War, like math, is a universal language shared by every strata of civilization. Warriors from all cultures have, in one form or another, prepared themselves physically and mentally for the task at hand using rituals. More often than not, stepping onto the battlefield meant risking bodily death.
With the end of natural life so near, many warriors would confer with the divine, looking for their blessing to carry them to victory. Some conjured animal spirits to lend them their strength while others requested that deities guide their blades.
These are the rituals that prepared the champions of various cultures to meet their fate.
Berserkers used mind-altering drugs to induce rage
The berserker was an elite Norse warrior that used pure rage to find success in battle. To achieve the status of a berserker, one had to live in the wilderness and become possessed by one of three animals, from which they’d conjure strength: the bear, the boar, or the wolf. The warrior then had to drink the blood of the chosen animal and wear its pelt when summoning its strength in battle.
But it wasn’t all possessions and summonings. Historians theorize that berserkers would eat Amanita muscaria (a hallucinogenic mushroom) and rub henbane leaves onto the skin (which causes a numbing sensation) to better endure pain in battle. Copious amounts of alcohol combined with mind-altering chemicals would send these warriors into a rage, effectively summoning severe aggression on demand.
The Maori tribes developed a war cry dance to intimidate the enemy at the outset of battle and to inspire their warriors into a frenzy. They, like many other cultures, called upon the God of War using a ritual dance called the perperu haka when a fight was imminent.
Over time, the haka evolved into several distinct versions, each used in a specific ceremony. There are hakas for national events in New Zealand, weddings, funerals, and special guests. Each dance has a cultural significance and a rich history woven into the choreography.
The Greeks used sacrifices to predict the outcome of battles
The ancient Greeks did not take superstition lightly and often sought the guidance and protection of their Gods before battle. Before the Battle of Plataea, which took place near Boeotia, Greece, in 479 B.C., both the Armies of Xerxes I and the Greek alliance consorted with their respective seers to determine the outcome of the battle. Each offered ritual sacrifices to their Gods, looking for the signal of imminent victory. The sacrifices revealed omens that defeat belonged to whichever side initiated combat.
After days of indecision, the Persian general Mardonius decided that he had waited long enough and attacked. He lost.
Kamikaze pilots drank magical sake
The term ‘Kamikaze‘ comes from the Mongols’ failed invasion of Japan in 1281. A typhoon completely destroyed the invaders and became known as the Divine Wind, or the Kamikaze, that saved Japan. The victory at the Battle of Midway by the U.S. Pacific Fleet in 1942 forced Vice Admiral Takashiro of the Japanese First Air Fleet to use suicidal pilots to inflict damage upon U.S. vessels.
The Kamikaze was a call to action that drew university students from all walks of life. The ceremony these pilots would undertake before flying their last consisted of drinking sake ‘infused’ with magic to provide ‘spiritual lifting.’ They were thanked by their officers and boarded their planes with 550-pound bombs. Out of approximately 2,800 Kamikaze pilots, 14% of Kamikaze hit U.S. ships and only 8.5% managed to sink them.
Some African tribes still practice scarification
To this day, tribes in Ethiopia engage in ceremonial stick duels between 20 or more young men of rival villages to earn respect from their families and community. Before a duel takes place, a witch doctor will bless the fighters with sacred leaves and cut patterns into their skin with razors. These patterns serve as a supernatural defense against serious harm. In most cases, these duels aren’t usually deadly — ‘usually’ being the operative word.
The cutting ritual, also known as scarification, is a lengthy and painful pre-battle requirement. Showing courage during this process also grants the young man the right to marry a wife. If a fighter cannot bear the pain of scarification, he will not be seen as worthy to bear the responsibilities of marriage.
There are videos out there for the strong-stomached, but we’ll not be providing one.
Communism was not the best experiment for the Russian people. If they had known that the revolution against the Tsar and the Imperial government was going to lead to decades of rule by the repressive Soviet Regime, they might have thought twice.
Of course, when you take a look at the life of a common Russian before the October Revolution, you can kind of understand why they took their chances with the Bolsheviks.
Submit to the present evil, lest a great one befall ye.
6. Russian peasants were serfs for 600 years.
European feudalism in the 11th century bound poor peasants to work the land for their noble masters. Until Tsar Alexander II abolished the practice in 1861, the common Russian was essentially a slave to the imperial aristocracy. Working the land for someone else meant very little time for subsistence farming – and that the Russians were always just one bad season from starvation.
Russians were practically enslaved from the time of the First Crusade until the start of the American Civil War.
5. The people never forgot the “bloody Sunday” of 1905.
Russian people, upset at the low standard of living and scarcity of food, staged a series of strikes around the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg. Led by an Orthodox Priest — and completely unarmed — the demonstrators aimed to present a petition to Tsar Nicholas II, demanding things like working hours, wages, and improved conditions.
Instead, the Russian Imperial Guard slaughtered them, firing into the crowd and killing or wounding 1,000. The Tsar agreed to share power with the state Duma, a parliament. But the revolution was coming.
4. World War I didn’t help.
The Russian military before World War I was large, but led by ineffectual generals and filled with obsolete technology. To make matters worse, the conditions in the field were as deplorable as the working conditions in the factories on the home front. Paying for the war left the Russian economy in shambles as food prices soared.
The economic trouble compounded the calls for higher wages and better working conditions. Soldiers would join workers in forming the “soviets” that would help oust the Tsar from power when the time came.
3. The Tsar was already out of power.
As a matter of fact, by the time the Bolsheviks seized power in October, the entire Romanov family was already captured by the government. The October Revolution came eight months after the February Revolution when Tsar Nicholas II abdicated and his brother declined power.
The government ended up in the hands of the Duma and a lawyer named Alexander Kerensky in Petrograd (Saint Petersburg) and in small councils across Russia, called “soviets” at the local level. It was during this period of shared power that the old and new order clashed and vied for power.
2. It sparked a civil war.
It was the only time the American Army and the Red Army fought in an official battle between the two. Shortly after the October Revolution, the new government made peace with the Central Powers still fighting World War I, as it became embroiled in a Civil War that pit Red Russians (the Bolsheviks) against White Russians (an amalgamation of monarchists, capitalists, and social democrats).
Soldiers and sailors from all across the empire chose sides as Red Army formed and took on conscripts. Former Tsarist officers defected back and forth between the Red Army and its White Resistance. There was also a non-ideological Green movement that had the support of the peasants, but not were reluctant to actually fight.
1. The U.S. invaded Russia.
In order to reopen WWI’s Eastern Front, the Allied Powers landed a number of international units in Russia, to both keep the peace and bolster the White Army to keep Communism from spreading to Europe, if possible. The Americans were deployed in the Siberian city of Arkhangelsk, near the Arctic Circle.
Dubbed the “Polar Bear Expedition,” the Americans joined a British contingent who attempted to fight their way to link up with the Czechoslovak Legion, which held the Trans-Siberian Railway. The Great War ended before any significant headway could be achieved and the Allies eventually left Russia altogether.
Aircraft carriers are the largest warships on the sea, and the U.S. Navy’s carriers are considered the world’s most elite. They’re so big they have their own ZIP code, and their reach and technological sophistication are unrivaled across the world.
On this date 96 years ago, the first aircraft carrier – the USS Langley – was commissioned in Norfolk, Virginia. The carrier had been converted from the collier USS Jupiter, which was the Navy’s first surface ship propelled by electric motors.
The Wright connection
Cmdr. Kenneth Whiting was the Langley’s executive officer. He was a submarine commander turned aviator who was one of the last to take personal training from famed aviator Orville Wright, one of the two brothers credited with inventing, building, and flying the world’s first airplane.
The Langley was named for Samuel Pierpont Langley, a former U.S. Naval Academy assistant professor who eventually became secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. He was also a massive aviation enthusiast. Ironically, Langley had the same spirit as the famed Wright brothers, but never quite had their success. He built his own airplane that he tried on several occasions to launch off ships.
While he didn’t succeed, he did inspire the Navy’s desire to launch and land aircraft from ships at sea. Sailors took up where he left off.
USS Langley’s career
The Langley was built primarily for testing and experimentation for seaborne aviation in the Pacific. It became the test platform for developing carrier operation techniques and tactics, notably helping the Navy learn to better land and launch aircraft more quickly.
Fifteen years after its commissioning, in 1937, the Langley was reclassified as a seaplane tender because newer aircraft carriers were available. It stayed stationed in the Pacific to support seaplane patrols and aircraft transportation services during the early months of World War II.
On Feb. 27, 1942, the Langley was transporting U.S. Army P-40s off the coast of Indonesia when it was attacked by nine Japanese dive bombers. The escorting destroyers surrounding the carrier tried their best to help, but it wasn’t enough. The Langley’s crew was ordered to abandon ship, and the escort destroyers eventually torpedoed the Langley so it wouldn’t fall into enemy hands.
More fun facts
• Despite being an aircraft carrier, the Langley didn’t have a control tower – now known as “the island” – as the modern-day carriers do.
• It was nicknamed the “covered wagon” because its flight deck, which covered the entire ship, resembled a giant canopy.
• The first plane launch from the flight deck of the Langley was Oct. 17, 1922. The first landing was nine days later.
In November 1911, Italy was engaged in a costly war against the Ottoman Empire in what is today Libya. It worked out for the Italians in the end, easily defeating the Ottoman Empire, who was by then a shadow of its former glory. The war brought a number of new technologies onto the battlefield, most notably the airplane. Italian pilots were the first to use heavier than air aircraft for both reconnaissance and to drop bombs on enemy positions. One pilot was also the first to fly a night sortie.
For the Turks, who had no anti-air defenses, they were the first to shoot down an aircraft with small arms fire.
The German-built Taube monoplane like the one flown by Lt. Gavotti over Libya.
On Nov. 1, 1911, Giulio Gavotti, an Italian war pilot, climbed into the cockpit of his Etrich Taube monoplane. His mission was to fly over the Ain Zara oasis, occupied by Turkish troops. Instead of just flying over the target, he decided he would throw bombs out of the plane and into the mass of maybe 2,000 enemy soldiers below. The lieutenant would later write to his father that he was really pleased to be the first person to try. His efforts earned him the nickname “the Flying Artilleryman.”
“I notice the dark shape of the oasis. With one hand, I hold the steering wheel, with the other I take out one of the bombs and put it on my lap…. I take the bomb with my right hand, pull off the security tag and throw the bomb out, avoiding the wing. I can see it falling through the sky for couple of seconds and then it disappears. And after a little while, I can see a small dark cloud in the middle of the encampment. I am lucky. I have struck the target.”
And that’s how one pilot ushered in the Air Power age.
Giulio Gavotti, the first bomber pilot.
The young lieutenant had strapped a number of grapefruit-sized grenade-like bombs into a leather pouch in the cockpit. As he flew over the target, he would toss them over the side. The official history of the Italian Army in Libya says that Gavotti screwed in the detonators and flew at an altitude of just 600 feet as he made his bombing runs. He tossed three over the side at an oasis at Tagiura and then one over the Ain Zara Oasis. No one is really sure how many (if any) he actually killed on his run.
In response, the Ottoman Empire issued a formal complaint. Dropping bombs from aerial balloons was outlawed by the Hague Convention of 1899. The Italians countered that the airplanes weren’t balloons and any heavier-than-air craft was legally allowed to drop bombs as Gavotti had.
“I come back really pleased with the result,” Gavotti wrote. “I go straight to report to General Caneva. Everybody is satisfied.”
In the early 1960s, international communications were limited to transmissions through undersea cables or occasionally unreliable radio signals bounced off of the ionosphere. As you might imagine from this, many in the Western world weren’t too keen on the state of the situation given that were to someone, say, the Soviet Union, cut those cables before launching an attack, international communications with overseas forces and foreign allies would have to rely on the mood of said ionosphere.
For those unfamiliar, the ionosphere is a layer of the upper atmosphere about 50 to 600 miles above sea level. It gets its name because it is ionized consistently by solar and cosmic radiation. In very simple terms, X-ray, ultraviolet, and shorter wavelengths of radiation given off by the Sun (and from other cosmic sources) release electrons in this layer of the atmosphere when these particular photons are absorbed by molecules. Because the density of molecules and atoms is quite low in the ionosphere (particularly in the upper layers), it allows free electrons to exist in this way for a short period of time before ultimately recombining. Lower in the atmosphere, where the density of molecules is greater, this recombination happens much faster.
What does this have to do with communication and radio waves? Without interference, radio waves travel in a straight line from the broadcast source, ultimately hitting the ionosphere. What happens after is dependent on a variety of factors, notable among them being the frequency of the waves and the density of the free electrons. For certain types of radio waves, given the right conditions, they will essentially bounce back and forth between the ground and the ionosphere, propagating the signal farther and farther. So clearly the ionosphere can potentially play an important part in the terrestrial radio and communication process. But it is the constantly shifting nature of the ionosphere that makes things really interesting. And for that, we’ll have to get a little more technical, though we’ll at the least spare you the math, and we’ll leave out a little of the complexity in an effort to not go full textbook on you.
To begin with, the ionosphere’s composition changes most drastically at night, primarily because, of course, the Sun goes missing for a bit. Without as abundant a source of ionizing rays, the D and E levels (pictured right) of the ionosphere cease to be very ionized, but the F region (particularly F2) still remains quite ionized. Further, because the atmosphere is significantly less dense here then the E and D regions, it results in more free electrons (the density of which is key here).
When these electrons encounter a strong radio wave of certain types, such as AM radio, they can potentially oscillate at the frequency of the wave, taking some of the energy from the radio wave in the process. With enough of them, as can happen in the F layer, (when the density of encountered electrons is sufficient relative to the specific signal frequency), and assuming they don’t just recombine with some ion (which is much more likely in the E and D layers in the daytime), this can very effectively refract the signal back down to Earth at sufficient strength to be picked up on a receiver.
Depending on conditions, this process can potentially repeat several times with the signal bouncing down to the ground and back up. Thus, using this skywave certain radio signals can be propagated even thousands of miles and, most pertinent to the topic at hand, across oceans.
Of course, given the unpredictability of this form of communication, and potentially even times when communication would be impossible, military brass during the Cold War wanted another option.
Developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Labs, the project was initially called “Project Needles” by Professor Walter E. Morrow in 1958 when he first dreamed up the idea. It was later re-named “West Ford”, presumably after Westford, Massachusetts, a nearby town. The idea was to place potentially even billions of tiny (1.78 centimeters 0.7 inches long and microscopically thin) copper antennae or dipoles in a medium Earth orbit to be used for communication signals at 8 Ghz.
The first set of well over a hundred million needles was launched on Oct. 21, 1961, but unfortunately this test failed when the needles didn’t disperse as planned.
On a second attempt in May 9, 1963, a batch of 350 million needles was placed on the back of an Air Force satellite and sent into orbit. Once dispersed, properly this time, the needles spread to form a sparsely concentrated belt with approximately 50 dipoles per cubic mile.
Needles from “Project Needles” compared to a stamp.
While you might think surely this wouldn’t be dense enough to be effective for use in communication, in fact early results of the experiment were extremely promising, with communication established using the needle array from California to Massachusetts, some 3K or so miles or 4,800 km apart. As such, there were reports that the Air Force was considering launching two more belts to be placed more permanently in orbit.
There was a problem, however. Beyond the Soviets, allies and even Americans opposed the further deployment and continuance of this program.
Why? Astronomers, in particular, were afraid that the belt would interfere with their observations. The outrage of scientists and the reason for it was perhaps best expressed by Sir Bernard Lovell of the Jodrell Bank Radio Observatory who said: “The damage lies not with this experiment alone, but with the attitude of mind which makes it possible without international agreement and safeguards.” After all, the space above the Earth is not the United States’ alone to do with as it pleases without consulting other nations of Earth.
While you might consider this a bit of an overreaction, it’s important to understand the context here, with the U.S. up to and around this point having done a series of things in space without oversight that the international community was more than a little upset about. For example, consider that also smack dab in the middle of this time, the United States was busy accidentally nuking Britain’s first satellite, among many, many others.
The satellite in question was the Ariel-1, which was developed as a joint-venture between the United States and Britain, with Britain designing and building the core systems of the satellite and NASA launching it into orbit via a Thor-Delta rocket.
Around nine months after the launch of the first batch of needles, on July 9, 1962, mere weeks after Ariel-1 was put into orbit and had successfully begun transmitting data about the ionosphere back to Earth, British scientists were shocked when the sensors aboard Ariel-1 designed to measure radiation levels suddenly began to give wildly high readings.
As it turned out, as Ariel-1 was happily free-falling around the Earth, the US military had decided to detonate an experimental 1.4 megaton nuclear weapon named Starfish-Prime in the upper atmosphere as part of Project Fish Bowl.
The explosion, which happened on the other side of the planet to Ariel-1, sent a wave of additional radiation around the Earth that ultimately damaged some of the systems on Ariel-1, particularly its solar panels, killing it and about 1/3 of the rest of the satellites in low-Earth orbit at the time.
Most pertinent to the topic of communications, this famously included the Telstar satellite, which was the first commercial communication relay satellite designed to transmit signals across the Atlantic and managed around 400 such communications before the U.S. accidentally nuked it. Funny enough, the Telstar actually wasn’t in orbit at the time of the explosion, being put there the day after the Starfish-Prime detonation. However, the additional ionizing radiation created by the explosion took years to dissipate and was not anticipated by the designers of this particular satellite. The immediate result being the degradation of Telstar’s systems, particularly the failure of several transistors in the command system, causing it to stop working just a few months after being placed in orbit. They were eventually able to get it back online for a short period via some clever software workarounds, but it didn’t last thanks to the extra radiation further degrading its systems.
It’s also noteworthy here that The Starfish explosion was actually supposed to have happened a couple weeks earlier on June 20th, but the rocket carrying it failed at about 30,000 feet. Once this happened, the self-destruct on the nuclear warhead was initiated and it broke apart, raining its radioactive innards down on Johnston and Sand Islands, as well as in the ocean around them.
It should also be noted that the effects of Starfish-Prime weren’t just limited to low orbit.
The electromagnetic pulse created by the blast ended up being much larger than expected and, in Hawaii some 900 or so miles away from the blast, the pulse ended up knocking out a few hundred street lights and damaged the telephone system. Today in our digital world, of course, a similar electromagnetic pulse would have much more catastrophic effects, especially if near more populated centers, potentially even revealing the Lizard people’s Matrix, which would be catastrophic to our Draconian overlords’ (may they reign forever) plans…
The flash created by The Starfish explosion as seen through heavy cloud cover from Honolulu 1,445 km away.
Needless to say, this, the needles in space, and other such projects had many in the international community concerned with the lack of any oversight on the United States’ activities in space. (Presumably it would have been even worse had everyone realized the United States had, a few years before this, planned to nuke the moon, more or less just because they could…)
Going back to the needle issue, a compromise measure was reached thanks to incorporating a sort of planned obsolescence; that is, none of the needles would remain in orbit longer than five years. (Or so they thought, more on this in a bit.)
Thinking more long term, several groups of scientists, including the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) of the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) demanded access and consultation in this and other such projects in the future. Ultimately an agreement was reached which granted the scientists the ability to participate in the planning and evaluation of space projects.
Of course, this particular issue quickly became moot as shortly after the second group of needles was dispersed, the military deployed its own first communication satellite system in 1966, making the needle system, while effective, obsolete. With this deployment of one object instead of hundreds of millions, the furor died down and people, for the most part, forgot about West Ford.
That said, while the project is largely forgotten, its effects are not with the consultation provisions of the original West Ford agreement with the IAU included in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, an agreement entered into by ninety-nine countries, that was designed to protect against the militarization and degradation of outer space. Among other things, in a nutshell, it provides that no country can claim ownership of space nor any celestial bodies; all countries will avoid contaminating both and are liable for any damage they cause; no weapons of mass destruction (WMD) will be deployed or placed in orbit or on any celestial body; and no military bases may be placed on any celestial bodies, including the Moon, something that unfortunately saw a planned military installation by the U.S. fully scrapped, as we covered in our article: That Time the U.S. was Going to Build a Massive, Death Ray Equipped, Military Moon Base.
On the bright side, the treaty also includes a Good Samaritan law that provides that astronauts are “envoys of mankind in outer space and [all] shall render to them all possible assistance in the event of accident, distress, or emergency landing.”
Going back to the needles, in case you’re wondering, despite the planned obsolescence, as of 2019, a few dozen clumps of them remain in orbit and are closely tracked to make sure they don’t cause any problems with all the other stuff floating around our little beautiful home space craft known as Earth.
Given AM radio signals can propagate for thousands of miles via the aforementioned skywaves, particularly at night, this can become a major problem as there are only a little over 100 allowed AM radio frequencies (restricted to keep signals interfering too much with one another), but around 5,000 AM radio stations in the United States alone. As a result, at night, AM stations in the United States typically reduce their power, go off the air completely until sunrise the next day, and/or possibly are required to use directional antennas so their specific signal doesn’t interfere with other stations on the same frequency. On the other hand, FM stations don’t have to do any of this as the ionosphere doesn’t greatly affect their signals, which has the side benefit (or disadvantage, depending on your point of view) of severely limiting the range of the FM signals, which rely on groundwave propagation.
Speaking of Radio and space, while not a job ever mentioned by my school career counselor, it turns out “Space DJ” is a thing, if you work at NASA, going all the way back to 1965 during the Gemini 6 mission on December 16th, likely initially as a joke. During this mission, astronauts Walter Schirra and Tom Stafford were woken up by a recording of singer Jack Jones and Hello Dolly. This musical wake-up call quickly became a regular occurrence intended as a way of bolstering morale while allowing astronauts a few minutes to wake up slowly before having to respond to ground control. Over the years, wake-up calls became one of NASA’s most beloved traditions, with the role of picking the songs given to the mission’s Capsule Commander (CAPCOM)… Yes, just to be clear, not only do these people get to put CAPCOM for NASA on their resume, but they can also add in “Space DJ”. Thanks Career Councilor… If you’re wondering, the songs chosen over the years have been wildly eclectic, ranging from classical music by composers like Bach and Beethoven to Metallica and the Beastie Boys. Thanks to the extensive records NASA keeps, we not only know every song played for astronauts in orbit since 1965, we also have the astronaut’s responses to some of the more unusual choices played. For example, for a 2008 mission aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis, officially designated as STS-123, CAPCOM played a brief snippet of the theme song from the presumably epic film Godzilla VS Space Godzilla as well as part of the Blue Oyster Cult song, Godzilla, for Japanese astronaut Takao Doi, signing off by saying:
Good morning Endeavour. Doi san, ohayo gozaimasu, from mission control here in Houston, take on today like a monster.
An amused Doi responded that he was “happy to hear Godzilla,” before himself signing off to get to work. According to Fries’ extensive archives, Godzilla’s iconic theme song is apparently a popular choice for Japanese astronauts, as are the themes from other well-known films like Star Wars, Star Trek and Rocky.Predictably, songs with a space theme are also popular choices, with David Bowie’s Space Oddity and Elton John’s Rocket Man being noted as some of the most commonly played.In addition to songs, NASA has, at various points, played private messages recorded by the astronauts’ loved ones (including the occasional singing of “Happy Birthday” where applicable) and even occasional messages from celebrities. Notable examples of the latter include personalised greetings from William Shatner, Paul McCartney and Elton John, a skit performed by Jim Henson involving Miss Piggy, and even a song sung by Darth Vader set to backing music from The Beatles.Perhaps best of all was the crew of Atlantis on November 25, 1991 being woken to none other than Patrick Stewart stating (with Star Trek: The Next Generation theme music playing in the background),
Space: the final frontier. This is the voyage of the Space Shuttle Atlantis. Its ten-day mission: To explore new methods of remote sensing and observation of the planet Earth… To seek out new data on radiation in space, and a new understanding of the effects of microgravity on the human body… To boldly go where two hundred and fifty-five men and women have gone before!Hello Fred, Tom, Story, Jim, Tom, and especially Mario — this is Patrick Stewart, choosing not to outrank you as Captain Jean-Luc Picard, saying that we are confident of a productive and successful mission. Make it so.
As for today, with the retirement of the Space Shuttle program, this wake-up call tradition has partially been left in the dustbin of history, though occasionally is still observed on the International Space Station, and presumably will be reinstituted as a regular activity once NASA begins sending people to space themselves again.
This article originally appeared on Today I Found Out. Follow @TodayIFoundOut on Twitter.
Gurkhas are known as some of the fiercest warriors ever to take up arms. These soldiers from Nepal regularly receive high valor awards from both Britain and India because of their bravery, and they are skilled, in one case defeating Taliban ambushes while outnumbered over 30 to 1. They fought in British forces in almost every major conflict of the 20th and 21st centuries including both World Wars and in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A Gurkha Rifles unit in 1890. Photo: UK Ministry of Defence/Public Domain
The Kathmandu Valley is surrounded by the Himalayan mountains. In 1767, the three valley kings had been fighting each other for years and suddenly realized that the Gurkha Army was invading. The Gurkha conquered parts of the valley and began a siege of one of the kingdoms’ capitals.
In order to prevent conquest by the Gurkha, the Kathmandu kingdoms asked British officers serving nearby in the East India Company armies for assistance.
Capt. Captain George Kinloch led 2,500 soldiers with then-modern weapons into the valley to prevent the Gurkha expansion but failed to properly plan. Battlefield defeats against the Gurkha were made worse by disease and inadequate medical supplies.
A wave of desertions and a two-pronged assault launched by the Gurkha cinched the deal and Kinloch was forced to retreat from the valley. By 1768, the Gurkha armies were able to declare the valley and many of the surrounding mountains to be their own new nation, Nepal.
Over the next 46 years, both the Gurkha and the British expanded their areas of influence and control, creating a number of friction points both between themselves and other nations.
These friction points triggered the Anglo-Nepalese War in 1814. The Gurkha possessed much better knowledge of the terrain and plenty of veteran fighters. The British had numerical and technological advantages with tens of thousands of Indian soldiers equipped by the East India Company.
Despite numerous British advantages, the campaign went badly for the first year. One of the generals was killed in a small skirmish the day before war was officially declared. Other generals were known for cowardice on the battlefield, failing to attack when ordered. One even walked out of his camp.
Check the WATM podcast to hear the author and other veterans discuss how the Gurkhas became feared warriors.
Still, some of the British forces fought valiantly. Col. David Ochterlony led a siege at the primary Gurkha fortress in 1815 while another colonel and 2,000 men captured a secondary fort. The Gurkha eventually surrendered the main fort to Ochterlony and peace documents were drafted.
The Gurkha leaders failed to accept the peace treaty and the British launched a second campaign to settle the matter, this time with Himalayan soldiers marching into the valley beside the British and Indian troops. This second campaign in 1816 made it nearly to the capital of Kathmandu before the Gurkha finally accepted the peace treaty.
They served with distinction in wars against the Sihk, but they were truly lauded for actions in the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Gurkha soldiers served as the final guard of Brtish military and government leaders as rebelling Indian troops attempted to kill them.
While the British were successful in re-establishing rule in India, atrocities committed by the East India Company and their soldiers during the conflict led to the British crown abolishing company control of India.
When the crown established direct control of India, the Gurkha regiments were incorporated into the British Army.
Since the breakup of the British empire, Gurkha soldiers have been able to choose to fight in the British or Indian armies which still contain “Gurkha” and “Gorkha” units respectively. They are known for their khukuri knives which feature a curved, 18-inch blade.
In the British military, Gurkha men were limited to serving as enlisted soldiers in Gurkha units until recently. Now, they can try out for both slots in officer training and coveted positions in special operations.
Quick. Think of a ninja. If you imagined them as an honorable Feudal-Japanese assassin dressed entirely in black and throwing shuriken at their enemies, I’ve got some bad news for you.
This isn’t to say that they weren’t bad asses in their own right. They were definitely real and they definitely did many high-profile assassinations that continue to astound the world hundreds of years later. They just didn’t do things the way films, video games, and literature (in both the West and Japanese pop culture) depict them.
Much of their history is often shrouded in both mystery and myth, making actual facts about them sketchy at best and inaccurate at worst. What we do know about them comes from either the most high-profile, like Hattori Hanzo, or the very few verified sources.
1. They were never called “ninjas” in their time
The term “ninja” is actually a misreading of the Kanji for “Shinobi no Mono” or “the hidden person.” This was shortened when their legends grew to just “Shinobi” or “the hidden.”
“Ninja” became the more popular name for them after WWII for Westerners who found the word easier to pronounce than the actual name for them. Ninja eventually circled back and became the more used term in Japanese culture as well.
On a related note: This is also how the term “kunoichi” or “Female Shinobi” came about. There may not be historical evidence of women acting as deadly shinobi, but they could have been used for other ninja tasks. Which leads us to…
2. They would scout and collect intel more than kill
There were many tasks of a Shinobi. It is well-documented that high-ranking leaders hired Shinobi to assassinate their enemies, like Oda Nobunaga and everyone who tried to kill Nobunaga. But the most useful Shinobi were “monomi” or “ones who see.”
Their espionage skills were so revered that it’s said even Sun Tsu wrote about them in Art of War. Monomi would either hide in crowds or sneak into a meeting so they could eavesdrop on important conversations. Once they learned what they needed to know, they’d get out of there.
3. They never wore the all-black uniform
To nearly every other fighter in the history of war, a uniform has been an advantage. Shinobi, like everyone else doing undercover work in plain sight, would be stupid to wear anything that screams out “Hey everyone! I’m not actually a monk. I’m a deadly assassin!” They wore whatever they need to to fit in.
The uniform that everyone thinks of comes from kabuki theater. The crew who would work behind the stage dressed in the all-black uniforms to not distract from the performance while they were rearranging the sets or setting off the special effects. Fans in attendance would occasionally catch a glimpse of a stage hand and joke that they were shinobi. The “joke” part gained momentum and it just sort of stuck.
4. They used everything for weapons except throwing stars
Let’s be honest. Throwing stars aren’t that deadly? It’s just a sharp piece of metal. Want to know what they actually used? Bows, poison, primitive flamethrowers, and damn near everything else. This includes the least stealthy weapon in feudal Japan, guns.
They did use their iconic swords, but the most common weapon was an inconspicuous farming sickle attached to a chain. After Oda Nobunaga tried to ban swords in Japan, no one cared if a farmer still had a sharpened sickle, so it wouldn’t seem out of place.
It sounds like a big job description: “Queen’s Champion and Standard Bearer of England.” Although these days, the title seems more ceremonial than functional, it still sounds like a big deal. Since the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, whomever holds the Manor of Scrivelsby in Lincolnshire, England, also has to fight for the monarch at their coronation, should a challenger arise in the middle of it.
Francis John Fane Marmion Dymoke is the current champion, but this is his father, the previous champion. A World War II veteran, he died in 2015.
The Dymokes have been the standard bearers for the reigning English monarch since the mid-14th Century, and would ride into Westminster Abbey in full shining armor, on a horse, in full plumage and regalia. To repeat, they ride a horse into Westminster in the middle of a coronation. They then throw a gauntlet – they literally throw a gauntlet – on the ground and announce that whomever dares challenge the King or Queen’s right to the throne must face him in combat. When no one does, the new monarch then drinks wine from a golden cup to honor his or her Champion.
The King or Queen could not fight in such combat unless it were someone their equal who would challenge them, and that usually meant a war.
The tradition has taken a few different forms over the last few monarch coronations, and was left out of Queen Victoria’s coronation entirely.
And sadly, at Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, the Champion did not get to throw the gauntlet or threaten the crowd, but he did his duty to carry the Royal Standard in the procession. When Prince Charles (or at this rate, William) takes the throne, this is a tradition we in America would like to see revived to its full former glory.
Modern Americans can join the military and go to war without too much fuss, since the U.S. still needs people for ongoing fights in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other hotspots around the world.
But our forefathers didn’t always have a place to go if they got the martial itch. Sometimes, they really wanted to join a war that the American people didn’t want to get involved in.
That’s when truly bold Americans would just join another country’s military and get to work.
1. Polish 7th Air Escadrille
As a victor of World War I, Poland grew in size, gained a border with Russia, and quickly found itself at war with the communist Bolsheviks. American volunteers were allowed to form the Polish 7th Air Escadrille and the aviation unit engaged in fierce ground attacks against Russian cavalry from 1919 to 1920.
2. The gendarmeries and national guards of Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua
U.S. Marines holding the Nicaraguan rebel leader Augusto César Sandino’s Flag. Nicaragua, 1932. (Photo: U.S. Marine Corps)
In the early 1900s, Marines were sent to Caribbean nations to protect American business interests and to help shore up governments friendly to the U.S. The Marines who were dispatched to the islands often ended up holding ranks in both the U.S. military and the local forces at once. For instance, then Maj. Smedley Butler was the commandant of the Haitian Gendarmerie and then Cpl. Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller was a second lieutenant in the Gendarmerie.
3. Eagle Squadrons
Americans who wanted to take the fight to Nazi Germany before Pearl Harbor had few legal options, but some lied about their citizenship and risked exile from America to join the Royal Air Force in 1939 and 1940. Eight Americans took part in the 1940 Battle of Britain that saw the RAF narrowly defeat attempts by Luftwaffe to open the British Isles to invasion.
Dozens more Americans arrived after the Battle of Britain and helped the U.K. hold the line until America’s entry into the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Unfortunately, the fighting went badly for the American volunteers. Nearly one-third of them died in Spain and the Republic was overthrown by Fascist Gen. Francisco Franco.
5. The Flying Tigers
The Flying Tigers of World War II were a group of American pilots and ground crew who President Franklin D. Roosevelt secretly authorized to go to China and help that country fight the Japanese invasion. Despite the presidential authorization, the Americans had to resign their military positions and travel under assumed identities.
The president greets firefighters, police and rescue personnel, Sept. 14, 2001, while touring the site of the World Trade Center terrorist attack in New York. (Photo by Eric Draper, Courtesy of the George W. Bush Presidential Library)
When we think about September 11, we picture where we were, what we saw and how it felt. Iconic images and video from the moments before, during and after the attacks sit in our hearts and minds.
So maybe that’s why these lesser-seen photos have so much power. They serve as reminders of both what we lost that day and the resolve we gained.
On September 11 we pause and remember where we were, what we saw and how it felt.
Where were you when the towers fell? When the Pentagon burned? When heroes forced the plane to the ground in Pennsylvania, sacrificing themselves and saving others?
These photos are reminders of those moments and the patriotic fervor that welled inside us in the days that followed.
President George W. Bush turns around to watch television coverage of the attacks on the World Trade Center Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, as he is briefed in a classroom at Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida. (Photo by Eric Draper, courtesy of the George W. Bush Presidential Library)
The aftermath in Washington of the terrorist attack on the Pentagon, Sept. 11, 2001. (Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Robert Houlihan)
An aerial view of the damage at the Pentagon two days after Sept. 11, 2001. On that day, five members of al-Qaida, a group of fundamentalist Islamic Muslims, hijacked American Airlines Flight 77, a Boeing 757-200, from Dulles International Airport just outside Washington and flew the aircraft and its 64 passengers into the side of the Pentagon. (Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Cedric H. Rudisill)
View of a damaged office on the fifth floor of the Pentagon. (Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Larry A. Simmons)
President George W. Bush talks with Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and other advisors during meetings at the President’s Emergency Operations Center, Sept. 11, 2001. (National Archives)
A clock, frozen at the time of impact, inside the Pentagon. (Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Larry A. Simmons)
Vice President Dick Cheney sits with National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice in the President’s Emergency Operations Center during meetings on the day of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. (National Archives)
Smoke rises from the site of the World Trade Center, Sept. 11, 2001. (Photo by Paul Morse, courtesy of the George W. Bush Presidential Library)
Burned and melted items sit atop an office desk inside the fifth floor of the Pentagon. (Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Larry A. Simmons)
President George W. Bush talks on the telephone Sept. 11, 2001, as senior staff huddle aboard Air Force One. (Photo by Eric Draper, Courtesy of the George W. Bush Presidential Library)
Secretary of State Colin Powell gets briefed inside the President’s Emergency Operations Center, Sept. 11, 2001. (National Archives)
Wearing a gas mask, a New York National Guard soldier from the “Fighting” 69th Infantry Division pauses amid the rubble at ground zero. (New York National Guard)
President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney meet in the President’s Emergency Operations Center during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. (National Archives)
New York National Guard soldiers from the 69th Infantry Division and New York City firefighters band together to remove rubble from ground zero at the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. (New York National Guard)
President George W. Bush grasps the hand of his father, former President George H. W. Bush, after speaking at the service for America’s National Day of Prayer and Remembrance at the National Cathedral in Washington, Sept. 14, 2001. (Photo by Eric Draper, Courtesy of the George W. Bush Presidential Library)
The president greets firefighters, police and rescue personnel, Sept. 14, 2001, while touring the site of the World Trade Center terrorist attack in New York. (Photo by Eric Draper, Courtesy of the George W. Bush Presidential Library)
Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice look on inside the President’s Emergency Operations Center during meetings on the day of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. (National Archives)
President George W. Bush greets rescue workers, firefighters and military personnel, Sept. 12, 2001, while surveying damage caused by the previous day’s terrorist attacks on the Pentagon. (Photo by Eric Draper, Courtesy of the George W. Bush Presidential Library)
Soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) render honors as firefighters and rescue workers unfurl a huge American flag over the side of the Pentagon while rescue and recovery efforts continued following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack. The garrison flag, sent from the U.S. Army Band at nearby Fort Myer, Virginia, is the largest authorized flag for the military. (Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Michael Pendergrass)
Sandra Dahl, left, is the widow of Jason Dahl, the pilot of United Airlines Flight 93, which went down in Somerset, Pennsylvania, on Sept. 11, 2001. The plane was believed to have been en route to the White House. Here, she holds an American flag along with Air Force Lt. Col. Mike Low after flying in the back seat of his F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter. (Air Force photo by Tech Sgt. Darin Overstreet)
Ancient Rome is credited with major contributions to modern day language, religion, law, art, and government. Indeed, the Roman Empire was filled with breathtaking architecture and an intricate and fascinating socio-economic culture. But it was also full of drama.
Most people know at least a few key facts about Julius Caesar and his infamous assassination on the Ides of March. But as the Roman Republic crumbled with him and the Roman Empire rose in its place, the rulers that came after him were no less controversial. Extravagance, executions, and extreme religious persecution stand at the forefront of many Roman emperor’s legacies. And that’s not mentioning the sex scandals.
So here’s a list of the absolute worst Roman emperors, in order from the mildly incompetent to the devastatingly unstable.
Diocletian, 284-305 CE
Emperor Diocletian deserves some credit, as his rule marked the end of the Crisis of the Third Century. His governmental reforms are cited as being one of the main contributors to the Roman Empire’s longevity for the next millennium. Diocletian regained control over a wild military force, suppressed enemy threats along the Empire’s borders, and revised the tax system in a broken economy.
However, he’s also credited with one of the most brutal attempts to purge Christianity in history, which definitely resides in the “cons” column. Diocletian revoked the legal rights of Christians, trying to encourage his citizens back to a more traditional worship of the old Roman gods. He razed churches and destroyed religious scriptures, and went even further to prohibit Christian’s from even gathering to worship. After a suspicious fire within the imperial palace, Diocletian’s belief in a Christian conspiracy led to a spree of scourging, torture, and beheading.
In 305 CE, after becoming greatly weakened by a severe illness, Diocletian resigned from his rule, passing the torch to someone with the strength to bear the Empire’s burdens. The first person to willingly abdicate from the role, the former Emperor spent the rest of his days tending a vegetable garden—sounds like a pretty fulfilling retirement.
Elagabalus, 218-222 CE
Elagabalus became Emperor at the tender age of 14, kicking off a reign that would be known for sex scandals and religious controversy—not exactly the sort of things you expect from someone fresh out of puberty.
Emperor Elagabalus started out in life as a high priest serving the Syrian sun god he shared a name with. When he came to rule over Rome, his devotion to the god drove him to try and elevate him to the same status as Jupiter, a move which greatly displeased the Empire. He even insisted upon marrying a Vestal Virgin, Aquilia Severa, which was in direct opposition to not only Roman tradition, but to the law.
On the more salacious side, it’s said that Elagabalus prostituted himself throughout the palace. He was married to five different women, and took on countless lovers of all sexes. He sent servants out into the city to procure lovers for him, and even opened the imperial baths up to the public to enjoy the spectacle of watching others bathe.
Some historians say that Elagabalus might have been one of the first transgender historical figures, offering large amounts of money to any physician who would be able to successfully administer gender reassignment surgery. This was regarded as wholly scandalous by the people of Rome, casting him in a negative light he couldn’t hope to overcome.
Elagabalus’s general incompetence on the throne led to the devaluation of the Roman currency. Showing his immaturity further, he began appointing lovers to crucial political positions. So while history tends to be unfavorable towards him for his personal choices, it does seem likely that he was unfit as an emperor mostly due to the fact that he was a literal child.
The Emperor’s youth did him no favors in the end, however. At 18 years old, Elagabalus and his eccentric behavior were brought to an end by the Praetorian Guard. After Elagabalus stripped his cousin’s titles and wealth, the Guard, who much preferred said cousin, rebelled against Elagabalus, killing both him and his mother in the violence.
Tiberius, 13-37 CE
There were plenty of things that Emperor Tiberius did right. He avoided needless and financially draining military campaigns and instead relied heavily on diplomacy. He reinforced the borders of the Empire. He even kept the Empire’s treasury generously stocked.
However, Tiberius never really wanted to rule as emperor, and that was very apparent. He left many responsibilities to the Senate and was otherwise distant and reclusive. He left Rome in the middle of his reign—a decision widely regarded as the worst one he could possibly make—and opened himself up to a reputation fully up to interpretation.
Whether these claims are rooted in truth or based fully in fabrication is impossible to know at this point, but either way, Tiberius was hated enough to get tongues wagging with the most vicious of talk. During his stay on the island of Capri, Tiberius was accused of flinging people off of cliffs for minor slights and engaging in disturbing sexual acts with very young boys. While that doesn’t have very much to do with governing an empire, it’s pretty much the last thing you want out of a ruler.
Tiberius earned a reputation as a bloodthirsty emperor after a mess grew out of a man named Sejanus making a grab for power. Sejanus tried to set himself up as Tiberius’s next heir by assassinating Tiberius’s son. Tiberius, of course, called for the death of not only Sejanus, but of those who were associated with him—including his children.
It seems likely, too, that much of his bad reputation comes from his connection to Caligula, who you’ll hear much more of later.
Caracalla, 211-217 CE
For the first 13 years of his reign, Caracalla ruled as a co-emperor alongside first his father, Septimius Severus, and then his brother, Geta. In 211 CE, he had his brother assassinated by the loyal members of his Praetorian Guard. Not satisfied, Caracalla went a step further to slaughter most of his brother’s supporters as well. In a further act of insult, Caracalla removed Geta’s image from paintings, coins, and statues, struck him from record, and made it an actual crime to utter his name.
On top of being generally regarded as a tyrannical and cruel emperor, Caracalla wasn’t all that effective in other aspects of his rule. He put into effect an edict which declared all free inhabitants of the Empire to be official citizens… so he could collect taxes from a wider base of people. He depleted much of the Empire’s funds trying to keep his army happy and often engaged in ruthless and unnecessary military campaigns.
Caracalla had an obsession with Alexander the Great, and in a fit of erratic behavior went on to persecute those philosophers of the Aristotelian school based solely off the legend that Aristotle poisoned Alexander. His behavior only got worse when, after discovering a play mocking him in the city of Alexandria, he dispatched his troops to massacre, loot, and plunder the city.
In 217 AD, Caracalla was stabbed to death by a defected soldier—an almost ironic end, considering his adoration for his own army.
Maximinus Thrax, 235-238 CE
Emperor Maximinus Thrax was a very large man, and he was also largely hated. In direct contrast to Emperor Diocletian, he’s often considered to be the ruler who caused the Crisis of the Third Century. He brought Rome to near ruin with his exhaustive military campaigns, overextending his soldiers by dispatching them to multiple fronts at once.
His distrust and distaste for anyone apart from his army did him no favors and caused social instability. Maximinus even had members of his own family put to death. He was a man who preferred to rule by conquest rather than favor and became known for wrecking public property and setting fires to any village he passed through.
His short three-year rule ended in 238 CE, when members of the Imperial Roman army assassinated him alongside his son and advisors.
Nero, 54-68 CE
Nero’s 14-year reign had some significant successes, including the negotiation of peace with the Parthian Empire and the quelling of Boudica’s revolt. While the upper class considered him overly extravagant and undignified, the lower classes of Rome actually had a strong positive opinion towards their ruler. This was true despite the fact that some of his methods leaned toward tyrannical madness. Seeing as he was only 16 years old when he took the throne, that’s not all that surprising—adolescence is hard.
In the beginning of his reign, Nero’s rule was closely guided by his mother, Agrippina the Younger, much as she had orchestrated Nero’s rise as emperor. Agrippina married his great-uncle and previous emperor, Claudius, and arranged for Nero to marry his new stepsister, Octavia. By 59 CE, an unexplained falling out caused Nero to order his troops to have her killed. This wouldn’t be the last time he organized a death.
In 62 CE, Nero divorced Octavia, citing that she was incapable of producing an heir. When his subjects looked negatively at this decision, he had Octavia exiled. Not long after that—either to further change public opinion or to solidify his claim to the throne—he accused her of adultery and had her put to death. His second wife, Poppaea Sabina, died in 65 CE. Some writers of ancient times say that Nero was responsible for this death, too, though others disagree.
Nero’s legacy as a madman is most closely tied to the Great Fire of Rome in 64 CE, which completely destroyed three of Rome’s 14 districts, leaving another seven heavily damaged. Many myths surround the terrible tragedy which killed hundreds of citizens, including the dramatically evil story of Nero fiddling as Rome fell to ashes.
In actuality, the fiddle wasn’t even in existence at the time. While some classical sources cite that Nero was on the roof of his palace singing from “The Sack of Ilium,” others place him dozens of miles away from the flames.
While it’s impossible to know the truth of the fire’s origins, many people blamed Nero directly for the destruction. It was believed that he was intentionally making way for a new city aesthetic. Whether out of genuine belief or a desperate attempt at scapegoating, Nero blamed the fire on followers of the growing Christian religion.
Nero set out to cruelly persecute the Christians, implementing an array of creative tortures and deaths, including wrapping them in animal skins to be torn apart by dogs.
After that, Nero’s rule started to crumble. Reconstruction efforts had stretched the Roman currency thin, and Nero’s indecision in dealing with further revolts caused widespread instability. In 68, his Praetorian Guard renounced their loyalty and declared Nero an enemy of the people. In one last dramatic flair, Nero committed suicide before he could be executed.
Caligula, 37-41 CE
There aren’t many reliable surviving accounts of Caligula’s reign. Even if the myriad stories surrounding him are fabrications, he’d have to be pretty unpopular to generate that kind of libel in the first place.
To be fair, Caligula had a bit of a rough start in life. He was the sole survivor after his entire family perished either in imprisonment or directly at the hands of Emperor Tiberius. He was then taken in by the emperor and indulged in all of his worst whims, until Tiberius passed and Caligula took to the throne at 25 years old.
In the first six months of his rule, things actually went pretty well. He cut unfair taxes, recalled those sentenced to exile, and granted military bonuses to soldiers. However, after a strange illness overtook him, his recovery was shrouded in a madness that gave way to sadistic and perverse tendencies. He became known for uttering the phrase, “Remember that I have the right to do anything to anybody.”
Any perceived mockery from his subjects was met with the punishment of death. In fact, in his infinite paranoia, Caligula began sending those closest to him off to exile or death—including his adopted son. His cruelty led to him gaining a sense of satisfaction out of making parents watch as their children were killed.
His arrogance rose to new heights as he declared that he was an actual living god. Caligula even had the heads of statues of gods and goddesses replaced with his own.
Further accounts of his insanity include throwing an entire section of a gladiatorial audience into the arena to be eaten by beasts for his own amusement, planning to appoint his horse as a consul, and turning the palace into a veritable brothel.
Caligula was assassinated by the Praetorian Guard after only four years as emperor. The man was so hated by the Senate that they even rallied to have him erased from the record of Roman history. Thanks to this campaign, it remains unclear to this day what is fact and what is fiction in the Caligulan reign.
Commodus, 180-192 CE
Commodus was appointed as a co-ruler by his father, Emperor Marcus Aurelius, in 177 CE. Marcus Aurelius died in 180 CE, leaving his narcissistic and self-indulgent son as the sole Emperor of Rome.
Because Caligula couldn’t be the only one to have all the fun, Commodus also thought himself to be a god, referring to himself as Hercules reborn and forcing others to follow suit. He swanned around the city in lion skins and participated in gladiatorial events—an act in which was considered scandalous for a ruler to partake.
What’s worse: He often chose to compete against weak soldiers who were sickly or maimed from the war, sometimes tying two of them together to club them to death with a single strike. To add insult to the already grave injury, he also exorbitantly charged Rome for his arena appearances.
Commodus’s self-love knew no bounds. He changed the calendar months to reflect his own self-bestowed epithets. He shamelessly exiled and executed his wife and proudly kept a harem of hundreds. He forced his advisors to take the fall for political blunders and had entire families slaughtered on suspicion of conspiracy.
In December 1944, the United States was in the throes of World War II. The Normandy invasion of June 6 was fresh in memory but setbacks throughout Europe and bloody battles in the Pacific theater left a nation fatigued by the strains of war. As the casualty count increased and the war waged on, the air in America felt heavy. But for a moment in December, there was one thing taking everyone’s mind off the fighting: Army-Navy football.
Army was ranked #1 and Navy, #2. The media declared the match up the “National Championship” game.
Well-known sportswriter Grantland Rice predicted it would be “one of the best and most important football games ever played.”
It was Navy’s turn to host and the game was slated for Thompson Stadium in Annapolis. As global excitement around the match-up mounted, government officials considered moving it due to Thompson’s limited capacity of 19,000. On November 17, Baltimore’s Municipal Stadium was announced as the chosen venue by the Associated Press. There were 30,000 tickets available to the general public, but with a catch: you had to live within 8.3 miles of the stadium, and you had to purchase a $25 war bond through the Maryland State War Finance Committee in order to secure your seat. It was certainly a cause Americans could get behind: all of the tickets were claimed within 24 hours and the Army-Navy ticket drive raised over $58.6 million to support the war effort.
A sold-out crowd of 66,659 attended the Army-Navy game on December 2, 1944 in frigid temperatures. The teams arrived in style: the Navy, by boats sailed across the Chesapeake; the Army, accompanied by Navy destroyers, arrived on troopships.
The game didn’t disappoint. Entering into the fourth quarter, Army led just 9-7. With two touchdowns in the 4th, Army won 23-7 after five years of Navy victories.
General MacArthur sent a telegram to the Army’s head coach, Earl “Red” Blaik, saying: “The greatest of all Army teams—STOP—We have stopped the war to celebrate your magnificent success. MacArthur.”
And just like that, for a perfect moment in time, the war stopped to celebrate Army’s victory. Exactly two weeks after the game, Germany launched a surprise attack through the Ardennes Forest, later to be named the Battle of the Bulge, resulting in some 89,000 American casualties.
The Army-Navy rivalry is one of the most storied in American history. But as we watch Saturday’s game may we all remember that in the hearts of the players on the field and the cadets and the midshipmen in the stands, there is so much more than football.
Many troops take for granted the degree to which our military is funded today. There’s been a defense budget in place since the very early days of our country. Before World War I, this budget was made up of around 3 percent of the country’s GDP. Today, we’re sitting at 3.5 percent, but our total GDP is leagues larger than it was back then.
When the United States entered World War II, however, this defense budget spiked to a massive 41% of the country’s GDP — or $350 billion. Even that much money wasn’t enough to keep America at peak performance on all fronts. It needed more from the people.
That’s where war bonds, or “liberty bonds,” come into play.
And not just because Superman and Batman told them to.
In their most basic form, war bonds could be bought and sold through the Department of the Treasury. These bonds came in various amounts, ranging from 25 cents to for the average civilian and up to between 0 and 00 for the wealthy and for businesses. The overall idea was simple: You’d buy a war bond and return it at a later date for a specified amount.
From a financial perspective, they were a pretty terrible investment. During times of war, the government would print more money to further fund our military, thus causing a spike in inflation. And, just like that, the you spent isn’t worth nearly as much as it was when you bought the the bond.
That didn’t matter to the citizens, though. It was the patriotic thing to do. Throughout the Second World War, over 85 million Americans purchased over 5.7 billion’s worth of securities.
For the people back home, war bonds were a way to feel like they were contributing directly to the war. Everyone from the elderly to children to medically disqualified applicants could give something and feel invested in the American effort overseas. These investments came with a hope that their individual contribution was the little push needed to turn the tide of the war.
Everywhere you looked back then, posters lined the streets, telling people that it was their duty to purchase bonds. Major celebrities of the time starred in pre-movie ads, selling bonds. The .25 cent war bond stamps were heavily advertised in Superman and Batman comics. Even Bing Crosby sang “The Road to Victory,” a performance that wasn’t subtle in its promotion of victory bonds.
Ten percent of every single paycheck wasn’t even an outrageous ask. That was actually the norm.
As odd as it sounds, the most important thing that war bonds did was taking money out of circulation. The Treasury Department needed to pay for the war and printing more money was one of their only options. This isn’t uncommon but, at the rate the government needed to pay for the war, it would’ve crashed the economy if left unchecked.
It’s a basic economic principle: If there’s too much printed currency and not enough value behind it, the freshly printed money is worth less and less. Given that the United States was still reeling from the Great Depression, it’s safe to say the well was pretty dry. Every cent of a war bond was returned to the treasury, so the 5.7 billion’s worth of bonds that citizens purchased, essentially, allowed the government to print that many more dollars — they’d worry about the repercussions later, when there wasn’t a war to fight.
But at the ends of both World War I and World War II, two periods in history during which the United States spent an insane amount of money (in relation to the era’s GDP) on the war effort, bonds were repaid en masse, putting money in civilian pockets and sending the country into its greatest periods of economic growth.