Better than salt money

Work like you were living in the early days of a better nation

On the ground:

Leave a comment

This is (I hope) going to be short.  Before WW1 one of the signal skills a field commander (for sake of argument, I shall refer to them as Generals, even if, as Custer was, they weren’t actually, unless it’s relevant to the anecdote) needed was the ability to “read the ground.”

At the chance meeting which opened what became the Battle of Gettysburg Gens. Henry Heth (rebel) and John Buford (Union) were contending for the high ground of McPherson’s Ridge.  For the next three days two armies (in a meeting neither really wanted: Meade because it didn’t suit him, and Lee because it wasn’t where he’d have liked to have it) fought to maintain possession of the salient points of terrain near Gettysburg.

If you know any of the places in that battle, they are almost certainly bits of terrain which relate to the Union positions.  Cemetery Ridge (not to be confused with Cemetery Hill, which was also important), Little Round Top, The Wheatfield, Oak Ridge, Culp’s Hill, all of them are known because they were gr0und being fought over, or for.  Some, like Little Round Top, were critical points: if the rebels had gotten past Chamberlain, and turned the Union left, it’s possible Meade would have been embarrased†, and been forced to withdraw‡.

Now I’m going to draw a strange comparison: Pickett’s Charge, and the Battle of Hastings.  They both relate to terrain, and they both have to do with leadership, and the battle’s outcome (some of which has to do with the purpose of the war).  The Gettysburg came out in 1993.  I was fresh out of basic training (so much so that when some of the incidental music was “My Old Kentucky Home” I sat up straighter, as it was the regimental song of the command I served in at basic).  When the camera panned across the ground between Cemetery Ridge, and Pickett I gasped.  I sat there and trembled, in horror, because there was no way he could do it.

1: It was a huge distance, almost 4,000 yards between the lines; and another couple of hundred to breach them; if it had been a straight line, but it wasn’t.  2:The Union had batteries on their flanks: short of shot, but enough to decimate anyone marching formations that large in the open. 3: It was uphill.  Not terribly steep, but it doesn’t take much to slow a formation down. 4:  the Union forces had been able to set up breastworks.  They had some cover; at least enough to improve morale. 5: The rifles of the age let units in masse reach out to 1,000 yds.  With easy rates of fire running to 4 rounds a minute, and a moving pace of not more than 150 yards per minute the rebels were going to be under musketry for at least 8, perhaps as many as 10 minutes.  Preceded by cannon, then a lull, and then a renewal (because there was some ground dead to artillery).

Lee should have quite the field on June 2.  He could have quit on June 3.  He should never have sent Pickett and Pettigrew on that death march.  There was no way they could have held the Union lines, even if they had reached them in force.

Which brings us to Harald, and Hastings.  In some ways William has Pickett’s problem.  Assaulting uphill, against a fortified foe.

This was Williams view:

Up Senalc

It doesn’t look too bad.  Uphill some, but the Normans were tough; and they’d had a couple of days to rest up after the crossing.

This was Harald’s view:

Down Senlac

The ground looks a lot steeper facing down.  With his flanks secured by slope and bog, he was secure.  All he needed was to repulse the Normans until they had to retire.  He had hopes of winning by attrition.  They had no reinforcements.

This is how he set the field:

hastings-map

Horses couldn’t breach the line, because of that line of stakes (in a similar way Henry V secured his front at Agincourt: with his flanks secured by woods on either side, constraining the French, and making it harder for their advantage in cavalry and armor to be brought to bear), and the shield wall of the Saxons was a secondary defense of no small power.  William lost three horses; which forced him to take his helmet off, lest his followers think him dead. The two-handed axes of the Saxons were said to have dismembered horses, and riders.

So what happened?

1:  Harold was injured.  2:  Something caused a small break in the Saxon line.  They held, and repulsed the Normans, but some of them seem to have fallen prey to bloodlust in the disorder.  3: Harald either died, or was more severely injured.

That, ultimately was what turned the battle (though it didn’t end the war).  This was a smaller affair than Gettysburg, and more dynastic; not so much a national crusade.  It was more of a rumble to see who got to be top dog in the neighborhood.  With Harald dead there wasn’t anyone who had the combination of acumen, and charisma/status to keep the Saxons a coherent body in the field.

Which isn’t important to the question of reading the ground.  It’s still debated whether Harald ought to have waited to give battle, since he’d just made a forced march all the way from York, where he’d just had the same sort of fight Harald Hardrada of Norway to see who was in charge.

Reading the ground, and reading the enemy; and to some degree, the politics.  William was raiding Haralds personal properties; it was people to whom he owed a very specific loyalty who were being despoiled.  He also had to worry the Fyrd (i.e. the levy of troops) might decide they had done their service (he had kept them in the field for four months: they owed him about one: that’s without the question of the weather in S. England in Oct.  All in all, I don’t fault Harald for giving battle on that day.  Had it not been for his being injured, it’s quite possible he wouldn’t have lost.  Had he carried the day, odds are William would have had to go back to France, and let go of his claim.

This isn’t such an important thing on the scale of armies anymore (though in some regards it is.  Tommy Franks deep drive into Iraq in 1991 was as much because it was great tanking country, and the US had great tanks, as it was anything else, just as Harald’s choice to be on top of a boggy hill was meant to neutralise the horsepower of William.  On the small unit level, reading terrain is what it’s always been; a matter of life and death.

†in a military context a unit/commander is embarrased when the flanks have been turned: and the enemy is at right angles to the friendly position.  Not only is the weight of attack intense on the closest part of the exposed unit, the rest of the unit has no idea what is happening.  In the age of black powder this was magnified by the inability to see the enemy once firing commenced.  What usually happened was the flanked unit broke formation; exposing a new unit to the horror of being flanked.  This often “unzipped” the entire line.  The classic example (in the gunpowder age) is Frederic the Great at the Battle of Leuthen. Though such collapse also happened in the days when muscle drove the weapons (usually when it was cavalry on the exposed flank)

‡The rebels tried to do just that in the North of the field, on the first day, but Robinson’s Bde (New York)  had two battalions (13 and 104) refused.  By virtue of high ground and the refused right they were able to manage of fighting retreat, and the rebels (under Ewell) didn’t exploit the vacancy. Gettysburg was full of such touch and go moments most of which were Union mistakes the rebels failed to completely exploit; which is why Lee was willing to repeatedly reinforce failure.


Leave a comment

On fighting, and combat skills.

 

(There are lots of youtube links, as illustration.  I have anchored to the point I need, and (hope) I have indicated which one’s are specific, and about how long to watch them)

I’m going to assume you think our ancestors weren’t stupid.  I’m going to assume this because I assume you aren’t stupid. It happens, however, that lots of narrative about fighting is both stupid,  and assumes our ancestors were too.  Charlie Stross has a series of guest posts on “martial arts”*  they are good as far as they go§, but they gloss a few things.  Some because they weren’t relevant to the questions at hand, and some because we, as a culture, don’t see martial arts in our day to day lives.  We don’t have that many people who are trained in the practical aspects of beating people up, and the ways we use to commit organised slaughter are neither widely practiced, nor the sort of thing which makes for decent entertainment.

Not that books and films don’t try (see the posts referred to above, or any war flick in the past 40 years which has gunpowder).

Digression (topical, I promise):  I sell knives for my pocket money (technically I sell cookware, in practical terms my interests, and expertise means 80 percent of my time at work is spent behind the knife counter).  There is a lot of nonsense about knives, and sharpening, and everything which touches on cutting tools.  Honest, I heard a guy the other day saying, “I like damascus blades because they are lighter than steel.   Knife makers don’t help in this regard.  One (well known, and highly regarded, knife maker used to have literature which said European swords weighed a ridiculous amount (IIRC it was 50 lbs, but my mind refuses to accept that, so that I sort of want to say 15).

The fact is, european swords, and japanese swords (when they were a primary weapon) both came in between 1.75-2.75 lbs (there are some exceptions, at the heavier end).

Physics limits what one can do.  As an example go get a hammer.  Hold it at arm’s length… for as long as you can.  Even an 18 oz. hammer is going to be work to do that with.  Make it 5 lbs. and it’s a lot of work.  Make it a sword.  Now imagine your opponent managed to fool you into missing; now you have to get it back to a guard position before you get clobbered.

(blend digression back into conversation)

Which brings me to the bit about stupid.  I’ve read (lots) about how heavy/awkward armor is.  I read that nights couldn’t mount without a derrick, that if they fell they were helpless without someone to pick them up.

Bullshit.

Assume that people aren’t (at root) stupid.  Who, in their right mind, is going to spend a lifetime training to use a weapon system which is designed so as to make them slow, and vulnerable?

Pop quiz, how much did a Roman legionnaire’s kit weigh?  What about a soldier at Waterloo?  How about Verdun?  What about guys landing on on the beaches on D-Day?  How about Inchon?  Guys slogging their way to Dien Bien Phu?  On the road to Baghdad in 2003 (which was my war).  All of them were about 60 lbs.  Which is a bit less than the armor of someone in “harness”† was carrying.

Why is this number so consistent?  Because it’s about the maximum someone can haul around, and still be anything like rapid in movement.  The heaviest I’ve ever been hauling, when we stepped off on a march, was 82 lbs of gear (don’t look at me, I didn’t make the packing list). With all that I was able to keep pace (about 2.5 miles an hour), and do all the things needed (flop to the ground, get up, run a couple dozen meters (crossing danger areas), take a knee (to scan the area/establish a hasty perimeter) etc.  At  the end of the hump (about eight miles), I was tired, but not worn out to the point of being combat ineffective.

So why do we think people couldn’t make adequate armor, which also let them move about?  Because we stopped using it. When it moved from a tool/weapon of battle, to a mark of status; and armor became a specialised sort of equipment; of minor utility (think cuirasses on lancers) because the hand weapons which could pierce it had pretty much disappeared from the battlefield; then the sword came to be the weapon of both offense and defense.

But the offense (understandably) became point focused, because it doesn’t take much in the way of protection to keep a sword’s edge from cutting you‡; the shift was pretty much complete by the early 17th century, because even if the edge wasn’t effective, the point would go right through. Because people no longer wore armor it was seen as ungainly.  Hell, it is ungainly if one is not practised in it’s use.  I used to work renaissance faires. I spent a few years donning a chain hauberk every morning.  I spent the entire day in it.  I walked, ran, climbed trees, did the occasional 270º flip in it (dramatic pratfalls go over well).

I also did swordplay in it.  No we weren’t going full-tilt, but we were using live steel.  I’ve been thwacked.  I got bruised. If you want to see what happens when someone gets hit while wearing plate:

Watch the first 42 seconds of this this piece of film on 15th century armored combat (we’ll come back to other parts later).  Did you see how little the guy who got thwacked seemed to notice?  (If you’ve not hit the videos in the third footnote, go do that now. If you watch it front to back it’s about ten minutes, but I’ve marked out the important bits, each of which is 10-20 seconds).  One of the other things to notice in that clip is how both of them were holding weapons with solid points, and the armor was specialised in ways to defeat points (smooth curves, and lipped edges).  These are things which we don’t see in depictions of armored combat.  The SCA (for all it’s good points) doesn’t really understand armored combat.  They are of the “hack and bash” school of thoughtˆ (in this they are not alone: Viking re-enactors do that, as to the people in the Armored Combat League (an international group which does SCA sorts of fighting with dead steel weapons: I do like the woman on the Spanish team; more than holds her own, but I digress)

In different ways both groups buy into the idea that swords go through armor.  The ACL also buys into the idea that a knight who fell down was hors de combat, since they are “live” until they fall down.  We know swords didn’t do that.  We know because people played at tournaments for fun.  We also know that deep cuts, esp. ones which introduced foreign matte into the wound were (as often as not) fatal, and often crippling.  Since knights weren’t dropping like flies after every tournament…

So how mobile were men in armor?  If we look at paintings, we get the idea they were pretty capable.  If we look at “books of defense” we see lots of energetic movement being taught.  I’m gonna go out on a (pretty strong) limb here and guess the techniques in the books weren’t that far removed from those being done when wearing armor, even though the pictures are usually not of armored men. 1:  It’s harder to learn two completely different techniques, 2: what books showing techniques in armor are similar styles, 3: when people try those techniques in armor, they can do them.

More examples, from another source: Fighting in harness.  If you practice Judo, or Aikido you might have a sense of deja-vu starting around 1:55.  If we look at the work required to do good stage combat, where the actors aren’t in armor, but the swords can still injure; but the fight must look realistic, we see that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish: Reclaiming the Blade shows the same sorts of techniques in the harness fighting segment, being done by people in street clothes; as compared to doing things in harness. Note the level of physicality, esp. the amount of up/down movement.  Also note the actual weapon for killing the armored opponent is a triangular spike.

If we slip a bit earlier in the video we see just how agile one can be in plate armor.

Narrative (visual, and literary) tends to lose that level of ease.  We forget that people aren’t dumb, and that if someone were that clumsy, someone would have found a way to exploit it.

We also get confused by the vast power differential which skill in swordplay (even absent armor) gave a competent fighter.  Those swords all had points.  If we accept the idea that they were not just slashing/poking weapons, and that there were systems of use which made them weapons of leverage, then the peasant with a billhook is at a massive disadvantage against a single person who knows what he is doing.  In a melée that billhook could be used to pull someone to the ground (which is the purpose of so many of the twisty/spiky bits on halberds and other polearms of the day), where the confusion of being swarmed (those helmets had limited visibility, better than you might think, but a far cry from a wide field of view) would negate those advantages.  Make the peasant the sole focus of someone who is used to killing people, and give him a sword capable of the sort of smashing and cutting in the videos in the footnotes, and it would take a group of brave (to the point of foolhardy) people, willing to die, to deal with a marauding soldier.  Make a a group and nothing short of other soldiers is going to keep them from plundering the town (which is what made the 30 Years War so devastating, esp. to the Germanies, where so much of the contention was taking place).

Guns put all that to bed.  Swords, in short order, became specialist weapons; primarily for cavalry; where the problems of smoothbore innaccuracy, and the difficulties of reloading muzzle-loading weapons, meant that after a few rounds, the cavalry were either useless, vulnerable, or relegate to sword or lance (though we do get the pleasant, and peaceful, diversion of the carousel from the name for the (usually pointless) drill of firing while riding a circle.  It fell out of favor (in short order) because pistol and carbines were weak, and inaccurate: if the opposing horse put their spurs in and charged the group performing the caracole was usually routed, as they were quickly disordered.

Swordplay from horseback, however, is different to swordplay on foot.  By the end of the 16th century the idea of mobility in armor was gone, swords were lighter, and the sense that the larger swords of the previous era was to bash through armor seemed reasonable.

I suppose I ought next to deal with the idea of generalship in non-gunpowder armies, which, apart from logistics; motivation, was largely about being able to analyze terrain.

 

*I put it in scare quotes because what we tend to refer to as martial arts are forms of close combat, doe hand to hand; they fail to encompass most weapon arts (which includes distance weapons like bows and firearms), and don’t encompass questions of fieldcraft, which (as a soldier) I can say is both martial, and can be a game changer in a group on group fight).

§ I say that as someone who has been in my share of actual fights, as well as trained in a few martial arts (which includes a lot of weapons)

†Harness is the 15th century word (in English) for a suit of plate armor, it’s whence we get the term, “died in harness”.

‡This video is of people using late 15th century longswords to cut.  They are attacking “tamashigiri” which are tatami reeds, wrapped around a 1″ piece of bamboo.  When soaked in water they are supposed to behave as human limbs would when cut. Some interesting things at these points: at the 53 second mark we see an unsupported piece being split.  At  7:26 there is a  demonstration of “short” cuts (i.e. cuts without time to wind up). At 9:38 we see a demonstration of what happens to a pinned roll of tatami when covered with linen, in particular take a look at the effects from 10:11-10:23.

ˆIt’s not that SCA heavy weapons fighters aren’t good at what they do; they are, and I’d not like to be facing one in the lists, but their weapons aren’t swords/axes/maces, and they do things with them which aren’t doable with those weapons.  Which leads to a fighting style which, while interesting (and more subtle than most observers understand) doesn’t reflect the reality of how the weapons they are representing were actually used, nor what they are really capable of doing. Which in turn affects both how the make their armor, and what they do in it; which in turn affects how people who see them understand what armor is, does, and is capable of doing.


1 Comment

The holidays are coming ’round

Which means some of you might be thinking of getting gifts for people. If the people you know happen to like knitting, crochet, or weaving, I can help you out.

Because I will make yarn to order. For a basic yarn (two-ply, semi-woolen), in weights from light to “super chunky), I figure twice the fiber weight is a reasonable exchange.  It’s not so little that I feel I am underselling the market (or my time), nor yet so dear it’s too expensive to consider (roving goes for between $2.50 and $50.00 US an oz, depending on type).

For more complex yarns (e.g. cables,) or more difficult materials (silk, camel hair, alpaca silk) I will probably ask for a bit more than double; because that takes more time/effort, attention.

I mention this now, because it takes a bit of time to get the yarn made (assuming I knuckle down and waste not a minute) a 4. oz skein is two-four hours of spinning singles, a day of rest on the bobbins; and then another hour or so of plying.  Then it’s overnight to set the twist.  Counting in the time for fiber to get to me, and then yarn to get to the recipient, this is the time to start thinking about it, esp. as it’s a first come, first served proposition.

I will also have some skeins available later (right now I have about half a dozen), which will be available for cash.


Leave a comment

Keeping the faith

We’ve been in England a bit more than a week now. In some regards it’s as any other such trip, one is both a bit overwhelmed, at the same time has the sense that one is seeing nothing.

We managed to short circuit some of that by going to Sidmouth Folk Week. It’s not that we felt we saw all of that (or Sidmouth), because the schedule was (as with any good convention) too packed in to take in half of what looked interesting, but rather that it felt one was taking part in a greater activity; as part of a community. It may have been a community of happenstance, but the shared interest meant I (at least) felt connected to some greater whole, which diminished the sense that I ought to be going great guns to “get it all in”.

Sidmouth was the fruit of pent up desire, and collaboration. We had been planning to attend LonCon, and then ShamrocKon. Mme. Pecunium has long wanted to go to Croperdy, so we figured we’d tack a bit onto the front, and make it a proper honeymoon (by adding a couple of days in Brighton to visit family).

We looked into getting a canal boat (shades of Wind in the Willows, which I still adore, and re-read); cost was prohibitive, esp. when the punitive nature of missing one’s time (by even the least margin) was factored in. So we looked into getting tentage, etc.

Which was when I asked the question, “Is Oysterband playing?”. Various searches revealed they 1: weren’t playing Croperdy, 2: but were playing Sidmouth. 3 Sidmouth was much closer to Brighton, and suited the rest of the planned trip a little better (giving us more time in Brighton, without losing any in London). So we hired a campervan, looked into the bands playing the various shows, packed our bags and headed out.

Not to go all fanboy squee… but I’ve wanted to see Oysterband since very shortly after I first heard them. I have eclectic tastes in music. Folk/Trad/Jazz/Rock/Some Pop/Filk/Symphonic. I love to sing (and have been taking lessons to improve my ear, so as to improve my confidence), used to be tolerably decent on the cello, have been getting decent on pennywhistle. I worked renaissance faires for about 20 years.

They fit into all of that; and have some solidly done political messages in their songs: it helps I seem to agree with their general politics, but a lot of the message in them is “be good to each other” and I can get behind that.

Sidmouth is more than a concert festival. Yeah, there are shows, and ceilidhs, and seisùns, but there are workshops, and parades, and it’s all in the town, so there are shops, and pubs, and the beach to walk on, and everywhere there are people with a shared interest; people are busking, or striking up random conversations about random things; comfortable in the sense that, even though strangers there is something in common.

The town joins in. The Bedford Hotel has a sign in the window, “musicians welcome” and every time I passed by, there was a different sort of thing happening in the bar. Roly’s Fudge had a couple doing dancing dolls, and I saw a sign in the window, “come in and sing a song/play a tune” and we’ll give you some fudge”.

With 60 years of history, it seems the village has taken the festival to heart.

So Weds. Evening we got ourselves to the show. It was all that, and a bag of chips. Music is magical. It’s powerful. It has the ability to be transcendent. This was all of that. It was worth all the hassle of driving a campervan on English roads (with the shiftbox on the left, but built for being on the right, and an underpowered engine. I missed more shifts in three days/400 miles then I’ve missed in years, almost all of them because 3rd was in a wretched place).

After the show I saw a tweet, from the band, asking us to come by the merchandising table, because they wanted to meet us. I’d been jazzed about the trip, and talking it up (it’s my first honeymoon, my first trip to England, my first Oysterband concert… I was perhaps a bit full of squeeful anticipation).

It being what it was, they got called away before we could get there. They were too busy the next night at the ceilidh, which was great. They started as a ceilidh band, and one can see why.
The next day (show three, in three days) was more intimate. It was JJ, and Ian, and Alan, and they told stories, and sang songs, and answered questions. JJ said, at one point, they were nervous when they wrote, “The Oxford Girl” because they were worried they weren’t doing justice to the tradition.

I found this interesting because, at some point in the past few years (I think when The Oxford Girl and Other Stories) came out, I got curious… the song has the feel of being connected to a real event. So I dug about and what comes up, from such a search is a lot of murder ballads, and as the band says… none of them is from the POV of the victim (which is in part because the parent form of those ballads is the broadsheets published as, “gallows confessions”).

So they wrote one. It’s, to me, an iconic tune. I think it was the song a girlfriend used to introduce me to the band; like a springboard it led to me diving in, and going deep.

The thing is tradition is a living thing.* Like language it dies if people don’t play with it. I play pennywhistle (to some level of moderate skill). I have little tutelage. I learned what I have from books, and tunes I knew, and my own ear as I played. And I was (until fairly recently) terrified to play in public.

I live in the states. “Trad” music here is somewhat ossified. One has the sense that one needs to have the tunes note perfect and spot on, or one can’t do them justice. One listens to groups like Battlefield Band, or The Chieftains, or The Oysterband, and thinks, “I’m not up to that”. It means the music is a bit less than it might be.

I didn’t know that before Sidmouth. I did know that I was going to be in Ireland, and I was going to sit in on a seisùn. So I had to get over my fear. I’d gotten over some of it at filk conventions. I’d jam on tunes I know (Lynyrd Skynyrd is KICK-ASS for playing pennywhistle to. Just sayin’). But that’s adding an instrument which isn’t endemic, even intrinsic to the tradition. It’s not one the players are going to have expectations of. So I went to a local Tues. night seisùn at Dempsey’s. Just tried to find the shape of the music, and run with it.

It works. It’s not perfect. I can’t lead a tune that way, but it works.

Skip to Sidmouth. I saw a set of workshops on, “learning by ear”. So I went. We learned an air: Sùilean Dubh. No variations (and a bit simpler than the opening to that song). We also worked on picking up a note, and how to move the song to where it goes from there. Interesting to me was that we got the C phrase (the song has the pattern of A/B/A/C/A/B:coda) well before we played it. We did an exercise before we SANG it. And we could sing it. We knew the tune, even though it was new to us. The trick is translation. So we played it out… and some of us weren’t quite there. And it was good. The rough spots tended to be in notes which made chords.

The thing I was doing, and feeling nervous, even guilty about was imbibing the tradition. Making the language of the music a language I can speak. Yeah, I want to learn set pieces, it the same way I learned to make hollandaise, or to recite, “Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries”. I want to learn them so the grammar, the taste, essence of the music is there, ready to my fingers.

So that I don’t need to know every song being played to join in. So I can take what was old (and perhaps moribund) and give it, not a new life, but an ongoing one.

It’s why (to come back to the band) the show on Weds was so good. The recordings are great. Seeing them on feed from festivals is grand. Being in the room, where the sound is palpable, and the other members of the audience are there: vibrant, alive, participating is to take part in the tradition. It can’t die, not if we keep playing with it. Not if we take the old, and bend it to the present. Not making it new again; it will never be new again, but keeping it from stagnating into a relic from the past.

Oh yeah… after the third show, there was more than enough time to have a longish chat with the band, their partners, some of the crew. A pleasant capstone to a wonderful week, hospitable, charming, everything one should like to think them to be, from the way the music makes one feel.

I’d do it all again.

*and they nailed it. When I was trying to see if this was a murder ballad about a contemporary crime, one of the hits which was pulled up was this one, about “The Knoxville Girl” and how the ballad of, “The Bloody Miller” managed to cross the ocean to the Scots-Irish in the US, and got applied, using stock imagery to move it over, both in locale, and mores, to the American sensibility.  The linked article has some interesting comments on what the invention of the phonograph, and the way the 78s turned things into “the right way” and all the rest.

The subhead for this blog is taken from a song they wrote, based on a quotation of Alisdair Gray, which he attributes to Canadian writer Dennis Lee. In the best tradition we borrow from each other, and (sort of) file the serial numbers off.


2 Comments

When the shit hits the fan

I am a prepper’s wet dream.

I’m male. I’m a vet (and a combat vet). I was in Intelligence (and better yet Interrogation, with time spent instructing). I know how to make gunpowder, and turn that into grenades, bombs and rockets.

I’ve studied martial arts. I know how to use bladed weapons. I can ride a horse, and a motorcycle. I know how to make minor mechanical repairs. I’ve studied fortification. I can use swords, pikes, axes, knives, bows, crossbows and firearms. I’ve made cannon.

All of which makes their eyes glaze over as their breath gets short. They see me as some massive asset in the bloodbath they expect to come when The Shit Hits The Fan.

And they are wrong. Not only is that not the likely scenario, even if it were I’m not on their side. I’ve studied history. All those times of death and destruction from one end of, “the world” to the other… were not because society fell apart. Nope, the death and destruction were why society fell apart. The plague comes, people hunker down and try to ride it out (or they move to cities. France didn’t recover the population she had in 1300 until 1900, but the distribution of population changed, a lot).

Preppers don’t get that. Even the ones I’ve interacted with who seemed to get it (that more than just gun and guts are required), still fail to see how things work. I was on a couple of panels with John Ringo a few years ago. Now John seems a tolerably decent fellow, but in the course of a couple of hours of discussion I realised he’d picked up some of the same blinkered ideas that so many End of the World sorts have; mainly that the end will be sudden, and then it’s warlord city.

So when the conversation got to farming, he was dismissive of pretty much everyone; until I told him I’d run a small farm (and I do mean small about ½ an acre). That said, with a bit of work, and some knowledge of what was required, that’s enough to add a fair bit of food to the table for a family of six (which is what I was doing with it).

Some chickens, some attention to the compost and putting in a balance set of crops (such as with the milpa systems in Meso-America) can get a lot of food out of a moderate amount of land. It’s not that tricky to set up, and a small investment in practice (a working vegetable garden is often enough to see what’s needed), and some books are all one needs (that, and seeds).

Want to have fun with a prepper… ask them where they intend to get socks. Most clothes are pretty durable, so it will be a couple of years before the supply of pants, shirts, coats and hats run out. But socks, socks get a lot of wear, and (as one who spent a lot of time in the Army) if they don’t get washed frequently your feet rot. Also, if they don’t get changed/washed regularly, they wear out. I have a lot of socks, and I change them. A four day weekend means I pack six pair (yeah, I might obsess a bit about socks).

That’s where my predilection for books, and futzing, comes in. I’ve done a lot of crafty stuff. I was a machinist for several years. I can run a lathe, or a mill. I understand the basics of using brakes. I’ve done a bit of forging. I make yarn. In theory I can weave.

This is where the preppers fall apart. They think of marauders. They contemplate a world of scavengers, living off the plunder of those fools who didn’t prepare. They imagine Mad Max, and envision the wasteland of the 30 Years War. They forget it was marauding soldiers who made that wasteland.

They don’t know how to make things, and they don’t know how to run things. I’ve been fortunate. The choices I made in my life mean I’ve never been rich. I have (through good fortune, and the help of my friend and my partners) been able to live a life which allowed me to indulge in hobbies which are modern luxuries, but used to be essential skills.

Take my spinning. I have a wheel at home. It cost, all in, about a grand. I paid for about half of it, and my partners kicked in the rest (as an early holiday present). I spin when we watch television or when I need to take a break and compose my thoughts for some piece of writing. I use it as therapy when I see something ungodly stupid on the internet, and as a way to unwind at the end of the day (the moreso when the winter comes and I can’t garden). It is, for me, an interstitial pleasure.

For much of “civilisation” it was an interstitial need. Women did (and do, if you look at the Andes today, as well as the highlands of Afghanistan, parts of India, etc.) spin when they had, “nothing else to do” (women, largely, did the spinning, while men did the weaving). I’ve got a project on spindles right now. I have about an oz. of Merino/silk spun up. I think I might be able to get to an oz. and a half before the total weight is too much to keep working.

That oz. is about 450 yards of fine yarn. To make sock-yarn (you thought I’d forgotten the socks), needs three plies. It happens I intend to spin three singles (ea. of which becomes one ply), and then make some sockweight yarn. For the other singles I have alpaca/silk (80/20) and pure merino. Socks last longer when you have cellulose, like tencel, or bamboo, or silk in them, which is part of why I’m adding to this yarn; but mostly because the fibers I had were blended, and I thought they would be pretty together.

I do most of my spindle spinning (up to about .9 oz. before the spindle start to be too heavy to manage when the train slews) while I’m on the subway, so it really is interstitial. I’m making yarn when I don’t really have a task at hand. I could, read (or play games on my phone, but I do this (and it ties me into the work of women going back some 10,000 years, maybe more). I will probably sell this yarn, so I can afford to buy more fiber to make more yarn (it’s sort of Ourborosian).

So, to get 450 yards of sock yarn, I need to spin about 1,500 yds. of singles (because twisting them up to get the final three-ply will reduce some of the total yardage, which varies based on how tightly the yarn is spun). I’ve spun about ½ oz. of the second spindle in the past five days of commuting, but it’s the sort of thing preppers don’t account for.

They see cans, not chickens (to quote @civilwarbore), and don’t think about the nature of the lifestyle they imagine. Yes, one can be a marauder, if there is a stable society to pillage, but as with any predator, the prey can’t be depleted if they want to survive. Since the actual prey of Vikings, Mongols, Huns, etc. was the fruits of urban cultures, it behooved them to not destroy those cultures (which is why they tended to settle down, and set up shop… thus becoming potential targets for the next wave of marauders).

And they somehow think it’s impossible for people to co-operate. They ignore the aftermath of disaster. New York has a blackout… people come together. Post Sandy, when Lower Manhattan was dark… restaurants were running on cash, or tab. There wasn’t any light, but the gas worked. They didn’t have refrigeration, but they could get deliveries. I stopped into a liquor store, and they offered me lunch. The vast majority of people are, at root decent. Not saints, maybe not even nice, but decent.

So, when I said, in one of those panels, that while I didn’t have experience in lots of things (e.g. I’ve never tanned leather), but you should see my library, John Ringo laughed, and said that wasn’t going to be good for much. Perhaps, for him, it wouldn’t, perhaps he’s not good at research (one of his books says black powder has more energy than smokeless), but for me, they would be.

In part because I trust that other people will pitch in, that we can divide the labor, and find materials to let us make mistakes. Some things (like brewing, and pickling, and salting), I’ve already practiced. But when the “Next Dark Age” comes, it will, as with Rome (both of them) probably be more a gradual loss of the trappings of easier living than some cataclysmic catastrophe.  I know how to do more than I can do (run a herd of cattle, tend sheep, grow grapes, grow cereals, thresh grain, harvest corn, make pots, build ovens, dry lumber, felt wool, make a yurt; or a tipi, build a weir, build a dam, make a catapult (or a trebuchet), fashion bows, entrench a town, set an ambush, cook, knit, plough, sharpen, play pennywhistle, play baseball, football, soccer, skittles, turn wood, make glue, make wine, beer, and vinegar, press olive oil, prune fruit trees, &c. &c. &c.), and I can teach.

And for that, I am as prepared as I can be. Preppers aren’t. Because people who can do violence (and well) are easy to come by (e.g. me). People who can do the rest of it are more common than people think. People who can do both aren’t thin on the ground. And people who value comity will band together, where those who are good at violence will (in all probability) leave the plough as needed, to put paid to those who plan to live off the sweat of other’s labors.


Leave a comment

Still on the road

Still abroad (but at least on my “home” continent).

It’s been a trip.  This is country number three (I don’t think a train trip, and an ale in Wales, counts as a separate country, nor the short layover in Frankfurt), and bed number 5/6 (depending on how one thinks of sleeping for two (freezing) hours on a banquette on the Ferry across the Irish Sea, from Holyhead to Dublin).  I feel oddly liminal.   I want to be back in Ireland, or England.  I also want to be home.

Toronto is hella familiar, to the point of being homey; but the past month has made some things which are different quite familiar.  I like some of them better (not paying to withdraw money, a better attitude toward alcohol, more readily available street food of good quality, etc).  Others (the quality of the coffee, the power outlets matching my plugs, the money being worth about what I expect, and the price of things being in keeping with what I’m used to paying, etc.) are nice to come back to.

So I am neither away from home, nor at home.


5 Comments

More police problems

I was doing some reading on Ferguson, and came upon a video from the Washington Post with some detail shots of cops in Ferguson, and some labels (inadequate, for what they don’t say about it, and what they don’t ID).  At the 16 second mark I did a double take.

Kbar

 
That guy is wearing a K-Bar.  A fucking K-Bar*. Don’t get me wrong, I like K-Bars. I’ve owned one since 1993.  I had two versions of it when I deployed to Iraq.  They are really good at what they are for. What they are for is hand to hand combat; up close and personal.  What they aren’t is any sort of defensive tool.   Knife fighting is ugly work.  It’s brutal, and dangerous.  One of the situations which gets handled badly in the press (and one in which I give cops a bit more leeway when I hear there was a shooting) is one with a knife, because the minimum safe distance from someone who has a knife is a lot longer than you think it is, and the amount of damage someone can do with them is often more likely to be fatal than a similarly placed gunshot.

So what is he doing with that knife?

He’s armored (the bulky sleeves on his vest… those are deltoid armor.  Military Issue body armor doesn’t have them).  Also, if the situation is that volatile, why are his arms exposed?   He’s almost certainly packing a sidearm. He isn’t alone.  You could tell that (even if you didn’t have any other evidence than this photo) from his weaponry.  He’s got a grenade launcher** (probably loaded with CS/Tear Gas).  That’s a support weapon. It’s not the sort of thing a cop on their own is going to be carrying at high ready.  The people using it are going to be (in any well managed deployment) from the second, or third rank.

But this yahoo has a close in weapon only good for killing people.  He’s wearing it in a quick draw rig.  What the fuck?  Does he think he’s going to be going toe-to-toe with someone in a dark alley?  Has he been reading too many pieces about trench warfare because it’s the centenary of WW1?  I’m agog.

I also want to know who let him hang that from his rig?  When they did their inspections before they headed out (in the Army it’s called a PCI, for “pre-combat inspection”.  It’s when your first line supervisor looks you over to see you have everything you need, and that it’s in the right place.  Ammo, water, bandages, helmet, dry socks, lip-balm, etc.) how did this not get called out?

If one of my guys had been getting ready to go on a patrol and was packing a machete, I’d tell him to leave it behind, unless we were expecting to be busting some brush.  The guy is a cop, for fuck’s sake.  He’s not in the jungles of Guadalcanal. He’s staring down a bunch of people angry because one of their kids was gunned down and left to lie in the street, and the authorities are saying, “he had it coming”.  He’s not going to be ambushed and knocked down, his only available weapon a big honking knife; in a kill, or be killed situation.

The only way that happens is if his command is so fucked up they instigate an all out assault on the cops by the citizens.  So he’s got a screwed up view of his role. Either his command doesn’t see it, or doesn’t care.

Which is a big part of how we got where we are.
 

 

 

 

*It’s actually a K-Bar style knife.  Note the hexagonal shape of the pommel.  K-Bars are round, also forget the “Gerber” in his pocket, that’s a tool knife, handy for cutting rope, slicing seat belts, sectioning an apple.  What that knife most decidedly isn’t is a weapon.  It’s built all wrong.

**All the detail they give, just tells you what some of the types of grenades it can launch.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 816 other followers