismanagement, carelessness, and indifference. What might be a pretty little place for learning gone to waste for the lack of people who care enough to get off their dead asses and do some work for the common good, and "leadership" that would rather preen and posture than get down and do the hard work of getting those dumb bastards to understand that if we don't hang together we will surely, at the pleasure of our corporate masters, hang separately.

And while today our work on the Garden has reclaimed it, for the moment...
...the patient grass grows tall again as you read this. And we are still without a plan.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Parthenogensis

Yes, Proctor & Gamble is one of the Lesser Satans. Yes, the Olympics has become a loathsome concatenation of greed and cupidity. Yes, advertising in general is the Devil's Siren Song.That said, every so often the wrong people, for the wrong reasons, say something very touching. And this is one of those times.

You don't have to have a child hoping to be an Olympic athlete to appreciate the little fable recounted here. Just think of your own mother or father and the lifetime you and they have spent building. Or your own son or daughter.

I think the best description of the entire business of taking an embryo and producing a man or a woman I've ever read comes from a very sad little science fiction story called Aftermaths by Lois McMaster Bujold. The setting is what amounts to a graves registration party recovering the bodies of those killed in a naval engagement in deep space. The speaker is laying out the body of a young enemy soldier that her assistant has reviled as "garbage".
"Not at all" said the medtech. "Think of all the work he represents on somebody's part. Nine months of pregnancy, childbirth, two years of diapering, and that's just the beginning. Tens of thousands of meals, thousands of bedtime stories, years of school. Dozens of teachers. And all that military training, too. A lot of people went into the making of him."

She smoothed a strand of the corpse's hair into place.

"That head held a universe, once. He had a good rank for his age."
I think you know of our struggles with children and parenting. I have no idea of yours, but I do know that there is no such thing as "easy". So on this ridiculous corporate fiction "Mother's Day" let me just say that there is a virtue in doing the right things, even if they are done in a parlous way, in a difficult place, for the wrong reasons and for no better excuse than hope and desperation. The grace is in the doing, and not in the hope of reward.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Battles That Changed History: Second Guangzhou (Canton) 1841

Second Canton (Guangzhou, 广州) Dates: 23-30 MAY 1841
Forces Engaged: Great Britain (Government and Honorable East India Company [HEIC]) - Naval Forces:
HMS Algerine - Flush Decked Brig (Cherokee Class) crew 50, 10 guns, (2 x 6lb cannon, 8 x 18lb carronades*)
HMS Alligator - Sloop 6th Rate (Atholl Class) crew 140, 28 guns. (20 x 32lb carronades, 6 x 18lb carronades, 2 x 9lb cannon) - on loan to HEIC
HMS Conway - 6th Rate (Tyne Class) crew 175, 28 guns, (20 x 32lb carronades, 6 x 18lb carronades, 2 x 9lb cannon)
HMS Calliope - 6th Rate. (Calliope Class) crew 231, 28 guns, (28 x "Dixon's 25 cwt" 32lb cannon)
HMS Herald - Sloop 6th Rate (Atholl Class) crew 175, 28 guns, (20 x 32lb carronades, 6 x 18lb carronades, 2 x 9lb cannon) - on loan to HEIC
HMS Modeste - Flush Decked Ship Sloop/Corvette (Modeste Class) crew 120, 18 guns, (2 x 32lb cannon, 16 x 32lb carronades.)
HMS Pylades - Sloop - Corvette (Pylades Class) crew 125, 18 guns, (2 x 9lb cannon, 12 x 32lb carronades.)
HEICS Nemesis - paddle frigate (single-ship class) crew 90, 4-6 guns (2 x 32lb cannon, 2-4 6lb cannon), rocket launcher++
HEICS Madagascar - I have been unable to locate any details for this East India Company warship; it is likely that she was similar to an armed merchantman, with 15-20 12lb to 32lb cannon or carronades)
The naval force also included three "tenders": (the Starling, Hebe, and the cutter Louisa)

An additional nine vessels were involved in operations on the Pearl River on May, 1841, but do not appear to have been in position close to Guangzhou for the assault. These vessels did contribute sailors to the "Naval Brigade", however, and were mentioned by the British accounts of the engagement.
The naval forces appear to have been roughly 20 vessels, commanded by one CAPT Sir H. Le Fleming Senhouse, RN.
*(Note 1 - Carronades: the British Navy of the mid-19th Century was in transition. In the 1830s it was virtually indistinguishable from Nelson's Navy of the Napoleonic Wars. By the 1860s the first ironclads, rifled naval guns, and reliable explosive shells had appeared and the foundations of the steel navies of the 20th Century had been laid.

One of the real hangovers of the Nelson Touch was the "smasher", the carronade. These short-barreled, short-ranged artillery pieces fit the Nelsonian tradition of "close action". A British captain was expected to lay his ship alongside an enemy and hammer her hull until she sank, or until the frightening ripsaw of wooden splinter and iron shards created by the massive weight of metal thrown out by these guns reduced so many of her crew to bloody rags that she was unfightable.
Look through the list above and note how many carronades each ship carried compared to cannon; by the middle of the century the "culture of the carronade" ruled supreme in the Royal Navy. A captain was expected to get stuck into his enemy and pound him senseless. There was to be none of this Continental capering about or aiming for masts and whatnot. Grab the belt and pound away; that was the ticket.

Although technically a warship armed principally with carronades was vulnerable to well-aimed fire from a well-handled cannon- (or "long gun") armed vessel, in practice the British relied on a combination of better seamanship and aggressive tactics to negate any such advantages and, in practice, they were correct.

We'll talk more about this is just a moment, but one thing worth noting is that it was a longstanding tradition to "loan" entire military units, both land and naval, to the East India Company. This benefited both parties. John Company got damn fine troops, while the British Government saved the expense of paying and maintaining them. This tradition of "Queen's" (or King's) units versus "Company" units remained until the Government of India Act of 1858 transferred all the Company troops to Crown control.)

++ (Note 2 - The Nemesis: This little vessel is one of the most fascinating tales of the entire story. She was a steamship, and seems to have been the first of what would become a long tradition of European messing around in boats on foreign rivers - the first true "river gunboat".

She only drew six feet and she was said to be dreadfully underpowered and so hard to keep to weather that she went sideways as easily as forwards. She carried only two heavy cannon. But she wasn't meant to fight enemy warships. She was a genuine invention; a purpose-built instrument designed to beat up on lightly armed Chinese junks and enforce John Company's will on shallow, bar-ridden Chinese rivers.
When she sailed from Liverpool her mission was supposed to be a deep dark secret - she was supposed to be a private vessel bound for Odessa on the Black Sea, but "It is said that this vessel is provided with an Admiralty letter of license or letter of marque. If so, it can only be against the Chinese; and for the purpose of smuggling opium she is admirably adapted." the Times of London reported on 30 MAR 1840.
- Ground Forces: the British land assault force was, like the navy, divided between Royal and Company units. The infantry included three Queen's units:the 18th (Royal Irish), 26th (Cameronians), and 49th (Hertfordshire) Regiments of Foot, ranging in strength from the 311 all ranks of the 49th to the massively overstrength 26th at nearly 1,000.
The Honorable East India Company provided roughly six companies of infantry; 230 all ranks of the 37th Madras Native Infantry (or “M.N.I.”) and about two companies of “Bombay Volunteers”. The Company also provided combat engineers in the form of a company of Madras Sappers and Miners.

The artillery was also largely provided by the Company; 230 gunners of the Madras Artillery. A small battery of the 3rd Royal Artillery represented the only imperial cannoneers. Altogether, the British fielded 11 light smoothbore field guns - none heavier than 12 pound howitzers - and three 5" mortars.

The Guangzhou assault force also included what was something of a British imperial tradition; a landing force of the Royal Navy. This included about 430 seamen from two vessels; HMS Wellesley and HMS Nimrod, and a separate composite Royal Marine battalion of about 380 for a total of nearly 800 or so.

The ground assault force is listed as roughly 2,300 troops all arms, and the entire British naval and land expedition is described in the dispatch as “not have been more than 6,000 persons of all ages, and all classes”, under MG Sir Hugh Gough.

That's old "Paddy" Gough over there, by the way, about nine years later. Isn't that a great Victorian face? He is said to have commanded in more actions than any British senior officer outside Arthur Wellesley, and is also said to have been a brutal hacker who won as often as not by dint of sheer hammering and at a hell of a cost in lives. This was the Big Barbarian who intended to beat the damn Chinks into obedience. His overall superior, it's worth noting, was a former Royal Navy officer then working in the Foreign Office, Charles Elliot; we'll hear more of him later.

Imperial Chinese – Qing Dynasty Imperial Troops As always with imperial wars we have a problem with numbers of “natives”. In this case it is insanely frustrating because we are not talking about innumerate tribesmen but soldiers of one of the most degenerately civilized empires in the world.

There is no doubt that the Qing magistrates, imperial commanders, accountants and official functionaries in both Guangzhou and Beijing knew exactly how many troops were stationed in the Guangzhou garrison in May of 1841.
Unfortunately, we have no idea what those people knew. The records they surely meticulously kept have been lost, or destroyed, or are buried in a lost cellar somewhere in China. Right now all we know is that the British naval commander, Senhouse, states that in his opinion the British ground assault faced “amounting, at a medium calculation, to about 30 or 40,000 men”.

Elsewhere in the account in the Qing troops are described as armed with “jingals” as well as some sort of cannon, although based on pictures these appear to have been much cruder than Western artillery – almost the lineal descendents of the medieval bombard. The Qing troops, however, would also have been armed with a wide variety of antique steel weapons including polearms, bows, and swords.

The basic military structure of the Qing armies was twofold.

The “Eight Banner Armies”, a Manchu organization, was the supposed elite, descended from the wild Manchu and Mongol steppe riders that conquered Han China at Shanghaiguan in 1644, A “banner soldier” was supposed to be a professional military man, but one of the revelations of the First Opium War was how badly atrophied the military skills of the bannermen had become.

The Mongol “Tartar” cavalry was said to have been disciplined and armed with bow, spear, and sword, but their tendency to charge sword-in-hand against unshaken foreign infantry produced nothing but dead Tartars.

The Banner infantry - either Han Chinese, Manchu, or Mongol, was less organized and tended to masses of close-combat sword-and buckler or spearmen, as useless in the 19th Century as a stone axe. What firearms the Qing infantry had tended to be ginormous "jingal" matchlocks; ridiculous two-man punt guns, slow as dirt and about as accurate, or flintlocks similar to those used in European war a century earlier.

There is no record of any Banner infantryman armed with the bayonet, which must have put the Banner troops at an immense disadvantage in melee combat.
More numerous, and more worthless, as the so-called "Green Banner Army" of Han Chinese conscripts.

These poor bastards were typically posted away from their home province, as they were expected to be useless in their law enforcement, constabulary, or garrison duties is surrounded by their friends and relatives who could be relied upon to use their nepotism ruthlessly. Their officers were rotated as well, to prevent them from forming coteries among their troops that might have encouraged rebellion against the Manchu overlords.

The Green Standard troops were considered something of a rabble both by Westerners and their own Qing rulers; it's worth noting, however, than this militia played something of a role on the events of May 1841 that had some big implications for the future.

So, probably between 30,000 and 40,000 banner and Han militia soldiers in the Guangzhou garrison, under generalissimo Aisin-Gioro Yishan (愛新覺羅•奕山) and one "Atsinga", garrison commander, as well as some undetermined number of local Green Army or militia levies in the vicinity of the city.

The Sources: Again, we're talking about colonial war, so, again, we're looking at a very one-sided selection of primary sources. Almost everything available to an English-only speaker is culled from British primary sources and must, therefore, be handled with care.

A tremendous volume of British first-person accounts are available on-line. These include:

John Ouchterlony's 1844 The Chinese War: an Account of all the Operations of the British Forces from the Commencement to the Treaty of Nanking, in Google PDF scan form here; the account of a junior officer in the Madras Army told with the bounce and tigger you'd expect of a young lieutenant. Although I haven't included links to these others, they should be easy enough to find if you copy and paste the titles; we just don't name things anymore the way the Victorians did.

Keith Stewart Mackenzie, Narrative of the Second Campaign in China (1842)

John Elliot Bingham, Narrative of the Expedition to China, from the Commencement of the War to its Termination in 1842, with Sketches of the Manners and Customs of that Singular and Hitherto Almost Unknown Country (1843)

Edward Belcher, Narrative of a Voyage Round the World, Performed in Her Majesty’s Ship Sulphur, During the Years 1836-1842, Including Details of the Naval Operations in China, from Dec. 1840, to Nov. 1841 (vol. II, 1843)

Robert Montgomery Martin, China; Political, Commercial, and Social; in an official Report to Her Majesty’s Government (1847)

Alexander Murray, Doings in China, being the Personal Narrative of an Officer Engaged in the Late Chinese Expedition, from the Recapture of Chusan in 1841, to the Peace of Nankin in 1842 (1843)

Of particular interest are the writings of one Edward Hodges Cree, The Cree Journals: The Voyages of Edward H. Cree, Surgeon R.N., as Related in His Private Journals, 1837-1856, edited and with and Introduction by Michael Levien.

Reissued in 1982 under the title Naval Surgeon, it is not accessible in full online. The hard copy includes extensive color reproductions of Cree’s watercolor sketches; and the man was a formidable artist both for his honesty and his expressiveness. Here's his rendition of the human disaster that was the result of the taking of Chinkiang in 1842:
Perhaps the most concise (and yet comprehensive) on-line source for the purely military operations of the engagement is a Google digitized copy of The Colonial Magazine and Commercial-Maritime Journal (Robert Montgomery Martin, ed), Volume 6 (September-December 1841). A collection of dispatches from CAPT Senhouse and MG Gough are found from pages 346 to 363, all containing masses of useful detail about the events of May, 1841, ranging from tides to topography, from the course of the fighting to the names of those officers killed and injured, and all the way down to tale of some abstemious troopers of the Hertfordshire Regiment, "finding a quantity of sham-shu* in the village they had so gallantly taken, without order or previous knowledge of their officers, brought the jars containing this pernicious liquor, and broke them in front of their corps..."
(*Note 3 - Sham-shu: I have looked all over to try and find out what the hell this stuff could have been. The most likely candidate seems to be this stuff: 黄酒 huáng jiǔ - "yellow liquor", a fermented rice, wheat, or barley wine. The pronunciation in south China might well have been something like "hwang zhu" that an Englishman might have heard as "zham zhu" or sham-shu". I had a bottle of this stuff in a Chinese joint in London and it truly was awful, combining the taste of raw spirits with the heady nose of paint thinner; no surprise Gough, Irishman that he was, called it "pernicious").
The Wiki entry is sparse, contains some obvious errors, omits a great deal of otherwise readily available information, and is poorly written, to boot. Worthwhile only as a starting point.

Victorianweb has a nice little article on the background and contemporary observations of the Opium Wars.

There's a very accessible and well-crafted on-line essay in the Visualizing Cultures series by Peter Perdue of MIT located here; it has a wealth of primary sources (many of the sources from the above list came from this source) as well as a thoroughgoing analysis of the causes, conduct, and impact of the First Opium War.

Many secondary sources are extant for the First Opium War, although I am not familiar with any that deal specifically with Second Canton. Sources for the British and East India Company military are fairly common, although I retain a special fondness for Byron Farewell's Queen Victoria's Little Wars, both for the author's knowledge of the period as for his style.

Qing military sources are both difficult to find and - possibly because the Qing military system of the 19th Century was itself in generally poor shape - often confusing because of their insularity. Because of the difficulty in hiding the actual conduct and losses of the Opium Wars from a Qing bureaucracy that refused to believe in foreign capabilities the resulting Chinese imperial records are problematic, to say the least...

The Campaign: Before we get started, let me preface my summary of the events leading up to Second Canton by saying plainly; of all the causes for which humans have killed other humans, the desire to push addictive narcotics has to rank right up there with slavery and Nazism as the worst in history.

And to give credit where it was due; many Britons of the time agreed. The future Prime Minister William Gladstone rose against the expedition in Parliament, saying that to use British military power to force opium on China would "cover this country with permanent disgrace". In March, 1840, the Commons voted to send the expedition, but with only 271 in favor with 262 in opposition. Almost half the representatives of the people of Britain wanted nothing to do with, in effect, acting as a drug pusher's hired muscle. But, as we will see, the toxic combination of national pride, imperial gain, outright racism, and commercial greed served to produce a war nonetheless.

So how did we get to the point where some 6,000 British troops are preparing to storm a city of over a million, defended by a military force (if a fairly incompetent one) over five times the size of the assault element?
Well, like any good story, it begins with greed and an astrolabe.

First, the Ming Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, 朱元璋, way back in the 1300s, decided to cut China off from the nasty pestiferous foreigners messing around in boats. He enacted something called the 海禁 - the Hǎi Jìn or "sea ban". In effect, it meant that no Chinese private vessel could venture further than the mouths of China's rivers.

Crazy, hunh? For one thing, this effectively ended Chinese overseas commerce as well as pretty much decimating it's navy and isolating China from the West - since no sane person wanted to do a Marco Polo and hump all the way across central Asia just to trade - just as the West was getting all Revolutionary and Industrial. So when the two blocs reconnected - later in the "Age of Exploration" - the Chinese, who had been blowing shit up with explosives and writing poetry whilst the average Briton was painting himself blue and banging stones together, were far, far behind the power curve militarily and politically.

But the two sides DID hook up, the Chinese reluctantly, the Westerners, greedily. Because then, as now, the West saw China as one ginormous Market; all those millions of little Chinese consumers aching to buy Auntie Suzie's Secret Soy Sauce and the Grillmaster.

But this wasn't what the Qing were after; they'd revived the "sea ban" in the middle 1600s and kept it in place for thirty years. When the Qing did reopen ocean trade, it was under tremendously restricted conditions. Under the so-called "Canton System", all outside trade had to go through the "Thirteen Hongs" - trading firms with permanent facilities or "factories" in Canton (Guangzhou). The reach of the white men ended there; no foreign devils were allowed to travel outside Shamian Dao, Shamian Island in Guangzhou where the factories were located. So all the profits beyond the seawall of Shamian Dao went to the tricksy heathen Chinee, a situation designed to purely piss off any red-bloodedly greedy British merchant.
(This guy, by the way, was 秉鑒, Wǔ Bǐngjiàn, called "Howqua" by the white boys who couldn't pronounce his actual name. He was the big boss of the "Ewo Hong" (怡和行 - it's actually pronounced Yíhé Háng) and in the 1840s his worth - estimated at 26 million Mexican silver dollars - made him perhaps the richest man in the world. Frankly, he looks to me like a man who wants a drink. But, there...)

The British tried everything they could think of short of force, at first. They connived with Chinese bureaucrats and merchants and usually came off the worse; it's hard to cheat a South China job-creator, one of the most enterprising and daring scoundrels in history.

They tried diplomacy; in 1793 King George III sent one George Macartney to suggest that Britain receive "...a permanent embassy in Beijing, possession of "a small unfortified island near Chusan for the residence of British traders, storage of goods, and outfitting of ships", and reduced tariffs on traders in Guangzhou."
This didn't go well, not (as many contemporary and later accounts suggest) because Macartney refused to "kow-tow" - perform a full-length prostration - to the Qianlong Emperor, or the fact that he presented the Emperor with fairly useless and unimpressive gifts (such as an old-style astrolabe)
(Though the caption that accompanied the above cartoon of the embassage does put forward the suggestion that all of those played into the failure: "A caricature on Lord Macartney's Embassy to China and on the little which the Ambassador and his government are presumed to have known of the manners and tastes of the people they wanted to conciliate. Chinese etiquette is, that extreme prostrations should be made before the Emperor, which it was intimated Lord Macartney would not conform to. The whole contour of the Emperor is indicative of cunning and contempt and his indifference to the numerous gifts displaying the skill of British manufacturing, is evident. The German face bringing in the cage is Mr Huttner of the Foreign Office, who acted as an interpreter and published his own account of the visit. As soon as Lord Macartney had declined to make the required prostrations, only going down on one knee, he was dismissed from the presence of the Emperor. He was later ordered to quit Peking within two days and was given a letter addressed to George III wherein the Emperor states that,'As your Ambassador can see for himself, we possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country's manufactures'. An attache, Aeneas Anderson, later recalled that "we entered Pekin like Paupers, remained in it like Prisoners and departed from it like Vagrants".)
but, as the Wiki entry states, because of
"...a result of competing world views which were uncomprehending and to some extent incompatible. After the conclusion of the embassy, Qianlong sent a letter to King George III, explaining in greater depth the reasons for his refusal to grant the several requests presented to the Chinese emperor by Macartney. In it, the continuing references to all Europeans as "Barbarians", the emperor's assumption of all nations of the earth as being tributary to China, and his final words commanding King George III to "...tremblingly obey and show no negligence!"
Telling a foreign king to "tremblingly obey"? A foreign king with a modern army and navy? Gives you a good idea of the vast gulf between the way the Europeans looked at China and the way China looked back.

The next action the Qianlong Emperor took, though, was a real pisser.

He decreed that all Chinese products were to be bought with silver - that is, not traded for other goods. This was bad for the British firms like the East India Company, that had made it's nut selling cheap British crap to Indians in return for specie and valuable commodities.

And, by the way, you might want to revisit our discussion of the Battle of Plassey to remind yourself what the deal was with "John Company" and it's doin's in the East. Go ahead. I'll wait.

OK, so are we there yet? Good. So John Company was trying to do what colonial companies often do; make money by shiking the darkies.

Then the next thing that barged in was that veddy British drink, tea.
In the 18th and 19th Century the Brits sopped up lakes of the stuff. And there's a reason for the expression "all the tea in China" - that's where the best stuff grows. And since to get the tea on the tea clippers and from thence onto English breakfast tables and tea trays a man of business had to lay out hard cold silver this produced what we here in the U.S. circa 2012 know all too well; "large continuous trade deficits."

Chinese tea (and other, particularly luxury items such as silk cloth and porcelain) went to Britain; British silver went to China. And, since the Brits had been on a gold standard since the 18th century, they had to spend MORE money to purchase silver from Germany, Russia, Austria, and Mexico.

Needless to say, this fairly chapped the British.

But in the early years of the 19th Century, they hit on what Blackadder would call a plan as cunning as a cunning fox elected Dean of Cunning at Cunning University.

They would run opium into China.
Opium was produced in several places in the HEIC domains; largely in the Bengal Presidency as well as in the allied princely state of Malwa. These places had been cotton producing regions, but imperial contacts with Egypt (and the American South, probably) brought in cheap cotton cloth to India that bankrupted the cotton farmers in Malwa and Bengal.

Who turned to growing poppy.

Opium - largely as edible paste - had been used in China as early as the Tang dynasty of the 600-900s, but it was limited both by the low-grade buzz it created when snarfed as well as some pretty savage laws. In addition, the Manchu Qings didn't really mind of their Han subjects got all toasted; it kept them quiet and was a sort of indirect tax on them. No worries, Ping.

But. In about the 1820s to 1830s some smart guy figured out that if you combined opium and tobacco you got one bad weed; smoked opium kicked you in the head like a hammer - it fucked your shit up.
(This, by the way, is a "ball" of opium and tobacco from some time in the 19th Century; just the sort of dope shipped to China in bulk)

Now, suddenly, opium smoking became a serious problem in China...

...just as,

- Tea plantations in India and Africa came on line, cutting the tea revenue, and
- Cheap, nasty Turkish opium showed up (sold by good old Yankee Doodle Yanks, mostly) and started a price war, driving the cost of getting bombed down and driving the numbers of the bombed up, and
- In 1834 Parliament broke the HEIC monopoly on dope; now all you needed was a fast ship, a star to steer her by, and a couple of hundred chests of the finest black tar chandoo

Not shockingly, this pretty much honked off the Daoguang Emperor. In 1839 he put a gentleman named 林则徐, Lin Zexu, in charge of Guangzhou with the brief to stop the opium trade. He arrived in March with some big iron on his Confucian hip.

First he banned the sale and use of opium.

He demanded that the traders, both foreign and domestic, pledge a no-opium bond which carried the death penalty for arrest.

He also ordered the Qing military to close the Pearl River between Guangzhou and Hong Kong, effectively taking the foreign merchants hostage for their pal's good no-opium-smuggling behavior.

And in May, 1839, he demanded all the opium in Guangzhou.

Every. Single. Fucking. Chest.

Many of the Europeans wanted to fight right then. For one thing, they wanted the money - opium was cash on hand, and they were damed if they'd give up hard cash to some damn Chink, even if he did claim to be "governor" of the damn town. Second, they were terrified of falling afoul of the Qing "legal system", a feeling I have to admit I would have shared. The Chinese judiciary wasn't particularly interested in actual guilt (a continuing issue in China today); the Prime Directive was order; they were and are like U.S. Republicans in that respect.

To be arrested was pretty much to be convicted. Torture was commonly used to encourage a positive civic attitude, and, needless to say, a foreign devil had less of a chance than even a poor Chinese laborer.

The then-British Superintendent of Trade in China, Charles Elliot (told you we'd get to him again, didn't I?) convinced the British opium dealers to give up their dope by promising to make it good from Government monies, though the whole business was more complex than that. Here's how Perdue (2011) describes it:
"This seemingly magnanimous gesture (the surrender of the opium) was, as one Western China merchant phrased it, a clever “snare,” for it made the Chinese “directly liable to the British Crown.” In short time, the British government would trip this snare and demand compensation for the opium that was handed over.

All told, Elliot delivered 21,306 chests of the drug to the Chinese. This was an enormous amount: at roughly 140 pounds per chest, Lin suddenly found himself with three-million pounds of opium on his hands. This was destroyed over a period of 23 days in June 1839, at Chuanbi by the bay at Canton. The process required the labor of around 500 workers and involved three huge trenches (150 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 7 feet deep) lined with stone and timber and filled with approximately two feet of water from a nearby creek. The opium balls were broken into pieces, dumped into the trenches, and stirred until dissolved, after which salt and lime were added, creating noxious clouds of smoke. The “foreign mud” was then diverted to the creek and washed out to sea.
Lin and around 60 Chinese officials, together with foreign spectators, observed the destruction from an elaborately decorated pavilion erected nearby. In a little known coda to this famous event, Lin also offered prayers to the spirit of the Southern Sea, apologizing for poisoning its domain with these impurities and advising the deity (as the historian Jonathan Spence has recorded) “to tell the creatures of the water to move away for a time, to avoid being contaminated.”
The fallout from Lin's goin' all Elliot Ness on Charles Elliot and the British was predictable; an uproar to give the damn Chinamen a good thrashing. The Foreign Secretary in 1839 - another future PM, Palmerston (aided by the tai-pan of the still-extant firm of Jardine, Matheson & Co, William Jardine, whose possibly critical role in pushing Britain towards war with Qing China is well discussed here) -

...intoned that China itself had created the demand for opium, and its people were merely “disposed to buy what other people were disposed to sell them.”

After more incidents, including a drunken brawl in July in which British sailors killed a Chinese man (for which Commissioner Lin demanded the men for trial and the British authorities in Hong Kong refused under the not unreasonable suspicion that the swabs would be tortured into confessing and executed to satisfy their victim's family) and a retaliatory blockade of Hong Kong.

In September gunfire was exchanged - which is really not correct; what happened is that two British vessels pounded the living hell out of a trio of Qing armed junks - and the war had officially begun.

In November HMS Volage and HMS Hyacinth fought 16 more armed junks (along with some "fireboats", incendiary craft designed to burn wooden warships), destroyed several and killed about 15 Qing sailors for the loss of one man. Commissioner Lin’s report this as a victory; as yet the Imperial Throne had no idea how bad things were going for its forces in South China.

Charles Elliot, the civilian authority, request reinforcements, which arrived in the summer of 1840, and through the autumn the British forces pretty much pimpslapped the Qing military at will. The force of roughly 4,000 troops and some 48 vessels under an ADM Elliot forced the Yangtze River and were approaching the Imperial capital by August. A series of one-sided British military successes larded with Chinese diplomatic maneuvers ensued; the results were:

- In August Commissioner Lin was sacked - the Emperor had discovered that the foreign devils had NOT been defeated, were, instead, threatening his very palace, and was furious; “You are just making excuses with empty words. Nothing has been accomplished but many troubles have been created. Thinking of these things, I cannot contain my rage.” Lin was sacked, and replaced with Aisin-Gioro Yishan. Lin, by the way, is still remembered as a hero in China, and his statues tend to pop up in all sorts of places - this one's in New York City.
- Yishan tried to sweet talk the Elliots, promising that if they returned to Guangzhou that he would negotiate, so the British pulled back down the Yangtze to Macao by November and were in Guangzhou by December, talking away with Charles Elliot as chief negotiator. He was instructed to demand: the opening of Guangzhou, Amoy, Fuzhou, Ningbo, and Shanghai; cession of an island; and cash payments for both the destroyed opium and military force needed to beat all this stuff out of the Chinese.

- Yishan offered a small payment without telling the Imperial court.

So in January 1841 the British attacked the forts where the first fighting had occurred back in 1839, at Chuanbi. Two fortified batteries were taken with a loss of probably 500 of the two Qing garrisons killed and wounded; the Nemesis, rather spectacularly, blew up an armed junk with a Congreve rocket. The British had about 40 men injured.
I like the above picture because it does a nice job of quickly summing up the immense divide between the two forces. It is a contemporary painting of HEICS Nemesis and another British warship, along with a description of the action by the Chinese artist. While the image is fairly correct, the poem is a ridiculous fantasy of Chinese triumph, that explains
"...how the gods intervened to drive the English warships aground in a storm, after which “the foreign devils in hundreds then were put to death,” while others “fell sick by fierce disease” and perished. The closing lines are devoted to the “fire ship” encased in iron with a wheel on each side “which is moved by the use of burning coal and turns around like a galloping horse.” The poet acknowledges that “Its shape and fashion astonish mankind”; but, like all the other enemy ships, the gods drove it onto the rocks." (Perdue, 2011)
The reality - in which the gods were silent and the British killed Chinese and destroyed at will - produced concessions; Commissioner Yishan offered formal cessation of Hong Kong, six million dollars cash, official diplomatic relations between China and Britain as equals, and reopening of the Guangzhou trade.
(Here's the British version of the Nemesis, by the way, just for comparison)

This Convention of Chuanbi drove the Daoguang Emperor nuts; he arrested Yishan, confiscated his entire family property, eventually commuted his death-sentence but sent him over the Amur River in the far north. The man was seriously pissed.

Showing that fate has a nasty sense of humor Charles Elliot was reprimanded and replaced by the Foreign Office for having settled for the “lowest” possible terms. He was canned for not insisting on full value for the Lin-destroyed dope, for agreeing to evacuate Chusan Island, and for accepting a lease rather than outright possession of Hong Kong. Mind you, the reprimand and the replacement both arrived in July, long after our engagement, so in May Elliot was still technically in charge.

Chinese delays convinced Elliot that the Convention of Chuanbi would be a dead-letter; he then began maneuvering up the Pearl River towards Guangzhou. Three engagements in late February and early March; the so-called Battle of the Bogue (or Battle of Bocca Tigris), Battle of the First Bar, and Battle of Whampoa established British naval control over the lower Pearl River and brought the ground troops within strking distance of the city.
In the Pearl River engagements the pattern is the same; a single British sailor or two are killed (usually by a weapon malfunction or simple bad luck) while several hundred Qing soldiers or sailors are blown to hell with their vessels or forts.

It sucked to be a Green Banner soldier in the winter of 1841, no error.

By early May the British forces were in position around Guangzhou. Elliot and Gough planned to take the city by storm, and they made their dispositions accordingly. On the morning of 24 MAY the British moved in to assault.

The Engagement: Preliminaries - 18 to 24 MAY 1841

The dispatches from Gough and Senhouse are pretty clear on the timing of the coup de main against Guangzhou; the navy delivered the first troops to shore after midday on the 24th, that noteworthy fighting occurred on the 25 and 30 MAY, and the entire force re-embarked in 1 JUN.

There is, however, a curious entry in the Wiki entry that states "On May 21 Chinese forces tried a night ambush on the British positions, but they were repelled." But in the Gough dispatch quoted in the Colonial Magazine mentioned in Sources (above), the Army commander states "...the fleet...was prepared to sail on the 18th, but in consequence of light and variable winds the whole did not get under weigh until the 19th...but the whole of the force was not assembled until the morning of the 23rd..." There is no mention of a night attack, and based on the Gough dispatch it appears that almost all of the ground troops were embarked during the nights of the 20/21 and 21/22 MAY.

However, Senhouse, in his diepatch, reports that on the night of the 21st "an attempt was made by fire-rafts to burn the advanced vessels" as well as attacks (whether ground troops or vessels are not specified) on the Shamian battery, on HMS Alligator "off Howqua's fort"
(which is the tall thing in the middle of Whampoa Island), and more fireship attacks on the transports and merchant ships also lying at Whampoa.

Where, or whether, this ambush occurred, must be left to the reader to consider, but it appears that some degree of planning went into a naval assault on the British flotilla. As always, though, the Chinese defenders were repelled, and their vessels and fireships destroyed, without reported loss.

Movement to Contact - 24 MAY 1841

The documentary evidence continues by reporting that the British assault began on the morning of 24 MAY 1841. Gough's plan was to secure the "factories" on Shamian Island using small force that would, presumably, draw the attention of the defenders while masking the main force movement past the city.
The so-called "Right Column", consisting of the 26th Regiment of infantry supported by a single gun and a mortar of the Madras Artillery and a sapper platoon, would land on the riverwall at Shamian Dao; they did this and secured the island and its factories by 1700 on 24 MAY.

The Left Column - which, in fact, contained the remainder of the ground troops - bypassed the city and landed at or near the village of Tsinghae (or "Tsingpoo") "at dusk", presumably several hours later. The troops were unable to disembark in the gathering dark, although Gough did land the 49th Regiment to perform a reconnaissance and place listening posts (or "pickets" in the term of the day).

Gough reports that his troops were undisturbed by Chinese action, although Senhouse mentions that "...some detached parties of Chinese soldiers came around us...but they never came to the attack," Although he notes that these night ramblers succeeded in "cutting off a poor camp-follower, who struggled a little, taking off his head, and leaving both head and body on the ground." the night was otherwise quiet. The artillery was transferred ashore during the night, and the remainder of the infantry landed the following morning.

Taking the Outworks - 25 MAY 1841

With the factories secured and a lodgement firmly established northwest of Guangzhou, the next step was to reduce the forward Chinese positions. You can see from the map below that although the main defense of Guangzhou was the old stone city wall, some Qing officer - perhaps "Atsinga", the supposed commander of the garrison - had learned enough about modern warfare to understand that allowing 19th Century European artillery to roll up within direct fire range of a masonry wall was the military equivalent of lying on a cement pad and asking your enemy to drop a heavy object on your head; regardless of how hard your head, the result was likely to be unpleasant.

Several smallish "forts" (although the British commanders do not describe these outworks in detail, so we have no idea how formidable they were or how constructed) had been placed on a range of hills north and northwest of the city walls. The first task of the British landing force was to take these positions, in order to threaten the city walls directly.
This was done before noon; two assault columns simply rolled up to the base of the hills, scrambled up the slopes supported by their field artillery, scaled or broke into the fortified positions, and killed or drove off the defenders within half a hour, whose numbers we are not detailed other than as "numerous". The Chinese casualties are also not reported, although Gough notes that "The well-directed fire of the artillery...did great execution."

The Qing garrison does not appear to have been helpless; Gough reports that "(d)uring the whole of the advance my right had been threatened by a large body of the enemy...and just as I was about to commence the attack a report was made that heavy columns were advancing on the right." The Royal Marine battalion was pivoted to the southwest to act as a covering/blocking force and the Qing sortie appears to have dissolved some time later in the day.

After the outworks on the heights had been secured, Gough turned his attention to what he described as "A strongly intrenched camp...occupied apparently by about 4,000 men" located outside the northeast city walls. This strongpoint was some nuisance; "frequent attacks" on the British left flank units sortied from it all morning. When Gough observed "some mandarins of consequence" (and, presumably, their fighting tails) moving into this work - as well as a strong enough sortie to take and hold a "village in rear of my left" - he concluded that enough was enough.

The Hertfordshire Regiment was dispatched to clean the Chinese troops out of the village, and then the 49th, the 18th Royal Irish, and one company of marines, were sent barreling down a narrow causeway to take this "strongly intrenched" camp.

It was taken, burnt, and then, it's military value negated, the attackers retreated to the heights.

The British commander had now seen the Guangzhou city wall and intended to take it by assault. But the northern hills being rugged, the "roads" narrow, and much of the terrain between the landing beach and the city wet lowland or paddy fields, the artillery he needed to shoot his men onto the top of the wall was not in battery by nightfall. Paddy Gough and his troopers would have to spend a sweaty night in the open outside Guangzhou before they could knock on the neighbor's door.

Preparations for Assault - 26/27 MAY 1841

Before we go on, it's worth sitting back for a moment and contemplating the enormous inertia of military siege tactics spanning the history between the rise of Sumer and the First Opium War of 1841.

Because one of the first things civilization - that is, the organization of human beings into congeries that produced enough goodies to be worth stealing or killing for - did was produce walled cities.

And a wall, whether a wattle of brush, a wooden palisade, a dirt berm, or a masonry curtain, is perhaps the simplest, and most basic, implement of military defense.

If it is too tall to leap, too smooth to climb, too dense to topple, and too fireproof to burn, for the first Sumerian to confront one the possibilities must have been pretty immediately obvious; you had to go under, through, or over the damn thing.
And that stayed pretty much the standard of military practice for, what, about 5,000 years?

You could dig under the wall; that was called "mining", and could involve everything from a simple tunnel into a rathole opening within the palisade to a complex gallery dug under a heavy masonry wall that would be collapsed. Before gunpowder this was typically done by erecting a complex forest of wooden posts within a large open excavation. Then the posts would be set afire, and when the posts collapsed the cavern would cave in, undermining the wall above.

You could also beat the wall down and go through the hole. This was a bit beyond the Sumerians, but once a smart guy or three got to thinking about it the catapult, the onager, the ballista, and (especially) the trebuchet were invented, the idea being to huck a great big fucking rock at the wall; hit it enough times, the thinking went, and it'd fall down.
The above, by the way, is unlikely to make anything fall. Down, that is.

Apparently it's something called a Siege Weapon of Love, and I found it google-searching for some images to use here and, well, frankly, why not? If you don't know what a trebuchet looks like, google it for christssake; I'm not your search engine. Besides, the pink penis bombard is a hell of a lot funnier. Why are you looking at me that way?

Ahem.

Sorry.

To continue.

Gunpowder, surprisingly, didn't really do much to change this. Sure, cannon could throw a bigger "rock" (usually a metal ball) harder and farther. But the process was pretty much the same; huck a rock, huck a rock, wash, rinse repeat until the wall fell down or someone came along and broke your trebuchet, or your cannon.

The other way to go "through" a wall was to pick at the weak point - the gates. These could be hammered open with a big ol' log, or burned since they were usually wooden. Because of this the gates usually came in sets, with inner gates inside the outer gates, and the wall defenses were usually particularly murderous around the gates. But it could be done, if you were lucky and smart.

But all this hucking and digging took time. Conventional sieges, almost inevitable when the two sides' technological, tactical, and economic capabilities were similar, could take weeks, months, even years, and were nasty, costly (and, particularly, before field sanitation was enforced) dangerous; the hell with scaling the wall - sitting in your filth outside an enemy town was a damn fine way to die from typhus, dysentery, cholera, the Black Plague and God alone knew what else.

But the big problem was time. Going under or through took lots of troops, and lots of equipment, and lots of time.

And Hugh Gough and his boys didn't have time. They needed a quick win for the visitors, so the only real way for them to go was over.

Now the term they would have used for going over a defended fortress wall would have been escalade. Let's face it; that sounds more tactical (and shorter) than "Propping a home-made ladder up against the wall and climbing up, hoping that some dirty bastard doesn't shoot or stab me, or drop a ginormous rock on my head, or parboil me with boiling water". But non-tactical or not, the long version was pretty much what "escalade" entailed.
And always had. The only real difference between the ancient siege escalades like Alesia in 52BC and Jerusalem in 1099, and those of the early Industrial Era, is that cannon had made the huge creaking "siege towers" obsolete; the bastards couldn't dodge, were too huge to miss, and too fragile to withstand the impact of an explosive-propelled projectile (it should be noted that trebuchets were hard on them, too, but the trebuchets were much harder to aim and slower to fire). But the good old-fashioned ladder, lashed and nailed together from some local wood, was still popular.

So the plan was to "prep" the fighting platforms on the curtain walls (the long straight bits between the towers) and towers with musket fire and artillery to keep the defenders' heads down, rush the ladders to the base of the walls, up you go, Jock, and hopefully one or two scaling parties would gain a foothold at the top for the files milling about smartly at the base of the wall to expand.

And the thing to remember is that against decent troops, escalade was always chancy and usually a complete and utter disaster. Trying to take a walled fortification by escalade was a long-shot, a no-hoper, something you tried when you had no other option but to give up and go away.

Even when they worked, many escalades that succeeded did so by pure luck, like Wellington's success at Badajoz in 1812, where the supposed assault force was shot-, burned-, and squashed-by-big-rocks-to-death but a diversion that was ignored managed to get atop the wall and took the victorious defenders like the pervert took his neighbor's wife - by surprise and from behind.

Oh, and I should add that there was another way inside a walled fortification;

Treachery. Probably as many fortresses in history were taken by some treacherous SOB opening a postern gate as the other methods combined, but there was no glory in that so nobody liked to talk about it.

No treachery here, then. For the British dope peddlers' hard boys thrashing at the south China mosquitoes through the sultry night, the next day promised to bring all the nasty bits escalading brought with it.

I'll bet it was a restless night out there.

Suspense, Suspicion, and Submission - 26-28 MAY 1841

Gough's assault plan was, like a fair number of his plans, pretty straightforward.

The artillery would begin pounding the walls at first light. As soon as practical - that is, when the effect of the heavy weapons was becoming visible but before ammunition supply became perilous - the infantry assault teams would double-time to the wall and attempt to scale it.

Assuming that their covering fire was effective and their willingness to climb a rickety ladder some three stories did not desert them the attackers could hope to arrive at the fighting platform atop the wall alive. There they would defeat the remaining defenders and form a perimeter that would expand in either direction, clearing more of the wall for more attackers to scale.

Eventually there would be enough attackers inside the wall to negate its military value, and then the defenders would either surrender, or die; a trooper who had been forced to scale a defended wall and survived was unlikely to spare the man who had put him through such an unpleasant morning.

Gough's plan was based on a four-element assault on the northwestern and northern wall of Guangzhou.
On the British right the Royal Marines were tasked with attacking the main northern city gate (it's a weak point, remember?); if they could they would blow it with satchel charges, if not, they would attempt to scale a "circular work" Gough describes as a "secondary defense" for the gate - I'm not sure what that means.

The center-right column was the Naval Brigade; they were supposed to attack the other side of this "circular defense, where the wall appeared comparatively low...".
The center-left column was composed of the 18th (Royal Irish) regiment, with the Bengal Volunteers and a company of the 37th M.N.I providing covering fire; they were to escalade a wall behind a five-story pagoda "which was not flanked, except by one gun" (which was important; a section of wall that was "flanked" had a cannon pointed parallel to the face of the wall - the flanking gun could vomit out man-killing canister or grapeshot projectiles that would have a perfect target in the unarmored men at the base of the open wall. Brrrr; scares me just thinking about it...)

(By the way, this "five-story pagoda" is still in existence.
Here it is. It's real name is 镇海楼, Zhènhǎi Lóu or "Zhenhai Tower", it was already almost five hundred years old in 1841, and it now houses the city museum in central Guangzhou.)

The left column was for the 49th (Hertfordshire) regiment supported by two companies of the 37th M.N.I., their target a "bastion" that was overlooked by the central southern fort captured on the 25th; Gough believed that small-arms fire from this fort, which overlooked the fighting platform along the wall at this point, would kill or drive away the Chinese fortress gunners from their cannon.

But with all this in preparation, the morning of the 26th dawned very still; the city walls bore few defenders, and at 1000 hrs a white flag appeared.

A Chinese emissary, described by Gough as "a mandarin", appeared and stated that the Qing authorities wanted to make peace. Gough's reply is a delightful example of Victorian imperialism; "I had it explained (to the "mandarin" by the interpreter) that...we came to Canton much against the wishes of the British nation, but that repeated insults and breaches of faith had compelled us to make the present movement, and that I would cease from hostilities for two hours..."

Gough and Senhouse apparently waited for the Chinese "general" they were promised from 1200 hrs until 1600; no body showed up. At four Gough took down his white flag, observing that while the Chinese did not it enabled him to finish his preparations without coming under fire.

The assault was set for the nest day, 27 MAY, with the artillery prep beginning at 0700 and the infantry assault at 0800.

Dawnlight on 27 MAY revealed the Qing truce flags still in place, but Gough had had enough. Let's let him describe what happened next:
"...at a quarter past six I was at the point of sending the interpreter to explain that I could not respect such a display...and should at once resume hostilities. At this moment an officer of the royal navy, who had been traveling all night, having missed his way, handed me the accompanying letter from Her Majesty's plenipotentiary. (N.B. - this was the Foreign Office representative, Charles Elliot) Whatever might be my sentiments, it was my duty to acquiesce; the attack, which was to have commenced in 45 minutes, was countermanded, and the feelings of the Chinese were spared."
The British troops stood down, Gough and Senhouse had a preliminary meeting with "Yang, a Tartar general" at 1000, and then, as Gough drily notes, "At twelve, Captain Elliot arrived in camp, and all further active operations ceased."
Over the next thirty-six hours Elliot and Yishan hammered out the details of the capitulation.

The Qing garrison was allowed to evacuate with their weapons and baggage, though they could not wave their flags or toot their tootlers (or whatever Qing marching bands carried to toot on...). Five million of the required six million dollar indemnity was collected, and the sixth million taken in securities. In return the British forces would withdraw to Hong Kong and reopen the Pearl River to trade.

I want to take a moment to think about Charles Elliot, a man whose humanity and common sense won him nothing but the enmity of his contemporaries; "...as whimsical as a shuttlecock," was one of Gough's opinions, and one of the mildest.
Looks a bit gloomy, but perhaps its just the whiskers. Poor dear man; if he wasn't he had a right to be.

For one thing, the man was a genuine diplomat, and I mean that as a compliment. He continued, throughout his tenure in China, to find some way for the Britain and John Company to get as much as they could of what they wanted without making those wants onerous for the Chinese people.

But he was stuck between a bunch of greedy merchants on the one side, wog-bashing imperial land-grabbers on another, and a wretchedly incompetent, purblind, deteriorating Qing bureaucracy on the third. People like Gough and Jardine wanted everything, people like Lin, Yishang, and the Daoguang Emperor wanted everything - they all wanted everything, they all despised their enemies, it was impossible to find a middle ground, and so Elliot discovered.
At least he had a pretty wife; that's Clara Elliot, above. Lovely little mover, isn't she, in the high Victorian style? One hopes that she was there to console her helpmeet, because given his reputation for a talky Chink-lover he wasn't going to get much from anywhere else in his command.

But for all that, he managed some sort of an accommodation at Guangzhou on 27 MAY 1841.

The following day the garrison began to evacuate, and it looked like the crisis would be resolved peaceably from that point on. But not before one of the oddest, and most intriguing, incidents in the entire engagement occurred.

Sanyuanli, or, The Peasants Are Revolting - 29-30 MAY 1841

So the British troops are lolling about on a warm May day when at noon reports begin to come in that there's something nasty in the woodshed.

Hugh Gough described this as: "...numbers of men, apparently irregulars, and armed for the most part with long spears, shields, and swords, collecting upon the heights, three or four miles to my rear." This group was largely local civilians (but probably included some Green Banner Army detachments as well) led by the small-time officials from the villages to the north of Guangzhou.

Gough describes what amounted to him as nothing more than a nasty little skirmish. He collected a scratch force of the 26th Cameronian Regiment (which he had recovered from Shamian Dao once the capitulation was signed), three companies of the 49th Hertfordshire, and the 37th Madras N.I., with Bombay Volunteers and some marines in reserve.

The British pretty much flayed these medieval levies at will, but they were persistent, and Gough observes that
"Within two hours, however, from 7,000 to 8,00 men had collected, and displayed numerous banners...(t)he Chinese advanced in great force...as the approach of a thunder-storm was evident, I became anxious, before it broke, to disperse this assemblage, whose approach bespoke more determination than I had previously witnessed."
Gough chose the 37th M.N.I. and the Bengal Volunteers for this task and yoicked them forward, stating that "...the enemy were driven in at all points."

In the process, the commander of the 37th, which was advancing to contact along the British center and right, threw out a company to make contact with the Cameronians to the left. This company, probably about 30-40 Indian troops under an English lieutenant named Hadfield, was then left behind when, as the rainstorm made operation of the British muskets impossible, the main British force retired.

Gough observes that the downpour "...emboldened the Chinese, who, in many instances, attacked our men hand-to-hand..." but that this melee combat was not particularly dangerous. However between the rain and the lopsided numbers the entire operation was becoming chancy, and not particularly promising, so Gough directed his Company troops to continue to retire.

Here occurred one of those things that often happen to soldiers under stress; several people assumed things that weren't true.

The commander of the 37th M.N.I. assumed that his detached company was safely with the Cameronians, the commander of that unit had apparently never been informed that he was supposed to be looking for a bunch of wandering Madrassis and never reported linking up with them, while the force commander didn't check to find out who, if anyone, was right.

After the storm passed and Gough and the company infantry advanced back to where the 26th regiment was posted - forward of the 37th but south of the location of the main engagement - Gough discovered ("...was exceedingly annoyed to find..." is the way he puts it) that the missing company was not with the Cameronians at all and never had been.

There's nothing like losing thirty soldiers in the middle of a hostile countryside in a battle in the piss-pouring rain to motivate military leaders. Gough immediately dispatched two companies of Royal Marines armed with percussion muskets (unlike flintlocks relatively impervious to the wet) to find LT Hadfield and his missing sepoys.

They were located a little after nightfall, in a square defensive formation surrounded by "several thousand" local Chinese levies and their powder and weapons still completely soaked and useless except as clubs or spears.

The relieving Marine companies used their functional weapons to shoot up the Chinese who "dispersed...with great loss". The entire British force then retired to its camp again; Gough does not record whether or how many of the sepoys were killed or wounded in this little standoff, observing only that the junior British officer of the unit was badly wounded. Perdue (2011) says that one trooper was killed and 15 wounded. Whatever the total, it was small.

Casualties among the Chinese militia are not detailed in any account I can find.

At first the following day, 30 MAY, seemed to promise more of the same. The local volunteers appeared on the hills to the north, again, in mass, and made it clear that they weren't ready to go away without having a go at these foreign devils. This time, however, Gough keeps the troops in reserve and sends to the head Qing official (which he calls the "Kwang-chow-Foo"; I am guessing that this was the provincial governor of Guangdong, a place that Gough commonly spells Kwang-chow, but the actual name of this person in Gough's account is unclear. In his summary of the capitulation agreement Gough lists several Qing officials but doesn't identify any one of them as this particular officer. I have encountered the name She Baoshun in another account, but I am not sure if this is correct).

Gough warns this individual, whoever he is, that if something isn't done about all these revolting peasants the white flag comes down and then it's going to be hell to pay in Guangzhou Saturday. The Kwang-chow-Foo hurriedly insists that he has nothing to do with this unseemly mob, which, he says, "...was without the knowledge and against the wishes of the Chinese authorities; that there were no mandarins with this militia in our rear; that it had assembled to protect the villages in the the plain; and that he would immediately send off a mandarin of rank...with orders for its immediate dispersion." The mandarin (and a British officer) were saddled up, rode out to wave their arms and bellow "Disperse, ye rebels, ye villains, disperse!", and the villagers did so.

And that was 三元里事件, the "San Yuan Li Incident".

The reality was, as reality often is, less than dramatic. It is with the retelling that this bizarre little engagement becomes important, as we shall see.

Captains and the Kings Depart - 1 JUN 1841

So the Qing troops marched away, the British force stowed away a tidy five million in silver, and Gough writes "I acceded to the wish of H.M.'s plenipotentiary to embark the troops." The Qing authorities helpfully supplied some 800 laborers to hump the British artillery and ammunition back to Tsinghae, the units formed up, boarded the ship's boats and then the ships themselves, and bid what was probably a fairly profane farewell to scenic south China and the Guangzhou region. The entire mob was afloat by 1500 hrs and back to the main anchorage downriver of Guangzhou by nightfall.

It is nowhere recorded what observations on the manners and methods of the recent visitors and their own rulers the battered citizens of Guangzhou made from the events of the final week of of the fourth month of the 21st year of the Daoguang Reign.

I suspect they were not particularly philosophical or pleasant.

I wonder what they would have added had they known that the site of the foreign factories and the cause of so much misery that May would one day become Ground Zero for wealthy Westerners swooping in to snatch up Chinese babies?
The Outcome: Grand tactical British/HEIC victory

The Impact: The actual military impact of Second Guangzhou was pretty negligible. The First Opium War continued for another year and a half, ending up with the British expeditionary force dictating a victor's peace before Nanjing in August, 1842.
Elliot's withdrawal was as much because of the uselessness of southern China as a strategic lever to affect the Qing as a dislike of useless bloodshed. The entire campaign appears to have convinced him - and his plan was carred forward by his successor, Pottinger - to try gunboat diplomacy on the Yangtze again.

So in August 1841 the British were back at Amoy, took Chusan, and then Ningpo in October, with a bloody (for the Chinese troops alone, of course) defeat at Chinhai between. The British wintered around Ningpo, and then in March 1842 beat hell out of several Qing attacks, including one inside Ningpo itself which included a frantic and pointless street fight on 10 MAR in which an assault column of bannermen attempted to bull through a firing line of British infantry supported by a howitzer. LT Ouchterlony of the Company's Army called it a “merciless horror in the street,”;
“The corpses of the slain lay heaped across the narrow street for a distance of many yards, and after the fight had terminated, a pony, which had been ridden by a mandarin, was extricated unhurt from the ghastly mass in which it had been entombed so completely as to have at first escaped observation.”
Five days later the Qing troops were butchered again at Segaon outside Ningpo.

Now reinforced to a total of 12,000 ground troops, the British moved north up the Yangtze first to Hangchow (which was surrounded by mudflats and inaccessible to the warships) and then, bypassing Hangchow, to Chapu on the coast between Hangchow and Shanghai.

Chapu was a so-called “Tartar” city intended as a centre of Manchu military power; most of the residents were families and servants of banner troops, and were steeped in the win-or-die tradition of the Manchu.

The combat itself was the usual lopsided victory, and after the fighting petered out the invaders found a dead city; the grannies, wives, and children of the banner troops had killed themselves, either with poisons, or worse - been strangled or butchered by their own parents or children.

Shanghai - then a relatively small town - was taken in June, and then Zhenjiang - important both for it's walled strength and its location at the confluence of the Yangtze and the Grand Canal - in late July.

This was the "last stand" of the banner army. Outnumbered and outgunned, thousands of the garrison were killed, and then the usual human disaster of suicide, plundering and burning - much of it by Han Chinese peasants and local badmashes. Of the fight at Zhenjiang, Edward Cree wrote in his journal: “Our loss in killed is estimated at 200, but I never knew of so many deaths from sunstroke in one day. The enemy’s loss is reckoned at 2,000 out of 5,000 said to have been engaged.”
By early August, the British expeditionary force invested Nanjing. The game was over. Unable to pretend they were winning anything, the Qing government signed the Treaty of Nanjing on 29 AUG 1842. This treaty opened the five ports, cost China 20 million silver dollars, abolish the Cohongs, and set a fixed, low schedule of customs duties.
And Britain got Hong Kong. Forever.

Not bad for a bit of rough drug dealing.

For Britain and John Company, the whole business was just another day at the office. They would be at it for another hundred years.

For China, it was the beginnings of a century of utter misery.
Beyond Guangzhou, the Opium War had several damaging effects on China as a whole.

The most immediate was purely physical; destruction of several cities, and damage to several critical areas in south China and the Yangtze valley, along with the deaths of certainly thousands and probably tens of thousands of Chinese either directly at the hands of others (whether British or Chinese) or through disease, starvation, and exposure.

Political consequences included a steepening of the decline of the Qing government, and (something we'll talk about a bit later in depth) a widening of the gulf between the rulers and the ruled. The Qing had developed a reputation for incompetent brutality already; now not only could they not rule others effectively, they couldn't even defend themselves.

But the events of May 1841 are likely to have had some very specific effects on south China.

Because for the first time in a long time, the autocratic, top-down leadership that had characterized China since, well, since it had become China was turned upside down.

And the place it turned was San Yuan Li.

It's hard to overestimate the importance of this ridiculous little skirmish in the eventual overthrow of the autocratic governments of China, both the imperial and, later, the Kuomindang.

Because the legend of the defeat of the hated foreign devils grew in the telling like a G.I.'s tale of improbable barstool romance. Instead of a nasty, pointless bit of slashing in the rainy dusk the story goes around China that heroic Chinese, just ordinary people, armed with spears and knives and bits of wood, butchered scores of the foreign devils, setting them to panicked flight. The entire idiotic little flurry becomes a combination of the Fall of the Bastille, Bunker Hill and the Storming of the Winter Palace.

In his work Modern Chinese Warfare 1795-1989, Bruce Elleman says;
"The Sanyuanli Incident seems to prove (to the Chinese people) that Chinese militia could face and defeat a modern foe. Instead of giving proper credit to the advanced weaponry and training of the foreign forces that allowed it to repel a force ten times its size, Chinese heard exaggerated reports of the "victory" and wrongly believed it confirmed the validity of their own methods."
The Qing military never did improve; the forces that met and were similarly butchered by the British in 1860 and an international Western force in 1900 were practically identical to the sad bastards who were so badly hammered at Guangzhou in May 1841. The legend of San Yuan Li was the rapturous poison of the Sirens, leading generations of Chinese, soldiers and civilians both, to death and misery by convincing them that spears and swords could defeat rifles and breech-loading artillery.

And the other impact of Second Guangzhou is the impact it didn't have; the effect on the Qing government itself.

Another government might have looked at the fall of Guangzhou as an exclamation point to the warning that the events leading from the Macartney meeting were telling them in letters of flame on the battered walls of Canton that their system wasn't working against the foreigner invaders.

Another government might have taken the opportunity to reform the many places that corruption and maladministration had nearly destroyed the bond between the people and their rulers.

The Qing bureaucracy did no such thing.

And that failing combined with the legend of San Yuan Li may have played a critical part in spawning one of history's most horrific events;
The Taiping Rebellion.

If there's one most terrible tale that runs through the threads of China's history that includes the mess at Guangzhou in 1841, it seems to be to be the one of awful governance.

When you think about it, China has never really had a "good" government in the sense of having one that was or is designed to work well, and benefit the mass of Chinese, consistently. Where the ruler has been beneficent if has been by his own individual virtue, and as we know, personal virtue is as rare among humans as personal probity or fidelity. Most people, especially when given unchecked power, are bastards. And so history has proved in China again and again.
In this case, the failings of the Qing were matched with the brutal greed of the opium sellers, and the brutal pride of the British adventurers, and between them they meant a great deal of misery for the poor sods who were merely trying to live their lives along the broad plains of the Pearl River that spring so many years ago.

There really are no heroes here, just another sorry fight in another sorry war for some of the sorriest reasons one group of people ever took up arms against another, between a merciless invader and a thuggish defender, and all so that fifty years later a native of Shanghai could not walk in a park under trees growing from the earth of their home city and their own country.

The legacy of the Opium Wars was a century of Westerners rubbing Chinese noses in the fact that these upstart "barbarians" considered them roughly on the level of talking animals, to be used as needed and ignored or butchered when not, or when they got uppity. It's important not to forget how much this still subtly poisons the relationship between China and the West.

Because sometimes even generations aren't enough to rub out the memory of being a despised outsider in one's own country.
So, should you should ever wonder why they hate our freedoms...