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Archive for January, 2008


[ 18 ] January 27, 2008 |

Another argument for the existence of Hell.

Conservatives are prone to all sorts of uncontrolled yapping about the “Asian bloodbath” that followed the American loss in Vietnam. The bogosity of those claims need not detain us here, except to point out that they almost universally fail to mention one post-Vietnam bloodbath for which the United States was directly accountable — the 1975 invasion and occupation of East Timor, which the Ford administration green-lighted and subsequent US presidents endorsed with arms and silence. In addition to the hundreds of thousands of Indonesians his government disposed of, upwards of 200,000 East Timorese people died to protect, among other things, the “reputation” of the U.S. in Southeast Asia.

Good riddance.


Last Throes!

[ 17 ] January 27, 2008 |

Another example of tough rhetoric from street-fightin’ Hillary Clinton. Admittedly, it involved using some of Dick Cheney’s most specious arguments to defend Dick Cheney’s very worst policy, but hey, tough is tough!

White States Vote Like That, But Black States Vote Like This

[ 0 ] January 27, 2008 |

You know, Jesse Jackson won Michigan in 1988. Does this mean that Obama automatically gets to claim the Michigan delegates?

Ticking Time Bombs, Kiefer Sutherland, and Austrian Battleships

[ 16 ] January 27, 2008 |

A while ago I read this interesting New Yorker profile of Joel Surnow. As is well known, Surnow’s fascination with the ticking time bomb scenario provides repeated narrative justification for putting Kiefer Sutherland in a room with a variety of torture implements and some unfortunate terrorist. I don’t watch 24, but it did get me thinking about the actual incidence of real-life ticking time bomb scenarios. I finally realized that I was passingly familiar with at least one scenario that comes pretty close.

The ticking time bomb scenario has been of use to torture advocates because it purports to produce a “best case” for the use of torture. The features of the scenario are reasonably well known. A terrorist or individual of similar occupation has been captured. We know, somehow, that a bomb will go off in the very near future in a target of great value. We don’t know exactly when the bomb will go off, or precisely where it is, but we know that our captured terrorist does know where the bomb is, and could supply us with that information if he so chose. In this scenario it is argued, by Alan Dershowitz among others, that torturing the terrorist into giving up the location of the bomb is legitimate and appropriate behavior.

Critiques of this scenario have hammered at the details. How precisely do we know that a bomb will go off, and that it will go off in a high value target? How reliable is our intelligence on this, and how is it that we know the target and time but do not know the location of the bomb? How do we know that the terrorist we have in custody actually has knowledge of the location of the bomb? How can we determine the veracity of the information we acquire under torture? Except for the last, these questions suggest that the “ticking time bomb” scenario, while commonly found on television, isn’t something that actually happens in real life. The last attacks the scenario in another way, suggesting that the proposed solution (torture) is unlikely to have the effect we want (finding the bomb). Finally, doesn’t opening the door to torture in this (extremely stylized) scenario open up the possibility that torture will become more attractive in other scenarios?

Although it didn’t occur to me the first time I wrote it, the experience on the battleship Viribus Unitis is an almost classic ticking time bomb scenario. Viribus Unitis was the first dreadnought of the Austro-Hungarian Navy. In October 1918, when it was becoming clear that the Central Powers would not prevail in the war, and that their navies would become subject to confiscation by the Allies, Emperor Karl I of Austria decided to turn over Viribus Unitis to the newly created Council of Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs that would soon occupy formerly Austrian territories on the Adriatic. Italy, however, had designs on some of the Austrian territory that might be turned over to the Croats, and didn’t like the idea of 3 modern dreadnoughts being in the possession of the Austrian successor state. Although the SCS declared that it was no longer at war with the Allies, this declaration was not immediately recognized on the Allied Accordingly, Italy dispatched a pair of young men named Raffaele- one a Lieutenant Paolucci, and the other a Major Rossetti- to infiltrate Pula Harbor on a modified torpedo and attach a bomb to the dreadnought’s hull. This the Raffaeles succeeded in doing, but they were captured while escaping, and brought on board the Viribus Unitis.

When the Raffaeles were brought on board, they told Admiral Vuckovich (the new commander of the dreadnought) that they had affixed a bomb to the hull and that the ship should be evacuated. This put the admiral in an awkward position. He could evacuate, but that would ensure the loss of the battleship when the mine exploded. The Viribus Unitis class was notorious for its poor underwater protection, making the threat of the bomb particularly potent. While it could be argued that the admiral should have evacuated VU anyway, thus saving the lives of his men, the ship was an extraordinarily expensive piece of state property. The men onboard the ship expected that they might have to die or kill in its defense. It was reasonable at the time to believe that the ship might be used to fight or deter the Italians. As such, evacuation doesn’t present a very compelling option. Instead, the admiral decided to keep enough sailors on board to allow the best possible response to the damage that the bomb would cause. Inevitably, it risked the deaths of many sailors, but at the same time held out the best chance for saving the ship.

But what of the Raffaeles? The Italian officers had already admitted that a bomb was attached to the hull, and that it would explode in a relatively short period of time. They begged Admiral Vuckovich to be allowed to escape, and he agreed to let them go. However, when they reached the water they were assailed by angry sailors, and then dragged back onto the ship. Fearing prosecution (and potentially execution) for what amounted to a legally questionable attack on what its owners presumed to be a neutral vessel, the Italians demanded to be treated as prisoners of war. Admiral Vuckovich made no determination at the time, but ordered the crew not to harm the Italians. Twenty-five minutes later the bomb exploded. Fifteen minutes after that Viribus Unitis rolled over and sank with 300 men, including Admiral Vuckovich but not including the Raffaeles, who were allowed by Admiral Vuckovich to escape, and who spent about a week as prisoners of war.

And here are a couple of questions for the gallery. First, does this represent a genuine historical case of a classic ticking time bomb scenario? The Croats didn’t have a lot of time to torture the Italians, but they could be fairly certain that the bomb existed and that the Italians knew where it was. If they had discovered the location, the Croats might have been able to either disable the bomb or to prepare damage control around the area of the explosion. Moreover, they may even have had enough time to confirm or disconfirm statements made under torture by the Italians.

Would the torture have worked? The Italians clearly wanted to stay alive, but they didn’t give up the location of the bomb even when it seemed certain that they would fall victim to it. Whether they would have given up the information under threat of severe pain in addition to death is unclear. Had they given up the location of the bomb and survived, the Raffaeles would have probably have been made the object of scorn and derision in Italy, rather than receiving treatment as heroes.

How much weight should be placed on the behavior of Admiral Vuckovich? Charged with the defense of the ship, which entailed a willingness to see his sailors die and to kill the sailors of the enemy, Vuckovich decided that the information wasn’t worth torturing the Italians. His decision likely depended upon a combination of utilitarian calculus, professional honor, and perhaps a revulsion against torture. It’s possible that he made a mistake, but his evaluation of the situation should weigh heavily on the historical ledger.

The real lesson, of course, is that learning about battleships enriches everyone’s life.

"Don’t Worry, Once He Leaves The South It’ll Be More Like Shirley Chisholm in ’72."

[ 90 ] January 27, 2008 |

Well, that’s enough; I’m no longer willing to be charitable about all the Clinton surrogates who just happen to mention Obama’s suspiciously Muslim middle name, teenaged drug use, etc. etc. Clinton’s Jesse Jackson comparison is straight out of the Bill Schneider “Sure, Democrats win the African-American vote, but how will they do among real voters?” school, with even less plausible deniability.

But I’m sure many of the people thrilled about the good old-fashioned bare-knuckled politics she showed in seeking ex post facto electoral rule changes to steal a substantial block of delegates will also admire her campaign’s race-baiting — hey, at least she’ll be our Machiavellian bastard, right? (Note: Machiavellian street-fighting guarantee void during GOP foreign policy catastrophes, although they will reappear if necessary to distort the records of people who actually got the war right.) And when she amends her flag-burning legislation to require every state Capitol in the country to display the Confederate flag, hey, that may be worth a few votes in Florida, right? And when Mark Penn, Union Buster (TM) drafts a constitutional amendment to overturn the Wagner Act…

Note to Self

[ 9 ] January 27, 2008 |

Next year, just get the goddamned flu shot. Leave the very young and very old to their own fate, and don’t invent stories in your head about “shortages” that don’t actually exist.


Diplomatic Recognition

[ 16 ] January 26, 2008 |

Charli at Duck has an interesting notion:

One of the articles I read as I prepped for this trip suggested that either the Holy See should lose this status or, to be fair, other religions should be represented as well.

Interesting idea, eh? Suppose Saudi Arabia, for example, were to enter into a treaty with the city of Mecca similar to Italy’s treaty with what is now the Vatican City State, and Sunni Islam were to re-establish a caliphate centered in Mecca but territorially distinct from any Muslim majority state, with transnational moral authority over all Sunni Muslims, and then it sent diplomats throughout international society on the model of the Catholic church. Shia Islam could create a parallel Imamte perhaps centered on Tehran.

Would a dynamic like this make for a moderating political Islam, capable of integrating into international society and institutions as the Catholic Church has done, separate from the politics of Islamic governments, though sometimes allied with them; and able to represent Islamic perspectives on issues like the laws of war, family policy, human rights, etc, from outside the politics of the nation-state system? Would it constitute a space from within which the silent moderate Islamic majority could exercise a greater influence on political Islam? Or, would such an institution be vulnerable to capture by extremists and bode ill for a pluralistic international society?

I’ll confess to having no helpful input into these questions, other than to outsource them to Matt Duss and other individuals more knowledgeable of Islam than I.


[ 48 ] January 26, 2008 |

Andy over at Siberian Lights has a nice little history of the Battle of Khalkhin-Gol. Khalkhin-Gol was the outcome of several years of competition between the Soviet Union and Japan over the border between their respective client states, Mongolia and Manchukuo. Long story short, the Japanese pushed and the Soviets gave them a nasty bloody nose, with the consequence that conquest of Siberia looked far less appealing to the Japanese than a move south.

Andy has a good summary, so I’ll confine myself to a couple of points about the battle that I became aware of during the my dissertation research. By the time that the Japanese started pushing in earnest, Stalin was right in the middle of his bloody purge of the Red Army. The purge centered around Field Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, the Soviet commander who is as responsible as anyone for the (misunderstood) operational doctrine known as Blitzkrieg. Tukhachevsky was central to the collaboration between the Reichswehr and the Red Army from 1927-1933, during which the basic tenets of modern deep battle doctrine were worked out. By 1937, Tukhachevsky had become a threat to Stalin. The Field Marshal, his immediate circle, and an ever-widening wave of Red Army officers were executed for treason, with the proximate charge usually being collaboration with the Germans. By 1938, Georgy Zhukov was one of the last of Tukhachevsky’s circle to remain alive. I read in a biography that Zhukov fully believed that he was going to his death when he was summoned by the High Command in 1938; instead, he was dispatched to Siberia to handle the Japanese. It’s certainly possible that if the Japanese hadn’t been pushing, Zhukov would have joined the rest of the braintrust of the Red Army on the wrong end of a firing squad. Zhukov ended up crushing the Japanese, and later became a participant of some note in the Great Patriotic War.

Zhukov was able to crush the Japanese in part because the purge had fallen lightest on the Red Army in Siberia. A lower percentage of officers were shot there than anywhere else in the USSR. Because the Red Army retained much of its expertise in Siberia, and because Zhukov brought many of the best surviving staff officers with him, the Russians badly outmatched the Japanese in tactical and operational effectiveness. Unfortunately for the Soviet Union, this nucleus was not sufficient to restore the full combat effectiveness of the Red Army by June 1941, although a related group of Siberian returnees (officers who had been dispatched to the Gulag rather than executed during the purge) helped transform the Red Army into the most effective military organization in the world by 1944.

In August 1945, fresh from victory over the Germans, the Red Army once again fought the Japanese. With the benefit of experience and of a massive imbalance in the quality of equipment (although it should be noted that the Red Army was pretty well equipped in 1939), the Red Army destroyed the Japanese position in Manchukuo in a matter of days.

Scary Sound Bite of the Day

This one from the Times’ choice, John McCain (via the Daily Women’s Health Policy Report):

On the issue of appointments to the Supreme Court, McCain mentioned that Sam Brownback would play an advisory role in helping decide who he should nominate for the Supreme Court. As models of who he would select, John McCain pointed to Justices Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia.

This is scary for so many reasons. First, because the next president will likely get to make at least one Supreme Court appointment. Second, Sam Brownback!? Does McCain have even a shred of good judgment left in his body after so many years as Bush’s butt boy? Yes, yes, I know the Brownback line is an appeal to religious conservatives, but still…

In all seriousness, if McCain ends up the nominee (as I believe he will), I think it’s going to be a tough general. I can only hope that the better people know him, the less they’ll like him.

Reinstating the Delegates

[ 94 ] January 25, 2008 |

This is pretty appalling:

This is the sort of decision that has the potential to tear the party apart. In an attempt to retain some control over the process and keep the various states from accelerating their primaries into last summer, the Democratic National Committee warned Michigan and Florida that if they insisted on advancing their primary debates, their delegates wouldn’t be seated and the campaigns would be asked not to participate in their primaries. This was agreed to by all parties (save, of course, the states themselves).

With no one campaigning, Clinton, of course, won Michigan — she was the only Democrat to only both to get on the ballot, as I understand it — and will likely win Florida. And because the race for delegates is likely to be close, she wants those wins to count. So she’s fighting the DNC’s decision, and asking her delegates — those she’s akready won — to overturn it at the convention. And since this is a complicated, internal-party matter that sounds weird to those not versed in it (of course Michigan and Florida should count!), she’s adding a public challenge that, if the other Democrats deny, will make them seem anti-Michigan and Florida.

It’s dirty business on the part of the Clinton campaign, no question. And cloaking the nasty little power grab with the language of democratic inclusion irritates me even more. I can’t say that I’m completely surprised, but I would have preferred if Hillary had demonstrated more appreciation for party unity than this; it amounts to an effort to steal delegates.

That Explains It

[ 15 ] January 25, 2008 |

I think we have an explanation about why people get so agitated about defending Larry Summers’s pseudo-sceintific just-so stories about women.

Friday Cat Power Blogging

[ 33 ] January 25, 2008 |

With the new album out and all…

…To address the complaint that we’re not providing full value for their money because apparently this video has been used by us before, I don’t think we’ve used this one:

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