Better than salt money

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


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Another of the “Lost Secrets” school of stories:

The “Ulfberht” swords:

Ignoring the guy they have chopping away in the opener (his technique is terrible, no way I’d let him play with any of my swords), there is a lot of blather in this, right down to saying the guy they found to make the sword is, “one of the few people on the planet who has the skills to unravel the mystery of how the Ulfbehrt was made”.  It’s bullshit. Lots of people know how it was made.  They talk to several.

The question isn’t how it was done.  I can tell you the basics.  The question is where it was done, how the steel made it to Scandanavia, why it stopped coming, etc.  That the smith they got to take part is good is obvious, but there are a lot of people who could do what he did: sure, in relation to some 6 billion people on the planet, there are only minuscule number who can do it, probably between 20-100,000.  I have a knife worked by a guy in Ukraine which, were you to give him the same sort of steel, I’ll wager he could work up as well (into a knife, I doubt he has a market for swords, and so hasn’t bothered to learn the specifics).

If you look at the documentary, the things they make such a big deal of: how to make steel, mumbo-jumbo about, “the bones of one’s ancestors, burnt to char and used to turn iron to steel…” is rubbish.  The steel came from elsewhere (perhaps from the same area the swordsmiths of Damascus were getting theirs) and when the supply dried up, the blades stopped being that good.

There is no mystical magical “Steel of Ulfberht”, there is just steel, and it got made into a style of (really solid) sword.


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Imma gonna rant some

And it’s likely to be a bit disjointed.

 

You may have seen the video of the Danish archer who is purported to have “rediscovered” the “lost art” of combat Archery. It’s hogwash. I think I first saw it back in 2013 (because I am the sort of guy who watches such things). I filed it under, “overblown” and forgot about it. Then, last week sometime, a friend asked about it. I dismissed it as being overly simplistic, and moved on.

Then it started popping up everywhere and I started drafting a rant. Then Elizabeth Bear posted her beefs with it, and so I am spurred to actually put pen to paper.

First… it’ s really reductionist. It’s argued that gunpowder so eclipsed archery that it lay fallow for, “hundreds of years” before being reinvented as a sport, and that the “real combat techniques” were lost. Nope. Archery lost out on the battlefield, but in the first case, not so recently as all that (with people still arguing for its merits in European warfare as little as 250 years ago). In the Americas there was still a martial culture using bows and arrows not much more than 100 years ago.

Second, his technique is inadequate to combat: full stop. I’ve been using weapons all my life. I’ve been playing with bows and arrows for… call it 35 years. I’ve used a fair number of types of bows and (because I am that sort of guy) read up on a lot of techniques. Because (in part) I am also something of a nut for military history (as well as having been a career soldier) I’ve read/studied a lot about the actual application of bows, and how they worked.

He’s fast, and (apparently) pretty accurate, but his arrows won’t do squat in a combat environment. As he demonstrates his technique, they aren’t going to be very good at bringing down game either. Why? He short pulls (look at the video, right around the 0:55 mark, he’s not drawing the bow more than a third of its; short, length.

That’s fine for knocking over a lightweight cutout, and it will damage an unprotected person, but it’s not going to be more than a nuisance against someone wearing armor, even so little as what is dismissively scorned as, “quilted”

He argues that speed is the big deal. He’s wrong. It would be if the archer were in a duel, and had to be able to deal with more than one opponent before those opponents were able to engage in direct offense, but that has never been the way archers were used. Archers have always been used en masse, to either deny parts of the field to the foe, or to harass them before the melee phase of the battle (Crecy, Poitier and Agincourt were outliers).

He conflates things to the point of absurdity: seriously… he’s taking prehistoric images from cave walls, to Egyptian tomb paintings, Japanese woodcuts, Assyrian stele carvings, the Bayeux Tapestry, ancient Greek cartoons, Medieval illumination, coinage, and treats them as 1: dispositive, and 2: all showing pretty much the same thing.

Then he argues the things he does is what they show.†

Which they don’t. If you look at the detailed pictures, the Egyptian Pharoah, the woodcuts, the stele carving, all the archers are taking a full draw. As to the “they put the shaft on the outside of the bow”, there is no way to tell. Some of the images aren’t clear enough to tell what the artists thought the subjects were doing. Which is an important point, those pictures weren’t made by the archers, but by artists. Artists can be ignorant of details. Sometimes they change things because it looks better that way.

But those full draws, which he seems to avoid, can be fast. In my teens I spent a lot of time doing archery (and rifle). I had a 35lb fiberglass recurve. I probably shot about 100 arrows at a time, three-four times a week (and the same for the rifle, air-rifles are really cost effective ways to gain/maintain skills, but I digress). M y targets were bankers boxes, about 50 yards away. I’d guess a practice session took about an hour, to an hour and a half. What I was trying to do was keep the arrows bunched. I wanted to have a forest of shafts, about 18” in dia. I started with about 24 arrows. When enough of them got dinged past being useful I’d go and get some more. So I’d have between 18-36 functional shafts at a time. I used a hip quiver, and the “stick ‘em in the dirt method (referenced in accounts of Poitier, Crecy, and Agincourt)

So I’d shoot through my supply, Feel what caused the outliers. walk up the hill, collect them, and do it again. Three or four times in an an hour, using the inside rest style of shooting.

I was working to establish rhythm.

I’m not sure he could get the accuracy I did either. (the one example of distance he shows is 70m, and he’s able to hit a cubical target, about 1.5 meters wide. It would be adequate for hunting… if he was close, and using some sort of point capable of causing traumatic damage, but for war… nope, not the way he talks about archery as some sort of super tool.

War bows (of all their stripes) were brutes. They had draw weights of 50-100 lbs (the lighter draw were shorter bows, fired from horseback, more on that in a bit). They had that heavy a pull because they needed to do two things… punch through armor, and carry a long way. Arrows are pretty good at punching into things, if they are heavy (E=1/2mv^2) but they need the initial V if they are going to be more than a massive irritant§. Reports from the 16th century were that Turkish archers could punch through the curaisses of the Hapsburg cavalry. Turkish accounts say that archers of foot had to be able to fire arrows to a distance of 500-600 meters.

The declaration of the student’s proficiency was possible only when he could shoot a pishrev arrow to 900 gez (594 m) or an azmayish arrow to 800 gez (528 m). This particular shot must have been witnessed by a minimum of 4 persons, two being at the shooting spot and two at the spot the arrow landed. After then the archer was recorded to the Tekke’s Registration Book and accepted to be proficient. One of these books remains until today.

But Lars (or his amanuensis) doesn’t actually cite his sources (and when he does, it’s problematic, either images (some of which contradict his thesis) or mythical figures having propagandistic dialogues.

Archery, as with all human endeavor is a creation of culture, and need. It has never been (and never will be) homogenous.

Archers shooting from horseback tended to have lighter bows (in the 50 lb range: English longbows had a pull somewhere between 75-110 lbs. Modern hunting bows are in the 45-65 lbs rangeº). They may have been shorter (as with the bows of the Huns, Mongols, Turks) or not (as with the bows of the samurai). What they had in common was horses.

The Roman complained of the Parthians, who wouldn’t stand still and fight but rather harassed the marching columns, riding up; firing at them, riding away, all before the Romans could form up and engage.

He blathers about how his archery is superior to all the “sport” archers with their degenerate methods. He confuses differences of technique with deviation from purity, and he pretends the way he likes to shoot is the one and only TRUE WAY OF THE BOW.

It’s nonsense. Take his, “rediscovered” idea of, “two-handed drawing”. First all archers use two hands to draw the bow. I think what he means is a style of draw where the bow hand and the string separate in a somewhat equal manner. This used to be called, “The English Draw”. It’s how we think the archers at Agincourt did it. It’s also faster when one has arrows one’s arrows stuck in the ground (as reports say the English were fond of doing).

Mongols, and Turkish, archers had a “push” style, where they set the string on their chest, and stretched out the bow hand. This was faster for use on horseback from a hip quiver; it also had the advantage of keeping the body in a more contained position when doing the sorts of twisting, turning, horsemanship those cultures were fond of.

The Samurai were mounted archers before they were famous for swordplay, but they liked to ride in straight lines, across the face of units drawn up to fight. They also had bows which were large for their power (because Japan didn’t have good woods, for self bows, nor the understanding of glues, sinew and horn needed for the compact recurves common to the steppes). They stood in flat stirrups, and pulled the bow back.

And (to go back to his technique) he’s got a light weight on his bow… I’m guessing not more than 40 lbs, and probably more on the order of 30-35. He’s not pulling all the way back, so he’s got a lot less than that (which is how he can catch an arrow… the nonsense about “splitting one on a blade… just that. Arrows are spinning, they will deflect off before they can split.  Writers in the past talked a lot of rubbish, he’s just perpetuating it.). Can a 35 lb bow pierce mail? Yeah… if the mail is cheap, and the point is thin. That’s a bit part of the drive for plate armor… to defeat arrows (and it did. Those flutes in “Maximillian” armor… more than just decoration, projectiles have their best penetration at right angles, be it arrows or the main gun on a tank).

I could go on (a lot) about the technical flaws in his arguments (and others have). What really bothers me is the question of how it came to be that this took off.

Part of it is simple ignorance. Most people have not made a lifetime study of things like this. This video paints a coherent (too coherent) picture of the “forgotten past”, and has a lot of flashy stuff, none of which is more than cursorily explained (really… WTF is the thing with the bow at the table?… The time he spends reaching back to grab the bow [and arrows lying loose behind him, is less than the time it took someone to stab Kit Marlowe in the eye. Yes, one can fire that close, but there is a reason for the weapon known as an “archer’s sword”)

But a lot of it, perhaps most, is the idea that we missing some secret knowledge, that there are mysteries which have been lost (and some have e.g. the close fit of the massive drystone construction of the Mayans, or the amazing durability of Roman concrete) and that we can “rediscover” them. This is really common with weapons.

Which is what really pisses me off about this clip. Not the specifics about archery, it’s the idea that we are so much less smart than the people of the past, and that the past had “ONE BEST WAY”, which has been lost until now.

It’s the problem of, “The Katana is Better” I get a lot of this in my day job, where one of the things I do is sell cutlery. Oh My God. The blather I hear about Japanese steel; and the myths of how special it is, and how one must study for years with a master before one can sharpen a knife made in Japan… because the steel is so special, and the angle is so precise. It ain’t so. Knives are knives, and sharpening is, as any other skill, a question of application, and practice. I’ve been sharpening things for 30+ years. If you want me to sharpen it, I can (and probably have). It’s not because I spent years in a mountain cave fetching ice cold water from a stream to boil for my master’s bath… nope. It’s because I’ve spent a lot of time dragging pieces of metal on rocks.

Movies (and television… Kung Fu, anyone?) make this worse. They take short cuts. Luke goes to visit Yoda, and Boom! in twenty minutes we see him listen to a lot of half-baked aphorisms, and do some soul-searching and off he goes… a Jedi. Except that he isn’t, because he didn’t stay long enough to have The Master, show him all he needed to know. Andersen actually makes reference to this when he compares himself to Legolas, and with all the jumping and bouncing and spinning and stuff.  Thats dramatics.  Archers were in groups.  They didn’t need to do that.  Most of them just couldn’t (because they were inside a large formation).  As someone who has been in the Army… running and jumping and the like is exhausting.  Add the adrenaline of people tying to kill you, and the accuracy needed to avoid getting dead… goes down the drain.

Even films which try to show that it’s about work, and practice, and diligence (e.g. The Karate Kid, with the tedium of muscle memory shown in the Wax On/Wax Off, and Paint The Fence) suffer from the limits of time. So we have the trope of it being about learning The Secret. That’s what Lars Andersen is selling, “the secret”. He’s ignoring history (if archery was all that he says it is in the two videos I’ve seen, why didn’t it displace swords, and pikes, and how is it that the pathetic firearms of the 1450 managed to displace it so quickly?… oh right, it took years to get good enough for it to be a combat weapon of limited utility). Our ancestors weren’t stupid. If Archery was so powerful as to be the ultimate weapon… they’d have given it pride of place on the battlefield.

Why didn’t Europe have horse archers? Because they couldn’t compete with mounted knights. You can’t really wear heavy mail while managing a horse and handling a bow. The guys who were wearing heavy mail (and later plate) would ride up and fetch you a serious knock with a sword, mace, or spear.

A solid shield wall meant that most arrows were nuisance. If there were spears to chuck , life was gonna suck for the people who were having them rain down on them… while guys they couldn’t do much do were marching up to hack at them with swords.

So the idea that someone, somewhere, was keeping The Secret of ancient archery, and it was “lost” (except that it wasn’t, anyone who wants to look around the internet can find the things Andersen found, and the things I found; and a lot more besides), and now it’s been found is selling something.

What Andersen is selling is Andersen.

 

†: I don’t know how much of the drivel in the narration is his argument, or the producer of the video trying to sex it up… at root it doesn’t matter, since the video, as seen, is what people are talking about.

‡: Quilted armor was layers of wool, and wool felt. It wasn’t great against arrows, but much more effective against swords than people give it credit for. Being light it also made it easier to run away if the enemy was encumbered with armor.

§: Don’t underestimate the irritant value of arrows. Reports are that cuts, and piercings get ignored (by accident, or design) in ways that having an arrow stick out of one don’t. This is one of the reasons most military arrowheads, even bodkin points, had a protrusion of some sort. It’s also why, the story goes, the Mongols wore undershirts of raw silk… because it let them extract even barbed arrows. That it might also function as a self-administering bandage was a secondary feature.

¶ There are at least two videos of showcasing his arguments, one discusses ambidexterity, the other is more vague, and seems to be talking about the method of draw, not the choice of bow hand.

° Most modern shooters used a “compound” bow, this is a complex arrangement of pulleys, and leverage to cause “fall-off”. The longer the draw, the more energy the archer has to put into pulling the string back, then one has to hold that to the moment of release. When used en masse, the time of holding was minimal, when making sure one is spot on the target it may be a bit longer. The resting energy of a compound bow can be as much as ½ the resting energy of a non-“compound” one. I remember the first time I pulled one (about 40 lbs). I got to the point of “fall off” and thought I’d broken it, so dramatic was the decrease in pressure on my fingers.

Endnote: Some of the comments at antipope are about how hard it is to make a bow… long list of materials and skills. Not so much, at least not for potting small game. I’ve done it. A simple self bow, draw weight of about 15 lbs. The tricky part stabilsing the arrow. I used twine (which is pretty easy to make). Yeah, it cuts range, a lot, but it works, and if I wanted to get a rabbit/squirrel, it’s just fine. Has the advantage of “drag-trapping” a wounded animal.


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An Open Letter to the Democratic National Committee

Stop sending me e-mails.

The substance of your emails is such that they insult me. On any given day I get desperate pleas for 2, or 3, or 5, or 10 dollars. Often more than one, sometimes as many as a dozen.

If I were to respond to one in ten (for three dollars each), I’d be looking at not less than $21 a week, or $1,092 a year. If I were to respond to all of them, it would be $210 a week, or 10,920 a year.

That’s about half my annual income.

I get it. Believe me, as a vet: as a disabled vet who has to have a part-time job to have more than $18,000 a year after a career in the Army, I get it. As someone who sees the people he works with who are working harder than that to have as much as that, I get it.

As someone who cares about women’s rights, and civil rights, and economic equality, I get it.

As someone who cares about the environment, I get it.

As someone who cares about the effects of our foreign policy, I get it.

And I see that you don’t get it.  You have caved in on things like reforming Wall Street. You’ve caved in on things like holding the people who committed torture accountable (as a career interrogator that pisses me off more than you can imagine).

You’ve caved in on women’s rights (both economic, and reproductive).

And still you come to me asking for a substantial piece of my income, so you can continue caving in.

Stop. Stop caving in. Listen to Sen. Warren. Listen to Sen. Sanders. Listen to the people who are out working to get unions in Wal-mart and MacDonald’s.  Listen to Warren Buffet when he says we need to fix the tax code so secretaries aren’t paying a bigger share than CEOs. Listen to The People.

Stop listening to Big Business.

Stand for something other than being not the Republicans. Do that, and I might be willing to let you beg for my money again.


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The ACLU has let us down on The Rule of Law

I’m angry.

This isn’t new. I’ve been angry for about 11 years now. It ebbs and flows, depending on the news, but it’s always there. I wish I had some handy object to be angry about, instead of an ever present sense that the thing which pissed me off wasn’t miasmic.

The proximate cause of this round of more present anger isn’t, actually, the report which the senate released about the torture the US engages in. Nah. There isn’t anything new in that; not to me, nor to anyone who has been paying attention for the past 10 years. No, what angers (and saddens) me is larger than that. It’s about the rot at the soul of the country.

I am not a naif. I know (and knew long before Khandahar and Abu Ghraib) that the US allowed people to get away with torture, and that some branches of the gov’t were sanctioning it; even if they weren’t doing it themselves.

Pinochet, and Pahlavi, and Samoza, and Marcos, weren’t just people we put up with being bastards. They weren’t just bastards we supported and encouraged: they were all bastards we put into power (which wasn’t true of Hussein and Noriega; not that I think that would have helped either of them when the Bush family decided it was no longer useful to pretend they were of service as bogeymen, after they stopped being sufficiently subservient to “our” ends).

Nope. Governments are large and scandal is worse than failure. Who cares that someone broke the law (and some skulls), so long as it can be covered up, and plausibly denied?

It’s not that I am surprised to learn that torture became an essential part of the proccess, nor that it corrupted the stream of information. I’m not surprised to learn that thigns which didn’t have torture to, “verify” them weren’t believed, nor that people were tortured to confirm things which then had to be reconfirmed by the expedient of simple follow up up in the field (which could have been done first, and so would have obviated the rationale for torture. It’s what I said would happen, because it’s what always happens when torture becomes a run of the mill tool.

So that’s par for the course. What shouldn’t be is that when such a thing breaks out of it’s box of plausible deniablity that we decide to sanction it.

I’m not much of one for the, “broken windows” school of policiing (esp. because the policies which walk abroad under that rubric are 1: fundamentally racist, and 2: anti-thetical to a nation ruled by laws*). I do, however, think that when a flagrant violation of the law takes place, then something needs to be done.
Sadly, not everyone agrees. Some of this is base hypocrisy. When someone tells you they have no problem with “stop and frisk” (or some other “broken windows” based idea) ask them if Bush, Cheney, et. alia, ought to be charged.

Not convicted, but haled into court and made to stand trial for crimes they admit to having committed (sometimes you can put their hypocrisy into plainer light if you get them to say, “yes, it’s illegal, but sometimes you have to; then you admit it and face the music, at which point they tap dance to explain why it’s different this time. If you have a yen for making people look like complete fools ask those same people how they feel about Clinton’s impeachment; then ask why that situation (a non-criminal fib, is so much more important than breaking laws against torture).

It’s better if this person is one of the “St. Ronnie” crowd. Becuse it’s not just the Geneva Conventions which were violated, but a law against torture which Reagan sponsored; which he touted as being a bedrock of our moral values. It’s not that we’ve always ignored them (nor that we’ve never had fools and idiots who didn’t care whom we tortured, so long as it was never someone who looked like them; and they are usually white). We even sent cops to jail for waterboarding people (in Texas of all places).

But none of this is new to me. I’ve been saying some form of this, in print, and at conferences, for ten years.
What saddens me is how deep the rot has gone. We’ve come to the point where no one thinks we really have a nation of laws, despite Obama saying, “First and foremost, we are a nation built on the rule of law, and so we need to accept that this decision was the grand jury’s to make,” when Darren Wilson being legally exculpated for murder. As a result the cops in Berkeley are shooting tear gas and rubber bullets at people when they choose to “peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

But a nation of laws is only a nation of laws if they are applied. If we truly are a nation of laws, we need to put the architects of this systematic violation of several of our laws on trial. We could, I suppose, just accept that we have a class of criminal which is above the law, polticians.

Which isn’t true. It could also be argued, from recent history that we’ve still got the category of institutional fraudster/thief whom we absent from prosecution: viz Wall Street and the serial collapse of the economy by means of playing fast and loose with the law. It’s actually a larger category than that, given the disproportionate treatment of Enron’s Lay and Skillig [and the utter non-punishment of their lackeys] compared to the death of Eric Garner, or Michael Brown, or Tamir Rice or Amadou Diallo lest we forget this isn’t some recent problem. None of the dead people on that list were ever charged with anything; so far none of their killers has been either

Of course all the killers were cops. The cop who killed Garner was exculpated by a grand jury, they seemed to feel the homicide was justified; even though the cop was using a chokehold which was outlawed 30 years ago because (wait for it), it’s often fatal.

But the rest of us… we face the risk of ungodly sentences if we go to trial, because prosecutors pad the charge sheet to extort a plea bargain. We run the risk of years in jail even if we aren’t guilty.

All of which destroys the Rule of Law. It’s from such petty injustices that revolution spreads. It’s from the over-reaction to peaceable assembly that more serious injustice becomes festering grievance.

All of which has been on my mind in the past couple of months.

Brought to a head when I saw that the Anthony Romero,head of the ACLU, said the idea of the Rule of Law demands that we pardon Bush, Cheney, and all the people who committed the tortures they not only sanctioned, not only admitted to sanctioning, but boast of having overseen.

I am croggled at the double-think.

with the impending release of the report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, I have come to think that President Obama should issue pardons, after all — because it may be the only way to establish, once and for all, that torture is illegal.

Got that… to show that torture is illegal… we need to pardon the people who did it. Those laws… they don’t mean anything, but saying, “hey, you committed a crime, and we forgive you, and all the guys who helped you…”
Yeah, I can see how helpful that is. I’ll bet that if we did the same for all the mobsters everyone would admit the Mafia was full of hoodlums. (/sarcasm) I get that Romero is frustrated that no one seems to have the stomach to punish the people who shredded the laws. I’m pretty chapped about it to. But there is no way in hell I am going to say that if we aren’t going to charge them we need to pardon them.

We tried that once before, with Nixon. What we got for our pains was the Cheney/Bush Administration, peopled with all the hacks who were still around from that mess. What they learned was two-fold, 1: hide everything, 2: if you commit big enough crimes no one will dare to hold you to account. To offer them a pardon (not that I think they’d take it, as that would mean admitting legal culpability and morally deficiency) would be to cement that idea. Married to the other ills we have from a lack of prosecutions the idea terrifies me, because he’s deluding himself if he thinks, Prosecutions would be preferable, but pardons may be the only viable and lasting way to close the Pandora’s box of torture once and for all.

They acted in the full knowledge that what they were doing was against the law. They didn’t care. Bush, more than once, casually admitted he was (and had been) breaking laws, and had no intent of stopping.

Which is is what makes me angry. We have become so jaded that we accept the idea that there is something reasonable about saying, “oh yeah, you broke US laws, violated treaties, killed innocent people; by torturing them to death (when they weren’t “merely” driven mad. Read the released summary, if you have the stomach, and remember that it’s only a summary. The entire thing is worse). But hey, because torture is SO FUCKING HORRIBLE, we aren’t going to put your ass in jail for the rest of your life, we’re going to forgive you, without going through the effort of having a trial and saying you are guilty, and ought to be punished, so we are going to pre-emptively pardon you; so everyone will know how serious we are about hating torture.

Fuck that noise. At this point I wish there was some sort of tribunal with the moral rectitude, and money/power to enforce the Noriega Doctrine, and haul them to the ICC by force.

Because we are fast forfieting any right to deny the international community the right to extradite them. Rumsfeld will probably never go to France again, and it wouldn’t disturb my sleep to know that Bush and Cheney, Rice and Wolfowitz, Woo and Bybee, were looking nervously over their shoulders, wondering when the tipstaff is going to show up behind them

But, for the sake of the nation as a whole, we dare not pardon them, even if that means they die without being prosecuted: because it’s possible a later age will take it up (as some of them are still young enough that there are decades in which this consummation [devoutly to be wished] may come to pass).

Moreover, the why won’t matter. What will be seen is that torture is an offense for which one can be given carte blanche ex post facto.

Bullshit. And we can’t extend the idea that of, “for the good of the state the bearer has been pardoned for what has been done”. It’s not so. It’s specious. There are dogs which ought not be let lie.

*“There are individuals whose propensity to crime is so high that no set of incentives that it is feasible to offer to the whole population would influence their behavior,” Banfield wrote. The most effective way to prevent violent crime in cities, Banfield theorized, would therefore be to pre-emptively abridge the freedom of the “mostly young, lower-class males” who were likely to commit crimes in the future. What’s that? You say that “abridging the freedom of persons who have not committed crimes is incompatible with the principles of free society”? Well, said Banfield, “so, also, is the presence in free society of persons who, if their freedom is not abridged, would use it to inflict serious injuries on others.”

If you read the original think piece about Broken Windows you see the authors praising cops who use, step outside the law to enforce, “order”: Sometimes what “Kelly” did could be described as “enforcing the law,” but just as often it involved taking informal or extralegal steps to help protect what the neighborhood had decided was the appropriate level of public order. Some of the things he did probably would not withstand a legal challenge…the police in this earlier period assisted in that reassertion of authority by acting, sometimes violently, on behalf of the community. Young toughs were roughed up, people were arrested “on suspicion” or for vagrancy, and prostitutes and petty thieves were routed. “Rights” were something enjoyed by decent folk, and perhaps also by the serious professional criminal, who avoided violence and could afford a lawyer… That’s the message of “broken windows”: Rich people have rights, the rest of us, not so much.

On the ground:

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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.


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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.


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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.

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