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2009 MLB Preview: The NL

[ 0 ] April 7, 2009 |

West: 1. LA 2. ARI 3. COL 4. SF 5. SD I’ll pretty much go chalk here. Signing Ramirez makes this a relatively easy call; their offense is by far the best in the division and the rotation and bullpen are both good. The top of their rotation aside I’ve thought many sabermetric types have been overrating the DBacks for a couple years and I still think that; the offense remains unimpressive and losing Hudson will hurt the defense badly. Colorado seems back on the submediocrity treadmill. If the Giants’ young pitchers stay healthy I could see them finishing second, but you can’t count on that and the offense remains hideous. The Padres situation is just sad, a consistently competitive team turning quickly into an awful team with little to build on either. Their under does seem like one of the best bets in history, although admittedly I thought that about the Giants last year.

Central: 1. Chi 2. Mil 3. Cin 4. StL. 5. Hou 6. Pit I’m not really terribly impressed with the Cubs — the bullpen shaky, Dempster will be way down, Harden likely to be hurt, the offense very- good-not-great — but I can’t deny they’re the class of this division. I’ll be rooting for the Brewers to win the division but like most people I think they missed their window unless they can bring along some young pitchers; the impressive young talent is misalinged defensively, and their bullpen is atrocious without any Victor Zambrano to compensate. The Reds are the opposite, impressive young pitchers but (even with Votto) not much of an offense. I thought the Cardinals would be bad last year, and although it’s become foolish to bet against LaRussa/Duncan to pull some good innings out of nowhere and although Pujols is amazing I still think they’re pretty bad. I figure that Berkman and Oswalt will keep the Astros out of the cellar they’re likely to occupy perenially now that the Pirates seem under semi-competent management for another year. But the cautious medium-term optimism a Pirates fan might have shouldn’t be confused with thinking there’s much there yet.

East: 1. NY 2. ATL(*) 3. PHI 4. FLA 5. WAS I know, really dumb to bet against the Phillies again, and they certainly could be back in the World Series. And Minaya does some irritating things, most notably compunding the AIG-level-stupid Castillo contract by not writing off the sunk cost with Hudson available cheap. But to me, the key here is bullpens. Even a mediocre bullpen last year and the Mets would have won easily, and this year the Mets will have two elite closers and a pretty good 7th inning guy instead. The Phillies, on the other hand, got a brilliant performance out of a gifted but erratic closer and decent-to-typically-waiver-wire-bait support, which won’t happen again. That turnaround will be an enormous number of runs. Meanwhile, the Mets had a better offense last year and figure to this year, and the Phillies certainly aren’t making that up in the rotation. I actually think the Braves — better than their record two years running and with the first credible rotation they’ve had in a while — are a bit better shot to take the division, although the offense has a few too many holes to put them ahead of the Mets. The Marlins are interesting — some talented young pitchers and Ramirez ranks with Utley and Beltran as the best player in the league’s best division — but the kid pitchers just don’t have the offensive or defensive support. The Nationals have improved offensively, but it’s still not a good offense and the rest of the team is worse. The bad karma of syndicate ownership…

UPDATE: The commenter is completely right, and I am completely wrong, about the Brewer defense; a consultation of The Fielding Bible shows that they are indeed a top 5 defense.


Fish on Churchill

[ 0 ] April 6, 2009 |

This seems like a very sensible take. As far as I can tell the charges of academic misconduct against Churchill are very, very thin gruel — as Fish says, mostly run-of-the-mill academic debates about whether the evidence is sufficiently strong rather than more serious or unequivocal charges — and it’s inconceivable that he would have been fired had he not written his stupid 9/11 essay. And however offensive the essay was, if academic freedom means anything it’s not a firing offense.

Happy Opening Day!

[ 0 ] April 6, 2009 |

Praise your preferred deity for baseball. Cincinnati has stepped up to the plate with an offering of 37 degrees and snow; it was 71 yesterday. Hopefully it will be better on Wednesday, when Dr. Lemieux and myself take in a first-night-of-Pesach Metropolitans-Redlegs tilt down at Great American.

The Problems That Arise When Glenn Reynolds Is Considered A Libertarian

[ 0 ] April 6, 2009 |

Shorter Jonah Goldberg: Libertarians are actually obliged to ignore the systematic effects of state interventions I favor (like the War (On Some Classes of People Who Use Some) Drugs), as well as policies that the National Review has traditionally supported (like apartheid at home and abroad.)

To add to Holbo’s defense of Wilkinson, allow me to return to one of my favorite quotes in the United States Reports, from Robert Jackson:

“I regard it as a salutary doctrine that cities, states and the Federal Government must exercise their powers so as not to discriminate between their inhabitants except upon some reasonable differentiation fairly related to the object of regulation. This equality is not merely abstract justice. The framers of the Constitution knew, and we should not forget today, that there is no more effective practical guaranty against arbitrary and unreasonable government than to require that the principles of law which officials would impose upon a minority must be imposed generally. Conversely, nothing opens the door to arbitrary action so effectively as to allow those officials to pick and choose only a few to whom they will apply legislation and thus to escape the political retribution that might be visited upon them if larger numbers were affected. Courts can take no better measure to assure that laws will be just than to require that laws be equal in operation.”

The idea that the WO(SCOPWUS)D’s increasing obliteration of the Fourth Amendment would be tolerated if upper-middle-class families were frequently having their doors beaten in, property seized, daughters strip-searched with the approval of future Supreme Court justices, etc. etc. is absurd. Wilkinson is just pointing out the obvious, and libertarians can see the consequences as much as anyone.

From Colony to Superpower XVI: The Big Mess

[ 0 ] April 6, 2009 |

Chapter XVI of From Colony to Superpower covers the Kennedy and Johnson years. Erik has some additional thoughts on chapter XV; check them out. The time periods covered by chapters have shortened from about 15 to about 8 years since the beginning of the book, and the chapters themselves have grown from about forty to about fifty pages. This is an interesting organizational strategy, and isn’t terribly surprising; readers are likely to have more interest in more contemporary events, and because of technological change history happens more densely, so to speak. I think it could also be argued that foreign policy looms ever larger in US social life, although this depends on how we define things.

Herring isn’t overly impressed with John F. Kennedy, although he allows that Kennedy improved substantially across the course of his Presidency. In particular, Herring has minimal patience for the notion that Kennedy intended serious shifts in US policy towards China or Vietnam. Regarding the latter, there is simply insufficient evidence that Kennedy intended, or could have enacted had he intended, a significant change in the course of the war. On the former, there is similarly little evidence that Kennedy intended any modification of US China policy. Herring doesn’t touch upon it, but I have recently read in Nancy Tucker’s Strait Talk that Kennedy hagiographers are of the view that Kennedy would have opened China, but for a threat by Eisenhower to emerge from retirement and oppose such a shift. Tucker argues that the available evidence suggests that Eisenhower was more flexible on the PRC than Kennedy, and that no actual evidence exists of any such threat. In the end, as Herring argues, we must take Kennedy simply on what he did, rather than speculate about what he might have done.

Herring discusses at length the effect that Castro had on Kennedy, Johnson, and the character of US policy towards Latin America. While Truman, Roosevelt, and Eisenhower had experimented with various different Latin American policies, and displayed some flexibility, Kennedy and Johnson interpreted events solely through the prism of the Cuban Revolution. Every leftist was the new Castro, and right wing military dictatorships were accepted as “necessary” to forestall the victory of communism in whatever country one chose to investigate. The obsession with Castro (which occupied Kennedy somewhat more than Johnson) also led to numerous dubious efforts to overthrow the Cuban government, and to the central event of Kennedy’s term, the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Herring is, of course, a Vietnam specialist, and so I’d been looking forward with great interest to how he would treat the Vietnam War in this larger narrative of American foreign policy. The Vietnam discussion is, as expected, well done, and it doesn’t dominate the chapter any more than it should. At one point, Herring mentions the various efforts at extortion on the part of US Pacific partners; South Korea deployed a substantial force in return for large subsidies, and New Zealand sent an artillery battalion. Ferdinand Marcos offered to raise a large force in return for US aid, then pocketed the aid and refused to send troops to Vietnam. Chiang Kai Shek went one better; he offered to invade the PRC in order to destroy its nuclear capabilities and distract it from the war. This offer was tactfully declined.

Herring devotes a fair amount of attention to Israel, especially around the 1967 War. He is firmly of the view that the USS Liberty was intentionally attacked, although he allows that Israeli motives remain murky. He writes “Israel naturally fell back on mistaken identity, a claim only the most gullible could believe.” The US response was non-existent. A year later, on the other side of the world, another surveillance ship would be attacked; the North Koreans still hold the USS Pueblo, although they released the crew after eleven months.

More to come..

Polls That I Can’t Take Seriously…

[ 0 ] April 5, 2009 |

I’d like to see how this question was worded: [UPDATE: I had misread the link, and thought that wording was only available to premium subscribers. Make the numbers even more wacky; totally eliminating North Korea’s ability to launch missiles would require full scale war.]

Fifty-seven percent (57%) of U.S. voters nationwide favor a military response to eliminate North Korea’s missile launching capability. The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey shows that just 15% of voters oppose a military response while 28% are not sure.

What exactly does “military response” mean? But here is the real kicker:

Overall, 75% of voters say they’ve been closely following news stories about the possible launch. That figure includes 40% who’ve followed the news Very Closely.

Ahem. If you believe that 75% of the registered voters in the United States were closely following the North Korean missile launch on Friday, then I have a tea party to sell you.

When you have a poll that suggests that 40% of registered voters have been following a national security event “very closely,” and then you note that the poll was taken before the missile launch even occurred, you should know that there’s a problem somewhere…

This reveals how useless polling on obscure issues can be. Rasmussen would have us believe that more people want us to go to war with North Korea than favor the current wars in either Iraq or Afghanistan. This is farcically stupid; although it appears that Newt Gingrich came out in favor of a preventive strike on North Korea, it’s a position that’s held by approximately zero policymakers on either side of the aisle. That said, I’d love to see the Republicans try to run in 2010 on a platform of starting a third unpopular war…

Varnum, Law And Politics

[ 0 ] April 5, 2009 |

Rather than continue the argument in comments, a few responses to Paul’s arguments against Varnum:

  • It’s worth distinguishing between two arguments that Paul seems to be shifting between, one of which is true but trivial and one of which is potentially interesting but (at best) unsupported. It is, of course, true, that the text of the Iowa constitution did not “compel” the conclusion that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage was impermissible. But this is (as Paul seems to concede) not so much an argument against the court as an argument against judicial review, since any constitutional question of any interest is going to allow a number of reasonable answers. Given that the Iowa courts were empowered to review legislative enactments, however, this argument is essentially useless. Moreover, if taken seriously this would not just be an argument against judicial review but against high appellate courts in general; pretty much by definition cases heard by these judges require them to choose between multiple plausible interpretations of statutes and/or constitutional provisions and/or controlling precedents. Again, if Paul wants to define most of what appellate judges do as not-law that’s his privilege, but it doesn’t strike me as very useful or illuminating. Saying that politics influences how judges will choose among multiple plausible interpretations, though, is not to say that law is nothing but politics.
  • If this is all Paul was arguing, though, it’s not clear why the Iowa Supreme Court merits any particular criticism, since it’s no more guilty of “legal hocus-pocus” than pretty much every consequential decision issued by every state or federal appellate court in the country. And, indeed, in the original article Paul suggests that the decision was particularly “egregious” “nonsense.” This would be a more interesting claim, but alas Paul’s bare assertions in its defense aren’t much more convincing than Ed Whelan’s. What, exactly, about the opinion is egregious, as opposed to simply an utterly banal exercise in choosing between multiple competing interpretations of a legal text — did it mischaracterize the relevant precedents? Was its interpretation in contradiction of the constitutional text being analyzed? Was it internally inconsistent? Not to my eye, and Paul provides no evidence that anything of the sort is true. Indeed, “question-begging nonsense” would be much better applied to Paul’s apparent assumption that because Iowa’s equal protection clause cannot be applied with mathematical precision the judges required to interpret it should pretend that it has no content at all.
  • Paul also seems to be missing the point about why the comparison to Bush v. Gore is so specious (while a comparison to, say, Parents Involved or Heller would be much more accurate.) The unique problems with Bush v. Gore have nothing to do with it being a “ridiculously transparent bit of circular question begging.” Kennedy’s defense of the opinion’s equal protection innovations is indeed exceptionally weak (and on any standard of craftsmanship, I think, far, far worse than Varnum), but that’s not the key issue; the holding is not, in isolation, indefensible. The real issue is such problems as 1)the fact that the remedy was completely inconsistent with the purported holding, 2)the Court’s attempt to cabin the holding so that it wouldn’t apply to other essentially identical cases, and 3)the fact that the alleged constitutional violation was a result of a Catch-22 created by the Court’s previous directive. Such things, as opposed to the ordinary judicial act of choosing among multiple plausible legal meanings, really are inconsistent with the rule of law. The Iowa court did nothing comparable.
  • I’m going to largely leave the discussion of Rosenberg — whose argument is considerably more problematic than Paul claims — to another post. But one accurate lesson of Rosenberg is that courts aren’t in a position to “impose” anything; judicial review itself only exists because of the substantial political support for it. And in this specific case, the Iowa legislature is free to propose overturning the court’s decision if it chooses. To claim that this particular constraint on the choices of elected officials — as opposed to the countless other “countermajoritarian” checks that are part of every state’s government — is particularly undemocratic is, to coin a phrase, question-begging nonsense. Maybe it is, but this really needs to be argued, not assumed, and any definition of democracy that contains no more normative content than “majority decisions of elected officials” is not going to be very attractive.

It’s a Missile!

[ 0 ] April 5, 2009 |

North Korea finally launches. There don’t seem to have been any premature shootdowns. See? That wasn’t so scary…

LGM Baseball Challenge (Tourney Update II)

[ 0 ] April 5, 2009 |

…I believe that it’s down to Shooting in the Dark vs. bail this out in the LGM Tourney Bracket.

I’ve set up the 2009 LGM Baseball Challenge league. Apologies for tardiness; the first game is tomorrow.

League Name: Lawyers, Guns and Money
Password: zevon

As far as I can tell, the following teams are still in the running in Tourney Challenge:

Shooting in the Dark (Michigan State)
The Dawdle Blog (UNC)
dewces1 (Connecticut)
bail this out (UNC)
johnwcasey (Connecticut)
jt (Villanova)

From Colony to Superpower XV: Little Hitlers

[ 0 ] April 5, 2009 |

Erik leads off the 15th installment of our 20 part series on George Herring’s From Colony to Superpower with a discussion of John Foster Dulles, and of the role of racism in America’s Cold War foreign policy. I’m more interested in Eisenhower’s relationship with the Middle East, China, and the military-industrial complex.

There was a reason why Eisenhower decried the military-industrial complex; he was attacked from the right by Democrats on defense spending. Eisenhower was the product of a much different understanding of the role of the military in American foreign policy, an era in which defense budgets and the military establishment they supported were quite small. Eisenhower did not, however, step back from committing the United States to a hegemonic role in the Western world. Instead, he tried to achieve hegemony on the cheap, relying on nuclear weapons to keep the peace with the Soviet Union and on covert operations to maintain friendly governments around the world. Herring argues that the CIA essentially lucked into victories in Guatemala and Iran (not so lucky for the Guatemalans and the Iranians) which led to unreasonable expectations for the future of US covert operations. Herring also argues that, while nuclear threats were credited by Dulles and Eisenhower with forcing peace in Korea and saving Taiwan, the actual impact of such threats is far less clear.

China plays an interesting role in this chapter. A question came up in the comment thread of the last installment about the role of the China lobby; I’ve responded a bit at the end of that thread. Chiang Kai Shek proved a real problem for Eisenhower and Dulles. The competitive pressures of the Cold War were exacerbated by the fact that domestic supporters of CKS and the Nationalists were ready to pounce on any indication of a weakening commitment to Taiwan. Mao’s victory, after all, had served as the proximate cause for the rise of Joseph McCarthy. Concerned about the security of Taiwan, Eisenhower and Dulles felt compelled to take risks in defense of Quemoy and Matsu, tiny islands off the mainland that were still held by the Nationalists. At this point, the US still felt comfortable in making explicit or very thinly veiled nuclear threats, although it’s unclear just how seriously Mao took such promises. Policy towards the PRC ossified under Eisenhower, as the administration had no interest whatsoever in risking the defection of the right wing of the Republican party, or in opening itself to attack from the right by the Democrats.

Europe, of course, also presented certain difficulties. Eisenhower’s response to the Suez Crisis was, in my view, about as well-crafted as could be expected. I understand that some Israelis still argue that, if only Nasser could have been deposed in 1956, Israel’s security could have been confirmed in the long term. This is plainly insane, for reasons that don’t really need elaboration. In any case, Eisenhower made clear that France and the United Kingdom would be left to the tender mercies of the Soviet Union if they did not desist, and both relented, suitably chastised. This event, along with the rearmament of West Germany, helped to solidify the asymmetric nature of the US relationship with Great Britain, if not with France, and consequently with most of the rest of Western Europe. It’s also interesting to note that US policymakers felt some affinity with religious Muslims, both in the Arab world and in Pakistan.

Herring makes the case that the collapse of relations between the United States and Cuba was mainly the fault of Castro. This is to say that Castro’s vision of Cuba didn’t have a lot of room for the United States; the Eisenhower administration was surprisingly flexible, turning on Batista towards the end and extending feelers towards the new regime. For Castro, however, alienating the United States was a feature, not a bug. Herring is skeptical that the United States could have engaged in any policy that would have produced amity with Cuba, although the invasion and the continuing efforts at destabilization and assassination (which he details in the next chapter) probably didn’t help.

Castro was, I think, the fourth of the “little Hitlers” that emerged during the 1950s. The others were Mao, Khruschev, and Nasser. The Munich Analogy loomed very large in the minds of US policymakers, and there was deep concern that threats were not being identified and reacted to with sufficient speed. The administration’s defense strategy contributed to this; it was difficult to respond to some crises without reference to nuclear weapons, which proved a very limited tool for making countries do what the US wanted. It’s never precisely one or the other, but I do tend to be somewhat more tolerant of the use of the Munich Analogy by people who actually lived through World War II, rather than its use by those who simply wish to screech “Chamberlain!!!!” at any opponent of aggressive military action.

Kennedy, Johnson, and chapter XVI come tomorrow…

Further thoughts on the politics of law

[ 0 ] April 4, 2009 |

Since this post has occasioned much unhappiness, I’d like to respond to a few points.

(1) The primary defense for open-ended judicial review that deploys vague constitutional generalities (equal protection, substantive due process etc) appears to be that we’ve always done things this way and what about Brown v. Board of Education? As to the first point, as i mentioned in the original linked piece that’s the same argument from tradition that the Iowa AG used to defend the traditional definition of marriage. As to the second, no one ever seems to note that Brown didn’t do much of anything to desegregate schools in the US, let alone dismantle Jim Crow. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was vastly more important in terms of actually accomplishing something beyond Brown’s almost purely symbolic function. The same could be said about a lot of other progressive political issues. On this see Gerald Rosenberg’s book The Hollow Hope.

A related claim is that aggressive judicial review isn’t going to go away, it’s certainly going to be exploited by the Right, so one might as well make hay when the sun shines. OK fine but that doesn’t mean one has to pretend the enterprise is intellectually respectable. To put it bluntly, nobody except a few law professors and other professional geeks cares how courts rationalize their decisions: what people care about are substantive political outcomes. So I see no point in pretending about what’s going on.

(2) The argument is made that if one thinks that multi-tiered means-ends scrutiny is basically a bunch of conclusory bullshit, this means you’re a legal nihilist. This makes about as much sense as claiming that if you don’t believe in unicorns you’re a biological nihilist. “The law” constrains judges and other legal actors in countless ways, sometimes a lot (no 17-year-old presidents, California doesn’t get five senators and so on). This isn’t because of some inherent quality of the legal materials, but rather because of the beliefs of legal and other political actors about what counts as a respectable legal argument — something that’s always changing to some extent. Substantive due process reasoning and equal protection arguments are currently quite open-ended in this regard.

(3) Bush v. Gore is a ridiculously transparent bit of circular question begging, but in this regard it isn’t any different than a lot of other SCOTUS opinions. It certainly isn’t any more absurd than, say, Roe v. Wade, which legal academics have been re-writing non-stop for the past 35 years to try to come up with a more respectable basis for their policy preferences in the guise of “constitutional law.” I’m deeply sorry if this offends peoples’ delicate sensibilities, but I can’t take any of that stuff seriously despite many years of trying. It’s all, to paraphrase Jeremy Bentham on The Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man, nonsense on stilts. What surprises me is that people who routinely mock metaphysical concepts when they come wrapped up in traditional theological guises fall all over themselves defending the supposed actual existence of “legal rights” and “constitutional principles,” and “binding precedents,” and all other manner of mysterious entities that make up that most mysterious of God substitutes, “the Rule of Law.”

(4) The arguments in the Iowa case all apply in spades to polygamy — except polygamy has been an extremely common social institutuion for thousands of years, and more to the point has been violently supressed by the US government, for reasons that had more to do with rank religious bigotry than with anything else. Now obviously there are other differences between polygamy and gay marriage. It could be claimed that polygamy is inherently oppressive of women. Of course this argument could be, and has been, made with considerable force about traditional marriage as well. Furthermore the oppressive quality of some existing polygamous marriages is no doubt exacerbated by their illegality — and indeed a big part of the argument for gay marriage has been that marriage is a bourgeois institution that will de-marginalize gay people who have been marginalized by their legal status. Some radical feminists have opposed gay marriage for that very reason. But all this is beside the point, which is that the question of whether society ought to bear the costs and enjoy the benefits of legal polygamy is a political question, the answer to which is not aided in the least by anything that can in any meaningful sense be considered legal reasoning.

(5) To return to the argument about Jim Crow, anti-miscegenation laws etc., the problem with such arguments, beyond the pragmatic point that judicial review actually did very little to get rid of these practices, is that the argument can be turned around. All sorts of intelligent educated people used to believe all sorts of things we now find horrifying. But unless you take the completely implausible position that changes in intellectual fashion are always for the better, there’s no particular reason to believe that at least some of our views, and more particularly some of the views of some of our judges, won’t be equally horrifying to all right-thinking people 50 years from now. Of course this will come as a deeply shocking assertion to people who believe that their views, unlike those of their benighted predecessors, are based on “reasoned judgment,” as opposed to unthinking prejudice. (And if you think this point of view makes sense, I suggest you think about it some more).

Let’s Calm Down a Bit…

[ 0 ] April 4, 2009 |

MRG forwarded me this piece this morning. I had seen it previously and intended to refrain from comment, but… you know. In general, it’s best not to get one’s defense news from the War Nerd; if you’ve been paying attention to the conversation (in this space and elsewhere) you’ve known about Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles for quite some time, and you have a much better handle on the issue than is presented in the linked article. You know, for example, that we *may* be moving from a world in which it’s impossible to hit a moving aircraft carrier with a ballistic missile to a world in which it’s exceedingly difficult to do so. You know that the targeting and intelligence requirements for such a maneuver are immense, and there there are several steps in the identification-launch-terminal guidance-strike sequence that can be disrupted through a variety of counter-measures. You know that the evidence that the Chinese have a DF-21 capable of such targeting (not to mention the intelligence and communications infrastructure necessary to support the launch) is exceedingly thin.

You also know that professional naval officers have been thinking about this possibility considerably longer, and in considerably more detail, than Gary Brecher has. You know that the Chinese ASBM is hardly the first weapon that was supposed to render aircraft carriers obsolete; cruise missiles and submarines are its notional predecessors. You know that the question of the vulnerability of aircraft carriers has been debated ad nauseum in the Navy and in the larger defense community; to characterize this debate as such…

What does that tell you about the distinguished gentlemen with all the ribbons on their chests who’ve been standing up on carrier bridges looking like they know what they’re doing for the past 50 years?

They’re either stupid or so sleazy they’re willing to make a career commanding ships they goddamn well know are floating coffins for thousands of ranks and dozens of the most expensive gold-plated airplanes in the history of the world

… is so detached from the reality of this conversation as to cross into the surreal.

None of this is to say that military organizations don’t buy obsolete weapons or think in hidebound ways. Nor is it to say that the Navy shouldn’t worry about the threat that Chinese ASBMs might pose to aircraft carriers. They should worry, and they are worrying; the Navy (and the attendant civilian research infrastructure) may not develop a sufficient solution to the problem, but that’s rather the nature of competitive military technological development.

Another reason it’s best not to get one’s defense news from Gary Brecher is that he is, in spite of the intensity of his devotion, often wrong. For example, this is about the most wrong thing one could write about the Blockhouse strategy employed in the Chinese Civil War:

Mao’s military advisor was a German communist cadre named Otto Braun. He took a Chinese name, Li De, but as you can imagine he wasn’t likely to pass for a local, being a classic German military type, a long skinny skeleton with big glasses and even bigger plans. Mao had been fighting the kind of brilliant rural guerrilla warfare he’d learned from the Hunan bandit chiefs. One of these bandit chiefs told Mao, “All you need to know about war is: circle around, circle around, circle around.” Mao took that lesson to heart, because he discovered if his guerrillas didn’t keep moving away from the Nationalists’ front, they’d get ground up.

Otto Braun convinced the Chinese Communist leadership that these bandit tactics were too low-down and no-count for the People’s Liberation Army. He got them to adopt a “Blockhouse Strategy” which was basically exactly what Hezbollah’s “bunker strategy” was. Only it didn’t work. The Nationalist forces attacked Mao’s bunkers, sustained huge losses but kept attacking, and eventually wore down the Communist defenses. That was the pattern of warfare up to 1945: accept huge losses to take enemy territory, because when you do, you will be able to neutralize those territories for good. So it pays off. You lose, say, 300 men taking a section of Maoist territory by overrunning those blockhouses. You’ve now gained a peasant population of, say, 100,000. You now get the return on your losses: you immediately kill any Communist sympathizers in the region and force all the young men to sign up with your army at bayonet-point. You’ve made good your casualties because, once you control the enemy territory, you change it for good, turn it from red to blue.

I’ll concede that the Chinese Civil War involved combat between Nationalist and Communists. Most of the rest is wrong, however. The evidence of Braun’s importance to the People’s Liberation Army comes mostly from Braun himself; the most recent scholarly treatments of this part of the war downplay his significance and influence. To the extent that Braun did have any influence, it was in the direction of more concentrated attacks against Nationalist forces, but he was far from the only voice in the PLA to call for more conventional tactics, and it’s silly to grant him such a large role in a debate that had been raging for several years. The reasons that the PLA shifted to more conventional tactics were two-fold; first, the situation changed (which I detail below), and second, everyone in the PLA (including Mao) understood that the Nationalist Army would eventually have to be defeated in conventional combat. The debate was over when the shift from guerrilla to conventional army would need to be made; at no point did the “low down, no count” nature of bandit warfare prove a very relevant consideration for the CCP. Moreover, there’s a touch of colonialist condescension to the notion that a white dude showed up and the CCP started listening to him. Not everyone is T.E. Lawrence.

Most importantly (pay attention..), the Blockhouse strategy was actually employed by the Nationalists, not the Communists. The PLA didn’t build a bunch of bunkers and let the Nationalists come to them; rather, the Nationalists constructed blockhouses with interlocking fields of fire and illumination in order to limit ChiCom mobility. The Nationalist strategy was fabulously successful; by building additional blockhouses, they were able to successively reduce the circle in which the PLA was able to operate. Under these conditions, mobility was simply no longer an option; the formations that could be infiltrated through the blockhouses grew progressively smaller and less effective. This strategy spelled the end of the Jiangxi Soviet and precipitated the Long March. A German advisor did indeed help develop this strategy, but his name was Hans von Seeckt; longtime fans of German military history will recognize him as the de facto chief of the Reichswehr during most of the 1920s. Chiang Kai Shek had contracted with von Seeckt specifically to develop a strategy that could destroy the Jiangxi Soviet, and it worked.

The takeaway is this; read “Brecher,” if you must, for the entertainment value. Don’t, however, assume that he actually knows that much about what he’s talking about. If you want to stay current on military and defense affairs, you can do much worse than subscribing to Danger Room, Defense Tech, War is Boring, Armchair Generalist, Information Dissemination, Ares, the USNI blog, Abu Muqawama, Attackerman, and Small Wars Journal.