Thursday, November 30, 2006

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (11/30/06)


Time to end the Balkanization of Westchester County? With an area of 450.5 square miles, Westchester follows a governmental plan adopted in 1788. The county now boasts six cities, 16 towns (down from an original 20) containing 23 incorporated villages plus some 93 unincorporated hamlets, such as Chappaqua, Scarborough or Montrose. To complicate the picture, two villages, Mount Kisco and Scarsdale, also are towns. In the southern part of Westchester, cities and villages are so cheek-by-jowl that motorists can pass from one community to another unaware of the change in political geography unless they get a citation for a traffic violation. Residents of villages also have the unenviable privilege of paying taxes to three levels of government: county, town and village. In some, sewer taxes have been added to the mix disguised as "usage fees," enabling the village administration to tout this fast shuffle as a reduction in taxes.

Each unit in this bewildering array of cities, towns, villages and hamlets also may have its own zoning ordinances, planning boards and zoning boards of appeal, creating a veritable crazy quilt of contrasting legislation. Differences in interpretation and application vary so widely they can have a significant impact on businesses wishing to establish themselves in Westchester. Also within Westchester are 40 separate school districts, 58 separate community fire departments, and 39 separate public libraries under community or local library association control. The sheer redundancy of staff, equipment and facilities is staggering. One can only wonder how many taxpayers' dollars could be saved if these separate entities were consolidated or even if they merely pooled their buying. Imagine the economies of scale that would result from combined purchases of everything from school books and library books to school buses, garbage trucks and fire engines.

A bad bargain. The cost of the war in Iraq is rapidly approaching $600 billion, threatening such domestic priorities as the expansion of Medicare prescription drug coverage, and making it more costly than the longer Vietnam War, which cost $536 billion in today's dollars.

Show me the money. An urban legend now making the rounds claims that next year the IRS will refund excise taxes on telephone calls collected by telephone companies. Most urban legends turn out to be untrue. But, wonder of wonders, this one happens to be absolutely right on the money. For years, telephone companies collected excise taxes on long-distance calls, based on distance and time spent talking. When flat-fee service was introduced, consumer groups sued to stop the practice. After a series of court battles, the IRS agreed to stop collecting this tax. The IRS now will refund or credit businesses, nonprofit groups and individual taxpayers for the excise taxes on long-distance calls added to their telephone bills during the period between Feb. 28, 2003, and July 31, 2006.

The refund procedure is simple: You may claim credit on Line 71 of Form 1040 or on Short Form 1040A for a standard refund ranging from $30 for single persons to $60 if there are four or more dependents in your household. If you have all you phone bills for the 41-month period, you may elect to total the taxes paid and attach Form 8913 to your return. Persons who are not required to submit an income tax return can use Form 1040EZ-T to apply for the standard refund or attach Form 8913 to Form 1040EZ-T if you have your telephone bills and calculate the amount to be refunded. The Treasury Department estimates that about $10 billion will be returned to individuals. Interestingly, when this column pointed out in February of this year that Croton had been short-changing seniors over the years by miscalculating their tax exemptions, Croton officials claimed that they were prevented from offering seniors refunds or credits against future taxes.

Washington fine tunes the definition of hunger. In the fall of each year the U.S. Department of Agriculture issues a report that measures Americans' access to food. The report has consistently used the word "hungry" to describe those who cannot put food on the table. But not any longer. The Agriculture Department's new thinking reflected in this year's report is that "hungry" is a word to be shunned. The 35 million Americans who weren't sure last year where their next meal was coming from were merely suffering from "low food security." People who are worse off and sometimes had no food at all were labeled as having "very low food security."

This year's report had failed to appear in October, as usual. Instead, release was delayed until after the election. Could the reason have been the report's bad news that the number of hungry Americans who are starving in the midst of plenty has risen over the first five years of the Bush administration?

When is a civil war not a civil war? Answer: When the administration says so. According to the White House, the upsurge in sectarian killings in Iraq is merely "a new phase." It's a new phase, all right--a new phase in the administration's continuing denial of reality. It was so impossible to guarantee President Bush's safety in a proposed visit to Baghdad this week that a scheduled meeting with Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had to be arranged in neighboring Jordan. The two words that have not been heard in all the talk about America's intentions for Iraq and the Middle East are "statecraft" and "negotiations." After fighting an Irish nationalist insurgency in Northern Ireland since the 1920s, Britain finally woke to the fact that meeting and talking with opposition groups could induce the I.R.A. to disarm and start down the road to peace.

Instead of being a statesman and leader in seeking a solution, Mr. Bush has been little more than a cheerleader, talking up "victory" without ever defining how we will recognize it when it happens. Let's face it, Iraq can never be put back together as it was before our invasion. After World War I, the region known as Mesopotamia was created as a nation despite the bitter animosities and frictions between its religious and ethnic groups--Shia, Sunni and Kurds. The only person who was ever able to control these unruly groups now sits in a cell in Baghdad under sentence of death by hanging.

President Bush, the Pentagon and Sen. John McCain are all talking about committing 20,000 more troops to Iraq, straining the already thinly stretched American military even more. The White House has never revealed what measure will be used to determine when the long-sought but elusive victory has been achieved. Yet we are being asked to continue sacrificing additional American lives because of the administration's failure to provide enough troops initially to guarantee the postwar stability of Iraq.

The White House argues that if we leave now, a full-fledged civil war will break out. Yet if we stay another six months and then decide to leave, a full-fledged civil war will still break out. Forget about the dollar cost of staying longer. In the past six months, a total of 416 U.S. soldiers were killed in Iraq. Will we sacrifice another 416 American soldiers to make up for our botched occupation and lack of planning? That means, too, another 416 graveside ceremonies ending with grieving parents or spouses presented with 416 carefully folded flags with Purple Heart medals pinned to them. As sportswriter Jimmy Cannon would say, betting another 416 American lives in a war that Henry Kissinger has already pronounced unwinnable is a sucker bet whose payoff can only be 416 even more bitter and vocal Cindy Sheehans.


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Friday, November 24, 2006

Guns of the American Revolution: Setting the Record Straight


As any student of the American Revolution quickly comes to realize, the key to understanding the tactics and even the strategy of that conflict in large measure lies in knowledge of the kinds of weapons employed. The Continental soldier had a motley assortment of weapons: muskets, musketoons, rifles, carbines, fusils, pistols, wall guns and artillery, with a wide variety in each type. Standard issue was unheard of, and calibers themselves were subject to variation. The separate states were responsible for equipping with arms the regiments they raised for the Continental line, while it was the task of the fledgling Congress to arm the other Continental troops. Guns came from every conceivable source--from American gun dealers and from gunsmiths at home and abroad. Some were received as outright gifts; others were captured from the enemy or confiscated from Tories still loyal to the British crown. A few troops even brought their own guns with them when they enlisted.

Nevertheless, a shortage of arms was chronic. Little more than a year after the outbreak of the war, one quarter of the Continental Army had no guns, although this was only shortly before the crucial battle of Long Island. Recruits frequently drilled without muskets. On retreating, militiamen often abandoned knapsacks and guns to facilitate their escape. The arsenal at Springfield, Massachusetts, was so badly managed that the Board of War of the Continental Congress recommended in 1780 that it be closed. (Today's Springfield Arsenal dates from 1794.) The shortage of weapons was aggravated by a shortage of powder, which resulted chiefly from a lack of saltpeter. Although American gunsmiths were undoubtedly the finest in the world, American gunpowder was definitely inferior.

Of all the guns of the Revolution, popular tradition has cloaked the rifle with an almost magical and glamorous quality, describing it sometimes as "the gun that made victory certain in the American Revolution." There can be no doubt as to the rifle's spectacular accuracy over astonishingly long ranges. The first companies of frontier riflemen to be raised, dressed as they were in buckskin hunting shirts, with awesome knives and tomahawks in their belts, created a sensation as they proceed from Pennsylvania and Virginia to join the military units and state militia laying siege to the British in the Massachusetts capital.

Their guns were basically civilian weapons made by individual gunsmiths. Calibers ranged between .55 and .60. The barrels were octagonal and of great length, with blade front sight and an open-V rear sight. Stocks, often of native curly maple, extended almost to the muzzle. Brass was the most common material for the mountings and for the patch box cover on the stock. Despite the rifle's later-acquired reputation, riflemen were at a serious disadvantage in any battle. For one thing, their weapon was slow in loading and was further handicapped by the absence of a bayonet. As a weapon of infantry, it was virtually useless, although it was excellent for scouts, snipers and skirmishers and in engaging the Indians who were utilized along the frontier by the British.

The rifle had been known in Europe for many years as a hunting weapon, but was not considered to be an effective military arm because of the time required for reloading and because it was not equipped with a bayonet. During the campaigns against the Indians and in the Colonial Wars, sporting and military applications were combined--to the surprise of European observers. Not only could the American frontiersman deliver a high rate or accurate fire, but he could also reload on the run.

Even before appointing George Washington to command the Continental Army, the Continental Congress in 1775 passed a resolution calling for six companies of expert riflemen to be raised immediately in Pennsylvania, as well as two in Maryland and two in Virginia. Response from Pennsylvanians was so great that Congress raised that state's authorization to eight companies, organized as the Pennsylvania Rifle Battalion under the command of Col. William Thompson. One Virginia company of 96 men raised by Dan Morgan rode 600 miles to Boston in 21 days without losing a man. Washington, himself a Virginian, was so moved by this feat that he went along the company front shaking hands with each man as tears streamed down his cheeks. The frontiersmen were objects of curiosity at Boston but were useless except for picking off an occasional British regular who incautiously showed himself. Eventually the "shirtmen," as the buckskin-clad riflemen were called, became a nuisance and a disciplinary problem because of their rowdy, frontier ways. The culmination came when the adjutant of Thompson's Rifle Battalion arrested and confined a sergeant. Because the "shirtmen" had threatened to break into the jail and release him, the prisoner was moved to the main American guardhouse in Cambridge. Their anger aroused, some Pennsylvania riflemen marched toward the jail with weapons loaded. The guard detail was strengthened and several regiments nearby were alerted to stand by under arms. Fortunately, the mutineers were intercepted on Prospect Hill outside of Boston, only grounding their arms when ordered to by Generals Washington, Charles Lee and Greene.

Ironically, the spectacular triumph of American riflemen at King's Mountain in South Carolina in 1780 was at the expense of Major Patrick Ferguson, commander of the British forces in that battle and the inventor of the first breechloading rifle used in the British Army. This weapon, patented in 1776, was not only very accurate and had a high rate of fire but was dependable in rainy weather when flintlocks were not. In 1777 Ferguson was in a position to have altered the entire course of the American Revolution. Leading his own ranger detachment in an advance on Brandywine Creek in Pennsylvania, he had an opportunity to pick off George Washington but did not, explaining, "It was not pleasant to fire at the back of an unoffending individual who was acquitting himself very coolly of his duty, so I let him alone." Ferguson was wounded in the elbow at Brandywine, permanently crippling his arm. While he was convalescing, General Howe, allegedly unhappy because a junior officer had quite obviously invented a superior weapon, disbanded his corps. Ferguson's rifles were put into storage, and no one knows what has become of them. (Interestingly, almost a century later Federal officers would still be resisting the introduction of breechloading rifles into the Union Army.)

References are sometimes encountered to the "Deckard rifle," which was supposedly carried by the "Over Mountain Men" who gave such a good account of themselves at King's Mountain. This was actually a long rifle made by Jacob Dickert of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. A Dickert rifle was used in the defense of the Alamo in 1836 and is on display in the Long Barracks Museum in San Antonio. Another gun around which many misconceptions have sprung up is the double-barreled Golcher or Goulcher rifle, made by John Golcher of Easton, Pennsylvania. Tradition credits Timothy Murphy, perhaps the most famous marksman of the American Revolution, with the use of this gun at Bemis Heights in the battle of Saratoga on October 7, 1777. Firing from a perch in a tree, Murphy is said to have picked off Sir Francis Clerke, British General John Burgoyne, and General Simon Fraser at a range of over 300 yards. Golcher became famous in the years after the Revolutionary War for his over-and-under revolving rifles but it is doubtful whether Murphy used one in performing his feat.

It was the musket that bore the brunt of the fighting during the Revolution--in fact, the majority of troops in the Continental line were regular infantry, while riflemen and cavalry were used only in special operations or in support of the infantry. The typical Revolutionary War musket was a smooth bore, single-shot, flintlock muzzleloader. Its length was somewhere between 54 and 60 inches; its caliber ranged between .69 and .80. As a consequence of its smooth bore, accuracy suffered considerably, for the bullet tended to fit somewhat loosely in the bore. The effective range was seldom more than 100 yards. Because one of the chief sources of American muskets was the stores of British arms in the colonies dating from the Colonial Wars, it was almost inevitable that British guns would be selected as the model for the infant nation's military weapons when made by American gunsmiths. A well-equipped gunsmith's shop would ideally include several barrel forges, a lock shop with forges and benches for filers, benches for gunstock makers, a brass foundry for mountings, forges for bayonets and ramrods, a mill for grinding and polishing them, a forge for fittings, and an assembly shop. Needless to say, most American-made weapons were manufactured under less-than-ideal conditions.

The Brown Bess
This was the soldiers' nickname for the "long land musket" adopted as a military weapon during the reign of George 1 (1714-1727) and not during that of Queen Elizabeth, as popular tradition has it. The name "Brown Bess" is reputed to have come from the color of the stock; earlier British weapons had black-painted stocks. However, some authorities maintain that its name came from the acid pickling process that gave the barrel a brown hue. The evidence seems to be that the word "Brown" predates the practice of browning the barrels of muskets and that "Bess" may be a feminine equivalent of the "Brownbill," the old weapon of the British infantry or a corruption of the "buss" from "Blunderbuss."

The musket came in another model--a so-called "short land musket" with barrel only 42 inches long, which had been introduced around 1740, eventually superseding the older and longer gun around 1765. Both guns had a caliber of .75. British infantry muskets were marked on the locks to indicate their provenance. These markings included the letters "GR" (for Georgius Rex) to indicate the reign during which it was manufactured, and a broad arrow to show that the weapon was crown property. Those muskets assembled at a royal arsenal bore the name of the specific arsenal ("TOWER," if from the infamous Tower of London or, less frequently, "DUBLIN CASTLE," for its Irish counterpart. gun stamped with a pair of crossed scepters and the letters "BGP" in the angles thus formed could not have been used in the American Revolution. The Birmingham proof house first used this mark in 1813.

Committee of Safety Muskets
This is a misnomer applied to many American-made muskets of the Revolution; it should be reserved only for those muskets made by private gunsmiths under contract to a local committee or council of safety and should not include domestic and foreign weapons purchased and issued by such bodies. The number of genuine extant examples of such guns is believed to be very small.

Imported Muskets
Foreign arms dealers were an important source for firearms in the American Revolution. Prussian, Dutch and even British dealers supplied some guns, but the major source of imported arms was France. Still smarting from their defeat at the hands of the British in the French and Indian Wars and the loss of Canada and their other possessions, the French government was not unwilling to help the colonies with arms. To this end a dummy company, Roderigue Hortalez et Cie., was set up. The managing director of this enterprise was Pierre Augustin de Caron, who assumed the name Beaumarchais and is perhaps today better known for his literary works, The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, than for his efforts on behalf of the new nation. Beaumarchais was directly responsible to the French foreign minister, the Count of Vergennes.

In 1776 two secret committees of Congress sent a Connecticut merchant and former member of the Continental Congress, Silas Deane, to France to purchase guns and equipment for the Continental Army. Deane sailed for Europe in April, with instructions from the Commercial Committee to buy American produce, ship it abroad and sell it, and bring back supplies needed by the colonies with the proceeds. The Secret Committee instructed Deane to buy clothing and equipment for 25,000 men and to purchase artillery and munitions--all this on credit. Historians have always viewed Deane as a dedicated patriot. However, later evidence has been uncovered which throws new light on his role. Upon his arrival in Paris, Deane looked up an old friend, Edward Bancroft, passing both American and French secrets to him. Deane's idea was to make a fortune by profiteering. What Deane did not know (and the world would not learn until nearly seventy years after Bancroft's death) was that Bancroft was actually a British agent.

As a consequence, details of the purchasing operations were immediately passed on to British representatives in Paris and thence to British authorities in London. Because Deane and Bancroft craftily withheld specific information about shipments in which they had a personal stake, vital supplies continued to flow to America and the British intercepted only one ship. During this period a number of firms unloaded many substandard arms on American agents. The guns of Pliarne, Penet et Cie. of France were notorious, as were those of James Gruel and Company, which bought its weapons in Liege, Belgium.

French Muskets
By the year 1778, the subterfuge of a dummy company and private shippers became unnecessary since France had entered the war openly. From this time on, French muskets were shipped directly to America from French arsenals. Six models comprised the French contribution, making exact identification sometimes difficult; these bore the designations 1763, 1766, 1770-71, 1773, 1774, and 1777. (There may even have been a 1768 model, too.) All were of .69 caliber, with a barrel fastened to the stock by means of three iron bands. This was an important consideration, since it made for a lighter gun than the .75 caliber Brown Bess (which needed a forend stout enough to support the heavy barrel-fastening pins). Another significant difference in the French muskets lay in the fact that they all had reinforced throat-hole cocks, in contrast to the weaker British gooseneck cocks. The French muskets were made at the royal arsenals at Charleville, St. Etienne and Maubeuge.

Battle Tactics
A word about tactics may be in order here. The popular myth that the Revolution was fought between American troops who fired rifles from behind trees and stone walls and British soldiers foolish enough to stand in rigid formations in the open needs debunking. Thanks to a European tradition and the training program of German drillmaster General von Steuben, the Americans fought in the accepted European fashion, as a study of the tactics of the Revolution shows. (Lexington and Concord and King's Mountain were the only notable exceptions.)

Much is sometimes made of the musket's inherent lack of accuracy in comparison with the rifle; this is only because infantry tactics of the 18th century are not understood now. When firearms were developed, linear tactics were adopted (as opposed to phalanx tactics so successful when the principal weapons were the lance and the sword), in order to derive the most effective firepower from muskets. The line of battle consisted of two ranks standing shoulder to shoulder. Another rank of "file closers" often followed to replace those who fell. With bayonets fixed, the line of attackers would move forward confident in the knowledge that until they were about 100 yards from the enemy, they were comparatively safe. Officers strove to achieve enough discipline to make their men hold their fire until they were within 50 yards of the enemy. Israel Putnam's famous order at Bunker Hill, "Don't one of you fire until you see the whites of their eyes," was not intended to win him a place in books of quotations. It was an admonition that could only have been directed at men with muskets. When the commanders at the battle of Fontenoy in 1745 invited their opponents to fire first, they were not being gallant but clever. The French broke before the British did, and were systematically cut down with repeated volleys.

Volley firing from the line was a standard practice, with all loading and firing being done on command (a modern soldier would call it "by the numbers"). Precision aiming as is done today was unknown. The volley was directed to the front or right or left oblique as commanded; rapidity of fire was more desirable than accuracy. Experienced soldiers could deliver a sustained rate of fire of four shots per minute, which would allow at least two shots at a line of charging enemy before they closed with you. Twelve separate motions were required in the British manual of arms for the Brown Bess. (It is said that the troops of Frederick the Great could fire six shots per minute.) The first volley was always the most effective because it was properly loaded in leisurely fashion before the 16- or 17-inch bayonet was fixed. British General George Hanger, who served in America during the Revolution, later wrote, "A soldier's musket, if not exceedingly ill-bored (as many of them are), will strike the figure of a man at 80 yards; it may even at 100; but a soldier must be very unfortunate indeed who shall be wounded by a common musket at 150 yards, provided his antagonist aims at him; and as to firing at a man at 200 yards with a common musket, you may just as well fire at the moon and have the same hopes of hitting your object. I do maintain and will prove, whenever called on, that no man was ever killed at 200 yards by a common soldier's musket, by the person who aimed at him."

After about two volleys had been exchanged, both sides clashed with bayonets--if they had them. Some American regiments were without bayonets; British soldiers often prayed for rain so they could mount a bayonet attack without fear of enemy fire or of facing cold steel. The American defeat at Bunker Hill has been attributed not only to a shortage of ammunition but also to a lack of bayonets. In attacks at night the bayonet alone was usually employed; the advantage of surprise could not be sacrificed by a nervous soldier firing prematurely (and in the dark it was all too easy to fire upon friendly forces). The usual practice was to load the piece but not to prime it; the last step could always be completed if necessary. Another procedure was to put in the priming charge, close the firing pan and remove the flint. British Major General Charles "No-flint" Grey earned his nickname in two night attacks, which were bloody but spectacularly successful.

In 1777, American General "Mad Anthony" Wayne had secretly occupied a position near Paoli, Pennsylvania, with the intention of harassing General Howe's advance northward from Philadelphia. Learning of Wayne's position and intentions, the British sent Grey to make a night attack. Major John André, who was later to be captured and hung as a spy, left an account of this attack: "No soldier was suffered to load; those who could not unload their pieces took out the flints. We knew nearly the spot where the Rebel corps lay, but nothing of the disposition of their camp. It was represented to the men that firing discovered us to the enemy, hid them from us, killed our friends and produced a confusion favourable to the escape of the Rebels. On the other hand, by not firing we knew the foe to be wherever fire appeared and a charge ensured his destruction." Shortly after midnight, the British struck Wayne's camp. Four sentries fired and ran, while Wayne's men turned out to repel the attackers. In the ensuing action, the Americans lost 150 men. The British took 71 prisoners with them, leaving 40 of the most seriously wounded at houses along the way. Fifty-three "mangled dead" were reportedly found at the scene of what was immediately called the "Paoli Massacre" and used with good effect to drum up anti-British sentiment. The "Tappan Massacre" one year later in northern New Jersey was a repeat performance by "No-flint" Grey, and has been called "a textbook model of the surprise of a detachment."

No matter what tactics were employed, the simple truth is that the shooting by both sides was awful: the marksmanship of the Americans was poor and that of the British was practically nonexistent. In the first major exchange at Lexington and Concord, only one American bullet out of 300 found its mark, and only one man in 15 hit anybody. Six years later at the battle of Wetzell's Mill in North Carolina, 25 expert American riflemen, who had fought spectacularly at King's Mountain, fired from close range at British Lt. Col. James Webster as he led his troops on horseback across a ford they were covering. Although 33 or 34 shots were fired at him (some men were able to reload and fire twice), Webster was not hit once. An even more embarrassing example of the lack of marksmanship training occurred during the battle for Fort Ticonderoga in 1777. As the British advanced toward the American positions, an American officer ordered a sergeant to pick off a British skirmisher only 40 yards away. This touched off wholesale unauthorized firing and the enemy dropped back, leaving the original target on the ground. The "casualty" turned out to be a drunken Irishman from the 47th Regiment who was unhurt. In addition to eight cannons, the Americans had fired about 3,000 rounds from 1,000 muskets at less than 100 yards. All they hit was a British lieutenant and two Indians, with one fatality among the Indians.

If American marksmanship was poor, no attempt was made to teach the British soldier to aim at all. One of the Americans captured at Fort Washington at the northern end of Manhattan Island in 1776 said that no fewer than ten guns were fired at his group within a range of 40 to 50 yards--some within 20 yards--and he was alive to make this comment: "I observed that they took no aim and the movement of presenting and firing was the same." In wet weather only one shot out of four could be counted on to go off. And while an American flint was good for some 60 rounds without re-sharpening, a British flint could be used for only six.

Defective equipment was another bugaboo. At the indecisive skirmish at the Warren (or White Horse) Tavern in Pennsylvania in 1777, as the opposing forces were preparing for battle a heavy rain began. "I wish I could give a description of the downpour which began during the engagement and continued until the next morning," wrote a Hessian officer. "It came down so hard that in a few minutes we were drenched and stuck in mud up to our calves." Because the tops of their cartridge boxes did not extend far enough to keep out the rain, the Americans lost tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition; many regiments were unable to fire a shot. As a result, the Americans were forced to retreat to replenish their supplies of ammunition. Thanks to obviously superior design of their cartridge boxes, the British lost comparatively little ammunition.

Musketoons and Carbines
Mounted soldiers needed shorter shoulder arms for the special situations encountered by cavalrymen. In the Continental Army these were provided by captured British weapons or from French sources. In most cases such guns resembled contemporary infantry muskets with the exception that calibers were .65 and a sliding ring had replaced the sling swivels.

During the 17th century a light flintlock musket or fusil had been developed for artillery guards and for the light infantry (called "fusiliers"). These were similar to their bigger counterparts in every respect except size. Infantry officers--more often in the British Army--sometimes carried such guns, however. George Washington thought that guns diverted an officer's attention and made him less able to capitalize on the swiftly changing fluid situations that developed during a battle.

In addition to swords, infantry officers carried a spontoon (sometimes called an espontoon or half pike), which was both a badge of rank and an efficient weapon that had evolved from the halberd. The spontoon was a spear between six and seven feet long, topped with a leaf-shaped iron point socketed to a sturdy pole about an inch and a quarter in diameter. Often a crossbar was added to prevent an enemy sword or bayonet from sliding down the haft and injuring the hands of the spontoon wielder. In the years before the American Revolution infantry officers of every army carried the spontoon until it was supplanted by the fusil. This change took place in the French Army in 1754 and in the British Army in 1786 (although British troops in America had started to abandon the spontoon earlier). General Edward Braddock, whose name is forever linked with the word "defeat," ordered his troops not to carry them on the expedition against the Indians that ended in disaster on July 9, 1755. His dying words were, "We shall better know how to deal with them another time." Most British troops did not carry spontoons in the field during the American Revolution. Although Colonel Timothy Pickering and others had favored their abandonment, George Washington and Anthony Wayne, among others, were believers in the effectiveness of pole arms. Spontoons were carried in the battle of Trenton. And Anthony Wayne himself carried one in his famous morale-building capture of the British garrison at Stony Point, New York, in 1779. At the battle of the Cowpens in South Carolina, a certain Captain Anderson used his spontoon to pole vault ahead of a fellow American officer, Captain Ewing, and so capture a British cannon first.

Cavalry Pistols
These were omnipresent, either in the troopers' saddle holsters, pockets or boots. Some pistols were British, while others were of American manufacture and patterned after their British counterparts; still others were French. There were two models--heavy and light. In bore, the heavy dragoon pistol was identical with the carbine (.65 caliber) with a barrel 12 inches long.

The light dragoon pistol was the preferred sidearm during the Revolutionary War. Its length was only 9 inches (but the caliber had been enlarged to .69). Lacking sights, these guns were only useful at close range. When French pistols eventually made an appearance, they turned out to be longer, heavier--and less foolproof. With a straighter butt, the French pistol had a total length of almost 16 inches; the bore was also .69. Officers' pistols resembled those of enlisted men, with the exception that workmanship was finer and decoration more ornate. Of especial interest to collectors is the popular American-made box-lock pistol, whose lock was mounted at .the center rather than at the side. No forestock was necessary, so these pistols were invariably lighter. Barrels could often be unscrewed, making it possible to load them at the breech, thus eliminating the ramrod.

Another characteristically American handgun was the "Kentucky pistol," a modern-day appellation because of their resemblance to the so-called "Kentucky rifle" (which was earlier called the "Pennsylvania rifle"). These pistols have stocks of curly maple or fruitwood, with octagonal barrels or round barrels octagonal at the breech. Because they are rifled and with front and rear sights, such guns pose a problem for collectors. Some experts maintain that many date from the War of 1812.

Wall Guns
So called because they were intended to be mounted on a swivel and fired from a fort (or a small boat), these "amusettes" threw a four-ounce ball; some were rifled, and all had an impressive range.

No account of the guns of the American Revolution can fail to mention the artillery weapons employed. For the defense of and siege of forts, heavy guns had to be used. The Continental Army started the war in 1775 with only the cannon, ammunition and gunpowder the British had left in America in the hands of the colonial militia plus what could be captured from royal arsenals. The first British operations of the war--against Salem, Massachusetts, in February of 1775 and Lexington and Concord less than two months later--had as their objective the confiscation of weapons. The capture, of Fort Ticonderoga by the Americans in May of that year gave them access to a vast store of heavy siege artillery whose lack was critical during the yearlong siege of Boston. Getting them over the 300 miles of primitive roads to that city was quite another problem. It was solved by 25-year old Henry Knox (who had just been appointed Colonel of the virtually nonexistent Continental Regiment of Artillery) in a daring plan that quickly won General Washington's approval. Arriving on December 5th, Knox inspected the Ticonderoga guns, selected some 50 to 60 cannons, had 42 heavy sledges built, and rounded up 80 yoke of oxen. A month later, Knox's expedition had reached the southern end of Lake George and headed south through Saratoga and Albany and then eastward up the slopes of the Berkshires in the dead of winter. Knox's "Noble Train of Artillery" reached Framingham, Massachusetts, on January 24th. By emplacing the guns on Dorchester Heights, the Americans were able to force the British evacuation of Boston. Some idea of the magnitude of Knox's feat may be gleaned from these statistics: about 59 weapons were successfully moved; three of the large mortars of 13-inch bore (including one dubbed "Old Sow") weighed a ton each. Total weight of the load was 60 tons, including a ton of lead and a barrel of much-needed flints.

In the linear tactics used in 18th-century warfare, there was little need for field artillery. Because of the wooded, unfavorable terrain in North America, when artillery was moved it often went by water. The British used water-borne artillery to good effect in the retaking of Fort Ticonderoga and at the battle of Freeman's Farm at Saratoga in 1777. At this time, the British Army in America had four times the number of expert gunners as did the Americans. Nevertheless, what the Continental Army lacked in numbers it made up eventually in proficiency. Because of the shortage of artillery pieces, the Americans had originally begun casting cannons of bronze and iron and making gun carriages. As a consequence of the French Army's adoption of the Gribeauval system of artillery, some obsolete French field guns eventually reached America. Usually of bronze, the mobile guns of the Continental Army ranged from 3- to 24-pounders and 5½- and 8-inch howitzers. A few 18-, 24- and 32-pound iron siege guns were also available. "Grasshoppers" was the soldiers' nickname for the small three-pounder guns that had legs instead of wheels. When fired, these weapons would jump, earning them their distinctive nickname.

Ammunition was round, grape or case shot; mortars (so named because of their resemblance to a pharmacist's grinding tool) fired bomb and carcasses, the latter a form of incendiary projectile. Side boxes on each side of the gun carriage held 21 rounds of ammunition. Horses or oxen (with civilian drivers) provided the transport. On the battlefield, matrosses dragged the guns into position and assisted the cannoneers in loading, firing and swabbing the guns. Maximum effective range of artillery manned by skilled artillerymen firing solid shot was about 1,200 yards. For untrained gunners, this could be as little as 400 yards.

These, then, were the tools with which independence was forged. They served the fledgling country well and now stand mute in museums and gun collections--those, that is, that were not broken up for scrap or beaten into ploughshares. No matter whether you stand among the silent field guns of the Revolution in the artillery park at West Point or view an 18th-century musket or rifle behind the glass of a display case, do not think of them as the cold and silent exhibits of a museum. Know them instead as warm and vibrant products of man's ingenuity that enabled a nation to win its freedom. Across the years, they still speak a message to us today.

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (11/16/06)


Vox populi. The people have spoken. After last Tuesday's emphatic rejection of the unwinnable Iraq War, there should be no shilly-shallying about leaving the Iraqi people to their own devices. Our bungled attempt at democratization of that troubled country has been shown to be a purgative rather than a remedy.

After 9/11 it was widely argued that the landscape had changed drastically, and the world had entered a new and frightening "age of terror." Terror was no longer something that happened in some remote part of the world. For the first time a state with enormous power had been successfully attacked at home. President Bush immediately announced that America was engaged in a War on Terror and proclaimed himself "a wartime president." He declared ominously, "There's no telling how many wars it will take to secure freedom in the homeland."

But the "war on terror" did not suddenly come into existence with that 9/11 event. And the four-pronged terrorist attacks on domestic targets were hardly unexpected. A month earlier, the CIA's Presidential Briefing on Aug. 6, 2001, had specifically warned that Bin Laden intended to attack in the United States. The FBI had taken note of individuals from the Middle East who had applied for flying lessons but expressed no interest in learning how to take off or land. Plane hijackings by individuals and groups of terrorists had been singularly successful for several years.

Millions who had lived through World War II could recall that during the Battle for Okinawa in 1945 Japanese suicidal kamikaze pilots had decimated the U.S. Seventh Fleet by flying through a curtain of antiaircraft fire and crashing their explosive-laden planes into naval vessels Any reader of newspaper headlines or listener to TV or radio broadcasts--the "celebrated man in the street"--was well aware that attacks like the 9/11 hijackings might occur.. An eight-year-old with a Crayola could have connected the dots.

A now almost-forgotten event that telegraphed to the nation that the World Trade Center was a target did occur on Feb. 26, 1993, when groups related to those who succeeded on 9/11 drove a rental van containing 1,500 pounds of explosive into the North Tower's parking garage. The resulting explosion came very close to toppling the North Tower, sending it crashing into the South Tower, toppling both landmarks and killing or maiming thousands of people. It was even widely known that these groups had even more ambitious plans that were nipped in the bud. As early as 1981 U.S. and British intelligence agencies were well aware of the existence of a network of radical Islamist groups. In that year, element of al-Qaida assassinated President Anwar Sadat of Egypt. A year later groups related to Hezbollah drove a truck bomb into the U.S. Marine barracks at the Beirut Airport in Lebanon, an act that forced President Ronald Reagan to withdraw U.S. troops from Lebanon.

What went wrong in Iraq? It had been widely predicted by analysts that an invasion of Iraq would inspire terrorism. What was not anticipated was the rapid increase of radical fundamentalism all over the world. Not only did our invasion cause a rise in recruitment by radical groups, the war created a new terrorist haven--Iraq itself. Even the destruction of al-Qaida will do little to improve the prospects for the future if the underlying conditions that caused the group's popularity--political oppression and lack of economic opportunity--persist in the Middle East and elsewhere. Equally troubling is Washington's backing of grilled heavily repressive and corrupt governments, which bolsters al-Qaida’s claim that the U. S. supports the oppression of Muslims.

It would be too easy to call what has taken place in Iraq a comedy of errors, but this glib phrase overlooks the more than 2,800 American lives already sacrificed there. Ironically, that number approximates the number of lives lost in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A grim trade-off, indeed.

You can't make this stuff up. In a recent interview, Martha Stewart is quoted as saying, "I honestly don't remember exactly what I was prosecuted for." This from someone who spent five months of her life in the federal low-security slammer at Alderson, West Virginia--and she can't remember why? Give me a break.

Your tax dollars at work. For almost six years, the U.S. Army has tried to lure recruits with the advertising slogan "An Army of One." Adopted in January 2001 to replace the "Be All You Can Be" campaign, which had lasted nearly 20 years, "An Army of One" was introduced to overcome what consultants felt was a view among young people that the Army was dehumanizing. It received heavy criticism because it de-emphasized the basic need for teamwork in any military organization. "If you want to be an `Army of One' you probably want to join the Hell's Angels, not the U.S. Army," observed Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute research group.

After struggling through a disappointing recruiting year, the Army hired the communications firm McCann Worldgroup last December to develop the new slogan. The overall five-year contract is valued at $1 billion, with the first two years guaranteed at $200 million each year. The new slogan was featured in a multimedia ad campaign launched Nov. 9, timed to coincide with Veterans Day weekend, Saturday, Nov. 11.

Sloganeering by the military services isn't something new. The other services also rely on catchy slogans to spearhead their advertising. Just last month the Air Force switched its slogan from "Cross into the Blue" to "Do Something Amazing." The Navy has used "Accelerate Your Life" since January 2001, and the Marine Corps has long relied on "The Few. The Proud." And what might this new Army slogan be? Are you sitting down? Developed in numerous tests with focus groups and interviews with soldiers, the $200 million slogan consists of two words: "Army Strong." It is meant--get this--"to convey the idea that if you join the Army you will gain physical and emotional strength, as well as strength of character and purpose."

Militaria. It made eminent good sense for the founding fathers to ordain that the person elected president would also be commander in chief of the nation's armed forces. After all, who could better fill that role than George Washington, the military leader who had made the nation's independence possible? Sadly, they did not foresee the pitfalls inherent in that arrangement. Today we have a stubborn president with little military experience who refuses to face the reality of the situation in Iraq. How many more Gold Star mothers will be created before General Dubyah acknowledges that his strategy has resulted in defeat? In the cemetery at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point is an imposing white pylon marking the grave of another stubborn general: George Armstrong Custer, who graduated last in the West Point class of 1861, enshrined himself in history by electing to do battle against a superior of Indians at the Little Big Horn River in Montana in 1876.

Future imperfect. In his 1950 book Unpopular Essays, philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell expressed skepticism about chances for world peace: "After ages during which the earth produced harmless trilobites and butterflies, evolution progressed to the point at which it has generated Nero’s, Genghis Khans and Hitler’s. This, however, I believe is a passing nightmare; in time the earth will again be incapable of supporting life, and peace will return."


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Thursday, November 09, 2006

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (11/09/06)


Former House Speaker Tip O'Neill's often-quoted observation that "all politics is local" was totally ignored on Tuesday. Voters confounded that wisdom by making the election a searing referendum on the Iraq War and on George W. Bush's performance as president. Demanding course change, they repudiated the Republicans' embrace of neo-conservatism and its aggressive policy of American global domination. Hegemony, from a Greek word meaning supremacy, had been advanced by the neocons as the only reliable defense against a breakdown of peace and international order. In practice, our abortive Iraq adventure became the spark that ignited a fast-moving worldwide conflagration of anti-Americanism.

Overambitious neocons saw the preemptive invasion of Iraq as the first step in a policy that would induce rogue states to fall into line and accept American domination. The swift "easy win" promised in Iraq soon proved to be illusory as the post-combat occupation deteriorated into an unending and bitter civil war. American troops found themselves to be unwanted interlopers caught between two warring factions. Long-echoed as a mantra, "stay the course" was suddenly jettisoned last month. In a typical Bush act of denial, and despite at least 29 filmed occasions in which he used the phrase, the President told ABC interviewer George Stephanopolous: "Listen, we've never been ’stay the course.’ We have been--we will complete the mission, we will do our job and help achieve the goal, but we're constantly adjusting the tactic. Constantly."

His signature phrase about staying the course was thus peremptorily consigned to the dust bin of history, joining his other failed slogans--gems such as "his of evil," "shock and awe," "bring 'em on," and "mission accomplished." Within a few weeks, the Bush family's consigliore, James A. Baker, his father's secretary of state, will provide the current Bush administration with a face-saving exit plan for cutting and running and the entire debacle will be treated as though it never happened.

For six years, neocons in and out of the Bush administration have set the tone of its public voice. Tough-talking neocon Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, was blunt in his advice: "We need to be more assertive and stop letting all these two-bit dictators and rogue regimes push us around and stop being a patsy for our so-called allies, especially in Saudi Arabia." Neocon Michael Ledeen, perhaps having read too many Mickey Spillane novels, put it even more crudely: "Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small, crappy country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business."

But the current focus of the public's unhappiness is George W. Bush himself. What really drives this man and what is he like? "Bush has a poor memory for facts and figures," said former Bush speechwriter David Frum, who coined the phrase, "axis of hatred"--polished to "axis of evil" by chief speechwriter Michael Gerson. Frum also said of Bush, "Fire a question at him about specifics of his administration's policies, and he often appeared uncertain. Nobody would ever enroll him in a quiz show." Frum resigned after his wife naively committed a cardinal Washington sin by boasting of her husband's authorship of the phrase. He later wrote a fawning paen to Bush entitled The Right Man. Neocon Richard Perle, dubbed the "Prince of Darkness," minced no words. “The first time I met Bush, two things became clear," he said. "One, he didn't know very much. The other was that he had the confidence to ask questions that revealed he didn't know very much."

Bush has been surrounded by advisers who also didn't know very much. Dick Cheney, another neuron, contended that deficits don't matter. As a result, the nation has experienced almost six years of unbridled spending by a government totally under GOP control, compelling Congress to raise the debt ceiling to almost $9 trillion--nearly double what it was when Bill Clinton left office. Cheney has continued to assert, as he did in 2002, "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction."

Neocon Paul Wolfowitz, assistant secretary of defense, said before the invasion, "We're dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon." But anyone in the international oil industry could have told him that because of sanctions and Saddam's neglect, Iraqi oil facilities were in dismal shape. Even today Iraqi drivers queue up at gas stations for gasoline that still must be imported.

Desperate to give the impression of change, some Republican candidates in this year's election put daylight between themselves and the president by shunning joint "kiss-of-death" public appearances. Others publicly called for the removal of neocon defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the military architect of the Iraq debacle. The authoritative London magazine The Economist charged that Rumsfeld was "responsible for having needlessly alienated more friends of the United States than any other instrument since the invention of the B-52 bomber."

Rumsfeld shortsightedly decided that wars could be won by using technologically superior weapons and less manpower. Retired Gen. William Odom, the Reagan administration's National Security Agency director, has called Iraq "the greatest security disaster in American history." Rumsfeld's gaffes of deploying too few troops and imposing morale-shattering consecutive tours of duty in Iraq were compounded by his unwillingness to concede that his policies had failed.

In his traditional meeting with the incoming President-elect in January 2001, Bill Clinton pinpointed al-Qaida as the nation's most important foreign policy challenge. The warning went unheeded. When Condoleezza Rice, a specialist in Russian-German relations, became national security advisor at the start of George W. Bush's first term, Richard Clarke, holdover Clinton White House counterterrorism advisor, was surprised to discover that she had never heard of al-Qaida. In her role as national security advisor, she would later tell the president at his Crawford, Texas, ranch not to read too much into the August 6, 2001, CIA report entitled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the U.S."

To understand George W. Bush, we must examine his actions for clues to what makes him tick. In six years as president, he has revealed a multilayered personality characterized by many conflicts. We are all familiar with his problems with the English language--an amusing succession of perplexing malapropisms, gaffes and dyslexic spoonerisms. More alarming for the nation, however is his lack of intellectual curiosity, often exhibited as overt anti-intellectualism.

Totally uninterested in details and impatient with debate, if offered a choice of options, he decides quickly and never looks back--even if the nation has been left with a series of paradoxes by his rash, unthinking decisions. He is not above publicly insulting foreign leaders with unfeeling remarks or imperious threats. He is also intellectually lazy. When Calvin Hill, star running back of the 1968 championship Yale football team, discovered that George W. Bush was in a class he was considering, Hill called out to his teammates, "Hey, George Bush is in this class. This is the one for us."

Psychiatrists have raised the possibility that George W. Bush may suffer from narcissistic personality disorder, defined as "arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes; sense of entitlement, preoccupation with grandiose fantasies; need for excessive admiration; a grandiose sense of self-importance; inability to recognize or identify with feelings of others; exploitation of others; envy." In the two years remaining to the Bush administration, the president's reaction to the nation's repudiation of his conduct of the Iraq War and his performance as president may confirm whether this suggested diagnosis is correct.


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Thursday, November 02, 2006

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (11/02/06)


Come Election Day, Nov. 7th, America's preemptive war in Iraq will have demanded our uneasy attention for a period only 17 days less than the duration of World War II. No wonder the administration's conduct of this conflict is almost the sole focus of a vexed electorate's attention. The main sticking point, of course, is the question of how and when this country can extricate itself from the impossible situation it created in Iraq. The Iraq war we launched in 2003 was a badly planned invasion of dubious legality, based as it was on intelligence that had been "fixed" to suit the desired objectives of neocon operatives.

The true reason, of course, was to guarantee continued U.S. access to Iraq's oil reserves, the second largest on the planet. A secondary consideration was to remove Saddam as a potential threat to our ally, Israel. Saddam's possession of weapons of mass destruction was the official reason offered at the U.N. by a duped Colin Powell with a tissue of lies woven by this administration. And the invasion had nothing to do with the face-saving reason cobbled together later that we were "bringing democracy to the Iraqi people."

The number of U.S. troops assigned to the invasion was surprisingly small. Notably lacking were linguists, military police and civil affairs specialists. Planners who questioned how occupation duties--interception of across-border infiltrators from neighboring countries, suppression of looting and the inevitable insurgency--would be managed were quickly silenced. The war itself was conducted in a most peculiar fashion with a much smaller force than Army planners had originally projected.

It is not generally known, but American units in battle had orders to move to and seize preselected targets. They could only fire upon regular Iraqi military units if they were first fired upon. As a result, most Iraqi units emerged from the war intact--without having fired a shot and without having been engaged by U.S. troops. Iraqi units simply melted away and returned with their weapons to their homes or joined the growing Iraqi insurgency. It was a scenario for the eventual disaster that would engulf our inadequate occupying force.

The poorly planned occupation of Iraq has since morphed into a singularly unsuccessful pacification effort, with high troop losses in killed and wounded. In 2003, during the 41 days of major combat in Iraq preceding "Mission Accomplished," American forces lost 140 killed (at the average rate of 3.7/day); during the 31 days of the month just past, 103 soldiers and marines were killed. Thus, losses during the month of October 2006 were about as high as they were during the most intensive fighting of the initial invasion effort. Such losses belie administration claims that "We are winning." Winning what?

In any attempt at pacification of an unruly populace, so long as the occupation continues and one exploding roadside bomb takes the life of a single American soldier, we have won nothing. The only realistic solution would be for us to encourage Iraq to form a Swiss-type tripartite self-governing confederation melding Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis under a slimmed-down central government that would collect taxes, distribute oil and gas revenues and defend the country's borders.

Readers may have become tired of being reminded of Santayana's wisdom about learning from the lessons of history, but consider the following written about what Napoleon called "the Spanish ulcer"--the wars in the Spanish peninsula between 1809 and 1814 that led to his abdication: "Napoleon's campaign included a rapid conventional victory over Spanish armies but ignored the immediate requirement to provide a stable and secure environment for the people and the countryside. The French should have expected ferocious resistance. The Spanish people were accustomed to hardship, suspicious of foreigners, and constantly involved in skirmishes with security forces. The French failed to analyze the history, culture, and motivations of the Spanish people, or to seriously consider their potential to support or hinder the achievement of French political objectives. Napoleon's cultural miscalculation resulted in a protracted struggle. The Spanish resistance drained the Empire's resources and was the beginning of the end of Napoleon's reign."

What is remarkable about these words is their source: they are taken from the draft of a field manual, FM 3-24, jointly written by the Army and the Marine Corps, copies of which are now being passed around in military circles. Such interservice cooperation in itself is a giant step forward. Titled Counterinsurgency, the draft embodies lessons learned thirty years ago in Vietnam--and then forgotten. Substitute "Iraqi" for "Spanish" and "Americans" for "the French" and you have described our Iraq experience.

The Iraq misadventure marks the third time that the United States has gotten itself involved in a land war on the continent of Asia against the advice of military leaders. The first was in 1950 when North Korean troops poured into South Korea. Omar Bradley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff called it "the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy." By 1952, the last year of his presidency, Harry Truman recognized that victory was no longer possible. U.S. forces were not losing, but neither were they winning. As in Iraq, they were caught up in a vast, bloody and expensive holding operation. Two thirds of the American public disapproved of the war in which 34,000 Americans died.

We fought another "wrong war" in Vietnam, where the U.S. armed forces contributed to the eventual stalemate by fighting the war they wanted to fight instead of the war they had been thrust into. Similarly, the public recoiled at the carnage in which 58,000 American troops lost their lives. Something like the outcome of these two wars may be the best we can hope for in Iraq now, an opportunity for the United States to withdraw and turn its attention to solving our own problems. The alternatives in remaining can only be an expanding civil war and attendant bloodbath, political fragmentation, a torrent of refugees and surging global terrorist attacks.

We have had years of promises of imminent victory, changed tactics in the conduct of the war and exuberant sloganeering. This week the Pentagon revealed that of more than 500,000 weapons turned over by the U.S. to agencies of the Iraqi government, only 12,128 had their serial numbers properly recorded. Some of these missing rocket propelled grenade launchers, assault rifles, sniper rifles and machine guns are now being used to kill American troops. Coming on the heels of a succession of rigged no-bid contracts and evidence of graft and corruption, this gross error is disquieting. It makes appropriate John Kerry's question to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1972: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

It is regrettable that crucial issues at home involving illegal immigration, factory closings, unemployment, health care, a burgeoning deficit and a decaying infrastructure are being swept under the rug in this election, which has become a referendum on the war. Nevertheless, go to the polls next Tuesday, and vote. Vote as if a life depended on it. Not yours perhaps, but certainly the life of a soldier, sailor or marine yet to be sacrificed in a failed effort to force democracy at the point of a gun on an unwilling people riven by tribal, clan, religious or ethnic differences. Thirty-four years later, I would paraphrase John Kerry's question to, "How does this country hand a reverently folded flag to a family and tell them that their daughter or son was the last one to die defending a lie?"


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Clear Writing: How to Achieve and Measure Readability


What makes one piece of writing easy to read while another will cause readers' eyes to glaze over? The mysterious ingredient of good writing is a quality best described as readability. But how can a writer achieve readability? And is there a way of measuring it? Although certain computer programs offer a so-called readability measurement feature, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to check the readability of any piece of writing? To have a simple and completely portable yardstick for measuring reading ease? A way of quantitatively measuring readability? A way of making sure that what you have written is aimed at the intended audience?

Wait a minute! There is just such a formula: Robert Gunning’s largely forgotten “Fog Index.” It’s an easy-to-remember way of determining readability. In 1944, Gunning, a 36-year-old Ohio editor, quit his job and started a consulting business still not listed in the government’s index of occupations. The specialty of Robert Gunning Associates was counseling in clear writing—showing businesses how they could improve the readability of their communications.

Gunning’s clients included large corporations like the Standard Oil Co. and General Motors, United Press International, and newspapers such as the Louisville Courier-Journal, Hartford Courant, Washington Star, and Wall Street Journal, whose legendary editor Bernard Kilgore became a disciple. Gunning preached what most writers had long known—that certain factors played a part in readability: first and foremost, average sentence length in words, with the proportion of simple sentences, strong verb forms, familiar words, abstract words, long words and personal references all playing strong supporting roles.

Gunning's Readability Formula
Until that time, readability measurement had been the exclusive province of educators. But their formulas were complicated and required the laborious counting of certain not easily discerned factors. Many systems—even the highly touted yardsticks of readability guru Rudolph Flesch—employed four-decimal-place multipliers that were difficult to remember and gave a false sense of scientific accuracy.

Gunning discovered that only two qualities were critical to determining readability: the average number of words in sentences plus the percentage of “hard” words that might cause a reader to stumble. In his 1952 book, The Technique of Clear Writing, he described how to apply his innovative “Fog Index,” which is ideal for any kind of copy. It’s simple to calculate and easy to carry in your head.

1. Count the number of words in successive sentences. In a long piece, take several 100-word samples distributed evenly throughout. (Stop the sentence count with the sentence that ends nearest each 100-word total.) Divide the total number of words in each sample by the number of sentences. This yields the average sentence length of the copy.

2. Count the number of words of three syllables or more per 100 words. Don’t count proper names, word combinations of short words (i.e., bookkeeper, manpower, etc.) or three-syllable plural or past-tense verb forms as a result of adding -ed or -es (i.e., created or trespasses). This figure is the percentage of “hard” words in the copy.

3. Add these two numbers and multiply the result by 0.4.

This yields the Fog Index, which correlates exactly with school grade reading levels as determined by the McCall-Crabbs Standard Test Lessons in Reading. Thus, if your copy is addressed to a hypothetical audience with a fifth-grade educational level, the Fog Index of the tested copy should be no higher than 5.

The following table compares the Fog Index with reading levels by grade.

Fog Index Reading Level By Grade
17: College graduate
16: College senior
15 : College junior
14: College sophomore
13: College freshman
---------D A N G E R L I N E--------
12: High school senior
11: High school junior
10: High school sophomore
09: High school freshman
08: 8th grade
07: 7th grade
06: 6th grade
05: 5th grade

Cautions about Readability Measurements
A “sentence” in Gunning’s terms is not always the distance between a capital letter and a period, which makes it ideal for the punchy writing of direct mail copy. Units of thought (marked off by semicolons, colons, dashes or ellipsis points) are treated as sentences and so are independent clauses. An independent clause (sometimes called a main clause) is a group of words that make a complete statement, no matter what punctuation comes before or after. Such a clause can stand as a regular sentence, beginning with a capital letter and ending with a period. Or several independent clauses may be separated by semicolons or commas. (For example, J.N. Hook’s parody of Julius Caesar in his Guide to Good Writing contains three independent clauses: “She came, I saw, she conquered.”) What is a “word” sometimes causes trouble, too. In applying the Fog Index, we may define a word as anything with white space on either side of it.

If your copy tests 13 or more, you are beyond Gunning’s danger line of reading difficulty, and your readers are likely to find what you have written to be heavy going.

After measuring the readability of magazines, Gunning discovered a correlation between a magazine’s circulation and his Fog Index. Magazines with the highest mass appeal had the lowest average sentence length and the lowest percentage of difficult words.

Gunning also applied his formula to books and found a direct relationship between a low Fog Index and popularity. Still in print, Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling Gone with the Wind has a 6th grade reading level. Peyton Place also scores a 6. Mickey Spillane’s hard-boiled novels come in at 5, as do the works of Harold Robbins. J.D. Salinger, John Cheever and Truman Capote all average a Fog Index of 7, not markedly lower than Somerset Maugham, Sinclair Lewis or Ernest Hemingway. Harper Lee’s prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird has a Fog Index of 5, which must account for its astonishing continuing sales in the millions and its presence on nearly every school reading list.

Applying his formula, Gunning gave English poet John Milton a Fog Index of 26. This was 11 points higher than Lincoln’s 269-word Gettysburg Address, which came in at 15. Gunning, who died in 1980, believed that 16 to 20 words was a good average word count for sentences in newspaper articles.

A low Fog Index for copy you have written is merely an assurance that the piece can be easily read by the widest audience—that readers of it will be induced to move along from one sentence to the next without stumbling and without excessive demands on their attention. The Fog Index cannot make you or anyone a great writer. Rather it is a measure of complexity in writing—for determining whether a piece of copy is geared to its intended audience. The Fog Index is a measuring tool, but only for use after you have written, not as a pattern before you write. “Good writing must be alive,” Gunning advised. “Don’t kill it with a system.”

Users of Robert Gunning’s Fog Index should recognize two things: First, reading ease isn’t only the ease of understanding words, phrases and sentences. There’s also the problem of how sentences relate to one another in a paragraph and how the paragraphs themselves relate. Any measure of word- or sentence-difficulty certainly correlates with overall reading difficulty, but it’s no exaggeration to say that there are writers who use simple words and write short sentences, yet whose copy isn’t a pleasure to read.

The Fog Index really is related to comprehensibility. It’s not necessarily about genuine readability—the property of copy that makes a reader want to keep on reading. Making something easier to read doesn’t always make it more interesting or more desirable to read. Using shorter sentences and simpler words indeed does yield copy comprehensible to a wider audience, but an increase in comprehensibility will not of itself make for greater readability.

It’s easy enough for writers to raise the comprehensibility of their copy by training themselves to write in short bursts and to choose less complicated words. Writing truly readable copy is quite another matter and less easily learned—you must cultivate an ear for the rhythms of the rich language that is English. Effective copy is not only clear and reads easily, but it also will sound right. In editing your copy (and it’s rare copy indeed that cannot be made better with one more revision), you should read not only for sense, but for euphony—the agreeableness of what you’ve written and its pleasurable effect on the ear (and thus on the eye). In short, try listening to your copy, even going so far as playing it back to yourself on a tape recorder.

A good writer takes the problem of writing seriously and attempts to marry comprehensibility and readability. It’s not easy to develop and maintain the skill of simple writing while at the same time keeping an ear open for the aptness of phrase and sentence. Only then will you succeed at the art that none of us will ever fully master—using the tools and the building blocks in the storehouse of language to create a deceptively simple structure of complex thoughts and emotions to entice readers and move them to action. The paradox is, of course, that if the simplicity is obvious, you have failed.

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