Babylon: Law And Empire

In the past ten days, I’ve increased my following on Twitter by a factor of eight, thanks mostly to a couple of awesome fellow writers who have made it their mission to boost other writers’ networking, which is one of my main foci this year. It occurred to me that as a history teacher, MANY people have said to me, “I wish I could take history again; I hated it as a kid, but love it as an adult,” or alternatively, “History was so boring; my teacher was a coach who sat around all day and handed out worksheets.”
So, in recognition of this need, I offered to blog on requested history topics. The first request I got was “Babylon or the Chinese Empire.”
Sigh. To this I can only say, “serves me right for asking,” because these two topics span, conservatively, about 5,000 years of history, concurrently, and trying to cover one, let alone BOTH, in their entirety would reduce the project to a joke. So, thanks very much to the requester: I’m going to talk about ONE aspect of Babylonian history that we all remember from school: Hammurabi’s Code.

I generally taught Hammurabi’s Code in my Honors World History classes for a couple of reasons. It’s pretty much our most influential surviving, readable code of laws. There’s little to compare it to in scope until you get to the laws laid out in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. And as we will see, the contrast between the two is interesting to explore.

Hammurabi himself is an interesting historical figure: he inherited a Babylon that had only just begun to expand power over the weaker city-states of the Tigris-Euphrates. These huge twin rivers are, of course, the reason that the Middle East was considered for so long to be the center of the world. The rivers meant regular irrigation for crops, easy travel for people and goods, and a useful sewer system to get rid of waste. As a young king, Hammurabi fought off an invasion by a more powerful kingdom to the east, and then, after fighting it off, turned on his allies who had been unwilling and unable to provide more aid. The upshot of this was that Hammurabi ended his days (1750 B.C.) in command of a sizable empire running most of the length of the rivers.

What would it have been like to live in Hammurabi’s Empire? One of the hardest things I had to impress upon my students was the utter difference between our own lives and people who lived almost 4,000 years ago. To us, even nobles would have seemed ridiculously poor. Oh, they would have owned much more than we do in terms of farmland, animals, personal weapons and precious metals. But consider how little that wealth could buy them. There were no medicines worth the name: if you got sick, you got better or you didn’t. Meat was an expensive luxury. Fruit existed only in season. Beer and wine were incredibly weak, with an alcohol content of something like 5% for strong wine. And beer was a necessity, because drinking water was a good way to die of diarrhea. And disease was endemic. You could expect to lose at least half of your children to disease before they reached adulthood. There was no real concept of hygiene aside from, “don’t handle poop,” which was not always avoidable. Humans had parasites: fleas, lice and worms all the time. Itching was a fact of life.
Entertainment would have meant religious feasts and celebrations where there was dancing, music and plays. Or it would have meant singing, playing instruments and storytelling with friends at home. Nothing else existed.
The primary difference in the lifestyle of the nobles, besides better food, was the ability to command slaves to do their menial work, and to remain clean. But they had no plumbing, and no machines, just prettier tools.
Literacy was a study for nobles, and took years to achieve, because the writing system consisted of symbols that had as many as eighty meanings, dependent upon context.

However, Hammurabi’s Code was unique in that it was written in the language of the common people, so they could have heard and understood it when it was proclaimed, rather than it being a secret code among nobles. Hammurabi’s Code introduced the concept of at least a moderate presumption of innocence (not a complete one — it was quite possible to be accused and have to “prove” your innocence by surviving, e.g. being thrown in the river). It was based on compensation to the victim and retribution to the offender. Imprisonment as a punishment was unknown, because no one had the time or money to lock a man up in idleness. Fines, maiming and death were the most common punishments.

Hammurabi’s Code bears many similarities to the code of the Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, not because the latter directly copied it, but because of shared culture and tradition in that part of the world. Notably, while both codes recognize the differences between a slave and a free man, only Hammurabi’s code recognize a state of nobility. The Israelites who wrote the Law doubtless were not wealthy enough to allow a noble class to exist. In addition, Hammurbi’s code is a bit freer with the death penalty, which again likely reflects a wealthier culture’s ability to kill off a greater number of its subjects without endangering itself.

So there you have a quick look at life in ancient Babylon. If you want to see a really excellent novel in which a slightly later Babylon is portrayed in fiction, I recommend S.M. Stirling’s brutally and beautifully vivid Island In The Sea Of Time trilogy. This portrays the Babylon of the Kassites, which is about 600 years later than Hammurabi. And it doesn’t show up until Book 2, but it’s worth the read.

So these are details you can use in historical fiction, but if you’re writing fantasy, these conditions may be useful to bear in mind too, unless you choose to give your characters anachronistic knowledge or magical remedies for them. Hope you find it useful.

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Why Superweapons Don’t Work: Or Why The Rebels Should Have Had the Death Star.

One of the most popular tropes, especially in science-fiction, is that of the superweapon: the huge, iconic invention that will turn the tide of battle and ensure the ultimate victory of the side that wields it. The most easily-recognized of these weapons is, of course, the Death Star, the planet-killer with the Achilles’ heel exploitable by the scrappy fighters the Rebels had. But why is it that historically, superweapons tend to work, not just as badly as the Death Star, but even worse? After all, the Death Star vaporized a planet.  Historically, experimental supposed-to-be war-winning weapons don’t usually get even that close to success. Why not?

Because The Wrong Side Has Them

Historically, superweapons are not developed by the equivalents of the Empire. Superweapons are developed by the Rebel Alliance. In other words, they are developed by the side that has the smaller army, the smaller economy, and that is in the most desperate straits. And the reason for this is easy to see: because the stronger side is already winning with the weapons they have! It was the Confederates that produced ironclads and submarines, not the Union with its overwhelming Navy. It was Nazi Germany that produced jet fighters and V-2 rockets in the late days of the war, not the Allies with their overwhelming air superiority. It’s only when you’re losing that you need a game-changing weapon to turn the tide of battle. The only exception to this rule is the atomic bomb, which is not actually an exception (see below).

Because They Tend to Come With A Whole Lot Of Suck

Superweapons are pretty much by definition untested systems, for reasons discussed  above: the side that needs them needs them right away, and they don’t have time for refining the technology. Just to give a few examples, the first submarine ever to sink an enemy ship in wartime, the CSS Hunley, went down with its target. This was predictable, as she had already killed two crews in training. Hunley was very good at the “submerging” part of “submarine,” and not so good at the “surfacing” part. The Nazi jet fighters performed excellently, but had ridiculously short ranges because of fuel inefficiency. Similarly, their V-2 rockets were a triumph of cutting-edge technology, and the Germans desperately needed artillery that could strike hundreds of miles away, but since they had no guidance systems beyond Doing Trig Very Well, this meant that they couldn’t hit anything smaller and more mobile than say, a city.

Because They Attract Attention

On the rare occasions when superweapons do work the way they are supposed to, they do tend to get dogpiled on by the stronger side that they are almost inevitably facing (see above). The Bismarck is an excellent example of this. Built with all the latest technology, the Germans decided to use her as a superweapon that would be tough enough to destroy entire convoys and fast enough to run from the British Navy.

She lasted nine days.

They were a very impressive nine days, and began with the utter annihilation of the battlecruiser Hood and the damaging of the battleship Prince Of Wales, but the result of the effort was that Bismarck attracted the attention of about five battleships and two aircraft carriers, along with many heavy cruisers. After air attacks damaged Bismarck’s rudder, this force pounded Bismarck to scrap. Lest we think this was mere coincidence, the Bismarck’s sister ship, Tirpitz met a similar fate, being used in only one offensive operation over her entire career, and subject to something like 26 Allied operations mounted specifically to get rid of her, which they eventually did.

Because They Are Easily Reproducible

Generally, the better the superweapon is, the more it has been tested. And the more it has been tested, the better it is understood. And the better it is understood, the more easily it can be copied. This is what happened with the Confederate ironclads. With the bulk of the Navy remaining loyal to the Union, the Confederates needed to break the Union blockade of their ports. And since ironclads were being built in Europe, first by France (significantly, the weaker naval power) and soon afterward by Britain (the stronger), their incentive to build ironclads was high, and the technology was becoming known.
Of course, the Union also knew this, and having discovered that the Confederates were building ironclads, quickly did the same. The first battle between ironclads saw the Union rushing its own ironclad to the battlefield only a day after the Confederate fielded the CSS Virginia. Despite the fact that the Virginia had faced three Union warships the previous day and had destroyed two while taking only minor damage to itself (a successful superweapon if anything was), the Monitor proved a match for it.
And that was the beginning of the end. Because the Confederacy was the poorer and less-industrialized of the combatants, they managed to produce only 30 ironclad vessels during the war in total, while the Union turned out about 50 ships of the Monitor class alone. If a superweapon really works, it won’t work fast enough to stop the stronger side from building more of them faster.

If Matching Them Doesn’t Work, Countermeasures Often Do

One of the most successful “superweapons,” pioneered by Germany, has been the torpedo-armed submarine. It was created to destroy the British Navy, and had many advantages that scared the pants off naval planners at the time: The submarine could travel invisibly. The submarine’s torpedoes attacked below the waterline, potentially killing a battleship in one shot. The submarine could scatter and hunt merchant ships in the ocean, killing them at will. The submarine could pass underneath blockades, rendering them ineffective.

In some ways, this appeared to be the perfect superweapon, especially because it didn’t matter whether the British matched it! What would it do with its subs? Guard the convoys? Submarines in the World Wars couldn’t hit each other with dumb-fire torpedoes except by sheer luck. Kill German merchant ships or naval vessels? The British Navy could already do that!

Well, it turned out that the British (and Americans) could do a number of things that weren’t terribly complicated. They could develop long-range patrol aircraft that could hunt and track the subs when they inevitably had to surface for air. They could create armored belts below the waterline for their ships, and anti-torpedo screens that could make the torpedoes detonate prematurely. Faster and stronger destroyers could guard the convoys and use cannon and depth-charges to sink the subs. As it turned out, subs could only effectively threaten surface warships (which were all bigger and more heavily armed and armored) when they managed to line up a shot unseen, and the torpedoes themselves tended to suffer from copious amounts of the aforementioned suck.

But Wait! What About The Atomic Bomb? Doesn’t That Disprove All Your Points?

Not at all. In fact, it reinforces them. First of all, the United States and the Allies were not yet fighting the war when Albert Einstein sent his famous letter to FDR, recommending its development. They were losing it when the Manhattan Project began. Most importantly, it was triggered by the belief that Germany, the weaker side in the wider war, was already researching them. By the time the bombs were actually built, of course, things had changed, and they were no longer necessary to win the war. To shorten it, yes, but that’s a different thing. And it attracted enough attention for the Soviets to place spies in the Manhattan Project, which they reproduced in only four years. Finally, the atomic bombs, contrary to appearances, really did contain a lot of suck. They poisoned the battlespace with fallout, and the bombers then necessary to carry them were vulnerable to interception. As a deterrent to large-scale war, the atomic bomb is a wonderful weapon. As an actually usable weapon system, it is not.

And that’s why, although superweapons are an awesome ingredient in fiction, they really don’t show up in history very often.

 

 

What, Writer, Is Your Plan To Fail?

Continuing a discussion vaguely related to The Last Jedi, a military friend of mine pointed out that one of the two real problems with Admiral Holdo’s escape plan (which was not a bad plan in concept, just in execution) was that she had absolutey no back-up plan in case it failed. Real military leaders need back-up plans, contingencies in case the enemy does something unexpected (like, say, suddenly being able to track you through hyperspace). However, I’d point out that Holdo is hardly alone in the Star Wars universe for failing at this. A few examples of how people in the Star Wars universe utterly fail at contingency planning include:

The complete failure of both the Old and New Republics to have a military, or means of raising one rapidly. The whole reason unwarlike people have militaries is for the contingency of suddenly being attacked, or facing a quickly rising threat.

The Rebels in New Hope were apparently content to simply wait for the Death Star to come blow them up, even though they must have had some transport ships to have gotten them to Yavin in the first place. In fact, one would have thought that evacuation plans would have been on their mind most heavily, since they didn’t know they were getting Death Star plans until the last minute.

The Empire is not a lot better in the planning department: They had no plan to catch the Millennium Falcon if its hyperdrive could be fixed. And why in the world did they sabotage it so it would be that easy to fix? They couldn’t have had a platoon of stormtroopers use its hyperdrive motivator for target practice? That’s the laziest job of sabotage ever.

The Rebels didn’t really have a plan for what to do if their commando strike team didn’t bust the shield bunker, which is indeed really stupid. Given the fleet they had mustered, they desperately needed a brute-force, we’ll-take-it-down-when-we-get-there-if-it-costs-us-a-few-cruiser-divisions plan to blow that thing, given the risk to their entire navy. And they also really needed a plan for what to do if half the Imperial Fleet showed up, because it did.

Of course, the supreme failures in the back-up planning department were the Jedi themselves. Wouldn’t you have loved to have heard THAT Academy In-service Planning Day?
“So, it’s been determined that it’s best to start Jedi training at about age 2. 3, tops.”
“Great. What do we do if we find a Force-sensitive who’s older?”
“I guess we… don’t train them!”
Okay! And just let that person wander around the galaxy with an unspeakable power they won’t know how to use. No danger of turning to the horrible Dark Side there! Hell, even killing potential-but-too-old-Jedi would have been a more ethical plan!

My guess is that this oversight exists because of the Rule of Cool, because desperate, do-or-die plans are romantic. Of course, they do happen, but only in extremis, and are usually far less romantic in real life. General Heinrici’s desperate defense of Berlin in 1945 comes to mind, for example.

The point is, that when you write, you may indeed wish to portray an against-the-odds victory, or a doomed last stand. But such things should happen because everything else was tried and failed. Let your heroes die on Plan Q, not because they couldn’t be bothered to come up with a Plan B.

 

From Somewhere in Orbit

The Cold Iron Towers: An Alternate History

This idea grew out of a thread on another author’s page, and got enough likes that I want to seriously talk about the possibility of doing it. Bear with me, because this is really thinking aloud, and there’s a LOT of room for filling in details. Jump on board in the comments if you’re into that sort of thing.

My alternate history begins in June 1942: Hitler decides that because of flooding, reports on Soviet tank strength, and the delay caused by conquering Greece, Barbarossa can wait until Summer of 1942. As a result, the European theater enters a lull. Knowing that they will not be needed in the East, Hitler orders the reinforcement of Rommel’s Afrika Korps, which succeeds in taking Tobruk, and begins pushing into Egypt. Britain is unable to reinforce due to Luftwaffe air superiority.
In December, Japan bombs Pearl Harbor, but realizing that Barbarossa is more important, Hitler does not declare war on the United States.

Josef Stalin, having had six months to prepare and reasoning that Germany is too occupied in Africa, invades German-occupied Poland over the frozen ground of winter. With sympathetic Communist partisans all over the Balkan peninsula ready to strike, Stalin’s war quickly becomes acknowledged as a war of global liberation from capitalism and fascism. Communist cells all over Europe begin guerrilla warfare. With the Wehrmacht facing defeat, Germany hastily offers Britain any number of concessions to end their war. Churchill’s price for peace is the surrender of all captured colonies and massive post-war reparations, including the evacuation of France. Germany agrees, on the condition that Britain and Germany join in creating a neutral French Republic that will be kept out of any war with Germany. Hitler also begins courting Roosevelt, emphasizing the similarities between the New Deal and Hitler’s own “economic miracle.” “American Socialist” and “British Socialist” unions begin to form. While they are decidedly minority factions and disliked by the populace as a whole, they are more popular than the Communists.

Fighting Japan on its own, Roosevelt is forced to bow to Republican pressure to end Lend-Lease to the British and Russians. Japan, for its part, joins the Soviet Union, citing “Western Imperialist perfidy” on the part of the Nazi regime. The Soviets and Japanese Army agree to divide the tottering Republic of China between them after the war, and with the fall of Berlin apparently weeks away, the Soviet Far Eastern Army is assigned to invade China from the north.

However, free to fight the Russians alone, Germany begins to stabilize its Eastern Front just short of Berlin. For most of 1942, the Soviets and the Germans fight it out in East Prussia, while the US duels Japan. As Germany recalls its troops from the Balkans, Stalin seizes Istanbul and the Dardanelles, freeing the Black Sea Fleet to raid into the Eastern Med, after which, the Soviets seize the Suez Canal. Forced into the realization that the Soviets mean what they say, the Commons reluctantly support Churchill’s call for a “Devil’s Alliance” with the Nazis in winter of 1943. The United States joins the alliance by summer with Roosevelt’s reluctant approval, and Stalin’s forces are pushed back. The Britisha and American navies force the Med and land in Greece and the Balkans, using friendly Italian bases as their jumping-off points. As the Wehrmacht advances and the Anglo-Americans liberate Soviet-conquered Norway and Finland, the horror of the gulags shock the civilized world. The tide has turned, and Moscow and Stalingrad fall before Hitler’s Tiger tanks and jet fighters and the British and American blockades. Roosevelt barely scrapes an electoral win in 1944. After the American Manhattan project results in the bombing of Hiroshima and Vladivostok, the Soviets and Japanese surrender. Stalin commits suicide before he can be tried for war crimes.

The United Nations is formed with the United States, Britain, China, Greater Germany and Italy as permanent members of the Security Council. Italy retains Libya. Britain keeps Egypt and the Suez Canal, and liberated Greece reclaims Istanbul, again renamed Constantinople. A Jewish state is proposed, but Nazi-leaning Arab governments make it clear that no such thing will be tolerated. The few Jewish refugees to escape to Palestine ask the British and Russian governments for help, and the Russian Republic agrees to accept the Jewish population in its Jewish Autonomous Oblast on the Chinese border. It achieves independence and UN recognition in 1949.

After the war, Nazi agents reveal how thoroughly the Soviets had planted spies in the Manhattan Project, naturally taking the stolen knowledge for themselves. Nazi Germany detonates its first weapon in 1947. After Hitler reneges on his promise to evacuate the Low Countries, the Western Allies and Germany nearly come to war over the “Brussels Blockade.” A state of Cold War is recognized.

A wave of fear sweeps the United States over the fear of Nazi infiltration, and fueled by the awareness of Hitler’s air and rocket superiority. Only infusions of British jet technology keep the USAF competitive, and Churchill is voted down in disgrace after Hitler annexes all the West Russian territories.

The Marshall Plan manages to revitalize the Russian Republic, Finland, Norway, France, and Britain. Hitler copies the plan for Italy and Spain. The MacArthur Constitution is approved in Japan. Without support, Mao Zedong is hunted down and killed by Chiang Kai-shek, armed by both the United States and Germany. Chiang quickly copies the German model, proclaiming the “Chinese Socialist Republic. He quickly brings Vietnam and Korea under Chinese suzerainty.” Blamed for “losing China” and the German ascendance by the Republicans, Truman is defeated by Dewey in 1948. Greater Germany demonstrates long-range missiles and orbits a satellite by 1952. The United States cannot follow suit until 1958.

The “Swastika Scare” drives many former pro-German propaganda writers and converts to Naziism underground. The HUAC investigates, and jails those who refuse to testify about others with pro-Nazi leanings. At the highest levels of society and academia, however, Naziism is often secretly admired for its scientific achievements and its promise of eugenic improvement of humankind.

Hitler dies in 1947, and is laid to rest with honor. His death triggers a quiet purge by the Army of some of the more radical Nazi elements, but a more-or-less clean succession is engineered, with “de-Hitlerization” accomplished and the release of many surviving POWs and political prisoners. Jews are allowed to identify themselves and emigrate. Only a few thousand survive. Returning to Russia, they bring stories of Nazi concentration camps, but these are not widely talked about since there is no hard proof. Many believe the stories are simply anti-Nazi propaganda. After Eugene McCarthy’s “witch-hunt” for Nazis implicates the Army, he falls from power. Only Richard Nixon, with his arrest of former Bund Leader and State Department employee Francis (Fritz) Kuhn, gets a boost.

In 1952, charismatic young politician and war-hero Joe Kennedy, Jr. challenges Dewey and wins. Elected on the twin platforms of challenging Nazi dominance in space and revitalizing the economy. The US quickly achieves dominance on the world stage as an industrial power, outstripping recovering Nazi Germany by a fair margin. However, growing Nazi sentiment in Central and South America and Africa tarnish his legacy. Although Kennedy is re-elected in 1956, the fall of Cuba in 1959 to openly-Nazi Fidel Castro shakes public confidence. The German moon-landing in 1960 seals the Democrats’ Fate, and California Governor Richard Nixon is elected President by a landslide over the much-derided candidacy of John F. Kennedy.

Pro-Nazi elements support de-colonization worldwide (against formerly British and French colonies only, naturally). Naziism is “recast” as a struggle for national identity and support of the poor throughout the world. German propaganda spins into high gear throughout this time, emphasizing the unity of the German people and the prosperity of their lower classes as they homestead through the Ostmarks of the Greater German Reich. Protests that this is only possible because of the extermination of the Russian population and the occupation of the Soviet cities is largely ignored as Greater Germany begins to challenge American economic dominance in the 1960s.

However, the Nixon years are also a period of some foreign-policy successes for the United States. Under Nixon, the United States’ Aries Program lands Grissom and Chaffee on the moon in 1965. Nixon improves relations with China by exploiting racial tensions between it and its German ally. Nixon also has success with his “Southern Strategy” of reaching out to Black Americans and using the power of the federal government to enforce their right to vote. He is criticized for abrogating States Rights and increasing racial tensions.
Also, Nixon’s insistence on opposing Naziism in Central America leads to a number of low-level wars in which American troops are dragged in. Growing hostility to “American chauvinism” grows on campus as more and more lives are lost in Guatemala and Honduras. Opposition to Naziism is increasingly questioned, and a rift opens in American life, with a counterculture that resists capitalism and American interventionism. The “Peace movement” urges the United States to leave other countries alone to work out their own destinies, and finds support on college campuses across the nation. Among some political thinkers, distinction is made between “Naziism” as a legitimate political system, and the excesses of “Hitlerism.”

That’s as far as I can take it right now.  What do you think? Bear in mind this is VERY rough and obviously open to all sorts of criticism. Let me know.

I shouldn’t have to say this, but I will: this is (I hope obviously) NOT a pro-Nazi world. Naziism is evil. But it is one in which Naziism is strongly PERCEIVED to be the lesser of two evils because of a different set of circumstances. I reject Naziism in all its forms as an odious and terrible political and social philosophy. But there was a time, historically, in which it was seen by many as a potential and desirable future. Many good people died to see that this future did not occur. This universe asks the question: “What if they had not fully succeeded? What if the issue had remained — in the public mind — in doubt?” If you find this horrifying, good. It IS horrifying.