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Saturday, March 01, 2014


Steve Cole debunks ten popular myths.
1. Myth: The US and USSR had enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world seven times.
Truth: This number is based on a calculation that involves dropping the most effective bomb on the biggest target, counting the projected casualties, dividing that number into the total population, then comparing this to the total mega-tonnage on hand. It made sense when the total US arsenal might kill 20% of the Russia population, but never worked for larger numbers because you ran out of big easy targets. In reality, there were never enough bombs to kill everybody once because there are so many people living in small groups in remote areas. To be sure, a post-nuclear world would be pretty awful and the living would envy the dead.
2. Myth: The US won the American Revolution wearing buckskin and hiding behind rocks and trees shooting at the stupid British wearing bright red coats and standing in a straight line.
Truth: This myth seems to have originated in a Bill Cosby comedy routine. The US won wearing bright blue coats and standing in a straight line; we just learned how to shoot faster, the French helped, and the British had an ocean in the way of their Army.
3. Myth: Hitler was the greatest mass murderer of all time.
Truth: Stalin and Mao killed more people, and mostly their own people, and Pol Pot was not that far behind. Tamerlane was no slouch at mass murder, and Genghis used the terror of his few mass murders to win bloodless battles. Anyway, the Black Death killed a lot more people.
4. Myth: Hitler was a complete military moron.
Truth: Even a broken clock is right twice a day. He did agree to give the Panzer generals their own divisions instead of (as other nations did) giving most the tanks to the infantry. He did want to put missile-firing helicopters into panzer divisions, something the smartest tank generals in the world told him was insane but is now a major part of armored warfare. Hitler's orders to "never retreat" made sense given that the Germans had only rarely trained to do so. He could also do better art than most people can.
5. Myth: The US Army was defeated in the Vietnam War.
Truth: The US Army won every major (and most of the minor) battles. When the US left, the military situation was stable, and remained so until the US Congress cut off funds to support South Vietnam. Except for Congress cutting off the money, South Vietnam would still be free.
6. Myth: The Emancipation Proclamation freed all slaves during the Civil War.
Truth: It actually did not free those in states which had not seceded, such as Maryland, and of course had no effect on slaves in areas not under control of the Union Army.
7. Myth: Everyone was killed in the Charge of the Light Brigade.
Truth: Actually, about 2/3 of the troops returned unharmed. The charge captured the Russian cannons (the wrong ones, but war is confusing) but foundered in the mass of Russian cavalry behind the guns.
8. Myth: The US military paid $432 each for hundreds of $8 hammers and $800 for hundreds of $12 toilet seats.
Truth: The Pentagon's auditing software spotted a typographic error resulting in a bill of $432 for a hammer. The invoice was corrected and the Pentagon paid $8 for that hammer and hundreds of other hammers. The "toilet seat" was actually a fiber-glass panel four feet wide which covered a toilet assembly in an aircraft. As it had to be custom made in small numbers, that was a fair price for custom work of that type and equal to similar civilian purchases. (Every cartoon showing Defense Secretary Weinberger standing around holding a toilet seat with an $800 price tag as just an outright lie. Beware taking political cartoons as fact.)
9. Myth: In war, it always takes 3-to-1 superiority to pull off a successful attack.
Truth: The success of an attack depends on many factors, and history is full of attacks at higher odds that failed and attacks at lower odds that succeeded. For example, Lee's attack on the Second Day at Gettysburg was at 1:1 odds and succeeded in driving the Union back half a mile and wrecking two entire corps. But for one brigadier general who forgot to attack, the south would have won that battle and destroyed about half of the Union Army of the Potomac.
10. Myth: Captain Bligh (of the HMS Bounty) was an incompetent officer and a masochist, causing his sailors to mutiny. After the mutiny, he died in disgrace.
Truth: He was a very competent officer, honored by Nelson (Bligh commanded a ship of the line by then), who retired as a vice-admiral. Bligh's crew on the Bounty was just rotten and lazy and wanted to stay in the tropics. (To be fair, who could blame them?) He completed one of the most remarkable feats of navigation and seamanship in history (traveling over 1,000 miles in an open boat to bring the non-mutinous crewmen to safety).