Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The End of Gasoline Warfare

Last week’s discussion of American military vulnerabilities touched on one of the major issues that ought to be giving Pentagon officials sleepless nights—but only one of them The military downsides of America’s obsession with high-tech gizmos, in a world where complexity just gives the other guy more opportunities to mess with you, are no small matter, to be sure, but those downsides are taking shape in a wider context that has its own bad news to deliver to fans of US global dominance.

To make sense of that context, though, it’s going to be necessary to return briefly to a point I’ve made here more than once before, which is the pervasive misunderstanding of evolution you’ll find straight across the cultural landscape of today’s America. Since Darwin first proposed his eminently simple theory more than a century and a half ago—“How stupid not to have thought of it before,” Thomas Henry Huxley is reported to have said—the great majority of Americans, believers and critics alike, have insisted on redefining evolution as progress: what is “more evolved” is better, more advanced, more progressive than the competition.

Not so. Evolution is adaptation to changing circumstances, and that’s all it is. In some cases, evolution moves organisms in the direction of greater complexity, but in plenty of other cases it’s gone the other direction. Over the two billion years or so since the first self-replicating organisms first appeared on this planet, the no-holds-barred wrestling match between genetic variation and a frighteningly unstable environment has turned out some remarkably weird adaptations—pterodactyls, uintatheria, Khloe Kardashian—but they aren’t the organisms that endure over the long term.  The dragonflies who visit my backyard regularly haven’t changed much since the Devonian, the box turtle we see at intervals out front had relatives munching slugs in the Cretaceous, while the adolescent bat who got lost and ended up in our bedroom one morning a few weeks back would not have been out of place in the forests of the Eocene.  They and organisms like them are survivors because they found a good stable adaptation and stuck with it; while other organisms adapted in ways that turned out to be dead ends.

It’s precisely because evolution is adaptation to circumstances, no more and no less, that it’s possible—and indeed easy—to find precise analogues to Darwinian evolution in fields far removed from biology. War is one of these. Seen from a systems perspective, nations competing for survival, prosperity, and power show plenty of equivalencies to species doing the same thing for the same reasons, and war—now as always, the final arbiter of national survival—follows patterns of adaptation that a Darwinian analysis explains well.

The collapse of Bronze Age chariot warfare discussed a few posts back offers a useful example.  The chariot armies of the late Bronze Age were superbly adapted for their military environment, but like so many highly specialized life forms in evolutionary history, their adaptations limited their ability to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances.  That limit proved to be fatal to many societies along the eastern Mediterranean littoral, and might well have done so even for Egypt if that ancient society had not been willing and able to return to an older and more resilient set of military adaptations.

Our chances are fairly high of witnessing an even more striking example of the same process in the not too distant future.  As discussed a while back in this series of posts, the current American way of war was originally pioneered by the German and Japanese militaries in the years before the Second World War, as both nations explored the extraordinary new possibilities that petroleum had opened up in war.  The destruction of the French army in the spring of 1940 by a German invasion force that had fewer men, cannons, and tanks than its Allied opponents put the world on notice that the old ways of war no longer mattered; the Japanese conquest of the entire western Pacific in a few weeks at the end of 1941 made that memo impossible to ignore, and the United States—to the lasting regret of Germany and Japan—proved to be a quick learner. 

The new warfare depended on the mobility that planes, tanks, and trucks made possible, but it had another dimension that is not always recognized.  The German conquest of France in 1940, for example, did not succeed because the Germans met and crushed the Allied armies in a head-on battle.  Rather, the panzer divisions of the Wehrmacht dodged the big battle the Allies wanted to fight on the plains of Belgium, and cut across France south of the Allied forces, breaking their communication and supply lines, while the Luftwaffe carried out air strikes to disorganize Allied units and crippled their ability to respond to a rapidly changing situation. Compare it to the US invasions of Iraq in 1990 and 2003 and it’s hard to miss the precise parallels; in both these cases, as in 1940 France, what handed a quick victory to the invaders was a strategy that focused on shredding the enemy government’s and military commanders’ ability to respond to the invasion.

The aftermath, though, is telling.  In 1940 as in 2003, the invader’s victory was followed promptly by a sustained insurgency against the occupying forces.  (The only reason that didn’t happen in 1990 was that the elder Bush and his generals had the great common sense to declare victory and get out.)  The same thing has happened far more often than not whenever gasoline warfare on the blitzkrieg model has taken place in the real world.

There are good reasons for that.  Military theorists have postulated any number of conditions that define victory in war, but in practice these all come down to one requirement, which is that the losing side has to be convinced that giving up the fight is the best option it has left.  That was the point of the old-fashioned pitched battle, in which one army offered battle at a chosen location, the other army accepted the invitation, both sides got into position, and then they hammered away at each other for a day or two until one side or the other had the stuffing pounded out of it.  After a few battles of that kind, everyone from the king to the lowliest foot soldier knew exactly which side was going to keep on beating the other if the war went on, and so a peace treaty was normally negotiated in short order. 

Gasoline warfare rarely has the same result.  For those on the losing side—I’m relying here especially on accounts by French and British officers who were in the Battle of France in 1940—the war is a roller-coaster ride through chaos; many, sometimes most, ground units never have the chance to measure their strength against the enemy in combat, because the other side has gone right past them and is deep behind their lines; orders from their own commanders are confused, contradictory, or never arrive at all; and then suddenly the war is over, the government has surrendered, and the other side is parading through Paris or Baghdad.  So there you are; your government’s will to resist may be broken, but yours isn’t, and pretty soon you’re looking around for ways to carry on the fight.  That way lies the French Resistance—or, for that matter, the Iraqi one.

This is why resistance movements sprang up so promptly in every nation conquered by Nazi Germany, and why insurgencies have done the same so often in nations conquered by the United States. It’s the natural result of a way of war that’s very good at bullying governments into fast collapse but very poor at convincing the ordinary grunt in uniform, or for that matter the ordinary person on the street, that the other side’s triumph ought to be accepted without further fuss. (Attentive readers will note here that the logic of the blitzkrieg is weirdly similar to that embraced more recently by believers in the sudden collapse of industrial society; in both cases, the words “what happens next” play an insufficiently large role in planning, and the possibility that people affected by a sudden collapse might do something to respond to it rarely seems to get a look in.)

It’s here that the Darwinian analysis of war mentioned earlier is most relevant, because insurgency is not a fixed thing.  It evolves over time, as different insurgent groups try new tactics, strategies and weapons, and draw on the experience of past insurgencies.  The evolution of insurgency, as it happens, dates from before the birth of gasoline warfare; it emerged as opponents of European colonial regimes in the Third World began to adapt the methods of European revolutionary warfare to the distinctive conditions of their time.  The new model of insurgency saw its first trial runs in South Africa and the Philippines right around 1900; both insurgencies were eventually defeated, but not without serious cost to the two imperial powers in question, and the lessons learned in those wars spread widely—it’s not accidental, for example, that the word “commando” entered military parlance in the very early 20th century from Afrikaans, where it was used for Boer insurgent groups fighting the British.

The evolutionary struggle between gasoline warfare and insurgency has been much discussed in recent years in military journals, although the label that’s been given to state of the art insurgency—“Fourth Generation warfare,” or 4GW for short—confuses far more than it reveals. The notion that military history can be divided into a set of neatly defined generations, each one of which supersedes the one before it, simply restates the contemporary myth of progress in another guise, and is just as arbitrary as narratives of progress normally are; though the technologies differ, 4GW was practiced by Elamite hill tribes against Babylonian armies more than three thousand years ago, and will doubtless still be being practiced by peoples on the periphery of empires as long as human societies are complex enough to support urban imperial centers. 

Despite the problems with the term, and with a good deal of the thinking that’s gathered around it, the debates aroud 4GW have brought up a crucial issue, which is that today’s insurgent groups have been at least as quick to innovate and to adopt the latest technology as their well-funded opponents in the Pentagon and its equivalents elsewhere. Darwinian selection works just as effectively on insurgencies as on species, and the mechanism is much the same—a constant pressure on ecological boundaries, which sooner or later stumbles across every available option for greater success at the hard work of survival.  So far, the military bureaucracies in the world’s great powers have been able to stay more or less abreast of the resulting transformations, but their situation has a lot in common with that of physicians today faced with antibiotic-resistant bacteria:  you can keep on inventing new antibiotics for a while, but the law of diminishing returns is always working against you, the germs are gaining ground, and you know that sooner or later something lethal, communicable, and resistant to all known antibiotics is pretty much certain to make an appearance.

Exactly what form the next military revolution will take is an interesting question.  Some days I suspect that a first draft of it was field-tested by the Hezbollah militia in southern Lebanon in 2006. To deal with an invasion by an Israeli Army as thoroughly committed to gasoline warfare as any army on earth, Hezbollah adopted a strategy that could probably be called preventive insurgency.  Soldiers, weapons, ammunition and supplies were carefully stashed in underground hideouts all over southern Lebanon in advance of the Israeli invasion, where they could wait out the aerial bombardment and the initial assault, and then popped up unexpectedly behind Israeli lines with guns and antitank rocket launchers blazing.  While both sides claimed victory in the resulting struggle, the fight was nothing like as one-sided as Israel’s two earlier invasions of Lebanon had been Could the same strategy be taken further, and turned into a wickedly effective defense in depth against a conventional invasion?  I suspect so.

On other days, I remember the war between Libya and Chad in 1987, when Libya was a client state of the Soviet Union and had an extensive army and air force equipped with secondhand Russian tanks and planes, and Chad had an army equipped mostly with Toyota pickups packing 50-caliber machine guns, rocket launchers, and half a dozen infantrymen in back.  The Chadian forces won an overwhelming victory, whipping around the Libyan forces via goat trails in the mountains and leaving the plains of northern Chad littered with burning Libyan tanks.  Those armed pickups are called “technicals” in African jargon, and it’s a term you may want to remember; for decades now, they’ve been standard military vehicles all over the continent, and my guess is that it’s only a matter of time before they start being used elsewhere in the world.  Could an army equipped with technicals, and with antiaircraft and antitank rocket launchers a little more sophisticated than the ones in common use just now, copy the Chadian victory against a major power?  Again, I suspect so.

Whether or not these speculations have any bearing on the way things work out, though, the age of gasoline warfare that began with Stukas screaming out of the sky in the spring of 1940 is guaranteed to come to an end sooner or later.  There are two reasons that can be said with a fair degree of assurance. First, of course, is the simple fact that every way of making war eventually runs into something it can’t handle.  If military history shows anything, it’s that the invincible army of one era is the crow food of the next, and far more likely than not the switchover has nothing to do with technological progress; it simply takes a certain amount of time for potential enemies to stumble on whatever trick or tactic will do the job. 

Still, even this factor is less certain than the other, which is that gasoline warfare is only possible in the presence of ample supplies of gasoline. More generally, the contemporary American way of war can only continue if huge amounts of relatively cheap energy can be provided, not only to fuel planes and tanks and ships, but to support the immense infrastructure that makes modern war possible. As that surplus of energy wanes, so will gasoline warfare, and the successful military powers of the future will be those that can figure out ways to project power and win battles with less of an outlay of energy and raw materials than their rivals.

To be sure, some amount of gasoline or the equivalent will be going into war for a very long time to come—the advantages provided by the internal combustion engine are real enough that gasoline will probably still be being used for military purposes long after the private automobile has retreated into legend. My guess, though, is that the last gallons of gasoline to used in warfare will be fueling technicals, not tanks—and long before that happens, a way of war dependent on the extravagant consumption of energy and raw materials will have gone whistling down the wind alongside a civilization that tried to support itself on the same unsustainable basis.


It has been three years now since I took a break from these weekly essays, and for a number of reasons, now’s a good time not to take that any further. The fictional scenario that was going to be the last post in this series of three has unexpectedly grown into an extended narrative five posts long, one that needs to be filled out by a good deal of further research; I also have a contract, finally, for the Green Wizardry book project, and a major writing project on the other side of my career, both of which could use some concentrated attention just now.

This will therefore be the last Archdruid Report post until the beginning of October. I’ll be responding to comments on this post for the next week or so, but after that, you’re on your own for the month of September. Put the time you’d spend reading these essays into digging in your gardens, building solar ovens, learning to brew beer, or in some other way developing skills that will help you weather the opening years of the deindustrial age, and you’ll be ahead of the game. See you again on October 3!

And for those who are worried about missing their weekly dose of apocalyptic fantasy...

End of the World of the Week #37, #38, #39, #40, and #41

Until recently, at least, the usual way to come up with an apocalyptic prediction was to figure out first how the world was going to end, and then try to figure out the date when that would happen. The current 2012 hysteria has taken the opposite approach, first choosing a date and then trying to find some cataclysm or other to justify it—but it’s not quite the first time this latter method saw use.

No, that honor belongs to the redoubtable Charles Berlitz, one of the leading authors in the rejected-knowledge field in the late 20th century.  Berlitz was the man who invented the Bermuda Triangle and rescued the supposed Roswell flying saucer crash from oblivion, so he unquestionably had the skills needed for his apocalyptic magnum opus, Doomsday: 1999 A.D..

How would the world end that year?  Berlitz was nothing if not open-minded.  A convulsion at the earth’s core might cause cataclysmic earthquakes, or an overload of ice at the South Pole might destabilize the crust and send it skidding over the mantle, moving all the continents into new positions and causing earthquakes and floods; a sudden ice age might sweep the globe, plunging much of the northern hemisphere into a deep freeze; there might be a nuclear war, or the earth might get swatted by an asteroid or a really big comet. Hey, it could even be more than one!

Now of course there was no reason to think that any of these things were more likely to arrive in 1999 than in any other year, and with three of the five, there are very good reasons to think that they can’t happen at all. Still, it made for a very successful book—until 1999 came and went uneventfully, that is—and the same logic Berlitz offered is being used today to argue that one or more of an even more diverse flurry of world-ending events will infallibly arrive on December 21 of this year. 

—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not


pasttense said...

The last time you took a break I kept coming back looking for a new post, as I had missed (or forgotten) that you were going to take a break. Probably I was not the only one.

So next Wednesday or so, could you simply add a new post:
On Break until October 3
(or whatever)

Karim said...

Greetings all!

The application of Darwinism to warfare is fascinating! High time I read "The Origin of Species" in detail. Just as the missile may prove Navy carriers to be highly vulnerable these days, it seems that cheap anti tank weaponry is proving that tanks are just as highly vulnerable in today's and tomorrow's battle fields.

Hence the rise of technicals which incidentally have enabled Al Qaeda in North Africa to take over much of northern Mali!

It would be interesting to imagine how 2 armies of technicals would slog it out! That could be a great fictional narrative to write!

Allow me to wish you JMG a very productive break and please keep us informed of your new publications as your are a really a great writer!

In the mean while I'll get back to completing my solar oven given that here in the south it is inching towards summer.

Thijs Goverde said...

Funny thing that the technicals-vs-tanks narrative does not only fit the conflict between Libya and Chad, it also seems to fit the conflict between Libya and Libya rather well - although of course in the latter case, a massive amount of airstrikes was also involved. Makes you wonder whether the airstikes were even necessary.

Anyway - enjoy your break! (And here's to hoping that major writing project might be called Star's Reach - or did you mean the other other end of your career?)

Leo said...

Noticed that the obvious adaption to gasoline warfare is one that increases your command structures resilicence, something an insurgency like hezbollah can easily do by either localising/ decentralising command or giving pre-war orders that they can do easily, like defend this area or such. while not as efficent or flexible thats not the goal.

Evolution can also be cumlative (e.g. onces wings are evolved a new trait is in play, warm bloodness etc). In this i imagine some form of bio-fuel warfare (probably a suporting or specialised role) will exist and the air will probably still be fought over and with, even if its only zepplins or turboprop (after missiles are gone of course). Thoughts?

con-science said...

Another interesting post in the database. I am a recent follower and currently checking your old stuff. I wish you good luck with your endeavors and thank you for the insights. I have one issue I would like your comment on:
Do you think that this civilization would continue to operate if somehow we found unlimited oil supplies? (for the sake of the thought experiment please ignore the damaging effect of the emissions to the environment)
Do you think this civilization could have been successful if we never found pockets of sunlight?
I am asking this because it seems to me that relatively cheap energy sped up the process of development and collapse (sort of like a "development bubble"), but is not the cause of our problem (the central problem being of course sustainable existence on this planet).
I myself think people began to live unsustainable life long before the discovery of oil - when we first proclaimed ourselves the owners of the planet and waged war on the "unwanted" species about 10 000 years ago.

phil harris said...

Glad you nailed the "evolution equals progress" misunderstanding.
There are plenty of well-adjusted bacteria everywhere, which is just as well, for the rest of the show depends on them.

Nate Hagens likes to quote the extinct Irish Elk. The big feller had to be very fit to grow and carry that spread of horn, so the lady elks were quite right to choose him. Sadly he needed a lot of nutrition to make those horns, and when times changed so did his fitness.

Have a good September.

Mean Mr Mustard said...

"the United States — to the lasting regret of Germany and Japan — proved to be a quick learner..." ...though a slow starter! Where were you guys in 1939? ;-)

Hey JMG - you surely deserve that extended break. Even the sweatshop called China has 10 days manadatory holiday for its workers, while uninsured Joe Sixpack has no such legal protection...

Alan B said...

Thanks for another great post. From what I can tell, there was no insurgency in Japan, and no significant insurgency in Germany after WW2. It seems that the condition "the losing side has to be convinced that giving up the fight is the best option it has left" was met after suffering the carnage of years of total war and the mauling from allied bombing of population centers.

A thought related to this series of posts is that the loss of (American) life that would occur in a conflict where an opponent managed to level the playing field is politically unacceptable. Unless the stakes were much higher than they were in, say, Iraq, the US would very quickly declare victory and go home.

Yupped said...

Have a wonderful and much deserved break. There's lots of drying and canning and brewing to be done, so we'll have plenty to do here.

Cherokee Organics said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
sometulip said...

I was wondering how long you could keep up the quality posts like this on a weekly basis. I got a beer brewing kit a while ago but haven't got around to starting on it yet. I'll take this as a well needed kick up the arse and get going at it.

On the Technicals I think you may be right. A BBC car porn show did a segment where they tried to "kill" one. You can see why they could be one of the javelins of our age.

I've just finished "The Ecotechnic Future" so I've high hopes for the book on Green Wizardry :) . Anyway hopefully I'll be reading you in October with some home-made ales. Best of luck with the books/assignments.

Brent Ragsdale said...

Thanks again for your wonderful work. Enjoy you time, er, off(?)! I will miss your posts as it's been part of my Thursday morning routine for about a year. I also started reading your blog from the beginning, but haven't made it to the fiction yet. Any "best of" recommendations for your late arriving followers? That might help quell the expected outcry from JMG withdrawals. Though your excellent books are the obvious solution. You will be happy to hear I plan to BUY your The Ecotechnic Future; my library doesn't have it, (and some birthday present hints I sow never seem to take seed.) I will take your advice and use some of my time to work on a (passive solar) construction idea I want to test: DIY pour-in-place (shredded Styrofoam & Portland) insulating concrete forms with integrated strawbales. Last year's Christmas present, a book on home brewing, will have to wait.

Jim R said...

I shall be missing these weekly essays, JMG. But good luck and all that, in the furtherance of your other projects.

The most interesting development I have seen in recent conflict is the use of microelectronics. From the use of cell phones as trigger devices for IEDs, to the stuxnet virus attack. Although the lifetime of the chip may be finite, in my estimation it is far from over.

Tony said...

The evolution of military tactics is more like the evolution of bacteria than the evolution of the big plants and animals that most of us are familiar with. Once a new trait/tactic is evolved/produced, it is not limited to the 'descendants' of the society that produced it - it can be learned and mimicked by almost anyone who hears about it in sufficient detail, like bacteria passing drug resistance plasmids back and forth from species to species like they do.

Where would you say the American civil war fell on the continuum between the old-style pitched battles and modern style warfare?

Stu from Rutherford said...

Good luck with all your projects. Coincidentally, my first beer-brewing kit arrived in the mail a few days ago, so I'm set for September!

John Michael Greer said...

Pasttense, I'll consider it -- thanks for the suggestion!

Karim, exactly. The logic of the cheap digitally guided antitank rocket is identical to that of the antiship cruise missile: if an expensive technology can be put out of action using a cheap one, the expensive one doesn't make a lot of sense any more.

Thijs, Star's Reach is another thing that needs a lot of work, since we're closing in on the end of the story -- but I was talking about my other other writing career, as it happens.

Leo, it'll depend largely on how much technology any given society can maintain at any given time. At the bottom of the postindustrial dark ages, I'd be surprised if there were motorized vehicles at all, much less aircraft. Later on, almost certainly there'll be both, since both provide huge advantages to the military that has them.

Con-science, every civilization dies sooner or later. Running out of a finite resource is a very common way for civilizations to die, but it's not the only option, so western civilization would have a finite lifespan with or without oil, and with or without your imaginary limitless supply of it. As for when things became unsustainable, yes, I'm familiar with that theory -- you do know, don't you, that most other species also kill competing species, and will squeeze them right out of existence given half a chance? We were doing that to cave bears millennia before the invention of agriculture -- and cave bears no doubt tried to do it to us.

Phil, the misunderstanding of evolution is a lasting hot button of mine!

Mustard, we were overthrowing governments in Latin American banana republics, of course!

Alan, it's an interesting point that the US and Russia never quite got the hang of blitzkrieg until after the war was over. The generals in both countries were trained to fight battles, not go around the enemy, and so they fought battles -- and the result was that the losing side had no question that it had lost.

Yupped, thank you!

Cherokee, the Green Wizard book isn't an anthology -- it's the improved and expanded form of all those posts I made on green wizardry back in the day. An anthology might be an interesting idea; I'll see if I can pitch it to my publisher.

DickLawrence said...

Considering the ongoing saga of U.S. Drone Wars now taking place in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in the light of your essays on asymmetric military capabilities facing each other across historical battlefields, one wonders what responses might evolve to these high-tech flying gizmos controlled from air-conditioned offices just outside Las Vegas. So far, except for one that came down in Iran under controversial circumstances, there's been little visible response on the part of those targeted by these flying surveillance and weapons platforms.

They're stealthy but slow, probably have vulnerabilities but may also have evasive defensive capabilities. So far the Afghans in the crosshairs don't seem to have figured it out. It may be just a matter of time; meanwhile, the U.S. military, buoyed by early success, is betting big-time on expanding use of this technology across all services, as well as into domestic enforcement roles. (Remember when every big-city police force had to have its special SWAT team, with big black SUVs and black ballistic-nylon gear bags loaded with black semi-military weapons? watch for the same equipment-lust when it comes to unmanned surveillance platforms).

There's another aspect to the Drone Wars that I never see mentioned, and it's this: in the Old Days, the alpha male at the top of the pecking order (usually "Emperor" or "King" titled) was actually conversant and capable in the wielding of whatever weapons were in use at the time; when he provoked or was provoked into going to war, he was generally in the thick of it himself, likely with some shielding by a phalanx of the best soldiers his side could muster at the time; the point was, the guy on top put his life and limbs on the line in pursuit of whatever military victory or conquest he sought.

Now, with the evolution of unmanned aerial surveillance / weapons systems, even the grunts behind the controls are shielded from any possible harm, in their air-conditioned office cubicle, where controlling a lethal weapon bears more than a passing similarity to the video games they've played since they were 6 years old (and physically, with identical risk - you "die", you re-start the game).

Now how do you think this goes over with the tribesmen and Taliban targets of these weapons systems? They may fear, but they will not respect. They feel humiliated, and that feeling goes far in stoking resentment and rage. Basically, they will feel that their opponents, shielded by the ultimate protection - half a world of distance away - fight in a cowardly way. No life or limb is personally at stake.

It's very unlikely that any exercise in diplomacy will win any "hearts and minds" in Afghanistan as long as their skies are patrolled by lethal weapons (which, by the way, periodically blow up the unlucky wedding party or gathering of tribal elders). More insurgents are enraged, enlisting to fight the faceless invaders.

It will be interesting to see how it plays out.

Dick Lawrence

John Michael Greer said...

Sometulip, get that beer brewing!

Brent, most of the fiction's on a different blog -- you'll find it here. That online novel about a post-peak future is at forty-some episodes now, so should keep you busy for September -- between work on insulation projects, that is.

Jim, as long as they still work and can be salvaged, they'll likely be used. The twilight of microelectronics will almost certainly take a good long time.

irishwildeye said...

Good post JMG. I was reading recently about the role of the bicycle in the Japanese invasion of Malaya in 1941/42 and in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. In the future we may see infantry armed with ak47s on bicycles, two very simple, very cheap technologies but two major force multipliers.

Also relevant for the future of warfare maybe the hand cart, the federal Yugoslavian armies main artillery was the 120mm mortar which along with its ammo was transported on handcarts.

Odin's Raven said...

When do we reach 'Peak Grass'?

Guderian could have taught Subedei nothing about Blitzkrieg. The Mongols conquered Russia by invading it in winter, and controlled it for centuries without much trouble.In Asia they also deployed an effective anti-insurgency technique, Pyramids of Skulls.

Mobile warfare has always had it's successes.Post-oil America should not be short of grasslands; although it may have difficulty in deploying it's cavalry to China!

Civilised people (who produce taxes and luxury goods)are more docile than (ferocious, freedom-loving, unproductive) barbarians, so it is usually the less civilised who give conquerors the most trouble for least returns. In the absence of oil etc. or a divine call to conquer the world, most of it may not be worth conquering. However, as long as there's plenty of grass to feed the horses, there is likely to be the possibility of extensive conquest.

The carp who jumped Hukou Falls said...

Long before the Chad-Libya conflict, there were the Long Range Desert Group, not to mention the Special Air Service. Look there for the origins of the 'technicals'...

Ian said...

Darwin's dangerous idea, indeed.

A friend recently passed this link around:

The nasty bit is here:

'The researchers determined that the [bacterial] bug was also spreading from sink drains, based on the genetic trail, possibly by splashing upward as people washed their hands. "We didn't test this possibility—we just had the plumbers take out the drain pipes," Dr. Segre said in an email.'

To which one friend replied this was just bacteria reminding us who is at the top of the food chain. It dawned on me that it was more like bacteria reminding us that our food chain is in their soup.

The notion that we are at the 'top' of some great chain of consumption is a bit of a mirage, a sort of foreshortening that occurs because we privilege our own consumption (surely an adaptive trait on a basic level, not so much when dealing with bacteria).

Seems like the military issue may not be entirely different--insurgency is but one reminder that the chain of imperial power sits in a soup, of which insurgents are just one element.

May you have a productive and rejuvenating break from the blog!

Robert Mathiesen said...

@ Alan B

The absence of (much popular) insurgency in Japan after WWII had a great deal to do with the stance Emperor Showa (Hirohito) took against insurgency after Japan's surrender. Even though he formally renounced his divinity, most of the populace still thought of his as their infallible leader. Germany was, I think, not so simple.

One of the wisest things we did in WW II was to insist on unconditional surrender from each country. This allowed us to govern each conquered country exactly as we saw fit, which in turn allowed us to exercise massive control over its post-war politics and education. We actually did this with competently, against long odds. In Germany the entire process of Entnazifizierung (denazification) to which we subjected the conquered populace helped more than a little.

John Bray said...

Some of the initial "activity" in Afghanistan was supposedly aimed at removing the training facilities of people who wanted to learn how to kill Americans and other westerners. Yet it has created a training centre infinitely larger and with masses of targets to actually practise on for real.

Plenty of people in Afghanistan were already good at this kind of thing anyway. Under these circumstances they can only be expected to improve their skills.

Iraq, of course, has since added immensely to the training area available.

mallow said...

Luckily I have my balcony garden stuff arriving this weekend and knitting classes starting next week! I do need to step away from the internet and get things going on the ground so thanks for the push. Hope you get a chance to take a bit of a break during your other projects and glad you're coming back. I occasionally get The Fear that you'll go awol on us....

Robert Mathiesen said...

Mean Mr Mustard wrote:

""the United States — to the lasting regret of Germany and Japan — proved to be a quick learner..." ...though a slow starter! Where were you guys in 1939? ;-)"

In point of historical fact, we were in the middle of an internal struggle between the neutralists, the Germanophiles and the Anglophiles. My father, who was in government's "loop" about such things, always insisted that without the neutralists as a counterweight, we would probably have entered the war on the side of Germany -- despite FDR's own Anglophilia -- and ushered in a long-lasting Nazi age all across Europe and the Americas. Chilling to think of it, no?

What finally tipped the balance in the US, my father thought, was Pearl Harbor. Most of the neutralists changed their tune almost overnight. Many -- by no means all -- of the Germanophiles also felt they could no longer support Germany in the coming war, since it was allied with Japan.

Scyther said...

Hi John,

This post seems to be largely a re-iteration of the previous one.

I think in truth everything that played out in WWII was the end result of imbalance in resources. The immense resources of north america (at that time still no 1 in oil output, I believe,) were of course the deciding factor, but those of the vast region of the Soviet were no small factor either.

I take your point about evolving strategies and technologies. As you say, those quickly become even, and in any large and prolonged (purely martial) struggle it's resources that decide the outcome. Occupations and extensions of Empire are a different thing, I would say, as they are generally about stealing resources in the present rather than using ones stolen generations earlier.

Nathan said...

Hey JMG. I have a question and an observation.

First, regarding "major writing project on the other side of my career", would you care to share any of the details?

Second, the Vietnam war offers a good example of how both sides of the empire question have conveniently 'reframed' America's defeat as not a defeat at all. Pro-empire folk say that if the USA 'really wanted to' we would have won. 'Anti-empire' folk say that the USA actually did win, because some defense contractors made money. Either of which means, we're invincible still... as long as we take care of the (bleeding heart liberals and/or the moneyed elite).

CE said...

Since we're on the topic of attacks and insurgencies, I would very much welcome some commentary on the recent series of military exercises above and within U.S. cities. I live in Minneapolis, and earlier this week we were confronted with the unusual sight of military helicopters flying in tight formation over our city. The local newspaper characterized this as a "routine" training exercise, but it hardly seemed routine to me -- I don't remember anything like this happening ever in my life. However, I'm only in my thirties.

I did some quick searching online and found out that over the past several months, the U.S. military has been conducting exercises in Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Miami, St. Louis, Denver, and other large cities.

Should I be worried? Or is this truly "routine," as the media say? Any thoughts - especially from anybody with a good knowledge of history and/or the military - would be greatly appreciated.

Comar Wilson said...

pps 252 to 256 of Jeremy Paxman's "Empire" describes quite concisely how, in the dying days of the British Empire, one event more than any other destroyed any hopes of holding on to much after the end of the War.

The surrender of Singapore in 1941 to an exhausted and outnumbered Japanese force, at the far end of supply lines stretching back to Siam, under the command of General Tomoyuki Yamashita, perfectly illustrates the type of event you are describing.

In one fell swoop an impregnable fortress, the key to the Far East and the defence of Australia and New Zealand was lost because British military planners could not imagine that anyone could attack from the landward side. The two destroyers sent to reinforce the city had no air cover and were easily sunk by Japanese bombers. Attempts to blow the road bridge to Malaysia failed. Lew Kuan Yew (18 at the time, later Primeminister for life of an independant Singapore) later said that when his headmaster asked what the bang (from the attempts to mine the bridge) was, said "the sound of the end of the British Empire".

Following the fall of Singapore and the use of the British Army in Asia as slave labour, how could this tiny island ever convince the world that they were "destined to rule". Their white subjects in Australia and New Zealand felt they could probably do rather better on their own and their Asian and African subjects now knew that the great British Empire could be defeated. The rest, as they say, is history.

Ricardo Rolo said...

Qui vincit non est victor nisi victus fatetur , right ? ;) That is a tune that is being played for a long time: armies specializing in killing other armies just to find out that the enemy , in spite of repeatedly beaten fair and square just refuses to surrender. Just ask the Romans agains Hannibal ( BTW both Gulf wars and the Blitzkrieg were explicitely based on the thought framework behind Hannibal actions, especially the battle of Cannae ... aparently neither the Germans in 1940 or the Americans in 2003 got to the post-Zama part of their History book :D ). And obviously, the fossil fuel manifestations of that unwillingness to surrender started pretty much with the era, with the guerilla movements against Napoleonic armies in the Iberian penisula ( BTW "commando" got to the afrikander from a portuguese borrow and originally meant a guy that got a mission ( a "comando" ) to go to African hinterland alone or with little company to submit a certain tribe. Hence the origin of the term for the notion of a lone fighter somewhere in the wild ). That alone would be a good topic ;)

And on the technicals ( that are pretty much flying batteries on diesel ), well they are a ode to a century and half of diesel veicules left in a darwinian enviroment : the auto "market" favours far more sturdy and reliable machines than most of the current military ( for all that is worth, a car is expected to last a decade or two with daily usage and with atleast 1000 km per year of use, while a military veicule has most likely less expectations of usage and duration ... tanks for example are expected to do 1000 km in their total usage life ). So, it is not exactly surprising to see cars outwitting mechanical porcelain ballerinas on armour ( I do remember that the whole British armour was rended innoperational in Gulf War I due to ... sand clogging down the air filters of the tanks engines so hard that they broke and let sand into the cilinders. My trusty 1988 VW Golf ( so, basically the same time of build ) is still going strong, just for a comparison ), unless you expect that more hi-tech ( whatever that term really means ) equals better ...

To, end, good "vacations" .I hope things go right with the contract and that your five+ posts scenario will also ends well done ( I'm eagerly waiting for it ). Until October, then :D

Comar Wilson said...

@karim - read the "Origin of Wealth" there is a great model in there for applying the theory of evolution to any situation.

Glenn said...

I'll miss your weekly essays in September. I hope the time is rewarding for you.

Mzarrowstone Island

Richard Larson said...

You work very hard at this so thank you very much. Relax a little yourself!

In the JOE Report 2010 the US Military Joint Command spent enough words on the oil/energy topic to have taken this "gasoline" concern seriously. The report was tough in describing the future, but not nearly as tough as you have been of late!

As an aside to what appears to be always bad news from some corners, and as you have past typed, there are many possibilities, most of us (including those in the military) just have a tendency to ignore the ones that would do the most harm. Limiting our preparations to best case scenarios only is not a good plan. This is why I visit your blog, again, thanks.

Will spend the extra time finishing my second Hugelkultur, I'll name it the Green Wizard Blueberry Patch. These beds are suppose to last thirty years!

Justin Kase said...

I usually read your excellent posts, lurk for comments awhile and move on. Any disagreements usually are too small to justify comment.

That said, i don't see the Hezbollah strategy in Lebanon as a military revolution, even though it was an innovation for them. More likely, one of their leaders reviewed the Swiss Army defence plan, and adapted parts that were affordable and tactically usefull to them. I think the Swiss have probably already answered the question of the effectiveness of this strategy for defence in depth against invasion, insofar as no adversary has yet been willing to test it.

Renaissance Man said...

Minor quibble: as pterodactlys managed to existlonger than humans have been around, and apparently morphed into archaopteryx, and then into modern birds, they may not be quite the evolutionary dead-end you suggest.
To the point:
I don't think the blitzkrieg/ gasoline war has any particular effect on insurgencies, per se.
In my reading of history I could point to every Roman conquest, to Napoleon in Spain, or the Central German States as conquests that resulted in insurgencies. I submit insurgency is a typical response to conquest by a foreign power, rather than utterly ruthless and crushing slaughter like Tamerlaine or Ghengis Khan or the Red Army. The difference is the former leaves much of the inhabitants alive and disgruntled, whereas the latter leaves fewer shell-shocked survivors.
The Prussian invasion of France in1871 crushed the French armies, then starved Paris into submission, proclaimed their new Empire at Versailles, and promptly went back over the new border, which was sufficiently little territory that they could easily subdue if needed, just as more insurgencies were cropping up all over the rest of France. Bismark knew that it would be far too costly to subdue the whole country, so he contented himself with Alsace and $10b. He assumed that the next war would go the same way, and they would eventually conquer France piecemeal over a couple of generations.
Even the invasion of France after Dunkirk was a classical campaign by soldiers on foot against towns and infantry, exactly as in 1870, with the exception of air power and better logistics. Their mistake was to stay on as rulers, rather than set up a client state under Petain with the illusion of independence.
Insurgencies are relatively simple to crush.
In Military College they taught that requires a ratio of 1:20 troops to civilians (and a willingness to commit what we today refer to as 'war crimes' or 'crimes against humanity'). That requires an apriori assumption that power is the only possible response, along with supreme confidence in the rightness of a 'cause'. War becomes an acronym: "We Are Right."
Simple, but awfully expensive, both in money and public relations. The British never recovered from the Boer war in public opinion, until someone worse came along to distract and help people forget.
However, another way -- albeit a long-term project -- to defeat an insurgency is to remove the cause for it. That option never occurs to power-drunk megalomaniacs, but it is effective.
As for insurgencies thenselves, they do not last very long without outside help.
If the Confederacy wasn't able to import weapons and materiel from Europe, they wouldn't have lasted as long as they did. If the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan weren't given billions of dollars in aid, the fighting would have died out after two years. Hezbollah, FARC, Shining Path or any of a dozen insurgencies could never have continued without access to or support from outside sources.
You enjoy a well-deserved break. I'm going to teach my horse to pull chariots...;-)

SLClaire said...

I'll add my thanks for the excellent education in this and previous posts in this series and will look forward to the completion and availability of your books!

Since you mentioned taking the time freed up from reading your blog to do projects, and because the issue of doing laundry by hand has come up from time to time in the comments to your posts, I'll make a shameless plug. I just put up a post on my blog on my experiments with doing laundry by hand, for any of you that might want to try it yourself. Here's the link:

Mean Mr Mustard said...

I see that the Toyota War very much hinged on the French AF involvement and the outcome was different when they withdrew - until the Libyan AF deployment got wiped out on the ground... How embarrassing. Who knows, when the French were onside, that could have led to a French Mirage F1 vs Libyan Mirage F1 dogfight, but there again, those 'cheese eating surrender monkeys' will 'appily sell potent expensive military kit to just about anybody, eh... Even Saddam had some of those - toting Exocets - one claimed USS Stark.

Mountain said...

I laughed when I saw this.

Army Doubles Down on 'Garbled, Ineffective' Next-Gen Radios

cracked pot said...

I would love it if you could post a list of your eclectic reading material (books and blogs) for those of us interested in learning more. I have read several books after coming across them in the bibliographies of your book, and would like to know more of the material you get your ideas from.

Also, I would be interested to hear how you think computers (which have relatively low energy requirements compared to tanks and planes) and military intelligence could affect warfare. Having served in the Israeli intelligence myself, I know that access to powerful means of gathering information allows the military to intercept many attempts at insurgencies with minimal use of energy (such as targeted assasinations of terrorists). As far as I know, today large, centralized armies have an easier time gathering information on insurgents than vice versa.

rakesprogress said...


Enjoy your break, good luck on the other projects, and thank you for writing this superb blog! It is a beacon and an anchor in a disoriented and unstable world.

The very best,

Steve From Virginia said...

Part One:

Wow ... I'm not sure where to begin with this shaggy-dog of an analysis. It is ironic that an arch-druid would be so concerned about warfare and military matters, maybe it's a secondary specialty of druidry that few are aware of.

The basic premise seems to be that conventional mechanized militaries have short-term successes but the success itself leads to insurgent push-back and longer term failure. Presumably, the push-back takes place on the same battlefields or at least the same theaters of operations as the mechanized successes.

Reviewing actual events from industrial revolution to the present does not support this premise.

The first mechanized 'modern' war was arguably the Spanish conquest of the New World. For the Europeans, it was a resounding success. Peruvian gold financed the industrial revolution, the 'enlightenment', 200 years of religious wars that resulted in a Europe free of Muslims for the first time in centuries. The mechanical aids were the musket and the 3-masted sailing ship, things the natives did not possess. There was never a native insurgency, only religious scruples ended their enslavement.

Napoleon did indeed have a tech advantage but was undone on battlefield as well as by his own political ineptitude. 'Honest Abe' Lincoln won his machine war and there was no insurgency, there was nothing left of the confederacy to support one (just nostalgia).

Europeans won mechanized colonial wars very cheaply and exhibited staying power: colonies failed when the powers struggled within Europe.

The USSR's nuclear/military establishment bankrupted the USSR along with inept agriculture and Moscow's inability to source external capital. Insurgencies defying Soviet rule were ruthlessly crushed and survivors shot or exiled to concentration camps.

The Soviets lost the proxy war vs. the US in Afghanistan The Soviets were jettisoned by US Stinger missiles and their effect on Soviet attack helicopters.

More mechanization has proven to be far better than not enough, the alternative to mechanization is the military equivalent to human power: old-school infantry assaults. As Moctezuma, Napoleon and Robert E. Lee discovered, good infantry becomes harder to come by over time. It is too vulnerable: here is the logic behind robotic warfare, robots are expendable in ways that real soldiers are not.

Germany in 1945 had almost 11 million men in uniform but only a small fraction -- less than a million -- were willing to battle the Soviets and Americans. None of these Germans were part of an insurgency. The Germans planned one (Operation Werwolf) but it was less than useless: there was no public support for a war that had failed.

Had Hitler managed to hold out until August instead of May, the first atomic bomb would have fallen on Munich or Berlin instead of Hiroshima.

Steve From Virginia said...

Part Two:

Parallels can be made between the Somme and Iran-Iraq seventy years later or the multiple border wars between Eritrea and: mass armies of conscripts slugging away against each other on conventional battlefields going 'over the top' into artillery barrages and clouds of poison gas ... nothing gained at enormous cost.

During the world wars, the insurgencies were irrelevant or non-existent. Insurgent combatants were engaged more against other insurgents or avoided combat altogether. During the first world war were mutinies within standing armies: in the Ottoman Empire (which became Turkey), in Russia (which became the USSR), Austro-Hungarian Empire (which fell apart), within France (the mutiny which almost destroyed French army), ultimately the German Empire which ended ended with the abdication of the Kaiser and the end of the war.

The German soldiers on the Western front were crushed on the battlefield not by insurgency. 40 of Germany's best divisions were wiped out and a hole blown in the German lines @ Sedan by a gigantic American army, the largest the US has ever put onto a battlefield. It was successful because the Americans had an excellent logistic system that relied on motor trucks instead of porters or horse-drawn wagons to move supplies. The big problem for the Americans was not the German army but traffic jams. The British were exhausted, they were desperate to sign the Armistice before the German political enterprise was totally crushed (as Gen Pershing demanded). British political blunder led to the German 'stabbed in the back' conspiracy theory that led thence to the Freikorps and Stahlhelm groups then NSDAP.

Victory in world War II was consequence of mechanized, hierarchic, centralized forms (including massive naval invasions forces and atomic bombs dropped from high-tech bombers). Insurgencies were irrelevant to outcome

Our current, literally casualty-free (our side) wars are far superior to the alternatives. It is the low cost that makes them so easy to engage in. There is a pittance in casualties, some credit costs which are paper debts that will never be repaid. What terminates these wars is changes in domestic US politics rather than defeat at the hands of an insurgency.

Automobiles in the US have killed more Americans than all US wars put together. Simply outrageous!

The failures of US and others since WWII haven't been on the battlefield instead have been political self-immolation. US war in Vietnam ended when Congress pulled the funding plug due to political demands from constituents upset over increased consumer prices. The war itself ended on battlefield as PAVN tanks and artillery overcame ARVN tanks and artillery -- and aircraft -- in pitched battles on conventional battlefields.

Afterward, the old Viet Cong complained that they were left out of the political process. Some of them became boat people.

In Vietnam and elsewhere, the 'man on the street corner' was ahead of the government decision makers as to whether to continue to prosecute pointless and expensive wars. Political pressure -- or its absence -- is what determines force status in these theaters, not the (in)effectiveness of various insurgencies. BTW: insurgencies in these areas have been short-circuited repeatedly by bales of US$100 bills.

Not to say the US 'style' of energy gobbling warfare-for-fun has a future, it doesn't ... the problem is war waged for the benefits of big business and establishment without a strategic gain. Anyone waiting for a US military defeat due to inappropriate doctrine you will have a long wait: the world will end first.


John Michael Greer said...

Dick, it will indeed be interesting. My working guess is that sooner or later, drones are going to hit someone whose family has the money and/or power to cover the price of a hit on someone much further up the food chain than some poor US grunt in Afghanistan.

Irish, bicycle dragoons are a real possibility -- if you're not conversant with the term, dragoons back in the day were soldiers who rode horses for transport but fought on foot.

Raven, now there's a blast from the past -- I see you've been reading a lot of Robert Howard recently.

Carp, granted -- the Chad war was simply the best example of technicals versus conventional armor and air power.

Ian, thanks for the link! Every ecologist knows that there's no such thing as a food chain -- there's a food web, which has no single direction of flow.

John, true enough -- and a good example of what happens when nobody asks "what happens next?"

Mallow, congrats! Enjoy the gardening and the classes -- and yes, I'll be getting some r&r.

Scyther, no, it's not just a reiteration. You might want to read both posts again.

Nathan, all in good time. As for the observation, quite true -- the fixation on US invincibility is alive and well even among those who insist they oppose US empire.

CE, they're preparing for a domestic insurgency, of course. The US government would be crazy not to -- we've been funding and organizing insurgencies all over the place (Syria is the current example) and to my mind, at least, it's a foregone conclusion that sooner or later, some other power will decide to do the same thing here. The US military has been gearing up for that for some years now.

John Michael Greer said...

Comar, that's an excellent example of the way that the collapse of a myth of military invulnerability can end an empire in short order. More on this as we proceed.

Ricardo, exactly! I like "mechanical porcelain ballerinas," btw.

Glenn, thank you!

Richard, thank you. It's one of the pervasive flaws of military planners that they so rarely put themselves in the other guy's shoes and say, "Okay, how could I really seriously mess with our side if I wanted to?"

Justin, we'll see. How many other nations have considered the Swiss strategy, not as a permanent state of affairs, but as something that can be put into place in a matter of six months or a year prior to hostilities?

Renaissance, of course there are other things that can generate insurgencies -- my point is that blitzkrieg tends to produce them much more reliably. You cited Napoleon in Spain -- how many other countries that he conquered (and he conquered quite a few) did the same thing? Now compare that with the Nazi conquests, and the rate of insurgencies in response.

SLClaire, thank you for the link -- I hope you're also posting this to the Green Wizards forum!

Mustard, that's why improved shoulder-launched antiaircraft weapons would be such a major factor in a future "technical" war.

Mountain, that's par for the course in today's military.

Cracked, since my field of study (and the theme of this blog) is the decline of modern industrial society, I'll leave it to those who specialize in such things to track the impacts of computers on warfare. It'll be interesting to see how well different nations are able to retain computer technology as the energetic basis for high tech slips away.

Rake, thank you.

Steve, if you want to redefine conquistadors with swords as mechanized warfare, avoid dealing with any of my substantive points, and replace them with enough straw men to staff an army corps, no doubt you can reassure yourself all day that the US is invincible. It's a very comforting habit, too; the only difficulty I'd bring to your attention is that an equivalent reaction was very common in the British military in 1938.

irishwildeye said...

Bicycle dragoons, I like that, it is a very good description of how Japanese infantry used the bicycle in WWII.

I read a lot of stuff online about the return of horse armies in the future but I’m unconvinced that horses can live very long on a battlefield with rifles, particularly automatic rifles, and I very much doubt that humans will forget how to make AK47s. Put AK47 armed troops on bicycles and they will out march any horse army, and cost a fraction of a horse army to maintain and use.

sgage said...


"... and replace them with enough straw men to staff an army corps ..."

Great, now I can't get the image out of my head of an army of Scarecrows from the Wizard of Oz goofily singing their way across the battlefield. "If I only had a brain". Thanks buddy! ;-)

Steven said...


It was with some trepidation that I saw that you were going to write on the military, as it seemed outside the realm of your expertise; happily I need not have feared. This is an excellent analysis of insurgency, and (sadly) a far better one than I have seen discussed within the military.

I would add that the first time someone manages to seriously call into question American air superiority, the Pentagon will quake. The Army still has AAA/ADA (anti aircraft artillery / air defense artillery) units, but they're something of a joke within the Army because we've been able to assume American air superiority for decades. When the skies are no longer American-controlled, our ground forces will find they have a much harder time of it. Libyan air defenses clearly posed no threat, but one wonders whether Bashar Assad has avoided the fate of Gaddafi by prudently investing in more serious air defense systems. If there really are a lot of Libyan MANPADS (man-portable air defense systems) around, the cost of war - and its difficulty - may go up for America; if someone finds a way of cheaply downing high-altitude drones, bombers, and cruise missiles, it will go up still more.

John D. Wheeler said...

It will be interesting to see if the Israelis strike Iran during your hiatus or in October; we may very well see that stunning military loss you predict. Based on what you and others have said recently, I think the Powers That Be may actually want such a thing to occur, as a scapegoat for all the other problems that occur subsequently.

I think people who believe the government won't respond to a fast collapse are a bit naive, but the people who aren't wary of that response are really naive.

Justin Wade said...

I've wondered if autism is a form of evolution and the exponential increase in diagnosis and sub classifications in the last fifty years are its expression. In a social environment of industrial, consumer capitalism, social intelligence is not a particularly strong attribute to waste mental energy on.

John Michael Greer said...

Irish, I'm pretty sure firearms are here to stay, but automatic weapons are rather more demanding -- I'm far from certain that a society with only handcraft technologies could produce working examples that were reliable enough to matter, for example. For that matter, bicycles are hard to use when you don't have rubber or fairly good steel. My guess is that horses, bicycles, and other technologies will all have their times of dominance.

Sgage, heh heh heh. My work here is done... ;-)

Steven, I was studying military history long before I got into some of the other subjects that have been central to posts here. Even archdruids have their hobbies, and I've also long been convinced that you can't make sense of history without a sense of the primary means by which nations destroy one another.

John, we'll be talking about Israel and Iran in the upcoming post about the logic of nuclear deterrence.

Justin, as someone with adult residual Aspergers syndrome, I don't experience it as an evolutionary step; from where I stand, it looks like a disease, the failure of a range of normal human capacities due to an autoimmune-driven inflammatory process in the brain. It feels like I suspect an amputation must.

The carp who jumped Hukou Falls said...

JMG said in reply to Irish: "I'm pretty sure firearms are here to stay, but automatic weapons are rather more demanding -- I'm far from certain that a society with only handcraft technologies could produce working examples that were reliable enough to matter, for example".

Again, going back to WW2, the Sten gun was designed to be manufactured under low-tech circumstances, eg by the resistance movements in occupied Europe. For example:

"The Polish resistance was provided with numerous Stens of various models by the SOE and the Cichociemni. Between 1942 and 1944, approximately 11,000 Sten Mk IIs were delivered to the Armia Krajowa. Due to the simplicity of design, local production of Sten variants was started in at least 23 underground workshops in Poland".

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Ahhh, a misunderstanding. Still, if you are after contributions for an anthology, you only need to ask? I am much more practiced at non fiction writing.

Thanks also for mentioning your condition all those months ago. I respect that honesty. It also helps me to better understand your responses. It is a strength for you though, in that it gives you a sharp and focused mind and this comes across in your writing.

I grew up in a house that had some strange goings on, so I understand that life is far from perfect. To quote Leo Tolstoy, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way". From Anna Karenina.

Please do try the anthology as I reckon that there may be a market in the US for such a thing.



Phil Knight said...

AK-47's and Uzi's can easily by made in back street workshops, by hand, even by children, and are done so in the northwest of Pakistan.

This is a good insight into the small-scale arms industry there:

sometulip said...

I wonder if in the twilight of the Gasoline wars that one of the Mosquitos buzzing around the US elephant that will do the most damage will be Mexican drug cartels. It seems that the US Army are already fighting them

The last bit of the article is particularly alarming in light of this blog. The author assumes that the Zetas will forever be kept on the other side of the border and that the US is not in danger from the Zetas roaming Oklahoma in Technicals with M60s on the back.

He better not read this blog if he wants to sleep at night.

Ricardo Rolo said...

Picking on the Renaissance Man comment ( and BTW, as a biochemist of formation, I can't let slip the fact that pterodactils are not, as far as we know the ancestors of today birds ;) ) ...

Well, I would agree with him that the emphasis on fast war is not, in itself a generator of insurgencies . But I would definitely say that the entities that focus in fast and efficient warfare are more prone to forget about how to deal with a ocupation aftermath, simply because in their view that is not part of the war, unlike it happens with the "slow" war where you need to ocupy vast swats of the enemy territory during the war and will obviously be very tempted to extract as much of resources out of it as the local population allows without the oportunity cost going skyhigh.

Besides ,you must add that, unlike a fast warfare ( with all the quirks that Mr Greer described ), in a slow war you will see the enemy often and they will stay a lot of time in the same place ( it is a slow war, after all :D ). And like humans can get accostumed with almost everything if the transition is gradual enough, that will allow the enemy troops to get social connections with the inhabitants of the occupied land in a far more solid way than after a fast war when they appeard suddently and sat on the mayor's chair ...

To end ,and as a post script, on the horse warfare ( vs bike ): people in that kind of discussions tend to forget that horses need to eat, and more, that they eat a very low energy density food that only grows in satisfactory ammounts in 2 discountinuous belts around the globe and only during a certain time of the year. This means that even a XVIII century tytpical cav division would need a serious ammount of infrastructure behind and that you would need fossil fuels to get anything bigger than that in a permanent basis ( just for reference, the biggest ammount of cavalry divisions in a army belongs to pre-WW I Russia, 25 div to be exact ... and they could not be fully deployed because simply moving them and the food for the horses to the front lines would make the Russian transport network ( that included coal powered trains, remember ) to collapse ). OFC you can have big cav armies if you disperse during most of the time and only gather for the war ( like in medieval ages ) and/or if you go nomad ( the mongols ), but even then there is a huge effort required to maintaining a battle horse and you pretty much have to reroute all the society to work fulltime to keep a cav army...

In other words, I think that besides some exceptions, cavs will be kept as a special weapon but that the bulk of the the work will be done by humans ( they have to go to the battlefield after all, because no one surrenders to planes or horses ;) ), wiht or without bikes or any other kind of mechanical help. Anyone that knows the term "Marius mules" knows what I mean :D

irishwildeye said...

You could be right about the bicycle but its advantages over the horse are so great I think an ambitious warlord in the future maybe able to solve the problems of producing and maintianing them. The problems of making bicycles can be greatly simplified by making the frame from bamboo or wood. A man in Israel has even made a bicycle frame from cardboard. The big problem is likely to be rubber for the tubes and tyres. Perhaps rubber for bicycle wheels might be one of the few internationally traded commodities in the future.

On the question of making automatic weapons with handcraft technologies look at this video of Michael Palin in Darra, Pakistan where they make automatic weapons in little workshops with hand tools.

Mountain said...

I found this week's posting very interesting given that my first thought reading the previous posts about technological specialization reminded me of a book I read circa 1997, <a href="'>Humanity's descent: the consequences of ecological instability</a>. The book is not dated, and still worth reading. The argument Rick Potts makes is that extreme specialization can be an evolutionary dead end. Where are the mega-fauna? Where are the Neanderthals? We are the only surviving hominid, but there were many branches. When species become too specialized in a changing environment, they become susceptible to extinction. Better to be a generalist. Survival of the generalist. Species that we see today on the African savanna are the decedents of those that were adaptable during times of climatic flux. Homo sapiens are the poster child for that adaptability.

John Bray said...

. . . 200 years of religious wars that resulted in a Europe free of Muslims for the first time in centuries.

In the end, the only way to end the insurgency proved to be the explulsion of all the Moors from Spain. I suppose if all the current population of Afghanistan were expelled the problems would disappear also. Similarly, Iraq, Iran etc. Is this the 200-year counter-insurgency game-plan?

Jim Brewster said...

Renaissance, an admittedly tangential counter-quibble, but one that underscores that the core of evolution is adaptation not progress:

Indeed there are no living descendents of pterodactyls, or pterosaurs in general. Birds and pterosaurs have completely different flight anatomy; one can't simply morph into the other. They evolved independently from terrestrial ancestors, and their similarities are an example of convergent evolution.

To put a more poignant point to it, the birds that survived the Cretaceous extinction were small, not particularly specialized, and lucky.

Todd S. said...

Everyone loves it when numbers get added to a discussion; I came across this interesting talk about peak energy (or the energy trap) given by a physicist. Good stuff.

John Michael Greer said...

Carp, Phil, and Irish, thanks for the info about small-scale manufacture of automatic weapons. Definitely something to factor in -- I'll need to do some poking around to find out if any of the necessary raw materials will be difficult to supply in a deindustrial world.

Cherokee, I'll talk to my publisher. A lot will depend on how this first Green Wizardry book goes over.

Sometulip, that's going to get a post all its own. It's a far more important datum than it appears, if you remember the history of past empires. Much more on this down the road a bit.

Ricardo, anybody who references Roman military slang on this blog gets an automatic gold star!

Irish, I'm less concerned with the frame than with the gears and chain, which require fairly high quality metal and precise workmanship. The tires are also an issue, of course. My challenge to deindustrial bike fans remains the same: build one by hand, using only the sort of locally available scrap you could expect to find in your area a century from now.

Mountain, good. You're quite right, of course; Homo sapiens is one of nature's supreme generalists, right up there with rats and cockroaches; as megafauna go, we're remarkably hard to exterminate, which is why we're still here and all the other hominids are gone.

John, I'd expect to see it go the other direction, with infidels being expelled from a lot of their current territory!

Todd, thanks for the link.

John Michael Greer said...

By the way, thanks in no small part to the thoughtful and intelligent comments here, The Archdruid Report has just had its third straight record month in terms of pageviews -- upwards of 181,000 in the month of August, which I'm told is fairly good for an independent blog on an unpopular subject. Thank you all for your contributions!

Justin Wade said...

I don't experience it as an evolutionary step;

JMG, you should read your own post. What should an evolutionary step feel like? I didn't say it was an advancement, just a change and adaptation to a changing environment that has no use for social intelligence. In this culture, the more cut off you are from social function, the better you will function. I don't make the rules, I just enforce them. Don't blame me, I'm just the messenger. I don't agree with it, but I have to do it. Etc.

btw, you ever read Vonnegut's Galapagos?

phil harris said...

Bike building?
My dad rode a solid-tire bicycle before WWI on non-tar rolled stone roads near London. Forty miles for a swim in the sea and 40 back!

My guess is that if you can make ball and roller bearings (and you can machine cones) you can make a bike. Bearings though are pretty hi-tec and 'strategic'. We lived a mile or so from a ball-bearing factory during WWII and got more than our fair share of stray bombs.

Alternatively, I have tried riding a big wheel 'original'. Surprisingly quick but can be alarming especially down hill. No wonder the first bicycles were marketed as 'safety bikes'.

Renaissance Man said...

Your point about mechanized blitzkrieg is quite correct.
My very unclear point is that – like the collapse of empires – it’s nothing new, in principle.
A mobile (not necessarily mechanized) invasion force outflanking, outmanoeuvring, and overwhelming an enemy army, defeating a government, and then occupying the centres of power but without effectively subduing the populace, always has to deal with subsequent insurrection.
What is new are the tools (motor vehicles, radios, aircraft instead of horses) and timeframe (days instead of months).

irishwildeye said...

I think that bicycle chains and gears could be made in small workshops out of scrap steel, although it would take a very long time to make a bike chain by hand (it would be much quicker to walk), or they could be replaced by much simpler belts and pulleys. But clearly tyres and tubes will require some level of industry and trade to produce. The major problem I can see with building bikes in a totally deindustrialised society will be ball bearings which I doubt can be made by hand in a workshop.

However it takes a relatively low level of industrial technology to build bikes, it takes a relatively small amount of resources to build and maintain them, the kind of bikes the Dutch build last for 100 years and they are the ultimate force multipler of human power. Broken bikes can also be stripped for spare parts. If all goes totally pear shaped and we end up back in the dark ages there will be no bikes, we will be back on foot. It might happen, who knows, but that is a real worst case scenario.

One of the few thing we have going for us right now is that we have vast amounts of human power. If we can maintain any kind of industrial society and build simple pedal powered machines many of the tasks we do today with fossil fuel can be very efficiently done with human power. I’m thinking about things like my grandmother’s treadle sowing machine or my grandfather’s handcart.

It maybe that when we are done collapsing we will have lost the ability to create simple machines like this, but it does not require any breaking of the laws of physics to imagine a future human society in which highly efficient, simple, human powered machines like the bicycle are still being made and used. The real problem it seems to me is how we get people to imagine and prepare for this kind of future.

James said...

I can just see them now; the Green Wizard technical battalions, with their dyed beards and blood curdling battle cries, sweeping out of the forests and scattering the Tea Party Army to the 4 winds! Can we expect to see a "technical" outfitting chapter in the forthcoming Green Wizardry self defence book? Sandwiched somewhere between palisade caulking and tree sprung man traps perhaps. Enjoy your break JMG. And a thousand thanks for all your posts.

Robert Mathiesen said...

Steve from Virginia wrote:

"Peruvian gold financed . . . 200 years of religious wars that resulted in a Europe free of Muslims for the first time in centuries."

It depends on where you draw the Eastern Boundary of Europe; traditionally, the Ural Mountains divided Europe and Asia. If we take that line as the boundary, or even a line 500 miles west of the Urals, then at no time since the 13th century has Europe ever been "free of Muslims." There has been (and still is) a Tatar Muslim presence in Belorus and Poland.

The Balkans, too, belong to Europe. There Bosnia, sitting as it does athwart the boundary between the Catholic and the Orthodox halves of Europe, but not a natural part of either, used to adhere to a heretical, dualist form of Christianity. This had made them very much a target for conversion at the point of a sword by all their Catholic and Orthodox neighbors. When the Ottoman Turks (who, of course, were Muslim) conquered the Balkans in the 14th century, most Bosnians -- in sharp contrast to all the other Balkan Slavic peoples -- eagerly became Muslim. This gave them a huge political and military advantage over their Catholic and Orthodox neighbors. So there have been very many Muslim Slavs in the Balkans for some 600 years now.

Also, the Albanians (who are not Slavs) became largely Muslim about the same time.

Here in the United States, there is a strong tendency to think that everything east of Germany and Italy is not Europe at all. This is stupid and sloppy, and I am disinclined to let it pass here.

Glenn said...


Automatic weapons. No problem. Ammunition? Good question. AFAIK, the hand made automatic weapons made in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region depended on two industrial products:

Barrels (High grade steel, usually chromium/nickel lined).

Ammunition. Semi or full auto is only useful with modern ammo.

So, the open question is what level of technology, and what level of energy intensity in a society or civilization are required to produce usable quantities of modern ammunition. I think the key variable will be the primers, the rest is fairly simple Victorian tech.

It is worth noting that before the fossil fuel age the only explosive was black powder. The primary ingredient was Nitrate of either Potassium or Sodium; there are deposits, and it can be extracted out of urine. Sulfur was trickier to produce, but not as much is required.

All other explosives are products of fossil fueled industry. So the question for an industrial Chemical Engineer (It's not that difficult to make one round of ammo in a lab) is what is the energy and materials input required to produce either lead styphnate or fulminate of mercury for primers? And how much energy is used to produce nitrocellulose and nitroglycerin based propellants?

And all nitrocellulose based propellants are hydroscopic and tend to destabilize over time, so legacy ammunition will have a limited life span.

Like infernal combustion vehicles, repeating firearms may become strictly the province of a small military caste, whether the militia of an elected government or brigands and drug gangs.

Marrowstone Island

John Michael Greer said...

Justin, an evolutionary step is one that is adaptive -- what did you think I meant? My experience of aspergers syndrome is that it's maladaptive. The upsurge in autism spectrum disorders ranks with the parallel upsurge in childhood cancers -- I trust you don't consider that to be adaptive.

Phil, okay, that's good to know.

Renaissance, of course -- there are many things that can spark an insurgency; blitzkrieg is simply one of them, and a very efficient one at that.

Irish, fair enough. I think it's quite possible that if the bicycle drops out of use, it could be reinvented, especially if detailed descriptions or a few examples survive.

James, that's all hidden away in the pages of the Gaianomicon!

Glenn, I know that fulminates can be made with fairly simple technology -- there's a famous recipe in alchemy, the Red Lion of Salomon Trismosin, which is one of those cruel booby traps that the old alchemists used to leave for the clueless. You take some gold, process it with strong acids, mix in some other things, and then let the liquid evaporate and the crystals form, and then you pound it up good and hard and toss it onto molten lead, which supposedly turns to gold. Except that those crystals are a viciously unstable gold fulminate, and you've made several ounces of it, enough to blow you and your laboratory to kingdom come when you bring that pestle down on it.

(Chinese alchemists were just as nasty, but subtler. They had the clueless make these magical pills of complex mercury compounds, which you then took to become immortal. When your hands started shaking uncontrollably, why, that just showed that the qi was flowing through the meridians with extra force, and you were most of the way to immortality! Take enough of it and your body wouldn't decay, either, which just proved to your next of kin that you'd become an immortal. Ahem.)

Mind you, that doesn't solve all the other problems involved in manufacturing ammunition suited to automatic weapons, but it's an interesting point.

Glenn said...



I never thought the _chemistry_ would be the problem. To my mind the question is related to Energy Return on Energy Invested. In this case, the energy, materials and labour required to make the ammunition. Is the resulting military advantage great enough to pay for the production? Or would it be more cost effective to outfit several thousand soldiers with muzzle loading flintlocks, or bows and spears...

I'm not making an assertion here, I think it's an open question. I've noted that only blackpowder was widely available before the industrial use of fossil fuels. That doesn't mean it can't be done with the right chemical knowledge, only that it wasn't done. Alchemists didn't produce mass quantities of primers for Renaissance princes or more of Da Vinci's weapons might have been made.

I really think an industrial chemist's knowledge is needed to answer the question. And I think at different times, and different levels of societal per capita energy density different technologies will be affordable.

Marrowstone Island

Stephen said...

Rather than the guns themselves I have always thought the main difficulty with automatic weapons would be mass producing cheap identical cartridges with uniform smokeless propellent.

If shiping routes to the ruber tree plantations are cut off I think bicycles are still usable with solid wooden tires if less comfortable. I have seen a interpretation of the "Davinci bicycle" with a hand made chain. I wonder if leather belts could be another alternative. Dont forget the gear less penny farthing and dandy horse. Simple all wooden scooters are used to move cargo in Africa to this day.

Kieran O'Neill said...

"In some cases, evolution moves organisms in the direction of greater complexity, but in plenty of other cases it’s gone the other direction."

I would say that, over very long time periods, and on average (taking into account the vast diversity of life evolving into both more and less complex forms all the time), that evolution has tended to produce greater complexity.

Some immediate examples I can think of would be the existence of the largest animal ever to live (the blue whale) at the present time, as well as the creature with the most complex brain (although this is more difficult to know for sure from the fossil record, our level of tool use certainly exceeds other creatures).

It's slow, and it isn't the kind of progress the Progressives talk about, but I do think there is a kind of net progress there.

John Bray said...

Fascinating though the subject of home-made automatic-weapons may be, I don't see it being the way forward for any aspiring insurgent. Admittedly, with enough determination, you could produce something like a sten-gun but this would be of little use for anything more than street-fighting/house-clearance (especially using home-made ammunition).

You certainly wouldn't want to go up against anyone who could remove your head at over a hundred metres with factory-produced items. Basically, any well-trained infantry unit should be capable of defeating you - unless you have vastly overwhelming numbers.

Looking at US casualties from the "war on terror", even factory-produced small-arms don't figure all that highly for results. A better use of resources would seem to be IEDs. Alternatively - if you'd rather not get that close - a mortar could be worth looking at. Very inacurate of course but also very distracting for those on the receiving end.

John Michael Greer said...

Glenn, oh, granted. I was mostly thinking out loud. A good industrial chemist with some background in the natural sources of raw materials would be well worth consulting.

Stephen, good points all around.

Kieran, I'd say that it's more a matter of the possible range of complexity expanding. The vast majority of the world's living things, whether you count numbers or biomass, are no more complex today than they were in the Paleozoic; it's just that the upper limit has crept upwards over time.

John, homemade automatic weapons aren't useful now -- given the number already in circulation and the ease with which they can be bought, why bother? The question was whether automatic weapons could be made in the far future in a deindustrial age, and that in turn had a bearing on whether cavalry would be an option in the deindustrial dark ages.

Ricardo Rolo said...

@ Glenn

I'm not a industrial chemist, but I have a degree in chemistry and another in biochemistry and when I was young and stupid(er), I had a side project for years about how to make explosives from relatively easy to find stuff and actually worked on making fulminates and nitrogliycerin/cellulose from relatively easy to find stuff.

The fulminates , as Mr Greer says, are easy to do if you have the patience for the alchemic solve et coagula ( unlike most of the chemists nowadays, i must add ... that is why we invented vacuum driers ;) ). The nitric coumpounds are the tricky part, since you need sulfuric acid to make nitric acid out of nitrates ( being nitric acid a very strong acid, you need a even stronger one to make it ) and, irony of the ironies, you need sulfuric acid to make sulfuric acid out of sulfur, atleast in a usable form ( that is relatively well kept secret ... even the typical high school chemistry books lie blantantly on this part, when they say you only need to mix sulfur trioxide with water to make sulfuric acid. If you try to do that you will get a Venus-like sulfuric acid mist that take ages to settle down, a very nasty situation if you have not made the reaction in a closed vat and pretty annoying if you had the sense of doing it ( since you will need days ( or even weeks ) to let it settle ... I don't want to say much, but the real route to get sulfuric acid out of sulfur trioxide needs sulfuric acid as a catalist :D ). More, you need to mix sulfuric acid with the nitric acid to nitrate stuff ( makes the reaction far faster and more complete ). And all of what I did was made with acess to relatively pure nitrates and sulfur ( I can easily do nitrates out of ashes ... it is not the hardest thing of the world to do a couple of recristalization cycles. Making sulfur is another game, though ), but the energy requirements are not that high as that if you do don't go to the tons area ( in fact a lot of the reactions in the cycle are exotermic making that you will need to cool stuff down instead of getting it hot )

On the conservation issues, well, nitroglycerin is highly unstable and does not age well. Nitrocellulose OTOH can actually be kept in somewhat good conditions for quite a time if you know some tricks to avoid it getting "wet" ( basically the same you need for gunpowder ... my favourite is to put some uncooked rice near it. Rice is highly hygroscopic ( especially if in powder ) as well and will compete for moisture with the nitrocellulose ) .

Well, in resume, in spite of being extremely possible that some people "in the know" being able to do the necessary stuff ( the fulminates, the primers and the smokeless powder ), the relative difficulty of getting sulfur ( and mercury ) added to the sheer ammount of "tricks" you need to know for the whole process ( I am pretty sure that even 95% of the people with a Chemistry degree nowadays would not be able to do nitrocellulose if you gave them sulfur, a generic nitrate ( or even air, since you can make nitrates out of thin air ... if you know even more tricks, have a heating source and pure copper in hand. But you need sulfur for that as well :D ) and cotton, due ot the sheer ammount of little quirks the reaction path has ) would make the explosive and munition business something that only very wealthy people or states could finance ( and would probably force out a new "alchemist" age ) ... as it actually was the case before the XVIII century. And to be honest, I'm seeing this going back to good ol'gunpowder, that is relatively easy to do from really raws materials ( not the todays highly refined "start" reagents ) compared with the nitro and fulminate stuff ...

Renaissance Man said...

The black-powder minnie ball, that extended the range and accuracy of the muzzle-loader to several hundred yards, is what put paid to cavalry as the glorious queen of the battlefield.
This does require a level of technology, the production of steel, lead, and a machine shop to groove the rifles and carve the rifle-butts, but it's well within the ability of a barely competent machinist. Coupled with the simple chemistry you mentioned, caps instead of flintlocks would still be viable.
A lug-bolt system invented in the 1805 (but never adapted) is the principle for breech-loading weapons.
That's why the cavalry of the civil war became little more than raiders, who dismounted to fight.
After that, the most effective cavalry use was as mounted infantry, sword and lances, as romantically beautiful as they appear, are functionally useless against even late-19th century weapons.

John Bray said...

JMG: maybe I could make the point in a different way?

If two groups with equal deindustrial-age resources (material, intellectual or whatever) where to devote these resources into either producing automatic weapons (Group A) or into IEDS (Group B) then I would want to be in group B. With crude automatic weapons I would need to get within maybe 50 metres (optimistically?) of my target and need to be there AT THE SAME TIME as the target. With an IED I would only need to be where the target is likely to be - and at a time when I am nowhere near them.

Even if Group A were mounted on horses or bicycles (with or without automatic weapons) I'd still rate Group B's chances as being better. Even more so if I had my own horse to get around on :o) I suppose I'm just suggesting that the days of the infantry-assault / cavalry-charge may be over - at least as far as the discerning insurgent is concerned.

Any suggestions for what the low-tech, low-carbon-footprint combatant of the deindustrial age will be known as?

Ricardo Rolo said...

And as Glenn had a another post after that one ...

The real bottleneck for having firearms ( especially handheld ones ) is not the chemistry behind the explosives, but the metalworks behind making the gun itself. People tend to forget that in our timeline the gunpowder weapons only gone handheld in the XVI century, exactly at the time when new knowledge on hard metal leagues was being acheived in Central Europe ( another son of that development is the printing press ;) ) and to get automatic weapons you need even more refined smelting knowledge and more exotic adds to you steel ( because automatic weapons can't be fed by the mouth you need extra strong metal in the back ... ). And, as as anyone that knows about Mao's great leaps to somewhere not the front, household metal furnaces are simply inneficent and gigantism is highly rewarded. This would probably mean that below a certain level of society complexeness and of fuel avaliability ( furnaces really need big ammounts of fuel, no matter what fuel you use ), it would be more economical to "degrade" to non auto weapons, then non striated weapons ( those also need strong metal leagues ), then front charging muskets, then handheld small cannons, then bombards, then ( if the thing goes back as much as that ) fuse grenades. I can't give you numbers since metalworking is far from speciality, but I think the basic scheme of things is this one leading that if you're ( as a private citizen ) relying in automatic weapons to stop cavs, you will be in the short side of the stick as soon as the private great ovens bankrupt due to fuel costs ( and we already passed that point a decade or two ago :p )

Anyway on cav warfare, to stop them you only need one of the below: a wall of sharp things ( or a actual wall, like the sandbag walls WW I style or the medieval abbatis ) or enough projectiles per second to make sure they die before they reach you. Both of them can be arranged ( and were historically arranged ) without gunpowder as soon as you can do enough pikes and bows ( or beasts ). In fact, historically gunpowder even gave new life to non-archer cav warfare, because it forced the early musket armies to from static lines ( that could easily be flanked ) or tercios ( that , due to their compactness , were ripe targets for a well aimed frag or limestone cannon shot ), because charging cav warfare was pretty much dead after the string of defeats that charging knights had across Europe from Portugal to Scotland and Russia in the XIV century by varying combinations of pike and shooting troops....

phil harris said...

I generally try to keep my head out of military technology (out of my hands as they say) and comments here have ranged from the present day to the far future.

Thinking about the present day, if you are correct that aircraft carriers have no defence from existing hyper-fast ballistic missiles, I suppose that all USA logistic bases and land-based launch sites, for everything from drones to air-superiority itself, could similarly be taken out? At one fell swoop, no air-superiority over whole regions? There is a limit to the number of retaliatory cruise missiles can be launched from submarines and the latter are not that easily re-supplied. Hmmm...

Also of possible near-future concern there are two other security features of interest already manifest. Firstly, piracy and sea-raiding could become serious matters for many places if the empire's far flung frontier is broken. Secondly, 'mafia' are nightmare social inventions pressing hard just now closer to home in Mexico, and seriously powerful in the largest and probably key European Mediterranean country. And that is leaving aside those others in the fragmented Soviet Union, where countries now appear governed like some latter-day kingdoms. (You can perhaps tell I have been reading Bryan Ward-Perkins The Fall of the Roman Empire!)

John Bray said...

. . the Spanish conquest of the New World . . . Peruvian gold financed . . . 200 years of religious wars that resulted in a Europe free of Muslims for the first time in centuries.

Apologies for earlier mis-reading this statement - I assumed that this was referring to Muslims in Spain. Obviously it can't have been intended to mean that as Muslims had already been defeated in Spain before Peru was even discovered.

Thomas Daulton said...

As with many others, I agree you've earned a bit of a break, JMG! We'll still be here when you get back.

Hey, did I post this before? Here's a guy named "Evan Greer" (any relation?) singing a great old Phil Ochs song which I think well sums up JMG's disappointment with modern liberals and environmentalists.
Evan Greer -- "Love Me, I'm a Liberal" (Cover Phil Ochs)

Also funny you should mention brewing beer. I started my third batch that I've ever tried recently. Here's a good online guide for the beginning beer purist:
How To Brew by John Palmer

I was inspired to pick up a brewing book which was mentioned on The Extra-Environmentalist, a podcast where JMG has occasionally done interviews. Check this out:

Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers

I can't ever take the straight and narrow path when learning a new skill, so after one relatively normal "practice batch", I launched right into some of the herbal recipes. My second batch was "Sage Beer", with a twist of anise. When brewing it, I thought it would be a disaster, the yeast didn't wake up, multiple boil-overs, etc. etc. But somehow after a couple weeks fermenting, it turned out great if I say so myself. If beer is "liquid bread" then herbal beer is like drinking a crisp, flavorful garden salad. Anybody who tastes it says they want me to brew up some more. Plus sage somehow amplifies the intoxicating effects of alcohol, so that Sage Beer stuff really knocks you for a loop!

My third batch is "Dandelion Beer" and it's still fermenting. But a couple of early sips also seem to be wonderfully crisp and tasty.

If you read that "Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers" book, you can easily see what a huge variety of fermented beverages have been invented by mankind -- even in relatively recent American history -- yet all you can find in the stores is ultimately just a few of variations on the same theme.

Just goes to show -- get off yer but and get yourself out of the mainstream consumer culture. There's so much good stuff waiting there outside for you. Yes it involves extra work, uncertainty and messes, but it's worth the effort.

trippticket said...

JMG, off-topic question if you don't mind: I'm reading "The Ecotechnic Future" right now (The Wealth of Nature was incredible!, by the way - I gave 5 copies out as Christmas presents last year) and had a thought I want to run by you while you're on vacation.

In his book "Future Scenarios," David Holmgren talks about his four possible futures as potentially "nested ecologies" - "lifeboats" being prepared at the household level, nested within "earth steward" community systems, nested within "green tech" systems at the bioregional or state level, nested within the "brown tech" system still being clung to by something resembling a federal government. Or some closely related permutation thereof at least.

I'm curious whether you see any mental merit in nesting your future societies in the same way. Some primitive version of an "ecotechnic culture" at the household level, a "salvage culture" at the community level, and so on.

Enjoy your hard-earned break and come back ready to continue leading this rowdy rabble into the future! Please.

Cathy McGuire said...

Thanks for another good post. And I'm glad to hear your writing has been so successful - enjoy your break and we'll look forward to seeing you in October!

DeAnander said...

I've been off in the real world for a while and am just catching up. By the strange synchonicity that pops up now and again, one of the more interesting books I was reading "on vacation" was "Survival of the Sickest," which devotes quite a few pages to the mechanisms of evolution and the *very interesting* new research suggesting that "gene jumping" (mutation-inducing) increases in intensity when organisms are subjected to stress -- i.e. mutation is not purely random but is also a stress response; moreover, there even seems to be some *direction* or *focus* to the gene transfer, as if the organism were "trying" to respond to the stress. You'd have to read that chapter to absorb the full argument, I cannot reproduce it here in a brief comment; but it certainly ties in with JMG's thoughts on the evolutionary process at work in collective organisms (like armies and cultures).

Also read P Bacigalupi's latest depressing doomy juvie novel, The Drowned Cities. If you want a really grim portrait of our post-peak world, it's a pretty good read. But one of those that make me guiltily glad to be over 50...

John Michael Greer said...

Renaissance, as I've said several times already, the most likely role for cavalry in the future is the same role it had in the US Civil War -- that is, scouting, raiding, and the like. As long as firearms of at least the flintlock level remain in use, cavalry aren't going to be able to charge infantry and survive; that doesn't mean they won't be useful in their own place.

John, what makes IEDs so effective now is that the targets are so concentrated -- trucks, tanks, etc. Infantry in open formation can't be blown up effectively with bombs without wasting a great deal of explosive; Furthermore, if you don't have cell phone technology or the like, making them blow up at the right time is a challenge. That's why, though both guns and bombs were invented at the dawn of the gunpowder era and issued to troops (musketeers and grenadiers respectively), the gun won out.

Phil, today's Mexican drug gangs were called Visigoths last time around. Not a new thing at all -- as Toynbee pointed out, you always get those along a fortified border between an imperial power and impoverished client states, and they often play a crucial role in the collapse of empire.

Thomas, no relation that I know of. I have the beer book -- a very useful text!

Tripp, I'll have to read the Holmgren book and see how his concept is developed. Still, the basic idea sounds workable.

Cathy, thank you!

DeAnander, thanks for the recommendations.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

I remember a long time back you posted a link to a US based farm that used PV solar as an off the grid power source. Yeah, there were some deficiencies in generation capacity over winter there for sure.

Anyway, I set the challenge to power this place purely on solar PV alone for a full year. There's been a lot of tweaking to the system to max out the PV solar generation potential since then.

Well, just to keep you and the readers here updated, the results are now in and I failed, but only just! I've had to resort to using a generator to get some charge into the batteries on 25 occasions for the full calendar year. Each occasion uses about 2 litres of petrol which in total is about 50 litres (13.15 US gallons). Not bad and it is a significant improvement on the prior year.

The problem is really that the sun is low in the sky for 3 weeks either side of the winter solstice (21st June) and if it is rainy and/or misty during this period then the system doesn't cut the mustard at all. There were also a couple of 5 day stretches of rainy/misty weather during this period. It can be very humid here over winter (usually >90% relative humidity). High humidity reduces the available sunlight, but also keeps the temperatures fairly mild.

So, another source of renewable energy is required and next season I'll add a wind turbine or two which might just make the final difference.

You said long ago that it takes a long while and a lot of experience to be able to establish and survive on "alternative systems" and I can only concur with this view. It has been hard all the way and the system itself only has a lifespan of between 20 and 50 years.

Still, if it was to all pack it in tomorrow, I'd get up with the sun and go to bed with the dusk. The house would still be the same. It all seems to me like a good excuse to get some extra sleep over winter.

PS: I'm going to try and sell some of my surplus produce at the local farmers market over the next month or so. Should be fun and interesting! If anyone is in the area, I'll drop a comment here with the time, location and date and we can say hello. A discount may apply for ADR readers too!

PPS: I hope that your Autumn is gentler than your summer has been and that your produce is bountiful during this time. Autumn has a growth spurt here just like Spring, so I assume that it is the same thing over your way?

PPPS: Enjoy your well deserved break!



Stephen said...

Curently the nitrates for explosives are made with Haber Bosch process. A very energy intensive process. Prior to 1900 nitric acid was made by reacting with mineral nitrates or salt peter with the sulfuric acid from the smelting of pyrates. So whether the powder smokeless or not the smelly job of farming salt peter from manure will likely return.

Despite having a much larger cartridge the cordite filled .303 Enfield bullets from the 1890's had very similar muzzle velocity and ballistics to the more modern kalashnikov. So there must be allot refinements to the modern powerful powders than simply making nitro cellulose.

Black powder would be definitely be cheaper. Sulfurless black powder is quite usable only slightly less powerful with benefit of being much less smoky.

If fire arms do eventually revert to muzzle loaders or paper cartridges there are are some alternatives to percussion caps and flintlocks. Such as piezoelectric or battery powered spark gaps or pneumatic ignition which would not the manufacture of disposable caps. The fire piston is also an handy alternative to matches:

Minie and nestler bullets are no harder to caster than ball bullets and contrary to common belief also improve the accuracy of smooth bores.

A large calibre air rifle like these could also make a valuable heirloom. If you don't wear out your bicycle pump the only consumable are the lead slugs.

Sooper said...

I disike using the expression "post-industrial" world, since some organized industry existed in the middle ages... Much earlier that the widespread use of fossile fuels. There are also ways of making pretty sophisticated material by forging techniques. Plus,some composites can be prepared without access to large scale industry.
thus, I wouldn't rule out the preparation of weapon-grade
tubes by applying some
technological tricks by-passing smelters.

Odin's Raven said...

Before gunpowder there were bows.

Roman ballistae and medieval crossbows would still be useful for defending fortifications, presumably without requiring great technical or chemical abilities.

It's been pointed out that up to at least Waterloo, longbows would have been superior to muskets in range, accuracy and rate of fire.

Longbows and the more elaborate composite recurved bows of nomad cavalry required a good deal of strength and skill to use them properly. Archers had to be brought up to it from youth. Muskets replaced them largely because it was much easier to recruit lots of unskilled men to stand shoulder to shoulder and fire un-aimed volleys on command.Quantity replaced quality, although discipline and organisation had to be strict.The overall system is more important than a super weapon.

In a post-industrial future modern society, economy and military are likely to go the way of the scythed chariot and the war elephant. The current emphasis on ranged weapons may give place to a renewal of emphasis on hand to hand combat.Large and well organised states may be able to keep large highly disciplined formations such as legions, tercios or musket battalions deploying in 2 or 3 deep lines. Others may revert to more generic men-at-arms, or bashi-bazooks who might normally function as bandits but reluctantly submit to some discipline when in the service of the state. The ineffectiveness of urban militias in fighting professional troops was proved in the Italian Renaissance, so future city states will need some sort of professional troops.

Eventually, things may resolve back into the medieval triplicity of 'those who work', 'those who fight' and 'those who pray.'

Odin's Raven said...

This discussion leaves me with a strange vision of the warfare of the future.

From the trackless deserts of Arabia or the empty steppes of Asia comes a high pitched squeaking and a rumbling rattle. Into view charges the fearsome horde of neo-Mongols or jihadis riding boneshaker bicycles, which they nimbly peddle with one foot whilst steering with the other and waving a handmade musket or AK47 in each hand! Behind them they pull carts containing spare bicycles. At night they slip from the saddle to draw blood from the spare bicycles to sustain themselves ... oh, wait! That won't quite work, will it?

Maybe in Hollywood? After Mad Max, fear the Mad Mullah of Genghistan!

Odin's Raven said...

Here's an assessment of the relative desirability of American states as places in which to experience Collapse.

Only Idaho scores A, and the absolutely worst rating F goes solely to California!

Kieran O'Neill said...

And have a great break!

It is, indeed, a good time to be brewing. I'll be putting a gluten-free IPA in primary tomorrow. It's also a good time for the garden: the tomatoes are about to ripen, the squash is getting bigger, the Autumn crops need thinning.

As for general Peak Oil related information, I found this article from a week ago in which the head of Unilever Europe declared that "poverty is returning to Europe", and that Unilever is shifting its marketing strategies in Europe to those it uses in (third world) Southeast Asia. It's an astonishingly sensible statement, especially from a megacorp.

And on completely different tack, I thought I would share a few sources of artwork and thought which I find to be good companions to both this blog and the Green Wizards project.

The first is the band Dead Can Dance, who just released their first album together in sixteen years. The album, Anastasis, is amazing, as is all their work, but what is most interesting with this work is their explicit goal in working (gently) towards transforming society. In their words, "to offer an olive branch and to create a sense of community, and to provoke people to remember who they are and who they can be and try to find their potential outside of materiality." They are incredibly talented musicians, and draw from a vast array of global and historical musical styles in their work, but also integrate a profound sense of the spiritual.

The other is the Dark Mountain Project, who just released their third book, full of art, poetry, and thoughtful discussions of ecology and collapse.

Again, enjoy the late Summertime, and see you again in the Autumn!

irishwildeye said...

The idea of bicycles in future war was not based on riding into battle but of riding to battle, as JMG suggested bicycle dragoons. There is no need to think about Mad Max fantasy, just look at the Japanese in the Second World War. Or look up bicycle infantry in Wikipedia This is not Hollywood fantasy, it’s history.

Odin's Raven is right the big advantage of horses is that they can provide food (blood and meat) for an army. Their big disadvantages is that they are incredibly expensive in time and resources and much slower than bicycles. No doubt the horse will have a role in future war, but if humans can still make bicycles, the cheapness and speed of the bicycle will trump the horse in many roles.

In some future world horse armies may again dominate the Eurasian Steppes, as Odin's Raven points out a horse army could feed itself on the steppes. But if a future world still has bicycles, a horse army that moved off the steppes would loose the traditional advantage of a nomadic horse army, a bicycle mounted army could easily catch up with a horse army and bring it to battle.

The single greatest advantage of bicycles in such a scenario, is that between wars they could be stores in sheds at zero cost. The horse and the bicycle have the same advantage they give people much greater mobility than they would have on foot. But the bicycle gives much greater mobility than the horse and does so at a fraction of the cost.

Jason Heppenstall said...

Hi John,

Congratulations on getting so much traffic on your site. Your posts are consistently enlightening and thought-provoking, and immeasurably enrich the debate about peak energy and the path ahead.

Seeing as you'll be resting your blogging muscles for a month, why not give a heads up for a few of the other blogs which the Archdruid Report has spawned. I can count several, Link my own included. More nodes to the network ...

Rob Lewis said...

Great post, as usual.

I would note that the DoD is well aware of its serious addiction to liquid fuels, in fact some years ago they hired Amory Lovins (of Rocky Mountain Institute fame) to help them find ways to reduce this dependency.

And I have personal knowledge that they are looking at ways to potentially produce fuels on site using portable biomass reactors and the like. Whether any of these actually bear fruit is TBD.

John said...

I really appreciate your books and blog. You put into words things I have thought about for a long time, after reading books like In The Absence of the Sacred, Where the Wasteland Ends, Starhawk's The Fifth Sacred Thing and the Ecotopia books. Your approach is so level headed it's scary. And I think the scenario you lay out for the future of Industrial Civilization is spot on. What you talk about is scary, but you know the old saying about life, sometimes it can be a bitch. The only thing we can do is try our best to do the right thing, and provide for our family and try to ensure those future generations get their proper due.
There is a brighter side to all of this. I have always felt that Industrial Civilization has an air of unreality to those of us who's sympathies lie with living a more balanced and spiritual and honest life and taking future generations and the other inhabitants we share this planet with into our consideration. It will be a good thing for humanity to return to balance with nature.
I got into an argument with someone who denies Peak Oil is a problem, he claimed that there is more than enough oil to last for centuries, and I said to him "Gods I hope you are wrong. Can you imagine the damage we will inflict on the planet if you are right?" and he said I was an Obama Supporter and an idiot and stormed off.LOL

Ana's Daughter said...

JMG, OT but looks as though you've got a replacement for Jason Godeski at work over on Doomstead Diner. Your latest attacker from The Oil Drum has stepped up from mere ad hominem to actionable libel, and says you're taking a blogcation because you're running away (presumably from his criticism). He's certainly proven that TOD was right to ban him!

John Michael Greer said...

Cherokee, we're still in late summer here, hot and humid and sticky. Autumn's about a month off; I'm no meterorologist, but I won't be surprised if we get a lot of storms along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts and a lot of lingering drought elsewhere.

Stephen, thanks for the data. My guess is that black powder will become the fallback technology, the thing that any future society can manage, and societies that cycle upwards into greater complexity will do more complex things.

Sooper, granted, but industrialism is not just another word for relatively complex manufacture -- it's a specific way of managing the production of goods, relying on economies of scale and nonhuman energy sources. Still, I avoid "post-industrial" because of its previous uses; the term you'll mostly find here is "deindustrial."

Raven, the fact that archery takes years of practice, and musketry can be learned in a few months, is one of the two main reasons why muskets replaced bows; it's just that much easier to replace troop losses and expand an army in a hurry. The other? The fact that once you have guns, armor is a waste of time. Both those will remain true, so I wouldn't get too excited about a neofeudal future.

Kieran, thanks for the links! In such spare time as I have this month, I have a bunch of things I want to do in the garden -- the lima beans are coming in, the carrots and onions are following, and I need to get the cold frame set up to give us greens until the winter solstice.

Irish, you've just drawn up a fascinating setting for a far future adventure novel. The Great Plains here in the US are at least as well suited to horse nomads as the Eurasian steppes, so you have the nomadic raiders of D'kotah up against a kingdom centered in the Ohio valley, let's say, with bicycle dragoons pedaling hard to get to the outpost-city of Meeyaplis...

Jason, if other readers want to post links to their blog here, to provide reading for September, I won't object.

Rob, I've been intrigued by that. The laws of thermodynamics being what they are, my guess is they won't succeed in any large way, but we'll see.

John, good. One of the things I'd like to get across, in the teeth of the pervasive sense of middle class entitlement, is that life can be well worth living even when it's not crammed with consumer crap. Of course plenty of people who hear that will storm off in a huff!

Daughter, yes, I saw that. For those who aren't longtime readers, Jason was a guy who took heated exception to my posts back in the early days of this blog, and used to have a page called "Archdruid Watch" on his own site, where he would post weekly tirades about the evil badness of JMG. It was great fun to read, and it was also a massive boost to my career; he made so much noise about me that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people came to this blog to find out what the fuss was about, and a remarkable number of them stayed to become regular readers. With any luck, this new guy will do the same thing.

DavidEBCN said...


Is insurgence the only effective way to fight against superior armies and avoid the typical Empire's wealth pumps associated with colonies and client states?

What about fiscal desobedience through tax evasion? Being more self-sufficient and less dependant from large corporations products is also a way to "fight"? Something inspired in Satyagraha and the Gandhi's Salt March for instance.

If the end of gasoline warfare means a reduction of empire's capacity to project power, then there should be a rise of local regions declaring independence from metropolis/empire to avoid financial and fiscal asphyxia.

Enjoy the break and thanks for your writing,
David from barcelona

Odin's Raven said...

I'm neither an equestrian nor a cyclist, but I suspect a horse will carry a man over rough terrain where a man would have to carry a bicycle.Of course more bicycles than horses can be more easily transported by ship. On the other hand, a horse may be of more assistance in crossing a deep or flooded river. It's been known for cavalry to line a river to make it easier for infantry to cross in their lee, but I can't imagine bicycles doing that.

Apart from the nomads, cavalry was usually only a small part of most armies, albeit often the decisive part. Horses also had other important functions such as transport and pulling guns. I don't think bicycles could replace them in hauling heavy weights.

There's also the moral effect. It took well trained steady infantry to withstand a cavalry charge, and once the infantry was seem to be wavering the horsemen could probably sweep them away and perhaps start a panic in adjacent units. Bicycles could hardly emulate the terrifying and literally earthshaking effect of a cavalry charge.

The Man on Horseback has long been an emblem of power and authority, capable of inspiring awe and fear. If horses are available, generals and rulers will prefer to ride them rather than bicycles when horseless carriages are no longer available. Even nowadays rulers are only seen on bicycles when they want to give an impression of affable informality, of being one of the common people. Bicycles just don't add dignity to a public image.

Of course if bicycles come to more prominence in warfare we may speculate on further possibilities. Mayhap there could be bicycle chariots, pedaled furiously by charioteers who might feel the lack of the performance enhancing drugs consumed by modern cycling champions. From their platforms leap the Cuchulains and Achilles of the future to confront each other in Heroic combat.Unless spoilsport javelin throwers put spokes in their wheels!

How about improving the cross country and weight bearing performance of bicycles, as with tanks, by having 'bicycles built for two', or four or more, and replacing the wheels with tracks?

OMG! Here come the Pedal Powered Panzer divisions of the People's Republic of Pandaland!

(Irishwildeye, please forgive a little levity.)

Jim R said...

... when it comes to low-tech weapons, of course there's always the trusty trebuchet ...

What's not widely understood is that there isn't really that much energy in a ballistic projectile.

One could reach a similar energy level by relatively simple devices which accelerate the projectile using steam, compressed air, or electric current. The chief disadvantage of these methods is that it is difficult to build a self-contained man-portable device with them.

A crossbow can be pretty scary too. Super cheap and low-energy!

Jim R said...

I see some discussion of chemistry lab techniques in the thread --- when I took chemistry classes, we simply used ice to dilute sulfuric acid. It gives a quick result and avoids nasty boil-overs.

As for making fulminates, thank [$DEITY] that, during my pyromaniac phase, I had no idea how to control the reaction conditions. My attempt failed and I simply ended up with mercuric nitrate. I probably wouldn't be here now to post this remark.

Brother Kornhoer said...

Mr. Greer,

I finally got around to reading David Korowicz's paper about supply-chain collapse due to a financial crisis, and, I have to agree with you - one of the things that government can do is go to business and say, "You will ship this food, you will accept this letter of credit, you will not stop your production line, or we'll nationalize you," just like the railroads were nationalized in the US during World War I. When trust breaks down, there's always the awesome coercive power of the government.

Regarding future warfare, I think infrastructure attacks might loom large in the future. Foreign powers might try to finance or supply far-right groups to attack targets in the US (I say this because the far right has been much more militant and active than the far left in the US over the last 20 years). Such an attack may come at a time of natural disaster and/or be coordinated with an overseas attack, when the military is already stretched to the limit, to force the military and government into a triage situation.

John Michael Greer said...

David, imagine what would have happened to Gandhi if he'd been protesting against Stalin's Russia rather than the British Empire and you'll see pretty quickly where the problems are with those strategies. There are other ways, but nonviolent protest only works when the other side wants to avoid violence.

Raven, good heavens. This is maybe the second time since you started posting here that you cracked a joke. Definitely a positive change!

Jim, but a gun packs a much heftier punch. Crossbows didn't render plate armor obsolete; guns did.

Brother K., thank you. Good to know that somebody else gets it. As for foreign powers financing domestic insurgencies, that gets you a gold star; I suspect it's already happening.

Leo said...

The main problem with figuring out the specific military forms of a post-peak world is that tech will vary widely from both plae to place and time to time. I wouldn't be surprised to see metal armour and guns at the same time again, the 30 years war had cannons, swords, guns and metal armour (it was also curved to deflect bullets) . Which one is used depends entirely on the relative ability of various techs (gunsmithing, bunpowder chemistry, metallurgy etc). As it is guns are highly unlikely to dissapear but quite a lot about them and the surrounding army is highly variable.
september reading. I decided on a weekly update.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Your weather prognosis sounds not good. Hot humid weather is particularly uncomfortable. I'm surprised that this is the case for you that far North in the US. I assume that you have a mountain range to the west of you that traps in the humidity from the eastern ocean and deprives the central plains of rain?

I have Scottish ancestors on both sides (one highland and the other lowland) and always prefer the cooler mountain climate that is prevalent here. Mind you, compared to your location, winters are very mild here. There have been three frosts this year so far which is pretty unusual (usually there are none).

Just wanted to also say how much I appreciate the Druids Egg technique.

Years back, I used to have something like this, developed naturally, but it became broken due to various circumstances and I let it slip through my fingers. I cared too much about things that I should not have cared about, but at the same time did not have the life skills to address other issues. Essentially, I had to lose my naturally developed technique to learn about life. Hard times, difficult stuff, but worthwhile all the same.

Happy holidays!



Johan said...

Well, I was going to say something about the future of warfare, but then I got sidetracked into the TOD Drumbeat discussion… Wow. And then I glanced at Loren's site. Double wow. JMG, I still think your most relevant post ever on this blog is The Twilight of Meaning - it seems to me that things are indeed falling apart, but it's not "supply chains" failing…

I do have something to say about warfare, though: in Sweden, there's currently a bit of discussion of our future combat aircraft. Most of the discussion goes in circles of ever-varying radii, but there are a few military officers providing other perspectives. I've found the most useful to be a set of three basic principles: firepower, protection and mobility. (I don't know if there's a standard expression for this in English.) The shifting fortunes of chariots and infantry can be understood in those terms, for example. There's more it than that, of course, but usually other factors tend to deepen the analysis, not contradict it.

I'm very happy to hear that the fictional scenario has grown - context, context, I want more context! - and even happier to hear the Green Wizard book is coming along.

JMG, may you have a happy and productive TAR holiday!

P.S. The Googletron is getting better, and multi-lingual: the verification word is "iciamage"... Here be a magician!

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Thomas,

Mate, 10 out of 10 for your link to Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers. What a great idea! Have you ever stopped to wonder at the sheer audacity of the people that came up with sage beer in the first place (plus all of the rest)?

It'd be like, "Man, I've got all of this sage, what do you reckon we can do with it? You know, we might just have a crack at making some beer with it."

Pure genius!


Quos Ego said...

Dear JMG,

(great piece of erudition, as always. I do not always agree with you, but it is certainly food for thought)

The ridiculous website set to censure you is a blazing testimony to the insanity of our time.

Here we are, mostly eduacted adults, well learned in simple properties, discussing collapse, misery and death, basically the way our existence is going to end (isn't there something completely absurd about it, by the way?), and yet we can find time to build a whole irate webpage meant to prove that somebody we disagree with is wrong.
I hope future historians discovering the traces of our last steps in the age of prosperity before entering the next are not going to mock us too much.
What will they think about us inditing supercilious diatribes to prove that our view of collapse is better than the one of the neighbor?

I do believe a whole thesis should be written about the psychology of the peakoil community.

irishwildeye said...

My next door neighbour breeds show jumping horses, he tells me that kind of horse could sustainably cover about 50 miles a day for two days in a row and would then need a rest day to recover. To do this sustainably they would also need to be fed grain. The horse might be pushed further than this for a few days, but this would not be sustainable.

This summer I rode 288 miles, over gently rolling terrain, in two days, on a 16 kg British style touring bike. I was carrying about 18 kg of cargo. After 24 hours off the bike I was fully recovered could have done it all over again. So I can cover three times the distance on my bike that my neighbour could cover on his horse. And I am 49 years old, smoked tobacco for 35 years and done no special training for my bike journey.

When I was 26 I once covered 100 miles (on a heavy steel bike with cargo) in 6 hours, without special training. So imagine in some distant future a military unit of young males, specially trained for long distance bike riding, in two days they might cover 500 miles. No horse not even the tough kind they ride in Mongolia would stand a chance of out running a human on a bike.

On the question of a horse being able to go places that a bike would not, this is true, if the terrain gets really, really rough, but quite rough ground can be ridden over on a mountain bike.

On the question of carrying cargo on bikes, see this article about a Portland woman who moves six kids and groceries on a Dutch style cargo bike.
This is a feat to rival a horse.

During the Vietnam Wars bicycle couriers moved loads of 200 kg on modified bikes. In places like China and India heavy loads of cargo are still moved on cargo tricycles.

Odin’s Raven is dead right the horse will endure as a status symbol and expression of power. General Zukov did not ride a bicycle in Red Square in the 1945 Moscow victory parade.

Until Odin’s Raven mentioned it I had not thought of bicycles on ships, but what a superb future raiding system that would be. With a sailing ship, some rifles and bicycles, you could raid a long way inland with bicycles.

(Odin's Raven a little levity is always very welcome in these trying times)

Odin's Raven said...

Humour? Warfare of the future? Here's a military version, showing the Pentagon leading the way, (while your money lasts they can waste it), powered by the renowned 'Desert Ox'.

The original has many supportive comments.

Napoleon remarked that one should never interrupt an enemy whilst he is making a mistake. Those who wish America ill need do no more than watch America destroy itself.

Ian said...

Wow, the last few weeks of comments reading here have been very educational and illuminating, whether it's learning about war in 19th century China or questions of domestic insurgency (both timely considerations).

Anyway, a quibble about nonviolence, JMG. No question, nonviolence is pretty hopeless when it's someone like Stalin holding the cards, but in most cases nonviolence's success relied on people in power resorting to violence rather than avoiding it.

In both India and the U.S., violent assault on nonviolent protesters is what gave the movement teeth, because it effectively shamed the violent in front of people who were horrified with the violence and could exert political pressure on the violent.

That triangular dynamic is important and, in places like Stalin's Russia, entirely absent. If the people taking a beating have no political allies, well, it's just suicide. Contrariwise, if the people in power just don't beat people in public, it's also politically weak.

It surely helped that in both India and the U.S., violence was looming if compromises couldn't be made. That was sort of the hammer to the nonviolent anvil.

So many of those first wave nonviolent protesters aspired to something like military discipline--they trained to take a beating. That kind of stoicism makes a serious impression.

(This sort of thing makes a nice sort of checklist why contemporary 'nonviolent' protest has had so little impact, too. Almost none of the conditions for its success are in place. Nonviolence, though has almost become a cargo cult for some--perform the actions, you'll get the result, right? If it fails it is just because you aren't doing it hard enough!)

Fabrice said...

It's not a comment related to the post. My Grand Father was an Healer of Fire. It's an application of Celtic magic that you probably had never expected. After getting burn, your mind keeps the memory of the pain and suffering.

As I am the only man who knew my grand father and have a descendance, I took the duty and I am now the new Healer.

I have decided to create a blog and even if my English is poor, I have chosen the bardic way. You are mentioned twice on the blog. Feel free to have a look on the left side menu.

Glenn said...

Personal Armour is not dead yet. Yes, foot soldiers gave it up by the end of the 17th century. Cavalry continued to use armour right through the Napoleonic wars. Infantry armour made a come back starting with helmets in WWI. Modern U.S. infantry wear very comprehensive body armour in Afghanistan presently.

Hand carried fire arms do not make body armour irrelevant. There was a period where the abilities of the gunsmith and the powder maker exceeded those of the armourer. At the moment, in major industrial nations, they seem to be about par.

In a de-industrializing future, it might go either way. Little that a man can carry will stop a high velocity rifle bullet at close range. There are many lesser things that armour can protect against. For the soldier, (or perhaps his or her employer) it is a question how much cost and weight (and subsequent reduction in mobility and speed) is justified versus effective protection.

Marrowstone Island

John Michael Greer said...

Leo, granted! The fact that guns will likely be the basic weapon of choice from here on simply settles one variable; the others are still wide open.

Cherokee, warm and humid is standard summer weather from the Great Plains straight across to the Atlantic. You get warm steamy air coming up from the Gulf of Mexico, which is basically one big sauna, and it gets caught by the prevailing westerlies and pushed across the rest of the continent. Up here in the mountains, things are much less brutal than lower down (or further south), but 90 degrees F. and 90% humidity is pretty common in July.

Johan, thank you! Firepower, protection and mobility make a nice set of basic principles; the one thing I'd add to the mix is complexity -- Tainter's analysis of the risks of too much complexity has a great deal of relevance in a military setting.

Quos Ego, I'd love to read that thesis! Wouldn't be too hard to ground it theoretically, either, since there's been a lot of work done on the sociology of deviance and the internal politics of groups that have been labeled deviant by the wider society. I drew extensively on that work for my forthcoming book on the psychology of peak oil. (Have I mentioned that project here? I don't happen to remember.)

Irish, that's interesting, but you're getting perilously close at this point to -- I trust you'll pardon the pun -- beating a dead horse. You've made your point, and I think it's time to draw a line under the military bicycle for now.

Raven, Napoleon generally knew what he was talking about. Still, I suspect those who have reason to hate the United States will take a more active role in its downfall.

Ian, granted. You have to have someone in power who will be seriously embarrassed by violence against a nonviolent minority. That's the reason the Civil Rights movement succeeded -- every time Southern whites beat the crap out of black protesters who were sitting there and singing hymns, the Soviet Union got handed a massive propaganda advantage in the Third World; that's what drove a series of Cold War presidents to send in the troops. Lacking that, the movement would have been targeted for mass lynchings and annihilated.

Fabrice, thanks for the link!

Glenn, I'd point out that it takes a much more advanced technological infrastructure to produce body armor that will stop bullets than it takes to produce bullets. Helmets came back in to protect against shrapnel from heavy artillery fire, not against rifles -- that's why it became universal in the First World War. I'll talk more about the implications of a future without body armor in an upcoming post -- it's a hugely important issue, much more so than most people realize.

Ric said...

An insider's view of our collapsing military: Soap Opera over Kabul.

Have a productive break from TAR.

Steve said...


I hope your harvest season hiatus is restorative and enjoyable. I've been thoroughly enjoying this series of applied imperial collapse lessons, and it's been eye-opening and sobering for me as I've not paid much attention to the history of warfare. Focusing on the details of just how this military (and then political and economic) behemoth is likely to unravel is interesting and disturbing.

My homework for September is to read Mystery Teachings of the Living Earth, which our local bookstore had in stock last week. Good luck with your writing projects, and I'm looking forward to the GW manual when it's published. Now it's back out to the apple tree to get some picked and ready for sauce canning and drying, then add the salvaged heater unit to the solar hot water system, then kraut the cabbages, then mulch the young trees for winter, then insulate the attic... Somewhere in there I'll have to harvest some neighborhood leaves for the garden.

Looking forward to seeing your first post on the other side of the equinox!

beneaththesurface said...

I just got caught up reading the last three weeks of the Archdruid Report. I’m glad you are taking a needed break!

I have found it ironic that sometimes people who are vehemently critical of the US war machine (or for that matter, corporate power and empire in general) simultaneously assert the myth of its omnipotence and invincibility. Sometimes I find that the rhetoric goes something like this: “The corporate-controlled US empire’s capacity for destruction will go on forever and destroy everything it can unless it is stopped NOW by us.” (As if both non-human and other human forces aren’t also major factors with the potential to limit its power, at least when looking through a longer-term frame of time).

Similarly, I sometimes find that the rhetoric of those who oppose unsustainable aspects of society actually reinforce a belief in its permanence, by essentially warning, “If “we” don’t stop this unsustainable societal path, it will continue and continue.”

I sometimes joke that if you don’t like an unsustainable culture, there is at least one wonderful thing about an unsustainable culture, and it’s precisely that: its unsustainability. At least you can count on that what you are critical of won’t continue indefinitely. Though perhaps only a small solace, because a lot of damage can certainly be done in the short-term, and even most of us here on this blog can admit to enjoying certain unsustainable aspects of society.

Garde said...

JMG, I saw a YouTube of some mechanical engineer from the Netherlands who build a bike out of cardboard - even the bike chain parts. IMO the "hard" or should we say expensive part of ecotechnic bikes are probably the lack of properly paved roads.

Besides that, I've taken up sailboat sailing and maintenance, plus gardening. Have a nice few weeks with the new projects!

jrecoi said...

If the technical is relegated to a role of heavy weapons platform, then infantry moving at a similarly fast clip will be needed in order to avoid the mobility issues the combatants in WWI had, where the fastest moving elements were held back by the soldier on foot. A mixture of trucks and bicycles were employed by the Germans and the Japanese in the opening phases of WWII in light of this observation, and future armies basing their mobility on the technical will do likewise.

Technicals have the limitation of requiring a relatively hard surface in order to function. The desert plains of Northern Chad were suitable for this kind of effort. The technical would be useful on similar open terrain, or on semi-decent dirt roads where the open terrain is unsuitable. Denial of this operating requirement is key to a defense against technicals by robbing them of their speed and manuverability.

The enemy of the technical on roads is either the IED or another technical.

A region seeking to make itself unattractive to neighbors fielding technicals would behoove itself to be well learned in the art of IED manufacture and placement, as well as making access to suitable offroading terrain as difficult as possible, as well as denying supplies of fuel.

Mountainous regions are particularly well suited for this kind of defense.

Given some forewarning, locals inhabiting the region can do their bit by simply neglecting the maintenence of their local dirt roads (which deteriorate at an alarming pace, especially after a season or two of rain), and forcing anyone passing through to drive with great and slow care through stretches of potholes and narrows, facilitating ambushes and other attacks.

Powerplants of technicals depend on what is available, but ideally, I think a diesel-electric powerplant would provide a balance between mobile and static needs, as well as a 'retirement plan' for technicals too worn out to be used as battle wagons, yet are capable of being used as a semi-mobile source of electricity and perhaps mechanical power.

The need for communications gear will probably eat up the last semi-conductor production. I expect to see a dwindling number of lightweight yet "black box" radios, coupled with a small and slowly growing number of more servicible vacuum tube radios, their deployment limited by their power supply needs, a dedicated cranked dynamo or a supply train of heavy batteries that are somewhat recharged from a technical's alternator.

Kieran O'Neill said...

Could I just take this opportunity to remind readers that the discussion has veered off into post-peak bicycles once before on this blog, and that JMG drew a line under that, suggesting the creation of a blog dedicated to the topic.

At that time (about a month and a half ago), I created such a blog. Discussion of the post-peak oil bicycle might be better directed there, and I would also welcome anyone interested in writing thoughtful, well considered articles on the topic to join in as an author.

Thomas Daulton said...

Hey Chris (Cherokee Organics) -- thanks for the corroboration!
I'm also reminded of the old saw that "the first man to eat a lobster must have been very brave". Ya never really know until you try!

I had a brief comment about the nonviolence thread... during the first Gulf War, Sojourner magazine published a well-written piece about how the then-'threat' of Iraq could be solved with committed nonviolence on the part of the Iraqi people. They made what I thought was an excellent point that even the most bloodthirsty dictator wants certain things from his population, including economic productivity and obedience. If larger and larger numbers of citizens resist nonviolently, you get into a situation where more and more soldiers, police and government bureaucrats find themselves on the verge of punishing their own brothers, sisters and mothers, and more and more of those enforcers are eventually going to balk. When the average people (who go along with the dictator's will because it's easier), finally decide to deny him their co-operation, the dictator and his regime lose their power. This is basically what happened in East Germany, from what I heard when I was living in Europe.

The East German socialist party leaders were on the verge of ordering a Tiennanmen-square-style massacre of students protesting for freedom in East Berlin universities. But the soldiers who were going to be ordered to carry it out, as well as some of the Party officials, got wind of the decision in the offing and simply said "we're not going to do this, those are our brothers and sons and daughters." And then the Berlin Wall fell, and then the Soviet Union fell.

So this falls into the category, as JMG says, that nonviolence only works when there are political allies who can be appealed to. But I thought it was worth clarifying that the political allies can be the average citizens spread throughout the entire population -- not only some other leader or political party or sector of the country. If a nonviolent protest causes, for example, average soldiers to ignore orders, or average citizens to become tax resisters perhaps, then it may become effective even without a distinct "ally" to point to. Just the average citizens spread throughout the country; even the small cogs in the great wheel can gum up the works if enough of them decide to.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

I have a question about manufacture of ball bearings.

Several people mentioned that ball bearings are difficult to make. I presume that the difficulty is either getting them perfectly round or turning out a batch of exactly the same size. I'm assuming that giving them a sufficiently smooth surface is not the problem as there are a variety of polishing methods that don't require very advanced tech.

Would it be useful to make ball bearings out of a softer material than steel or brass? A very dense hardwood, for instance, or glass or ceramic? Could they be turned on a lathe, or cast, and then polished with lens grinding equipment?

If decently regular nonmetallic ball bearings could be turned out in quantity, but with a short useful life before they flatten, perhaps they could be dumped out of the race and replaced periodically.

Sooper said...

In our world of ecological
interconnection, space limation and
damoclean nukes, your enemy's
mistakes may also doom you.
Thus it may be necessary that
every player regard the others
with a certain equanimity.
Necessary, of course, doesn't
mean probable.

Ric said...

Deborah Bender: I have a question about manufacture of ball bearings.

One low(er)-tech way of making spherical metal objects is a shot tower. Don't know enough metallurgy to know if this is practical for metals harder than lead, but it was the first idea that popped into my head.

Not sure about the longevity of alternate materials. My cousin and I had the bright idea of using BB gun pellets when the back wheel of his bike needed new bearings. They worked great. For about five minutes.

jrecoi: The enemy of the technical on roads is either the IED or another technical.

Or a picket line made from sharpened scrap iron. Make them about 10 feet long, lay out three or four staggered rows 4 feet apart with 4 foot gaps between each picket. My guys on foot can run through the pickets with javelins... er... AK's, RPG's, AR-15's, etc. and take out the "soft targets" (the term of endearment our military uses to refer to people) while the column of technicals is in disarray. Advantage over IED's is that I now have a perfectly usable fleet of technicals.

Dornier Pfeil said...

Ball bearing technology is not a limited technical discipline. They can be made of a very large number of materials. Wikipedia has an entry: 'Ball_bearing'. Manufacture of a ball bearing is also found under the name: 'Ball_(bearing)'.

But bearing science isn't limited to balls alone. In a strictly literal sense bearing technology is as old as the pyramids. Bearings don't have to be ball shaped as seen in another wiki entry: 'Rolling-element bearing'. They don't even have to involve more than two(rolling) elements, as in plain(or plane) bearings, wiki: 'Plain bearing'. The German engine manufacturer Daimler-Benz used plain bearings in their V-12's during WWII, though there is some criticism that this was an open admission of the inability of German industry to make good ball or roller bearings, the lack didn't stop DB from making good engines that did the job expected of them.

De-industrialization will certainly crimp, at a minimum, ball bearing manufacture, but it won't much impact the use of bearing technology in most applications that need it. Bronze/Iron plain bearings can be made with pre-1700th century smithy tech.

Bearing history also at wiki: 'Bearing (mechanical)'.

Special shout out to bicyclists, wiki:

Kieran O'Neill said...

@Ric and Dornier, there's a discussion of historical methods for milling ball bearings (including water milling of marble ball bearings, presumably for more water mills) here

As for defeating technicals, well, caltrops are a tried and true technology, used in modern times by revolutionaries in South America and even strikers in the US.

Bruce The Druid said...

Just a note for the bicycle enthusiasts:

"Swiss Light Bicycle Infantry for Mountain Warfare" on youtube for a video on a modern application of bicycle troops.

sometulip said...

I know you're on holiday but when you get back you might like this

Iran War Plan

Aussie IT said...

This has been a very interesting discussion but I see some thoughts through your essay and the responses that need to be defined. The major issue as I see it is you all are discussing this topic without expanding the framework of warfare.
Warfare is separated into 3 distinct levels each with its own relevance and level of responsibility and national buy in.
Strategic warfare: National Political and Military objectives where the decisions on resources allocation and funding are decided. How much time, money, people and effort are we putting into this war and is it worthwhile for the nation. What weapons do we make and in what quantity. That’s the decisions what we pay our politicians, Very Senior Military and Public Service leaders to make. History decides if they make the right decision or not.
Operational Art: How the Military uses the resources allocated to the theatre of operations to achieve the strategic objectives by planning and co-ordinating multiple and sequential tactical battles.
Tactics: Force through the use of weapons to impose your will on the enemy by killing or incapacitating them.
In Tactics the use of force comes down to combined-arms where each weapons system has its own advantages and disadvantages. I my opinion it is like the game rocks, paper, scissors. This is where a military corp such as infantry, armour (cavalry) and artillery have advantages and disadvantages depending on the terrain and weather.
Manoeuvre warfare is the art of getting your weapons system into a position where it can do the most damage to the enemy with the least cost to you. Your scissor against the enemies’ paper.
The fundamental questions in tactical warfare are:
What do you know what your enemy is up to and where are they?
How do you get into the enemy commanders decision making cycle so he responds to your moves.
The talk about destroying an aircraft carrier by an ICBM is all well and good. Carriers have always been vulnerable to dive-bombing attack. See Midway. The trick is to find the target and there is a lot of space in an Ocean to be searched. If you can see it, you can hit it, you can kill it. The trick is not to be seen in the first place. In a carrier battle group the weapon is not the aircraft carrier it is the aircraft and the missiles on the escort ships. Taking out the Chinese Reconnaissance Satellites is Priority number 1 on Day 1 Minute 1 of any war.
The F-35 aircraft is a design by committee to be too many things for too many people on the one airframe so instead of a pure breed Arabian Stallion you are ending up with a camel. It is also being designed as a peace time weapon which will have a service life of up to 30-40-50 years and see generations of aircrew fly and support it. A war time weapon is designed to be cheap, effective where is absolutely has to be and easy to use by many people with limited training and time.
Another Military Saying is “Quantity has a quality of its own” and I would like to expand it with “It is the sum of quantity and quality that makes the difference”.
From my research I agree with you that the downward spiral after peak oil will be long and bumpy. MHO as human kind we will not completely de-industrialise, at least not for a few thousand years anyway.
Thanks for all your articles and thoughts.