It happened today – April 28, 2016

The battle of Cerignola

There’s a wonderful image in Norman Stone’s counterfactual scenario where Archduke Franz Ferdinand is not assassinated. After the Austrians took Bosnia from the Turks in 1878 and made Sarajevo a showcase for central European civilization, fancy trains “would be saluted by a proud stationmaster in full-dress uniform” as though they were carriages. But that’s how technological change always starts. Very small.

Likewise, when printing first appeared people thought it was just very fast writing. They had no idea how it would contribute to the spread of literacy, of often heretical ideas, of scholarship (because people far apart could compare page and line references and ponder and correct corruptions in texts) and of bureaucracy. And then of course there’s the battle of Cerignola on April 28 1503.

Oh is there? you cry. And I do not respond by asking whether you can possibly be unaware of the victory of the Spanish under Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba and the French under the late Louis d’Armagnac, Duke of Nemours. Well of course they’re all dead now. But he became the late Duke of Nemours during the battle fought near Bari in Southern Italy that didn’t matter a hoot to anyone unless they were killed there.

Except for one thing.

Cerignola is the first battle decided by gunpowder small arms fire. The French forces were augmented by a contingent of formidable Swiss mercenary pikemen, among the most feared foot soldiers in Europe at the time. But their attack, along with French cavalry, was devastated by Spanish arquebusiers behind a ditch.

Larger gunpowder weapons had already played a pivotal role in shattering the feudal nobility, as cannons made the slow tedious business of besieging castles into a quick and lethal process. And in most of Europe, a nobility that had so dominated the king that it had no need to connect with the people found that when the new central state came for them, they had neither connections with nor sympathy from the peasants.

Even in England, control of the artillery by the first Tudor, Henry VII, perilously altered the balance of political power that had existed since at least the sealing of Magna Carta and led to two centuries of efforts to create absolutism. And the inability of the government to take small arms from the citizens was central to the failure of those efforts.

It’s a long, long way from Cerignola to the Somme. The arquebus was unbelievably slow, clumsy and inaccurate by our standards, a smooth-bore muzzle-loader you originally had to fire by putting a burning piece of wood or cord to the touch-hole though later it had a match-lock that held your burning thing for you and lowered it when you pulled the trigger. If it wasn’t wet. Or too windy. Or used up. Or the gunpowder was junk. Or your gun exploded and killed you. But you can’t keep ‘em on the farm once they’ve seen Paris and guns kept getting better even though humans didn’t.

Mass production, steam and then electric power, petrochemicals, all kinds of other things went into the lethal small firearms of the 20th century. And to be sure, even on the Somme artillery was a more deadly weapon than rifles or machine guns, in terms of the share of casualties. But the critical role of small-bore gunpowder weapons in reshaping battlefields first into the colourful squares of eighteenth and early nineteenth century wars and then the “empty battlefields” from the Boer War to Afghanistan, where to be seen was to be killed, had its seeds in a battle no one remembers in a war no one remembers. It always starts small.

Oh, by the way, at the end of that battle, dismayed by the sheer number of dead, the Spanish commander ordered the first “toque de oracion” or “call to prayer,” with three long tones played and then his own troops praying for their dead enemies. Looking ahead to the Somme, and understanding that few have ever died well who die in war, we might well still say “God help us” as gunpowder spreads.


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Come have coffee with me in Carleton Place today!

If you are in or near Carleton Place today come share a coffee with me. See details here.

This is a low-key, impromptu event; we can only have eight or ten people given the venue. If you can’t make it today, worry not. We plan on having such events in various locations throughout the summer.

Today, we will be in Carleton Place, at the Starbucks off Highway 7, between 4:00 and 4:30 pm. It’s free to attend, you just have to buy your own drink.


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It happened today – April 27, 2016

“From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli” is of course the start of the United States Marines Hymn. But what the Derne heck were the Marines doing win the first American victory on foreign soil in Tripoli on April 27 1805?

Well, they were fighting Muslim “Barbary Coast Pirates” in the Mediterranean. These were not freebooters but agents of various North African countries, raiding ships, stealing their cargoes, and ransoming or enslaving their crews. They also raided European and even American towns, especially prizing women and children as captives, unless paid tribute to stay away. Very nasty.

Incidentally while Jefferson was American ambassador to France he and John Adams, then ambassador to Britain, met with the ambassador from Tripoli and asked why they were raiding ships and villages. The reply was that Allah had ordered them to do so. Jefferson was prompted to read the Koran in response, and later when he was president and the Pasha of Tripoli demanded tribute from the United States, Jefferson instead sent the Navy and then the Marines.

In the course of the resulting First Barbary War, a power struggle erupted in Tripoli between Pasha Hamet Karamanli and his brother Yusuf who had deposed him. The Americans thought Hamet was the rightful ruler, or a better one, or at least less trouble, and sent in the Marines to put him back in power.

In the end they took the port city of Derne and forced Yusuf Karamanli to sue for peace. But Hamet never got back his throne. And after the Napoleonic Wars forced the Barbary states to give up piracy, the economy of Tripoli collapsed.

Interestingly, Derna was taken by ISIL in October 2014 and then by the Shura Council of Mujahideen in June 2015. And in 2007 Jefferson’s Koran was used to swear in Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress.

What he thought of its history is not known. But we do seem to be in danger of coming full circle on the larger shores of Tripoli issue.


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It happened today – April 26, 2016

Gestapo headquarters

Here’s a bleak detail about April 26. On this date in 1933 the Gestapo, the original “Secret Police,” was formed. Or rather, the imitation but archetypal secret police. Right down to its name.

I mean that in several ways. For one thing, Gestapo is an acronym for “Geheime Staatspolizei” which actually means Secret State Police. Apparently Hermann Goring wanted to call it the Secret Police Office or Geheimes Polizeiamt but the initials GPA were too like the Soviet GPU.

The Soviets were, in fact, the pioneers of secret police, in a very literal sense. The first one was set up under Lenin (not, please note, Stalin; though an apt pupil and a malevolent genius in his own right, he was in fact following the general direction Lenin laid down not somehow hijacking the Revolution). The “Cheka” created in December 1917, and yes, that was fast, wasn’t just deeply sinister in having, for instance, the power to shoot people without trial. Its very existence was quite literally secret.

Cheka, not incidentally, stands for “chrezvychaynaya komissiya”. Note the unpleasant habit of naming things for the first syllable of various words. The Nazis certainly adopted it. But the Soviets invented it. And it is just one of the many things the Nazis adopted with surprising ease and lack of embarrassment even if they didn’t want the acronyms to match so closely as to draw attention to the matter.

The similarities between the superficially diametrically opposed systems of Bolshevism and Naziism, right down to the cult of the leader Orwell would memorably dub “Big Brother,” ultimately led to the development of the theory of “totalitarianism.” It has some significant flaws, most notably an inability to explain what totalitarians think they are doing that makes it weak in predicting what they will actually do or explaining it afterward. But it has certain real strengths as well.

Right down to their not just having evil secret police, but giving them such similar names that for PR reasons it’s necessary to avoid overlapping acronyms. You’d think there were more important problems with having secret policy. But that they worried about this one suggests that at some level they did note the similarities and found them awkward.


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Judges please be nice

An odd piece in today’s National Post by former federal justice minister and attorney-general Peter Mackay laments that “Over the last decade, the Supreme Court has often seemed at odds with elected governments over legislation designed to emphasize enforcement of the rule of law and reflect the public demand for greater accountability.” The complaint is not odd given how often the Court was at odds with the ministry in which he served or given how often Courts do now make law. What is odd is that he offers no remedy.

In the piece, which I’m not linking to because I can’t find an online version, he complains that judge-made law seems not to meet the needs of the situation: “Lost in the activist celebration in some circles are the basic facts. Recidivism rates in some areas of our justice system are on the rise and public confidence in our system is waning and turning victims in particular away from reporting.” And he notes that judges increasingly go beyond their mandate to strike down blatantly unconstitutional law to override decisions made by legislators elected in campaigns in which those issues were thoroughly debated. But his argument seems to be mostly against the substance of what judges are doing, not the process.

To be sure, his concluding paragraph says “Today one branch encroaches on another over mandatory minimums or truth in sentencing. Let the next activist victory not be at the expense of society’s most vulnerable.” And the first part seems to point to rebalancing our constitution. But the second seems to me to be a plea to judges not to misuse their mighty new powers.

I say “activist” victories should not be at the expense of society’s elected representatives, and of the right of the rest of us to control government and set the terms under which it operates. All three branches of government, that is. Which is why, again, we launched our “True Strong and Free” project to fix the constitution, including restoring balance with respect to the judiciary rather than just begging judges to be nice to us.



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Been there, done that, got the debt

In my latest contribution to the Economic Education Association of Alberta’s “Been There, Done That – Shouldn’t Have” series I recall what happened last time governments started borrowing as if there was no tomorrow and then it came anyway.


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