Courtesy of Wikimedia.

When Brazil Briefly Became a Leading Naval Power

Wikipedia’s latest Featured Article highlights an unusual episode of the early 20th century: Brazil’s acquisition of two of the largest and most cutting-edge battleships in the world: the Minas Geraes and São Paulo (former pictured).

Brazil was only the third country, after the U.K. and the U.S., to have the revolutionary “dreadnought” class (called the Minas Geraes class in Brazil) — ahead of major powers like France, Germany, Japan, and Russia. Its high profile purchase not only reflected the country’s growing wealth and prestige, but its aspirations of becoming a respected world power.

The ships were an international media sensation, not only for their power and sophistication, but out of surprise that Brazil, of all places, should come to possess them. (In fact, it was initially widely speculated that Brazil was only purchasing the ships on behalf of another power, with each major power pointing fingers at one another as the true buyer.) Upon their completion and delivery in 1910, the U.S. and other powers began courting Brazil as a potential ally, no doubt giving the country the sort of national pride that had partly motivated this move.

This event sparked another lesser known event in the 20th century: the great South American dreadnought race, wherein rivals Argentina and Chile — among the richest and most powerful countries in Latin America — worked to acquire powerful battleships of their own (other participants included Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela). Like Brazil, each country acquired two powerful dreadnoughts of their own, but ultimately these behemoths would remain as white elephants: symbolically impressive, by strategically unnecessary. After seeing little action, all the ships built in the race would end up being sold or scrapped by the mid-20th century — but not without giving their respective countries a significant, though costly, boost in global prestige and status.

Haiti’s Imposing Citadelle Laferrière

Some of the largest and most sophisticated fortresses in the Western Hemisphere can be found in Haiti, of which the most famous is Citadelle Laferrière. Located in the north of the country, this defense network was built not by the powerful French Empire that ruled this lucrative colony with an iron first, but by the newly freed Haitians themselves.

Citadelle Laferrière

Citadelle Laferrière (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Shortly after achieving independence in the early 19th century, Henri Christophe, a former slave and key leader in the Haitian Revolution, briefly took control of the northern part of the country as a self-appointed king. Like most Haitians, he knew full well how shaky the country’s newfound freedom was: it was second only to the United States in liberating itself from European colonialism in the hemisphere. It was history’s first successful slave revolt and first black republic, having managed to fight off three leading powers (France, Britain, and Spain). Needless to say, these factors did not endear the Haitians to the European-dominated global system. Continue reading

Foreigners of the American Revolution: The Hessians

Hessians. (

During the American Revolutionary War, Great Britain tried to shore up its small troop numbers in North America by hiring German mercenaries, known collectively as Hessians, after the state that contributed the largest contingent, Hesse-Kassel. (King George III had German roots, including a royal title within the Holy Roman Empire, and was thus able to pull some strings with various German princes.)

Numbering around 30,000, the Hessians made up one-quarter of Britain’s forces in the war, and fought as distinct units led by their own commanders, albeit under overall British control. Participating in almost every major campaign, they were a visible presence in the conflict, and were proficient fighters with a fearful reputation (among both Loyalists and Patriots).

But despite their military advantage, and the fact that mercenaries were standard in European warfare at the time, the Hessians were a huge public relations disaster for the British. In fact, their use was one of the main factors that convinced many Americans to fight for the Patriot cause (at the start of the war, the majority of colonials, including many Founding Fathers, merely wanted greater rights and autonomy, rather than outright independence).

The reasons for this are twofold. Continue reading

The Bureaucrats Who Singled Out Hiroshima for Destruction

To mark the anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Australian historian and author Paul Ham penned an article at The Atlantic that explores the debates and discussions among U.S. scientists, officials, and military officers regarding the fateful use of these new weapons of mass destruction.

It is both fascinating and chilling to see all the different ways in which the participants justified one position or another, and how this juxtaposes with their own private remarks or writings (for example, despite the cold calculus and pragmatism that characterized the decision-making process, at least some of those involved admitted privately to concerns about the moral and ethical consequences). Continue reading

The 100th Anniversary of the U.S. Invasion of Haiti

History has not been kind to Haiti. As the world’s first black republic, and the only nation founded by a successful slave revolt, it was regarded with contempt by world powers from the very beginning. From France’s onerous debts, to the U.S.’ repeated interference in domestic affairs, this poor yet proud nation has endured countless threats to sovereignty and prosperity — and little recognition of it.

It would likely surprise most Americans to know that their small Caribbean neighbor, rarely more than a footnote in public consciousness let alone government policy, has been repeatedly invaded, occupied, or otherwise meddled with by the U.S. since the early 20th century. In fact, as the Washington Post reminds us, it was 100 years ago today that President Woodrow Wilson — who had then-recently championed liberal, democratic values, such as self-determination, in Europe initiated an almost two-decade-long occupation of Haiti.

Perhaps to its credit, the U.S. State Department’s Office of the Historian is pretty candid about America’s longstanding interests in the country, and the true motivations of its intervention. Continue reading

On this day in 1914…

…Austria-Hungary invaded Serbia and triggered the series of alliances and defense pacts that ignited the First World War.

Despite playing a role in setting off the war, both nations would become overshadowed by the larger players that immediately became involved, namely Germany, France, the U.K., and Russia.

After putting up stiff resistance for the first year, the Kingdom of Serbia was conquered during the course of 1915 and occupied by Austro-Hungarian forces until the war’s end in 1918. Serbia lost more than 1.1 million people, including 25 percent of all troops, 16-27 percent of its overall population and 60 percent of its males. Proportionally, it suffered more losses than any other country involved (in this regard, the Ottoman Empire ranks second, losing 13-15 percent of its population, followed by Romania, an Entente member, at 7-9 percent). Continue reading

The Last Military Casualties of War

At 9:44 p.m. on July 27, 1953, Harold Smith had just 16 more minutes of the Korean War to survive before a ceasefire came into effect at 10:00 p.m. You can imagine this 21-year old Marine from Illinois out on combat patrol that evening, looking at his watch, mentally ticking down the seconds. Suddenly, Smith tripped a land mine and was fatally wounded. As one soldier recalled, “I was preparing to fire a white star cluster to signal the armistice when his body was brought in”.

Twenty-two years later, on April 29, 1975, Darwin Judge and Charles McMahon were serving as Marine guards near Saigon in South Vietnam. Judge was an Iowa boy and a gifted woodworker. His buddy, McMahon, from Woburn, Massachusetts, was a natural leader. “He loved the Marines as much as anybody I ever saw in the Marines”, said one friend. They had only been in South Vietnam for a few days. At 4:00 a.m. on April 29, a communist rocket struck their position and the two men died instantly.

On the early evening of November 14, 2011, David Hickman was traveling in an armored truck through Baghdad. Hickman, an army specialist from North Carolina, had been in ninth grade when the Iraq War started in 2003. A massive explosion ripped into Hickman’s truck. It was a roadside bomb—the signature weapon of Iraqi insurgents. Hickman was grievously wounded. The next day, just before midnight, the Army visited Hickman’s parents in North Carolina to tell them their son was dead.

Smith, Judge, McMahon, and Hickman were the final American combat fatalities in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq, respectively. An unknown soldier will have the same fate in Afghanistan.

These men are the nation’s last full measure of devotion. The final casualty in war is uniquely poignant. It highlights the individual human price of conflict. It signifies the aggravated cruelty of near-survival. It has all the random arbitrariness of a lottery. The Soviet-made 122 mm rocket that killed Judge and McMahon in 1975 was famously inaccurate. It could have landed anywhere in their vicinity. But it fell just a few feet from the Marines. The sergeant who found their bodies wondered, “Why them and not me?”

Most of all, the final casualty underscores the value of ending a conflict. If the United States could have resolved the wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq earlier—even just a few minutes earlier—Smith, Judge, McMahon, and Hickman’s lives would have been the first to be spared.

Concluding the fighting has particular urgency in a war without victory. As former navy lieutenant John Kerry remarked during congressional testimony on Vietnam in 1971, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

 — Dominic Tierney, “Did America WIn or Lose the Iraq War?“, The Atlantic

Where All of History’s Nukes Have Been Detonated

Since the first atomic bomb went off in 1945, close to 2,500 of these destructive weapons have been tested (and in just two cases, used militarily) in one form or another. Citing data from the Johnston’s Archive of Nuclear Weapons, Bill Rankin of Radical Cartography has put together a map showing the location and magnitude of every known nuclear explosion on Earth. Here it is below (click the image to view it larger).

Note the uncertainty regarding South Africa and Israel; the former was in possession of working nuclear weapons until the end of Apartheid, though whether it tested any remains unknown. The latter is widely known to have a stockpile of weapons of mass destruction, though it pursues an official policy of “strategic ambiguity” on the matter (neither confirming nor denying the existence of such weapons. The atmosphere test that occurred southeast of South Africa in 1979 is believed to have been conducted by one or both these countries (or possibly neither — see Vela Incident).

Here is more analysis from the Washington Post, from where I derived the map:

More than 500 of these nukes were detonated in the atmosphere, sending fallout around the globe, says Rankin.
The filled circles indicate atmospheric detonations, while the hollow circles are underground or underwater tests. The size of the circle shows the yield of the blast, with the biggest circle representing explosions of more than 20 megatons.

The map shows that the U.S. was particularly active in underground detonations; the U.S. detonated 912 nuclear bombs underground, 206 in the atmosphere and five underwater. Most American tests took place at the Nevada test site or in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Statistics for the USSR are close, with 223, 756, and three bombs detonated in the atmosphere, underground and underwater, respectively. The United Kingdom, France and China are distant followers with just a few hundred or dozen detonations. In the last several decades, India has detonated six nukes underground, while Pakistan has detonated seven and North Korea has detonated one.

Present, efforts to ban or restrict nuclear testing notwithstanding, I wonder how many more tests remain to be conducted — and if any new countries will be responsible.

Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel signing the ratified surrender terms for the German military in Berlin. (Wikimedia)

On this day in 1945…

…the representatives of Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, Germany’s supreme military command, signed the German Instrument of Surrender in the presence of Allied and Soviet commanders, officially ending the Second World War in Europe. (Pictured above, Chief of the Supreme High Command of the German Armed Forces Wilhelm Keitel signing the ratified surrender terms for the German military in Berlin.)

Although the 26 countries that officially opposed the Axis Powers of World War II are now best known collectively as the Allies or Allied Powers, their formal name midway through the war was the United Nations. This followed a declaration on January 1, 1942 that would form the basis of the modern U.N. (which was founded in its current form on June 26, 1945).

The names for the four leading combatants of the alliance — the U.S., U.K., Soviet Union, and China — includes The Big Four, The Trusteeship of the Powerful, and The Four Policemen.

The origin of the term Axis stems from a treaty signed by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in October 1936. Mussolini declared shortly after that all other European countries would henceforth rotate on the Rome-Berlin axis, thus creating the term “Axis”. The name stuck following the 1940 Tripartite Pact that brought Japan into the alliance.

Articles of Interest: Mercenaries and Fragmented Forests

How private military contractors are changing the future of warfare…

The private military industry allows you to fight wars without having your own blood on the gambling table. And drones just do that as well. If you think about this as an arms-control issue, both [drones and private military companies] should be part of the same category, because they allow national governments to get involved in fighting without actually having citizens do it. And that creates moral hazard for policymakers, because it lowers the barriers of entry into conflict.

Technology allows [private armed groups] to punch above their weight class. And technology’s ever cheaper, ever more available, and so drones and other types of technologies—weapons systems, night-vision goggles—that’s all on the open market as well. So we’ve got an open market for force, swishing around with these markets of technologies. Supply and demand are going to find each other, and that allows a very small group of people to do some big damage.

Forests are fragmenting, at great cost to biodiversity…

[M]ore than 70% of remaining forest is within just 1km (about 0.6 miles) of an edge, while a 100 metre stroll from an edge would enable you to reach 20% of global forests … In Europe and the U.S., the vast majority of forest is within 1km of an edge – some of the most “remote” areas in these regions are a stones throw from human activity.

If you want remote forests on a large scale you’ll have to head to the Amazon, the Congo, or to a lesser degree, central and far eastern Russia, central Borneo and Papua New Guinea.

[B]y drawing together scientific evidence from seven long-term fragmentation experiments, Haddad and colleagues show that fragmentation reduces biodiversity by up to 75%. This exacerbates the extinction risk of millions of forest species, many of which we still don’t know much about.

The survival of large, carbon-rich trees – the building blocks of any intact forest ecosystem – is reduced in smaller and more isolated forest fragments. These patches thus fail to maintain viable populations, which over time are doomed – an “extinction debt” yet to be paid.

There is nothing wrong with technology in the classroom…

Students who have adapted to and now rely on using technology shouldn’t be cut off from this resource in the classroom. Many students use technological tools to overcome learning differences, to organize information, to engage in discussions that help them think through material. And they are more successful because of it. Some students with learning challenges have adapted to using technology without having to report a disability and announce that disability to their classmates or professors. Professors might not know that students in their classrooms are dealing with learning disabilities and are succeeding because of assistive technology. These students may not be registered with the “Office of Disability Services”, they might not be “diagnosed”, and have their learning differences medicalized — but then again, why should they have to in order to use the tools that help them?

Where the world’s economic elites live…

London is on top, besting New York City, which fell to fourth place. San Francisco, previously number four, has fallen out of the top 20 entirely. Singapore rises into the top 10, to number three, and Hong Kong is up three spots from 2013, to five. The top 10 also has two new European entrants: Frankfurt has the sixth most ultra-high-net individuals, and Paris has the seventh. Osaka, Beijing, and Zurich round out the top 10.

The dominance of Asian cities illustrates a larger trend. For the first time, Asia overtook North America as the region with the second-largest growth in ultra-high-net individuals. The wealthy in Asia also now hold more money overall than those in North America: $5.9 trillion compared to $5.5 trillion. However, Europe still reigns supreme, with the greatest growth in the number of super-rich and with the wealthiest super-rich overall. Europe’s high-net individuals hold $6.4 trillion.

[Adjusted for population,] smaller cities dominate. Geneva tops the list, with 144 super-rich individuals per 100,000 residents, followed by Swiss counterpart Zurich, with 71. Home to fabled Swiss banks, these cities have long been the favored locations of global plutocrats. As the table below shows, Singapore and Hong Kong retain their high placement, ranking third and fifth, respectively. London drops to eighth, New York to 19th, Paris to 24th and Tokyo to 32nd.