Wednesday, April 11, 2012

America: The Gasoline War

I apologize in advance to those of my readers who find military history uninteresting. The next part of the story I’m exploring just now, the story of the British Empire’s fall and its replacement by today’s American empire, can’t be understood without a sense of the military realities that drove that process, and the decline and fall of the American empire, the central theme of this series of posts, also has a crucial military dimension.

That dimension starts out, oddly enough, not with defeat but with victory. It’s too rarely realized that an unbroken string of victorious wars is one of the most dangerous things that can happen to a nation. Plenty of things could have clobbered the British Empire, and plenty of things contributed, but a strong case can be made that the blowback from too much success was the thing that finally tipped Britain over the edge into imperial collapse.

You can trace that effect at work all through the nineteenth century in the steady drumbeat of bungled crises and minor disasters that called forth one brutally efficient response after another from Britain’s immense military machine but never quite taught it to rethink any of its mistakes. A rebellion in India or the Sudan, a war in South Africa or Afghanistan, or whatever else, wherever else, generally began with a series of disastrous reverses for the British side. Usually, though not quite always, this was the doing of the army, the red-coated stepchild of Britain’s military establishment—you’ll notice that it’s the Royal Navy and, nowadays, the Royal Air Force, but not the Royal Army—whose officer corps for generations was where England’s noble families parked their incompetent younger sons.

So a regiment or an army would get slaughtered, a city or a province end up temporarily under the control of the people who lived there, and the British press would start baying for blood; Parliament would bicker decorously, and then immense military force would converge on whatever corner of the planet was to be taught a lesson; meanwhile the British army would work its way down through the list of available commanders, throwing them a few at a time into the crisis, until it finally found one who could figure out how to use overwhelming military and technological superiority to win a war. Once the natives were machine-gunned into submission, in turn, the successful general would head home to London and a peerage, the others would be quietly pensioned off, and every lesson that might prevent the next disaster was promptly forgotten. It was all so far away from London, and each generation of officers in training dutifully read Clausewitz and daydreamed of Waterloo and forgot to notice how fast the world was changing around them.

Not even the First World War managed to shake the serene confidence of Britain’s imperial elite that what worked in the past would continue to work in the future. That time, it wasn’t so far away from London, and the army on the other side wasn’t outnumbered, outgunned, and out of its technological terms. Germany in 1914 was one of the world’s major industrial nations, with a large and extremely competent army. Ironically enough, that army was nearly as hampered by a string of successes as Britain’s was, and tried to repeat its 1870 triumph over France without paying attention to the possibility that the French might be expecting that. They were; the German offensive ground to a halt along a ragged line across northern France and Belgium; Parliament bickered decorously, and then Britain tried the usual trick of overwhelming its enemy with the massed forces of its empire – and that’s when things went haywire, because throwing massed forces against an entrenched enemy equipped with machine guns and modern artillery simply meant that whole regiments were annihilated to gain a few yards of bloodsoaked mud.

Worse, the British army failed to follow its usual practice of cashiering one general after another until it found one who could figure out how to fight. Instead, the same handful of top commanders kept on using the same tactics straight through the war, even when those tactics consistently failed and cost tens or hundreds of thousands of British lives – as they did. The war on the western front turned into a struggle of sheer attrition, which the Allies won because the United States threw its resources, its wealth, and finally its soldiers into the balance. When the victory celebrations were over and the top British commander retired with the traditional peerage, it was all too easy to forget that without a tsunami of American aid, Britain might well have lost the war.

As it was, the First World War very nearly bankrupted the British Empire. The wealth pump had been running too hard for too long, stripping wealth from existing colonies, and the expansion of British economic interests into central Europe couldn’t make up the difference because the war had very nearly bled central Europe dry. Ireland’s successful war of independence in 1919-1921 showed which way the wind was blowing. England had crushed numerous Irish rebellions down through the years, but in the wake of the First World War that was no longer an option; after two years of bitter fighting, British prime minister David Lloyd George, scrambling to stave off full Irish independence, used threats of escalating violence to pressure the Irish provisional government into accepting self-rule under nominal British authority. That turned out to be a stopgap, and a weak one at that Over the next three decades, as Ireland cut its remaining ties with the British Empire, politicians in London merely grumbled and looked away; the resources to do anything else couldn’t be spared from other, more urgent needs. Those of my readers who are keeping track of the larger trajectory being traced in these posts will want to take note: when an empire can no longer afford to maintain control over its oldest and closest subject nations, that empire is circling the drain.

Meanwhile, on the far side of the North Sea, a far more serious challenge was building. Britain’s secondhand victory in the First World War had spared it the need to learn the lessons the war had to teach; Germany’s defeat made those lessons impossible to ignore, and the Versailles Treaty that ended the war fed far too much of Germany’s remaining wealth into the wealth pumps of Britain and France, adding the insult of impoverishment to the injury of defeat. (Since Britain and France both ended the war with huge debts to banks in the United States, quite a bit of that wealth flowed promptly across the Atlantic, where it helped put the roar into the Roaring Twenties.) Through the 1920s, when the German army remained bound by the sharp limits imposed at Versailles, young officers whose names would become famous a few years later talked late into the night about how the war could have been won, and what kind of an army could win it. When they got the chance to build that army – courtesy of a little man with a Charlie Chaplin mustache, whom the foreign press by and large dismissed as a Mussolini wannabe – a frighteningly different mode of making war began to take shape.

What these officers realized, or partly realized, was that the petroleum-powered internal combustion engine had completely redefined the potential shape of war. Britain had converted its fleet from coal to oil in the years just before the First World War, to be sure, and equipped its armies with tanks, trucks, and aircraft, but the strategic vision that directed all these things remained mired in the 19th century. In the minds of military planners in Britian and France – as well, to be fair, as most other countries – the nature of war remained what it had been for centuries: two opposing armies form up, march toward each other, jockey for position, and then fight a battle, and the army that withdraws from the battlefield first has lost; rinse and repeat, until the army, the government, or the nation of one side gives way. The new way of war Germany’s young officers began to sketch out no longer followed those rules. It’s going to be necessary to take an extended look at that difference, partly because the current American way of war is wholly based on the principles those German officers developed, and partly – well, we’ll get to that as we proceed.

Some weeks ago, in a post discussing the American Civil War, I mentioned that the European military attachés who followed the armies and witnessed the battles of that war almost uniformly learned the wrong lesson from it. That’s because they paid attention to the two most famous generals of that war, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, and to the part of the war that was closest to Washington DC and the port cities of the eastern seaboard, a rough triangle of of eastern Virginia whose points were at Washington, Richmond, and the sea. The battles fought there after Grant took command of the Army of the Potomac were a close first approximation to the useless slaughter of the western front in the First World War, with one crucial difference: they weren’t useless, from Grant’s and the Union’s perspective, because they formed one part of a broader strategy.

Grant is said to have described that strategy in the homely language he preferred: “I’m going to hold the cat down, and Sherman is going to skin him.” That was exactly what happened, too. Grant’s job was to pin down Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, respectively the Confederacy’s best general and its toughest army, so that neither one could be spared to the more vulnerable western front. Meanwhile Grant’s opposite number, Gen. William T. Sherman, marched an army from Tennessee through Georgia to the sea, and then north through the Carolinas toward Virginia; his job was to shatter the Confederacy’s economic and agricultural systems, cripple its ability to feed and supply its armies, and make it impossible for the South to keep fighting. That was why Sherman’s “bummers” stripped the country bare, leaving behind memories that are still bitter today, and it also explains a detail that rarely gets mentioned in any but the most technical histories of the Civil War: in the course of a months-long campaign that took him through the heartland of the Confederacy, Sherman fought only two significant battles.

Grant got the glory, and earned it fairly, but Sherman may have been the 19th century’s most innovative military thinker. When he came face to face with a Confederate army, whenever the strategic situation allowed, he evaded it, slipped past it, got behind it, and threatened its lines of communication and supply, forcing it to retreat in disarray. Long before anyone else, he grasped that it’s not necessary to fight a pitched battle to win a war, and that a force that can move fast, get behind its enemy, and target the vulnerable territory behind the lines can cripple the ability of the other side to wage war at all. Most of a century later, that approach to war came to be called “blitzkrieg;” today it’s the basis of the Airland Battle Doctrine, the core of American military strategy.

I’ve come to think that those German officers who talked late into the night in the 1920s may have remembered Sherman, and realized that what he did with infantry on foot could be done far more effectively with tanks, airplanes, and infantry loaded into trucks. When 1940 came and a rearmed Germany set out to even the score with Britain and France, certainly, the strategy the German high command chose was for all practical purposes the same one that Grant and Sherman used to shatter the Confederacy. The British and French set out to refight the First World War, moving their armies into northern France to contain an expected German thrust through Belgium. The Germans made that thrust with part of their force, pinning down the Allied armies – holding the cat, in Grant’s metaphor. Then, once the Allies were fully engaged, the rest of the German force drove through the rugged Ardennes hills, got behind the Allied lines, and proceeded to skin the cat with aplomb. Less than two months later, France had surrendered, and the British forces had suffered a humiliating defeat, fleeing across the Channel from Dunkirk and leaving their tanks, artillery, and everything else behind.

Meanwhile, around the same time that those young German officers were sitting up late at night and talking strategy, another coterie of young officers on the other side of the Eurasian continent was doing much the same thing, with equally dramatic results. Japan didn’t have the advantage of a recent defeat to draw on, but the humiliating events of 1854, when American gunboats had forced Japan to open its ports to American merchants and reverse a centuries-old policy of economic localization, left a lasting scar on Japanese memories. Aware that the alternative was subjugation by one of the existing imperial powers, Japan’s leaders frantically built up a modern military and the industrial economy that was necessary to give it teeth; a short and successful war with the Russian Empire, in which the Japanese fleet crushed its Russian rivals in two flawlessly executed naval battles, duly followed; but the young officers of the Imperial Navy recognized soon after the First World War that the day of the battleship was over, and embraced the possibilities of naval air power at a time when most other nations with navies still thought that aircraft carriers were a waste of time.

My American readers doubtless remember how these preparations affected the United States on December 7, 1941 and the days that followed, but they may not be aware that British forces in the Pacific suffered a series of equally disastrous and humiliating defeats. Once again, the cause was simply that Japan had noticed and embraced the new military possibilities that petroleum and the internal combustion engine made possible, and Britain had not. Fortified naval bases that were essential to British strategy in the Pacific and the Indian Oceans, and were considered invulnerable in London, fell into Japanese hands like ripe fruit. Perhaps the best display of the mismatch, though, was the doomed voyage of the battleship Prince of Wales and the cruiser Repulse, the two most powerful British naval vessels in the southwestern Pacific, which sailed from Singapore the day after Pearl Harbor to attack a Japanese landing force up the Malay coast. It was a move straight out of Alfred Thayer Mahan, but the Japanese were no longer playing Mahan’s game; the ships were promptly spotted and sunk by Japanese torpedo bombers.

The war that followed is usually called the Second World War, but it might more usefully be given a different name: the Gasoline War. That’s partly because the stunning initial victories of the two Axis powers that counted came from a grasp of what gasoline engines could do in war – Mussolini’s Italy never did figure out the revolution in warfare that petroleum made possible, and so got the stuffing pounded out of it early and often. It’s partly, also, because a great deal of the strategy of the war on all sides focused on access to petroleum – the two Allied powers that counted, the United States and the Soviet Union, had immense petroleum reserves, while the Axis had none, and the attempts of the latter to seize oilfields and the former to prevent that from happening shaped much of the war. Finally, it’s because victory in that war went to those who were able to bring the most petroleum-based energy to bear on the battlefield. While Germany and Japan could manage that, they remained in the ascendant; once the United States and Soviet Union applied the same methods using their much more abundant oil supplies, the Axis was doomed.

And the British Empire? It’s considered utterly impolite to talk about what happened to it in straightforward terms, but a thought experiment may be useful.

Imagine, then, that the twists and turns of history that brought the United States into two world wars on Britain’s side had gone the other way. Perhaps it was the Venezuela crisis of 1895, mentioned in last week’s post, or one of the other flashpoints in British-American relations that were successfully dodged by statesmen on both sides. It really doesn’t matter; the key detail is that in 1914 and thereafter, in this alternate history, the Anglophobes rather than the Anglophiles defined America’s response to the coming of war in Europe, and Britain was left twisting in the wind. Imagine that Germany won in 1918, and that a later German leader – let’s suppose it was the young Kaiser Wilhelm III, son of the conqueror of France – went to war in 1939 against a crippled British Empire and forced Britain to surrender. What would have happened then?

The potential war aims of any of Britain’s early 20th century rivals are easy enough to imagine or, for that matter, to look up. First, the British Empire would have been dismantled, such portions of it as the conquering nation wanted would have been seized, other parts would have been allowed self-government under the overall control of the new imperial power, and a few token colonies would be left under British control where that suited the conqueror’s interests. Second, the British government would become a permanent and subordinate ally of the new imperial power. Third, Britain’s military would have been reduced to a fraction of its previous size, and the British government would be obligated to provide troops and ships to support the new imperial power when the latter decided on a military adventure. Fourth, Britain would be expected to pay a large sum of money as reparations for the costs of the war. Finally, to guarantee all these things, the British government would have been forced to accept an occupying force in Britain, and permanent military bases would be signed over to the new imperial power in Britain and its remaining colonies. That, by and large, is what happened to defeated nations in the wars of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Now compare that list to the relations between Great Britain and the United States from 1945 to the present. That’s the thing that can’t be mentioned to this day in polite company: the British empire ended in the early 1940s when the United States conquered and occupied Britain. It was a bloodless conquest, like the German conquest of Denmark or Luxembourg, and since the alternative was submitting to Nazi Germany, the British by and large made the best of it. Still, none of Queen Victoria’s prime ministers would have tolerated for a moment the thought of foreign troops being garrisoned on British soil, which is where thousands of US military personnel are garrisoned as I write these words. That’s only one of the lasting legacies of the Gasoline War.

End of the World of the Week #17

Since this week’s post is on the long side, this week’s End of the World can be told briefly. The prophet is Michel de Nostredame, better known these days as Nostradamus; here’s one of the quatrains from The Centuries, his famous book of prophecies:

In the year 1999 and seven months
From the sky will come a great king of terror
To resuscitate the great king of Angouleme;
Before and after, Mars reigns at his will.

Did you see the Great King of Terror in July of 1999? Neither did I.

—story from Apocalypse Not


Jason Heppenstall said...

"Once the natives were machine-gunned into submission, in turn, the successful general would head home to London and a peerage."

How true. I once stood in the square in Amritsar, the Punjab, where General Dyer opened fire on a crowd of unarmed Indians, killing scores. The bullet holes are still there in the walls and the locals make sure nobody ever forgets it.

As for Dyer, as Wikipedia puts it:

Dyer was removed from duty but he became a celebrated hero in Britain among people with connections to the British Raj.Historians consider the episode was a decisive step towards the end of British rule in India.

Castus said...

Just as an aside - The British Army is not given the Royal moniker because individual regiments are afforded the title of Royal; or not. The Royal Navy and Royal Air Force have no regiments in them, or were conceived without regiments, and such is why there's a discrepancy. It's the same in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, all obviously descended from the British tradition.

I also have some serious issues with your characterization of British warmaking at the operational and tactical level, but that's neither here nor there. You're on the money with their performance at the strategic level, and as a modern soldier in an Army descended from the British Army, if I wanted spot on tactical and operational snapshots of a military I would read a book by an expert devoted specifically to it... which I do.

As I said - it's an aside, your analysis of the strategic plans and realities of the British Empire are pretty spot on. I'm really loving this series of posts and getting a lot out of it. Please keep it up, and thanks!

- Castus

Mean Mr Mustard said...


I live in East Anglia, where you can't go more than about ten miles in any direction without encountering a former USAAF airbase.

But these days, there's just a single fighter base at Lakenheath and an air transport hub at Mildenhall. There are token USAF presences maintained (for now) at Alconbury and Molesworth, and I believe Fairford (used to launch B-52 raids against Saddam) is being wound down.

There's never been any permanent US Army presence in the UK since the war, so the US presence over here is only a few thousand.

Incidentally, these few USAF bases in use are nominally RAF bases - with a British Station commander too, so we're still in charge!

A sobering thought is that WW2 was fought on one tenth of the oil being extracted now. And even the Wehrmacht wasn't as heavily mechanised as you might think. They still had a large horse-drawn contingent.

Incidentally, our Army still has more horses than tanks... Not to mention rather too much top brass in all three fast-reducing armed services, more worthy of some clapped out corrupt banana republic..


(Colonel) Mustard

Jason Heppenstall said...

Regarding American troops on British soil - I grew up very close to the US Airforce base at Upper Heyford in rural Oxfordshire. Seven year old me went there on a school trip and I remember a soldier showing me his machine gun as we posed for a photo in front of a tank.

It was from here that the jets flew out to bomb Libya on Ronald Raegan's command in 1986.

We all knew that in those days the Soviet Union had nuclear missiles pointed at the base i.e. at us - and yet nobody ever questioned the presence of the US troops - it just seemed to be the natural order of things.

Funny old world ...

galacticsurfer said...

Great post, very informative.

Regarding Nostradamus I would quote Ovason on that quatrain but it's too long and complicated and well worth the reading of that book:
P.361-8(The secrets ofNostradamus)-
" A month (twelfth) of the Trithemian Secundadeian period of 354 years and 4 months is about 29 and a half years. According to the first line of our quatrain , the event is due for the seventh month of Ol, which is to say, 7 x 29 and a half years after the beginning of the rule of Michael. This is 206 years and a half after the first year of Michael'S rule, of 1881. This in turn means that the prophecy in this X.72 quatrain could well be related to A.D. 2087." and on p. 368 he relativizes the whole thing saying perhaps it means a great terror will come to the earth polarizing things or perhaps it is just a meaningless verse to satisfy his contemoporaries. I reccommend the book as at a very high level of subtlety and erudition.

ChristineStone said...

Over here in England, a great deal is made of the 'special relationship' between the USA and Britain. We know we are not military equals, but we like to think we are more 'special' to the USA than any European power, or any other power for that matter. (We don't consider ourselves to be included in the term 'Europe').

There is also a popular misconception that 'America used to be an English colony' or that 'We founded America', which gives a sense of vague satisfaction or superiority, as if the USA is really the younger partner, in need of our advice at times. I knew that these attitudes are a reaction to lost imperial status, but I hadn't considered that they are so strong precisely because the USA is our conqueror.

Leo said...

and what will the next style of war look like?
the war nerd's guess is demographics plus PR but in the light of peak oil's effects their impact will most likely be reduced:
destruction of media networks and reduced ability to feed people, doesn't rule out mass-migration but thats limited when all areas lose food.
and quite a few counters to direct military force have been developed; large amounts of info on guerrilla warfare have been amassed thanks to irag and afghanistan plus very good anti-ship missiles (counter with small ships but they lack range. also the ability to project of the neccesary military force will be reduced.
Meaning the next empire will have to use more political force and economic power for control, perhaps with some key industrial goods backed up by local strongmen who are given military equipment.
also do you know an example of mass-migration by sea, equivalant to the ones after the roman empire fell?

Lizzy said...


Interesting as always, thank you. May I point out one thing? Yes, there is the Royal Navy and RAF, never a Royal Army. The British Army is made up of many forces, including the Royal Regiment of Fusilliers, the Royal Artillery, the Royal Marines etc.
From Wikipedia: "The new British Army incorporated Regiments that had already existed in England and Scotland and was administered by the War Office from London. It has been managed by the Ministry of Defence since 1964."
Also, not to forget the New Model Army of Cromwell fought against the King's forces back in the 1600's.

KL Cooke said...

Regarding Nostradams, it's tempting to say ok, he was off by a couple of years, except I can't figure out a way to work Angouleme into the equation.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Ah, you supplied the answer in the last paragraph!

The tactics of the English generals during WWI was seen as a general disaster by the Australians. Yet, still they signed up to fight for King and Empire. The concern for loss of life you see now, never really entered the generals of that periods heads.

The fall of the seemingly impregnable Singapore to the Japanese during WWII was a disgrace. What happened afterwards to the POWs in the jungles of SE Asia was as bad if not worse.

The use of aircraft carriers allowed the Japanese Imperial forces to extend far beyond their reach.

Readers in the US may not be aware but the bombing of Darwin (which is one of the most Northern major cities in Australia) during WWII involved more bombs than were dropped on Pearl Harbor. Yet the defenders were left with WWI era weapons. They didn't stand a chance.

Bombing of Darwin

It is little wonder that you no longer see major forces squaring off. I think the last time this happened was the Falklands war. Much cheaper to hire or generate insurgents.



anagnosto said...

Just a short remark. The strategy of Sherman and Grant was anything but new. For example it is shown in XVIIth manuals. One army to fix, another to overflank and harass the enemy economy. The Thirty Years War had many examples. And it was also not new then. Military history also works in cycles.

Jim Brewster said...

I don't know, George W. Bush announced his candidacy in June 1999, so maybe old Nostradamus wasn't so far off...

Anyway, I have also wondered about those alternative histories, and how the Anglophiles managed to steer things at crucial times. Perhaps the die was cast by 1914 or even 1895, but German culture and identity were always very strong in the USA, especially before the World Wars.

German ethnicity remains probably the most widespread self-identity in the country, which is not surprising given three fairly steady centuries of German immigration. German language publications were commonplace in many parts of the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest, until they were viewed with suspicion and in many cases outlawed during WWI, for national security concerns.

Jason said...

Wonder where we're going for military tactics now.

The petroleum war age is also the civilian casualty war age. Some estimates give 10% civilian casualties in WWI and 80-90% for Iraq. Pretty far 'behind the lines'.

Many probably saw it already but the BBC has an interesting story today on the successful use of barter in a Greek town, a local time/skill bank currency replacing the euro.

Re the 'Greening/Aquarian/Creatives' thing, someone recently pointed me to the latest version. A guy at IONS called Willis Harman picked up that flag with his book Global Mind Change -- the Promise of the Last Years of the Twentieth Century. The subtitle on the lastest edition is -- the Promise of the 21st Century.

Anyhoo a spin-off of IONS calling itself the Shift Network has been growing rapidly and decided to do the obvious -- ditch all that costly rigorous research that won IONS its integrity and sell heaps of glossy seminars, promote that Thrive movie, and generally take the Mayan stuff at face value. This will be particularly interesting to watch when the great Nothing Happens happens, and I hope not too interesting in the Chinese sense.

Re physical culture -- there's been a vogue of it in inner city neighbourhoods last few years where the fashion is pure calisthenics using whatever's available on the street, no gym or weights.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Also, I had to look this up, but your description of the English tactics during WWI reminded me not only of the disaster at Gallipoli but also of the WWI battle of Fromelles on the Western Front in France.

Battle of Fromelles WWI

During a night and a day 1,500 English and 5,533 Australian soldiers were either killed, wounded or taken as POW's. The Allies did not gain any ground in the action.

Truly, it is beyond comprehension that a general could order foot soldiers to charge against entrenched machine gunners. It was slaughter.

On another more upbeat note, thought I should let you know that Quinces are in season here. Truly, some people say that Durian is the king of fruits - well, only those that haven't smelt it anyway - but the king of fruits is actually the Quince!

Mmmm Quince is now stewing in the wood oven with cloves, cinnamon stick, honey, sugar, eureka lemon and water. A truly unforgettable feast!

PS: If anyone has any good tried and true suggestions as to what to do with 30kg (about 66 pounds) of sun ripe heritage tomatoes I'd appreciate it.



phil harris said...

The 'ifs' of history are tricky, but there is no denying the selective occupation by the US of the previous British Empire, including the conveniently placed aircraft carrier we live on. Britain just walked away from places like India + Pakistan, Palestine, and bases such as Bahrain. USA took over Bahrain and had to try to cover Palestine, India / Pakistan, finally Egypt and MENA as they thought fit. (There are still very valuable assets in what was French N Africa.) Our, in those days still conscript armies had a long retreat though, from the American (UN) conflict in Korea through Malaya, Borneo etc. and we kept Egypt’s Canal Zone for a while. South Africa became a Boer Republic straight after WWII with no demur from London. Some very messy old-style British Empire stuff in Kenya in the early 50s, but we did not fight in Vietnam. Interesting to see what goes on now, especially in the ‘gasoline-important territories’, world-over.

One does see how the disappearance of the Soviet Union latterly changed the appearance of things. Somehow it does not feel the same these days? British politics, I guess is even more reliant on and subservient to the hegemonic paradigm? Our membership of the EU cuts several different ways.

Thijs Goverde said...

I'm not certain it should be 'young German officers' plural.
The way I heard it, Hitler really had to put his foot down to get his army to move through the Ardennes. None of his army commanders thought that was a good idea, or even possible.

I love the thought experiment on the British Empire!
It works equally well with the more modest, but not quite negligible(Indonesia is a big country) Dutch Empire.
I'll be sure to think of it, the next time I hear our politicians mention the beautiful friendship that exists between the US and the proud Dutch.
I'll also think of it when we spend an insane amount of money on American-built JSF airplanes that no one really wants or needs.

Rashakor said...

Of course, all this is speculation but Germany winning WWI with the help of the USA would have probably conducted to a bipolar world where those two would have competed for the top spot, eventually leading to a confrontation in the second half of the 20th century.
Japan would definetly be a wild card if it would have been able to establish encoumbered a solid empire in the west pacific.
It begs now the question how empires will deal with a declining mechanized power and how war itself will get transformed in an energy contrained environment.
The US armed forces seem at least very aware of the problem (very much so than the civilian powers).

BruceH said...

Ah, but many would simply say that Osama b.L. was the King of Terror and Michel was really only off by a couple of years. From a perspective 450 years in the past, that's only a 0.4 per cent margin of error,close enough to win the cigar. Of course ObL was supposedly just sitting in a cave somewhere while someone else did the flying. But you gotta give Michel credit for thinking men would ever be able to fly.

But then, who's the King of Angouleme? Richard Coeur-de-Lion? A new King of France? Nicolas Sarkozy? Stayed tuned!

dandelionlady said...

Don't apologize for sharing history with us. That is what I love about your blog. Your ability to put modern day dilemmas in a historical context is so useful to me. I've been working on sustainability techniques and farming stuff for years, and there's lots of resources out there on the web for that. The reason I keep coming back here is for the history lessons.

russell1200 said...

Grant’s campaign at Vicksburg, where he steamed past the River Fortress Town landed and then marched on the cities rear was the start of Sherman’s strategy. Vicksburg, along with “Stonewall” Jacksons Valley Campaign were the two campaigns most popular for study with foreign military academies. I agree that Sherman is greatly underrated.

A lot of WW1 history is colored by the overrepresentation of British accounts in the English language history. The big loses were in the frontier battles in 1914. As bad as the Somme was, it did reflect some lessons learned – and included the first use of tanks by the British. The French also developed tanks, and remember that it was France that was in a position to equip the arriving U.S. Army. The U.S. entry was critical, but their early battle performance was very uneven, and we were usually not very cooperative allies. The U.S, effort should not be confused with our much more thorough support in World War 2.

The term Blitzkrieg needs to be forgotten. It was not a term the Germans used. They had a variety of interesting terms, but the one you are describing the referred to as a ‘cauldron’ battle, and was influenced by the Elder Moltke’s views on the battle of Cannae (Rome versus Carthage) and predates even World War 1. They only used the plan you noted to attack France because the original plans had been captured by the allies.

The primary difference between the Germans and their opponents early in the war was that they used added improved radio technology to their already existing system of decentralized command and control. At almost all levels they reacted and combined their forces quicker than their opponents. They had less tanks than the French, and the British (and latter the U.S.) were the only fully mechanized forces in the war. All the other combatants made significant use of horse drawn power. The big Achilles heal of the German methods was that they could drive about 300km before their offensives ran out of supplies and had to regroup. That was sufficient in Western Europe, but caused serious problems in Eastern Europe and North Africa.

The Japanese were using the German WW1 operational methods but with naval and air forces used to greatly increase its reach and mobility. They did extremely well in the early island campaigns, but their record in the big bruising battles on the mainland were more mixed.

To further emphasis your point about oil. The Japanese essentially went to war because the American oil embargo (over their poor conduct in China) forced them to either attack or surrender. The Germans tried to get around some of their shortages by making synthetic (coal based) liquid fuels. However, as the war went on, they kept conquering, or acquiring as allies, countries who had even greater fuel problems than they did.

DaShui said...

Greetings Archdruid Greer!

I recognize the effectiveness of Sherman, but I blame him for the reason why America hasn't won a war in the last 60 years, against lightly armed guerrillas with no mechanized forces. I think "People's War", where the battlefield is the human mind, not holding territory is a reaction or maybe even a refinement of Sherman's "Total War."

William Hunter Duncan said...

I'm quite fond of this series of posts. Even those of us who are disenchanted with empire are still full of the subconscious illusions that prop it up. It's easier for me, at least, to prepare for the decline and fall of our empire, that I have a better idea now, how it came to be. I'm grateful.

And while I'm no Nostradamus believer, as to this quote at the end, thinking about two ten year wars, and the evisceration of the Constitution with the Patriot Act, I'm not necessarily indisposed to refer to GWB as the King of Terror.

Mike said...

Cashiering of British officers led to some wonderful military slang, Stellenbosch - To be relegated, as the result of incompetence, to a position in which little harm can be done.

Steve said...

Excellent post as usual. I'm not normally a great fan of military history, mostly because much that I've read or seen has been too focused on the proverbial battles between Grant and Lee. While tactics and the personality of leadership are interesting, the strategy and thematic history are much more interesting to me. Thanks for a great summary of the transition from 19th to 20th century warfare.

Two things come to mind. First is Orwell's reference to Britain as an unsinkable aircraft carrier in 1984. That sounds like as blunt as any assessment of the role of Britain on the world stage post WWII.

Second is that the US is still behaving like it's fighting last century's wars with last century's technology. In Iraq, we invaded, occupied, declared something like "victory," and left behind an enormous military base (er, embassy), but retained very little control over that remnant of the British empire. I wonder what section(s) of the Pacific empire will be the first to go - the garrisons in Korea or Japan; the string of island-hopping bases; or the petroleum to make mobility between all of them for troops and material feasible.

Despite the military's experiments with biofuels, some of the brass clearly know that the game of "throw lots of oil at the battlefield and we win" is over. Whether there's a fundamental rethink of US military strategy or not, the current mode of power projection is definitely on life support in the age of extreme oil.

Chris Balow said...

I'm finding it a little hard to envision that the post-1945 relationship between Britain and the U.S. was one of a conquering nation and a subjugated nation. I mean, sure the U.S. military occupied Britain after WWII, but wasn't that simply a strategic buildup against an enemy (the U.S.S.R.) that America and Britain held in common?

Wistful said...

I'm mulling over what you've written here, letting it sift through my brain while sorting out if I think your conclusion paragraphs are a Zen koan of revealed insight or just a broadly factual description with a dollop of over-the-top seasoning added to it.

Since the broad thrust of your conclusion is not in dispute, I mean mostly to quibble with some of your specific assertions: When did Britain pay "a large sum of money as reparations for the costs of the war" to the US? Also, India was the largest of Britain's colonies to be lost just after the war, but I don't really see that India was "under the overall control of the new imperial power" in the postwar era.

If the US had "overall control" of India (just using India as an example to test your hypothesis, since it was Britain's biggest colony and only gained independence after WWII), we (I'm American) didn't do very much to "Americanize" its economy, which was a textbook case of central planning, state intervention, and protectionism for decades after the war. Maybe more importantly and realistically, in a political sense India set its own policies and made many decisions contrary to US interests in the postwar era.

Both words in the phrase "overall control" are pretty ironclad in their intent, and I don't see them applying to US-India relations in the postwar era. Does your hypothesis apply to Britain's largest ex-colony?

I imagine you'll find a way to eviscerate my arguments with a few strokes on your keyboard, so let me say, again, that I agree with your larger point, but I don't see how it is that the US took "overall control" of major parts of the self-governed British Empire in the years after the war.

escapefromwisconsin said...

No need to apologize; us military history junkies are in seventh heaven! Great comments too.

I'm not sure whether I'm the first, and I doubt I'll be the last to say this post is redolent of British comedian Robert Newman's "History of Oil" performance. Here is one review I could find:

The Google machine should do the rest, for anyone here who's not already familiar. It's required viewing.

One question though: was the British public as hopelessly naive and Pollyanna-esque about "freedom and democracy" and individual villains being the cause behind their wars as the Americans seem to be? My impression is no. It seems to me that the most unique thing about America's empire compared to earlier ones is that it requires its citizens to believe it doesn't exist, and so need to be consistenly lied to and told fairy tales by their leaders. I doubt other empires claimed that every military intervention was just about "freedom." The, dare I say, magical, invocation of that word seems to be able get Americans to do and believe absolutely anything.

Peter of Lone Tree said...

In the year 1999 and seven months
From the sky will come a great king of terror

Nostrodamus might have have been writing in code.
Transpose the numbers 1999 to 9111.
Remind you of anything?

Richard Larson said...

The North Sea oil boom allowed the islands to enjoy a respite from the empire lost. Not for long though.

It is very interesting to highlight American troops on British soil. Puppet master to puppet right then.

It wasn't a war fought around the world. But it was All about the gasoline in All respects, just measure the equivalent manpower to one gallon (of gasoline). No wonder nearly everybody on the planet will do Anything to get it.

Almost finished reading the last book and this post has helped to formulate a comment: Taking the context of the book "Blood of the Earth" seriously, it will sink the battleship of your mind!

Book #71, best idea, page 86, first paragraph.

Unknown said...

@ Thijs Goverde

While there was certainly debate within the German command, it is far from true that the German battle plan in 1940 was Hitler's idea, or that "none of his army commanders" supported it. The plan is known as the Manstein Plan after Erich von Manstein, the most senior proponent of it, who pitched the idea to Hitler. And it was certainly supported by the tank army commanders such as Guderian and Rommel, who actually executed the strike to the Channel while repeatedly being told to slow down by their higher-ups. With respect to the latter, JMG is on target in referring to a cadre of 'young German officers' with new ideas.

Perhaps you are thinking rather of the Battle of the Bulge. That effort to copy the success of 1940, in 1944, was certainly only believed in by Hitler himself, by that time more delusional than ever. Of relevance to JMGs overall point, that offensive failed in no small part due to the Nazi's inability to capture Allied tank fuel supplies.

dltrammel said...

For those of you who participated in the recent story contest here for Post Peak Fiction, and for anyone else interested in the editing process, I have posted a side by side comparison of the rough draft of my story "Small Town Justice" and the final draft, with editing comments by JMG, in the Green Wizard Story Circle.

You can find the thread here:

I would also like to invite any of the other writers to feel free to post links to their Post Peak Fiction in the forum. If you would like feedback or editing suggestions, just add that to the thread.

DeAnander said...

"I'll also think of it when we spend an insane amount of money on American-built JSF airplanes that no one really wants or needs."

Yup. Thinking similarly here as the Harper Government postures and brags (and shucks and jives and shuffles and lies) about its proposed shiny new fighter jets. Not all Canadians, by a long shot, are keen on handing over this much of our common wealth to Lockheed-Martin. [Headlines referencing the sordid ongoing scandal can easily be googled, if you have a strong stomach and spare time; I'd love to think it might bring down the Harper regime, but kinda doubt it. The "Conservatives" (a wild-eyed bunch of neocon radicals) seem to have got the bit in their teeth for the moment.]

Canada is surely the most obvious of the ex-colonies of the UK that the US has taken over: the power to the south now commandeers our natural gas and water and dictates much of our policy, just as the UK once commandeered our salmon and furs and ruled us from London... We are now a wholly-owned subsidiary of the American Empire, which makes me wonder what will happen when that empire starts to crumble. Independence? or annexation by some rising power?

There's a line of thought -- somewhat convincing to me -- that defunct empires are among the more pleasant places to live: after a nation "gets over it" and stops hankering for that delusional, grandiose role as King of the World and cock of the walk and top of the dogpile, everyone can relax and enjoy spending some of the hoarded imperial wealth more slowly, on things like good food and music and art appreciation.

It was only after the imperial fall that the UK became known for, of all things, nice pop music and a wry comic sensibility; seems like Belgium is way better at chocolate (an imperial aftertaste itself) than it was at imperial power; the multicultural goulash of old ex-Imperial capitals can be more interesting, cosmopolitan, and enjoyable than the tense, militaristic, swaggering atmosphere of the "glory years" at the top. Maybe the US after its own imperial fall will relax a bit and rediscover some of its more lovable qualities, get over this whole storm-trooper, drama-queen, paranoid tantrum stage.

If so, it'll probably take longer than my remaining lifespan to happen, so I'm not holding my breath :-)

Frankly, it's hard to see much good coming down the pike -- despite my brief attack of optimism above. I was reading some old Stephen King stories last night and realising that he doesn't scare me, not at all. Nothing he writes about is as scary as what is actually happening.

Bill Blondeau said...

JMG, like many of the commenters here, I'm delighted with this series of articles, and this particular one seems to be approaching something I think will be absolutely pivotal within our lifetimes.

For a long time (perhaps since reading Alistair MacLean's H. M. S. Ulysses in high school?) I've been fascinated with the enormity of sheer resource waste in modern war. As Mean Mr Mustard says: "A sobering thought is that WW2 was fought on one tenth of the oil being extracted now."

I'm not sure if you're going there, but I would be fascinated to hear your take on the likely EROEI of the resource wars that seem to be the inevitable final act of American Empire. You're certainly establishing the context for such a discussion.

Matt and Jess said...

I'm trying to think of the future here ... can we expect Chinese bases on the West coast at some point? I'm also confused about US strategy at present. It seems like we can't really win anything, but it also seems like we're not really ever trying our hardest. Or that things have been unreasonably not as easy as they have been previously. No one will give the real reasons behind our wars lately.

Also, regarding our "closest and oldest" subject nations ... it's hard to even find things to read that admit that we have subject nations so I'm only guessing--places like England, Canada, our European allies? Israel? Even Mexico? Is it telling that Canada would be considering selling the pipeline oil to China if the US doesn't agree to it?

Óskar said...

JMG, though I rarely comment I continue to read your weekly posts and have done so since they first started (2006 was it?). Thanks for all the great writing and in particular, this recent series of posts which are very much within my field of interest - I'm a student of both geography and history and an aspiring historical geographer.

When you first asserted (ages ago) that the growing American Empire had essentially taken over the old British Empire and expanded it further, that was a revolutionary historical insight for me.

But with Europe under American hegemony and protection post-WWII, could we not say that the American Empire took over *all* the previous Western European empires, as well as the defeated Japanese one, and thus formed a new "Mother of All Western Empires", so to speak?

Furthermore, tracing history back to the start of European expansion (say, 15th century), is that not one long story of Western empires growing and then being taken over by other Western empires? That is, from the non-Western perspective, once a territory had been conquered by Westerners it would almost without exception stay within Western control, at most passing from one empire to another or gaining nominal "independence", with little real effect on the natives' daily lives.

John Michael Greer said...

Jason, bingo. I meant the comment quite literally; the British Empire was maintained via horrific amounts of violence in its day.

Castus, thank you. Granted, on an operational and tactical level there was more variation, and by and large a great deal more competence as well; the British Empire's armies in the First World War, in particular, combined extraordinary courage and ability in the field with almost unbelievable incompetence back at headquarters.

Col. Mustard, I hadn't realized that the drawdown had proceeded that far -- the most recent figures I had were from most of a decade ago. Still, it figures; as the US goes bankrupt, closing down foreign garrisons is one way to cut costs.

Jason, thanks for the recollections!

Surfer, sure, and you could also use the Muslim calendar, or the French revolutionary calendar, or any other calendar you care to name. Unless there's specific evidence that Nostradamus used the elaborate construction Ovason's built on top of Trithemius' work, it's the same sort of thing Harold Camping used to explain away the fact that the Rapture didn't come on schedule.

Christine, fascinating. Yes, that would be my take on it.

Leo, we'll get to that. Over the short term, the War Nerd may be right; over the longer term, I don't think so.

Lizzy, thanks for the info!

KLCooke, no, and Mars didn't reign before 9/11 at his will, either.

Cherokee, bingo. For now, insurgency for hire is cheap and has plausible deniability -- it's the equivalent of the "little wars" on the frontiers of European empires all through the 19th century. Then things change, and it's time for major wars again. More on this in a bit.

Anagnosto, granted. It came as such a surprise in 1940 because the British and French had read Clausewitz too often and not thoughtfully enough.

Jim, as great kings of terror go, Dubya was an also-ran.

John Michael Greer said...

Jason, when Nothing Happened Day comes and goes, the Shift Network will do what Harold Camping did and find some way to keep the show rolling. Good to hear of the physical culture people -- though I have a certain fondness for weights.

Cherokee, no argument there -- we have a quince tree, planted last spring and enthusiastically in leaf just now. As for tomatoes, drying works well -- if you have a solar or electric dehydrator, they dry well and make a great addition to soups and stews in the winter.

Phil, it's not the same these days. We're moving into the endgame of the American empire, and the first foreshocks of the next round of major wars are starting to be felt.

Thijs, nah, Erich von Manheim and a circle of junior officers crafted the 1940 plan and got Hitler to back it, against the judgment of the senior members of the general staff. As for the Dutch empire, bingo; your tax money is going to prop up my government, with the JSF as one more conduit.

Rashakor, how energy-intensive military technologies will deal with an energy-constrained future is one of the massive questions of our time; quite a few militaries are working on it, but biodiesel jet fuel strikes me as exactly the sort of change in technology without a corresponding change in thinking that landed Britain in so much trouble.

Bruce, on the other hand, since the quatrain is vague enough that you could find something fitting it in any five year period since the fall of Rome, maybe he was just wrong.

Dandelion, thank you!

Russell, the term "blitzkrieg" is useful though inexact; I'll be explaining things in more detail as we get into the military dimension of the decline of the American empire. As for the Germans not using it, er, Erich von Manstein's memoirs (which I happen to be reading) reference the term as one in common use after the defeat of Poland, so I'm not sure you're quite accurate there.

DaShui, we'll be discussing guerrilla warfare in the not too distant future, too. There's a lot more to the US inability to deal with it than any legacy from Sherman's day!

William, you could as well call Woodrow Wilson the King of Terror, since he launched America into the First World War and also presided over a Red Scare that saw nationwide, utterly unconstitutional mass arrests of political dissidents. As I suggested above, choose any five year period starting with the fall of Rome and you can find a way to make that Nostradamus quatrain agree with it.

Mike, that's right -- wasn't that where they sent British officers during the Boer War who had done so badly they needed to be kept out of the way?

Steve, exactly. You get today's gold star. The US is still trying to fight the Second World War with ever more elaborate variations on Second World War technology. (The V-1 was a drone, after all.) That sort of backward fixation has certain very predictable downsides...

xhmko said...

JMG, I envision peak oil as a kind of midway point in the linear history of (“You say developed, I say deluded”) economies, where future and past look increasingly similar at an exponential rate.

For instance, it seems like 2050, will look a lot like 1950 but the other way around with fossil fuelled industry being the entrenched mode of operation and direct kinetic and muscle powered means slowly or rapidly inching their way into the public mind as the best way of getting stuff done, if not the only. The parents of the day will remember how they used to be able to fly from here to there for peanuts but the youth of the day will see their memories as quaint. The year 2100 may look a lot like 1900 with a whacky deregulated ways and means. Steam powered cars, solar cars, horse drawn cars, rickshaws and the like will be all valid and a part of the dissensus style of getting by and innovating while you’re at it. 2150 may look more like 1850 with disease and sanitation and politics all resembling their earlier counterparts affects on people in general., and so on and so forth until we reach the point humans have evolved away.

Of course it won’t be an exact reflection due to the awesome alloys and ideas that have come from this abundance, not to mention the awesome poisons and pollutants. But nevertheless the yaer 2200 is looking very 1800 to me.

The effect won’t be that noticeable in many parts of the world, as they never got to suck on the candy stick that is fossil fuel energy in any way close to the selfish tongue out methods of those parts of the world that have. For instance, I’ve been to parts of china where the streets are filled with all sorts of machines and wheeled beings all doing some type of job or another but not being homogenised into “car” or “truck”. Sure they will lose their fuel, but they just haven’t had it long enough to have created to cultural memory loss that has occurred in developed ‘I-World’.

The reason I mentioned this is because these factors are going to play a role in the years to come and the conflicts that will inevitably rear their heads. Also I don’t have a name for this theory and thought it might be up your alley to coin one.

Cherokee Organics, don’t know how the weather is where you are at the moment, but all I can say is sundry. I’ve been doin it fairly regularly and all I use is an old bed frame with a fairly rigid screen across it, all courtesy of the local verge-side chuck-outs. But I’ve used screen doors before, though I recommend reinforcing them to stop drooping. In good sunny days even in cool weather, cherry tomatoes are done in 2-3 days, larger tomatoes cut in quarters may take five. A friend has converted an old double glazed double door commercial fridge into a dryer with an adjustable airflow that he reckons will dry steak tomatoes cut in half very quicky. I use olive oil only to store them after, but I think you can add vinegar and salt but have never tried it personally. If you totally dry them they can be rehydrated later to make excellent tomato paste. This I’ve tried though mostly I semi sundry and gorge myself on this wicked tasty treat.

Dandelionlady, ditto!

Bruce The Druid said...

If the UK was really broke, then it makes sense that the US as the financier and material supplier of the Old Empire could assume a dominate role with London as a jr. partner.

Then of course, with the Chinese as one of the largest debt holders, could have enormous influence on US policy. So if we want to see where the new power centers are forming, simply look to who holds the debt notes, and has plenty of domestic resources. Its a pretty short list.

As a side note, it is interesting that it took the Allied forces quite some time before they discovered the enormous effect bombing oil production facilities had on the German war machine. It targeted ball bearing plants first, then a succession of industrial targets (including rail lines) before the devastating effect of bombing oil refineries was discovered.

Bruce The Druid said...


I have been told that door screens can be iffy for sun drying. Some screens have some funky coatings, since they were being made for non-food purposes (coatings to prevent corrosion).

John Michael Greer said...

Chris, yes, that's the standard way to portray the relationship. I'm suggesting an alternative that points out features of it that the standard way ignores.

Wistful, you might want to look up the size of the war debt Britain ended up owing to the US, and how long it took to pay it all off. It's a remarkable story. As for the status of specific colonies, such as India, that's something we'll be covering next week, because the US had a different agenda than Britain's -- and of course there was the other major empire that came out of the Gasoline War, too. More on this soon.

Escape, the specific excuses varied; the British public was more amenable to the idea that the Empire would bring the blessings of Christianity and good government to the benighted natives. There was always quite a bit of that, and it became increasingly loud as the empire circled the drain.

Peter, sure, and given that sort of ingenuity you can doubtless also prove that Nostradamus predicted that Elvis shot JFK. That is to say, er, give me a break.

Richard, good. You get the point.

Dltrammel, glad to hear that's going well!

DeAnander, Harper et al. are already making arrangements to sell Canadian tar sand extracts to your next imperial overlord; they're ahead of the game, which is impressive in a certain sense.

Bill, I'm going there. Good to see others paying attention to that far from minor point.

Jess, excellent! How long it will take for China to get bases on the eastern shores of the Pacific is a good question; right now they're busy following Mahan's advice to the letter along the shores of the Indian ocean. As for the oldest and closest US subject nations, that would be Latin America, where US power has been on the wane for decades. More on this as we go.

Oskar, yes, on the whole those are both good generalizations. Still, China's one exception to your rule about nonwestern nations, and there will be others. The sunset of the West is well under way.

Xmhko, that's actually the theory I've been proposing for years now: say, 300 years up, and 300 years back down. It's so foreign to the core assumptions of our time that very few people can get their minds around it, which is why it's hard to name. Still, that's my best guess; the fall of the American empire is simply one speed bump on that much longer arc.

xhmko said...

Bruce the Druid, flyscreens maybe iffy and I would have rather used something else, but in a pinch they worked fine and i was more than happy eating the results.

JMG, how about: The Hubbert Reflection.

Matt and Jess said...

I can already see where the massive debt the subject nation--USA--is going to owe the conquering empire is going to come from. We already owe massive amounts of money to their banks. That debt must be repaid eh? Isn't China already purchasing land in places like Idaho? I just sincerely hope that whatever lessons we take from the British empire's collapse are in the friendliness of the transfer of power...

Also, with peak oil, the only advantage I can see regarding the end of cheap resources is the mountain range in the western half of the country. With fossil fuels we could learn to ignore very normal biological and geographical limitations but if the USA can't hold its western half as you've been arguing for a long time, and what with the culture from the south finding its way in, seems like you've got a persuasive argument for leaving Oregon the way you did.

Anyway, it seems like the US would do well to learn from all of this history, but all of the typical American pride and nationalism and God's-favorite-nation stuff and what have you seem like they'll get in the way.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Really enjoying these posts. Good luck with your Quince tree, may it live long and fruit well. I recently saw a Quince tree that was over 150 years old in an open garden in the goldfields area to the north of me.

It is interesting that you (as well as some other commenters) mention the US - India relationship. As an outsider, and I could be wrong, it always appeared to me that the US pursued a relationship with Pakistan rather than India. Certainly more US propping up money (err, sorry, aid money) goes to Pakistan. I never quite understood this as I thought that India would be a better fit culturally, but there is usually more to these things than meets the eye.

Incidentally, India flexed its muscles with us recently and well and truly did us over. India, I believe, but may be wrong, is now purchasing uranium from Australia, whilst also at the same time not being a signatory to the nuclear non proliferation treaty.

It may be coincedence, but at the same time there was also an Indian media beat up about the safety of Indian students on Australian soil which had the immediate impact of reducing Indian student numbers (ie. an export for Australia).

Australia is no innocent either. For years you would read about people banging on about the Balibo five in East Timor.

Balibo Five

Yet, when it came down to it, and I could be wrong, sometimes I wonder whether the UN intervened in the liberation of East Timor because, well, they have vast off shore oil reserves.

Honestly, and no disrespect to the dead, but I have travelled to both India and Indonesia and you could do far worse for neighbours.

Hi xmhko,

I've been wondering about this too recently. I suspect those countries that maintain their manufacturing capacities, energy supplies and raw material reserves will have a far easier time of it than those that pretend that financial services are a growth product. Thanks for the tomato tips too.

Hi Bruce,

It is often said that those that control the debt, control the asset. Mate, both the UK and the US are printing money to pay for things. The foreign holders of debt are actually necessary because they prop up the two currencies. If you are an importer of energy then you have to keep in good with the rest of the world.



Jason Heppenstall said...

Regarding Britain paying back mightily for the war effort, I think the only person who had a true idea of how great the cost was at the time was Keynes.

It's perhaps worth noting that he died of a heart attack shortly after his last meeting to discuss the terms of the loan ...

Phil Knight said...

I've long suspected that the British Army has deliberately cultivated a certain level of mediocrity - it's clear that anyone who shows any real brilliance, a T.E. Lawrence or Orde Wingate, say, is soon shunted into some esoteric role outside the main career structure.

The purpose of the British Army hasn't really been to perform sweeping victories against the major powers, but to basically hang in there for a place at the victory table. If that means spending most of the war retreating, then so be it. There was a real attempt to evade the slaughter of the Western Front in WWI, and that was the strategy to open a second front against Turkey and Austria, which was why you had Gallipoli and Salonika. Also, there was a huge number of British troops sent to aid the Italians, but this is not well known nowadays.

Obviously this didn't work in the First World War, but a similar strategy was successful in the Second World War, when the British and American armies were preserved by fighting in the Mediterranean, so as to avoid a direct encounter in Northern Europe until as late as possible. This was primarily a British strategy, of course, as the Americans were not really aware of how mediocre their own army was.

The Germans may have been aware of the possibilites of the ICE, but their strategic understanding of the importance of oil was non-existent. A single sweep into the Caspian, followed by a thrust into British Iran and Iraq, would have taken out all their enemies in one fell swoop. But they thought Leningrad and Moscow and Stalingrad were more important.

Finally, I don't think that the U.S. conquered Britain so much as induced a strange psychological dependance. The French saw through this very quickly and understood that the Americans had no real power to act punitively against their allies (they were appalled that the British took U.S. threats regarding Suez seriously, for example, and this formed the kernal of their opposition to the UK joining the EU).

Óskar said...

JMG, I consciously oversimplified my model there -- China and other "rebels" was on the back of my mind as I wrote. Here's a more detailed and updated model:

First, let's treat all the expanding Western empires as one single empire based on the same model of control, same general motives, a fairly unified economy and unified technological progress.
It has various competing power centers manifested in cities, aristocratic families and a class of entrepreneurs. Although those power centers may use military force in their competition, there is considerable interaction and cultural unity at the upper levels of power within the mega-empire.

The empire has no real competitors that function anything like it - it is the first global empire in human history. It expands rapidly and by the start of the 20th century, there is little left of the world to conquer. The competition between the power centers stiffens and they increasingly rally their local populations by emphasising their uniqueness. Hatred builds and the empire's heartland is plunged into a devastating civil war.

Now the first notable doctrine of rebellion against the empire takes hold, Communism. It takes over one of the power centers and seeks to spread from there. Also, a non-Western culture, Japan, has successfully copied the empire's strategies and set out with its own ambitions of global empire. The empire is torn by its civil war and facing competition for the first time.

To make matters worse, a second and even more devastating round of civil war breaks out, this time involving the rebels and the non-Western upstart as well. When the dust settles, the empire's original heartland (Europe) is in ruins, but Japan is defeated and assimilated. The Communist rebels however, emerge stronger than ever and their rebellion has now spread to a major Asian culture, China.

At this point the empire needs unity more than ever and its newest and greatest power center, the US, brings the whole of it together under its leadership, vowing a crusade against the Communist rebellion.

However, the colonial subjects are so disaffected and drained after centuries of exploitation that the rebellion spreads somewhat easily. Another major Asian culture, India, breaks away on its own and develops a diplomatic middle-ground between the empire and the rebels. New rebellious doctrines also pop up, such as radical Islam.

When rebel Russia is finally brought to its knees, along with many of its allies, the empire is quick to announce total victory and the onset of eternal peace and prosperity under its benevolent guidance. But it soon becomes apparent that the sun is setting on the Western empire and its glory days of total domination are fading. Other non-Western powers and even some of its older colonies are catching up with it and clearly do not intend to play by its rules in the long term.

Jason said...

JMG: I have a certain fondness for weights

Weights are still great, don't get me wrong. Everyone still likes kettlebells in particular.

What's nice about the cals culture though is no equipment required and therefore no barriers to entry. Just the thing when people are strapped.

The high achievers in that form of exercise are doing some eye-poppingly creative stuff.

Can't wait to hear more about the role played by religion in empire.

Nano said...

From what I have read it seems that China is all over South America under the guise of creating jobs and improving relations. They are buying areas with huge amounts of natural resources and extracting them; in good expected fashion, the political class of some of those countries are more than happy to give away land as long as the money keeps on rolling in.

Do the Chinese even have a need to invade the US, in a military/physical sense. Hell when they decided to slow down the exports of rare minerals everyone got their proverbial panties in a wad; and with China being all "buddy, buddy" with N. Korea, they sure seem to have a few aces up their sleeves in the rare minerals bit.

Forget military occupation, diplomatic and consumables is where it seems to be at, at least on a first round of taking over basis.

Mean Mr Mustard said...

I'll admit to being an aviation enthusiast as well as following the Peak Oil debate since 2006... In the latest Air Forces Monthly, a UK publication, even the writers there can see where this is all heading. On a critical piece about the severe F-35 program cost overruns, it concludes that "the biggest customer by far still cannot truly afford a single Joint Strike Fighter - because the US Government is technically bankrupt and will be even more so in the future..."

Elsewhere in the same issue, it reports that resurgent India is buying 12 and possibly 24 Boeing P-8 Neptune maritime patrol aircraft, based on the 737-800. While that former colony is re-equipping, in contrast the UK has no maritime patrol aircraft, since the Nimrod MRA4 was cancelled close to the point of entering service.

UK forces are now enduring various 'capability gaps', but the US military is ten times the size and can slim down considerably before facing those stark choices.

Just one thing - one commenter suggested the Royal Marines were part of the British Army. :-o They'd really hate that notion, actually being part of the Royal Navy..! But there again, fierce inter-service rivalry, compounded by a top heavy rank structure, hasn't helped matters either, in the recent sharp decline in UK defence fortunes.

Glenn said...

@Matt & Jess,

Some of us west of the Rockies look forward to freedom from the U.S., which has always had a very east coast centric attitude. The important question for us, is when, how and who.

I'd like independence, a nation spanning the coast from California to Alaska, including B.C., which doesn't think too much of Ottowa. We will definitely have a huge hispanic culture and political power in the SW (former northern Mexico) and in most farming regions. They may be as leary of rule from Mexico City as I am of rule from DC. I'd rate it about 6 that they stay part of Cascadia to 5 that Alta Mexico decides to stay independent.

China is a wild card; if they manage their Empire before the U.S. partitions, they may just buy big chunks of the West. Or, after the U.S. splits they may use military force to take what they want here. Further down the road they'll lose it again, the North Pacific is too big to stand in for the North Sea. Maintaining transoceanic empires in the age of decline will be a lot harder than it was when coal use was on the increase.

This is all a bit in the future for me; but may be of concern to my kids. I'm in my mid fifties, I suspect the rest of my life is going to look a lot like 1929 - 1939.

Marrowstone Island

Dwig said...

JMG has talked about what might become of the US when it's not only lost its empire, but has become subject to a new one. Some of the commenters above have mentioned energy considerations, EROI in particular.

Here's a hypothesis, based on the notion of the "energy cliff". This article by Kurt Cobb sets it out well. The essence here is that as EROI declines, the availability of energy for society declines non-linearly.

Hypothesis: there won't be a "next empire", in the sense of a global "replacement" for the US. This is based on the following assumptions (note that I'm not asserting these, although they seem plausible to me):

First is that the world in aggregate is near the energy cliff, and so is the US (in terms of the energy sources available to it).
Next, that no major nation is far enough from the cliff to be able to "take over" from the US.
Also, that the world in total, and the potential candidates for imperial power in particular, are moving toward the cliff.
Also, that the global economy is critically dependent on a relatively high EROI -- in fact, it may falter at a significantly higher ratio than the 5:1 that Hall proposes. (A stable society may be able to survive at 5:1, but the current global economy is inherently unstable.)

Finally, I note that one aspect of Howard Odum's "pulsing" model (which I referenced in a comment to an earlier post) is that the consumption (decline) phase proceeds considerably more rapidly than the accumulation (growth) phase. If this model is applicable here, we're probably accelerating toward the cliff.

There may well be "local empires", however. China looks like a rising imperial power, as has been discussed here (although India and Russia may make Asia a more complex situation). For large contenders for local imperial powers, however, the energy cliff still looms. For example, will China be able to keep its EROI on its currently available resources above the critial level for long enough to gain cheap access to other relatively high-EROI sources?

phil harris said...

One or two comments have given me pause. I think we should be careful not to be too tempted by the attractions of symmetry; the past trajectory on one hand and the future on the other.
Three points come to my mind regarding industrialisation and ‘techno-progress’ (with a small p).
Firstly it has many unique features that could be a-historical.
Secondly, most people have felt its effects, but only a minority in any real sense participate. I would be very surprised if it was as much as half, world-wide. You can glimpse that from the different per capita use of fossil fuel round the world, let alone access to the stuff by the poor majorities in poor countries.
Thirdly, it seems a moot point at the moment whether industrialisation can survive unless it continues to grow, let alone retracts. A serious war with serious interruptions to economic growth mechanisms and complex trade systems must have instant and probably instantly irreversible major effects. This is definitely not WWII era. The catastrophe in Europe in those days was extreme in places, but the systems were relatively resilient compared with anything we have now. I was around during WWII and after, but I simply cannot imagine the effects of ‘total war’ in for example the current Europe. (I do not have to imagine what it is like in non-industrial mostly subsistence rural poor countries – plenty of examples.)
We might be close to the high tide of industrialisation, but the future down slope looks to me anything but predictable. The analogy with say the Roman Empire is beginning to look academic to me.
The series continues though - I remain fascinated.
very best

russell1200 said...

Manstein, and Guederian are now generally thought of as dubious sources. According to them, they were brilliant, knew nothing of the atrocities, and only Hitler and the Russian mud stopped them. Their memoirs (IMO) are largely responsible for the reverance that the Wermacht was held in some circles back in the 1970s and 1980s before more information became available on their activities.

Wikopedia has fairly good articles on both the term blitzkreig, and the Manstein. Manstein woud of course love to claim that he was practising a novel form of warfare. I thought the term had been invented by Gobbels - after the fact - but Wiki notes it as an allied press term. The reality is that the French screwed up in a massive way, and the hyper aggressive German methods (true since the 1840s) was designed to take advantage of those types of mistakes.

Diane said...

I am enjoying this series perhaps as my university major was history, my main essay in 2nd year honors economic history 'was slavery profitable' :-)
I have always found the period up to 2nd WW interesting, though more from a social perspective. Although its about 50 years ago I remember reading Irving Stones, bio on Eugene Debs, 'Adversary in the House' and being surprised at the german influence in US society, according to Stone lots of Americans supported Germany (WW1 that is)
I was also a great fan of Upton Sinclair in my youth, and still remember Lanny Budd and World's End Series with great affection. It is people like Sinclair and Stone that introduced me to another America which was really admirable

pansceptic said...

JMG, you wrote:
"DaShui, we'll be discussing guerrilla warfare in the not too distant future, too. There's a lot more to the US inability to deal with it than any legacy from Sherman's day!"

I'll suggest that Sherman's struggles with Nathan Bedford Forrest indicated early that the US military machine would have problems countering irregular units that didn't try to hold territory. On October 30, 1864, Forrests's men captured two Union vessels on the Tennessee River, the transport Venus and the gunboat Undine, manned them, and used them in further combat against Union forces. This is believed to be the only recorded instance of an army commander capturing and using naval vessels.

Sherman wrote to Secretary of War Stanton, calling Forrest "the very devil" and called for his capture "even if it cost 10,000lives and breaks the Treasury". In official correspondence Sherman wrote of Forrest "I take it for granted Forrest will cut our road...His cavalry will travel a hundred miles in less time than ours will ten...I can whip his infantry, but his cavalry is to be feared."

If memory serves me, Forrest surrendered, undefeated, after Lee's surrender.

SophieGale said...

Guerrilla warfare: James J. Schneider, is Professor Emeritus of Military Theory at the School of Advanced Military Studies, USACGSC, Ft. Leavenworth and currently a military consultant with a global think tank. He has recent book out--Guerrilla Leader: T. E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt. Schneider believes our next generation of military leaders need to grok and embrace Lawrence.

I found it quite interesting...wasn't expecting Indian regiments fighting the Turks in the Syrian desert! WWI truly was a world war...

SLClaire said...

A most fascinating, in a chilling sort of way, post. My mind was practically screaming at me the whole time re the parallels to the current U. S. situation. Made it a bit difficult to concentrate on what you were saying, but I made the effort because it's so important.

So here's a question I haven't seen in any other comment, yet. It's about the fall of the Soviet Empire, which I remember well, being in my early 30s at the time. Since the U. S. is unlikely to adopt the sensible British Empire strategy of empire loss, how likely do you think our adopting, or more likely falling into, the Soviet style of loss of empire is? Eastern Europe fell without a shot fired or a life lost in 1989. I could think of a lot worse ways to lose what's left of our empire. I fear this too is unlikely, because we seem so primed to drop bombs anytime the power structure perceives a threat to itself. Certainly the language directed toward various South American countries who wish to choose their own course is not encouraging in this regard. OTOH, so far it's been just talk, and it looks to me like we don't have the people, material, or high EROEI energy source needed for a war against one or more of them. Does it look this way to TPTB, however?

Unknown said...

A friend of mine once commented how history courses throughout school (through high school) were boring because they were always about this war and then that war and nothing but war. My own experience was that history teachers never laid out before the students the big picture patterns, nor were the details- my husband actually had to memorize how many guns of each type were on certain battleship in WWII- worth remembering.

I love history. These recent Druid Report entries show how history can be fascinating to read and important to understand. It's amazing how schools can dull such an enthralling discipline and leave so many children numb to its inherent stimulation that they swear off the subject forever out of fear they will succumb to a permanent catatonic stupor if they spend any more time on it. If schools were better at it, maybe so many wouldn't be so ignorant of the flow of human forces throughout the millennia, or to "think of Britain as a daring little country, quaint and colorful...."

John Michael Greer said...

Xhmko, hmm. Possible.

Jess, well, yes, that was one of the factors involved. As for America learning the lessons of history -- oh, man, I wish!!!

Cherokee, even though India came out of the British Empire flat broke and torn by internal unrest, it proceeded to demonstrate the advantages a 5000-year-old civilization has over the new kids on the block by playing the US and Soviet Union against each other, getting money and technology from both without being dragged into either one's orbit. Pakistan wasn't half so clever, though I think they're beginning to get the hang of it now.

Jason, that's a great anecdote! Thank you.

Phil, I'm not at all sure that "psychological dependence" covers the territory!

Oskar, thank you. The more detailed model works well -- and it's a useful idea, I think, to conceive of European empire as a single thing fractured into parts controlled by competing power centers.

Jason, thanks for the clarification. Granted, there's a lot that can be done without gear -- I wonder if any of these folks have looked into Maxalding or the other muscle control disciplines, for example.

Nano, good. My guess is that the Chinese will do whatever it takes to postpone military confrontation with the US until the US is on the ropes, and can be pushed all the way into collapse by a neatly orchestrated military disaster on somebody else's turf. Still, more on this as we proceed.

Mr. M., the US military is ten times (or more) as big, but so much of that consists of high-end systems that can't really be scaled down effectively that the loss of effective power as national bankruptcy begins to bite is likely to be at least as drastic.

John Michael Greer said...

Dwig, I'd point out that Spain built the first global empire in the 16th century using sailing ships as the standard mode of transport. Unless the loss of knowledge in the next century or so is so drastic that the knowledge necessary to build a large sailing vessel goes away, I think it's far more likely that the US empire will be replaced by other empires, even on the far side of an "energy cliff." (Mind you, I find the energy cliff argument rather dubious, but that's a topic for another time.)

Phil, that's one of the reasons that I've argued that the form of industrialism we know -- which I've called "abundance industrialism" -- is already breaking down and being replaced by a new mode, "scarcity industrialism," geared toward the realities of life in a declining economy. I don't see it as a permanent phenomenon, simply as a transitional one, but even so it will likely outlive everyone reading this comment.

Russell, every autobiography ought to count as a dubious source; if I ever write one, I hope nobody will read it uncritically! I gather you haven't read Manstein's memoirs, because he didn't claim to be practicing a novel kind of warfare, as you suggest; he simply mentioned that after the Polish campaign, in which he was merely the chief of staff of one of the army groups, the phrase "blitzkrieg" came into vogue as a descriptive term. His analysis of the Polish campaign, btw, also puts a great deal of focus on the Polish mistakes that made a German victory much easier and quicker than it would otherwise have been.

Diane, good to hear. Down the road a bit I'll be recommending that readers in the US pick up a specific book from the pre-WW2 era and read it, so you're ahead of the curve.

Panskeptic, yes, that was a useful straw in the wind -- not that anybody was paying attention.

Sophie, thanks for the suggestion!

SLClaire, if you'd have suggested any time before 1989 that the Soviet Union would implode without civil war and the risk of a nuclear conflagration, most serious people would have dismissed the idea without a second thought. Power structures get brittle with age, and their ability to use violence is not always equal to their desire to do so. That said, things could also go in a much less pleasant direction as the US empire begins to fall apart. We'll see.

Unknown, I've never understood why the effort to make history boring, either. It takes so much work, and produces so much stupidity!

sgage said...

Unknown (and JMG),

I think the reason that history gets made so bland and boring is because otherwise, it seems to get perceived as very political very quickly. Even fairly subtle nuances get fought over in developing curricula.

In other words, the bad guys gotta be bad, and the good guys gotta be good.

jphilip said...

Another great post

I believe the reason for it being the British as opposed to Royal Army is to do with the Civil war, namely the victors, parliament were not prepared to tolerate another Royal army. That may also account for various regiments being royal or not, depending on which side they fought. Since the Civil war Britain has been very wary of large standing armies. As a consequence when WW1 started it was Britain which had to field the smaller army, and was never in a position to overwhelm the Germans with shear numbers.

Britain's generalship was very mediocre in the first world war, however, unlike colonial campaigns there was no prospect of do-overs if they lost, so you can understand there reticence for changing generals (at least he's not losing).

Also were the British generals worse than any others the French and Russian armies mutinied, the Germans logistics at the beginning were a total shambles which may ultimately have cost them the war, the Americans refused to take any instruction on how to avoid casualties, The Turks and Austrians barely put up a fight unless it was home territory being attacked. In short no one knew what they were doing. The failure was higher than that, it was with the governments/kings which muddled themselves into a war which served no ones interest, and then refused to back out.(with the exception of the Americans and the Japanese the two empires which could safely watch at a distance)

My history's a bit rusty but I thought it was the British expeditionary force which bought the German army to a halt in northern France and Belgium, not the French.

The failure to suppress the Irish and Russian rebellions was in part money but I believe there were other factors a general war weariness and a public belief that certain ways of conducting war were unacceptable (after they'd been tried in South Africa successfully).

jphilip said...

@ Mean Mr Mustard

I believe that all the legislation which set up all those US RAF bases was reciprocal so theoretically the British could set up USAF bases.
Of course these days they/we don't even keep up the pretence of equality (as per Blair's extradition treaties written in US English)
Also regards India they have acquired from the Russians there own version of the Oniks P800 (Brahmos) and now are planning to build a Mach 7 version I suspect it might not be technically possible (I'm no expert on anti ship weapons so perhaps this stuff is easily neutralised) but the point is, India now has weaponry which one associates solely with superpowers and may soon exceed them.

@ russell1200

you said "The Japanese essentially went to war because the American oil embargo"
I've never understood that reasoning by the time they attacked pearl they'd already acquired the Dutch East Indies which had all the oil they could need.

@ Wistful

The truth is that Britain had lost control over India in the late 1930's (in a 1773 kind of way) in addition unlike the European theatre the British and American forces fought separate wars against Japan, so America never built up close relations with senior Indian officers (political and military) (very difficult to organise palace coups if you don't know the people on the ground).So America was never in a position to dictate terms in India which explains why they have never been a part of the US empire. (and obviously after 250 years at the wrong end of a wealth pump they understood how it worked and were not in the mood to sign up again).

@ Matt and Jess

Regards Chinese bases on the west coast, I think if China carves up the US it will be in a method very similar to the British carve up of the Mugal Empire, slow but with various stages ( 2.acquiring assets factories 3.setting up a local security arrangement(sepoys/blackwater) to protect those assets 4.using Sepoys to put one or other upstart raja in power 5.removing Raja and install direct rule arrangement)(3 is greatly helped by local lawlessness it provides perfect justification & 5 is only really necessary if the raja doesn't tow the line)
The alternative to that is a direct military confrontation which in the nuclear age will have no winners.

@ Phil Knight

you said "Finally, I don't think that the U.S. conquered Britain so much as induced a strange psychological dependence."
I'd agree but ultimately the effects are identical.

@ Dwig

I agree, what I said to Matt and Jess only holds true if china (or for that matter any other industrial nation) can hold itself together on the backside of the resource curve and climate chaos which might be a bit optimistic.

150-200 years and industrialisation is done but the British set themselves up a global empire with next to no coal (India and America) so it doesn't necessarily mean an end to empires even global ones.

Glenn said...

"Dwig, I'd point out that Spain built the first global empire in the 16th century using sailing ships as the standard mode of transport."

JMG, I carefully considered what I knew of pre-industrial ships and conquest before I made my remark about the difficulties of trans-oceanic empires. Spain in S. & Central America and England, France and Russia in N. America had the advantages of Technological superiority; resource, industrial and population surpluses at home and a large reservoir of diseases.

In future, Asia (sp. China) will have population surpluses and an industrial base. The technological and disease factors don't apply. For examples of the differences, note how easily Africa and Asia were taken over by European powers, and who's in charge there today compared to who's in charge in the Americas. Within the Americas, note the demographic and political differences between the temperate areas and the tropical ones. Europeans have difficulty holding the tropics, the disease factor works against us more than for us.

Our current wars have been a benefit to Latin America and an injury to our empire. Our military is tied up in Asia, and is doing so badly that nations such as Bolivia perceive us as a paper tiger and act independently and in their own national interests. Shocking, and cool, until it bites the U.S. consumer.

In a post cheap energy world, with sail as the engine of neccessity, I suspect conflict will look more like that between the Ottomans and the Europeans in the Med. or between England, France, Spain and Portugal in the Atlantic.

As I said to Matt & Jess, the N. Pacific can't stand in for the North Sea. If China is to give us a push, your postulation that a strategic shove at the right time is the likeliest, while there is still some petroleum to use militarily.

I think the output end of the wealth pump has already shifted. While the rest of the world is still taking our IOU's, we are spending them on our two wars in S. Asia, and China seems to be in the best position to benefit. Which regarding; it makes sense they are setting up Indian Ocean bases. They've been buying farm land in E. Africa; it's a lot cheaper than in the U.S. and the Indian Ocean is smaller and has more base opportunities than the Pacific. Of course that will put the onus of controlling the Straits of Molluca on them.

Marrowstone Island

MawKernewek said...

Is it not the case though, that the colonial expansion during the age of sail, was the result of a unique opportunity created by the vulnerability of Native American and Australian populations to hitherto unknown Old World pathogens, resulting in a massive dieoff creating near-empty space for the European powers to expand into?

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Of course, that's where they got their nuclear technology from in the first place, I'd completely forgotten that side of things. You have a good grasp of history.



Jason said...

JMG: Granted, there's a lot that can be done without gear -- I wonder if any of these folks have looked into Maxalding or the other muscle control disciplines, for example.

The idea of muscle control isn't dead but not many practicing it -- except you do see the abdominal thing from time to time. As I live with a fusion belly dancer I have seen the upside of muscle control :) I had to look Maxalding up, nice that all the materials are available for free and the system is sophisticated...

The historical consciousness is not dead as I hear Eugen Sandow's name a lot and 'back to basics' everywhere. Some muscle control stuff went into modern isometrics too.

Phil Knight said...

Regarding WWI, if anybody wants to really horrify themselves, they should read up about the frankly grotesque behaviour of the Italian general staff during that war.

Imagine the cast of a film like "Salo" or "Caligula" put in charge of a modern army, and you'll get some idea of what they were like.

For example, it wasn't Stalin's mob who thought of the idea of pointing machine guns at your own soldiers' backs to encourage them forwards.....

DeAnander said...

Re: our new overlords

Interestingly, the Harper regime's spin in defence of resource liquidation has taken an anti-American turn, as "US interests" are accused of funding and backing opposition to the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline (yet another environmental disaster in the making, let alone the betrayal of national interest in selling off Canada's not-so-abundant fossil reserves as fast as possible). While US firms have significant investment in Canadian fossil fuel extraction, another really big investor is China --

"Right after Mr. Harper declared in his ritual year-end interview, “I am very serious about selling our oil off this continent, selling our energy products to China,” Beijing’s PetroChina spent $1.9-billion on a complete takeover of the MacKay River oil sands project. " -- Terry Glavin, w/whom I do not see eye to eye on much, but he's got his numbers lined up here.

When Harper went on his state visit to China, his dip entourage included 40 CEOs, including the big cheese from Enbridge. I keep thinking how quickly we "democratic" nations have re-instated aristocracy: the king went on a diplomatic visit, taking with him members of the most powerful ducal houses.

The spice must flow.

But back to the theme: are these straws in the wind indicating that we are on the cusp of acknowledging that Canada is now a satrapy of China rather than the US? and how will the decaying US empire respond to this? (given that China is holding godnose how many gigbux in US notes!)

Kieran O'Neill said...

To follow on from Nano's point:

It's not just South America -- China is all over Africa in much the same way. In fact, it's reasonably obvious that they're building a wealth pump in much the same way as the US did via the World Bank since WWII. As Nano said, diplomacy and goods vs military occupation.

I think there is a (perhaps minor) difference, however. The World Bank's modus operandi was to persuade a country to adopt free trade economic principles, which wrecked the economy and forced the country into debt, which in turn could be used to blackmail the country into handing over their resources for a pittance. China's MO seems to be somewhat more of a direct trade -- they provide new infrastructure (roads, power lines, etc) in exchange for the natural resources. In a way, the Chinese approach feels more humane, since at least they give the country at the sucking end of the wealth pump something in return.

Of course, in the context of JMG's concept of "infrastructure shedding", whether or not infrastructure is of much value is another matter...

Jim Brewster said...

I hope the chronology of posts doesn't mean you're bypassing the Great Depression? I think that is a very informative time in the development of our empire, a harbinger for the decline of western industrialism, and along with the energy crises of the '70's a rich source of practical lore for imminent muddlers.

On another note, I've been thinking about the differences between things German and things Japanese in the American popular imagination in the last 65 years. Japan was the first to attack us and last to surrender, but we tend to think of them as peace-loving Zen Buddhists living a nice collective almost utopian life. Germany on the other hand is still strongly associated with the horrors of the Holocaust. I realize there are many cultural and geopolitical reasons for these differences, but it is interesting...

Jim Brewster said...

MawKernewek said...

Is it not the case though, that the colonial expansion during the age of sail, was the result of a unique opportunity created by the vulnerability of Native American and Australian populations to hitherto unknown Old World pathogens, resulting in a massive dieoff creating near-empty space for the European powers to expand into?

The next empires are also unlikely to find ship-building resources like the old forests of the Americas free for the taking, though that would give Brazil a leg up as long as theirs lasts.

Dwig said...

"Spain built the first global empire in the 16th century using sailing ships..."

I think that's related to my short comment about stability. Spain's naval technology was the beneficiary of an incrementally building capability for ocean navigation and warfare, which had been growing for a long time. In our situation, most of the technologies that an aspiring imperial power has been relying on for most of its development in the last century or so will be increasingly inapplicable.

For a particular example, it won't be easy or quick to replace a current fleet of naval vessels with one based on renewables, both for energy and building materials -- the know-how to build them won't be widely available, nor the knowledge needed to sail them in various kinds of weather. (And even the acknowledgment that such a change is necessary won't come easily.) Also, this will have to be done during a time of economic, political, environmental, and energy volatility and instability.

Of course, by Mister Trey's time, this will all have been sorted out, and the appropriate technologies resurrected or re-invented, but that doesn't help the would-be "masters of the universe" now.

Re the energy cliff: I'd be interested in a good critique of the model. Here's a more detailed exposition of it: I think the core quote is "When EROI remains above 10, the relationship between prices and EROI is fairly linear and steady. But when EROI falls below 10, it can force prices to increase at a dramatic and nonlinear rate, to much higher absolute levels".

Óskar said...

Regarding pre-industrial global empires, the points made about the unique opportunities enjoyed by the Europeans in the Americas (disease etc) are quite good.

However, even if we disregard the colonial empires in the New World, Portugal established a commercial empire in the Indian Ocean at the same time, which did not rely on expansion into depopulated land. It's likely that even in the post-industrial world, some global trade of the most valuable and transportable goods (spices, tea, coffee, cocoa, gems, etc) will remain. Some of those trade routes will be lucrative enough to support far-flung trading empires similar to 16th c. Portugal.

Even so I wouldn't dismiss the New World phenomenon too easily. The demographic disaster that happened in the Americas could be seen as an exceptionally large "disturbance", to borrow a term from ecology. Arguably that disturbance event, together with the easy access to African slave labor for use in the new territories, was an enormous catalyst to European overseas expansion and eventual jump to global industrial empire. Comparable conditions, even if less drastic, might come up every now and then and allow for great global empires to thrive for a while.

Robert Mathiesen said...

@ Óskar:

So far no one has mentioned the analogous "empire" not usually so called) of Islam here, but one could argue that the imperial wealth pump in the Indian Ocean was Muslim before it became Portuguese.

Unknown said...

Deborah Bender

@Dwig--Naval charts are well maintained and are much better than what the Spaniards and Portuguese used, in part because harbor pilots still need them. I wonder how many blue water sailors these days get any practice navigating with a sextant, log and ruler, now that satellite GPS gear is so cheap and convenient. Nevertheless, sextants and the understanding of how to use them wouldn't be too hard to reconstruct.

From the little I have read about wooden ship design, the differences between pleasure craft, merchant vessels and military ships are mainly the size and shape of the hull. I presume the same would be true of metal hulled sailing ships that are trimmed by human labor rather than mechanisms. Most of the world's navies require their cadets to spend a little time operating large sailing ships (though the practice of scrubbing the deck with holystones has been abolished by the US Naval Academy since my father's day--wears out the wooden deck quickly and good wood is expensive). It seems to me that building a sail powered military fleet might be done by scaling up, with a little trial and error.

No doubt some of the supporting crafts, like how to make and maintain hemp rope, would need to be reconstructed from scratch.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Oskar--slave labor and indentured servitude are widespread today. I wouldn't expect them to be less widespread in a period of declining enforcement of international norms.

Deliberate reduction of a population by infecting them with common communicable diseases while witholding basic medical care also seems practicable, if the more powerful group has access to vaccines. Some Haitians think the U.N. already did that to them (cholera).

DeAnander said...

@jim Brewster

Yes I was thinking just that thing: there are no longer trees of the quality and quantity needed to build large wooden ships in N America. The quality of lumber available today is generally very poor (sometimes startlingly so, if your memory goes back more than say 20 years and you can recall buying *real* wood for projects), and ship-building timber is increasingly scarce and rare (and costly). Dmitry Orlov speculates that ferro-cement will become the ship building method of choice in a resource-scarce future, because the materials for making cement are still fairly plentiful and scrap steel for armature can be reclaimed from many building sites, cars, etc. Durable sail cloth is another matter; Dacron will be pretty expensive or unobtainable in a post-peak future, so I would guess hemp would be the fibre of choice.

Red Neck Girl said...

rsgage said...
Unknown (and JMG),

I think the reason that history gets made so bland and boring is because otherwise, it seems to get perceived as very political very quickly. Even fairly subtle nuances get fought over in developing curricula.

In other words, the bad guys gotta be bad, and the good guys gotta be good.

I have to laugh at how accurate your description is for the situation. I can remember a television series when I was in high school that was a very exciting series, very patriotic! Except that was during the late 60s early 70s when there was a rebellion scare in the public safety section. The name of the series was, I believe, Young Patriots! About early colonial patriots! It left broadcast after a scant few episodes and was seldom spoken of after that!

Wadulisi Tsalagi

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Like Jim, I too wonder about the ability of our remaining forests to be able to supply the appropriate and quality timbers to produce sailing ships. Most tall and large diameter eucalypts take many hundreds of years to grow to mature size. There are very few old growth forests close to deep water ports here either. Still, floating doesn't have to be a perfect exercise - leaky boats can be bailed and sealed and sometimes people spend far too much effort looking for perfect solutions when there are perfectly serviceable ones! So, who knows?

Hi DeAnander,

Whomever controls the debt, controls the asset. As China is the largest external holder of US debt, all they need to do to wield influence at any point in the future is mention that they will sell off large chunks of US government bonds on the open market.

Dumping US government bonds on the open market, will increase the costs of borrowing for the US, increase energy costs for the US, decrease the ability of the US government to provide services and sink the US into deep recession.

Don't believe me? Have a look at what is going on in Spain right now.

I take no comfort or delight in writing these comments. Isn't the whole point of this history lesson from our learned host, the ability to be able to put the present in context and perhaps learn from the past?

What is really ironic is that this exact same strategy was used by the US on Britain in the aftermath of WWI. Sad, but true.



Robert Mathiesen said...

I want to echo what DeAnander said about the huge difference in the quality of lumber available today versus sixty years ago. I was buying lumber from old-fashioned lumber-yards for my own projects when I was a teen in the '50s. No comparison!

There are large old trees here in New England, but there are few of them, and most seem to be isolated trees growing on privately-owned small plots of land.

As for the skills, here and there on the East Coast there are places that are trying to keep the old skills alive that one needs to build and sail a large wooden ship. I think there is even a operating rope-walk somewhere, possibly in Mystic (Connecticut). The skills are not wholly lost, even now.

Even the US Navy has to keep some of these skills alive, I dare say, to maintain and operate the USS Constitution in Boston Harbor. That ancient ship can still make its way under sail, at least in the Harbor. I have seen it do so, and the sight brought tears to my eyes.

Glenn said...

I would note the regional differences between the readers here in the U.S. All this blather about "no good wood" for building ships. No, it's not as good as what was available when I was young (30 years ago). But there's enough here on the West coast. We're still building and repairing wooden ships and boats here. At least half our fishing fleet is still wood, and it's more economical to repair them then replace with steel. And we have quite a few schooners and a couple of reproduction square riggers (Hawaiian Chieften, Lady Washington). Several of my neighbors still navigate with sextant, log and lead. The knowledge, infrastructure and skills needed are mostly available. It's cordage and cloth that will be the hardest to replace. Before the fossil fuel age, sails were half the cost of a ship and only lasted a few years. Cordage wasn't quite that expensive but might need to be replaced after only one to four years, depending on conditions.

Now limits in the future, say 100 years down the road. We can build steel sailors in the age of salvage. After that? Even the big wooden 'Down Easters' depended on a fossil fuel industrial technology for their construction and materials. I'd look at 1800 for the largest possible ships without fossil fuel input. Look at the goods traded in that period, and what empires looked like for political patterns. And I do think the difference in disease pools and technological knowledge then compared to now will make a huge difference. In that respect the world is a bit more of a level field now than it was in the past. This may change, but it will take considerable time.

DeAnander said...

(full disclosure) I am a passionate sailor and my partner is a master (wooden) shipwright who apprenticed in the old East Coast tradition. so this is a topic which touches my heart and life several ways. the skills are barely being kept alive by charitable organisations, but the materials are for practical purposes Unobtainium. I suspect Dmitry's right, and the next Age of Sail will be ferro-cement-hulled. oh well. there's probably enough good-enough wood left to make small oar/sail craft for quotidian use in coastal communities; you'd be amazed at the distances people used to *row* in BC before motors and boats were introduced to one another!

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender) Are we talking about spars or hulls? Which is more important, the size of the wood or the tightness of the grain?

New England has greater forest cover than it had one hundred years ago, when large portions of the aboriginal forest had been cleared for small farms. It's a different forest now with a different mix of trees.

There's still a fair amount of standing timber in virgin forests west of the Rockies, on Forest Service lands. A great deal has been lost to clear cutting and beetle infestation due to drought, but some remains. It's mostly conifers, though.

Coast redwoods grow really, really fast. I've been attending a camp in a second growth redwood forest that was logged in the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. A large open meadow that was sunny most of the day in 1989 is now almost entirely shaded by trees that are at least sixty feet tall. Stargazing is no longer possible on most of that land.

Fast growing trees generally have a coarse grain which makes them softer than old, slow-growing hardwood trees.

Jon said...

Regarding Nostradamus and his ‘prophecies like it’s 1999’ quatrain, I noticed something on a history channel program on end of the world scenarios that I hadn’t noticed before. They made reference to the ‘Hister’ is ‘Hitler’ non sequitur. I’m sure you’ve heard the logic that allows one to turn Hister into Hitler. It involves applying heuristic rules of prophecy; one letter can be substituted for another and two letters can be reversed. The ‘s’ becomes ‘l’ and the ‘st’ becomes ‘tl.’ What I realized was that two out of six letters were changed. That’s 30 percent. 30 percent of the word was changed in order to find a match with something suggestive of a current historical person or event. In reality, they only have 60 percent in common. By this logic, you can take any word in any encyclopedia and expect that 30 percent of the other entries can be potentially decoded from this word. Neat trick.


Óskar said...

@Robert Mathiesen,

I do absolutely agree both that medieval Islam was an empire (and a very successful one too) and that commercial empires in the Indian Ocean long predate the Portuguese.

However I stuck to that example because it was based on such extremely long sea routes as to function as a global empire unlike any other previous example. The Portuguese had to circumvent the whole African continent just to reach the Indian Ocean!

The Islamic empire is a fascinating one though. The Middle East has the geographic advantage of being able to act as a commercial (and cultural) nexus tying together the Mediterranean, the Sahel (West Africa), the East African coast, Central Asia and the Indian Ocean. It is no wonder that commerce is so prominent in Middle Eastern history or that Islam spread so fast and widely on the back of all those trade routes.

@Deborah Bender,

I didn't at all mean that in the future we'd be too nice to exploit slave labor the way the Europeans did. However just because you may, does not always mean that you can. In other words, easy access to a large pool of slave labor is a condition that does regularly come up in various times and places but it can not be taken for granted.

European explorers unknowingly caused epidemics which depopulated two entire continents and by coincidence, they happened to have a third continent nearby with an enormous pool of disease-resistant slave labor for the taking. Without the labor to run plantation colonies, the gain from the colonial enterprise would not have been as great. That might have slowed down European expansion enough to let some of the American cultures recover properly from the societal breakdown, which again might have slowed European expansion even further.

João Carlos said...

It is me, or you are intentionally forgeting about Zheng He's ships?

If there is enough wood (or bamboo...), big wood ships will be built for international trade.

João Carlos

Rennaissance Man said...

Always a pleasure to read and thought-provoking and, while I agree with the assessment of the collapse of the British Empire, I don't think it unfolded exactly as described, particularly with respect to WWI.
My brow furrows at some points in the story. Castus got the first one.
I think it's unfair to single out the military as a place to 'park' incompetent sons. Some younger sons were quite brilliant, but they had to go somewhere respectable when they couldn't inherit a title. But the Peter Principle is not limited to the military, and all large organizations suffer from it. Most of the time, it doesn't get recorded in history books as no one dies as a result.
It was not the military, but public opinion and the leadership in London that never really learned the lessons it needed to.

While it's true to say every army is always preparing for the last war (the first action between British and Germans in 1914 was a mounted cavalry skirmish at Casteau), note few people in any walk of life can readily adapt to, or predict the effects of, technological changes. See the same confusion today with traditional newspapers struggling to get a handle on the internet. Every war since 1800 had new technology that required change: the minie ball, machine guns, breech-loading gun & rifles, aircraft, tanks, bombers, &c. The U.S. army is superbly trained for a main-force battle 1945-style between opposing field armies, as in Kuwait, yet utterly unable to suppress insurgencies from Saigon to Baghdad.
The Western front stalemate was inevitable, due to the technology. The 1914 race to the sea unfolded exactly like Grant's Richmond campaign: both sides dug rifle pits and trenches, the Union moved to flank them, the Confederates dug new trenches, &c. In the 1960s it was very fashionable to blame "bloodthirsty incompetents" for trench warfare, but no serious critic has demonstrated any other possible outcome. Air power made WWII fluid.

xhmko said...

Cherokee Organics, its a late reply to something you said earlier, but I don't think it was India muscling us around as much as the US that led to that nuclear deal.
Julia Gillard had just spent the weekend at a conference with Obama and then he visited here directly after.
The wheeling and dealing going on around Asia at the moment in the hope of keeping China in stalemate at best, is mind boggling. I think you'll find that it was also a warning to Pakistan to keep its hands where the US can see 'em lest its mighty, mighty nextdoor neighbour get a little bit mightier.

jollyspaniard said...

The British are very polite and in their company you could say that WW2 ended their empire and most would agree with you. Even those that didn't wouldn't get upset.

Blitzkreig is just the original word for "Modern Warfare". You're right about the internal combustion engine's importance. But the Germans also revolutionized the use of the Machine Gun. At the start of WW2 the British used Machine Guns to support their troops. The Germans on the other hand used their infantry to support their machine guns. By the end of the war the British had come around to the German way of things and that remains standard to this day.