Are you sure Mr. Gibbon was talking about the Roman Empire?

“The image of a free constitution was maintained with a decent reverence.”

– Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Bust on right is Constantine the Great. (No relation).

Bust on right is Constantine the Great. (No relation).

War: An Owner’s Manual — Chapter 1

Canadian_Mounted_Rifles_posterIn order to understand your military and know whether it is operating properly you need to know why you have one.

This isn’t a vague philosophical question whose answer is inevitably “End war now.” I, along with every soldier I’ve ever met, would love to live in a world without war. Unfortunately we don’t. The question of why we have a military is actually a very important real-world question which the Pentagon itself asks and then answers every four years in its Quadrennial Defense Review.

In order to figure out how many of those tanks, sailors, nuclear war heads, fighters etc., we have to answer one very simple and complex question: What do we want the military[1] to do?

The answer at first seems obvious. Nations have militaries in order to protect themselves, right? That’s part of it, but what is it protecting us from? In some cases this is easy to determine. Israel, for example, needs protecting from neighboring states which would like it cease existing. India wants its military to protect it from its neighbors to the north, Pakistan and China, as well as rebellious groups which pop-up from time to time.

Defining protection can be quite complex and India is a perfect example of this. India has at different times fought with both Pakistan and over control of some or all of India’s northern province of Kashmir, which borders the other two nations. What’s odd about that is there is little there to fight over. Kashmir consists mostly of a part of the Himalayan Mountains. It is a beautiful, inhospitable area. It’s barely populated and so far few, if any, valuable resources have been discovered there. Not only is there little if any reason to fight over Kashmir, it is also a terrible place for military operations. It is distant from everywhere, making resupply difficult even for the nations bordering it. With the possible exceptions of the South Pole and Siberia in mid-winter, it is likely the most difficult place on the planet to conduct a war. Not that has stopped any of the three nations from trying. To this day, the armies of India and Pakistan occasionally fire artillery shells at each other just to see if anyone is paying attention.

You get the feeling that the nations themselves know this. Consider the war between India and China in 1962. It lasted about a month and resulted in about 2,000 deaths. The cause both sides claimed to be fighting for was territory, a resource both nations have in abundance.

In which case, why did they fight? At the time of the war both nations were relatively young as independent, unified political entities. India had become a free nation in 1947 when the British, who had ruled India as a colony for more than a century, handed control of the government to the indigenous people. China had become a nation united under a government of its own people at roughly the same time, after the Communists kicked out the Japanese, the Nationalists and the various colonial powers which had controlled the nation for the past century.  In 1962, China was perceived as having an expansionist foreign policy because it had conquered Tibet a few years earlier. Just before the conflict the Indian government set up some border posts on parts of the land no one really wanted but which the Chinese considered to be on their side of the border. So China attacked in order to push them back to the correct part of the land no one really wanted. In other words, two young nations/governments wanted to prove that they couldn’t just be pushed around and so 2,000 people died.[2], [3]

So we can see from this example that militaries are not just used for protection.

Certainly directly protecting the borders of the nation isn’t why the United States has such an enormous military. The U.S. is ideally situated defensively. In the east and west two oceans separate it from the rest of the world. Its two other borders are with Canada and Mexico, neither one of which have ever posed even a nominal military threat to the nation. It has been 200 years since a foreign power directly invaded the U.S.[4] The only real direct threat to the nation’s existence was 150 years ago and that came from other Americans. It is this splendid geographic position that has allowed the U.S. to develop almost entirely unmolested by nations which were much more powerful than we were for the first 150 years or so of our history as a nation.

Although national security is frequently cited when justifying the huge amount we spend on the military all it would take to defend our borders is our nuclear submarine fleet to deter anyone from launching a nuclear strike against us, a few warships to help protect our import and export capabilities[5] or attacking us at sea, some fighters and bombers and a land force perhaps the size of the Marine Corps. Except for the nuclear weapons the military would then be reduced to size and role it had prior to both World Wars I and II.

The other reason that nations in general – and our nation in particular – have militaries is to prevent other nations from telling us what to do and get them to do what we want. To understand how this works it’s necessary to look a little deeper at what war is and what it is that nations get from it.

onwarWe will begin with a book called On War by Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian officer who fought in the Napoleonic Wars of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Clausewitz lived during the Enlightenment, a European intellectual movement which hoped to wean society from irrational beliefs and superstitions.  This movement came about as part of the great scientific revolution which happened at the same time. The Enlightenment was, among many other things, an attempt to apply the scientific method to how people thought and acted and especially to their philosophies. In On War, Clausewitz tried to examine and define the theory of war; to look at the why of it and determine what, if any, universal rules and laws it operates under.[6]

Continue reading

On the limits of irony

great war“Every war is ironic, because every war is worse than expected. Every war constitutes an irony of situation, because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its ends.”

– PAUL FUSSELL, The Great War and Modern Memory

 

Things you should be reading 9/6/13

ImageThe Aviationist: Nobody Wants to Fly Drones

The U.S. Air Force faces a personnel crisis when it comes to the drone pilots. In a report published for the Brookings Institution think tank, Air Force Colonel Bradley Hoagland said UAV recruitment offices does not get a sufficient number of volunteers. Back in 2008 only 3% of flying crew were related to drones. Last year the number reached 8,5%. Still more are needed because the sorties is on the rise.The UAV fleet of the USAF constitutes of 152 Predators, 96 Reapers and 23 Global Hawks HALE airframes. But there is little request for drones assignments and the amount the rate of drone pilots resigning or retiring is 3 times higher than that recorded among pilots flying traditional aircraft.

Washington Post: US war planners don’t support war with Syria

They are embarrassed to be associated with the amateurism of the Obama administration’s attempts to craft a plan that makes strategic sense. None of the White House staff has any experience in war or understands it. So far, at least, this path to war violates every principle of war, including the element of surprise, achieving mass and having a clearly defined and obtainable objective. They are repelled by the hypocrisy of a media blitz that warns against the return of Hitlerism but privately acknowledges that the motive for risking American lives is our “responsibility to protect” the world’s innocents.

Schneier on Security: The NSA’s Cryptographic Capabilities

Whatever the NSA has up its top-secret sleeves, the mathematics of cryptography will still be the most secure part of any encryption system. I worry a lot more about poorly designed cryptographic products, software bugs, bad passwords, companies that collaborate with the NSA to leak all or part of the keys, and insecure computers and networks. Those are where the real vulnerabilities are, and where the NSA spends the bulk of its efforts.

South China Morning Post: Timeline of Hayao Miyazaki’s Movies

Esquire: Lt. Col. Bateman has more fun in bars than you do

My family has a somewhat strange relationship with the United Kingdom, the country where I am now stationed. On the Anglophile side, I am the fourth out of the last five generations of my family to come to England, train for war, and then go to war alongside the British. I do not suppose one in a million Americans has quite that same depth of a linkage to this country, forged in blood and sweat over almost exactly a century. All of that affiliation, however, was on my mother’s side. My father’s side of the family has a distinctly different relationship.

On my father’s side things are different. I like to point out this difference when confronted as a “colonist” by one of my English peers who may be “in his cups.” In that situation I enjoy noting that in fact, my family loves England. Indeed, we love it so much, that when we came in 1066, we kept it. This, usually, brings the conversation and condescension to a screeching halt.

 

Italian election farce may become our economic tragedy

While we here in the U.S. have been watching Congress battle over who gets to shoot the U.S. economy in the foot, the heat has risen under Europe’s financial crisis and it is now once again at full boil. The result could be a mess big enough to make people wonder why there was so much fuss over sequestration.

On Tuesday Italian voters, grown tired of austerity measures which made the nation’s economy worse, were offered a choice of political leaders seemingly borrowed from a Marx Brothers’ movie and in their infinite wisdom elected all of them. The resulting stalemate has many analysts thinking that a default is a possibility again.

 “The inconclusive outcome of the Italian election looks set to prompt a renewed bout of market pressure which may eventually force Italy to request a support package from the euro-zone,” writes Ben May of Capital Economics.

The fear is that already skittish investors will demand Italy pay more interest in order to borrow the money it must have to pay its bills. If that cost gets too high then Italy would have to seek some form of financial help from the European Central Bank. In the worst case scenario that help means a bailout and because Italy is the world’s 11th largest economy, it is far, far too big to bailout.

It is also possible investors might be fine with the current situation. As the Wall Street Journal noted, “Italy has never been known for strong governments so arguably not having one at all is a natural state for foreign investors.” While the interest rate on the Italian 10-year-bond has risen since the election took place right now it is around 5 percent, well short of crisis levels.

However, it is very hard to find an analyst who thinks this is likely to continue.

“With political chaos likely to be the prevailing wind in the next few months, our pre-election view that Italy could be in play in again with regards to the sovereign debt crisis is beginning to unfold,” says Raj Badiani, an economist with HIS Global Insight. “As expected, the general election has thrown up a substantial no-confidence vote on the current austerity plan and the need to reform further.”

It is not easy to explain how Italy got to this point. Like a great comic opera, the path to the current stalemate contains far too many improbable plot twists and outrageous stunts for even a quick summation, so let’s just focus on the election itself.

It came about after the resignation of Prime Minister Mario Monti who was appointed to the position in 2011 following the resignation of Silvio Berlusconi, a tycoon who owns most of Italy’s major media outlets, is about to face trial for allegedly having sex with an underage “night-club” dancer and has been sentenced to prison for tax evasion. None of that has anything with why he resigned, by the way.

Also, none of that appears to have hurt him at the polls as much as you might expect. His People of Freedom Party and its allies got 29 percent of the vote, which put him in a virtual tie with Pier Luigi Barsani of the Democratic Party and its allied parties. Coming in third with 25 percent was the 5 Star Movement Party which is headed by an acknowledged comedian, Beppe Grillo.

Grillo has so far refused to form a coalition with either of the other two and this is unlikely to change as his party is built around his low-opinion of the professional politicians. When Bersani tried to get Grillo to agree to an alliance Grillo called him a “dead man talking” who should resign as leader of his party and stop making “indecent proposals” to the Five Star Movement.

It is worth noting that Italy’s election law is known as the Porcellum, which is Latin for pigsty.

And, just like here in the U.S., all this would be tremendously amusing if the consequences weren’t so very scary.

(A very different version of this originally appeared on CBSNews.com)

The best books I read this year

I read a lot. This year for the first time I actually kept track of all the books I read. As of today the total is 71. I just started Robert Jackson Bennett’s novel The Company Man (very good, btw) and will certainly finish it by tomorrow. Next up is Store of the Worlds: The Stories of Robert Sheckley and I may get through another before Jan. 1.  (I read fast and I always have. In 8th grade I read Decline and Fall of the Third Reich twice.)

So out of all those books these are the best one’s I read this year in history, fantasy, SF and what is usually called Fiction. Very few of them were published this year if it matters.

I am always on the look out for something to read and I don’t care what the topic is, so if you’ve read anything really good lately please let me know.  I am particularly looking for a good biography of Lord Palmerston and a history of the Hanseatic League in English. Now you know why Mrs. CollateralDamage finds me so difficult to shop for.

History (First Person)

  • The Indian War of 1864 by Eugene F. Ware — This manuscript was discovered after the death of Ware who served as an officer in the war against the Native Americans during the Civil War. It is a superbly well-written account of life on the frontier and life in the frontier army. While he is certainly a racist, he also shows surprising moments of compassion.
  • My Diary North And South by William Howard Russell — It astounds me that this book is out of print. Russell was England’s best and most acclaimed journalist in the middle 19th century. This book is the story of the year or so he spent covering the start of the US Civil War. Russell was soon hated by both the armies and civilians of the North and the South because he was in fact an impartial reporter. The story of his effort to get out of the U.S. and back to England is, by itself, more than enough reason to read this. He was a remarkable writer, too.

History (Narrative)

  • Constantinople by Philip Mansel — A history of the city under Ottoman rule from 1453 to 1922. Until the Young Turks overthrew the Ottomans and began forcing out non-Turkish peoples Constantinople was the most cosmopolitan city on earth. Its many, many different ethnic and religious groups forged a unique collective identity and a truly fascinating city. This was done through bloodshed and eventual acceptance that anyone from the city — no matter what their background — was better than anyone not from the city.
  • A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War by Amanda Foreman –Fascinating look at our Civil War from the outside and where I found out about William Howard Russell.
  • The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia by Peter Hopkirk — Lots of appearances by William Howard Russell and more terrifying and true adventures than I would have believed possible. There are just far, far too many similarities to the U.S. recent invasions of the same areas.

Science Fiction

  • 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami — I really can’t describe this book so I’m just putting in someone else’s summary of the opening:  “A young woman named Aomame follows a taxi driver’s enigmatic suggestion and begins to notice puzzling discrepancies in the world around her. She has entered, she realizes, a parallel existence, which she calls 1Q84 —“Q is for ‘question mark.’ A world that bears a question.” Meanwhile, an aspiring writer named Tengo takes on a suspect ghostwriting project. He becomes so wrapped up with the work and its unusual author that, soon, his previously placid life begins to come unraveled.” That last phrase is quite an understatement.
  • The Dervish House by  Ian McDonald — Had I not read 1Q84 this would have been the best SF I read this year. It is set in Istanbul and I picked it up just after reading Constantinople so I can say with confidence that he gets the city and its history perfectly. I won’t go into the plot except to say it’s very good and very plausible. My favorite element though was one of the main characters, an old man, who with three of his old friends are the last members of a Greek orthodox church still in the city and most of their scenes take place at the cafe where they gather for coffee and talk. I would have given anything to have joined them.
  • Ares Express by Ian McDonald — This is such a wild, fantastical, fun story of life on a strange railroad-based society on another planet that I had to keep checking to see it was the same guy who wrote Dervish House. It is not as good as Dervish House but it is very good.

FANTASY

  • The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss — This is fantasy fiction for grown-ups — the characters, plot and setting are all deep and believable. This is the best new fantasy writer I have read in at least a decade.
  • The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle — Written in 1968 and considered one of the all time classics of the genre, I didn’t get around to reading it until this year. It deserves its reputation. And Mr. Beagle, as my brother Aristo and his wife Stacy can attest with much more knowledge, is a really great guy.
  • The Knight by Gene Wolfe — If Gene Wolfe wrote a grocery list I would pay to read it. In this an American is transported to a fantasy world. Any resemblence to anything else you’ve read with that device ends there. Wolfe is almost totally unknown outside the world of genre fiction and that is a shame. I also reccommend his great collection of short works: The Island of Dr. Death and Other Stories … and Other Stories.
  • Red Country by Joe Abercrombie — I am a huge fan of Abercrombie’s work. He and Glenn Cook are the best writers I’ve read telling epic fantasy stories from the view of the grunts on the bottom of the chain of command. Like the battle of Helms Deep narrated by one of the front line orcs. Red Country is my favorite of Abercrombie’s to date because it tells stories that are only epic to the people involved in them, not because the FATE OF THE WORLD is involved. (I hate FATE OF THE WORLD as a plot device. ) The stakes — and the rewards — are small but far from unimportant.

So-Called-Traditional Fiction:

  • Hav by Jan Morris — A travelogue to a fictitious, nearly isolated European nation somewhere between Italy and Greece. Nothing and everything happens in this book. It reminded me of Milorad Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars — not in a derivative way — for perfectly documenting a culture and a world that don’t exist. You will want to buy train or boat tickets to go here (there is no airport yet).
  • Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad/A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul — I read them in that order and they bookend colonialism and its impacts. Conrad’s story is a tragedy that is heroic in scope and examines the costs to the colonizers of being the overlords. There are elements that remind me of Melville’s non-Moby writing — the atmosphere/sense of place and also because it has a plot that would have been hackneyed in the hands of a lesser writer. Naipul presents a tragedy on a minute scale. It is the story of the aftermath of colonialism. It is set in Africa and the main character is from a family that moved their during colonialism from another colonized nation. The society has broken down and then found a great new leader and everyone is struggling to figure out what it means to be from this nation. That is a gross simplification but it will have to do.

POINTS TO CONSIDER WHEN THINKING ABOUT GUNS AND SAFETY

In the aftermath of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School people are understandably trying to find ways to prevent any such thing from happening again.  Here are some facts to consider when looking at the ideas being put forward:

GUN CONTROL:

As of 2007 civilians in the U.S. owned approximately 294 million firearms: 106 million handguns, 105 million rifles, and 83 million shotguns, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. That is nearly 1 for every legal resident, making the U.S. the most heavily armed nation in the world.

The issue of controlling access to guns appears to have been settled in fact if not in law. Setting aside legal issues, there is no practical way for the government to find and seize anything resembling a significant number of these weapons.

Further, criminologist David M. Kennedy, developer of the Boston anti-gang violence program which reduced the city’s youth homicide rate by two-thirds, views gun control laws as irrelevant. He believes reducing violence requires intensive and consistent face-to-face action.

MONITORING GUN SALES:

Current federal law requires criminal background checks for guns sold through licensed firearm dealers, which account for 60 percent of all U.S. gun sales. However, individuals not “engaged in the business” of selling firearms may sell guns without a license and without processing any paperwork; this is widely referred to as the “gun show exemption,” although it applies to all sales by individuals. Changing this law would make it more difficult to legally procure a weapon and would increase the ability of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System to prevent criminals and people with mental illnesses from buying weapons.

ARMING MORE PEOPLE:

Arming more people has been suggested as a way to prevent incidents like what happened in Newtown. Nearly a third of all U.S. citizens – 96,000,000 people – owned guns as of 2010, according to a University of Chicago Survey, down from 50 percent in 1973. If nearly 100,000,000 civilians owning guns have not prevented mass shootings – and there are no reports of this happening – it is difficult to believe that arming let’s say 30,000,000 more would actually make a difference.

There have also been suggestions that teachers or other school personnel should be armed. However, simply issuing a weapon to a person without proper training will do much more harm than good. It takes extensive training in order to use a firearm correctly in a situation where you or others are being fired at. That training is expensive and given the relative rarity of school shootings would be useless to more than 99 percent of the people who received it.

RESTRICTING ACCESS TO TYPES OF WEAPONS:

In the U.S. it is illegal to purchase automatic weapons without a Class III weapons license. An automatic weapon is one that fires continuously with one pull of the trigger. A semi-automatic gun is one that fires once each time the trigger is pulled. The AR-15 Bushmaster, the type used in the Newtown shootings, is a semi-automatic version of the M-16 used by the military and can fire 45 rounds in a minute. The M-16, when set to fully automatic, can fire 700 to 950 rounds a minute.

One of the reasons many law enforcement associations like the International Association of Chiefs of Police favor a ban on semi-automatic rifles is because it is very easy to make them fully automatic.

It is important to keep in mind that had a federal assault rifle ban been in place it would have changed nothing about what happened at Newtown.

First, Connecticut has an assault weapons ban, which is modeled after the now-defunct federal law. Under it semi-automatic rifles are restricted only if they include a detachable magazine as well as at least two of five specific features: A pistol grip, a folding or telescoping stock, a bayonet mount, a grenade launcher or a flash suppressor. The AR-15 has a pistol grip but none of the other features and thus does not qualify as an assault weapon.

Second, it would have made no difference even if the AR-15 or similar rifles had been banned. Adam Lanza was carrying two semi-automatic pistols which could have been fired nearly quickly as the AR-15: a Glock 10 mm handgun and a Sig Sauer 9 mm. Both weapons typically use magazines which carry 15 bullets, although magazines with larger capacities are available.

Lanza used 30-round magazines when firing the AR-15 and as a result some lawmakers have called for banning their sale. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., says he will reintroduce legislation to ban magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition.

This ban would also have made no difference had it been in place prior to the Newtown murders. Magazines can be changed in seconds. That is why magazines were developed.

The above was wrong. I am grateful to TC/Writer Underground  for correcting my sizable error in such a considerate way:

I’m compelled to disagree about a few of your points about assault weapons, and suggest that if an effective assault weapons ban had been in place, Newton might not have happened.

For example, if a law based on California’s current assault weapons laws had been in place (and it’s quite possible a new federal assault weapons ban would be modeled on CA’s), then all guns would have been limited to 10 round magazines.

It’s tempting to say that a few reloads wouldn’t have made a difference, but it’s likely they would have, and it’s also likely the shooter would have carried fewer rounds (his mother likely would not have bought 3x as many 10-round magazines as 30-round mags).

Also, under CA law, the magazine release button (you push the button, the mag drops out) would have been replaced with a “bullet button” — which dramatically slows mag changes. It won’t release the mag unless you jam something pointy in it (like a bullet). That doesn’t sound too difficult, but toss a little adrenaline into the mix and it becomes surprisingly hard to do.

With mag changes coming 3x more often than with 30 round magazines, the time would have added up, and in these cases, seconds and minutes equal lives.

(Keep in mind the shooter suicided when he heard the first responders closing in.)

Also, California requires gun buyers to own a gun safe, and if these weapons had been locked in a safe (and inaccessible to the shooter), this whole nightmare might have been prevented at the start.

Finally, as a competitive shooter, I think it’s naive to suggest the shooter — who was not an expert — would have done as much damage with a pair of semi-auto handguns like a 10mm Glock or a Sig. Shooting a handgun accurately — especially in stressful situations — is damned difficult, and novices tend to quickly develop a flinch that dramatically impairs accuracy.

Cops don’t hate assault rifles because they’re easy to conver to full auto. Though it seems counter-intuitive, if this gun had been full auto, it’s quite possible the shooter would have killed fewer people.

Police don’t like them because — unlike most handguns — the rounds are going fast enough to penetrate body armor, and the guns are also very easy to shoot accurately and quickly.

In other words, I think a weapons ban could have altered the outcome here, and in a best-case scenario, maybe prevented it entirely.

Again, I shoot competitively and I’m not love with all of California’s gun laws, but those involving the AR-15 platform make a fair amount of sense, yet they don’t really impair its sporting use.

As you noted, the genie’s pretty much out of the bottle when it comes to gun ownership in the USA, but I’m not yet willing to throw my hands up when it comes to sensible regulation of a certain class of guns.