Caustic comebacks have been exchanged between military leaders for millennia, from the Spartans to World War II
August 6, 2020
In the center of Bastogne, Belgium (pop. 16,000), there is a statue of U.S. Army General Anthony C. McAuliffe, who died 45 years ago this week. It’s a small town with a big history. Bastogne came under attack during the final German offensive of World War II, known as the Battle of the Bulge. The town was the gateway to Antwerp, a vital port for the Allies, and all that stood between the Germans and their objective was Gen. McAuliffe and his 101st Airborne Division. Despite being outnumbered by a factor of four to one, he refused to surrender, fighting on until Gen. George Patton’s reinforcements could break the siege.
While staving off the German attack, Gen. McAuliffe uttered the greatest comeback of the war. A typewritten ultimatum from Commander Heinrich von Lüttwitz of the 47th German Panzer Corps gave him two hours to surrender the town or face “annihilation.” With ammunition running low and casualties mounting, the general made his choice. He sent back the following typed reply:
December 22, 1944
To the German Commander,
N U T S !
The American Commander
The true laconic riposte is extremely rare. The Spartans, whose ancient homeland of Lakonia inspired the term “laconic,” were masters of the art. When Philip II of Macedon ordered them to open their borders, he warned them, “For if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people and raze your city.” According to the later account of the Greek philosopher Plutarch, they sent back a one-word message: ‘If’.
Once the age of the Spartans passed, it took more than a millennium for the laconic comeback to return in earnest. The man most responsible was a colorful Teutonic knight called Götz von Berlichingen, who participated in countless German conflicts, uprisings and skirmishes, including the Swabian War between the Hapsburgs and the Swiss. He lost a hand to a cannonball and wore an iron prosthesis (hence his nickname, Götz of the Iron Hand). In 1515, sick of trading insults with an opponent who wouldn’t come out to fight, Götz abruptly ended the conversation with: “soldt mich hinden leckhenn,” which literally meant “kiss my ass.”
He recorded the encounter in his memoirs, but it remained little known until Johann Wolfgang von Goethe adapted Götz’s autobiography into a successful play in 1773. From then on, the insult was popularly known in Germany as a “Swabian salute.”
In his novel “Les Misérables,” Victor Hugo—possibly inspired by Goethe—immortalized the French defeat in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo with a scene of spectacular, if laconic, defiance that incorporated France’s most common expletive. According to Hugo, Gen. Pierre Cambronne, commander of Napoleon Bonaparte’s Imperial Guard, fought to the last syllable in the face of overwhelming force. Encircled by the British army, “They could hear the sound of the guns being reloaded and see the lighted slow matches gleaming like the eyes of tigers in the dusk. An English general called out to them, ‘Brave Frenchmen, will you not surrender?’ Cambronne answered, ‘Merde’” (that is, “shit”).
The scene’s veracity is still hotly debated, the fog of war making memories hazy. But Cambronne—who survived—later disavowed it, especially after “le mot de Cambronne’’ (Cambronne’s word) became a common euphemism for the profanity.
U.S. antiterror efforts have cost nearly $6 trillion since the 9/11 attacks. Earlier governments from the ancient Greeks to Napoleon have had to get creative to finance their fights
The successful operation against Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is a bright spot in the war on terror that the U.S. declared in response to the attacks of 9/11. The financial costs of this long war have been enormous: nearly $6 trillion to date, according to a recent report by the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs at Brown University, which took into account not just the defense budget but other major costs, like medical and disability care, homeland security and debt.
War financing has come a long way since the ancient Greeks formed the Delian League in 478 B.C., which required each member state to contribute an agreed amount of money each year, rather than troops,. With the League’s financial backing, Athens became the Greek world’s first military superpower—at least until the Spartans, helped by the Persians, built up their naval fleet with tribute payments extracted from dependent states.
The Romans maintained their armies through tributes and taxes until the Punic Wars—three lengthy conflicts between 264 and 146 B.C.—proved so costly that the government turned to debasing the coinage in an attempt to increase the money supply. The result was runaway inflation and eventually a sovereign debt crisis during the Social War a half-century later between Rome and several breakaway Italian cities. The government ended up defaulting in 86 B.C., sealing the demise of the ailing Roman Republic.
After the fall of Rome in the late fifth century, wars in Europe were generally financed by plunder and other haphazard means. William the Conqueror financed the Norman invasion of England in 1066 the ancient Roman way, by debasing his currency. He learned his lesson and paid for all subsequent operations out of tax receipts, which stabilized the English monetary system and established a new model for financing war.
Taxation worked until European wars became too expensive for state treasuries to fund alone. Rulers then resorted to a number of different methods. During the 16th century, Philip I of Spain turned to the banking houses of Genoa to raise the money for his Armada invasion fleet against England. Seizing the opportunity, Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I’s chief spymaster, sent agents to Genoa with orders to use all legal means to sabotage and delay the payment of Philip’s bills of credit. The operation bought England a crucial extra year of preparation.
In his own financial preparations to fight England, Napoleon had better luck than Philip I: In 1803 he was able to raise a war chest of over $11 million in cash by selling the Louisiana Territory to the U.S.
Napoleon was unusual in having a valuable asset to offload. By the time the American Civil War broke out in 1861, governments had become reliant on a combination of taxation, printing money or borrowing to pay for war. But the U.S. lacked a regulated banking system since President Andrew Jackson’s dismantling of the Second Bank of the United States in the 1830s. The South resorted to printing paper money, which depreciated dramatically. The North could afford to be more innovative. In 1862 the financier Jay Cooke invented the war bond. This was marketed with great success to ordinary citizens. At the war’s end, the bonds had covered two-thirds of the North’s costs.
Incurring debt is still how the U.S. funds its wars. It has helped to shield the country from the full financial effects of its prolonged conflicts. But in the future it is worth remembering President Calvin Coolidge’s warning: “In any modern campaign the dollars are the shock troops…. A country loaded with debt is devoid of the first line of defense.”
Today’s gyms, which depend on our vanity and body envy, are a far cry from what the Greeks envisioned
Going to the gym takes on a special urgency at this time of year, as we prepare to put our bodies on display at the pool and beach. Though the desire to live a virtuous life of fitness no doubt plays its part, vanity and body envy are, I suspect, the main motivation for our seasonal exertions.
The ancient Greeks, who invented gyms (the Greek gymnasion means “school for naked exercise”), were also body-conscious, but they saw a deeper point to the sweat. No mere muscle shops, Greek gymnasia were state-sponsored institutions aimed at training young men to embody, literally, the highest ideals of Greek virtue. In Plato’s “The Republic,” Socrates says that the two branches of physical and academic education “seem to have been given by some god to men…to ensure a proper harmony between energy and initiative on the one hand and reason on the other, by tuning each to the right pitch.”
Physical competition, culminating in the Olympics, was a form of patriotic activity, and young men went to the gym to socialize, bathe and learn to think. Aristotle founded his school of philosophy in the Lyceum, in a gymnasium that included physical training.
Earlier this month, Israel commemorated the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April 1943. The annual Remembrance Day of the Holocaust and Heroism, as it is called, reminds Israelis of the moral duty to fight to the last.
The Warsaw ghetto battle is one of many doomed uprisings across history that have cast their influence far beyond their failures, providing inspiration to a nation’s politics and culture.
Nearly 500,000 Polish Jews once lived in the ghetto. By January 1943, the Nazis had marked the surviving 55,000 for deportation. The Jewish Fighting Organization had just one machine gun and fewer than a hundred revolvers for a thousand or so sick and starving volunteer soldiers. The Jews started by blowing up some tanks and fought on until May 16. The Germans executed 7,000 survivors and deported the rest.
Other doomed uprisings have also been preserved in art. The 48-hour Paris Uprising of 1832, fought by 3,000 insurrectionists against 30,000 regular troops, gained immortality through Victor Hugo, who made the revolt a major plot point in “Les Misérables” (1862). The novel was a hit on its debut and ever after—and gave its world-wide readership a set of martyrs to emulate.
Even a young country like the U.S. has its share of national myths, of desperate last stands serving as touchstones for American identity. One has been the Battle of the Alamo in 1836 during the War of Texas Independence. “Remember the Alamo” became the Texan war cry only weeks after roughly 200 ill-equipped rebels, among them the frontiersman Davy Crockett, were killed defending the Alamo mission in San Antonio against some 2,000 Mexican troops.
The Alamo’s imagery of patriotic sacrifice became popular in novels and paintings but really took off during the film era, beginning in 1915 with the D.W. Griffith production, “Martyrs of the Alamo.” Walt Disney got in on the act with his 1950s TV miniseries, “ Davy Crockett : King of the Wild Frontier.” John Wayne’s 1960 “The Alamo,” starring Wayne as Crockett, immortalized the character for a generation.
Wayne said that he saw the Alamo as “a metaphor of America” and its will for freedom. Others did too, even in very different contexts. During the Vietnam War, President Lyndon Johnson, whose hometown wasn’t far from San Antonio, once told the National Security Council why he believed U.S. troops needed to be fighting in Southeast Asia: “Hell,” he said, “Vietnam is just like the Alamo.”
Generals have launched spring offensives from ancient times to the Taliban era
‘When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding; Sweet lovers love the spring,” wrote Shakespeare. But the season has a darker side as well. As we’re now reminded each year when the Taliban anticipate the warm weather by announcing their latest spring offensive in Afghanistan, military commanders and strategists have always loved the season, too.
The World War I poet Wilfred Owen highlighted the irony of this juxtaposition—the budding of new life alongside the massacre of those in life’s prime—in his famous “Spring Offensive”: “Marvelling they stood, and watched the long grass swirled / By the May breeze”—right before their deaths.
The pairing of rebirth with violent death has an ancient history. In the 19th century, the anthropologist James George Frazer identified the concept of the “dying and rising god” as one of the earliest cornerstones of religious belief. For new life to appear in springtime, there had to be a death or sacrifice in winter. Similar sacrifice-and-rejuvenation myths can be found among the Sumerians, Egyptians, Canaanites and Greeks.
Mediterranean and Near Eastern cultures saw spring in this dual perspective for practical reasons as well. The agricultural calendar revolved around wet winters, cool springs and very hot summers when almost nothing grew except olives and figs. Harvest time for essential cereal crops such as wheat and barley took place in the spring. The months of May and June, therefore, were perfect for armies to invade, because they could live off the land. The Bible says of King David, who lived around 1,000 B.C., that he sent Joab and the Israelite army to fight the Ammonites “in the spring of the year, when kings normally go out to war.”
It was no coincidence that the Romans named the month of March after Mars, the god of war but also the guardian of agriculture. As the saying goes, “An army fights on its stomach.” For ancient Greek historians, the rhythm of war rarely changed: Discussion took place in the winter, action began in spring. When they referred to a population “waiting for spring,” it was usually literary shorthand for a people living in fear of the next attack. The military campaigns of Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) into the Balkans, Persia and India began with a spring offensive.
In succeeding centuries, the seasonal rhythms of Europe, which were very different from those of warmer climes, brought about a new calendar of warfare. Europe’s reliance on the autumn harvest ended the ancient marriage of spring and warfare. Conscripts were unwilling to abandon their farms and fight in the months between planting and harvesting.
Gustavus died before he could fully implement his ideas. This revolution in military affairs fell instead to Frederick the Great, king of Prussia (1712-1786), who turned military life into a respectable upper-class career choice and the Prussian army into a mobile, flexible and efficient machine.
Frederick believed that a successful army attacks first and hard, a lesson absorbed by Napoleon a half century later. This meant that the spring season, which had become the season for drilling and training in preparation for summer campaigning, became a fighting season again.
But the modern iteration of the spring offensive is different from its ancient forebear. Its purpose isn’t to feed an army but to incapacitate enemies before they have the chance to strike. The strategy is a risky gambler’s throw, relying on timing and psychology as much as on strength and numbers.
For Napoleon, the spring offensive played to his strength in being able to combine speed, troop concentration and offensive action in a single, decisive blow. Throughout his career he relied on the spring offensive, beginning with his first military campaign in Italy (1796-7), in which the French defeated the more-numerous and better-supplied Austrians. His final spring campaign was also his boldest. Despite severe shortages of money and troops, Napoleon came within a hair’s breadth of victory at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815.
The most famous spring campaign of the early 20th century—Germany’s 1918 offensive in World War I, originated by Gen. Erich Ludendorff—reveals its limitations as a strategy. If the knockout blow doesn’t happen, what next?
In this century, the Taliban have found their own brutal way to renew the ancient tradition—with the blossoms come the bombs and the bloodshed.
Sharpshooters helped turn the course of World War II 75 years ago at the Battle of Stalingrad
The Battle of Stalingrad during World War II cost more than a million lives, making it one of the bloodiest battles in human history. The death toll began in earnest 75 years ago this week, after the Germans punched through Soviet defenses to reach the outskirts of the city. Once inside, however, they couldn’t get out.
With both sides dug in for the winter, the Russians unleashed one of their deadliest weapons: trained snipers. By the end of the war, Russia had trained more than 400,000 snipers, including thousands of women. At Stalingrad, they had a devastating impact on German morale and fighting capability. Continue reading…
Making a stable home for Syrians so they do not have to flee seems beyond reach, but can it be done by negotiating with ISIS? Tim Cross, Kevin Maguire, Dr Amanda Foreman, and Haras Rafiq discuss.
News of the latest theft of sensitive American information— this time of some 4 million records from the federal government’s Office of Personnel Management, allegedly by Chinese hackers—highlights the unfortunate truth about defensive walls. They may offer great psychological comfort, whether as firewalls in the online world or stone walls and natural barriers in the real one, but they rarely work.
In the Book of Joshua, the Israelites engineered a brilliant victory by stamping their feet for seven days and blasting the walls of Jericho with their trumpets. In “The Aeneid,” Virgil described how the Trojans brought about their own downfall by bringing the famous wooden horse inside their gates. In his monumental “The Histories,” Herodotuslauded the courageous but futile last stand of the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae (480 B.C.) after they were betrayed by Ephialtes of Malis, who showed the Persians a secret route through the mountains that led to the back of the Greek lines. But these striking failures didn’t deter subsequent generations from believing that walls could keep them safe.
MORE THAN 5,000 people have died in Ukraine since the start of Russia’s annexation and despoilment campaign. It is not as though the EU and the US have looked the other way during this bloodshed; it’s just that every attempt to engage or contain Russia has so far ended in failure.
Does Russia’s dismantling of Ukraine mean that the Cold War has resumed after a 25-year hiatus? Or is it a new Cold War with America? Or a neo-Cold War against liberal democracies, or a frozen conflict with Nato, or just a regional conflict within the old Soviet bloc?
The reason the categorisation is so important is that the naming of the crisis brings with it a set of ideological and practical responses.
The term “Cold War” carries the unmistakeable baggage of an existential conflict between irreconcilable systems of government. It implies that democracy itself is once again on trial for its life. This is all rather unfortunate timing considering that the major democracies are still reeling from the financial crisis of 2007-8, and in many cases have yet to prove themselves capable of restoring public confidence or fiscal order.