Historically Speaking: Here Comes the Rain Again

Storms have long shaped human destiny, as Californians know all too well.

The Wall Street Journal

February 15, 2024

Given that much of California was suffering a severe drought just two years ago, it might seem ungrateful to complain about too much rain. Yet Californians have already managed two record-breaking storms this year, and more are expected. The increase in the frequency and strength of these weather events spells trouble for the state. Some worry it is a sign that the “Big One”—a massive once-in-a-millennium storm—is nigh.

A man walks his dog on the edge of the Los Angeles River, Feb. 4.

Scientists think that these storms are growing more severe as a result of climate change, but mythical stories about destructive floods have haunted humans for eons, from the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh in 2000 B.C. to the biblical story of Noah and his ark.

Thousands of years of accumulated climate records combined with modern computing methods have led to new insights for the role rain has played in shaping human destiny. For example, excessive rain can now be added to the list of reasons behind the collapse of the Roman Empire. Apparently the final decades of the fifth century were unusually wet. Harvests failed and granaries rotted, setting off a cataclysmic chain of famines, wars and mass migration that hastened the empire’s demise.

Abnormal rainfall needn’t spell human disaster. In the early 13th century, 15 consecutive years of unprecedented rainfall turned the barren Mongolian steppe into fertile grassland. The region could finally feed the massive armies that allowed Genghis Khan to pursue his dream of a Mongol empire. But the intensely wet spring of 1242 may have pushed his descendants to abruptly leave Central Europe. The Mongol cavalry could seemingly defeat any foe except the bottomless mud of the Hungarian plain.

A series of engravings made for the first edition of the ‘Liber Genesis,’ 1612

A recurring theme in most Great Flood myths is how destruction can be creative; the washing away of the past being necessary for a redemptive transformation. A real-life example can be seen in Europe’s response to the crisis of 1816—the so-called Year Without a VolSummer. The 1815 eruption of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia ejected a huge cloud of sulfate gases into the atmosphere and created an unseasonable chill in much of the Northern Hemisphere. Endless rain watered already sodden fields. Communities starved; typhus outbreaks infected millions of people; rioting became endemic.

The sheer scale of the human emergency forced a reconceptualization in Britain and elsewhere of the purpose of government. No longer could it be concerned only with taxes, laws and diplomacy. The modern state must also consider public health, public administration and public responsibility.

California’s Great Flood of 1862, which remains the state’s worst disaster, was another catalyst for change. The storm began in late 1861 and lasted eight weeks. California’s Central Valley became an inland sea. At least 4,000 people died and a quarter of the state’s economy was destroyed. The Sacramento government relocated to San Francisco, which was also partially underwater.

The robust reconstruction efforts afterward marked a shift in attitude. Californians erected new flood defenses and instituted better building regulations. Sacramento rose again, literally 10 feet higher than before. The infrastructure may be up to 150 years old, but it is still doing its job. No matter what the rain brings, the answer isn’t an ark. It is being prepared.

Historically Speaking: The Winning Ways of Moving the Troops

Since the siege of Troy, getting armed forces into battle zones quickly and efficiently has made a decisive difference in warfare

The Wall Street Journal

May 6, 2021

The massing of more than 100,000 Russian soldiers at Ukraine’s border in April was an unambiguous message to the West: President Putin could dispatch them at any moment, if he chose.

How troops move into battle positions is hardly the stuff of poetry. Homer’s “The Iliad” begins with the Greeks having already spent 10 years besieging Troy. Yet the engine of war is, quite literally, the ability to move armies. Many scholars believe that the actual Trojan War may have been part of a larger conflict between the Bronze Age kingdoms of the Mediterranean and a maritime confederacy known as the Sea Peoples.

The identity of these seafaring raiders is still debated, but their means of transportation is well-attested. The Sea Peoples had the largest and best fleets, allowing them to roam the seas unchecked. The trade network of the Mediterranean collapsed beneath their relentless attacks. Civilization went backward in many regions; even the Greeks lost the art of writing for several centuries.


The West recovered and flourished until the fifth century, when the Romans were overwhelmed by the superior horse-borne armies of the Vandals. Their Central European horses, bred for strength and stamina, transformed the art of warfare, making it faster and more mobile. The invention of the stirrup, the curb bit, and finally the war saddle made mobility an effective weapon in and of itself.

Genghis Khan understood this better than any of his adversaries. His mounted troops could cover up to 100 miles a day, helping to stretch the Mongol empire from the shores of eastern China to the Austrian border. But horses need pasture, and Europe’s climate between 1238 to 1242 was excessively wet. Previously fertile plains became boggy marshes. The first modern invasion was stopped by rain.

Bad weather continued to provide an effective defense against invaders. Napoleon entered Russia in 1812 with a force of over 500,000. An unseasonably hot summer followed by an unbearably cold winter killed off most of his horses, immobilizing the cavalry and the supply wagons that would have prevented his army from starving. He returned with fewer than 20,000 men.

The reliance on pack animals for transport meant that until the Industrial Revolution, armies were no faster than their Roman counterparts. The U.S. Civil War first showed how decisive railroads could be. In 1863 the Confederate siege of Chattanooga, Tenn., was broken by 23,000 Federal troops who traveled over 1,200 miles across seven states to relieve Union forces under General William Rosecrans.

The Prussians referred to this kind of troop-maneuvering warfare as bewegungskrieg, war of movement, using it to crushing effect over the less-mobile French in the Franco-Prussian War. In the early weeks of World War I, France still struggled to mobilize; Gen. Joseph S. Gallieni, the military governor of Paris, famously resorted to commandeering Renault taxicabs to ferry soldiers to the Battle of the Marne.

The Germans started World War II with their production capacity lagging that of the Allies; they compensated by updating bewegungskrieg to what became known as blitzkrieg, or lightning strike, which combined speed with concentrated force. They overwhelmed French defenses in six weeks.

In the latter half of the 20th century, troop transport became even more inventive, if not decisive. Most of the 2.7 million U.S. soldiers sent into the Vietnam War were flown commercial. (Civilian air stewardesses flying over combat zones were given the military rank of Second Lieutenant.)

Although future conflicts may be fought in cyberspace, for now, modern warfare means mass deployment. Winning still requires moving.