Tag Archives: military history

This Day in History 6/10: US Marines land in Cuba, 1898

US Marines hoisting the colors at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, 1898

It’s an often-overlooked period in history, but the Spanish-American War had long-reaching consequences for the United States.

On June 10, 1898, the first US ground forces would land in Cuba, at Guantanamo Bay on the eastern side of the island.  Their landing site would give rise to an American military station that still exists today, albeit under clouds of controversy due both to our usage of it as a terrorist dumping ground and our not-so-wonderful relations with Cuba. 

The war itself would drag on until the Treaty of Paris on August 12, 1898.  The Spanish got rid of the costly remains of a burdensome empire (to the tune of about $20 million), and the United States, the country that staked its reputation as a beacon of freedom against colonialism, suddenly adopts colonies of its own.  It led to troublesome relations with Cuba (occupied by us until 1902, and you know plenty about the rest), Puerto Rico (where the parade comes from, and which we still have) and the Philippines (which after a bloody insurrection and surrender to the Japanese, we finally gave independence to in 1946). 

I included two clips from the 1997 TV movie Rough Riders, about the exploits of Theodore Roosevelt and his volunteer cavalry in Cuba.  The clips depict the battles for Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill, respectively.  Something to note about the movie: it’s sickeningly hokey and sappy.  Yet it does show two anachronisms that deviate from the popular version of these historic battles:

(1) The real hero of San Juan was not Theodore Roosevelt, but rather Lieutenant “Black Jack” Pershing and his Buffalo Soldiers.  Fresh from the Indian wars, these black soldiers were among the ONLY US military personnel in Cuba with any combat experience.  If they weren’t covering Roosevelt’s right flank, the battle would ended very differently.

(2) Our naval forces were modern in 1898, but our land forces were a different story.  While outnumbered, the Spanish had Model 1893 Mauser rifles and Maxim machine guns that would be used less than 20 years later in the trenches of World War I.  Our boys were equipped with the Krag-Jørgensen Rifle, a complex, one-at-a-time loader that was difficult to clean and put together.  It served the shortest period in the US Army, until 1903.  As for automatic weapons, we still slung around 1862-model Gatling crank guns, but we also had M1895 Colt-Browning guns that spit out casings through a weird lever action.  It wasn’t until after this war that the US Army did a drastic overhaul of weapons, tactics and uniforms, finally putting the blue jackets to rest.

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Memorial Day Video: Liberation of a Concentration Camp, from Band of Brothers

We hope everyone at the Neighborhood is enjoying their Memorial Day weekend.

This piece from the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers demonstrates why it is so important to celebrate holidays like this one.  It shows Easy Company, 506th Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne division as it inadvertantly liberated a concentration camp in Germany. 

Now this is obviously my opinion, but I have strong feelings about our men and women in uniform.  Say what you will about the reasoning of our wars; I will not broker disrespect of the troops in our armed forces.

Many people may question how our military is used, and the abuses it may have inflicted in its long history.  We used ragtag guerrilla tactics, genocidal ruthlessness and foreign assistance to defeat our colonial masters.  We vanquished our southern neighbor in order to seize half of its territory.  We systematically corraled the indigenous population of our continent to make way for settlement and land speculation. 

World War II, however, was our greatest hour.  The United States, attacked by surprise and unprepared, rose to defeat two aggressive powers bent on world domination.  Yet we did not conquer, we did not subjugate…on the contrary, we liberated occupied peoples and rehabilitated our former enemies. 

No army on Earth ever did that before, not in all of human history.

This is why we are American.  This is why we should honor our military personnel.  This is why we celebrate Memorial Day.

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This Day in History 7/16: The Atomic Bomb and the Constant Search for the Ultimate Weapon

On July 16, 1945, a pack of scientists sat worried in the high desert of New Mexico.  Some of the greatest minds of their generation, they created what they thought was the ultimate super weapon. 

Yet no one was happy about it.

Some feared that this new “atomic bomb” would lead to the destruction of the Earth itself.  Others thought that the atmosphere would ignite, engulfing the planet in a ball of fire.  Still others thought the darn thing was a dud—there was no way a thing that small can cause the amount of destruction they had projected.

Yet once the countdown finished, the genie (or the demon, depending on your point of view) was out of the bottle.

The successful test of the first nuclear weapon at the Trinity test site near Alamogordo, New Mexico changed history.  It was then conceivable that a weapon can be created that was so destructive and so terrifying as to render warfare obsolete.  Yet even after the Cold War, we continue to feel the lasting effects of these weapons—on our budgets, our environment, our foreign policy, and our everyday lives.

The search for the one super weapon, the “ultimate weapon”, has existed since the dawn of man.  In a few decades, perhaps sooner, a weapon will be developed that supersedes the atomic missile.  Let’s hope the US Air Force is building a Death Star, so we can wipe out countries that are a little too fresh.  Until that time comes, here’s a few of the “ultimate weapons” of history:

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Chariot—Blitzkrieg was not a German invention (sorry, Adolf).  The chariot was the perfect example of making the best of a bad situation.  The Hyksos invaded Egypt in the 16th Century BCE and brought with them a light cart that provided quick mobility.  The Egyptians took the technology and perfected the first terror weapon in human history.  Gangs of chariots zooming down the field, with archers and spearmen in tow; the Egyptians were the first to utilize speed and overwhelming force in battle.

 

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The Trireme—I knock the film 300 constantly, but here the offense is legitimate.  Xerxes was not defeated because of Gerard Butler and his scantily-clad Spartans, but rather due to an innovation in the Athenian navy.  The trireme was a fast, powerful galley vessel with three rows of rowers and a stout ramming prow.  These vessels not only defeated Xerxes at the straits of Salamis, but also propelled another half-century of Athenian dominance in the Mediterranean, spreading generic gyros and bland tzatziki sauce across an empire.

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“Greek Fire”—I don’t mean the feeling you get when you see Stavros, the hot waiter at that Astoria diner.   Greek Fire was a true wonder weapon, used by the Byzantines for centuries.  Its composition and origins remain clouded in mystery, another plus if you want to spread wanton fear in your enemies.  Greek Fire managed to keep the Islamic armies at bay for centuries, until the Turks basically figured out its nothing more than a crude flamethrower.

 

Trebuchet

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Trebuchet—used by the Chinese and Romans but later perfected in Medieval Europe.  If you needed to breach a wall, or lay siege to a castle, the trebuchet was often your only option.  Part slingshot, part catapult, it was designed to hurl projectiles over long distances at a high arc, similar to a low-altitude bombing.  It was also used in a crude form of biological warfare: sling a rotting, disease cow carcass over the wall and let the fun begin.

 

TheTsarCannonJuly2004

 

 

 

 

 

  

                                            The Firearm—the Chinese developed gunpowder around the second century CE, but firecrackers and bottle rockets can only do so much.  The firearm—first the cannon, then the musket—began showing up on European battlefields in the late 14th Century.  Heavily armed knights often had a good laugh at these toys, manned mostly by peasant conscripts or the local militia.  They weren’t laughing for long, not after they noticed the power and range of those weird brass and iron tubes. 

 

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The Rifle—early firearms were no better than blowguns with a gunpowder ignition.  In the 18th Century, German hunters developed a musket with a spiral groove in the barrel to spin the bullet, providing increased speed, power and accuracy.  These hunters settled in America, particularly in Pennsylvania, where their invention found fans in American colonists, frontiersmen, trappers, and the Continental Army.  The rifle was especially useful in hunting game and hunting British officers.  Now that’s not very sporting, is it?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The “Ship of the Line”this was the first true “weapon of mass destruction.”  So called because of their single-file formation, “Ships of the Line” were giant sailing fortresses, often carrying over 100 cannon a piece.  The British navy were masters of this type of vessel, using “ships of the line” as protective convoys for Caribbean trade, in naval warfare with the French, Dutch and Spanish, and as intimidation for compliance (think Revolutionary Boston and New York).  Its high water mark came in 1805, as hundreds of British and French behemoths clashed at the straits of Trafalgar.  The British victory made Horatio Nelson a martyred hero and Trafalgar the name of a London square that drives motorists nuts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Iron Ship—Leave it to a civil war in the United States to render every navy afloat obsolete in a matter of months.  The Confederates, with few ships in their navy, took old wooden ships and slapped iron sheets on its sides, with gun ports on two sides.  Their first, an old Union ship called the USS Merrimack, rechristened the CSS Virginia, terrorized the southern Atlantic coastline.  The federals countered with the USS Monitor, a ship made entirely of iron with a revolving gun turret.  The world watched in awe—metal could indeed float, with terrifying consequences.

 

Vickers_IWW

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Machine Gun—developed by different inventors at different times, the machine gun came very close to being the “mother of all weapons”, the weapon that would render war obsolete.  American inventors Richard Gatling (in 1862) and Hiram Maxim (1896) developed weapons that fired multiple rounds in succession.  Gatling’s gun required multiple barrels and hand cranking.  Maxim’s model was self-propelled, with a single water-cooled barrel and belts of ammunition to feed into the gun.  Its grand moment came in World War I, when centuries of tactics and strategy, tactics dating back to Napoleon, were cut to ribbons in the spray of machine gun fire.

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                                             The Tank—armored vehicles are not a new concept; horses and other pack animals carried armored plating for centuries.  Yet when merged with automotive technology, heavy artillery and machine guns, you have a mobile killing machine.  The British first introduced the tank in 1917, and subsequent variations have spread destruction across Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.  It also provided another setting for Donald Sutherland to play a drugged-out weirdo (Kelly’s Heroes.)

 

Boeing B-17E

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Heavy Bomber—as the machine gun was the poster boy for World War I, the heavy bomber takes the prize for World War II.  If there was one machine responsible for the majority of death and destruction in a single war, this would be it.  German Heinkel He-177s, British Avro Lancasters, American B-17s, B-24s and B-29s laid down more ordinance over Europe than every other European conflict combined.   It’s also responsible for the infamous bombing of Dresden.  Those monsters, how could you bomb all those porcelain figurines?

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                                     The Kalashnikov AK-47 Assault Rifle—another rifle?  Just hear me out.  The Soviets developed this Assault rifle at the tail end of World War II as a standard issue semi-automatic rifle for the Red Army.  It’s rugged, reliable, cheap to make, and easy to maintain.  The perfect weapon for the Communist on a budget, the AK-47 is the most ubiquitous firearm in the world.  In this case, don’t think quality, think quantity: find me a part of the world where you couldn’t get your mitts on an AK for a reasonable price…even a ridiculously low price.  These babies were going for $100 a pop in Sierra Leone not too long ago.

As usual, I probably missed many other candidates for the “ultimate weapon” of its time.  My apologies to the Greek phalanx formation, various Roman siege weapons, the longbow, the Mongol compound bow, the fighter plane, the heavy artillery of World War I (“Big Bertha”, or the “Paris Gun”), submarines, guided missiles, stealth technology and the neutron bomb.  Just to name a few.

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