1934: Augusto Cesar Sandino, national hero

1 comment February 21st, 2012 Headsman

“The sovereignty of a people cannot be argued about, it is defended with a gun in the hand.”

-Sandino

On this date in 1934, the first name in Nicaraguan anti-colonial resistance was abducted and summarily executed by the Nicaraguan National Guard.

From 1927 until his death, Sandino led an armed peasant insurgency from the Nicaraguan mountains against the Yankee imperialists and the domestic dictatorship they backed.

Washington had had its nose (and its marines) in Managua’s business for decades, continuously occupying the Central American country since 1912. The Marine Corps saw this country’s people as

Densely ignorant … little interested in principles … naturally brave and inured to hardships, of phlegmatic temperament, tough, capable of being aroused to acts of extreme violence, they have fought for one party or the other without considering causes since time immemorial … a state of war is to them a normal condition.*

All this was the time of Sandino’s own coming-of-age. The son of a wealthy landowner and his domestic servant, Sandino grew up with the unprivileged and the working classes, eventually asorbing an eclectic mix of that period’s revolutionary ideologies.

From 1927 he took to the Segovia and began writing the playbook for the 20th century guerrilla: mobile infantry irregulars, striking from familiar-to-them forest cover, melting away among sympathetic campesinos.

The “Colossus of the North” — Sandino made no bones about his foe; his personal seal showed an American marine being killed — invariably described him as a “bandit” because he also raided towns to commandeer food, clothing, and medicine.

“Washington is called the father of his country; the same may be said of Bolivar and Hidalgo; but I am only a bandit, according to the yardstick by which the strong and the weak are measured.”

-Sandino

The strong, in this case, found little public appetite for the steady attrition of servicemen, and the U.S. employed a familiar strategy of its own: “Nicaraguanizing” the conflict by building up a National Guard to do the dirty work domestically.

That Guard’s head was headed by Anastasio Somoza — the very son of a bitch of whom FDR said, “but he’s our son of a bitch.”

While it’s hardly the only country to have been favored with an American son of a bitch, you could say that Nicaragua has been the American empire’s very own heart of darkness. Washington’s initial interest in the place after the Spanish-American War concerned preventing a canal project to compete with Panama. It invented dive-bombing to hunt Sandino. And it ranged around the world and outside the law to battle Sandino’s successors under the aegis of a modern imperial presidency.

Small wonder that an official anthem of the movement denounces “The Yankee / The enemy of all humankind.”

In the immediate aftermath of the American departure in January 1933, Sandino began coming to terms with the the country’s new president: the Sandinistas disarmed in exchange for amnesty and land. But Somoza, who at this point was “only” the head of the National Guard, was building up his own power … and he meant to have done with this inconvenient insurgent.

After Sandino left a presidential meeting on this date, at which the erstwhile rebel negotiated for his continuing demand to disband Somoza’s Guardia, Sandino was stopped at the gates by Guardsmen. They took Sandino, his brother, and two of his generals and marched them off to be shot. Then the Guard forcibly broke up the Sandinista remnants. Somoza soon seized official power for himself; his family ruled, and plundered, Nicaragua until 1979. Washington never called them bandits.

While Sandino vanished (the whereabouts of his remains are unknown), his revolutionary vision and praxis also persist down to the present day.

Sandinismo (aging much better than Somocismo) would influence Fidel Castro and Che Guevara during the Cuban Revolution.

And in 1979, the Sandinista National Liberation Front finally succeeded in overthrowing the last loathsome scion of the Somoza dictatorship.

The United States, of course, went right back to war against its long-dead “bandit” foe.

* From Julian C Smith’s officially commissioned History of the Guardia Nacional de Nicaragua (1933), as quoted in Michael J. Schroeder’s “Bandits and Blanket Thieves, Communists and Terrorists: The Politics of Naming Sandinistasin Nicaragua, 1927-36 and 1979-90,” Third World Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 1 (2005).

Schroeder runs the definitive English-language website on Sandino and the original Sandinistas, with a truly vast collection of documents and resources.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Cycle of Violence,Execution,Famous,Guerrillas,History,Language,Martyrs,Myths,Nicaragua,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Popular Culture,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,USA

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1976: Valery Sablin, Hunt for Red October inspiration

4 comments August 3rd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1976, the real-life Soviet political officer whose naval mutiny inspired Tom Clancy’s Cold War thriller The Hunt for Red October was shot in Moscow for treason.

No, unlike his fictional counterpart Marko Ramius (Sean Connery, in the 1990 cinema adaptation excerpted above), Valery Sablin didn’t make it to the West.

But the real Valery Sablin wasn’t trying to make it.

Sablin was the political officer aboard the submarine-killer Storozhevoy. He was also a dedicated Leninist incensed at the notoriously corrupt gerontocracy of the Leonid Brezhnev era.

When he led his mutiny in Riga, his plan was to take the Storozhevoy to St. Petersburg and, Aurora-like, sound the tocsin for a Soviet Tea Party to restore the ideals of the Revolution.

Basically, Sablin had the exact opposite intent of his literary offspring.

This being the 1970s, when figuring out what the devil was happening in the black box of the USSR constituted its own academic discipline, the incident was misinterpreted in the western media — but understandably so.


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The sea route from Riga to St. Petersburg begins in a westerly direction, towards Sweden, and the spectacle of Soviet fighters turning back a vessel steaming for Gotland (combined, of course, with the natural susceptibility of the western audience to the notion) suggested that the mutineers had aimed not at revolution, but at defection.

Under the headline “Newspaper Reports Soviet Ship Mutiny” sourced to Agence France-Presse and datelined Stockholm, Jan. 22, the Jan. 23, 1976 Washington Post reported:

Crewmen on board a Soviet coast guard vessel in the Baltic mutinied and tried to sail the ship into Swedish territorial waters in November, the evening newspaper Expressen said today.

Citing foreign visitors recently returned from Riga, the paper said the mutiny took place Nov. 7 after celebrations in Riga marking the Soviet revolution.

The paper said a Soviet submarine and a number of helicopters forced the ship to return to Riga.

This was the version of the story that aspiring spy novelist Tom Clancy encountered. In his reworking, it became the bold (and successful) defection of a state-of-the-art Soviet submarine and its deft commander … effected, of course, with a little help from the derring-do of the spooks at Langley.

Moscow was pleased to let this be the version that people heard, to the extent they heard anything at all of the incident. Though not exactly flattering, it was much less threatening than the potential storyline of “Soviet officers are so fed up with party corruption that they’re trying to revolt”.

Not until 1990 did the real story get out.

It’s pretty safe to say that the Valery Sablin who died this day would not have had a lot of sympathy for Marko Ramius,* and still less for the Reaganite writer who turned Sablin’s deed inside-out and made it the cornerstone of his own personal mint.

Trust the fact that history will judge events honestly and you will never have to be embarrassed for what your father did. On no account ever be one of those people who criticise but do not follow through their actions. Such people are hypocrites — weak, worthless people who do not have the power to reconcile their beliefs with their actions. I wish you courage, my dear. Be strong in the belief that life is wonderful. Be positive and believe that the Revolution will always win.

-Sablin’s last letter to his son

Russian speakers may enjoy this documentary about the Sablin mutiny.

* Another inversion: in order to make his break for the Free World, the fictional (and, significantly, ethnically Lithuanian) Ramius murders the ethnically Russian political officer, Ivan Putin, assigned to his ship; the real Sablin was himself that zealous political officer, and imprisoned the ship’s captain in the course of the mutiny.

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1945: Gen. Charles Delestraint

2 comments April 19th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1945, French general and Resistance figure Charles Delestraint was hastily disposed of, ten days before the liberation of Dachau.

Delestraint, who also spent the First World War as a POW, was among those who noticed the hidebound military dogmas of the past needed updating.

With de Gaulle, Delestraint was a forceful advocate in the interwar period for mechanized warfare.

He didn’t get far enough, certainly not as far as the soon-to-be-vaunted Wehrmacht.

In 1940, just months after retirement, Delestraint was recalled to lead a mechanized division against the Germans, which of course turned out to be a spectacular triumph of tank warfare … for the Germans. While the French distributed armor units throughout their forces, the Germans massed them at a schwerpunkt aiming to break through the French line and speedily conquer in the rear.

Delestraint later remarked of the doctrinal difference,

We had 3,000 tanks and so did the Germans. We used them in a thousand packs of three, the Germans in three packs of a thousand.

Recruited subsequently into the French Resistance and thence betrayed, Delestraint enjoined the hospitality of many concentration camps and the tender mercies of one of their more infamous torturers.

Uncertainty remains over exactly how the Germans killed Delestraint, or even why the Dachau commandants wanted to finish off him in particular, although he was a primo catch in the anti-Resistance operation. The body was immediately cremated, camp records of the execution order disappeared if they ever existed, and eyewitness testimony at variance.

But dying in Dachau for the French Resistance? By any standard, that’s a passport to hero status, as attested by any number of Rue General Charles Delestraints to be found in his native land.

On this day..

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1815: Michel Ney, the bravest of the brave

9 comments December 7th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1815, Napoleonic Marshal Michel Ney faced a squad of French troops un-blindfolded and gave them the last order of his wild career:

Soldiers, when I give the command to fire, fire straight at my heart. Wait for the order. It will be my last to you. I protest against my condemnation. I have fought a hundred battles for France, and not one against her… Soldiers Fire!

The carrot-topped commander, just seven months Napoleon’s senior, had like the Corsican distinguished himself at arms during the French Revolution.

He shone thereafter as a ballsy* cavalry officer in the Napoleonic Wars — Bonaparte called him le Brave des Braves (“the bravest of the brave”).

Hitching your star to Napoleon’s was a good career move, for sure.

Until right about …


Michel Ney was named Prince de la Moskowa after the Battle of Borodino 1812. Things kind of went downhill from there.

“[W]e are told of the greatness of soul of the marshals, especially of Ney — a greatness of soul consisting in this: that he … escaped to Orsha abandoning standards, artillery, and nine-tenths of his men.” -Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

Ney was able to keep things cool with Louis XVIII, but when Napoleon returned from Elba and Ney marched out to capture him, both Marshal and army deserted to the old emperor.

Ney often takes a rap for fouling up the reunion tour with a characteristically reckless cavalry charge during the Battle of Waterloo.

But his real problem was that he couldn’t make up his mind or stir his spirit or just plain read the writing on the wall well enough to get out while the getting was good. Though the Bourbons gave him every opportunity to blow town and spare the new-look ancien regime the embarrassment of having to try him, Ney didn’t do it — causing the king to fume,

By letting himself be caught, he has done us more harm than he did [defecting to Napoleon] on the 13th of March!

A vengeful Chamber of Peers, full of radical more-royalist-than-the-king types, gave him no quarter.

The near-unanimous conviction and death sentence were agreed by the Peers around midnight as December 6 became December 7, and the Bravest of the Brave led out near the Luxembourg Garden that very morning to suffer the sentence passed upon him.

The Bravest of the Brave, a 19th-century general history of the man, is available free on Google Books, as are two volumes of memoirs (1, 2) published posthumously by his family.

French speakers can find other free 19th century texts on Ney linked here.

* His reputation for unshakable courage notwithstanding, John Elting says Ney was also a deft hand at executing a cavalry retreat.

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1849: Sheikh Bouzian, defending Zaatcha

2 comments November 26th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1849, the French imposed a salutary example on Islamic resistance in Algeria.

Two decades into the colonization of Algeria, the blessings of French rule were not apparent to all. (Back in the homeland, the French populace had doubts of its own.)

Bouzian — or Bou Zian, Bou-Zian, or Abu Ziyan — led an uprising rooted half in resentment over confiscatory palm date taxes and half in a prophetic insurrectionary Islam that sure reads as foreshadowing from this distance.

Retiring to the defensible oasis village of Zaatcha, the rebels impressively repelled French zouaves sent to suppress them earlier in the year, sending them off to lick their wounds and regroup for several months in the nearby town of Biskra.

At last, a massive French force descended on redoubt.


Assaut de Zaatcha, 26 novembre 1849 by Jean-Adolphe Beauce

On the morning of this date, it commenced its assault, reducing the village to a ruin house by house against its desperate defenders. The savage immediacy of the fight is by this translation of a participant’s account, printed in this Google books freebie (which explores the siege in its tactical mechanics):

Bouzian holds out the longest. The 2nd battalion of Zouaves is on his track; two bags of powder placed against the house which shelters these energetic defenders produce no effect; only at the third does a mass of wall come down. Our soldiers of the different columns of assault rush in. They are received with musket-shots.

The efforts of our fine fellows triumph at last over that heroic resistance. Bouzian, his son by his side, fights desperately, but succumbs at last. He is put to death with his son, as rough a warrior as his father…

Every one of the close to 1,000 Arabs defending Zaatcha died — several dozen, at least, besides Bouzian summarily executed upon capture — and they took two hundred or so of the assailing force to the grave with them.

John Reynell Morell emits an non-partisan Orientalist tribute to everybody in this public-domain book about Algeria published shortly after the bloody affair.

What impartial pen shall chronicle the panting despair of those dauntless Saharians, fighting to the death for wives and home, and waving palms and liberty! what pen do justice to the gallatry of European discipline, establishing order amidst blazing temples and blood-stained gardens! The sweet South will continue to sigh its perfumes over that oasis; but its gardens are a wilderness, its homes a desolation, for the spirit of freedom has left it.

Those perfumed sighs, though, would not in the long run prove such an ephemeral matter for the Republic.

the outcome was intended [by the French] as a permanent lesson for the unruly inhabitants of the south. To the latter, the struggle that eventually centered upon the small oasis represented an Armageddon in miniature … [but] the determined resistance of Abu Ziyan and his forces created a heroic epic that remained in the popular collective memory long afterward. (Source)

General background on the Siege of Zaatcha is here (in English) and here (in French).

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Algeria,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,God,History,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Religious Figures,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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401 B.C.E.: Clearchus of Sparta

2 comments December 15th, 2007 Headsman

Around this time in the late autumn or early winter some weeks following the Battle of Cunaxa, the general of a Greek mercenary army — along with most of its other commanders — was treacherously seized by a Persian satrap and summarily beheaded.

In the train of the Peloponnesian War‘s devastation, sturdy Greek hoplites with bills to pay found a lucrative gig backing a Persian prince‘s bid to seize the throne.

The prince marched the Hellenes deep into Persia before falling in battle at Cunaxa in Mesopotamia, a discomfiting scenario alike for the stranded but still-potent invading army and the somewhat outclassed Persians.

The seizure around this day of the veteran soldier and former tyrant of Byzantium Clearchus — lured under color of friendship — aimed to crush the Greeks’ morale, but instead feathered the laurels of “the Ten Thousand”. This “marching Republic” hastily self-organized and proceeded upon an astonishing escape, intrepidly fighting its way north over the ensuing year to the Black Sea, and thence to hearth and home.

The Greeks’ perseverance offers one of classical antiquity’s stock testimonies to the resilient polis — and at this stage, practically the last breath of that dying spirit. More to the immediate point, it illustrated strikingly the Persian army’s vulnerability to the phalanx, exploited to decisive effect in the century to come by Alexander the Great.

One of the replacement generals, Xenophon, immortalized the Greeks’ march in the Anabasis.

After the generals had been seized, and the captains and soldiers who formed their escort had been killed, the Hellenes lay in deep perplexity — a prey to painful reflections. Here were they at the king’s gates, and on every side environing them were many hostile cities and tribes of men. Who was there now to furnish them with a market? Separated from Hellas by more than a thousand miles, they had not even a guide to point the way. Impassable rivers lay athwart their homeward route, and hemmed them in. Betrayed even by the Asiatics, at whose side they had marched with Cyrus to the attack, they were left in isolation. Without a single mounted trooper to aid them in pursuit: was it not perfectly plain that if they won a battle, their enemies would escape to a man, but if they were beaten themselves, not one soul of them would survive?

Haunted by such thoughts, and with hearts full of despair, but few of them tasted food that evening; but few of them kindled even a fire, and many never came into camp at all that night, but took their rest where each chanced to be. They could not close their eyes for very pain and yearning after their fatherlands or their parents, the wife or child whom they never expected to look upon again. Such was the plight in which each and all tried to seek repose.

The tale’s motif was borrowed for a 1965 novel of a New York gang struck leaderless making its way out of hostile territory, later adapted for a cult 1970’s film:

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Greece,Heads of State,History,Mass Executions,Mercenaries,No Formal Charge,Persia,Politicians,Power,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates,Wartime Executions

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