All Your Base Are Belong To Us

For those who are unfamiliar with internet memes [1], there was once a video game released for Sega called Zero Wing. This game was originally written in Japanese and it was poorly translated. One of the most famous of these examples of broken English dialogue is a phrase that attempts to explain that all of the bases of the player’s faction now belong to some ominous fellow named CATS. Of course, given the complexity of the English language, it is fortunate that English speakers have a good sense of humor when it comes to people butchering our language [2]. That said, my main interest in using such an odd title is to point to the neglected but fascinating subject of logistics [3] as it relates to bases and supply lines.

Although the importance of bases may not be something that most people think about, such logistical matters are of significant importance in the course of history, whether we are dealing with land or sea warfare. For example, if one looks at the history of the Oregon Trail [4], one will see that the early settlers of my current home territory traveled along well-worn paths that were periodically guarded by fortresses or other walled trading posts, filled with merchants and soldiers. These forts and other posts were public and private bases of the United States with the capability and intent to help advance the spread of American power and rule over the central and western portions of the North American continent. Over the course of decades, they fulfilled their purpose, leading to the settlement and organization of these lands under American rule, a march of progress from the point of view of the United States, and a tableau of loss for the native inhabitants of the land.

Bases at sea are somewhat more obscure. Given my own family background, the long years of service of my maternal grandfather in the U.S. Coast Guard, and my own interest in naval history, has given me at least some appreciation of the importance of bases for deepwater navies and littoral forces (like the Coast Guard or Marines). Although battleships and aircraft carriers and supertankers and container ships are immensely powerful and noble ships with a vital importance in both economic and military ways, these vessels are largely dependent on bases, most of which are vulnerable fixed points on the shore where supplies are stored, where ships can be refueled and resupplied, and where the transfer of people and goods on and off such ships may occur. There has been some attempt by the U.S. Navy to explore the idea of sea bases that are less vulnerable to the threat of enemy attack (like Chinese or North Korean ballistic missiles), but such efforts are in their infancy.

When times are going well, it is common for people to neglect the importance of vital lines of supply on their material well-being. When we look at the origin of our foods and our consumer goods, it is clear that most of these goods come from other countries. Even now, it is far less expensive to ship items over the seas than it is to ship them by rail, cheaper by rail than by truck, and cheaper by truck than by air. Of course, the speeds are inversely proportional to the cost. In ancient times, it was even more difficult to transfer items over the ground, such lengthy and expensive trade routes (like the so-called Silk Road) being limited for expensive luxury items and hardy travelers. Not surprisingly, it is the logistical capabilities of the Roman Empire, in its roads and aqueducts, where the remains of that long-gone (but frequently restored) realm are best in evidence.

Even in the early history of the American Republic, it was so expensive for Western Pennsylvanian farmers (like many of my own ancestors) to transfer grain over the Appalachian Mountains that it was far less expensive to distill the wheat into whiskey, which was more cost-effective to ship. It was only with the construction of the Erie Canal and the railroad systems of the 1830’s and beyond that it became feasible to ship items from the Midwest to the East Coast, rather than down the Mississippi River through New Orleans. That resulting change, of course, had major political consequences in allowing the Midwest to preserve its livelihood and well being without access to the Deep South, which would have serious consequences in the Civil War.

Logistics is not, for most people, a very exciting field. One of my friends happens to work in logistics (as I have done in the past) [5], and we jokingly describe his work as, “I pick things up and I put them down,” in honor of a particularly humorous Planet Fitness commercial that was shown to us by a mutual friend. Supply bases and container ships are not necessarily exciting places to be, and neither are warehouses for most people (although my uncle worked rather successfully in one for much of his young adulthood). One sees forklifts moving around pallets, tractor trailers moving in and out, and people walking around, doing visual inspections or shipping and receiving. In container ships, the most exciting part of one’s whole career might be the occasional encounter with a Somali or Indonesian pirate or that one really bad typhoon or hurricane, if one was a particularly unlucky person. This aside, what is most notable about logistics is that it is supposed to go smoothly.

When logistics goes wrong, though, it becomes a much more serious matter. The loss of trading routes due to piracy or infrastructure collapse or political problems can threaten starvation very quickly [6]. One learns that one’s health and enjoyment of food is dependent on ports and railroads, on ships and trains, and on the fate of far off places and the weather and political situation there. When I was a kid, my family had a booklet on the United States and the British Empire that showed various choke points around the world, like the Straits of Malacca and Hormuz and the Panama and Suez Canals (and other such places) at the height of British and American power, showing how these gates controlled global trade. Likewise, I have visited Valpariso, and seen how Chile’s wealth and power in the 19th century related to its location as controlling the first good port after the harrowing trip through the Straits of Magellan, with all the benefits of collecting port fees and being a major transit point for trade (like Singapore is now). It is only when such choke points are choked that we realize the importance of logistics. Let us be wiser than that, and care about them while something can be done to secure the vulnerable connections that we depend on for our wealth and even our survival.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/05/11/real-men-dont-rent-women/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/04/03/u-mad-sis/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/06/11/dont-have-a-cow-man/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/02/19/backlash/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/11/01/like-a-boss/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/08/26/a-note-on-cat-herding/

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_As_She_Is_Spoke

[3] Logistics is at least an occasional subject of interest on this blog:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/03/09/on-the-ironies-of-logistics/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/04/05/adventures-in-logistics/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/01/20/bangkok-and-the-logistics-of-terrorism/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/12/01/afghanistan-and-the-tyranny-of-logistics/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/04/13/the-difference-between-shipping-and-logistics/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/12/01/infrastructure-improvements/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/06/09/a-lifetime-of-vulnerability/

[4] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/05/24/book-review-the-oregon-trail/

[5] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/12/25/giving-credit-where-credit-is-due-logistics-workers/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/02/05/divine-providence-in-the-life-of-nathan-the-upser/

[6] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/11/15/start-your-day-off-right-with-a-food-shortage/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in History, Military History, Musings and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to All Your Base Are Belong To Us

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