Subscribe via RSS Feed

Author Page for Robert Farley

rss feed

BSG Blogging II: The Cylons

[ 0 ] January 6, 2006 |

BSG Blogging I

The Cylons of the new Battlestar Galactica aren’t quite like any other science fiction race I’m familiar with.

DJW once told me that he hated Star Trek: First Contact (one of my favorite Star Trek movies) because it gave up on the Borg. The Borg, according to Dave, were the only species in the Star Trek universe that had a concept of the individual that differed fundamentally from that of humankind. The Klingons, Cardassians, Romulans, and so forth were just thinly disguised ethnic stererotypes, but the Borg were genuinely different, novel, and scary. Giving the Borg a queen who understand and protected her own individuality ruined the species for Dave. The primary writer of First Contact was Ronald Moore, creator of the second Battlestar Galactica. I’d like to think that he’s redeemed himself.

Moore changed the origin of the Cylons from outer space to the Colonies. The Cylons of BSG 1978 were a conventional alien race, the product of some older group of aliens that no longer existed. The new Cylons “were created by man,” in the same sense as the enemies in the Terminator or Matrix trilogies. I wasn’t terribly happy with this at first, as it seemed derivative of other universes, but the decision has paid considerable dividends. First and foremost, the new origin for the Cylons has given them a close, complex connection with humankind. This relationship is not wholly antagonistic, although it does seem to grant the Cylons latitude to commit near-genocide. The close relationship between the Cylons and the humans also makes the success of their attack, and the survival of the Galactica, plausible.

The Cylons are a blend of the individualistic alien races we are familiar with and the hive mind of the Borg. Each Cylon is deeply tied to the rest of its kind, such that communication and control over wide distance seems to be possible. At the same time, individual Cylons have their own goals and motivations, although its unclear that pride, honor, or competition motivate them in any meaningful way. Moore has succeeded in creating a race whose actions are only partially intelligible, while at the same time convincingly suggesting that something important lies behind the mask.

Interestingly, the Cylons are deeply, deeply religious. Their actions only make sense in the context of their religious beliefs, yet the content of that belief, like any real religion, is not susceptible to rational analysis. The Colonials seem largely to be a post-religious society roughly akin to modern Europe, although a significant fraction of the humans remain committed to a polytheistic religion modeled on the Greco-Roman pantheon. Although the question hasn’t been examined in detail, it’s probably fair to say that the importance of religion has increased in the wake of the genocide. The Cylons, on the other hand, are committed monotheists. They are familiar with the human religion to the point of deep immersion in its texts. The war against humanity is motivated by their religion, but not in an evangelical sense. They have no interest in converting humans; rather, the destruction of humankind seems to fulfill some religious commandment. Even that isn’t the whole story, as its clear that the Cylons have certain plans for what’s left of the human race.

Most important, the Cylons are just really, genuinely WEIRD. The importance of maintaining weird in underrated, especially in the context of series television. At so many points, writers and producers have an incentive to reveal some aspect of “the plan”. While elements of the Cylon plan have been revealed, they tend to reinforce the alien nature of the Cylons, rather than to make them understandable to us. The Cylons do not act according to a wholly alien logical system, but they don’t act according to one accessible to us, either. We have glimpses of what they want, but even those glimpses are confusing and contradictory. That most of what we know about the Cylons is revealed through hallucinatory conversations with a possibly insane human only adds to the weirdness and maintains the mystery.

Maintaining the strangeness of the Cylons will probably be Moore’s most difficult task moving forward. As a television show like BSG develops, in must progressively reveal more of the mystery. In programs like Lost, the X-Files, and Alias this has had a detrimental effect. It will be interesting to see whether Moore can keep the Cylons weird without making them feel Byzantine or contrived.

[ 0 ] January 6, 2006 |

Friday Cat Blogging… Frodo and Pip

BSG Blogging I: Civil-Military Relations

[ 0 ] January 5, 2006 |

This is the first of three posts on Battlestar Galactica, which resumes its second season on Sci-Fi tomorrow night. This first post deals with the question of civilian and military authority in BSG, while tomorrow’s post discusses the Cylons, and Saturday’s contains my general appraisal of the series.

Why devote an entire post to civil-military authority in BSG? In BSG humanity suffers near-complete devastation, to the tune of the annihilation of all but a residue of 50000. The Cylons, an alien race, threaten to destroy the remaining human. In the face of the disaster and threat, the surviving humans must decide on how to arrange their civil and political life with the hope both of escaping the Cylons and of maintaining some semblance of their old lives. As such, BSG presents an interesting thought experiment on the endurance of authority during a crisis, and particularly on the balance between civilian and military authority during a time of extreme military vulnerability.

The first BSG did not deal seriously with the question of authority in the Colonies or in the Fleet. The desire for peace on the part of President Adar, a kindly old man, led the Colonies to destruction. Adama tried to warn Adar by reminding him of the true nature of the Cylons

Surely, you don’t cling to your suspicions about the Cylons. They
asked for this armistice. They want peace.
Forgive me, Mr. President, but they hate humans with every fiber of
their existence. We love freedom. We love independence. To feel, to
question. To rebel against oppression. It’s an alien way of existing
they will never accept.

Adama’s argument in 1978 was designed for a post-Vietnam Cold War audience, one expected to be aware of the dangers of both the Soviet Union and of accomodationists and appeasers on our own side. It’s remarkable, though, how little the rhetoric needs to be adjusted for the War on Terror. It’s admirable that Ronald Moore avoids the temptation of giving Adama or Roslin a similar speech in the new BSG.

In a few other episodes of the first BSG a well-meaning civilian Council of Twelve attempts to disrupt Adama’s plans, usually by being excessively peaceful. At no point is there any genuine consideration of the importance of maintaining civilian control during a state of emergency. Glen Larson could be excused if he simply hadn’t thought about civil-military conflict in the first series, but this isn’t the case. Rather, his position is quite explicit; during war, civilians should stand aside and allow the military to make decisions. By interfering, civilians will only serve to mess things up.

This position is not surprising, given the post-Vietnam context. BSG, among other outlets, fell victim to and propagated the notion that civilian officials, rather than military officers, were the real culprits behind the defeat in Vietnam. Toughness, as evinced by Commander Adama, never fails. Weakness and appeasement, the province of civilians, never succeeds. The obvious conclusion of such thinking is that, in times of crisis, civilians ought to step aside and allow the military to do its job.

BSG 2003 radically alters this formula. There is no appeasement, and the only treason is unintentional. The military, with its attachment to advanced gadgets that fall easy prey to the Cylon attack, is just as culpable in the destruction of the colonies as civilians. In the wake of the attack, the new President (43rd in line of succession) asserts civilian power as quickly and forcefully as possible, dissuading Adama from carrying out a clearly suicidal counter-offensive against the Cylons. Over the course of the first season, Adama and Roslin come to an unstable set of compromises regarding their shared authority. The end of the season and the first half of the second season is about the shattering of those compromises and the assertion of legitimate authority by both sides.

Moreover, both the military and the civilian authority are internally plausible. One of my favorite episodes of Star Trek: TNG is “Chain of Command” which, incidentally, was also written by Ron Moore. Picard is captured in this episode, leaving the Enterprise crew to the tender mercies of another Starfleet Captain, one who has the audacity to expect them to actually behave like officers. The Enterprise crew does not react well. Galactica, on the other hand, feels like a military ship. Even the instances of lax control make sense; Galactica is an aging vessel on the verge of retirement, and discipline has clearly suffered. Nevertheless, a chain of command exists, and most everyone understands his or her place and acts accordingly. In “Fragged”, episode 2-3, a classic conflict between a senior NCO and an inexperienced junior officer develops, leading to a bad situation. Also, the sexual fraternization between crewmates, a hallmark of any television program focusing on the military, ends up producing truly disastrous results for Galactica.

The civilian political side is also taken seriously. The officers of Galactica (and the viewers) are not inclined to think of the politicians as professionals that can be relied upon, but rather as problems that need to be managed. President Roslin and her lieutenants, however, demonstrate deft touch in an extreme situation. The decision of the military to seize some civilian functions in the second season proves disastrous. After a particularly bad press conference, Commander Adama remarks “Remind me not to do that again,” to which Colonel Tigh replies “It always looked easy enough when Roslin did it.”

The first BSG was about the Cold War, and the model for the attack was akin to a Pearl Harbor attack gone bad. The model for the second BSG is obviously September 11, although with a much more powerful, ruthless, and competent opponent. In this context, and given the ease with which such a project could go bad, it is extremely impressive that Moore and company have managed to maintain such a balanced and complex portrait of authority in crisis. Even in the worst possible scenario, the Schmittian extreme does not take hold; at no point is the need for Decision so extreme as to shred the norms and rules that hold society together.

Texas Sucks

[ 0 ] January 4, 2006 |

USC draws first blood.

Let this serve as an open game thread.

UPDATE: Texas rules. Congrats to the Longhorns.

Wal Mart or the Mines?

[ 0 ] January 4, 2006 |

Redbeard has a nice take.

Stand in your neighborhood Wal-Mart, on its linoleum floors, under its fluorescent light. Imagine wearing the blue vest day in and day out for 29 hours a week at $8 an hour. And the think of the men who travel two miles under a mountain, two miles away from sunlight and fresh air, where a single spark spells doom. For them, that dark shift was better than a slow death at a Wal-Mart job.

Sunday Battleship Blogging: IJN Yamashiro

[ 0 ] January 1, 2006 |

Yamashiro and her sister Fuso were the first super-dreadnoughts built by the Imperial Japanese Navy. Yamashiro entered service in March 1917, but played no important role in World War I. Yamashiro displaced about 35000 tons, carried 12 14″ guns in six twin turrets, and could make close to 24 knots. A modernization in the 1930s gave Yamashiro a “pagoda mast” and added a knot to her speed. Although fast and powerful, Yamashiro probably was not as well protected as her American contemporaries. In my mind this was a good trade off, as faster ships simply proved more useful than slow ships in World War II.

In spite of her high speed relative to other battleships of her era, Yamashiro was not used to much effect in World War II. She and her sister pursued the American carriers Hornet and Enterprise after the Doolittle Raid, but suceeded in catching only a Russian merchant ship. In the Midway operation, Yamashiro supported the decoy Aleutian landings. Yamashiro’s moment would not come until 1944, when an American fleet approached the Japanese-held Philippines.

In October 1944, the United States Navy prepared a fleet of enormous size to protect and support the invasion of Leyte Island in the Phillipines. The US fleet included six fast battleships, 6 slow battleships, a dozen fleet carriers, and hundreds of other vessels. The IJN by 1944 was simply incapable of defeating this force in open battle, so the Japanese high command developed a plan designed to decoy the main US fleet away from Leyte, allowing Japanese battleships to destroy the invasion vessels. A force consisting of two battleships and four aircraft carriers would be used as bait for Admiral Halsey’s Third Fleet, which included the six fast battleships. In the absence of protection from Halsey, a force of five battleships under Admiral Kurita would attack the Leyte armada from the north, while a force of two battleships and four cruisers would attack from the south. Yamashiro was flagship of Admiral Nishurima, commander of the southern force.

The plan was not necessarily a good one. No allowance was made for the squadron of six slow US battleships, which remained close to the invasion beach. Utter air supremacy on the part of the USN meant that the Japanese ships would suffer devastating air attacks on their way to Leyte. Finally, while outright victory would delay the invasion of the Philippines for a time, it would probably result in the destruction of most of the strength of the IJN. The IJN was desperate, however, and decided to gamble. The operation began poorly. Massive air attacks on the US fleet by land based Japanese air sank only a single American carrier. Attacks by US carriers destroyed one of Kurita’s most powerful battleships, Musashi, and three of the carriers in the decoy force before they could lure Halsey away. Shockingly, however, the basic ruse worked, and Halsey moved his six new battleships away from Leyte, allowing Kurita access to the invasion fleet.

Things did not go so well for Yamashiro. Nishurima’s force was expected to reach Leyte through the Surigao Strait, a fairly narrow body of water between Leyte and Dingnat. American forces, alerted to Nishurima’s presence by air recon, were well prepared. Squadrons of destroyers and PT boats lined either side of the Strait, which was capped by Admiral Oldendorf’s battle squadron. Around 3am, American PT boats began to attack the advancing Japanese column. Yamashiro’s sister, Fuso, took a hit amidships and fell out of the battleline, slowing and eventually reversing course. Destroyer attacks began around 3:30am, and Yamashiro received between two and four torpedo hits. The first hit slowed Yamashiro to five knots, although she was soon increased her speed to eighteen.

At the end of Surigao Strait lay the battleships and cruisers of the American Seventh Fleet. Five of the six battleships (Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, California, and Tennessee) had survived Pearl Harbor. West Virginia, California, and Tennesee had been radically reconstructed since 1942, making their fire and fire control systems state of the art. On the best of days, Yamashiro might have been expected to tangle with Pennsylvania or Mississippi with some chance of success. The other four American ships were out of her league. This was not, however, the best of days. The battleships were accompanied by eight cruisers and numerous destroyers. Moreover, the American squadron had accomplished the apogee of 20th century battleship tactics, the “crossing of the T” The American ships were capable of firing full broadsides against Yamashiro, while the Japanese ship could only reply with its forward turrets.

At 3:53am, the American ships opened fire. With advanced targeting radars, Tennessee, California, and West Virginia were able to find Yamashiro with several salvos each. Maryland also successfully engaged Yamashiro, and Mississippi was able to fire one salvo. Yamashiro, with no targeting radar and under heavy assault, responded with generally uncoordinated fire. Admiral Nishurima ordered the Fuso to support Yamashiro, but Fuso had unfortunately exploded twenty minutes earlier. Fuso broke in half but did not sink, leaving her crew of 1400 to contemplate the uselessness of a broken-in-half battleship. Just after 4am Admiral Oldendorf ordered a cease fire, because American shells were hitting American ships close to Yamashiro. Miraculously, Yamashiro was still capable of maneuvering, and managed to turn away from the American ships at nineteen knots. As she was moving away, however, she was caught by two additional torpedos, and quickly capsized.

Three survivors from Yamashiro were picked up by US destroyers. The US record indicates that the remaining survivors did not want to be picked up. The crew of the Fuso, according to the USN, also refused rescue. I am suspicious of this account. The Pacific War was a nasty conflict, and it was not uncommon for either side to treat surrendering enemy forces brutally. The Imperial Japanese Navy did not condone surrender, and a “cult of suicide” existed even before the Kamikaze, but it is by no means clear to me whether the refusal to rescue was on the part of the Japanese or the Americans.

The destruction of Yamashiro was the last clash of battleships in the twentieth century.

Trivia Question: The two largest battleship clashes of the twentieth century came at Tsushima and Jutland. First, name the last surviving battleship of each clash. Second, specify the connection between the two battleships.

War Plan Red

[ 0 ] December 31, 2005 |

Want to invade Canada? We have a plan. The most interesting part of this Washington Post article is the discussion of Canada’s plans for pre-emptive war with the United States:

As it turns out, Katz isn’t the first Canadian to speculate on how to fight the U.S.A. In fact, Canadian military strategists developed a plan to invade the United States in 1921 — nine years before their American counterparts created War Plan Red.

The Canadian plan was developed by the country’s director of military operations and intelligence, a World War I hero named James Sutherland “Buster” Brown. Apparently Buster believed that the best defense was a good offense: His “Defence Scheme No. 1″ called for Canadian soldiers to invade the United States, charging toward Albany, Minneapolis, Seattle and Great Falls, Mont., at the first signs of a possible U.S. invasion.

“His plan was to start sending people south quickly because surprise would be more important than preparation,” said Floyd Rudmin, a Canadian psychology professor and author of “Bordering on Aggression: Evidence of U.S. Military Preparations Against Canada,” a 1993 book about both nations’ war plans. “At a certain point, he figured they’d be stopped and then retreat, blowing up bridges and tearing up railroad tracks to slow the Americans down.”

Brown’s idea was to buy time for the British to come to Canada’s rescue. Buster even entered the United States in civilian clothing to do some reconnaissance.

It was not immediately apparent, in the wake of World War I, that the United States and the United Kingdom would remain allies. The United States, after all, had entered World War I as an associated power. The United Kingdom maintained an alliance with Japan, which the United States viewed as our most likely foe. The jockeying for power between Japan, the UK, and the US resulted in the Washington Naval Treaty, which abolished the Anglo-Japanese alliance and limited the naval procurement of all three countries.

The Naval Treaty was not Britain’s only strategic option, however, and the Dominions played a role in pressing London toward the multilateral option. Tensions had run high between the US Navy and the Royal Navy during the war (some US admirals were reluctant to commit a squadron of battleships to the Grand Fleet, believing that the British would somehow manage a confrontation between the US ships and the German High Seas fleet, to the detriment of those two navies and the advantage of the UK), and relations between the IJN and the RN were quite close. In 1920 the Royal Navy enjoyed roughly the same level of advantage over the US Navy as it had over the High Seas Fleet, and a combination of Japan and the UK would have had a clear naval superiority over the US.

To the Australia and Canada, which had given virtually unconditional support to the British during the war, the idea of an Anglo-Japanese alliance against the US was unpalatable. The Australians did not wish to see Japan dominate the Pacific. The Canadians realized that, in spite of British superiority at sea, war against the US would result in the end of Canada. Even if the Royal Navy could defeat the USN, it could not hope to transport or supply an expeditionary force large enough to defeat the US Army.

There were other reasons, too; the British suspected that the US might, in the long run, be able to outpace BOTH Japan and the UK in naval construction, and very few in the UK wanted to pay the cost of an arms race with either power. Nevertheless, it’s interesting that the threat of a US invasion of Canada played some part in global political dynamics as late as the 1920s.

[ 0 ] December 30, 2005 |

Friday Cat Blogging… Snowball

10 Worst Americans

[ 0 ] December 28, 2005 |

Far be it from me to decry any of my countrymen, but I cannot resist. In no particular order, and including both those crimes aesthetic and political…

J. Edgar Hoover: I don’t think that civil liberty in the United States has ever had a more committed enemy. I don’t know that he hated leftists, african-americans, and civil rights advocates per se, but he was willing to destroy anyone who threatened his power.

Aaron Burr: Had little, if anything, to contribute to the early Republic, and came close to disrupting it in the 1800 election. Killing Alexander Hamilton puts him over the top.

Jefferson Davis: Ninth circle of Hell, next to Judas, Brutus, and Cassius. That his treason was in the cause of slavery makes him much worse than, say, Benedict Arnold.

Nathan Bedford Forrest: Fought to destroy the Union, then fought to destroy the only good things that came out of the Civil War.

Bill O’Reilly: Other demagogues could be placed here, but Bill O’Reilly takes precedence for his insipid faux populism.

George Wallace: Patterson Hood puts it best.

Joseph McCarthy: Willing to burn everything that was good about America in the service of his power.

Henry Miller
: America’s worst novelist.

Mickey Kaus: America’s worst pundit/blogger/journalist.

Joel Schumacher: America’s worst director.

The last three are idiosyncratic, I know. Reading the comments is fun; if you’ve ever doubted whether the right has more spite, anger, hatred, and vitriol than the left, please put those concerns aside. Including Martin Luther King was not enough for one enlightened commenter; she decided to put every African-American on her list. Jimmy Carter seems to be a mainstay on the conservative lists, as does Earl Warren.

American Exceptionalism

[ 0 ] December 28, 2005 |

Chris Bertram reminds us that contemporary discussions of American imperialism miss out on the fact that the United States has historically been a very successful imperial power. It’s not as if we just pulled 37 new states out of our collective ass The conquest and colonization of the West was so extraordinarily successful that modern Americans simply don’t think of it as a conquest in the same way that we think of Russian expansion, Chinese expansion, or European colonialism.

This reminded me of why I have an aversion to Fareed Zakaria. Zakaria is, of course, a prominent public intellectual. Like many prominent public intellectuals, he received his Ph.D. from Harvard. He turned his dissertation into From Wealth to Power, which is a study of the effect of weak executive power on colonial expansion. He concludes that weak executive power in the US in the second half of the nineteenth century precluded the United States from seeking colonies in the same manner as other great powers.

And that, my friends, is absurd. It doesn’t even pass the laugh test. As long as you posit that America’s expansion into the West wasn’t colonialism, it sounds like a great, nuanced, interesting thesis. Similarly, if you posit that pigs are vegetables, you’ll wonder why vegetarians don’t eat bacon. The argument doesn’t even have face validity (and Zakaria deals with the problem in the book only in passing), and yet he managed to defend it as a dissertation and get it published. I once assigned the book to a group of undergraduates, and even they were genuinely flummoxed at the gaping blind space in the center of the book’s argument.

I haven’t read any of Zakaria’s other books, so I can’t comment on them. I have found his columns well-written and occasionally insightful. And yes, there is an element of academic bitterness here; I wish I could have written and published such a crappy dissertation. Nevertheless, I will always find myself suspicious of his work.


[ 0 ] December 27, 2005 |

Christmas is over, and we hold the field of battle.


[ 0 ] December 23, 2005 |

Fred Kaplan has a good column on Pentagon budget priorities:

Earlier this month, Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England signed a directive declaring, “Stability operations are a core U.S. military mission. … They should be given priority comparable to combat operations” in all Defense Department activities, “including doctrine, organizations, training, education, exercises, materiel, leadership, personnel, facilities, and planning.”

At the very least, this directive—which amounts to an official acknowledgement of the Iraq war’s mistakes—will require more military manpower if it’s to be a statement of policy and not just a smattering of nice words.

And yet, according to a story by Tom Bowman in the Dec. 21 Baltimore Sun, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is planning to cut the Army’s forces by 34,000 troops. That would entail eliminating one active-duty brigade and six National Guard brigades. (The latter aren’t trivial; nearly half the U.S. combat units in Iraq come from the National Guard.)

Budget pressures are forcing Rumsfeld to cut Pentagon spending by $32 billion over the next five years. But why is he taking his biggest whacks against the tokens of combat power—boots on the ground—that are, by his own admission, most vital? The Sun reports:

The manpower cuts stem from a decision by top Army leaders to sacrifice troop strength in order to provide money for new weapons systems and other new equipment, said defense officials, who requested anonymity.

So, not much has changed after all. We’ve been fighting a war that’s costing hundreds of billions of dollars. The Pentagon’s upper management at least says it realizes that “stabilization operations” (read: low-tech, high-manpower ops) are extremely important. The Army chief of staff, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, leans toward this sentiment as well, having risen through the ranks in the Special Forces command. And yet, when it comes to setting priorities on how to spend money, the procurement chiefs—with their eyes on big-ticket weapons systems—still rule.

At this point, changing the shares that each service gets of the Pentagon budget is pretty much a non-starter. While it’s true that cutting a few F-22s and the DD(X) could help pay for additional Army personnel, to do so would break the back-scratching arrangement that the three services have constructed since the 1960s. The degree of political will necessary to make that happen exceeds what most administrations can bring, and, frankly, if the Bush administration couldn’t dent it, I doubt that anyone can.

That said, the position of the Army itself seems indefensible to me. Yes, I know that they really, really want FCS, and for some reason seem to think that it will help them in low-intensity operations. I can’t see how, but they seem to believe it. In the service of achieving this dubious goal, they’re willing to cut our capabilities for fighting a low-intensity conflict now, when we are, after all, in the middle of a low-intensity conflict.

Rumsfeld isn’t the only one to blame in this fiasco. The Army brass will also be responsible for the problems that these decisions create.

  • Switch to our mobile site