“Molon labe.” – King Leonidas

In 480 BCE a vast Persian army under Xerxes, King of Kings, bore down on the unprepared Greeks. At a narrow spot in the road, Thermopylae, a tiny band of 300 Spartans blocked the Persian advance. According to Herodotus, a bemused Xerxes first asked the Spartans to surrender, then suggested that the Spartans join with Xerxes to dominate Greece, and, finally, exasperated, demanded that the Spartans lay down their swords or die. “Molon labe,” Leonidas laconically replied, “Come and take them.”

The Spartans were defeated and all 300 men perished, but the Persian army was crippled and its advance was delayed – detained – for three crucial days, allowing Sparta’s population to escape to the island of Salamis. Later that year the Greeks crushed Xerxes’ army at the Battle of Salamis.

One way to come up with an idea for a blog post is to look around the world, or the investment world, and see what the conventional wisdom is on any subject. Naturally, that conventional wisdom will be wrong, but the trick is to figuring out why it’s wrong and what the right wisdom is – the unconventional, but correct, wisdom.

Like most people, between Thanksgiving and New Year’s I had to endure a great many holiday parties. (The conventional wisdom is that everyone must enjoy these events, so maybe I should write about that: “Things That Annoy Me, Part 5.”) Among other things, I heard a lot of loose talk at these parties about what an idiot Donald Trump is. Trump may well be an idiot, but not for the reasons a bunch of upper middle class folks think. People who live in that sort of socioeconomic bubble frequently have trouble thinking their way out of it. (Another idea for a blog post: “How to Think Your Way Out of the Upper Middle Class Bubble You Live In.”)

But it was one anti-Trumpian comment in particular that really got me thinking. The commenter opined that if Trump somehow became President we would invade Iraq again, this time to go after ISIS. This led to a whole series of appalled observations about how ridiculously warlike America is compared to more civilized places like Europe, how catastrophic the second Iraq invasion was, how America can’t seem to do anything right militarily, starting with Vietnam – or maybe even Korea. And in fact, if there is one thing everyone on the planet agrees about, it’s that America’s adventures in Vietnam and Iraq were surpassingly stupid, counterproductive, and downright embarrassing.

Aha, I said to myself, there’s a bit of conventional wisdom that has to be wrong! So I decided to consider what might be wrong with it. Being an ex-military guy myself (Vietnam was my era, alas) I actually know something about how at least one of those wars had been fought and what had gone right and wrong with it.

By purest chance, I also happened to be reading Max Boot’s exceptionally valuable The Savage Wars of Peace. Boot’s subject is the small military conflicts in which America has engaged ever since we became a country. Many – perhaps most – of these episodes have been long forgotten, but some of them were, as Boot points out, quite “savage.” A surprisingly large number of these military actions turned out to be successful, while others – well, not so much. Boot’s point is that we need to stop forgetting about these small wars because they have a great deal to teach us about how war ought to be waged and how it ought not to be waged.

I want to emphasize that my views in this series of posts have nothing at all to do with Boot’s work. I’ve developed my own theories about the implications of America’s wars and how they were conducted and what they accomplished. As far as I know, Boot may disagree violently with my ideas. Still, his book informed and clarified my own thinking, and throughout these posts I will mention facts and events that I either learned about or was reminded of by Boot.

But before we launch ourselves on a quixotic mission to reeducate seven billion human beings, you may be asking yourself what the hell a “detainder” is. Believe it or not, I didn’t invent the word, although it isn’t much used any more. Back in the day – I’m thinking 16th, 17th, 18th centuries, just before I graduated from law school – a “detainder” was a writ, a “detinue,” that allowed an official to detain a person or goods for reasons that seemed to suffice at the time. For example, suppose the local sheriff(1) had an inkling that Henry had been up to no good. Or maybe the sheriff suspected that a particular side of beef might have been purloined from a local farm. Maybe it was Henry who stole the beef. The sheriff could execute a writ of detainder and hold Henry – and/or the beef – until matters could be gotten to the bottom of.

In case you’re thinking that that’s just a bunch of ancient Common Law hogwash, similar writs exist today, but are called writs of “detainer.” Suppose, for example, that Henry is serving two years in the Louisiana hoosegow(2) for stealing beef. It turns out that Henry is also wanted by the Feds for tax evasion (Henry having failed to report the beef on his 1040-EZ). A Federal Marshal could simply show up at the Louisiana jail to get Henry, but the state boys wouldn’t hear of letting him go. No, the Marshals need to obtain a writ of detainer allowing them to transport Henry to the Federal hoosegow.

But you see the main point: a “detainder” simply interrupts the status quo, often only temporarily, but sometimes permanently, for reasons that are considered sufficient. Once the status quo has been interrupted, all sorts of interesting and unexpected things can happen. We’ll take a look at the relevance of that to America and it’s wars next Friday.

(1) That is, the “shire reeve,” the most important local official in the shire going back well before 1000 A.D.

(2) A corruption of the Latin American Spanish word juzgao, which is itself a corruption of the standard Spanish juzgar or juzgado, meaning to judge or adjudicate.

Next up: Wars of Detainder, Part 2

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