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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Monday, November 12, 2018

War…. What is it Good For?

As there’s no great burning issues I want to vent about and whilst there’s nothing much going on in my life (just hanging in there for my long Christmas break) I thought I’d let you in on some more of my long term reading plans.

So…. War, just what IS it good for? Well, novels apparently! As a long-time fan of war fiction in all its guises I thought I’d get together and put some war novels together in my usual ten book lumps. I’m just coming to the end of my 20th Century Classics set and then I’ll be moving onto 10 Historical Crime novels. After that I’m finally back to the Future with 10 novels of Man Vs Machine which should be much fun. After that we actually get to the topic at hand with 10 novels of World War One. Which, naturally, got me started on other war themed reads. Here’s my thoughts so far:

World War Two
Modern War (1945-Present)
Vietnam War
Future War
Alternative War
Fantasy War
Ancient War
Dark Age War
Medieval War
Early Modern War
Gunpowder War
American Civil War
War at Sea
War in the Air
War in Space

Now, if I didn’t read anything else those 150 books would take me around 2 years to work through. As I would, naturally, be reading other things that’ll extend to around 10 years and maybe more (I’m wondering if I could go for one ‘topic’ per year…). It’s certainly something to think about long term – maybe post-retirement. I already have the WW2 set ready to go and the Modern War set is wide enough to be easy to acquire. Likewise Vietnam should be a problem and Combat SF should be a walk in the park. In fact most of the topics shouldn’t be too much of a problem and I probably already have 3-5 books in each category. This is actually starting to look achievable…… [muses].

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Uncomfortable ideas part of learning, says regulator

From The BBC

6 November 2018

Uncomfortable ideas should not be suppressed on campus and students should learn to deal with them through debate, a university regulator says. Sir Michael Barber, head of the Office for Students (OfS), says universities need to be places of "vigorous debate". They should, he says, be places where "the pursuit of truth is not a platitude but a daily quest". He said the OfS, the new main regulator of the higher education sector, will be an "unashamed champion" of free speech. Speaking at the higher education Wonkfest conference in London, Sir Michael said students should combat challenging speech through argument rather than suppression. "The way to deal with discomfort is to develop the resilience to overcome it, not to hide or flee from it," he said.

"Indeed, I would argue that feeling uncomfortable is an essential ingredient of learning and the pursuit of truth." He said he would encourage institutions to be "bold" when inviting speakers. "The OfS encourages the widest possible definition of freedom of speech within the law," he added. Sir Michael said the issue of free speech on campuses was also about the diversity of perspective in seminars and lectures and how ideas are debated. "There is a tendency currently to suggest that students should be protected from ideas that they may make them feel uncomfortable," he said. He added: "Free speech is one of the most precious freedoms ever established, and universities above all should be places where it is cherished. The OfS will be an unashamed champion of free speech. If we ever decide to intervene on this subject, it will only be to extend and never to restrict freedom of speech."

Sir Michael also said universities that are not financially sustainable will not be bailed out, adding that university leaders should not assume they are "too big to fail" if their institutions get into difficulty. He said some university bosses making misjudged financial decisions believe "ultimately it will be OK because the OfS will bail them out. This is wrong, the OfS will not bail out providers in financial difficulty. This kind of thinking - not unlike the too-big-to-fail idea among the banks - will lead to poor decision-making and a lack of financial discipline, is inconsistent with the principle of university autonomy and is not in students' longer-term interests." The OfS, which legally came into force in January, is designed to look after the interests of students in higher education in England. It replaced the Higher Education Funding Council for England as the sector's main regulator and will hold universities to account for the quality of teaching they provide.

[At last! Someone using that rare talent today – Common Sense. If you are only presented with safe pre-approved ideas then you essentially learn nothing. If you never have to defend your own ideas or discover why others are flawed (or maybe better than the ones you agree with) you never grow and you never actually hold your beliefs as well as you think you do. Things improve when they are challenged so embrace debate and don’t shy away from things that make you uncomfortable.]

Thursday, November 08, 2018

So, you say you want a Revolution....

Just Finished Reading: The War in the West – The Allies Fight Back 1941-1943 (FP: 2017)

Despite the loss of Continental Europe by 1941 the West had survived the onslaught of the Axis Powers. Without neutralising Britain, even if hardly ready to take the fight to the Germans yet, the next objective was an invasion of Russia. Delayed by the necessity to push the British out of Greece and Crete a late start to Operation Barbarossa was going to cause problems if things did not go exactly as predicted. At first they did. The German armies advanced deeply into Russia destroying whole armies and taking millions of prisoners. They looked, and must felt as if, nothing could stop them. But there was always another river to cross, another town to take another counter-attack however ineffective, to fight off. The Russian’s capacity to resist after enormous losses was staggering.

Meanwhile the British had not been idle. On the twin battlefields of North Africa and the Atlantic seaways they were making progress. Despite some early losses at sea the British Isle was actually stockpiling food and other resources as well as turning ever more acreage over to farmland. In contrast Germany was having to cut the national ration and had ordered food to be recovered from conquered territory no matter the cost to the local inhabitants. German lives would come first. Advances in the desert forced Hitler to send precious resources to bolster the Italians in their efforts to take Egypt from the British. Always a sideshow for Hitler it was a running sore which haemorrhaged men, vehicles and material that was needed elsewhere on the vast plains of Russia.

Before the cowardly attack in December 1941 the US was already supplying war resources that Germany could only dream about. Starting from a very low level US manufacturing of weapons and ships began to skyrocket thanks to the efforts of industrialists assigned to the task by President Roosevelt. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor the gloves really came off and America went into hyper-drive now fighting a war across two great oceans. But more was needed. Ships and tanks were one thing but men were needed to make them work. Britain was reaching the peak number available for the conflict but needed more. Americans would fill the gaps and enlarge the size of the Allied armies enormously - given time.

Despite a slow start and despite both bad press and a steady opposition the idea of effective strategic bombing began to gain traction. At first using largely unsuitable aircraft with emerging technologies in too small a number the overall effect of night time bombing was negligible. But with more and, more importantly, larger four engine bombers coming on stream the concept of the 1,000 bomber raid slowly became reality and started to have an effect on the German economy especially. Because Germany had never envisaged a long war little innovation had been built into its weapons programmes. The Me109 that had fought so well in the Battle of Britain had already begun its long slide into obsolescence. As better and better models of Spitfires came off the production lines in the UK and new American fighters and bombers began to arrive in ever greater numbers the Luftwaffe increasing found itself on the back foot. Losing experienced pilots and machines it could not easily replace the quality and quantity available to challenge the new 24 hour air assault steadily declined.

Far too late Hitler realised that the Battle of the Atlantic needed to be won if Germany was to have any chance of beating the West. Unfortunately for the U-boat commanders by the time this lesson had been learnt it was already too late. Close co-operation between the British Navy alongside the Canadians and the US together with the increased use of long range bombers and ever improving technology – both defensive and offensive – made an attack on a convoy a very hazardous proposition indeed. As U-boat Ace after Ace sank to the bottom or were captured, inexperience crews faced ever more challenges from a resurgent and confident naval coalition. Plus no matter how much Allied tonnage sank on the way to Britain a Liberty ship rolled off the gangway faster than the U-boats could sink them.

As 1943 approached it was clear that the tide had turned in the Allies favour. They held North Africa after years of tough fighting, the Atlantic shipping lanes were almost clear of enemy submarines, an ever greater tonnage of bombs fell on both Germany and Italy and the Russians had held the line and were starting to push back. It was the beginning of the end for the Axis.

This is the middle book of the new trilogy history of the War in the West – largely looking at things from a resource/logistics point of view rather than just battles and war leaders. It’s a very interesting perspective and actually brings into sharp focus the reason why the various powers did what they did and when they did it – often because they had to! The author continues his debunking of the German superiority myth which is a difficult thing to do really. We seem to have grown up with the idea of German invincibility (or at least technical superiority) which often does not appear to have been the case. Looking behind the seemingly efficient surface propaganda we can see just how inefficient, chaotic and just plain delusional it all was. The author maintains, with much to back him up, that the Axis Powers simply couldn’t win against the Allies once they had woken up from their pre-war slumber. After their failure to knock Britain out in 1941 it was only a matter of time before the Germans and their often distressing allies were crushed. Whilst I didn’t think this had the same powerful impact as the first volume (helped no doubt by my fascinating with the 1939-41 period) this was still very much an excellent look at some of the pivotal moments in modern history. It’s a hefty and wrist aching 707 pages (not counting appendices, index and massive bibliography) but most definitely worth the effort to hold it!