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Arguments that are Guaranteed to Irritate People…

[ 0 ] April 19, 2009 |

Tom Ricks is not going to be a popular man this morning:

Want to trim the federal budget and improve the military at the same time? Shut down West Point, Annapolis and the Air Force Academy, and use some of the savings to expand ROTC scholarships.

After covering the U.S. military for nearly two decades, I’ve concluded that graduates of the service academies don’t stand out compared to other officers. Yet producing them is more than twice as expensive as taking in graduates of civilian schools ($300,000 per West Point product vs. $130,000 for ROTC student). On top of the economic advantage, I’ve been told by some commanders that they prefer officers who come out of ROTC programs, because they tend to be better educated and less cynical about the military.

The idea of a two-tiered (three tiered, at least, when you count OCS) officer training system has always struck me as a bit odd. If, as Ricks suggests, there’s minimal payoff in terms of performance, then I could consider getting on board. I suspect that the services have some data on that, although assessment would run into a few methodological problems. Ricks also suggests closing down the service war colleges. I’m less willing to climb onto that bus; the service colleges have issues, but the curriculum is much different than what you find in civilian graduate programs, and the faculty is allowed to work on policy-oriented topics that aren’t well supported in the rest of academia.


Is Robert Gates the War Nerd?

[ 0 ] April 19, 2009 |

Via Danger Room, Robert Gates invokes the destruction of Force Z in defense of creative military thinking:

The Royal Navy’s greatest defeat in World War II – the sinking of the capital ships H.M.S. Repulse and the brand new Prince of Wales by Japanese aircraft just days after Pearl Harbor – was due in part to a command with little appreciation for air power, and in particular the threat posed by a single, air-delivered torpedo.

As noted previously in this space, the destruction of Force Z is one of the favorite tropes of the War Nerd, who uses it to demonstrate that admirals are idiots:

The British didn’t pay any attention to Mitchell’s demonstration. Their battleships were better made, better armed, and better manned. With an impregnable British stronghold in Singapore and the RN patrolling offshore, what could those little Jap monkeys do? A powerful battle group led by the battleship Prince of Wales and the Cruiser Repulse steamed out to oppose Japanese landings in Malaysia, and ran into several squadrons of Japanese planes. In a few minutes both ships were sinking, The Prince of Wales sank so fast virtually the entire crew went down with her.

Actually, 1194 of Prince of Wales’ complement of 1521 were rescued, but detail has never been the War Nerd’s strong suit. Nevertheless, the War Nerd must be jumping up and down excitedly at the news that Robert Gates has adopted one of his favorite stories. As I feel that this blog has an obligation to correct popular misconceptions about battleships, I’d like to add some notes of caution to this story. The idea that Prince of Wales and Repulse were lost because of stupidity isn’t entirely wrong, but the story is a bit different than how either Gates or the War Nerd present it. The Royal Navy was not, by and large, shocked by the airborne torpedo, and the loss of Force Z is more complicated than the “them idiot admirals who couldn’t appreciate the aeroplane” indicates.

  1. The Royal Navy was substantially behind the USN and the IJN in developing carrier warfare, but it had nonetheless analyzed the possibility of using airborne torpedoes against battleships prior to the war.
  2. The Royal Navy put this work to the test in the November 1940 raid on Taranto, which sank three stationary Italian battleships with airborne torpedoes.
  3. The Royal Navy used airborne torpedoes to cripple the underway Italian battleship Vittorio Veneto at the Battle of Cape Matapan in March 1941. Vittorio Veneto, slowed by the torpedo damage, only barely escaped destruction by British surface units.
  4. The Royal Navy again used airborne torpedoes in May 1941 to cripple underway the German battleship Bismarck, which was later finished off by British surface units.
  5. The Royal Air Force used airborne torpedoes in June 1941 to cripple the underway German armored cruiser Lutzow.
  6. On December 7, 1941, three days before the destruction of Repulse and Prince of Wales, four stationary USN battleships were sunk by airborne torpedoes (a fifth, USS Arizona, was destroyed by a bomb).

Thus, the Royal Navy had ample operational evidence that airborne torpedoes posed a lethal threat to battleships, whether the stationary or underway. Although neither the Bismarck nor the Vittorio Veneto were destroyed by torpedoes, it was understood that the air attacks had contributed to the loss of the former and nearly brought about the loss of the latter. There is some evidence that Admiral Tom Phillips, who commanded Force Z, was unconvinced by these examples, but his views were by no means representative of the Royal Navy as a whole. Now, it’s certainly a problem that a man with Tom Phillips views on the invulnerability of surface ships could rise so far in the organization, but all organization, civilian and military, suffer from such issues.

It’s also worth noting that the air attacks themselves may not have been necessary to the destruction of Force Z. The task force included the fast battleship Prince of Wales, the battlecruiser Repulse, and four destroyers. Arrayed against this was a much larger force of Japanese surface assets, including the battlecruisers Kongo and Haruna, several heavy cruisers, and many destroyers. Prince of Wales was, admittedly, the most powerful surface unit in the Pacific theater prior to the commissioning of Yamato, and likely would have handled a Kongo class battlecruiser with same efficiency that USS Washington displayed at Gualdalcanal. However, Repulse was not the equal of the modernized Japanese battlecruisers, and I suspect that the Japanese advantage in torpedo-bearing cruisers and destroyers would have been decisive. The loss of Repulse and Prince of Wales to a hail of 24-inch torpedoes, rather than to air attack, would not have affected the course of the Pacific War in the slightest. Thus, it was the decision to sortie Force Z against superior Japanese opposition (which Phillips notably opposed) that was the critical decision leading to their loss. It’s possible that Force Z could have escaped Japanese interception (although IJN surface units were on their way), and it’s possible that PoW and Repulse could have taken some Japanese ships with them, but it was nevertheless understood that the deployment of Force Z was a risk; the destruction of the fleet was more surprising to Churchill than it was to local naval authorities.

The Mythical "Ticking Time Bomb"

[ 1 ] April 19, 2009 |

Always irrelevant to actual defenses of torture.

[For the classic explanations, see Henley and Waring.]

Oh, the things you’ll learn at Power Line…

[ 0 ] April 18, 2009 |

The latest entry to the site’s Hall of Fame:

There is something funny going on here, if not exactly where Cooper, Maddow and Sullivan find it. Cooper is widely reputed to be homosexual. Maddow and Sullivan are of course public homosexuals. It is funny in an ironic sort of way that these folks choose to disparage the tea party protestors [sic] from somewhere inside the homosexual subculture. Why not just call the protestors [sic] girly boys and let everyone in on the joke? Or would that spoil the fun?

Um. I really don’t even know how to answer that question. Given that Scott Johnson seems to assume that the gays invented all things kinky — like french-style kissing or the female orgasm — it’s probably not worth pointing out that his ineptitude with the spell checker is rivaled only by his apparent inability to use the intertubes to find stuff out. Johnson admits that he’d “never heard of” teabagging until last week, and I suppose that’s not surprising — though I suppose it’s funny in an ironic sort of way that he and his colleagues spent several years nuzzling the presidential beanbag.

I’d recommend the poor fellow take a gander at Urban Dictionary, but it seems the relevant entry has been taken over by people arguing over the Dumbest Protest Ever.

Credit Where Due

[ 0 ] April 18, 2009 |

Erik makes an important point; Texas has thus far seceded from two different countries in order to defend the right of white people to own black people. In that context, seceding in order to maintain a low capital gains tax rate would be a substantial improvement.

…speaking of treason, insurrection, arcane legal reasoning, and piracy, this is a good read on the last time that pirates were tried in a US court of law.

From Colony to Superpower XVII: Nixon Power!!!

[ 0 ] April 18, 2009 |

We’re now to part 17 of our twenty part series on George Herring’s From Colony to Superpower. I am told that there is the possibility that the second half of the book may be released, in mildly revised form, in paperback; I’d recommend buying the whole thing, but mileage may vary. Chapter XVII deals with the Nixon administration, taking us up to 1974. As with the last installment, my understanding of events with regards to China (which looms large in this chapter) has been immeasurably improved by reading Nancy Tucker’s Strait Talk; once I finish this series, I’ll give a full separate review to that work.

Erik writes:

I like this chapter because Herring is morally outraged, which always makes writing more lively. Herring clearly has little but contempt for Nixon and Kissinger. I agree, but Herring differentiates between Nixon and other presidents in ways that I am not really comfortable with.

I didn’t really get this from the chapter. It seemed to me that Herring distinguished between Nixon-Kissinger great power diplomacy and Nixon-Kissinger third world diplomacy, and rather approved of the former while harshly criticizing the latter. Herring suggests that Nixon and Kissinger were very bad a relations with non-great power actors, including Vietnam, Chile, and others, because they neither knew nor cared very much about anything that happened outside of Moscow or Beijing. Everything else, even Vietnam, was treated as a desultory sideshow. Nixon and Kissinger were happy to play the Cold Warriors in the sense that they would grant tacit support to Pinochet in Chile, but only because they understood such action in the frame of polite Cold War competition; Chile mattered because it might go Red, not because of any intrinsic value for US foreign policy.

This approach, as Herring suggests, had some drawbacks. Nixon was utterly indifferent to the suffering of the Vietnamese and Cambodian peoples; Johnson may actually have caused as much destruction (to Vietnam, anyway), but Nixon simply couldn’t bother to care, beyond an analysis of how the bombing of Cambodia affected his re-election chances, and relations with the great powers. In Latin America, Nixon happily adopted the frame that his immediate predecessors had left; the key threat was left wing regimes, which meant that right wing dictatorships should be tolerated and even encouraged. Nixon, like his predecessors, paid outsized attention to Fidel Castro, and understood the election of Salvador Allende largely within that frame.

I’d also say, however, that Herring gives Nixon a fair shake on China and the Soviet Union. Relations between the US and the USSR were probably better under Nixon than at any point during the Cold War, at least until Reagan’s second term. Nixon stood by while Willy Brandt pushed ostpolitik in Europe, which helped conclude the endless series of Berlin crises that had afflicted US-German-Soviet relations since 1945. The Soviets were more or less comfortable with Nixon’s fumbling in the third world; they certainly didn’t care what happened to Allende. They were also glad to see the US rein in the Israelis a bit. While the arms control agreements that Nixon and Brezhnev concluded could have been better, they did lay the foundation for regulating competition between the superpowers for the next twenty years.

Herring makes clear that Nixon and Kissinger do not deserve sole credit for “opening” China; the PRC had diplomatic and trade relations with most of the rest of the world by 1972, and the controversy over relations in the United States was in large part due to anti-Communist hysteria that Nixon himself helped foment. At the same time, it’s fair to say that Nixon and Kissinger grasped the opportunity that a visit to Beijing presented. Herring argues that the impetus to opening relations was generated largely by concerns about Cold War competition, but that there was also an economic element; Nixon believed that increased trade with China would, in the long run, help to substantially improve US growth. I think that this has, in the long run, been borne out, although the volume of trade between the two states remained very low for a very long time. In military and political terms, “opening” China looked much better on the map than it did in real life; Chinese military and economic power was a fraction of that of the USSR or the US, and it’s unclear that adding the PRC (even implicitly) to the list of US obligations may have reduced, rather than contributed to, overall US capabilities. Positive relations with Beijing and Moscow also failed to make the North Vietnamese any more flexible in negotiations.

Neoconservatives continue to loathe Nixon and Kissinger, and it’s not hard to understand why. Neither were interested in even lip service to human rights. Nixon understood detente with, not destruction of, the Soviet Union to be the primary goal of US foreign policy. Nixon “betrayed” the brave freedom fighters on Taiwan in favor of the totalitarian PRC. Nixon and Kissinger weren’t terribly friendly to Israel, at least by the standards of contemporary administrations; Herring suggests that Kissinger (Nixon was drunk and distracted by this point) was delighted to see the Israelis getting a bloody nose at the beginning of the Yom Kippur War. In short, Nixon and Kissinger represent almost the negation of neoconservative foreign policy preferences, even worse than Carter.

Home Cookin’

[ 0 ] April 17, 2009 |

Obviously, Rivera is by far the greatest closer in major league history, but I’m not sure that should mean that for every six pitches you throw out of the strike zone three should be called strikes, which makes getting that last out a lot easier. (Admittedly, the Yankees had come contextual justification for their whining on the third-last pitch, as while it was certainly inside it was closer to the plate than the two previous balls that had been called strikes.)

None of which means that the Tribe’s failure to take advantage of another duff start from the greatest pitcher athlete in Yankee known human history is the ump’s fault; when you send Vinnie Chulk out to protect a 1-run lead in the seventh you pretty much deserve whatever you get…

Global Warming and the EPA

[ 0 ] April 17, 2009 |

I strongly recommend Kate Sheppard’s piece on the EPA’s new determination that “that planet-warming greenhouse gases pose a danger to public health and welfare,” both because it provides valuable information about the new policy shift (as well as its limitations), and it’s a good example of why so much policy-making gets delegated to the executive branch.


[ 0 ] April 17, 2009 |

The evidence that he made anything but trivial mistakes remains pretty much non-existent.


[ 0 ] April 17, 2009 |

When the final list of “Chuck Schumer’s Biggest Sell-Outs” is released, this will have to rank near the top. At least when he does stuff like vote to make the compensation of hedge fund managers largely tax-exempt, he’s supporting powerful parochial interests. I don’t like it and he deserves criticism for it, but all senators do it. But it’s not like there’s a huge constituency in New York demanding that key architects of the Bush administration’s arbitrary torture regime serve out their lives as federal judges even though they belong in front of a federal judge post haste.

The other problem here, I think, is the bizarre norms that emerged (especially post-Bork), which seemed to be that even fairly minor personal scandals might be fair game but it was completely beyond the pale of civilized discourse to reject an appointment over such trivialities as their radical and unpopular substantive views. Bybee is soft-spoken and has sufficient formal credentials, so what’s his disgusting advocacy of illegal torture and arbitrary executive power as a powerful government lawyer between friends?

The Piracy-Terror Nexus Revisited

[ 0 ] April 17, 2009 |

I’m not sure that I’d draw any conclusions from what’s actually a pretty small sample, but Galrahn nevertheless touches on a question that nags at the edge of the piracy debate: If terrorists organization haven’t yet taken advantage of the opportunities that maritime piracy seems to offer, why not?

I can think of a few potential answers:

  1. They have; terrorist organization may be “taxing” Somali pirates, and perhaps in some ways enabling their operations through intelligence assistance, weapons, etc.
  2. They have; don’t you remember the Achille Lauro? This leads us back to the original question, however; why haven’t further Achille Lauro style attacks been launched? Also, I was unaware that the Achille Lauro had caught fire and sank off the coast of Somalia back in 1994…
  3. Piracy requires a set of maritime skills that aren’t well distributed among the populations that terrorists tend to recruit from. This is not to say that terrorists couldn’t recruit from such populations, just that they haven’t yet.
  4. Capturing or blowing up a freighter full of machine parts destined for Guangzhou isn’t really worth a terrorist’s time.

Any other thoughts?

Right Bloggers Wobbly on Gay Marriage

[ 0 ] April 17, 2009 |

Although I participate, I rarely link, but this week’s results for the National Journal bloggers poll are kind of interesting. Leftish bloggers overwhelmingly support the idea that the Democratic Party should support gay marriage, and rightish bloggers are pretty deeply divided as to what the position of the Republican Party should be. Allowing that right wing bloggers are more libertarian than the party as a whole, it still seems to me to suggest that gay marriage is understood to be a long term loser for the right.