Monday, January 7, 2013



I have always thought that my mother had as many children as she did—I am the eldest of twelve—as  a gesture of defiance towards my much loved grandmother.

Much loved by me, by the way. The relationship between my mother and grandmother was terrible. They only had to meet when the rowing would start—normally in French “so the children won’t understand.”

Well, we didn’t understand each and every word, but tone and body language filled in the gaps.

What did they fight about? Money, my mother’s prolific love life, and my mother’s belief that she had been cruelly brought up by her French governesses and deprived of normal company. She had a point regarding her upbringing, but the simple truth is my grandmother did not know any better. My grandfather had died of cholera in Burma at an early age, and so my grandmother—who had been brought up in big houses by servants amidst much luxury—simply did what she knew. She reared my mother—primarily through intermediaries such as governesses and servants—to be a lady of leisure equipped with no practical skills other than to socialize, and the ability to speak French (the language of diplomacy and of civilized people the world over in those days).

My mother—spirited, imaginative, creative, stubborn, and unconstrained by convention (with a temperament to match)—rebelled. Her first victory was persuading my grandmother to let her go to boarding school in Dublin, Ireland, in her mid teens—where she thrived—and her second was fleeing to London at the beginning of WW II to join the WAAFs (the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) where she was trained as a radar operator—a job she loved. Radar was top secret at that time, and it was what gave the Royal Air Force the edge during the Battle of Britain.

All might have been well except that she became pregnant with me—without benefit of wedlock—and my grandmother, who was not without influence in military circles, persuaded the Royal Air Force powers-that-be to discharge mother, thus making her, once again a dependent, and potentially a disgraced dependent at that. Illegitimacy was frowned upon in those days, though if one was the offspring of a royal, the chances of being made a duke, or being given some other title, were high. The origins of most royals and aristocrats rarely stand scrutiny—subject to some exceptions. Though some distinguished themselves, many potential aristocrats killed, stole, betrayed, or crawled to achieve a title and high office in the first place—and then their heirs merely inherited the honor.

I have always felt the Duke of Wellington—the one who defeated Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo—thoroughly deserved his title. Most people associate him with Waterloo, but he started winning victories in India many years before, and continued to be equally successful in Spain before he got near to France. Besides, he had a marvelously dry sense of humor, and wrote with wit and elegance. His writing skill was key to his overall success. If he hadn’t been able to persuade the British government to back him through his written dispatches—and that was not always certain—he would have been in serious trouble. I don’t know whether the pen really is mightier that the sword, but they tend to be necessary companions.

Thinking back to Tom Rick’s excellent book, THE GENERALS, questioning the quality of recent and current U.S. generals—and proving his case—I have to wonder whether we shouldn’t look more closely at the penmanship of our general officers. I don’t think it is any accident that some of our best generals historically were equally proficient writers. Simply put, you cannot write clearly if you do not think clearly—and clarity of thought is fundamental to good generalship.

If you want an example of such proficiency, look no further than at General Ulysses S. Grant. Today, two names come to mind: Major General H.R. McMaster and Colonel Douglas Macgregor.

Frankly, it is a miracle that H.R. got promoted, because he is an original thinker and author of a rather controversial book, DERELICTION OF DUTY, about the failure of general officers over Vietnam. Indeed, he was passed over twice for one star rank—despite a distinguished combat record. The word is that General Petraeus then intervened. I don’t know the truth of it, but I am delighted that H.R. got the promotion he deserved. The Army—sadly—is frequently cruel to its talent.

Incidentally, William the Conqueror—the Norman who conquered England—made a virtue of his out-of-wedlock status and was prone to sign royal documents “William Bastardus.” Not many people, who valued a head on their shoulders, complained. It’s good to be the king. Today, close to 50 percent of children—in many countries—stem from the wrong side of the blanket.

I feel almost respectable.

By the way that rather strange looking graphic from the Bayeaux Tapestry shows William the Conqueror raising his helmet during the Battle of Hastings to show that he was still alive. Command was a hands-on business in those days.

His opponent, King Harald, also raised his helmet—and caught an arrow in the eye.

Napoleon has never been distinguished for his sense of humor. He may have had a sense of irony. He wanted his generals to be both good—and lucky.


Orso Clip Art


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