Notes from the Underground: Libertarianism Hiding in Classic Lit

By Nick Deiuliis

Fyodor Dostoyevsky is widely recognized as one of the giants of literature.

Of his most noted works, the first and shortest is the novella Notes from the Underground, published in 1864. It’s also his most underrated and most insightful, particularly for modern times.

Some consider Notes from the Underground classic literature.1 Others say it is more political commentary. Social scientists point to it as a study in psychology.

All correct. Yet Notes is first and foremost something else: a basis for philosophy and policy rooted in the freedom of the individual to choose and the individual’s protection from control by the state and wider culture.

I interpret Notes as advocating for triumph of the ‘I’ over the ‘we,’ the ‘self’ over the ‘collective,’ and the ‘individual’ over the ‘public good.’

I read Dostoyevsky’s classic and contemplate a warning of how the Left (whether manifesting through communism, nihilism, or utopianism) presents a danger to the individual; and how the Left cuts against the grain of human nature. In many ways, Notes from the Underground was serving as a foundation for American libertarianism before the movement took root. And it is a decisive refutation of the modern-day nanny state.

A closer look at (or revisit of) Notes from the Underground is worthwhile to anyone who considers himself or herself a classic liberal and defender of the individual.

The Story

The first lines of the novella read, “I am a sick man…I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man.”

Notes from the Underground is not a story for the meek of heart. No sunshine and happy endings. The book is humorous at times, but it is certainly a dark humor.

The main character narrating the story is the anti-hero Underground Man, a miserable bureaucrat who spent his career abusing his position to make life difficult for other people.2 His directional perspective of being ‘underground’ serves as a metaphor for being separate from, an outcast to, society. He falls into some money, quits his job, and writes the notes as a form of confession.

That’s the focus of the first half of the book, titled “Underground”. The narrator observes that utopian society attempts to remove suffering and pain, but that humans desire both and need both to be happy. The narrator confesses his realization that attempting to remove pain and suffering in society takes away an individual’s freedom.

Underground Man realizes human beings are cursed with consciousness; it is what causes us to suffer. But it also allows for our free will and individuality.

He argues that despite humanity’s attempts throughout history to create a utopia where everyone lives in harmony, anyone can decide to act in a way that might not be in their own self-interest as defined by society or government. Some do so simply to validate their existence as an individual and to protest. And no one knows for sure whether the individual will choose a rational or irrational path.

The second half of the book, “Apropos of the Wet Snow”, consists of a series of adventures and events that occurred in the narrator’s life.

One of those stories is central to the book. The narrator tries to help a prostitute by promising to save her. She finds herself enthralled by the Underground Man’s lectures, his confidence, and ends up looking to join him. He then revokes everything he said to her, telling her he was laughing at her all along, and ridicules her miserable life and reality.

Then he breaks down and admits he was only seeking power over her and desired to humiliate her. He starts to self-loathe and focuses on his own poverty and embarrassing life. He doesn’t save her, she leaves and is never seen again.

The concluding sentences of Notes recall themes explored by the narrator in the first part, and he tells the reader directly, “…I have merely carried to an extreme in my life what you have not dared to carry even halfway…”

The Learnings from Notes

In the arenas of policy and classic liberalism, Notes contains a plethora of key passages that resonate more than ever.

Start with perhaps the underlying key premise of the book:

“What has made them conceive that man must want a rationally advantageous choice? What man wants is simply independent choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead.”

Dostoyevsky is making a subtle but crucial point here: human nature yearns for the ability to self-select for oneself and to not be chained to the decisions of others (whether ‘others’ are controlling individuals, religion, or the state). Arguing that the state or a third party is better informed to make decisions for the individual than the individual himself or herself misses a key point (and is a dubious assumption when considering the track record of anything run by bureaucrat): the individual’s innate desire to decide for themself cannot be quelled.

Underground Man uses the analogy of humans serving as glorified organ-stops in oppressive societies to illustrate how the individual instinctively longs to decide their own destiny:3

“For who would want to choose by rule? Besides, he will at once be transformed from a human being into an organ-stop or something of the sort; for what is a man without desires, without free will and without choice, if not a stop in an organ?”

Dostoyevsky freely admits that humans enjoying freedom will often choose paths that are irrational, against their self-interests, and that may lead to misery for society. But that doesn’t mean oppressive forms of government that cripple the individual spirit won’t lead to the same or worse (think of Stalin and Mao and how we measure their ‘transformation’ of society to ‘paradise’ in the tens of millions of murdered innocents).

“In short, one may say anything about the history of the world – anything that might enter the most disordered imagination. The only thing one can’t say is that it’s rational. The very word sticks in one’s throat.”

Place those words from 1860s Russia into the context of today; with the war in Ukraine, Hamas terrorism, and Uighur genocide. Or with the breakdown of law in our cities and the epidemic of opioid death in our rural communities. There is no guarantee of rational order in the world, and there never was. Whether it be with democracy, colonialism, communism, socialism, or free will. Truer than ever.

Underground Man provides his thoughts on those who argue moral superiority and wish to superimpose their views or ways onto others. Read the following and try to not be instantly reminded of today’s elite and expert classes:

“There is the odd thing that is continually happening: there are continually turning up in life moral and rational persons, sages, and lovers of humanity who make it their object to live all their lives as morally and rationally as possible, to be, so to speak, a light to their neighbors simply in order to show them that it is possible to live morally and rationally in this world. And yet we all know that those very people sooner or later have been false to themselves, playing some queer trick, often a most unseemly one. Now I ask you: what can be expected of man since he is a being endowed with such strange qualities?”

Most experts in the field point to this passage as Dostoyevsky’s criticism of utopianism and, ultimately, communism. The idea that if you eliminate private property and make everyone equal, it not only makes people happy, but it makes the world neatly rational. Nonsense, of course, as shown by the epic misery brought to humanity by the Left.

And today there is a special refinement to the way of the Left. Leaders of the Left no longer bother to live their lives consistent with their preaching to everyone else as to how to live life in a moral and just way. Hypocrisy is paraded in the open, for all to see. That’s why a Hollywood star who is a self-proclaimed climate activist sails around the world on carbon-spewing yachts. And why a self-anointed Climate Czar who looks to impose travel restrictions on society flies private charter jets at will.

If you wish to think of Notes from the Underground as simply great literature and not policy thought-provoking, consider Dostoyevsky’s analysis of human nature:

“Shower upon him every earthly blessing, drown him in a sea of happiness, so that nothing but bubbles of bliss can be seen on the surface; give him economic prosperity, such that he should have nothing else to do but sleep, eat cakes and busy himself with the continuation of his species, and even then out of sheer ingratitude, sheer spite, man would play you some nasty trick. He would even risk his cakes and would deliberately desire the most fatal rubbish, the most uneconomical absurdity, simply to introduce into all this positive good sense his fatal fantastic element. It is just his fantastic dreams, his vulgar folly that he will desire to retain, simply in order to prove to himself–as though that were so necessary–that men still are men and not the keys of a piano, which the laws of nature threaten to control so completely that soon one will be able to desire nothing but by the calendar.”

Dostoyevsky concisely summarizes why large government, bureaucratic control, and nanny states ultimately fail to improve the standing of people the state policies were specifically designed to help.

I wonder if Woodrow Wilson, FDR, LBJ, or Barack Obama read Notes from the Underground. If so, did any of them underline that passage? Because it made an impression on them, they agreed with it, or they disagreed with it?

The narrator then addresses head-on what has become an all-too-common rebuttal of the Left, with:

“You will scream at me (that is, if you condescend to do so) that no one is touching my free will, that all they are concerned with is that my will should of itself, of its own free will, coincide with my own normal interests, with the laws of nature and arithmetic. Good heavens, gentlemen, what sort of free will is left when we come to tabulation and arithmetic, when it will all be a case of twice two make four? Twice two makes four without my will. As if free will meant that!”

Save that passage for every time one hears the bureaucrat’s defense of onerous control of the individual by the state with the position that government knows what is best on the topic(s) and that the individual remains largely free. Hogwash, as Dostoyevsky’s narrator articulated.

In the first part of the book, “Underground,” the narrator marks the supremacy of the individual to choose whichever path desired, even if the path is illogical or irrational when compared to the norms of society. Check out:

“You, for instance, want to cure men of their old habits and reform their will in accordance with science and good sense. But how do you know, not only that it is possible, but also that it is desirable to reform man in that way? And what leads you to the conclusion that man’s inclinations need reforming? In short, how do you know that such a reformation will be a benefit to man?”

Humans are inherently driven, albeit to different levels. Being truly satisfied is a state many never reach. What makes one think that providing economic security at the cost of surrendering freedom is desirable? We are not sheep.

Consider this sentence from the book:

“Man is sometimes extraordinarily, passionately in love with suffering: that is a fact.”

Society cannot be organized in a way that guarantees the happiness of citizens.

And one may argue that being in love with suffering is nothing more than human nature associated with achievement. Someone earns a million dollars, and they immediately desire two million dollars. Someone wins a championship in sports and immediately desires another title. Someone climbs Mount Everest, and they want to start planning to summit K2. The drive to achieve cannot be extinguished by a forced contentment injected by policy.

Concluding Thoughts

Notes is a short book, but an incredibly dense one, packed with passages that speak to so many contemporary policy and current events issues. Invest in a highlighter to mark key sentences, and then place Notes from the Underground close by for easy access in the future. It’s something you will pull off the shelf and reference more than you think.

This is one of those books that every college student should read before graduating (I would argue every high school student should read it, but that might be stretching things in this day and age of failing public education). Notes warrants a place on the syllabuses for English Lit, Civics, Psychology, and Philosophy.

There is something for everyone to take away from Dostoyevsky’s first classic. Now more than ever.

[1] And a bleak one at that!
[2] Dostoyevsky often portrays his protagonists as unattractive and the characters opposing them as more likable. Perhaps he felt doing so made his messages more impactful.
[3] Organ stops are buttons that are manipulated (pulled out or pushed in) by the organ player to send compressed air through a specific organ pipe.

The Battle of Hurtgen Forest: Costly Failure and Lessons Learned

By Nick Deiuliis

Those with a keen interest in World War II are familiar with the European Theater’s famous Allied campaigns: Italy, D-Day and Normandy, Market Garden, Battle of the Bulge, and the final thrust over the Rhine River and into the heart of Germany. Movies, books, and series have been dedicated to them.

Yet there is a battle nestled in the middle of that chronology that gets little attention.  It was the worst performance and drubbing the US Army suffered in World War II.  A famous infantry division with Pennsylvania lineage played a central role and paid an epic price in the debacle.

The late 1944 campaign was the Battle of Hurtgen Forest.

Revisiting and analyzing the battle provides insights on leadership, strategy, and tactics that remain relevant both on battlefields and in board rooms.


The Allies were pushing up against the German border in September 1944.  In sight were the gateway to the industrial Ruhr and the heart of Germany, and possibly the end of the war.

Farther to the south on the frontline sat a heavy forest just inside western Germany, the Hurtgenwald, occupied by German forces and cut by a stream, the Kall. The region is enclosed by a triangle, with corners of the cities of Aachen and Duren, and the town of Monschau.

The Hurtgen Forest area was part of the Siegfried Line and had been prepped by German engineers for prolonged battle. Trees were carefully cultivated for decades into neat, straight rows providing clear fields of fire.  Mines were densely laid on trails, paths, and breaks. Pillboxes were built and set up to create kill zones.

39th Inf. passes through the dragon`s teeth north of Roetgen.

American leadership believed that for the advance to the Roer and Rhine Rivers and deep into Germany to continue, the forest had to be entered and the far high ground, the town of Schmidt, had to be seized.

The Allies quickly learned that wasn’t going to be easy.

Leadership Woes

American leadership was inept during the Battle of Hurtgen Forest.  Much of the blame can be attributed to 1st Army commander, Lieutenant General Courtney Hodges.

HIRTEEN COMMANDERS OF THE WESTERN FRONT photographed in Belgium, 10 October 1944. Front row, left to right: General Patton, General Bradley, General Eisenhower, General Hodges, Lt. Gen. William H. Simpson. Second row: Maj. Gen. William B. Kean, Maj. Gen. Charles E. Corlett, Maj. Gen. J. Lawton Collins, Maj. Gen. Leonard P. Gerow, Maj. Gen. Elwood R. Quesada. Third row: Maj. Gen. Leven C. Allen, Brig. Gen. Charles C. Hart, Brig. Gen. Truman C. Thorson. Source: U.S. Army Center of Military History.

Hodges’ career up to the Hurtgen was out of a Hollywood script. A southerner who didn’t make it through West Point (geometry class flummoxed him), he rose through the Army ranks the hard way, starting his soldiering career in 1905 as a private.

He earned two Purple Hearts in World War I but discarded them and considered them “sissy.”1  Hodges’ boss during the Hurtgen ordeal was the legendary Omar Bradley, who prior to the war was Hodges’ subordinate, and who still addressed Hodges as ‘sir’ despite the reversal in who reported to whom.

Although Hodges competently led the 1st Army through France after D-Day, he was by late 1944 mentally exhausted and spent. The scale of duties overwhelmed him; he made decisions slowly and micromanaged.  Worse, he would not visit the front line and tended to command from the rear, with little information (or worse, misinformation).

Hodges would brutally demote subordinate officers, sacking them at the first sign of setback.  That made those reporting to him extremely cautious in decision-making, to the point of being paralyzed. It didn’t help that his staff and other direct reports were constantly infighting.

He was archaic in tactics, favoring a mentality more representative of World War I than the current conflict.  Hodges favored the tactics of “straight on” and “smashing ahead” over flanking.2  Hodges and his staff believed the Germans were close to collapse, convincing him more of the need for blunt and direct frontal tactics.

Hodges saw the Hurtgen Forest as a threat to his flank in his drive east toward the Roer River and, ultimately, the Rhine River.  Yet the density of the forest made it highly unlikely that the Germans could amass enough armor and infantry to serve as a credible threat to the Allied advance.

Historian Russell Weigley summed it up best: “The most likely way to make the Hurtgen a menace to the American Army was to send American troops attacking into its depths.”3

That’s exactly what Hodges did.  And no one under him had the confidence or courage to question him.4

Early Phase of Battle

Thus, in late September 1944, the US 9th Division entered the Hurtgen, hoping to outflank the city of Aachen to the northwest. After a few weeks, little ground was gained at enormous cost; 4,500 causalities were suffered to advance 3,000 yards.  That’s a casualty for every two feet of gained ground, an attrition rate that soon depleted the fighting strength of frontline battalions.

Although the German defenders also paid a heavy price, the German high command in mid-October was confident the Americans would not be foolish enough to attempt another assault through the Hurtgen Forest. Field Marshal Model understood how the forest neutralized Allied advantages in mobility, armor, and airpower.

But the Germans misread the extent of ineptitude and stubbornness of American leadership.

The 28th Division Enters the Forest

The US 28th Infantry Division was originally a Pennsylvania National Guard organization.  Its original nickname, the Keystone Division, was derived from its keystone insignia on uniforms (the keystone is the emblem of Pennsylvania).5

The 28th had done it all in Europe leading up to the Hurtgen Forest: fighting and dying through the impenetrable hedgerows of France following D-Day, marching through Paris triumphantly, and breaking through the famous fortified defenses of the Siegfried Line.  The 28th crossed from France onto German soil in September 1944, having learned valuable lessons from prior campaigns but paying a high price in casualties.  A rest was badly needed.

So, in late September, the 28th was moved into reserve in Belgium.  Major General Dutch Cota, who enjoyed a stellar reputation till the Hurtgen, rested the 28th while rebuilding the ranks with inexperienced replacements and preparing for the next fight.

General Eisenhower and Major General Cota at the 28th Div. C.P. Rott.

But the 28th Division was the only corps in reserve after the failed attempt of the 9th Division to give the Hurtgen a go.  Thus, in late October it was hastily brought forward and ordered back into action.

Ironically, the 28th Division’s motto was “Fire and Movement.”6 The Battle of Hurtgen Forest presented a situation where the former was challenging while the latter was often impossible.

The assault into the Hurtgen commenced on November 2 after a few days of delay due to cold, cloudy, and wet inclement weather; conditions that would be the norm for the duration of the campaign. Cota deployed three infantry regiments, the 109th, 110th, and 112th, in the attack.  Tanks were attached to each regiment but were often useless in the terrain and weather.

American plans were for the 109th to aim for the village of Hurtgen to the northeast, the 110th targeted Raffelsbrand/Simonskall to the southeast, while the 112th was to head east to Kommerscheidt and then to the key objective of Schmidt.

That’s three separate lines of attack.  And due to delays in launching attacks at other points across the wide front, the 28th in the Hurtgen would be the only attack occurring those first few days of November, meaning the Germans could dedicate full attention to the battle.

The first day of attack on November 2 devastated the 110th; as they attempted to advance to the southeast they were mowed down by machine guns and artillery.  Zero progress was made and by the end of the week the 110th had lost effectiveness as a fighting force.

The 109th made limited progress until it encountered a dense minefield, stopping short of Hurtgen village and suffering heavy casualties.

The best American progress on November 2 was by the 112th in the middle, having reached the village of Vossenack on the way to the ultimate objective of Schmidt.  By the next day, the Americans in the 112th traveled down the ravine to the Kall stream, traversed the stream, and climbed the opposite bank toward Schmidt.  Germans in the town were taken by surprise, and the Americans surprisingly held Schmidt by late afternoon on November 3.

But snipers made movement in and around Schmidt impossible. And it was tough to reinforce the position with 30-ton Sherman tanks due to the muddy, narrow, and steep Kall trail.

Field Marshal Model and the Germans were initially surprised by the attack, thinking the Americans would be too smart to try an assault into the impenetrable forest. Ironically, at commencement of the 28th’s attack, Model and his staff were conducting map war game exercises to play out a hypothetical American campaign in the area.

Model responded quickly. He sent some officers to the front and kept others back at his headquarters to monitor and manage the battle.  Cloudy weather negated Allied air power and the Germans were able to quickly move troops and tanks to the outskirts of Schmidt and Hurtgen village.

The Americans in Schmidt were too few to handle the coming counterattack.  They were oblivious to the threat, felt the Germans lacked enough remaining armor to mount an attack, and were short of anti-tank equipment and mines. General Cota remained far from the front lines, out of touch with developments and thinking the battle was already won.

The morning of November 4 delivered a strong dose of reality.  German artillery opened on Schmidt, tanks blew apart the town, and screaming German infantry surged toward the undermanned Americans.  The Americans, routed and in disarray, fled.  Schmidt was back in German hands by noon.

Some of the routed American forces regrouped at Kommerscheidt (between the Kall stream and Schmidt) and a few Shermans arrived up from the nearly impassable Kall trail.  The Kall trail was the only avenue for reinforcement and supply, but it was a muddy, narrow mess.  Engineers worked continuously to make it barely passable for tanks and antitank equipment.  A tank broke down on the trail and impeded progress for days until it was shoved over the ravine. The pace to traverse the trail was excruciatingly slow, and the route was lightly defended and vulnerable to continuous German attack.

At the time when the desperate Americans needed leadership the most, they didn’t get it.  General Cota remained far from the front and was confused.  General Hodges showed up at Cota’s command post and went on a tirade.  An intimidated Cota was sending orders to the front line for Schmidt to be retaken at once and to “roll on.”7 Obviously, the detached American generals had no clue as to the critical state of their troops or the battle.

By November 7, Kommerscheidt had fallen. The Kall trail was under heavy attack, making an attempted night retreat deadly and difficult.

It wasn’t until the next day that Generals Eisenhower and Bradley became worried enough to show up at Dutch Cota’s headquarters.  Eisenhower commented, “Well, Dutch, it looks like you got a bloody nose.”8

The first winter storm hit on November 9. A truce allowed US wounded to be evacuated across the Kall stream and up the trail.  Finally, the decimated 112th was off the front line.  The 110th was possibly in worse condition, reduced to less than sixty infantry, including reinforcements.

Sherman tanks mounted with 105mm. howitzers open fire in a muddy field amid the Hurtgen Forest on November 17, 1944.

Of the over two thousand Americans who set foot east of the Kall stream during the battle, only three hundred managed to make it back to the western bank.  In about a week of battle, the Americans suffered over 6,000 casualties, to the Germans 3,000.

The reputation of General Dutch Cota went from hero prior to the Hurtgen to inept leader after.  The most likely explanation as to why he was not relieved of command was that prior purges by Hodges and the recent Hurtgen combat losses drained the depth of officers.  There was no one able enough to replace Cota.

Costly Third Attempt

But the American generals, including Hodges, did not learn, and for months continued to throw troops into the meatgrinder of the Hurtgen Forest.  Next up was the 22nd Infantry Regiment.

The regiment was commanded by Colonel Charles Lanham.  Lanham led from the front to the point of recklessness.  Many considered him brilliant but crazy.  No one questioned his courage.

He expected much of his officers and told them, “As officers, I expect you to lead your men. Men will follow a leader, and I expect my platoon leaders to be right up front. Losses could be very high. Use every skill you possess. If you survive your first battle, I’ll promote you. Good luck.”9

A German bunker in the Hurtgen Forest (2018).

The 22nd started eighteen days of hell in the Hurtgen on November 18.  After three days, the regiment lost its three battalion commanders, and the attrition rate among rifle company leaders was over three hundred percent. By the end of the sixth day, the regiment suffered fifty percent casualties.

Yet the regiment fought on, suffering more than 2,800 casualties to advance just over 300 yards a day. One soldier fell for every two yards gained. The casualty rate was a staggering eighty-six percent of normal regiment strength.

The Damned Dams

American leadership spent years after the battle defending the decision to enter the forest.  One of the more popular explanations was the need to secure two forest dams that controlled the water level of the Roer River flowing northward, which sat to the east and between the Allies and the Rhine River. The Allies believed they could not attack eastward to the Rhine as long as the Germans held the dams and could threaten to flood the Roer River Valley.

Yet General Hodges made no plans prior to battle to capture the dams on the Roer, just inside the Hurtgen Forest. The dams were apparently the key to the river, but it would take prolonged battles in the forest by several divisions before Hodges ordered an attack against them.

Hodges did not press for air attacks on the Roer River dams until late November, but they failed. Direct hits were made, but the concrete structures were so massive that damage was negligible.

In mid-December, months after the Americans entered the Hurtgen, a ground assault on the dams was launched. It would not be until February 1945 that the Allies controlled the dams and could land on the eastern bank of the Roer River.

American leadership blundered by not proposing an easier avenue of approach southeast of the Hurtgen Forest, allowing Hodges to seize the dams and then clear the terrain downriver.  The Battle of Hurtgen Forest didn’t have to be.

The Hurtgen’s Bloody Tally

The slaughter and misery dragged into December 1944, when the Americans finally pulled out of the forest.  By that time, Allied attention was fixed on German Field Marshal von Rundstedt’s breakthrough in the Ardennes; what came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge.

American soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division in defensive positions in the Hurtgen Forest, December 1944.

All said, 120,000 American troops were deployed in the Battle of Hurtgen Forest, suffering 33,000 casualties.

Combat fatigue, pneumonia, and trench foot claimed 9,000 of that gruesome toll.  Soldiers lacked sufficient boots and winter clothing.  Hot food and dry cover were almost nonexistent.  Men spent long nights frozen in foxholes.  American domination of logistics and supply enjoyed throughout the war failed in the Hurtgen.

Making Coffee in the Hurtgen Forest, December 1944. By Tony Vaccaro.

The campaign absorbed enormous resources and destroyed morale. It weakened the American front and set the stage for the initial German success in the Battle of the Bulge.  The worst American setback in the European Theater prolonged the war.

Historian Carlo D’Este saw the American performance in the Hurtgen Forest as “the most ineptly fought series of battles of the war in the West.”10  Hemingway referenced World War I by describing the Hurtgen Forest as “Passchendaele with tree bursts.”11  Colonel David H. Hackworth, a battalion commander in the Vietnam War, called the Hurtgen battle “one of the most costly blunders of World War II.”12

Six Lessons

Because it was disastrous, and because we tend to best remember victories, the Battle of Hurtgen Forest has been virtually forgotten.  It is only briefly mentioned in the memoirs of Generals Eisenhower and Bradley and has been overlooked by many historians.

The battle should have been avoided.  Its lessons must be remembered if we are to honor those who paid the ultimate price.

The Battle of Hurtgen Forest provides six key lessons:

  • Leadership matters, and poor leadership negates inherent advantage. Eisenhower, Bradley, Hodges, Collins, and Cota failed to understand the strategic irrelevance of the forest and the ability to reduce it and avoid it by flanking to the southeast.  Hodges applied obsolete tactics and lost composure at the worst times. Hodges and Cota both led from the rear, failing to grasp the frontline situation as events unfolded, compounding mistakes with more mistakes.
  • Preparation and homework are prerequisites to success. The Allied command went into the Hurtgen unprepared and with no clear agreement on why they were there to begin with. A simple reconnaissance of the Kall trail would’ve warned of its challenges.  Much was made of the need to capture the dams on the Roer to the southeast of the Hurtgen as justifying the battles.  Yet there was a lack of clarity, before and during the battle, on intended timing of dam capture, the impact the dams could have on flooding of the Roer River, and on alternatives to address the dams (including flanking or bombing them).
  • Avoid terrain and environment that neutralizes your strengths. Since Sun Tzu, strategists understood the importance of picking the proper field of battle.  Yet the Allies chose the worst place for battle.  The Hurtgen’s thick woods, ravines, steep ridges, lack of roads, mud, and weather eliminated Allied superiority in mobility armor, and airpower.  Tanks were largely useless until late in the battle and airpower was hampered by cloud cover.
  • Supply chain weakness will hamper success in modern warfare and economy. The Kall trail was the primary lifeline for Americans on the frontline for much of the battle. Yet the trail was too steep, too narrow, too muddy, and too prone to German attack.  This crucial artery of movement was far too fragile to feed a victory.
  • Success demands teams have the proper tools and equipment. One of the Allies’ greatest strengths during the war, logistics, failed miserably during the Battle of Hurtgen Forest. Soldiers were deprived of the basics: hot food, winter gear, and boots to protect from trench foot.  The failure to equip troops with the essentials resulted in thousands of avoidable casualties.
  • Underestimate your adversary’s capacity and will at your own peril. The Allies in late 1944 were too overconfident. They ripped across France, were now inside Germany, the industrial Ruhr was within reach, and the fighting spirit of the German army was thought to be poor. A blunt and direct assault into the Hurtgen would be easy and unresisted.  The Germans benefitted from such ignorance and foolishness, which carried on beyond the Hurtgen and bled into the Battle of the Bulge.

History is written by the victors. But if the victors desire to remain on top, analyzing and learning from the failures is essential.


[1] Atkinson, Rick, The Guns at Last Light, p. 310.
[2] Atkinson, Rick, The Guns at Last Light, p. 311.
[3] See; The Hurtgen Forest, 1944: The Worst Place of Any.
[4] That held true even after the war. Loyal Hodges subordinate General Joe Collins stated post-war, “We had to go into that forest to secure our right flank.” And, “What was the alternative?”  (Atkinson, The Guns at Last Light, p. 314.) How about a flanking maneuver around it?
[5] The Germans in World War II gave the 28th Division another nickname, the Bloody Bucket Division, because of the blood-red color of the keystone insignia and the vicious fighting tactics used by the 28th through Normandy.
[7] Atkinson, The Guns at Last Light, p. 321.
[8] Pereira and Wilson, All Souls Day: The World War II Battle and the Search for a Lost U.S. Battalion, p. 146.
[9] See; The Battle of Hürtgen Forest: A Tactical Nightmare for Allied Forces.
[10] D’Este, Carlo, Eisenhower: A Soldier’s Life, p. 627.
[11 Hemingway, Ernest, Across the River and Into the Trees, p. 218.
[12]; The Battle of Hürtgen Forest: A Tactical Nightmare for Allied Forces.

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 statues 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?


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.’”