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The Guns of August
This month will go down as history as the end of the empire . . . and the start of a new one
So, as we sit through the heat of the eventful summer of 2020, remember that August has always been a fateful month for empire.
—Barry Strauss, Hoover Institute
In 1986, I sat on the helm of the USS Woodrow Wilson (SSBN 624) talking books and politics with Glen Robillard, the ship’s Supply Officer and diving officer of this particular watch. It was about 0130 on the mid watch, and the Woody Woo had just gone on “alert,” prepared to launch its cache of multiple, independent re-entry vehicle missiles to rain holy hell on the godless Communists of the USSR. Under my poopie suit, I word a t-shirt depicting a Lafayette class SSBN, its missile tubes open as its 16 missiles, chemtrails following, disappeared over the horizon. The caption read, “And Now, It’s Miller Time!”
That’s how we all expected the Cold War to end: mutual destruction. We just wanted to get in the first and last blow. Shoot the tubes and wait to be blown to smithereens by the Soviet version of a subrock missile or a torpedo from an Alpha Class boat. We didn’t worry about how we’d be remembered, because we didn’t expect anyone to remember us.
It was August, and this was early in my third Fleet Ballistic Missile Deterrent Patrol. I looked forward to adding a second gold star to my FBM pin. And I enjoyed my regular political debates with Lieutenant Robillard, a former high school math teacher who quit education to ride submarines and inventory rolls of terrycloth.
“Ronnie Ray-gun would have fit right in with the idiots who started World War One,” Robillard said.
“Huh?” I responded.
“I’m reading a book you’d like. The Guns of August. I’m surprised you haven’t read it, Hennessy. It’s a contrarian look at the start of World War One. You’re a contrarian.”
Robillard liked me. The Navy prohibited over-familiarity between enlisted and officers, but submariners pretty much ignored those rules. Submariners were carefully selected and screened for, among other qualities, the ability to compartmentalize things. We were pretty good at playing the chain-of-command game when appropriate, without turning it into a caste system. Observers of a mid-watch on a submarine would see an E-4 arguing with an O-5 about the right way to grill a porterhouse steak one minute, and mechanically obeying the Lt. Commander’s orders to plunge into a burning compartment the next. We knew our jobs and our places in the pecking order. We also respected each other as humans, not just ranks. It worked.
About a year later, in July 1987, Mr. Robillard and I snuck off the boat in refit to watch Oliver North’s first day of testimony before the Iran-Contra Committee at the Red Bank Club on the Naval Weapons Station in Goose Creek, South Carolina. We arrived just as the committee was breaking for lunch to hear ABC’s Peter Jennings describe North’s testimony as “a home run.” Though Glenn and I saw the entire affair from very different viewpoints, we both recognized the historical weight of that testimony, and we wanted to share it with someone who appreciated both politics and history.
“I haven’t read it,” I said. “Is it good?”
“Excellent,” he said.
I bought the book at B. Dalton the following off-crew, and read it sometime after. It was a good book, but I don’t remember much of it. (I just bought it, again, on Kindle.)
The 1962 book by Barbara Tuchman, for which she won a Pulitzer when that still meant something, opens with a reminder of how dramatically different the world was just 123 years ago, during the youth of my grandparents, as we read about the funeral of King Edward VII of England.
Behind him rode the widowed Queen Alexandra’s two brothers, King Frederick of Denmark and King George of the Hellenes; her nephew, King Haakon of Norway; and three kings who were to lose their thrones: Alfonso of Spain, Manuel of Portugal, and, wearing a silk turban, King Ferdinand of Bulgaria, who annoyed his fellow sovereigns by calling himself Czar and kept in a chest a Byzantine Emperor’s full regalia, acquired from a theatrical costumer, against the day when he should reassemble the Byzantine dominions beneath his scepter.
. . .
The future source of tragedy, tall, corpulent, and corseted with green plumes waving from his helmet, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir of the old Emperor Franz Josef, rode on Albert’s right, and on his left another scion who would never reach his throne, Prince Yussuf, heir of the Sultan of Turkey. After the kings came the royal highnesses: Prince Fushimi, brother of the Emperor of Japan; Grand Duke Michael, brother of the Czar of Russia; the Duke of Aosta in bright blue with green plumes, brother of the King of Italy; Prince Carl, brother of the King of Sweden; Prince Henry, consort of the Queen of Holland; and the Crown Princes of Serbia, Rumania, and Montenegro. The last, named Prince Danilo, “an amiable, extremely handsome young man of delightful manners,” resembled the Merry Widow’s lover in more than name, for, to the consternation of British functionaries, he had arrived the night before accompanied by a “charming young lady of great personal attractions” whom he introduced as his wife’s lady in waiting with the explanation that she had come to London to do some shopping.
When we moderns read “Czar of Russia” or “King of Italy” or “Sultan of Turkey,” we assume the subject must be ancient. But the event Tuchman described had occurred two years after the Chicago Black Sox scandal and less than a year before Ronald Reagan was born.
Tuchman ends the opening chapter of The Guns of August with an ominous note portending the changes about to seize Europe, the Middle East, and the world:
Lord Esher wrote in his diary after the funeral: “There never was such a break-up. All the old buoys which have marked the channel of our lives seem to have been swept away.”
Here we find ourselves embarking on another hot, sticky month of August. Again, the life of an empire seems to hang from a thread above a bleak, hardpan plain. Once again, the “old buoys” that guided every living American seem to have been swept away, or, at least, broken free from their anchors. Mariners trying to navigate by the signs and signals of America’s granite institutions risk running aground or becoming lost at sea.
One of those buoys, the American justice system, has deteriorated from lighthouse to hazard. Rather than serving as a refuge to victims and threat to crooks, the Department of Justice has made itself into the muscle for a rotten mob, the FBI a shakedown crew meaner than the Mafia it once pursued. Like a steak aged too long.
Today, August 3, 2023, the Department of Justice, on orders from the president, arrested the only man who, if the election were held today, would beat that president hands down. The arrest served one purpose: to prevent the people from electing the man they want as president.
But what about August? The end of Ptolemaic Egypt marked the beginning of Imperial Rome, and with it, the foundations of the modern West. Octavian and his followers wanted to mark a new age, and one way in which they did so was to give him a new title. They called him The Revered One, in Latin, Augustus. Twenty years later, an obsequious Senate offered to rename a month after Augustus. He chose the month of Sextilis, the month in which he had entered Alexandria. Ever since, Sextilis has been known as August.
The First World War began in August of 1914.
Leafing through Tuchman’s book, the reader sees the world is in a far more precarious position in August 2023 than in the same month in 1914. Germany did not have nuclear weapons or 24/7 surveillance of people’s thoughts, words, and deeds like governments have today.
But the parallels between 2020s USA and 1910s Germany are quite disturbing. Replace “German people” and “Germany” with “Globalists” and “Rules-based Order,” and this passage applies perfectly to our present condition:
A hundred years of German philosophy went into the making of this decision in which the seed of self-destruction lay embedded, waiting for its hour. The voice was Schlieffen’s, but the hand was the hand of Fichte who saw the German people chosen by Providence to occupy the supreme place in the history of the universe, of Hegel who saw them leading the world to a glorious destiny of compulsory Kultur, of Nietzsche who told them that Supermen were above ordinary controls, of Treitschke who set the increase of power as the highest moral duty of the state, of the whole German people, who called their temporal ruler the “All-Highest.” What made the Schlieffen plan was not Clausewitz and the Battle of Cannae, but the body of accumulated egoism which suckled the German people and created a nation fed on “the desperate delusion of the will that deems itself absolute.”
When we view ourselves through this lens—the lens Tuchman applied to 19th and 20th century German militarism—the left’s sudden embrace of police power, their weaponization of justice, their bloodlust for perpetual wars of conquest, the need for centralized power, the forced imposition of kultur all make more sense. A future historian will someday document how these forces under the Obama administration installed its minions in the apparatus needed to bring about what the Kaisers and Hitler failed to achieve in Germany.
Let’s look at that list again:
A chosen people
A glorious, compulsory culture
Supermen who are above both law and criticism
A state that seizes ever-increasing power
A figurehead imbued with the highest power
A zeitgeist of “do what thou wilt”
How does one bring about this utopia?
Dividing and defining classes based on race and sexual deviancy
Punishment of contrary thoughts, words, and deeds
Elevating a class of “experts” whose dictates cannot be questioned
Criminalizing challenges to government control through a mean and vindictive police force
A national “leader” insultingly unfit but above the law
A pervading permissiveness to distract the masses with bread, circuses, and orgies
All that’s missing is the inciting incident—an assassination, say, or a financial collapse. Or a natural disaster with regional implications.
Donald Trump’s arraignment of August 3rd felt different from the earlier arraignment in Florida. This arraignment took place in the Capitol District itself, a place of gleaming artifices towering above crime, squalor, and poverty. John F. Kennedy once described Washington DC as a city with “northern charm and southern efficiency.” Those qualities have only magnified since 1962, from quaint and humorous to distorted and horrifying.
I came across a comment I had jotted down in a notebook last April. I cannot tell from the surrounding text what inspired me to write—out of context with the other notes on the same page—a foreboding reminder: “beware the ides of August.” I had no idea at the time that Jack Smith would drag Donald Trump before a magistrate on August 3rd or that the judge would set a hearing date of August 28. Perhaps the note had nothing to do with politics or law, rather weather. August in St. Louis is typically when people get tired of summer’s heat and humidity. It’s when the mind first recognizing the lengthening of evening shadows, the shortening of daylight hours, and the disappearance of underbrush beneath canopies of trees. August is when we remember the cycles of life—the seasons—and know that the hottest days are behind us.
Death comes in winter, and August reminds us that winter is coming. Richard Nixon resigned in August. Anne Frank’s final diary entry August 1, 1944. The Declaration of Independence was signed by all 55 delegates to the convention on August 2, 1776. Columbus set sail for India in August. The Enola Gay dropped the first atomic bomb in August, 1945. Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in August, 1964, and 27 years later to the day Operation Desert Storm began. The 19th Amendment was ratified in August 1920. And, of course, Cleopatra killed herself rather than become a war prize for the Roman emperor.
What will August 2023 bring? What will our generation add to this list?
Many of the historical events of Augusts past caught everyone by surprise. But the consequences of those events were predictable and tacitly acknowledged. Tuchman points out that many military leaders in 1914 expected the next war to be long and brutal. But concerns about long wars were verboten. One must not mention such things. So, the people who knew better kept their mouths shut and went along with the “experts.” As Tuchman points out:
One constant among the elements of 1914—as of any era—was the disposition of everyone on all sides not to prepare for the harder alternative, not to act upon what they suspected to be true.
How familiar that sounds! We don’t prepare for what we suspect is about to happen. We don’t act on what we believe to be true. We find it more comfortable and comforting to pretend Our Leaders know what they are doing. We trust the science.
And everything goes to pieces.
World War I was a brutal slugfest that led to World War II. It also set the stage for perpetual instability in the Middle East, ushered in Russian Communism, and provided a distraction for the three worst Amendments to the US Constitution: prohibition, the national income tax, and the direct election of Senators.
Many events of August led to a concentration of power in a smaller number of hands. The four Amendments took power from the states or the people and gave it to Washington. World War I introduced world government in the form of the League of Nations. World War II solidified world government in the UN.
“August,” as Barry Strauss wrote, “has always been a fateful month for empires.” August 31 BC saw the end of one empire at the hands of a newer one. The signing of the Declaration in August 1776 led to the end of one empire and sewed the seeds of an American empire.
When you look around this American empire today, you get the feeling it’s in the August of its seasonal cycle. It’s still hot and humid, but the days are shorter. The sun is still bright, but not as bright as it was on the 4th of July. The trees are still green, but we can see the forest floor through withered brush that’s receded due to lack of sunlight blotted out by the taller trees the way the people wither when the government grows too strong.
In August, we stop planning improvement projects and begin preparing for defensive tasks. We shore up the homestead for winter, split wood for fires, spread seeds and plant trees. We don’t expect these activities to make our lives better tomorrow, of course. We do these tasks to prevent loss over the winter in hopes of a bright spring ahead.
Much will happen before we get to September, but it’s time to prepare for winter and pray for the future. An empire is falling, and empires crash hard. We are the seeds of future growth. With faith and purpose, we preserve what made America great, admitting that greatness leads to arrogance, then to abuse, then to collapse, and, finally, to regeneration. Just as August tells us winter is coming, the arrest of political opponents says our empire is dying.
In March, I longed for hot summer days to work my projects deep into the evening with its long twilight. And most of my life I raged against the idea of an America in decline. But, today, I welcome the cooling rains and shortening of days, looking ahead to crisp fall mornings and frost and wooly sweaters. I also look forward to what we can do with our American Ideal once the burdens of empire have fallen and blown away.
The Guns of August (Modern Library 100 Best Nonfiction Books) (pp. 36-37). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Ibid. (p. 53)
Ibid. (p. 60)
Ibid. (p. 62)