rolling thunder in a gentle land

For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;
Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight dropping down with costly bales;
Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain’d a ghastly dew
From the nations’ airy navies grappling in the central blue;
Far along the world-wide whisper of the south-wind rushing warm,
With the standards of the peoples plunging thro’ the thunder-storm;
Till the war-drum throbb’d no longer, and the battle-flags were furl’d
In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.

– Alfred, Lord Tennyson,
from Locksley Hall, 1842.

and it’s five, six, seven, open up the pearly gates

The eight separate fortified positions at the infamous French not-quite-strong-enough stronghold Dien Bien Phu were given women’s names, starting with the first eight letters of the alphabet (skipping F): Anne-Marie, Beatrice, Claudine, Dominique, Eliane, Gabrielle, Huguette, Isabelle. (These were rumoured to be the names of the base commander Colonel de Castries’ mistresses.) The movement of Groupe Mobile 100 from An Khe to Pleiku, which saw them all but annihilated at Mang Yang Pass, was known as “Operation Eglantine.” Dien Bien Phu and Mang Yang Pass were the last engagements before the French bowed out of Indochina; I’m going to miss their naming conventions.

Not that the Americans are going to let me down on that particular front. Names like Arc Light and Rolling Thunder hearken back to when the name of an op was meant to sound good in the history books. These are good, meaty, threatening names, much better than sad, confused creatures like “Operation Desert Snowplough” and “Operation Ivy Cyclone” and “Operation Gothic Serpent”*, names which sound like there’s a Camelot machine buried somewhere in the Pentagon with assorted words-some-desk-jockey’s-wife-thought-sounded-cool on all the balls.

I spent most of the weekend making/eating flapjack, chatting to a certain enchanting young lady on Skype, and doing reading for my 2k Vietnam essay that comes in on Wednesday. Olly was terribly ill so my planned trip to Cov to watch cheap films with his friends was cancelled. Essay is… interesting, the question is whether too much political meddling hobbled the air war campaign, and while the recommended reading is really really good on exploring both intricate and Presidentially-manged ROE and huge phallic high-speed bomb-dropping things, it’s no great shakes on the wider political/strategic context, ie whether LBJ et al were justified in thinking that escalating the bombing would trigger Soviet/Chinese intervention, with connotations of global thermonuclear war. I can still pull a decent essay out of it, but the result would be appallingly even-handed and inconclusive – which is exactly what A-level essays want, but I’m not doing A-levels any more. Rob Thompson likes you to pick a point and argue for it. And this time yesterday I didn’t think I could.

Tried and failed to go to sleep at midnight, my mind and bed piled high with books about bombers. At about four in the morning, gave up, turned on the desktop for a bit of Minecraft and played with mob farmers and TNT until I was properly tired. Set my alarm for the anticipated Vietnam lecture at 11.

Unfortunately, the alarm didn’t go off, and I very luckily woke up at 10:40 to look at my clock and swear loudly. Tore myself out of bed and raced down to the uni; cold air at high speed is at least extremely good for waking me up. Made it on time (just!) – another chap in my group had a problem with his bike lock, so I secured his to mine and we went in together. Lecture on Operation Eglantine was as interesting as expected, and for a change it wasn’t just me and Nick Prime talking; the possibility was later suggested that with an essay deadline looming, feckless student types are actually doing some reading and finding it fun. Not that they’re doing that much; one of the regular contributors kept saying that the people at Dien Bien Phu and Group Mobile 100 were Americans (for those who don’t know anything about the French Indochina War, here is a hint: “French Indochina War”). But that could just be a bit of honest confusion, and is certainly not on the same level of derp as the girl last year talking about satellite photography on the Somme.

Unlocking the other bloke’s bike meant I missed catching Rob after the lecture for dissertation stuff, so I rolled down to his office to try and ambush him there. McLeod (he and Rob share the office) showed up, and we made war-related talk; pissed as I often get at Toby’s often haphazard approach to admin (though he ain’t alone in that by any means…) he’s a very nice guy, and definitely knows his stuff. Then Rob appeared, and we talked about Vietnam and War and Iain Banks and the fiercely optimistic Sixties American love-of-technology-as-a-panacea-for-everything quite a bit, and he gave me lots of PDFs full of cool books and DARPA notes on field tests of mad supervillain gear. I really like talking to academics about things like this, it’s always incredibly interesting and I learn a lot, but the short version is, I’m now much more certain about both dissertation and essay.

Then I came home and had a huge lunch of bacon and eggs and tiger bread and fried onions. This week is going extremely well so far, and I’m only a few hours into it.

brb repaying sleep debt

*The first two are actual operations conducted in the current Iraq scrap. The last was the 1993 op in Somalia that led to the Battle of Mogadishu, widely known as simply “Black Hawk Down.”

storm of iron

One-third of our marks in the third year – one-sixth of my degree – come from the 40-credit dissertation module. This is an essay of 12,000 words. Third year is a way off, but this year we have a dissertation prep module of 20 credits that it at least helps to know your subject for, and one of the more important aspects of dissertatin’ is to court a tutor. Each tutor can supervise five students.

My primary target in this was Rob Thompson, true bro among academics and my favourite tutor of last year. It emerged today after my Vietnam lecture that he tends to get around 40 applicants for his five slots (as, like the other war-academics, he does popular fun subjects involving stuff blowing up, rather than gender studies of medieval literature or the Counter-Reformation from a post-feminist perspective or whatever.) So after my group research and lunch of prudently made sammiches, I sat down at a table in the Starbucks in Muirhead and bashed out some potential ideas. Rob’s office hours are 5-6.

Plan A was on the development of small arms and infantry tactics in WW1. I threw out a bunch of tentative ideas that could be expanded to as much or as little as I wanted: the introduction of explosive infantry weapons for assaulting trenches (grenades, minenwerfer, Stokes mortar), the employment of close-in weapons such as shotguns and machine pistols, the use of “walking-fire” light machine guns, and how all these devices went hand in hand with developments in small-unit fighting and infantry tactics. Then, backup plans included the development of infantry weapons in the British/Soviet/US military over the 20th century (pick 1, or comparative analysis) and a few other interesting arguments and stereotypes.

I met Rob having a fag-break with Toby (he who still hasn’t given us the essay questions we should have had two weeks ago – for the 4,000 word essay that’s worth 20 credits) outside Strathcona. I outlined Plan A to him and said “right, is this dissertation material, or just 12,000 words of gunwank?”

He told me that the subject was fine, gunwank was not a drawback and I clearly know what I’m talking about, but that the point of a dissertation is to argue – what was my argument? I’m interested in WW1, but not sure I know enough about the later stages to not end up looking silly. So, I started outlining aspects of Plans B and C. “I could argue that the American infatuation with the legend of the frontier marksman affected their procurement and weapon designs in the 20th century?” I offered.

Then we talked cheerfully about dissertations and guns for about twenty minutes.

Options that presented themselves:
– a take on my original WW1 thing, but using weapon changes to argue more specifically for developments in fluid warfare at the time – units at Passchendaele begging for Lewis guns over grenades – the necessity of precisely targeted infantry firepower as flexible defence in depth became more in vogue and artillery bombardment was less effective in overcoming a line
– arguing for the AK and M16 as evocative of a national philosophy of war – the AK’s selector switch goes safe-auto-semi and has crap but easy to use notch-and-post sights at 100m graduations, the M16 is safe-semi-auto and has good aperture sights (with dials!) That is to say, the M16 is designed for accurate, aimed shots, in line with the American philosophies of individual marksmanship. The AK is for suppressive fire while closing, reflective of Soviet doctrine to always be fluid and always on the offensive.
– the use of small arms in Vietnam and the idea that, at a squad level, US/ARVN forces were actually undergunned. I reckon I could do this well; I avoided going for Vietnam because I was worried that would just end up as an AK-47 vs M16 HURR STOPPAN POWER thing, which has been done to death a thousand times, but apparently there’s still ground to tread. Rob says that the AR-15 (as opposed to the AR-10) was designed specifically so that small-statured ARVN soldiers could use it, and though airborne at LZ X-Ray used it to great success, its general US adoption wasn’t planned – which is an intriguing line…
– arguing the whole American infatuation with the idea of the frontier marksman (tied to the success of the Garand) kept them in overpowered 30-06 rifles and slowed the adoption of effective assault rifles in intermediate cartridges, in particular .280 British – and how 5.56 was too far the other way, and is biting them even now in Afghanistan…

We talked, and while I’m not certain, I’m most attracted to the platoon-level firepower thing in Vietnam. However, Rob has said that he knows what I’m capable of and will provisionally offer me one of his places, just to be certain what I want next week. So after all that, I’m still not certain what my actual subject will be, but the securing a tutor part – the biggest load on my mind – is now off it.

And if all else fails I guess I can do this…

(Philip, if I get a 2:2 my because my dissertation mark ends up saying “subject matter clearly result of fevered delusions, suggest counselling and possible custody”, I’m… going to steal your overcoat and attache-case of Bad Jokes.)