September 2012 – Letters From Readers

7/5/2012 • MH Letters

Warring Over Raw Materials
I thoroughly enjoyed Kevin Baker’s take [“The Prophet of Sea Power,” March] on Alfred Thayer Mahan’s classic work [The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783]. Regarding his conclusion: I agree that what a nation makes or produces—the quantity, the quality, the innovation and technological advances—builds indomitable economic power, but none of it can be done without raw materials, especially oil and other fossil fuels. Manufacturing and other economic activities that have created our upscale lifestyles need energy, and (nuclear energy notwithstanding) it is now, and will be in the foreseeable future, coal-, oil- or gas-produced energy.

“Oil,” it is said, “lubricates the wheels of prosperity,” because the correlation between oil and economic growth is unmistakable. Though in hindsight it seems to make no sense for the United States, Britain, Germany and Japan to have made war among themselves, there are strong arguments that Germany and Japan thought war a perfectly sensible solution to their lack of raw materials, primarily oil, to sustain their economic power.

Frank Hughes
Palm Harbor, Fla.

Mahan & Upton
For years I have enjoyed the depth and diversity of Military History’s articles. What moves me to write now is a pair of pieces by Kevin Baker: the first on Alfred Thayer Mahan (“The Prophet of Sea Power,” March), the second on Emory Upton (“Emory Upton and the Shaping of the U.S. Army,” May).

Baker faults Mahan with numerous mortal sins, including “the exploitation and suppression of foreign peoples and the corruption of one’s own humanity” resulting from publication of his work [The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783] in 1890. Mahan did not create the formula for global naval power—it already existed in the British navy of Mahan’s day; other nations, particularly Germany and Japan, were already busily copying it. That the world’s rulers should apply Mahan’s blueprint to future hostilities cannot be fairly placed upon his head any more than our lopsided genocidal wars against the American Indians can be blamed upon Upton for his Army reforms.

In the second article Baker writes that Union Maj. Gen. James Wilson assembled cavalry armed with Spencer carbines, “a revolutionary new strike force…the first, primordial stirring of what would one day evolve into mobile infantry.” In fact, dragoons had been developed in Europe and elsewhere for at least 200 years before our Civil War, arising from the need to transport infantry by horse when speed of movement was required. So while Upton certainly did not invent mobile infantry, as Baker suggests, he should get credit for knowing a good thing when he saw it.

Peter M. Meisner
River Ridge, La.

Kevin Baker responds: Meisner claims Mahan “did not create the formula” for global naval power but did provide the “blueprint.” I leave the semantics to him but reiterate: Mahan had an overwhelming influence on the leaders of Germany and Japan, and his blueprint meant continuous colonial wars. Meanwhile, the firepower of the carbine placed Upton’s mobile infantry qualitatively above any dragoons.

Persian Power
Bravo to Jim Lacey for his article “The Persian Fallacy” [July] on the true military prowess of the ancient Persians. They conquered an empire with a formidable army and were not pushovers in any way. In following centuries the horse warriors of Iran became even more potent with their adoption of heavily armored cataphract cavalry. The Romans had a much tougher time fighting the Persians than did the Greeks because of this elite shock cavalry. The Sassanid Persian dynasty, ruling from the 3rd through the 7th centuries, managed to nearly reconstitute the full extent of the old Achaemenid empire that had been conquered by Alexander.

Marc De Santis
New York

Stephan Wilkinson’s “What We Learned From the Kasserine Pass” [July] seems to base much of its information on the 1970 film Patton. Karl Malden’s Omar Bradley said German tanks were diesel; in reality they used variations of Maybach gasoline engines. They exploded just as often as ours did, especially as the 75mm gun of the M4 Sherman (and the M3 Lee/Grant for that matter) could penetrate all Axis tanks, except for the Tiger. The only nation to use diesel engines in large numbers of tanks in Europe was the Soviet Union. The U.S. Marine Corps and Japan used diesel-powered tanks in the Pacific. The M4 also had reliability unmatched in either the Axis or British camp. The rest of our weapons weren’t too shabby either. The M1 Garand rifle was 40 years newer than the German Mauser, and both the Germans and our Allies especially liked the versatile 4×4 jeep.

Nathan Wells
Braintree, Mass.

Editor responds: While the Germans had developed a diesel-powered tank (the Panzerkampfwagen VIII Maus) by war’s end, their tanks at Kasserine did, indeed, run on gasoline. We regret the error.

Southern Summer
In the Decisions article “Crossing the Andes” [July], Ed Lengel describes how on Jan. 19, 1817, Argentine General José Francisco de San Martín “led his 4,000-man army from Mendoza, Argentina, toward the snow-choked passes of the Andes, planning to surprise the Spanish forces in Chile. No army had ever attempted the crossing, and a midwinter passage seemed inconceivable.” Perhaps Lengel didn’t realize what Argentine-born San Martín obviously knew—that in the southern hemisphere January is in the summer. So a march over the Andean passes at that time of year, while still arduous, was the correct decision, since there is very little snow at that time of year at such altitudes.

Richard Weeks
Portsmouth, N.H.

Editor responds: We missed the season by a hemisphere and regret the error. Not to diminish San Martín’s feat, as he and his men did traverse several hundred miles of rugged terrain through frigid, snowy (if not snowbound) mountain passes.

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