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Category: Robert Farley

Top Gun Revisited

[ 35 ] August 28, 2011 |

David Sirota wastes the opportunity to say something interesting about Hollywood and the military:

Americans are souring on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The military budget is under siege as Congress looks for spending to cut. And the Army is reporting record suicide rates among soldiers. So who does the Pentagon enlist for help in such painful circumstances?


In June, the Army negotiated a first-of-its-kind sponsorship deal with the producers of “X-Men: First Class,” backing it up with ads telling potential recruits that they could live out superhero fantasies on real-life battlefields. Then, in recent days, word leaked that the White House has been working with Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow on an election-year film chronicling the operation that killed Osama bin Laden.

A country questioning its overall military posture, and a military establishment engaging in a counter-campaign for hearts and minds — if this feels like deja vu, that’s because it’s taking place on the 25th anniversary of the release of “Top Gun.”

That Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster, made in collaboration with the Pentagon, came out in the mid-1980s, when polls showed many Americans expressing doubts about the post-Vietnam military and about the constant saber rattling from the White House. But the movie’s celebration of sweat-shined martial machismo generated $344 million at the box office and proved to be a major force in resuscitating the military’s image.

There’s quite a bit of interesting stuff going on here, although Sirota leans too heavily on Top Gun, which is notable more for its box office success than for its production relationship with the Navy.  The Pentagon has worked with Hollywood a lot over the years; the influence over Top Gun wasn’t particularly notable in terms of effect on script or on production.  The much worse, much less successful, but if anything more flag-waving Iron Eagle was released six months earlier, and made without Pentagon cooperation, because the plot turned on the theft of an aircraft.  Top Gun surely did have a strong impact on Navy recruiting numbers (lots and lots of young men soon figured out that you didn’t get to fly F-14s just by enlisting), but I think it’s a touch of a stretch for Sirota to accord as much cultural impact as he does.

Sirota is half-right on the points about Pentagon influence over scripts.  Indeed, the Pentagon is loathe to lend its equipment to any production that reflects badly on the military, a posture which is hardly surprising for a federal department.  However, Pentagon influence can also serve to increase realism; believe it or not, many war films scripted in Hollywood demonstrate not the faintest familiarity with military life, military equipment, etc.  But then again, the Pentagon certainly was of no help to Transformers script…

Sirota also dances a bit on the question of Hurt Locker and the new Kathryn Bigelow Osama bin Laden film.  Sirota more or less describes the former as anti-war, which makes me wonder whether he’s ever seen the movie; whatever you can say about Hurt Locker, it’s not an anti-war film.  More problematic, in the next paragraph Sirota essentially describes the bin Laden project as the product of “ideologically compliant filmmakers,” which is interesting given that the Kathryn Bigelow who directed the “successful and critical” Hurt Locker is the same Kathryn Bigelow who is associated with the Bin Laden project.

Sirota ends badly.  I’m not such a fan of his work, which I think combines a commitment to populist left rhetoric with a belief that people are, by and large, quite stupid. This makes his writing unappealing calculated, as if he approaches each paragraph with the thought “has this been sufficiently dumbed down for people to understand it?”   And we get this:

Why does the Pentagon treat public hardware as private property? Why does the government grant and deny access to that hardware based on a filmmaker’s willingness to let the Pentagon influence the script? And doesn’t such a practice violate the First Amendment’s prohibition against government abridging freedom of speech?

Let’s take a crack:

1. It doesn’t. The Pentagon is a federal department that lends its assets to filmmakers based on its own particular understanding of the public interest.  By definition, “government propaganda” is not “private.”

2. This is the interesting question of the bunch; a blanket policy of acceptance to all filmmaker requests for using military hardware is impractical, so the real alternative would presumably be a policy of blanket denial filmmaker access to military equipment.  This hardly seems ideal, although I can appreciate the logic.  The Pentagon is not the only government agency to collaborate with filmmakers in an effort to improve its image, but the effects of Pentagon collaboration are at least arguably the most negative.

3.  I’m going to be extraordinarily charitable and say that I’d like to see the constitutional theory behind the idea that anything Sirota has described represents government abridgement of free speech.  Until then, my provisional answer to this question will be “No, you idiot.”

UPDATE: Sirota responds on point 3:

RE: The First Amendment question – it’s not a theory, it’s rooted in precedent. Here’s David Robb, author of “Operation Hollywood,” laying it out in Mother Jones (he’s backed up by GW law prof Jonathan Turley in other places, too):

”The First Amendment doesn’t just give people the right to free speech; fundamentally, it prevents the government from favoring one form of speech over another. There’s a great 1995 Supreme Court case called Rosenberger v. University of Virginia that says, “Discrimination against speech because of its message is presumed to be unconstitutional. It is axiomatic that the government may not regulate speech based on the substantive content of the message it conveys. In the realm of private speech or expression, government regulation may not favor one speaker over another.” And yet that’s what (The Pentagon) is doing every day.”

Next time, maybe you could do a bit of research without just resorting to name calling

I can do both! In the case cited, a Virginia student group sued and won after being denied funding for the production of a film with a specifically Christian point of view. I don’t find the logic particularly applicable to this case, but at least it’s something, and mileage may vary.

COIN Course

[ 0 ] August 26, 2011 |

I have a short article on last semester’s Counter-Insurgency course up at Small Wars Journal.  Take a look…

LGM Meet and Greet

[ 14 ] August 26, 2011 |

On Saturday, September 3, several LGM contributors will gather for the first official LGM “Meet and Greet.” The occasion of our gathering is the 2011 American Political Science Association conference in Seattle, Washington.  Drs. Lemieux, Watkins, Brockington, and myself will make ourselves available at 5:30pm at the Elysian Capitol Hill Brewpub.  If you live in Seattle, will be at APSA, or are prepared to travel thousands of miles at great expense for the opportunity to touch our clothing or have a body part autographed, please drop by.  Donations of beer WILL be accepted.

“Does anyone here agree with the vice president?”

[ 40 ] August 25, 2011 |

Well, this should be fun:

Former Vice President Dick Cheney says in a new memoir that he urged President George W. Bush to bomb a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor site in June 2007. But, he wrote, Mr. Bush opted for a diplomatic approach after other advisers — still stinging over “the bad intelligence we had received about Iraq’s stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction” — expressed misgivings.

“I again made the case for U.S. military action against the reactor,” Mr. Cheney wrote about a meeting on the issue. “But I was a lone voice. After I finished, the president asked, ‘Does anyone here agree with the vice president?’ Not a single hand went up around the room.”

Mr. Bush chose to try diplomatic pressure to force the Syrians to abandon the secret program, but the Israelis bombed the site in September 2007. Mr. Cheney’s account of the discussion appears in his autobiography, “In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir,” which is to be published by Simon & Schuster next week. A copy was obtained by The New York Times.

Airpower Days Re-Revisited

[ 7 ] August 24, 2011 |

My WPR column this week builds on Sunday’s Libya post:

One of the crucial military questions that emerged from the campaign involves the effectiveness of airpower. With one long ground war winding down and another in full swing, the United States and its allies are extremely reluctant to deploy ground forces. The leaders of the major intervening countries made clear that ground troops would not play a major role in the Libyan intervention, with U.S. President Barack Obama most emphatic on this point. With ground troops unavailable, the burden of military intervention falls on air and naval forces. The Libyan campaign began with a no-fly zone that quickly morphed into a large-scale campaign to support rebel efforts to destroy the Gadhafi regime. The early course of the campaign recalled the first months of the Afghanistan War, in which the United States overthrew the Taliban with airpower, special forces and Northern Alliance ground forces.


NATO Contributions in Libya

[ 7 ] August 23, 2011 |

Via Ares, a very interesting breakdown of strike sorties over Libya.  The US had a very high percentage of the early strike sorties, but as you can see that has dropped dramatically, with the French taking on a very high portion of the workload.  Of course, tallying the numbers isn’t everything; different nations use different kinds of ordnance, and contribute in other ways.  We’ll be able to put together a more complete breakdown in the next few weeks as additional data is released.

NATO discloses each day the total number of collective sorties flown in the previous 24 hours and the total of all sorties since the start of OUP, but it does not break it down into national contributions. Such national details can only be found sporadically and from different sources.  National levels of strike sorties flown have fluctuated since NATO took over military operations in Libya on March 31, 2011. The following information matches each country’s most recent number of strike sorties to the number of total strike sorties by that date.

France:  33%, approximately 2,225 strike sorties (out of 6,745 total sorties by August 4)

US:  16%, 801 strike sorties, (out of 5,005 strike sorties by June 30)

Denmark:  11%, dropped 705 bombs (out of the 7,079 missions by August 11)

Britain:  10%, 700 strike sorties (out of 7,223 total sorties by August 15)

Canada:  10%, approximately 324 strike sorties (based on 3,175 NATO strike sorties by May 25)

Italy:  10% (Not applicable until April 27 when Italy committed 4 Tornados for strike sorties)

Norway:  10%, 596 strike sorties (out of the 6,125 missions by August 1, no longer active)

Whatever else we can say about the air campaign (and I’ll have some additional thoughts in tomorrow’s column), it has been a genuinely multinational effort.

The Toddler Perspective

[ 5 ] August 22, 2011 |

What I love most about this is the random acceleration-deceleration that apparently afflicts all two year old toddlers.

Thoughts on Libya

[ 79 ] August 21, 2011 |

It looks as if things are coming to a close in the Libyan Civil War. Although Gaddafi could still surprise the rebels, this is about as bad as it’s been for him. Much can still go wrong, however, including a bloody siege of Tripoli, a bloody battle for Tripoli, or a bloody rebel purge of Tripoli (or all three). Some quickish thoughts:

1. I’ll be glad to see Gaddafi go. Plenty of folks have correctly pointed out that we don’t have a good sense of who the rebels are, and that it’s possible they could pursue more repressive policies than the Gaddafi government. I’m a bit more concerned that we’ll simply move to phase two of the civil war after Gaddafi goes, but these concerns were genuine. However, it wasn’t easy to see a road to democratic reform in the Libyan state prior to the civil war, and such a road is (at least fleetingly) apparent now. This may not mean much if, in two years, Libya is still at war with itself or Gaddafi has been replaced by another strongman or authoritarian faction. But for now, I have some hope for the rebels.

2. The course of the war vindicates the “Afghan Model” as a military technique, if not as a political strategy. To review, the Afghan Model is based on the idea that airpower and special forces can help indigenous troops can win wars against numerically and organizationally stronger opponents. Special forces take on training, command, and liason roles, airpower conducts close air support, attrition, and interdiction missions, and the indigenous troops force the enemy to defend strongpoints from fixed locations. This model worked very well in the first several months of the Afghanistan war, but it worked rather less well at the start of the Libyan Civil War. Although airstrikes were able to freeze Gaddafi loyalist forces, rebel offensives initially failed.

With what looks like a rebel victory in the offing, the specifically military aspect of the Afghan Model seems to have been vindicated, if in slow motion. However, the Afghan Model is as much a political as a military concept. Politically, the AM is supposed to minimize domestic opposition in the intervening country, minimize nationalist reaction in the target country, and minimize international upheaval.  In Libya, the grade is mixed on all three.  Cameron, Sarkozy, and Obama probably received more flak than they had expected, mostly because the war stretched so long.  The war likely stretched so long at least in part because of nationalist reaction within Libya.  The international community remained relatively quiet, although the violence in Syria and the ongoing collapse of the global economy may have played some part.

The other political aspect of the Afghan Model involves post-conflict stability.  If Libya crumbles back into civil war in the wake of Gaddafi’s fall, it won’t reflect well on a strategic concept that promises large returns at minimal risk.

3. Given this outcome, it really is better that the Libyan rebels finished the war than, for example, the French. Although the course of the conflict was sufficiently frustrating that you could, from time to time, half wish for a quick amphibious invasion to end it all, the victory of the rebels on the ground is probably positive for the chances for a peaceful, stable post-conflict situation.  If nothing else, the length of the civil war has forced some coalition building, even if there have repeatedly been signs that the coalition is held together by spit and gum.  Of course, the length of the Soviet-Afghan War didn’t prevent the anti-Soviet coalition from cracking.  Still, the fact that so many of the major players in the opposition became familiar with each other and were forced to work through their differences prior to taking power is probably, on balance, a good thing.

4. I am still skeptical about the wisdom of the decision-making process that brought NATO intervention about.  It’s obvious that none of the major players expected the war to last this long, and unclear if they would have intervened if they had believed Gaddafi would hold on until almost September. However, I certainly don’t believe that the Libya intervention precluded a similar intervention in Syria, or that such an intervention would have been wise on its own merits either way.  It was also apparent that the decision-makers in Washington, Paris, and London didn’t have the faintest what to do in case of a failure of Gaddafi to collapse.  ”Pound away until the bombs run out, the aircraft carriers have to go home, and the allies get bored” isn’t a strategy.

And yet, here we are.  In all likelihood Gaddafi will be gone soon, and that’s a good thing.  I do hope that one of the lessons learned is that even relatively weak states can survive for a while in the face of airpower campaigns. I also hope, as always, that policymakers will remember to take the utmost care with any decisions that involve dropping bombs in order to do “good.”

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[ 33 ] August 20, 2011 |

I have just received an alarming e-mail from an alert reader regarding this post:

This is a picture of Billy Carter (Billy Beer), Jimmy Carter’s brother. Please use accurate information, you sure don’t know about Jimmy Carter. Set the record straight.

I am shocked.

I would like to apologize to the Lawyers, Guns and Money community for Dr. Loomis’ amateurish effort to pass off Billy Carter as Jimmy Carter. At this point, it is unclear whether Dr. Loomis “sure don’t know about Jimmy Carter,” or deliberately set out to deceive LGM’s readership as to the distinction between Billy and Jimmy Carter. Either possibility is troubling. Pending a full investigation into this matter, we are strongly considering suspending Dr. Loomis without pay. A copy of the final report of this investigation will be forwarded to the University of Rhode Island, which surely will want to know whether its new tenure track History professor is either a) ignorant of the existence of Billy Carter, or b) a deliberate fabricator of Jimmy Carter related drinking incidents.

To eliminate the possibility of future confusion, the post in question will be updated to properly inform readers as to the existence of Billy Carter as a human being separate and distinct from Jimmy Carter.  I have also corrected the pernicious image:

While it would appear that LGM can no longer guarantee the veracity of the claims made by its front page posters, I nevertheless ask for patience and forbearance from our readers during this period of difficulty.


The Object of Nostalgia Matters…

[ 76 ] August 19, 2011 |

Yglesias on Reihan Salam’s claim that white conservatives aren’t racist, but rather simply nostalgic about an American that has largely ended:

On its face it’s difficult to make sense of that. John Boehner was born in 1949. Does he feel nostalgic for the higher marginal tax rates of the America he grew up in? For the much larger labor union share of the workforce? The threat of global nuclear war?It’s difficult for me to evade the conclusion that on an emotional level, conservative nostalgics like Boehner are primarily driven by regret at the loss of social privilege by white men. In Boehner’s defense, I often hear white male progressives express nostalgia for the lost America of the 1950s and 1960s and think to myself “a black person or a woman wouldn’t put it like that.” But progressive nostalgics do at least have the high-tax, union-dominated economy and egalitarian income distribution as the things they like. But from a non-bigoted conservative point of view, what is there really to miss about the America John Boehner grew up it? The tax rates were high, but at least they didn’t let Jews into the country club?

There’s an obvious parallel with invocations of the “heritage” defense for displays of the Confederate flag.  The American “South” as a cultural-geographic concept precedes the Revolution, and contains an immensity of cultural signifiers, many of them worth valorizing.  Invocations of Southern “heritage”, however, almost invariably concentrate on five years of violent treason in defense of slavery.  This isn’t accidental; the appeal of Confederate imagery cannot be separated from the 150 yearish effort to roll back the most obvious consequences of Southern secession.

The objects of nostalgia are political, often glaringly so.  If Salam had bothered paying attention, he would have noticed more than a little nostalgia for 50s and 60s American on the left.  The objects of this nostalgia, however, are the things that Yglesias mentions; a relatively egalitarian distribution of wealth, a strong labor movement, and so forth.  Nostalgia for these things makes complete sense given the political preferences of left-wing Americans.  Nostalgia for a time in which white men held a complete monopoly of cultural, political, and financial power in America is… well, it says something rather different about the political preferences of conservatives.

To put it on a more personal level, I recall my late uncle (of whom I was, and am, very fond) once telling me a story about North Carolina in the early 1960s.  The blacks in line at a counter, he said, would step aside when a white man entered the store.  Not like that anymore, he said with some regret, using the term “respect.”  There’s no doubt that my uncle’s sentiment reflected nostalgia in some sense, but this hardly made it either admirable or worth apologizing for.


Would You Trust this School with Your Foreign Economic Policy?

[ 24 ] August 18, 2011 |

Now this is just embarrassing:

Something very ugly seems to have gone down during an exhibition basketball game between the Georgetown Hoyas and the Chinese professional team Baiyi. The Washington Post‘s Dan Steinberg has more photos up on his blog. Here’s an account from an admittedly partisan Georgetown fan who blames the incident on lopsided officiating by the Chinese refs.

In any event, it’s probably lucky for U.S.-China relations that this wasn’t the same game attended by Vice President Joe Biden.

If you can’t trust Georgetown basketball players to meet the Chinese without a brawl breaking out, why would anyone ever trust graduates of the Georgetown School of Foreign Service to debate critical issues of economic and security policy with their Chinese counterparts? The University of Kentucky, on the other hand, has made crucial sacrifices in order to maintain good relations with America’s key Caribbean allies.

Think Peace. Think Patterson.

Tokyo Naval Treaty?

[ 16 ] August 17, 2011 |

I have thoughts on arms control and aircraft carriers:

China, India and Japan do not appear to be on the verge of breaking the bank in an effort to match each other’s construction. Still, from a vantage point of 10 or 20 years out, it might make sense for the Asian powers to think in terms of regulating their naval competition. India, China and Japan can all accomplish their national goals with a limited number of carriers. At some point, additional construction would simply spur the competitors to overbuild. A well-designed treaty on naval arms limitations would recognize economic and power imbalances between the three, take into account strategic realities and try to hold competition to within certain parameters. The motivating logic behind such a limitation runs as follows: India, China and Japan would each be as secure with four carriers as they would with eight, so long as they are assured that the others will not build eight themselves.

Over twitter, Dan Trombly suggests that the real arms race is for undersea assets. That’s an interesting claim, but whether or not it’s true there still might be good cause to limit carrier construction. Arms races happen because of military insecurity, but also because of prestige imbalance; even if China, India, and Japan want CVs primarily for prestige reasons, they still might be inclined to overbuild in order to match each other. My specific thoughts on submarine limitation are here.