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“If You Want to Change the World, Change the Armies.”

[ 9 ] April 25, 2010 |

I finally saw The Men Who Stare at Goats this weekend. A significant number of reviews from last year when it came out reference the epigram to the film, “More of this stuff is true than you think.” However in my mind, the most important quote in the film is the one in the title of this post.

If you try to read this film through any other lens – pacifism, war reporting, truth v. fiction re. the paranormal – it doesn’t work very well. That’s why a lot of reviewers either read the film as inept satire or as failed story-telling. But they don’t look closely at the two central questions driving the story: what constitutes just warriorhood, and can you incorporate an expansive view of just warriohood (one which includes respect for the planet) more fully into existing military institutions? In other words, how do you change armies in order to change (and maybe save) the world?

The first of these two themes is brought into sharp relief by the Jedi subtext associated with the New Earth Army. You can read its central feature as the use of psychic warfare or “Jedi mind-trick” mythology, but the Jedi language is also about something deeper: the just use of limited force in the service of peace, justice and (now) environmental security.

Read through this lens (as opposed to some decisive statement about the possibility of psychic warfare), the ending is much more satisfactory than many reviewers claim. To be a “super-soldier” is to walk the path of the just warrior, to be on the side of the innocent and vulnerable, and to be at one with the universe of which we are part.

And how do you change armies to this effect? For part of the genius of the story is in drawing out the contrast between these ideals and existing military culture. The film is a bit agnostic on this second point. So is the actual history on which it is based, which you can learn about by reading the book or watching the documentary. I leave it to readers to offer their thoughts about the take-home message there.

Lt. Col. James Channon, on whose career Jeff Bridges’ character in Goats is based, remains optimistic.

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Cheonan Damage Consistent with a Torpedo

[ 6 ] April 25, 2010 |

See Geoff Forden on the typical damage profile of a modern torpedo, and how that relates to Cheonan.

Limited Diversionary War?

[ 13 ] April 24, 2010 |

Grover floats an idea:

Now assuming that the incident was the product of centralized decision making rather than an unintended one ordered lower down the food chain (something I discussed earlier here), Kim Jong Il may simply be engaging in a tit-for-tat retaliatory strike for an earlier skirmish, something the Times itself suggests. And while such a diversionary war would likely distract at home and provide some temporary relief from any internal pressure, is the “Supreme Leader” really so risk acceptant as to start something that could spiral into a bigger war that could see his downfall?

My guess is that the incident was not intended to start a diversionary war but was either retaliation or another in a long history of provocative displays of force by the North Koreans. Then again, Kim Jong Il may be assuming – perhaps correctly given South Korea’s current lack of desire for a major war on the peninsula – that any South Korean response is likely to be quite limited and can provide some helpful distraction. Of course, this is all premised on the notion that we are talking about a substantively (or even procedurally) rational, unitary actor – something that might be a stretch in this case.

This is interesting, because South Korea really faces a quandary. War is simply not in South Korea’s interests. While it’s exceedingly unlikely that the US and South Korea could lose a war against the North, South Korea would nevertheless pay very high costs in both military and civilian terms. Moreover, in a general war South Korea loses even if it wins. Integrating a war/famine/communism plagued North Korea will be an enormously expensive and time consuming endeavor, one which Seoul does not particularly wish to contemplate. I suspect, then, that South Korea is willing to tolerate considerable North Korean aggression before resorting to general war.

The North seems to understand this, which is why a limited diversionary war seems plausible. Then again, it’s a very risky game for North Korea, and previous North Korean behavior has suggested considerable paranoia about US intentions. It’s unclear just how far Pyongyang would be willing to push Seoul and Washington in order to derive domestic benefit. I suspect that Grover’s second suggestion is correct; the North saw the destruction of Cheonan as an acceptable degree of escalation in the naval war off Korea’s west coast.

Celebrating assassins

[ 44 ] April 24, 2010 |

Not content, apparently, with commemorating people willing to kill hundreds of thousands in defense of slavery, Republican governors have now embraced gunpowder chic by asking their supporters to “Remember November.” I agree with Josh Marshall that this is pretty shocking, especially coming from people who can be counted on to yowl insanely every time a young poseur is photographed wearing a Che Guevara shirt to an anti-war rally. Never mind that the RGA has its history completely ass-backward; the cry of “WOLVERINES! “Remember November” has nothing to do with keeping Guy Fawkes’ aspirations alive but is, rather, intended to commemorate his execution and remind the English to be alert to treasonous conspirators in their midst.

For fuck’s sake. Just imagine if liberals organized their opposition to Republican economic policies by trying to rally their base by commemorating the life and works of Leon Czolgosz.

An Epidemic of Suicides Among Veterans

[ 4 ] April 24, 2010 |

This from a new report described in the Army Times:

Troubling new data show there are an average of 950 suicide attempts each month by veterans who are receiving some type of treatment from the Veterans Affairs Department.

Seven percent of the attempts are successful, and 11 percent of those who don’t succeed on the first attempt try again within nine months.

The numbers, which come at a time when VA is strengthening its suicide prevention programs, show about 18 veteran suicides a day, about five by veterans who are receiving VA care.

It’s interesting that the Army Times didn’t post the actual report, about which I’m curious since this “new data” shows the exact same numbers that were reported way back in January by the Inter-Press Service. And even then it was getting worse over time:

Suicides among United States military veterans ballooned by 26 percent from 2005 to 2007, according to new statistics released by the Veterans Affairs (VA) department.

“Of the more than 30,000 suicides in this country each year, fully 20 percent of them are acts by veterans,” said VA Secretary Eric Shinseki at a VA-sponsored suicide prevention conference on Monday. “That means on average 18 veterans commit suicide each day. Five of those veterans are under our care at VA.”

But even if this is just the case of a story being recycled, I’m glad to see it in the news again. 20% of all suicides nationwide is a remarkable number that on an annual basis dwarfs the number of troops being killed by our enemies.

A matter of national security?

Legal Conservatism Does Not Have Anything to do With “Judicial Restraint,” And It Never Did

[ 5 ] April 23, 2010 |

Matt beat me to it, but while I agree with 90% of what she says I think that Dahlia’s framing of the debate in this article concedes way too much (as much of her argument itself makes clear.)   Republicans do not want an  “immobilized judicial branch,” and this doesn’t accurately describe the Roberts Court.    Indeed, most of the big cases of recent years — Kelo, Parents Involved, Heller, Citizens United — have involved the most conservative members on the Court wanting to rule the acts of elected officials unconstitutional while liberals have argued that they should be upheld.     And a look at the data shows that  this is no anomaly — there’s no non-tautological sense in which conservative judges are more “restrained” than liberal ones. And, historically, conservative judicial activism is more common than liberal; judicial activism (although not so much because liberals are less disposed to judicial power as because the courts tend to be conservative.)   The Roberts Court’s systematic favoring of already over-represented interests is hardly limited to cases in which it refuses to intervene; rather, it quite frequently intervenes directly on their behalf.

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Friday Daddy Blogging

[ 11 ] April 23, 2010 |

Friday Exasperated Mommy Blogging

[ 31 ] April 23, 2010 |

I don’t know which version of the video below has the worse message for young adults: this one, in which pop artist Kesha promotes binge drinking and capricious, careless, drunken sex:

Or this parody, in which Barely Political promotes the promotion of binge drinking and capricious, careless, drunken sex, as long as it’s just to dupe one’s fans:

Either way, I’m ready to glitter-puke from hearing it over and over.

Prompt Global Strike: Still Not Actually Dead. Kind of Alive, in Fact

[ 15 ] April 23, 2010 |

Noah Shachtman notices what I noticed two weeks ago:

The Obama administration is poised to take up one of the more dangerous and hare-brained schemes of the Rumsfeld-era Pentagon. The New York Times is reporting that the Defense Department is once again looking to equip intercontinental ballistic missiles with conventional warheads. The missiles could then, in theory, destroy fleeing targets a half a world away — a no-notice “bolt from the blue,” striking in a matter of hours. There’s just one teeny-tiny problem: the launches could very well start World War III.

Over and over again, the Bush administration tried to push the idea of these conventional ICBMs. Over and over again, Congress refused to provide the funds for it. The reason was pretty simple: those anti-terror missiles look and fly exactly like the nuclear missiles we’d launch at Russia or China, in the event of Armageddon. “For many minutes during their flight patterns, these missiles might appear to be headed towards targets in these nations,” a congressional study notes. That could have world-changing consequences. “The launch of such a missile,” then-Russian president Vladimir Putin said in a state of the nation address after the announcement of the Bush-era plan, “could provoke a full-scale counterattack using strategic nuclear forces.”

The Pentagon mumbled all kinds of assurances that Beijing or Moscow would never, ever, never misinterpret one kind of ICBM for the other. But the core of their argument essentially came down to this: Trust us, Vlad Putin! That ballistic missile we just launched in your direction isn’t nuclear. We swear!

Yeah, I’m really not sure that changing to an atmospheric quasi-ballistic missile from SLBMs really helps. For one, the shift would somewhat reduce the promptness of the global strike (although probably not by much). More importantly, it doesn’t really solve the dilemma. If Putin/Medvedev/Hu/Whomever are inclined to worry that a detected launch was the prelude to an all-out nuclear attack, they’ll likely not be reassured by the news that it comes from some “special” location in the US. If the US decided to launch a preventive nuclear assault on Russia or China, wouldn’t we initiate the attack in the most deceptive way possible?

This isn’t to say that we should eschew research of any weapon that can decrease the time between order and KABOOM. Questions of strategic stability, however, need to be taken very seriously. How willing would we be to use these weapons in a war over the Taiwan Straits? In response to another Russia-Georgia War? Or, perhaps even more disconcerting, what if we decided we needed to kill Osama Bin Laden with 30 minutes notice during the midst of a Russia-Georgia War that we were otherwise uninterested in?

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The Most Boring Event in American Sports

[ 24 ] April 22, 2010 |

I just can’t respect anyone who could be entertained by watching the NFL Draft.

Announcer:”We now return you to exciting 15th round action at the Canadian Football League Draft.”
Analyst: “And so, the Saskatchewan Roughriders, who scored only four rogues all last season…

What Allies are For

[ 1 ] April 22, 2010 |

Strangely, when we hear claims that the Obama administration coddles enemies and scorns friends they never refer to concerns like this:

Fresh from signing a strategic nuclear arms deal with Russia, the United States is parrying a push by NATO allies to withdraw its aging stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons from Europe.

At a meeting of foreign ministers of NATO countries here, officials from Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and other countries are prodding the United States to begin negotiations with Russia for steep reductions in nonstrategic nuclear weapons — mostly aerial bombs which, in the case of those belonging to the United States, are stored in underground vaults on air bases in five NATO countries.

For conservatives, the concept of the “Coalition of the Willing” is a doubly useful concept.  When we want to invade a country, we simply assemble what allies can be cheaply purchased.  When we want marshal arguments about the “weakness” of a Democratic administration, we rhetorically collect a group of disgruntled allies to insist that our friends are losing confidence in our resolve. This is because, with perhaps one or two exceptions, the views of allies are never valuable to conservatives in and of themselves.  Rather, those views are only meaningful insofar as they provide symbolic ammunition to be fired either on the domestic or international stage. The fact that most Europeans have no interest in keeping US tactical nuclear warheads on their territory is irrelevant compared to the rhetorical value of the few complaints about American “abandonment.”  In this sense, conservatives genuinely are quite Realist, in the sense that they view allies in purely utilitarian terms.  This is also why conservatives so desperately loathe the State Department, through which the actual views of actual friends are channeled at oft inconvenient times.

Instrumental Use of the Courts

[ 5 ] April 22, 2010 |

Amber asks “how anyone could have thought this law was going to get upheld,” and compares it to the also-voided Communications Decency Act.     I think the answer can be seen in this article about the inevitable invalidation of the statute by the Supreme Court:

When President Bill Clinton signed the bill, he expressed reservations, prompted by the First Amendment, and instructed the Justice Department to limit prosecutions to “wanton cruelty to animals designed to appeal to a prurient interest in sex.”

It’s very likely, in other words, that Clinton signed the bill assuming — as I’m sure many members of Congress who voted for it also did — that the Court would strike it down. And I think that was even more true of the CDA — in theory, it would be desirable to have a president who vetoes obviously unconstitutional legislation, but when you know the courts will do it for you, why get tarred as a supporter of internet porn for children?

Questions about the democratic legitimacy of judicial review tend to assume a zero-sum struggle between the branches, whether in support (“only a politically insulated branch can protect unpopular minorities!”) or opposition (“nine unelected dictators in black robes!”) to the practice. But as it actually functions, judicial review usually involves some measure of collaboration with powerful forces in national politics, with judicial power being directed against now-defunct legislative coalitions, regional outliers, etc. A more relevant problem with judicial review is that it provides incentives for elected officials to ignore constitutional issues; a less severe problem than the traditional “countermajoritarian difficulty” but a real one nonetheless.