The Definitive Battle of the Civil War

The Civil War holds a unique space in the American experience.  We’ve been taught it in high school, entertained with it by Hollywood, and informed on it by documentaries.  The war between North and South was the result of philosophical, economic, and political fissures at our founding that metastasized into violent conflict seventy years later.  The unfinished business and unresolved differences not settled by the pen at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 were settled by the rifle on farmlands turned into battlefields in the 1860s.

All wars have much riding on their outcomes.  But the American Civil War was particularly impactful.  It was not just the sovereignty of a nation, self-determination, or the demarcation of borders that were at stake.  Ultimately, this conflict would be about the inalienable rights of human beings.

Which means the outcome of the Civil War and the North’s victory over the South had implications far beyond preserving the Union.  A unified America’s ascendency on the global stage after the Civil War brought with it global benefits to countless nations and peoples for a hundred years: capitalism’s economic prosperity, republican democracy’s spread, and the defeat of fascism and communism, to name a few.

So understanding the military strategy, tactics, and luck of the Civil War matters.  The decisive moments of the war became decisive moments for humanity.

Conventional wisdom tells us the decisive moments of the Civil War are battles like Gettysburg and its crucial moments of Union General Buford securing the high ground at the start to Confederate General Pickett’s failed charge at the end.  And that the only theater that mattered was in the east where Lee faced off against the Army of the Potomac.  And how the economic might of the Union strangled the life out of the Confederacy.

All were significant in resolving the conflict in the manner it was settled.  But none were as critical to the war’s outcome than the events tied to a two-day battle in a remote corner of Tennessee that garners too little mention in classrooms, Hollywood, or bookshelves.

The most consequential event that impacted the outcome of the Civil War was the Battle of Shiloh.

It was fought in early April 1862 and got its name from a small church in its vicinity.  Ironically, Shiloh in Hebrew translates to ‘heavenly peace’.

The Battle of Shiloh was anything but heavenly.

At its start, Shiloh was the largest engagement of the Civil War to that point.  At its conclusion, Shiloh became the bloodiest battle in American history to that point.[1] The hope of a quick and decisive victory for either side by a single decisive battle died at Shiloh, along with thousands of soldiers.

But Shiloh matters most not for who got the best of who over the two days, tactical considerations, territorial gains, or numeric losses.  No; instead, the Battle of Shiloh matters most because of the impact it had on four leaders, two from each side.  The fates of these four men that were sealed at Shiloh decided the outcome of the Civil War and the preservation of the Union.

Let’s assess the battlefield fates of four disruptively innovative military leaders.

Albert Sidney Johnston

Johnston was a proven Army veteran officer before the Civil War, having served in various conflicts across the western United States.  Johnston was considered by Jefferson Davis to be the best general in the Confederacy until Robert E. Lee emerged (before the Civil War, Lee was under the command of Johnston in the US Army).

Johnston may have been the best officer in the entire nation before the war, and President Lincoln knew it: Johnston, who at war’s outbreak was serving as commander of the US Army Department of the Pacific, was rumored to have been offered the position to lead the Union armies when hostilities ensued.  After Johnston declined the offer, Lincoln then made a similar offer to Lee, who also declined.[2]

General Johnston was tasked with protecting the Western Theater for the Confederacy, including the all-important Mississippi River.  Despite lacking resources and equipment, Johnston was adept at making his forces appear much larger than actual to the Union.

But Confederate leadership dysfunction and the Union’s superiority in men and material led to defeats at Forts Henry and Donelson.  Facing pressure from Richmond, the southern press, and subordinates, Johnston headed into Tennessee looking to take the initiative.

Johnston managed to keep the Union off balance, concentrate his forces at Corinth, and receive reinforcement from coastal regions and cities in the South.  He then proceeded to launch an impressive surprise attack on the Union and Grant at Shiloh.  Johnston viewed the battle he instigated as a “conquer or perish” moment for the Confederacy.

The Union was caught by surprise and a rout ensued for much of the first day at Shiloh.  General Johnston led from the front, and he rallied Confederate troops early in the battle to encourage them forward and not to stop to loot and plunder Union camps that were hastily abandoned by panicked troops.

Leading a charge on horseback in mid-afternoon of the first day, Johnston was struck by a bullet that pierced an artery behind his knee.  Not feeling pain coupled with the profuse bleeding being concealed in his boot, Johnston and his staff were unaware that anything was wrong until he collapsed on his horse from a massive loss of blood.  By then it was too late, and General Johnston bled to death near the infamous Hornet’s Nest on the Shiloh battlefield.

Johnston was the highest-ranking officer on either side killed in action during the Civil War.  The loss devastated the morale of the Confederacy, from President Jefferson Davis down to the common foot soldier.  Davis lamented after Shiloh, “[W]hen Sidney Johnston fell, it was the turning point of our fate; for we had no other hand to take up his work in the West.”  Everyone knew the South lost one of its best leaders.

If Johnston survives the first day of Shiloh, the upsides to the Confederacy are obvious.  Most immediate would be that either the Confederates would have pressed the attack through the evening of the first day to decisively break the Union or that the Union’s recovery and success on the second day of fighting at Shiloh might have been squelched.  These controversial what-ifs are generally referred to as the ‘Lost Opportunity’ for the South at Shiloh, and historians have debated the topic heatedly for 150 years.

But more importantly, the Confederacy would have the benefit of a charismatic, experienced, and able commander for the critical and vast Western Theater of battle.  General Johnston would’ve made the Union and General Grant think twice before taking the initiative subsequent to Shiloh.  Vicksburg and Sherman’s Drive may have turned out differently.  That the military leadership of the Confederacy in the Western Theater under and after Johnston was often inept only makes the able Johnston’s loss more painful.

At a minimum, Johnston continuing to lead the defense of the Western Theater would have bought valuable time for the South.  With the Civil War being one of attrition and will, time offered a path for the Confederacy to victory: via either the Union tiring of the seemingly endless toll of war or with foreign powers coming to the aid of the South if they thought there was a chance for its victory.

Instead, Albert Sidney Johnston was lost that spring day in Tennessee, the Western Theater was where Grant gained confidence and rose in prominence, and Shiloh set the stage for the fall of Vicksburg, the splitting of the Confederacy, and the wrath of Sherman.  The butterfly effect of a single bullet changing the course of history.

General Ulysses Grant

General Grant led early Union success in the Western Theater with his victories at Forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee.  These early accomplishments earned Ulysses S. Grant the nickname “Unconditional Surrender” Grant.

Ulysses Simpson Grant / Barr & Young / Albumen silver print, c. 1862 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

But as Grant’s and the Union’s confidence grew in Tennessee, so did the danger.  The Confederate army was less than three miles away from the Union lines on the eve of Shiloh, yet the Union was oblivious to the enemy presence.  Grant was caught completely by surprise at the start of battle, the relaxed army employed minimal defensive measures, his troops were routed and retreated in panic the first day, and the losses were horrific.

But Grant rallied and took control the second day. Like Johnston, he led from the front.  On the second day, Grant came under heavy fire, with a musket ball hitting his sword at his side.

Perhaps the single most important saving grace for Grant and the Union at Shiloh was the weather.  General Johnston wanted to commence the surprise attack two days prior to when it occurred.  But heavy rains slowed the advance of the Confederates and delayed the attack.  Those extra days allowed Grant’s reinforcements that were arriving to his position to creep steadily closer to where they were able to join the fight and decisively swing the momentum on the second day of battle.

Grant was heavily criticized by many in the North immediately after Shiloh, and he was prepared to resign or take a leave from the army.  But President Lincoln understood Grant offered up one characteristic no other Union general early in the war seemed to muster:  proactive aggressiveness.  When a newsman argued to Lincoln that Grant should be removed, the President’s alleged response was: “I can’t spare this man.  He fights.”

Shiloh was a near-death experience for both Grant’s body and career.  But having survived the disastrous first day and rebounding the second day to push back the Confederacy, Grant built upon his earlier Tennessee successes, learned a few valuable lessons that improved the Union’s prosecution of the war, and set Grant up for the success of Vicksburg and ultimate command of the entire Union army.

Shiloh offered Grant a rare combination of wake-up call and confidence builder.  He exited the battlefield more aggressive than ever in taking the war to the enemy but more diligent in preparation.  The fall of the South was set in those muddy woods in early April 1862.

Nathan Bedford Forrest

After the war, Robert E. Lee was asked to name the greatest soldier of the war.  His response: “A man I have never seen, sir.  His name is Forrest.”  Nathan Bedford Forrest, a native Tennessean, was both an impressive force of nature and highly despicable.

Nathan Bedford Forrest, ca. 1862-1865

He was a self-made, successful, and wealthy plantation owner; one of the few soldiers to start the Civil War as an enlisted private and end it as a general; a visionary that revolutionized cavalry tactics despite having no formal military training; and an intimidating adversary who struck fear across all levels of the Union ranks.

Yet Forrest was a slave trader before the war, likely allowed the massacre of hundreds of Union troops after their surrender at Fort Pillow, and served as the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan after the war.

Like Johnston and Grant, Forrest exhibited extraordinary bravery in active combat early and often in the war.

Through the war, he reportedly killed thirty men in hand-to-hand combat and had twenty-nine of his horses shot out from under him in battle.  Prior to Shiloh, in the winter of 1862, he evaded Grant’s siege of Fort Donelson by leading a break-out and escape of 4,000 troops.

Forrest, an unknown colonel at the time of Shiloh, was assigned to guard the flank of the Confederate lines at the start of the battle.  But hearing the battle rage for hours and receiving no new orders, he decided to unilaterally commit his cavalry to the battle.  His men’s charge helped break the Union’s until-then impregnable Hornet’s Nest, and Forrest made it to the bluffs overlooking the Union’s panic on the banks of the Tennessee River that evening.  Forrest and his cavalry staked the high-water mark of the South at Shiloh.

Forrest commanded the rear guard of the Confederate retreat from Shiloh, during which he led a cavalry charge at a Union skirmish line and found himself alone and surrounded by Union soldiers.  He escaped by viscously fighting his way out with pistol and sword, but not before he was shot and nearly killed.[3] He was the last man injured at the Battle of Shiloh.

After Shiloh, Forrest was turned loose to wage a tactically fluid cavalry guerilla war in the Western Theater.  He achieved a major victory at Murfreesboro, wreaked havoc behind Grant’s lines during the siege of Vicksburg, and secured victory after victory in battles across the western half of the Confederacy.

If Forrest dies during the retreat from Shiloh, the Confederacy would likely have suffered a more rapid collapse in the Western Theater.  That could have accelerated the demise of the Confederacy before Appomattox.

That’s because Forrest was exactly the type of leader the outnumbered, outgunned, and outspent South desperately needed.  His tactical genius overcame and nullified the inferiority of numbers.  Despite usually being the smaller force, Forrest applied unconventional tactics to keep his larger foe constantly off balance and loathing what was to come next.

Forrest recruited, trained, and equipped (often with captured Union arms) his men well.  They loved him for it and faithfully performed whatever task he requested.  Legend has it Nathan Bedford Forrest was the only cavalryman Ulysses Grant feared. General William Tecumseh Sherman lamented that, “Forrest is the devil.”

Shelby Foote in Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary states that the Civil War produced two “authentic geniuses”: Abraham Lincoln and Nathan Bedford Forrest.  Interesting how the former epitomized the best of the human condition while the latter left much to be desired.

William Tecumseh Sherman

Sherman was the trusted subordinate of Grant as well as Grant’s polar opposite in demeanor and style.  Sherman was volatile, opinionated, and always in manic motion.  A general once described Sherman as, “a splendid piece of machinery with all the screws a little loose.”

Gen. William T. Sherman, ca. 1860 – 1865

In the early stages of the war prior to Shiloh, Sherman was disgusted with the performance of, and questioned the commitment of, volunteer Union troops.  At the same time, he admired the commitment the Confederacy displayed between citizens and army.  He feared the contrast between North and South could spell trouble, and his experience at Bull Run did little to change his mind.

At the start of Shiloh, Sherman failed to understand the size and proximity of the Confederates to his lines and was caught off guard when the battle commenced.  Yet Sherman saved the first day for the Union.

Constantly on the front lines that first day, he suffered bullet wounds to his hand and shoulder, had three horses shot out from under him, and his coat and hat were riddled with bullet holes.  But he calmly held the vulnerable right flank and prevented Grant’s army from being tossed back into the Tennessee River and destroyed.

Ironically, Sherman persevered and became a northern hero with the help of an inexperienced and volunteer army that struggled at times on the first day but that also fed off his aura.  The very thing Sherman questioned, the ability of a volunteer army of green non-professional soldiers, became the instrument he wielded so effectively.

The bond between Sherman and Grant strengthened after Shiloh and the seesaw battles in the Western Theater, from Vicksburg to Chattanooga, continued with the North slowly grinding with momentum.[4]  When Grant was promoted and headed east to lead the entire army, he placed Sherman in command of the west.

Sherman commenced to apply his version of total war, looking to crush the South’s economy and political will to fight.  He captured Atlanta and burned it to the ground.  That victory helped reelect Lincoln and silence northern proponents of making peace with the rebels.  Sherman then cut a path of economic devastation to the sea.  The South’s will to fight was shattered.

If one of those bullets that found Sherman’s hand, shoulder, coat, hat, or three horses had fatally wounded him, the Union would have suffered an irreplaceable loss.  Sherman saved the Union at Shiloh, bolstered Grant’s confidence, clinched the Western Theater, innovated the concept of total war, secured Lincoln’s reelection, reinforced northern resolve, and crushed southern morale.

Sherman fought at both the first (Bull Run) and last (Bentonville) battles of the Civil War.  Losing Sherman to the fates of war in April 1862 at Shiloh might very well have changed the duration and course of the Civil War.

Shiloh: Forgotten Yet Hotly Debated

George Washington Cable fittingly wrote, “The South never smiled again after Shiloh.”  The battle, which was a must-win for the South that failed to materialize, occupies a unique space in Civil War lore.

Early morning fog over Shiloh National Cemetery

On one hand, it is largely forgotten, ignored, or placed in the shadow of the more famous Eastern Theater battles.

But on the other hand, the debate over Shiloh rages on.  Years of serendipitous winding through an exploration of writings on the battle brought realization of an intense discourse between Civil War historians as to the heroes and villains for each side.  There is little consensus and passionate opposing views about the key moments of Shiloh as well as the performance and what-ifs of Johnston, Grant, Forrest, and Sherman.

Perhaps the most controversial is Albert Sidney Johnston.  There are noted historians that view him similarly to what I suggest: one of the best the Confederacy had to offer and an irreplaceable loss in the Western Theater.  Yet other accomplished historians view Johnston as incompetent and slow to act, and they offer decent rationale for such a view.

Ulysses Grant is also quite the controversial figure among historians, although it feels as if with the passage of time his legacy is better appreciated and placed in a more positive light.

There is much less controversy about the innovative brilliance of Forrest and Sherman.  But these two share criticisms from many regarding their approaches to war and, in the case of Forrest, decisions before, during, and after the war.

Read More

If you wish to head deeper down the historical rabbit hole of the Battle of Shiloh and its main actors, consider the following as both entertaining and enlightening resources:

Shiloh: The Battle that Changed the Civil War by Larry J. Daniel

Ripples of Battle by Victor Davis Hanson

American Ulysses by Ron White

 

[1] The casualties suffered at Shiloh exceeded the totals of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War, combined!  A shocked North and South were soon to find out things could get much more deadly than Shiloh, as the battles of Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, and Cold Harbor loomed in the future.
[2] When Johnston resigned from his federal position in California to join the Confederacy, the Union attempted to capture Johnston during his journey east.  Johnston evaded capture and ultimately made it to Richmond.
[3] Forrest was shot through the pelvis and the musket ball lodged near his spine.  A surgeon removed it a week later, without anesthesia.
[4] Legend has it that Sherman was the one who talked Grant out of resigning from the army or taking a leave of absence immediately after Shiloh.

When a Blinded 1930s Writer Saw the 2022 Future

Aldous Huxley, the English author, was blinded for nearly two years by infection when he was a teenager. Despite his ailment and lingering poor eyesight, Huxley managed to produce a dystopian classic with a precise vision that gazed ninety years into the future. His masterpiece, Brave New World, predicted with frightening accuracy modern society in the 21st century.

Huxley penned Brave New World in 1931 and published it in 1932, years before Orwell’s 1984. The dystopian worlds offered by each classic share similarities but also present sharp contrasts. Despite 1984’s rightful acclaim, one might argue Brave New World scores more direct hits when it comes to comparing its society to that of modern-day America.

Brave New World envisions a society run by a global bureaucracy that practices a kinder, gentler totalitarianism. There is a strict caste system of elite alphas at the top down through lowly epsilons at the bottom.  Humans are no longer born, but instead are manufactured, in labs with predetermined outcomes and castes.  Complex yet aimless entertainment and the drug soma are applied as tools to numb and train those in society to be passive and submissive.  God no longer exists, and everyone worships Henry Ford and makes the sign of the T.  Monogamy has been replaced with promiscuity.

A World of Parallels to Today

Seven eerily prescient parallels exist between Huxley’s Brave New World and today.

First, Huxley brilliantly illustrated how constant but hollow leisure in society does not lead to increased culture.  A popular saying in Brave New World is “never put off till tomorrow the fun you can have today.”  Games like obstacle golf are encouraged to the point of participation being a civic duty, and the games are designed to be complicated and constantly updated.   The complexity helps promote continuous and hollow consumption, so that people are kept busy by both playing the games and making the equipment to play the games with.  Self-cheating is encouraged.

The connections to today are striking.  Instant gratification prevails over long-term achievement.  Americans now have an obsession on consumerism with the constant acquiring of more stuff.  Consider the exponential growth in mindless entertainment such as VR and gaming.   And our everybody-gets-a-trophy/don’t-keep-score/cheat-until-caught culture.

Second, Brave New World informs us as to how science is the enemy of the totalitarian state when left unhindered and must be tightly controlled and distorted by the state so that it can become a useful instrument.

Science is a crucial piece of the strategy in keeping society in line, but scientific progress was purposely frozen with the advent of the world state.  Science and the muzzling control of it are the prices of stability.  Science propaganda is practiced at colleges, and one believes things because they were conditioned to believe them.  The culmination is science becomes a cook-book orthodoxy that is never challenged. The effort is managed by the state in a 60-story building that houses the Bureau of Propaganda and the College of Emotional Engineering.

The mirroring to today’s world is obvious.

Science has morphed into political science.  The scientific method has been replaced by scientific consensus.  We are told when the science is settled and are instructed to obey.  Questioners and dissenters of popular views or of accepted science in the university culture get labeled as heretics and deniers.  Although most literary critics interpret Brave New World to warn of the danger of science, I interpret something subtly but crucially different:  the danger of the state suppressing and commandeering science.

Third, Brave New World exposes the dangers of how the system can institutionalize class and solidify socio-economic barriers.   Mothers no longer give birth.  Instead, embryos are constructed in the lab and customized through chemistry to manufacture people at the desired caste level.  Effectively, children are decanted, from the privileged alphas down to the low-ranking epsilons.  Each person is molded by the hereditary and by the environment of the state-chosen caste.  Babies are not raised by parents but by State Conditioning Centers and are trained by crude Pavlovian methods to hate flowers and books.  The ideal society is described as having the proportion of an iceberg, where 1/9th sits at the top as elite alphas and the remaining 8/9ths are toiling below the water line.

Think about how much of this is present today.

Our public education system in major cities virtually guarantees students never realize their full potential.  Self-determination as to what one does in life is becoming an increasing rarity because of socio-economic obstacles. Science, math, and reading competency are not the focus of education these days. Instead, the exclusive focus is to deaden the minds of students and create a subservient collective that thinks what it is told to think and believes what it is told to believe.  The 1/9th of elites are the alphas above the water line, while the rest of society is kept struggling below the water line.

Fourth, Brave New World reminds us of the perils of loveless sex and promiscuity.  In Huxley’s society, “everyone belongs to everyone else.”  Sex is pursued exclusively for physical pleasure and the idea of a dedicated and committed relationship is viewed as savage.  The character Lenina (Huxley assigned character names in Brave New World to be plays on despots, scientists, politicians, and business leaders) gets lectured by her friend for not being promiscuous enough.  Children are taught “erotic play.”  Family, love, and monogamy are pornographic.  The word “mother” has become a crude obscenity, so profane that to speak it sparks revulsion.

The similarities to today are obvious.  Marriage and the family structure have never been under more duress.  Internet porn and lust have replaced personal intimacy and love.  Topics that not long ago were discussed in high school sex ed class are now covered in explicit detail in elementary schools.  We are learning that free love often ends up in less love.

Fifth, in Brave New World we see what awaits society in a drug culture. The miracle opiate is soma, and it is administered from cradle to grave, with euthanized death set by the state promptly at age 60.  Workers are paid in soma to feed their addiction.  Soma giveth by arresting the aging process, providing an emotional high, and softening depression during tough times or from harsh realities. But soma also taketh by acting as a poison that kills the person over years of use and eradicating individual thought and free will.

Huxley would be shocked at how the various modern versions of soma afflict Europe and America today.  Social media brings mass emotional addiction to children and adults.  Fentanyl, heroin, crack, alcohol, and marijuana are consumed legally and illegally to create physical additions that cross all socio-economic levels, as people seek escape from whatever haunts them.  Imagery of the physical ideal sets expectations at a young age, leading to more and more medical procedures and treatments to halt the natural aging process.

Sixth, Brave New World paints a society where the individual is erased into the collective and where free will and independent thought are vanquished by totalitarian domination.  Imagination and sense of self are dangers. Individual free thinkers who read the banned great works, from the Bible to Shakespeare, are savages of old civilization and are exiled to the wilds.  A popular slogan is “when the individual feels, the community reels.” Another one is “everyone works for everyone else.”  War is waged against the past, when individual rights were supreme.  To be happy, you don’t pick your path; instead you learn to enjoy the path that has been selected for you.

What an accurate portrayal Huxley foresaw of today’s political correctness.

Views of the state are constantly streamed to kids from all directions and across all mediums so that it conforms their minds.  There are parallels to today’s cancel culture, where you must tear down anything traditional that would make one think and challenge.  College syllabuses delete classic works and public square statutes of prominent leaders are removed.  Dissenters are not simply ostracized but attacked by the Twitter mob.  And meritocracy, attacked as unfair, is replaced with the unethical injustice of equal outcomes.

Seventh and last, Brave New World demonstrates how such a dystopian society is a result of omnipotent and global totalitarian government.  The World State motto is “Community, Identity, Stability.”  A World Controller determines what information is allowed for public access and consumption, what science is acceptable, and what works are to be locked up and forbidden.  The state figured out that social conditioning was much more effective and lasting than brute force when looking to control a population.

These days, global organizations and accords make one wonder if we still live in a republican democracy.   The United Nations, World Health Organization, World Bank, and G-20 hold more sway over Americans’ pocketbooks, quality of life, freedoms, and decision-making than the U.S. Congress.  The faceless unelected bureaucrat buried within the administrative state holds more power than our elected president.  Domestic regulations and international accords take away more of our liberty in 2022 than any legislation or statute.

The Brave New World Outside Our Doors

In conclusion, Huxley provided a valuable service to the human condition.  He presented in stark contrast two very different views for the individual and society.  Consider two passages from Brave New World as illustrative of the contrast.

First, from the Director, who as representative of the state betrays a hatred for the individual: “The greater a man’s talents, the greater his power to lead astray.  Better for one to suffer than many be corrupted. Murder kills only the individual and what is the individual?  We can make more of them.  Unorthodoxy threatens more than the life of the individual, it strikes at society itself.”

Second, from John the outcast, who didn’t want comfort if it prohibited truth: “I don’t want comfort.  I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

Huxley, who passed away on the same day JFK was assassinated, warned us that before we start pining for such a brave new world, we should wait till we see it first.  My fear is the wait is over and it now sits outside our doors.

Heed the Historical Rhyming of Ludwig von Mises’ Omnipotent Government

Ludwig von Mises was a shining light in the Austrian school of economics and for libertarianism. Despite the obsession Keynesians and socialists have with tarnishing his legacy, Mises sounded the alarm about statism louder and clearer than anyone.

One of his great works was Omnipotent Government, which Mises published toward the end of World War II. Although much of the book focuses on analyzing fascism and socialism, many of the book’s insights from the mid-1940s are quite pertinent today.

Capitalism versus Totalitarianism

There are two big, opposite ideological trends for mankind to choose from.

The first is capitalism, which embraces freedom, rights of man, self-determination, and technology. Under capitalism the arts and science thrive. Excellence and meritocracy are celebrated.

The second is totalitarianism, where the state is omnipotent. Power is vested in government because government promises to make paradise.  Individual happiness becomes the duty of government, creating a nanny-state. The final goal is not a national government but a universal government.

Mises understood human nature comes with a certain level of intolerance of criticism of an individual’s social and economic beliefs. Often the intolerance is accompanied with labeling the critics as enemies of the nation, race, or group.

Capitalism has a clearly superior record compared to socialism and communism.  Thus, the supporters of the latter take pains to slander the former. Mises set the facts straight when it comes to capitalism’s superiority over socialism and communism.

Yes, capitalists and inventors get rich, but they do so while everyone else becomes better off with their inventions and products.  Capitalism is far from perfect, but in the long run raises quality of life for all, including the poor. Despite government continually attempting to stifle it. True liberals oppose state impediments to a free economy and freedom of economic activity.

Such benefits are not found with the bureaucrat or state control of the economy. Communism did not bring technological innovation to society and only copied the innovations of the capitalists. Only a bureaucrat can think that adding more bureaucrats, regulations, or impediments can be positive and beneficial. And the justifications will be in the name of progress and freedom, with both being the first casualties.

The concept of pervasive, omnipotent government did not start with the commoners and bubble up to the elite. Quite the contrary. Statism was conceptualized by the elite. All socialist thought was hatched by the 1%.

Totalitarians, whether socialist, religious, fascist, or communist, believe they are smarter than the citizens. Extreme right meets extreme left, with no tolerance of dissent. Hitler got his orders from above; the religious leader is infallible; President Xi enjoys demi-god status; and Putin is now leader for life instead of elected president for term. The German socialist Ferdinand Lassalle claimed, “the state is God,” which was eventually adopted as a slogan by the Nazis.

The Big Middle

But between capitalism and totalitarianism sits a wide spectrum of free market and government intervention mix. Etatism¹ is an economic system where the state owns and runs many things although some limited capitalism still exists.  Economic interventionism is the hallmark of etatism.

There is interference by restriction, where the state diverts production from channels demanded by the market, consumers, and technology into what the state desires.  Doing so makes people poorer, prevents individuals from achieving, erodes wealth, and wastefully expends funds.  Government ends up taxing losers and subsidizing winners, with inefficient bureaucracy in the middle of it all.

Interference by price controls is the second method of government interventionism, which sets values and prices differently than what the market sets them at.  Where market pricing sets equilibrium of supply and demand, government price controls create scarcity and rationing.

Mises found it ironic that the free market nations fighting Germany in World War II, the UK and US, were adopting a more etatist approach with a command economy.  In these once capitalistic economies, taxation was transformed into confiscation, free thinkers were taught to be thought followers, and individual freedom to act was supplanted with government now having the initiative.

In many ways, the creeping etatism of the Allied nations set the stage for World War II by creating international economic strains.  The UK wanted to protect its industry from France.  Belgians fought Dutch imports.  Subsidies for exports grew everywhere.  Protectionist tariffs spread virally.  Each nation was waging an economic war against other nations.  Everyone wanted free trade for everyone else and protectionist policies for their own nation.  Pain and tensions ratcheted up to the breaking point—and it feels like the same is happening today.

Mises knew that to address economic woes or preserve world peace, you don’t need another government office, bureaucrat, or global organization like the UN.

What is needed is stopping and rescinding domestic economic policies that substitute government for the private actor.

Unfortunately, we continue to drift to more etatism, with the growth of the administrative state to address inequality and the adoption of international accords like Paris to ‘combat’ climate change.

The evil genius of the transformation of western nations from free market to etatist is that when troubling symptoms of state control hit, such as inflation, unemployment, and economic inequality, people become convinced it is the fault of capitalism and not the fault of illiberal policies of government intervention. Academia and the bureaucratic state ridicule economic liberalism, the social sciences vilify the free market, university students are taught to admire socialists, and the entertainment industry has been promoting etatism in plays, writings, songs, and movies since the days of George Bernard Shaw.

The closer a nation orbits toward etatism and away from capitalism, the graver the danger. Mises said it best: “A state whose chiefs recognize but one rule, to do whatever at the moment seems expedient in their eyes, is a state without law. It does not make any difference whether or not these tyrants are benevolent.”

Although the state may end up doing and running lots of things, the essence of state action is always coercion and compulsion.  When done surgically and tactically, it works for the individual. But it should never be the ultimate. It is simply an instrument for the true ultimate: the individual.

The Weimer Republic and Today

Unfortunately, state economic intervention is popular as ever, including in the US.  FDR would be shocked to see how since the Great Depression, America blew past his New Deal incremental interventionist shifts and now sits closer than ever to socialism.  How did we get here?  Consider parallels to Germany just after World War I.

During the failed German Weimer Republic, businesses were accused of profiteering, inflation ruined the middle class, incompetent government looked to price controls, and a socialist approach was taken to monetary policy.  The media, economists, and politicians of the time ignored the danger of excessive monetary policy leading to commodity inflation. Capitalism was vilified as exploitive, unfair, warmongering, and benefitting only the 1%.

The answer was to increasingly manage business by government and the bureaucrat.  Easy money, price controls, wage floors, export subsidy, and import tariffs blossomed. All for the public good and to help the little guy.

Sound familiar?

Rise of the Nazis and Today

American popular support for socialism, communism, and state intervention have never been higher. We did not arrive at this point by accident, but under a methodical campaign waged by the elite over decades.

Much of the campaign’s playbook copied that of the Nazis in their rise to power before World War II. Nazism and German nationalism were first resisted by big business and the middle class. But these groups had no consistent ideology and were overcome by the academic focus of Nazism and nationalism. Youth came out of university indoctrinated to the cause.

The nationalists assumed key government posts. The economy became more etatist, which made businesses subserviate to the government and the bureaucrat’s nationalist ideology. The government ended up forcing business to bow to its views and fund those views.  Business had no way to influence public opinion once the tipping point was reached. The intellectuals beat the businessmen.

Substitute leftist/socialist for Nazi/nationalist, 2010-2020s for 1920-1930s, and America for Germany. Concerned?

Conclusion

The state has been an endless source of mischief and disaster through history.

Mises observed that “there is no more dangerous menace to civilization than a government of incompetent, corrupt, or vile men.” The minority in a society stands to lose and suffer the most as a state moves from capitalist end toward the etatist/totalitarian side of the spectrum.

That’s why I’ve always found libertarianism attractive.

Classic liberals and libertarians are not anarchists and do not desire to abolish the state. We want government to recognize the supremacy of the individual and to protect private property. If you have private property, then you have individual rights, and vice versa.

To avoid war, eliminate its causes, which are all too often nationalism and lack of free markets.  Make government small and focused on preserving life, health, and property. And safeguarding the free market.

Yet Mises’ writings convinced me that etatism is the natural tendency of bureaucrats and governments.  Only liberalism and capitalism prevail when pressed and forced by citizens. Market interventionism is a slippery slope that can quickly slide us toward totalitarianism.

Mark Twain noted that history does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes. Let’s hope the American experience in the coming years does not rhyme with Germany’s in the first half of the 20th century.

[1] Alberto Mingardi explains, “Mises uses ‘etatism’ instead of statism because that word, ‘derived from the French état… clearly expresses the fact that etatism did not originate in the Anglo Saxon countries, and has only lately got hold of the Anglo-Saxon mind.’”

Eight Teachings for Business Leaders from the Battle of Midway

This June marks the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Midway—a battle that proved the turning point in the Pacific during World War II.  Over the past eight decades, historians have analyzed the decision making of the Japanese and American admirals while navies have studied the tactics of both carrier fleets. The consensus is that a few crucial decisions and a couple of vital hours in the four-day event swung the Pacific War’s momentum from Japan to the U.S., despite the Japanese enjoying superiority in carrier numbers and crew experience.

The Battle of Midway’s influence even impacted pop culture.  Hollywood produced two feature films depicting the events. The 1976 original boasts an all-star cast of Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, James Coburn, Glenn Ford, Pat Morita, Hal Holbrooke, Robert Wagner, and Eric Estrada (pre-CHIPs).  The 2019 remake, unfortunately, was more of an animated action video game than a film.

The Battle of Midway rightly captured the attention of those beyond war college instructors and military history academics.

Interestingly, one segment that may not have grasped the key takeaways of the battle is the business community. That’s a shame. Analyzing the Battle of Midway provides wisdom and insight for the modern business leader.

A closer look at Midway’s key teachings in the context of competitive commerce:

Midway Teaching #1: Sound Strategy is Required for Success, But Doesn’t Guarantee It

Japan’s Admiral Yamamoto took a broad, strategic view of the Pacific War.  Yamamoto knew Japan’s best chance at victory was to gain advantage over the U.S. Navy early and compel America to lose its desire to fight a protracted war across thousands of miles of ocean.  That strategy drove the planning for the Midway precursors—the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and the Battle of the Coral Sea.

Yamamoto’s strategic vision also drove the planning for the Battle of Midway; he wanted to instigate a naval battle where the remaining U.S. aircraft carriers would be knocked out by the vaunted Kido Butai carrier fleet, hopefully resulting in the U.S. seeking peace or withdrawal from the western Pacific.  It was in many ways a perfect strategy.

Japan’s approach leading up to Midway provides two insights to business leaders.  First, strategy matters, and a rational, well-thought strategy should drive tactics.  Second, you may have a perfectly laid out strategy but fail miserably in the ultimate objective; good strategy is a prerequisite to success but does not guarantee it.

Both insights held true for Japan in the Battle of Midway and hold true in business.  Sound strategy is a must for business success, but it is far from a guarantee.

Teaching #2: Technology Can Both Eliminate and Provide “Edge”

Those familiar with the battle know the U.S. enjoyed advance warning of Japan’s target being Midway Atoll.  That’s because U.S. Navy cryptanalysts were breaking Japanese communication codes and knew weeks in advance that Japan was planning an attack in the Pacific, which the U.S. ultimately verified as Midway.  Admirals Nimitz and Spruance knew what the Imperial Navy planned before combat events unfolded.

Technology not only neutralized Japan’s strategic battle plans by eliminating the element of surprise, but it also flipped the advantage of surprise to the U.S.  The battle was not won solely by pilots and sailors in combat, but also by math majors working on codes at desks.

In business, technology can rapidly make the weak dominant and the strong obsolete. That holds true for companies, industries, and economies.  Taking the long view and investing the talent and resources into technology development and deployment can reap massive returns.

Just ask Amazon, Google, and Apple.  As well as their vanquished competitors such as Kmart, Lycos, and Blackberry.

Teaching #3: Disruptive Innovation Changes Outcomes

One of the American unsung heroes of the Battle of Midway is Lieutenant Commander John Thach, a fighter pilot behind the stick of a Grumman Wildcat.

Thach created and applied a new dogfight defensive technique, dubbed the Thach Weave. During the Battle of Midway the move proved highly effective against the until-then dominant Japanese Zero fighters.

The Thach Weave, which neither side’s commanders saw coming, had a multiplier effect on the battle’s outcome and reached far beyond the win-loss tally of Zeroes and Wildcats. It influenced precious timetables, the number of torpedo and dive bombers breaking through to attack carriers, and decision making.  Without the Thach Weave, the Battle of Midway may have ended with a very different outcome.

In business, disruptive innovation often appears unannounced and is the result of both trial and error as well as necessity.  One must be constantly on the lookout for its arrival as a potential threat that must be quickly acknowledged, and also willing to continually tinker under a sense of urgency to be the disruptor and innovator.

Teaching #4: “Target Fixation” Is a Killer

When the battle was still going relatively well for the Japanese, the Imperial Navy made a fatal error.  The Thach Weave not only proved highly effective in Wildcat dogfights with Zeroes, but it also allowed U.S. torpedo bombers to break through the initial Zero patrols to try to sink Japanese carriers.

The Japanese responded by committing all their patrolling fighters above the carrier fleet to engaging the U.S. Wildcats and torpedo bombers.  The Japanese became fixated on the visible threat developing to the northeast; to the point where they were willing to completely expose their carrier fleet to other threats.

After three hours of intense air combat, the Japanese downed over fifty American planes and lost only eleven of their own.  Even better for the Imperial Navy, there was not even a scratch on the four carriers (Hiryu, Akagi, Soryu, and Kaga).  Target fixation seemed to work quite well.

Yet the Japanese carriers were left with no overhead fighter protection at the worst possible time. Fifty U.S. dive bombers suddenly appeared from two different directions, catching the Japanese by surprise.  The battle-arriving expert pilots proceeded to mortally wound the carriers Kaga, Soryu, and flagship Akagi in quick succession.  In less than five minutes, target fixation helped turn pending Japanese victory and numerical superiority into looming defeat.

Target fixation in business can be lethal.  Pouring all your resources into a single threat, whether real or imagined, runs the risk of ignoring mortal dangers or squandering epic opportunity.  Some of those may make or break a business.

Teaching #5: The Fog of War is the Ultimate Known-Unknown

A military proverb says, “no plan survives contact with the enemy.”  Part of that adage’s wisdom reflects the reality of the fog of war.  The Battle of Midway had its share of fog of war, with the outcome influenced by which side managed their known-unknowns better.

Under the shroud of the fog of war, the Japanese had to contend with: their picket submarines arrived too late off the coast of Hawaii to detect American carriers sailing out to sea; they didn’t know where the American carriers were for much of the battle; they did not correctly identify a carrier once they located part of the U.S. fleet; the shocking appearance of the battle-ready carrier Yorktown after its mauling at Coral Sea ; and, they squandered an opportunity later in the battle when they mistakenly went after an already crippled Yorktown instead of the Hornet or Enterprise.

There is no doubt both sides were acting through the fog of war.  But the Americans did a much more effective job exploring and adjusting as the known-unknowns manifested, as evidenced by their location of the Japanese fleet early on (despite U.S. reconnaissance reporting only two carriers).  That made a huge difference in a carrier battle, where aerial reconnaissance is crucial.

In business, it’s not certain what competitors will do, how regulations may change, or what pending calamities are about to appear.  But recognizing such factors as known-unknowns and developing a team and processes to manage them puts you in a better position to succeed.  Ignoring the known-unknowns invites disaster.

If Yamamoto devised a sound strategy, why did the Japanese lose the Battle of Midway and ultimately the war?  One reason is poor execution; despite the Imperial Navy’s reputation up until then for excellent execution—Vice Admiral Nagumo launched over one hundred carrier planes in ten minutes early in the battle.

Consider a few of the Japanese Navy’s execution blunders during the Battle of Midway:

  • Failure to locate the U.S. fleet early and then not identifying carriers once spotted,
  • Sailing closer to the U.S. carriers, eliminating Japanese range advantage,
  • Switching carrier plane armaments back and forth between bombs and torpedoes, wasting valuable time and creating explosion risk below deck,
  • Fixating on the torpedo squadron threat to the northeast, leaving the carriers without fighter cover and exposed to dive bomb attack; and,
  • Mistakenly attacking the already-crippled Yorktown, squandering an opportunity to take out the Hornet or Enterprise.

Certainly the U.S. had its share of execution missteps, as evidenced by the near slaughter of its torpedo squadrons and the infamous “flight to nowhere.”  But Japanese missteps in execution of battle tactics and decision making proved a decisive differentiator.  Strategically, Japan achieved the tactical battle they wanted, but it lost in part due to poor execution.

A company must not only devise the proper strategy and employ the correct tactics, but it must also execute efficiently.  Execution is the necessary converter of potential value into tangible value.

Teaching #7: Don’t Let Emotions Dictate Decisions

After the Kaga, Soryu, and flagship Akagi were devastated by American dive bombers, Vice Admiral Nagumo had a decision to make: withdraw to fight another day, or continue fighting to even the score?  The decision would need to be made with only one carrier still intact, the Hiryu, and with exhausted crews depleted from battle.

While a calm assessment of the situation would dictate ending the engagement, Nagumo chose to fight on. His decision was made largely on emotion, pride, and optics.  The thought of limping back to friendly waters down three carriers and with only one American carrier out of commission was unacceptable.

Allowing emotion to dictate decision making took a bad Japanese outcome and made it a disastrous one.  Further engagements resulted in the sinking of the Hiryu, while the Hornet and Enterprise remained intact.  Nagumo’s pride had a serious consequence for Japan.

In business, the prudent leaders play the long game, remain above the daily fray, and clinically follow the math.  Avoid the emotion when assessing things like acquisitions and growth.  It’s just sound business.

Teaching #8: Luck is Overrated

Following the battle and to this day, so many, from military experts to run-of-the-mill history buffs, commonly attribute Midway’s outcome to Lady Luck; Japanese reconnaissance planes missing U.S. carriers because of fortuitous cloud cover, U.S. reconnaissance planes going the extra mile and being rewarded with locating the Japanese fleet, American dive bombers appearing at just the moment when the carriers were left unprotected, and so on.

Attributing outcomes to luck is typically a sign of rash judgment and lazy analysis.  That’s because in war, business and life, to a great extent, one makes their own luck.  Midway’s outcome was certainly impacted by fortunate timing and close calls.  But both were the cumulative derivatives of the prior teachings discussed above.

You need to first perform the tough groundwork to ultimately place yourself in a position to be lucky.

Closing Thoughts

The profit and loss stakes of business pale in comparison to the life and death stakes of military combat.  Yet there is much to be gleaned from studying battles and applying it to leadership, business, and strategy.

Perhaps an enterprising professor will find a way to bring the lessons of Midway into the minds of tomorrow’s executives.

 

Plagues and Pandemics – Then and Now

The great Mark Twain quipped that history never repeats itself, but it rhymes.  Sometimes the rhyming can span thousands of years.  Such is the case with plague during the apex of the Roman Empire and pandemic in the U.S. today. 

A bit of background. Antonine Plague hit Rome around 165 AD, during the reign of the great Emperor Marcus Aurelius.  The entire empire was struck with the disease, which killed up to a third of the population over two outbreaks.  Aurelius eventually succumbed to the affliction, and Rome lost its great leader and the world lost one of its great Stoics (Aurelius’ Meditations in one of mankind’s great books).

Now for the rhyming.  Start with what should be simple naming convention; both diseases are labeled under various names.



The Antonine Plague, which takes its name from the family tree of the Five Good Emperors (including Aurelius), is sometimes called the Plague of Galen.  Galen was a Greek physician who diagnosed and documented the plague.  Covid-19 is the name widely used for today’s pandemic (perhaps as an accommodation to the Chinese Communist Party by the global elite more than anything else), but Wuhan Virus was utilized by some early on and followed traditional naming convention for pandemics that correlates to geographic origin (Ebola, Zika, Hong Kong, West Nile, MERS, Legionnaire, Spanish, etc.).     

By sheer coincidence, both Antonine Plague and Covid-19 emanated from the same region of China.  The Antonine Plague is believed to have come from what was then the Han Empire, which included a city named Wuhan on its peripheral edge.  Although we don’t know for certain how Covid-19 started, we do know it began in Wuhan.       

Both pandemics utilized the advanced societies and technologies of their times to rapidly spread. 

Roman roads meticulously laid out as spokes emanating from the center of Rome proved to be efficient pathways for the disease to spread from far-flung corners of the empire, to Rome, and then out to other corners of the empire.  Cheap and prolific global air travel today took a virus from one urban area to every corner of the globe within a handful of days.  Commerce further accelerated the spread of both.  Another pair of examples of how technology giveth and taketh in unintended ways.    

Antonine and Covid-19 pandemics also shared the ability to cut across socio-economic boundaries to strike down the poorest and most elite of Roman and modern society.  We have seen the most powerful world leaders afflicted with the Covid-19 virus while Emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus were felled by Antonine Plague.  However, the two most advanced societies of their time, Rome and the U.S., struggled to protect the most vulnerable under their watch.  When it comes to pandemics, power does not equate to success or protection.  

Both plagues took their toll economically. 

The Roman Empire suffered manpower shortages of soldiers, farmers, craftsmen, and merchants.  Prices spiked for food and services due to scarcity.  The citizens demanded more state subsidy and entertainment (in the form of gladiator games) to help ease the hardship.  Tax revenues dropped at a time when the empire was already running deficits due to costly wars in Germania.  Today, special interests clamor the government for bailouts, subsidy, and endless stimulus in the name of pandemic relief.  All of it at a time when government deficits and debt levels were already at frightening heights in developed economies, including the U.S. where our federal debt now exceeds $30 trillion and inflation has just hit a 40-year high.

Let’s hope the rhyming stops, because Antonine Plague was at the highwater mark for the Roman Empire.  Many historians argue the plague catalyzed the Roman Empire’s decline.  That should serve as motivation for Americans to get our act together with rational measures designed to protect the most vulnerable in a way where our free enterprise system and individualistic society not only survive but thrive.