For six years from 2009 to 2014 I did what I hoped was a humorous back page for MILITARY HISTORY, a non-humorous magazine. My subjects were Weaponry, which I satirized by making up my own; War, which I parodied by making up my own; Spies, who I satirized by making up my own; and Generals, American and otherwise, who I didn’t need to make up or satirize because they did an amazing job of it on their own. To all you budding humorists who ask my advice on how to begin a career: I say choose the military!
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What has ships, planes, tanks, troops, missiles, an entire Swiss ski patrol, and a full brigade of Saint Bernards? The all-in-one Swiss Army-Navy-Air Force Attack-Defense-Troop Carrier Supply Vehicle. After thirteen years of construction, it has just rolled, flown, trundled, sailed, and cut its way out of the Victorinox industries defense plant in the Zmutt Valley.
Does it come fully loaded? Yah! There’s even a bank so Swiss citizen-soldiers can access their secret accounts 24/7! If your soldier-boy has a sweet tooth, there’s a Nestle factory on level 9. And each officer gets his own plastic toothpick!
Carping critics have pointed out that turning on the motor causes deafness and avalanches in all 26 cantons, and that there are no passes or tunnels large enough to allow a vehicle of this size to leave the Zmutt. True: an oversight. That’s why it has been temporarily redesignated Permanent Zmutt Base 1!
And the future? The Swiss Confederation has contracted with the Leatherman company to build the Swiss Army-Navy-Air Force Attack-Defense-Troop Carrier Supply Vehicle Rescue Vehicle. It should be ready to pry its way into the Zmutt by 2028!
FDR wanted a bomber as reliable as his first Model T. So Edsel Ford’s crack team of designers created the FF-1, known as the Ford Feckless. It had no propellers. It wasn’t a jet. How it stayed aloft, which it was able to do for minutes at a time, is still a mystery, but the way it flew is not. “It was a cross between a glider and pork roast,” said Jimmy Doolittle. “It dropped everything but bombs,” said Eddie Rickenbacker, who added that he saw the FF-1 “crash into itself as it took off.” “It is no Model T,” said the president, as he cancelled the program right after the only prototype of the FF-1 fell out of the sky, crushing a Chevy dealership in Grosse Pointe; ironically, its only contact with an enemy.
Sweden, 935 A.D.
The Herringpult of Hrothgar the Hapless drove off the even more hapless invading Danes during the malodorous War of the Herrings. Shown here, the mobile Fjord Model-T. The Swedes also developed an immobile version that launched little meatballs, but that had the opposite effect of feeding their enemies’ appetites for conquest.
Denmark, 1941 A.D.
It was an incident that proved to the peace-loving Germans that something was truly rotten in Denmark. A cruise ship, the Bismarck, paying a friendly social call on the war-like Scandinavian nation, was the victim of an unprovoked attack by Danes using whale guns! The crew, all fanatical vegetarians personally chosen by Adolf Hitler, were incensed. The arrival on their ship of any type of meat was considered an act of war!
Vienna, September 11, 1683: Honoring his treaty with Emperor Leopold I, King Jan III Sobieski and his Polish cavalry arrived in the hills above Vienna to save the city from the Ottoman siege, only to discover they’d forgotten their horses! Thinking fast, Sobieski sent his men through the secret tunnels used for smuggling in the pastries and cakes the Viennese could not do without,* and had them requisition every carousel horse in the city.** The next day he led his men in the only carousel horse calvary charge in history. The sight of 9,000 Polish lunatics charging downhill on wooden horses struck terror in the hearts of the fierce Janissaries and other Ottoman troops. Vienna was saved from Ottoman conquest! Europe would not become Muslim until the 21st Century! The Grand Vizier Kara Mustapha Pasha lost his head! And Jan III became Poland’s greatest king!
*It was only a century later when a Vienna native, Marie Antoinette famously said “Let them eat cake.” She meant the Viennese, but her remark was widely misunderstood.
**The Viennese were as crazy about their carousels as they were about their sachertorte!
While ciaoing down on his favorite meal of roast wild boar sausages, Il Duce, Benito Mussolini, conceived the most terrifying Italian weapon of WWII, “Le Salsicce di Volo della Morte,” or “The Flying Sausages of Death!” A four stage, charcoal powered rocket that was literally linked together. “Terrifying” was certainly the case, not only for the Italian engineers and soldiers who built and tested what they clandestinely referred to as “l’idea idiota!,” but for those who lived in the nearby estates and farmhouses of the Tuscan countryside, where more damage was done to roofs and property by the sausage rockets than le Salsicce would ever do to an enemy army. Il Duce was crestfallen. He was heard to remark “this has all been a bad dream,” which coincidentally, is what most Italians would later say about Mussolini.
Still, there was one upside, the wayward Salsicce that would crash through the roofs of Tuscan kitchens were often perfectly cooked by the heat from their charcoal burning engines. They were immediately dismembered and eaten by the peasantry, who, given the food shortages during the war, would thank il Duce for providing them with their best meal in years.
By 1961, the CIA knew the only thing Fidel Castro enjoyed more than being communist dictator of Cuba, was puffing on a fat Montecristo, and having a nice afternoon nap.
Weapons specialists at Langley, working with Werner Von Braun, constructed what Von Braun called his “meisterwerke,” the rocket powered bed! The plan was to present it to Fidel as a gift from Nikita Kruschev (1). Castro would then fall asleep while smoking in bed (2). The cigar ash would light the hidden rockets (3). The bed would lift off (4), and propel the bewhiskered blowhard out the window at supersonic speed (5).
It might have worked, but Von Braun insisted on Cuban cigars to run tests with, and with none available the project was cancelled. The bed languishes in a storeroom at Langley waiting for the night a tired watchman will flop down and light up a Lucky. As for Von Braun, he brushed off the failure. After all, the man of whom it was said, “I aim at the stars (but sometimes hit London)” was nothing if not an optimist.
Early in the cold war, the OSS convinced American industrialist Armand Hammer to present Stalin with a specially formulated tube of Brylcreem that contained a large dose of Macassar oil, a powerful depilatory. The idea, hatched by a secret intelligence think-tank at the cost of over two million dollars, was to have Stalin’s mustache fall out! Without it, the Soviet tyrant would be unrecognizable and would soon fall from power!
Instead, the plot backfired! The many antimacassars on the plush armchairs* in Stalin’s Kremlin office counteracted the effect, and then reversed it! The cruel dictator’s mustache grew even thicker and more luxuriant. He looked more avuncular, more like “Uncle Joe” than ever, and was able to remain in power until his death in 1953!
*Note: In the original photo, Trotsky was sitting in the armchair. Stalin had him airbrushed out of the chair and out of Soviet history!
July 6, 1971. Under cover of night, a Pakistani airliner arrives in Beijing carrying Henry Kissinger and three aides on a secret mission to meet with premier Zhou EnLai and prepare the way for a visit from President Richard Nixon. Before talks begin, Kissinger insists on delivering a special gift from the president to Chairman Mao: American made chopsticks from the famous Culinary Institute of America, or CIA.
The chopsticks were designed to explode as soon as they touched hot food, but they fizzled! Instead of blowing the old tyrant’s head off, they cooked the food perfectly. It was so delicious that Mao turned to General Tso and said, “ah, Tso, you must try this!” Just then, the chopsticks exploded, blowing the general’s head onto a nearby roof. Mao was delighted! He asked Henry for a million pairs: “One pair for each of my generals!” Nixon’s visit to China the next February was historic, but this was moment real detente began!
Reichmarschall des Grossdeutschen Reiches Hermann Göring was a WWI fighter ace and an early and ardent Nazi, who, among other dubious accomplishments, founded the Gestapo. Hitler thought Göring was the cat’s pajamas, and Göring dressed the part, wearing garish and outlandish uniforms accessorized with furs and braids and bizarre medals and decorations for contrived pseudo-accomplishments. His sartorial excesses were so blatant that the Italian foreign minister once remarked that Göring wore “something between what automobile drivers wore in 1906 and what a high-grade prostitute wears to the opera.” Prostitutes may have found the comparison insulting.
As head of the Luftwaffe, Göring took plenty of flak for his performance. He lost the Battle of Britain. He boasted that Berlin would never be bombed. Those promises, like his medals, were mired in fantasy. So was his generalship: when a subordinate reported American fighters over Germany, he responded: “I give you an official order that they weren’t there!” and so Göring, a passionate lover of Wagnerian fantasies, did nothing to stop the Götterdämmerung that swept away the Nazi Reich.
For being a swaggering prima donna, a prodigious kleptocrat, a junkie, an arrogant, delusional blowhard, and an all-around vicious swine, Hermann Göring deserves the honor of being our first selection as one of History’s Worst Generals.
Stout, obdurate, Major General Charles Willoughby, Douglas MacArthur’s intelligence chief, once made an army of 300,000 Chinese soldiers VANISH!
Unfortunately, denying that the Chinese army had crossed the Yalu river into Korea did not stop the Chinese army from doing just that. But for Willoughby, to have acknowledged reality would have contradicted General MacArthur’s belief that the Chinese would never dare confront him. The truth would have prevented the great man from driving his army north all the way to the Yalu. And so Willoughby ignored the Chinese invasion and fabricated reports that fit his boss’ needs. Thousands would lose their lives or be taken prisoner, but for Willoughby that could never be as important as serving the great man what he wanted most: delusions!
The best description of MacArthur’s staff was written by Joseph Alsop: “For the most part, they were insipid men, arrogant with the press, wary of each other, and generally incompetent. The farther one gets from the front, the more laggards, toadies, and fools one encounters.” And George Marshall told MacArthur, “You don’t have a staff, General. You have a court.” Willoughby might have been the jester but there was nothing remotely funny about the choices he made.
By any account, the life of Antonio López de Santa Anna, soldier and five time president of Mexico, who served twenty two years in that office, and who thought of himself as “The Napoleon of the West,” should be considered remarkable. Instead, he is remembered as the despot who inspired the cry of “Remember the Alamo” and ordered the slaughter of the Texans who survived the battle of Goliad. Like Napoleon in Russia, Santa Anna stretched his supply lines too thin. His army couldn’t sustain the march north to Texas and he failed to appreciate the ferocity of the Texans. He lost Texas when he and his men were literally caught napping at San Jacinto, a battle that lasted only eighteen minutes.
Eleven years later, his lopsided defeat at the battle of Cerro Gordo cost Mexico the rest of Texas south to the Rio Grande, along with California, New Mexico, Arizona and much of Utah and Colorado.
Santa Anna lived a long and eventful life. He spent time in exile, including of all places, Staten Island! It was there in 1869 that he and Thomas Adams imported one ton of chicle with the intention of creating an alternative to rubber. The plan did not work. A discouraged Santa Anna returned to Mexico City, and died there in 1876. Thomas Adams invented “Chiclets” and in doing so created the chewing gum industry.
Napoleon understood it. Grant understood it. So did Guderian. War is about smashing and killing. The best generals took risks, could improvise, were decisive. They understood there is a difference between movement and action. Général d’armée Maurice Gamelin, who had the responsibility to defend France from a German invasion, was a decent man, a philosophical man, an excellent soldier… of the 19th century. A military leader, who in 1940, planned to refight World War I.
The Germans were one world war ahead of him.
In France during the time of the “phony war,” the existential dread was palpable. Every frenchman felt it, whether he was in a cafe on the boulevards of Paris or eight stories below a radish field in a bunker on the Maginot line. Maurice Gamelin felt it too, and he dithered: moving some armies here, then there; not doing this, then not doing that; waiting for the Germans to drop another shoe; waiting for his orders from Paris; waiting. If he did nothing, he risked nothing, so he did nothing. And the Ardennes? Will they come through the Ardennes? NON! Ils sont impénétrables!
And the war came. It blasted through the forest, and soared above the impregnable line of border fortresses. The Germans reached the Channel before you could say “Jacqui Robespierre!” Game over, France! It was finished before Gamelin knew it had begun! The German wolf had swallowed the poulet français whole, probably with a little mustard sauce and a fine dry Champagne. Mon dieu!