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Sunday Book Review: Mind of War

[ 9 ] April 8, 2012 |

When I assembled a syllabus for this semester’s Airpower seminar, I noted that there appeared to be a pair of biographies of John Boyd; Grant Hammond’s Mind of War, and Robert Coram’s Boyd. Brief reading of reviews and cursory investigation didn’t reveal much in terms of how the differed, so I sought the last refuge of the scoundrel: twitter.  My twitter people told me that both volumes were solid enough, with Coram concentrating more on Boyd the airman and Hammond on Boyd the man.  Given that this was an Airpower seminar, there were obvious reasons for choosing Coram.  However, I thought that after a long semester of delving through the dry texts of airpower theory, my students might have preferred a more personal approach.


Mind of War isn’t an awful book.  There are compelling elements to it, and it certainly paints an interesting picture of John Boyd Polymath.  It describes elements of his thought in great detail, and ably presents his contribution to a number of important projects. But it’s also obvious that the biographer was, in this case, far too close to his subject.  I hasten to add that this was an assessment that my students shared; they still joke about how Boyd was kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being etc. etc.

John Boyd surely did some phenomenal things in his career.  He was a remarkable fighter pilot, both in tacit and explicit senses.  He was able to draw sufficiently robust lessons from air combat to integrate them with physics and engineering know how, thus producing the foundations for two of the most impressive fighter aircraft of the 20th century.  The OODA loop remains a genuinely fascinating and productive theoretical device; for my own part, it helps me understand the effectiveness of the Oregon Ducks offense under Chip Kelly.  For the most part, Hammond doesn’t bother apologizing for the fact that Boyd was apparently a colossal asshole; I’ve read few biographies (short of the obvious, Mussolini et al) where I had less interest in meeting the subject in person.

Hammond goes into a great deal of depth about Boyd’s ideas regarding warfare, competition, conflict, and systems integration. There’s a lot to be learned, unfortunately Hammond often seemed more interested in telling the reader how edgy and insightful Boyd was than in showing it.  To be sure, he did a lot of the latter, but there’s so much of former that it sometimes feels as if we’re getting an argument from authority regarding the genius of John Boyd.  Another way to put it is that Hammond doesn’t seem to trust that the reader will be smart enough to understand just how smart John Boyd was, and therefore he needs to reaffirm the genius of his subject at every turn.  Again, there’s something to this; the reader probably won’t ever produce work as insightful as Boyd’s, but there needs to be a limit to the commitment of a biographer to the subject’s legacy.  It doesn’t help when Hammond carefully concludes, in the final chapter, that Boyd met all of Clausewitz’ criteria for “military genius.”

Here’s a question.  I’m sure that some would disagree with the suggestion that John Boyd and John Warden are the two pre-eminent American airpower theorists of the post-war age, but there’s at least a compelling case to be made for the prominence of each. Part of the point of creating an independent air force was to give aviators and enthusiasts the freedom to develop platform, doctrine, and strategic insight regarding the utility of airpower.  Only by freeing the air force from its support role for the Army, the logic went, could the true potential of airpower be reached.  I have to wonder, then, why both Boyd and Warden had such rocky Air Force careers.  Neither made flag rank, and Hammond argues that Boyd was persona non-grata with the Air Force until very near his death.  Comparatively, the most important theorists of the USAAC and USAAF period seem to have done very well; Billy Mitchell was court marshaled (after reaching flag rank), but Hap Arnold and many of the others associated with the Air Corps Tactical School continued to play very important roles into the Second World War.  Off the top of my head the only really important USAAC officer to resign/get chased out was Claire Chennault, and his fight was more against the bomber mafia than the ground army.  I’d be curious to see whether people think a) I’m misreading the history, b) a maverick career always comes with a cost, service independence notwithstanding, c) there’s a genuine problem with how the USAF approaches innovation, or d) some of the above.

Hammond hedges a bit on Boyd’s legacy. He certainly wants to argue that Boyd had a critical impact on a wide variety of affairs, from corporate governance to military doctrine to aircraft design.  However, the lines are often sketchier than Hammond appears to draw. the story Hammond tells about Boyd’s impact on the Army and the Marine Corps is far too simple; Boyd surely supplied some of the ancillary logic for the return to maneuver warfare after Active Defense, but then the latter was never popular in the Army, and in both the 1980s and 1990s there were many sources of innovation.  By Hammond’s own account the military reform movement failed to bring about much reform. If we are to believe the rest of the Fighter Mafia, Boyd would have loathed both the F-22 and the F-35. Moreover, it’s interesting that the primary utility of F-15 and F-16 now appears to be in their multirole capability; they surely remain excellent air superiority platforms, but they now act mostly as fighter-bombers (and even light strategic bombers in the service of the IDF).

Mind of War is perhaps the only biography I’ve ever read that has made me really, really want to read another biography of the same subject.  It’s not a bad book, exactly, but it works best as a useful supplement for those already deeply steeped in the history of late Cold War airpower, and the fighter mafia in particular.  If I had it to do over again, I’d assign the Coram book in a heartbeat.


Scalia and the Reactionary Mind

[ 16 ] October 20, 2011 |

I promised to say more about Corey Robin’s assessment of Antonin Scalia in The Reactionary Mind, some of which is excerpted here. Before I get to that, I should say that it’s an excellent book I strongly recommend. And one initial complaint notwithstanding, the Ayn Rand chapter (“St. Petersburg in revolt gave us Vladimir Nabokov, Isaiah Berlin and Ayn Rand. The first was a novelist, the second a philosopher. The third was neither but thought she was both…”) is particularly good. Since Bernstein uses both the “could you do better?” and the “but Rand sells lots of books!” arguments, I suppose this goes without saying. You think Dan Brown is a hack? Sorry, but unless you’re Alice Munro I’m afraid you’re not allowed to say it.

On Robin and Scalia, a few reflections:

  • Paul has also discussed this recently, but the relish Scalia often takes in getting things to come out wrong is a particular trademark.   As Robin says, one of the things that make Scalia a more interesting figure  (as well as a marginally better Supreme Court justice) than Alito is that he doesn’t always relish unpleasant results in a conservative direction.   His confrontation clause jurisprudence is another good example.  There is a certain conservatism inherent in Scalia’s distinctive preference for struggle and tough choices based on clear rules, as John Holbo’s classic review of Dead Right reminds us vividly.  But sometimes it actually constrains what we might expect are his policy preferences.   (Just as, for that matter, Frum is a lot more interesting that Bill Kristol.)
  • It should be noted, however, that there are distinct limits to Scalia’s duresse oblige.  This is most visible is most visible in his Fourteenth Amendment jurisprudence, which is a complete mess even if we leave Bush v. Gore out of it.  (Which we shouldn’t; as Robin says Scalia’s telling people to “get over it” as if his lawless expedience represented a tough choice required by law is a defining moment.)     When the amendment that defines the post-Civil War constitutional order is concerned, Scalia makes sure everything comes out right — in the sense of preserving traditional racial and gender hierarchies.
  • To the extent that I have a different take, then, it’s that I don’t think that originalism is very important to Scalia’s jurisprudence at all.  Tradition, yes, but not originalism.   Scalia’s dissent in U.S. v. Virginia has a lot to say about how discrimination against women is deeply rooted in American political culture (and is, therefore, constitutionally self-justifying) but very little to say about the text, structure, and purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment.   Like most  “originalists,” Scalia has rarely shown a deep or sustained interest in constitutional history.   Even the law-office history in Heller isn’t all that common to his jurisprudence.    Much more instructive is his conduct in the follow-up case McDonald v. Chicago, in which both at oral argument and his separate opinion Scalia was contemptuous of Thomas’s arguments that the Court should try to correct the hash the Court made of the privileges and immunities clause in the Slaughterhouse Cases.
  • To put it another way, Robin argues that “Scalia’s philosophy of constitutional interpretation — variously called originalism, original meaning, or original public meaning — is often confused with original intention.”   As I’ve argued in more detail before, I think that in practice this is meaningless distinction; essentially, “original meaning” involves consulting the same sources of evidence and making the same types of arguments as “original intention.”   The only difference is that the former is superficially more plausible.   It’s relevant only because 99% of the time invocations of originalism are a rhetorical strategy — a way of implying that opponents are just ignoring the Constitution — rather than a grand theory that governs judicial interpretation.   Scalia — who gets credit for being a principled originalist even though originalism doesn’t have a lot to do with his actual jurisprudence — is a case in point.

At any rate, almost any part of the book inspires a lot of thought, so it’s definitely worth checking out.

Sunday Book Review: The East Moves West

[ 3 ] July 17, 2011 |

This is the fifth of an eight part series on the 2011 Patterson Summer Reading List.

  1. Paul Collier, The Plundered Planet
  2. Greg Mortenson, Stones into Schools
  3. Jason Stearns, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters
  4. CJ Chivers, The Gun
  5. Geoffrey Kemp, The East Moves West

Geoffrey Kemp’s The East Moves West is not written in a particularly engaging manner, nor does it have much of a core narrative.  Kemp argues that energy economics will force East Asia and West Asia to maintain closer economic ties in the future.  He exhaustively demonstrates that East Asia and Southwest Asia already have substantial economic ties, centered mainly around resource extraction. He details some of the social and geopolitical implications of these ties, including their relevance for the relationships between US East Asian allies (Japan, South Korea) and Middle Eastern states that have difficult relations with the United States.

As a book, The East Moves West has all the charm of a collection of wikipedia entries.  There are a few interesting stories, including the tale of Saudi Arabia’s purchase of useless ballistic missiles from China, and the chapter on Israeli relations with East Asia is pretty good.  Read this book, and you’ll know more about the economics of Asia.  Beyond that, there are no earth-shattering insights or hypotheses, or revelations of particularly interesting data.  East Asia and South Asia are becoming more dependent on Middle Eastern oil, and the Middle East is becoming more dependent on East and South Asian money.


Sunday Book Review: The Gun

[ 31 ] July 10, 2011 |

This is the fourth of an eight part series on the 2011 Patterson Summer Reading List.

  1. Paul Collier, The Plundered Planet
  2. Greg Mortenson, Stones into Schools
  3. Jason Stearns, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters
  4. CJ Chivers, The Gun

The Gun is the second book in four years on the topic of the AK-47. I haven’t yet had the opportunity to read Larry Kahaner’s AK-47: The Weapon that Changed the Face of War, but readers and reviewers generally seem to prefer Chivers account. Although billed as a book about the AK-47, The Gun is really more of a history of automatic weapons, with particular attention paid to the Kalashnikov and its design process.

Chivers story effectively begins with the development of a series of different models of automatic weapon in the US Civil War.  The US Army (usually for good reason) was unwilling to entertain adopting most of these weapons, although the Gatling Gun would become part of the official US inventory at the end of the war (several early models had found their way into unofficial use).  Gatling’s crank system then found its way into other armies, including British and French colonial forces and Russian Far East and Caucausus units.  Chivers describes the (sometimes painfully) slow realization by major armies of the utility of the weapon, but then relates how effective the crank automatic became in colonial fighting.  Later, the smaller and more reliable Maxim gun would give colonial forces an insurmountable advantage over subjugated populations,whether in Africa, Central Asia, or the Americas.  The machine gun pushed its way into continental European warfare with a false start in the Franco-Prussian War, and then with full maturity by the First World War. Chivers gives a fantastic account of how individual lines of automatic weapons matured across the industrial production process.  The first Gatling guns were startling effective, but also quite troublesome; even if the US Army had been more visionary regarding their use, it would have faced the teething troubles associated with immature weapon systems.  The same issues would face the Maxim gun, the AK-47, and eventually the M-16.

Chivers places the AK-47 firmly within the context of the Soviet military-industrial complex.  In doing so, he tries to dispel many of the myths that have developed (and been constructed) around Mikhail Kalashnikov, the most important member of the design team that created the rifle.  Kalashnikov has become a legendary figure, treated in some accounts a an isolated genius discarded by a system uninterested in individual achievement.  Chivers shows that this picture is wrong, although he sometimes veers close to the building and burning of strawmen regarding the legend of Kalashnikov.  Towards the end of  World War II, the Red Army recognized the promise of a weapon with characteristics broadly along the lines of the AK-47, combining the characteristics of an infantry rifle with a submachine gun. Various teams were invited to compete to submit designs, with Kalashnikov leading the team that eventually won.  The AK-47 differed from many (but not all) in its durability, ease of construction, and ease of use, characteristics which helped it win the competition.  Kalashnikov’s team freely borrowed innovations from other designs, a practice that was both extremely productive and completely in line with Soviet industrial practice. The initial production models provide the foundation for what we now know as the AK-47 family of rifles.

Chivers is also careful to place the spread of the AK-47 in the context of Soviet foreign and industrial policy.  The Soviet economy, as we now, was exceedingly adept at certain tasks and very bad at others.  For example, it was good at building lots of simple machine equipment, and bad at assessing market demand.  Consequently, the USSR would dramatically overproduce the AK-47 and its brethren over the course of the Cold War. It would export the technology to build AK-47s to many foreign countries, many of which would also overproduce the gun. The USSR would use the AK-47 as a foreign policy chit, exporting it to whichever countries or rebel groups were willing to pay lip service to Soviet foreign policy goals.  Consequently, the AK-47 became the weapon of choice across a vast family of countries, rebel groups, and terrorist organizations.  Chivers makes clear that this development was the result of Soviet foreign and industrial policy, rather than a “market driven” process; as an independent entrepreneur, Kalashnikov could not have invented, produced, or exported the rifle on anything approaching the scale that has been seen since 1950. The collapse of the Soviet bloc made a tremendous number of rifles available, swamping the market (although, Chivers carefully points out, never to the extent that you could trade a Kalashnikov for a chicken).

As I suggest earlier, there’s an element of anti-hagiography to Chivers’ discussion of Kalashnikov.  Chivers points out the considerable ambiguity regarding both Kalashnikov’s biography and his contribution to the weapon.  Kalashnikov himself tells many different stories of his origins, and his account of the development of the AK-47 differs in key details from those of others present in the process.  Nevertheless, even in Chivers’ account it’s hard for me to see how anyone (besides perhaps Stalin) has more of a claim to be the “father” of the AK-47 than Mikhail Kalashnikov.  Chivers points out that Kalashnikov’s work has hardly gone unrewarded; he was the Soviet equivalent of a star celebrity, and now lives a comfortable retirement on the pension of a lieutenant general.  Given that Kalashnikov grew up in Stalin’s USSR, I’m willing to cut him more than a little slack on honesty issues.

For the sake of comparison, Chivers gives an account of the M-16, arguing that both the American weapon (at least in its first decade) and the American process of procurement were inferior to their Soviet counterparts. The US Army was slow to recognize the threat and promise of an effective assault rifle, then leapt to the M-16 almost in a panic when it recognized the vulnerability created by the AK.  The selection of the M-16 was also affected by private economic interest, as well as a series of misunderstandings about technology within the McNamara Pentagon. Consequently, the United States entered the most intense parts of the Vietnam War with a weapon that simply wasn’t ready for prime time.  Over time the M-16 improved, just as later models of the AK improved on early defects and manufacturing issues.

Chivers also has an interesting story to tell regarding American and Russian understandings of military technology.  His account conforms broadly with that set forth in Dima Adamsky’s The Culture of Military Innovation; the US military-industrial complex has been particularly adept at perfecting technologies within a specific understanding of how military force can be used.  The Russians (then the Soviets, then the Russians again) are better at realizing the potentially revolutionary aspects of particular weapon technologies than they are at developing the advanced technologies themselves.  Indeed, it could be argued that the most effective Soviet weapon systems (the AK, the T-34, the MiG-21) were the fruits of integrating relatively mature technologies guided by a clear vision of the military and political impact of the weapon.

Near the end of the book Chivers has an interesting aside on the question of how and why the AK-47 will become “obsolete.”  He points out that even the AK deteriorates over time; although fighters in Afghanistan are still using weapons built in the 1950s, the parts don’t last forever, and we can envision a world (perhaps some fifty years after the last AK has been built) when the last AK will be fired in anger.  I wonder, though, what factors could motivate an “end” to the AK-47.  It’s not a perfect weapon, but then no gun can be.  It’s difficult to imagine what could replace the AK, and in so doing make the AK no longer useful, in the sense that a sword is no longer a useful weapon of war.  The invention of cheap, portable phasers? Or perhaps this is the wrong way to think about it; the end of the AK-47 will be brought about not by a change in technology, but rather by a change in the political and social factors that made it such a useful tool in the first place.

The Gun isn’t perfect.  Chivers includes some discussion of the impact of the AK-47 in wars, brushfire or no, across the world, but doesn’t bring the same satisfying level of detail that he provides regarding the production and design of the weapon.  Indeed, he gives a tighter account of the effect of machine guns in the trenches in World War I than of the AK in the jungles of the Cold War and post-Cold War eras. Those seeking a technical account of the AK and its various models will be, Chivers is careful to assure the reader, disappointed.  Nevertheless, The Gun is an excellent, useful account of the development of automatic weapons, and in particular of the most commonly employed automatic weapon of the past fifty years.

Sunday Book Review: Dancing in the Glory of Monsters

[ 9 ] July 3, 2011 |

This is the third of an eight part series on the 2011 Patterson Summer Reading List.

  1. Paul Collier, The Plundered Planet
  2. Greg Mortenson, Stones into Schools
  3. Jason Stearns, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters made almost everyone’s short list for inclusion as a 2011 Patterson Summer Reading.  Stearns, who blogs at Congo Siasa, has written a relatively concise history of Congo wars of the 1990s and early 2000s.  It is now commonplace to describe these wars as “Africa’s World War I,” although this phrasing does violence to the actual causes, course, and conduct of the war in Congo.  The first war was mostly featured Rwanda and Uganda fighting against Mobutu’s Zaire, with the former getting an assist from Zaire’s neighbors and the latter from Hutu refugees of the RPF’s conquest of Rwanda.  The second war initially pitted Rwanda and Uganda against Laurent Kabila’s successor state, although the anti-Kabila alliance eventually broke down.

Stearns managed to get a fantastic set of interviews with individuals from all aspects of the conflict.  These include conversations with characters who go rather beyond the descriptor “shady”; Stearns talks to people who have both perpetrated and been the victims of brutal massacres.  Stearns is interested is debunking the idea that the brutality of the Congo wars was something dark, mystical, and quasi-mythical, and to put the violence in the understandable political terms.  The obviously horrific (and Stearns includes many horrific details) nature of the fight tends to make Western audiences uninterested in probing the political, economic, and social determinants of the conflict, as well as to ignore the possibility of productive resolutions.  In short, Stearns wants to humanize the conflict, and he begins by talking to human beings.

Stearns account of the development and collapse of the Congolese Army is particularly well done.  He explains that the refusal of the Belgians to allow Congolese to serve as officers or senior non-coms left the post-colonial army entirely bereft of a leadership cadre. Congo lacked the kind of cohesive, experienced rebel group that could have been integrated into the Army, but in the long term this might not have mattered, anyway.  Mobutu had little to no interest in maintaining a strong, cohesive officer corps, as such an institution would have threatened his control of the state apparatus. While Zaire had plenty of well trained, well educated officers (mostly through foreign training programs) but these officers were never able to develop the institutional core necessary for a well-functioning organization.  The fact that Mobutu displayed little interest in the training, upkeep, or even paying of conscripts didn’t help matters.  By the time the war came, Zaire’s army was badly outclassed in terms of training and morale by Rwandan and Ugandan forces. As it became clear to individual officers and soldiers that the chances of success were iffy, the entire institution collapsed.

How did the war become so large? Stearns explains that Mobutu never really feared foreign invasion, and felt free to give sanctuary to whichever foreign insurgent groups suited him at a given time.  This created a fair degree of animosity with many of Congo’s neighbors.  Stearns mostly rejects the idea that foreign intervention was geared toward seizing Congo’s resource wealh, preferring political explanations.  The difficulty that foreign powers faced in maintaining control of Congolese territory, as well as the general reluctance (other than by Uganda and Rwanda) to maintain long-term deployment on Congolese soil, supports this argument.  Foreign intervention in the war was generally designed to accomplish specific political goals, rather than to establish permanent presence.

Uganda and Rwanda were, of course, different.  The Rwandans do not come off well in Stearns account.  While the insistence of the RPF on pursuing Hutu militias is understandable, Stearns makes clear that the Rwandans had little interest in facilitating the development of stability in Congo.  The RPF and its allies conducted many brutal massacres in both wars, often targeted against civilians who had played no role in the 1994 genocide.  The RPF used the memory of the genocide to shield itself from international criticism; the international community had effectively decided that the Tutsis were the “good guys” and that their behavior wouldn’t be overly scrutinized.  This decision had an exceedingly negative impact on the course of events in both Congo wars.

Similarly, the international community comes off poorly.  Stearns is highly critical of the dual decision to maintain Hutu refugee camps in  Zaire, while not separating the Hutu military and political elite from the population.  This decision facilitated the continued control of the old regime, including its ability to launch military attacks into Rwanda.  Mobutu cooperated with the Hutu elite, and eventual Kabila would try to co-opt Hutu soldiers and insurgents into his own national forces.  While it’s true that many Hutu suffered severe reprisals upon returning to Rwanda, Stearns is of the view that the bulk of the Hutu population was ambivalent at best about the refugee camps.  Freed from control of the militias, many returned to Rwanda more or less of their own accord.  Had the international community more carefully considered the consequences of establishing what amounted to insurgent safe havens in Congo (including a captive population upon which to draw on), Rwanda might have been less enthusiastic about pursuing war in Congo.

The Rwandans also took advantage of the norms and rules of domestic and international conflict.  They realized that the international community takes a very grim view of an invasion across established international borders, but that it’s almost indifferent to domestic insurgencies.  The Rwandan and Ugandan invasion quickly became cloaked behind a group of domestic insurgent groups that had long worked against Mobutu; thus the resurrection of the career of Laurent Kabila.  With domestic allies and the memory of 1994, Rwanda could carry out both the first and second wars without overmuch interference from the West.

Stearns military history of the wars is uneven, and will probably leave many unsatisfied.  I suspect that part of his problem has to do with anticipated audience; many readers will want a history of the past twenty years without having much interest in specific engagements.  Also, the two wars don’t lend themselves well to a history of decisive engagements.  Nevertheless, Stearns presents several outstanding set pieces of battles between the various parties. In particular, his account of the Battle of Pepa is wonderful, highlighting the expertise of Rwandan and Burundian forces in infiltration attacks against set Congolese defenses. Stearns also has a very good sense of the determinants of military effectiveness, as demonstrated by the careful attention he pays to the organizational characteristics of the Congolese and Rwandan armed forces.

Stearns story loses a little bit of clarity after the death of Laurent Kabila and the ascension to power of his son. Part of the problem is structure and timing; the old man’s death is followed by a series of unrelated events in other parts of the country, and then by a careful analysis of theories of Kabila’s assassination.   Stearns gives a good account of the strengths and weaknesses of Joseph Kabila, indicating that the current President has demonstrated unlikely skill in maintaining power and making peace, but that he has of yet demonstrated little interest or capability in developing the Congolese state or pursuing serious democratic reform.

Still, it’s hard not to be a bit more optimistic about the future of Congo after reading this book.  Stearns’ purpose was to render the combatants in the conflict human, to portray who they are and what they did in rational, understandable terms.  He mostly succeeds, even as he can’t fully explain the most brutal violence of the war. Resolving the conflict depends on the development of stable institutions and of trust, which is obviously exceedingly difficult.  Having a  sense of who the players are and why they do the things that they do, however, is an improvement on the notion that Congo is simply an irreducible, inexplicable mess.

Alongside the Patterson reading list I’ve been reading James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed, which tells the story of state development across highlands and lowlands in Southeast Asia.  Reading anything while reading anything by James Scott is an intellectually productive exercise.  Scott’s account of the difficulty of exerting state control over changes in elevation explains much about the inability of Zaire to control its northwest borderlands, as well as of the general difficulty of building state institutions across the expansive state territory.  Scott points out that the last fifty years have seen the development of technologies and social structures that allow the modern state to exert control over heretofore impenetrable terrain. These include the airplane, good roads, railroads, and mass media penetration. However, few of these technologies are available to state-builders in Congo.  This makes me skeptical that any Congolese leadership can do much more than manage a broad alliance of ethnic groups and warlords.  Any model for the near future of the Congo would seem to have to take into account the serious difficulties of statebuilding, and might more resemble a quasi-feudal empire than a modern state.

In the next few days I hope to have a longish post on the prospects for South Sudan, which will necessarily include reference to the arguments made by Stearns.  One question that I’m interested in is the development of “best practices” statecraft, or of a set of rules, norms, and procedures that new states and rulers could follow in the process of building and maintaining state capacity.  In the context of Congo, this means asking questions like “What could Lumumba have done? Or Mobutu? Or Kabila?”  We have all kinds of tools for assessing the mistakes that post-colonial rulers committed, and rather fewer tools for thinking about how they might have done better.  Stearns is very good on the former, and I think he opens some useful space on the latter.

Tommy Gun: For Shooting Dangerous or Delicious Animals

[ 47 ] July 2, 2011 |

Reading CJ Chivers’ The Gun, which is more of a history of automatic firearms than of the AK-47 itself. He mentions this advertisement, which is just 95 kinds of awesome. The idea of fighting off rustlers and other miscreants with a Tommy gun is shockingly appealing to me.  It’s not quite the same as hunting deer with an AK on full automatic, but it’s still a very interesting cultural artifact.  The Tommy gun itself became a symbol of (ultra sexy) gangsterism shortly after its introduction, but Thompson first tried to sell it to gangsters by putting it in a cowboy/Western setting. A couple of thoughts:

1. Are there any Westerns that feature a Tommy gun?  I know we see automatic weapons in The Outlaw Josey Wales and A Fistful of Dollars, but I can’t remember any submachine guns, even ahistorical ones.

2. If the answer to the first question is “No,” does anyone else think that Clint Eastwood has the responsibility to direct and star in a Tommy gun themed Western before he dies?

UPDATE [SL]: The basis for the script is already out there!

Sunday Book Review: Area 51

[ 25 ] June 5, 2011 |

This is a guest post by Jonathan Gitlin of Ars Technica

A couple of weeks ago, there was quite a bit of press about a new book, ‘Area 51 – An Uncensored History‘ by Annie Jacobsen. As a self-respecting plane nerd, especially one that grew up reading too many Dale Brown books, it wasn’t a hard decision to read it. Sadly, what looks at first glance to be a readable and well-sourced history of secret aviation projects based at Groom Lake, NV ends up making such ludicrous claims that a reader with even the slightest grasp of 1940s science (or reality, for that matter) will find impossible to swallow.

In the late 1940s it became apparent to the US atomic weapons program that being able to conduct nuclear tests somewhere more convenient than remote Pacific atolls was probably a good idea. Thus was born the Nevada Test Site, an expanse of desert, mountains, dry lake beds, and other stuff that wasn’t important enough to prevent the government from detonating nuclear weapons there.  The test site is bordered by the even bigger Nevada Test and Training Range (nee Nellis Air Force Range), and Groom Lake is a dry lake bed that belongs to one or the other, depending on where you look.

In 1955, the CIA wanted somewhere they could test and develop a new spy plane, the U-2. Groom Lake offered them the privacy and security they wanted, and was designated Area 51 (fitting in with the naming convention for the test site). Development of Project Oxcart, the CIA’s A-12 plane that eventually became the SR-71, also happened at Groom Lake, as (presumably, since it’s not declassified) all the more recent work on stealth technology. Jacobsen recounts a history of these programs, based on published memoirs as well as interviews with people who were there, and if that were all the book dealt with it would be a welcome addition to the plane nerd’s library.

But no, Jacobsen couldn’t leave it at that. My first inkling that something was off was the first chapter and the story of Bob Lazar, who allegedly worked at Area 51 and gained notoriety for claiming that he saw alien technology being reverse engineered there. Thanks to its veil of secrecy, the nature of the weird planes that are tested there, and people like Bob Lazar, the gullible are happy to believe that Area 51 is where the US keeps all its crashed flying saucers and the like. Jacobsen evidently isn’t that gullible; even she rightly regards the idea of a secret lair full of alien technology as patent nonsense. For many of the following chapters this streak of nuttiness is absent. But later in the book it begins to creep back in, and end with such a preposterous claim that ultimately everything in the book has to be suspect.

After the war, the west and the USSR scoured up as many Nazi scientists and engineers as they could. The US program was called PAPERCLIP, and gave us Werner Von Braun and rockets. According to Jacobsen, the USSR got their hands on the Horten brothers, or at the least their flying wing research, and that what crashed at Roswell NM in 1947 wasn’t alien, but marked with Cyrillic script. So far, so relatively implausible, but it gets worse. You see, Stalin also got Joseph Mengele, according to Jacobsen, and Mengele allegedly created a crew of ‘grotesque, child-sized aviators’ who piloted this craft and whose bodies were recovered in the crash. Yes, you did read that correctly.

Obviously this is all complete bollocks. She alleges that Mengele used organ transplants and genetics to create these poor buggers, but organ transplants weren’t feasible until the development of immunosuppressive drugs in the 1960s. As for the genetic engineering, it’s even more risible. Thanks to Stalin’s patronage of Lysenko, Soviet science had been, and continued, down the wrong tracks for decades. Watson and Crick only worked out the mechanism behind DNA in 1957, and genetic manipulation started in the 1970s. Futhermore, we’re supposed to believe that in 1947 the USSR had advanced flying hover planes that could cross continents, but which somehow utterly failed to influence postwar Soviet aviation as we know it. Oh, and despite the fall of communism, not a single word of this has managed to leak out of Russia? Um, yeah…

The story about soviet child pilots isn’t even a new one. Bill Sweetman at Aviation Week recounts that it was the plot of a 1956 story by James Blish, and in his review gives a possible explanation as to why Jacobsen went down this ludicrous alley:

I know exactly why this happened, from personal experience. A couple of times I have taken Area 51 ideas to agents and had the same response: You need something that will make headlines.

As a form of disinformation, Jacobsen’s book works brilliantly; the batshit insane stuff does enough to poison the credibility of everything she alleges that hasn’t appeared in other, more respectable sources. I’m reminded a bit of Nick Cook’s book, The Hunt for Zero Point, in which a respected reporter at Jane’s makes the case that zee Germans unlocked the secret of antigravity and that the US got hold of this technology. Except that, if anything, I find Cook’s book slightly more plausible.

Wider Impact

[ 4 ] April 30, 2011 |

Cameron McWhirter on the impact of the Mortenson scandal:

Grass-roots nonprofits across the country now find themselves under intense scrutiny because of the Mortenson scandal. Many are considering going to new lengths to demonstrate to potential donors that they are on the up-and-up. All are bracing for an impact on giving. Many foundations and wealthy donors now are cautious because of “reputational risk” if they give to an organization that falters.

The scandal is the talk of the nonprofit community—though many won’t talk about it on the record. More extensive auditing is likely to result, according to Jim Zoiklowski, founder and president of BuildOn, a nonprofit that runs afterschool programs in American cities and builds schools abroad.

“Anything like this out there in the media can shake stakeholder confidence,” he said. “It’s going to elevate the scrutiny, elevate the expectations.”

Several groups that rate charities are rethinking the way they assess organizations, and others are working hard to get the word out about their rankings. Charity Navigator, one of the largest charity-watch sites, gave Mr. Mortenson’s institute four stars—its highest rating—but now has a large “donor warning” label in red for the group, with links to the recent stories.

For what it’s worth, we’re keeping Mortenson on our summer reading list at Patterson. The reasons are to indicate the difficulty of monitoring NGO behavior, as well as to familiarize students with the controversy over Mortenson’s work. We’ll certainly be supplementing with a selection of articles about Mortenson and CAI.

Least Contrarian Contrarianism Ever

[ 21 ] April 16, 2011 |

I have no idea if the jacket copy is an accurate description of the contents, and the book seems interesting anyway, but this made me laugh when I came across it in a bookstore recently:

In 1868 Congress impeached President Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, the man who had succeeded the murdered Lincoln, bringing the nation to the brink of a second civil war.

David Stewart challenges the traditional version of this pivotal moment in American history. Rather than seeing Johnson as Abraham Lincoln’s political heir, Stewart explains how the Tennessean squandered Lincoln’s political legacy of equality and fairness and helped force the freed slaves into a brutal form of agricultural peonage across the South.

My question: who the hell thinks Johnson was Lincoln’s political heir? Perhaps I’m wrong, but my impression is that the Dunning School didn’t think that Lincoln and Johnson shared a vision; they just preferred the latter’s.

Anyway, back to work on my book that uses Marbury v. Madison to challenge the conventional view that Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall were best friends working together to implement a common vision of national government.

Imaginary Stones to Imaginary Schools?

[ 4 ] April 16, 2011 |

This is one of those things that is disappointing, but not at all surprising:

“You would hope that they would be spending a lot more on the schools in Pakistan than they would on book-related costs,” says Borochoff. “Why doesn’t Mr. Mortenson spend his own money on the book-related costs? He’s the one getting the revenues,” Borochoff tells Kroft.

“60 Minutes” also checked on schools that CAI claims to have built in Pakistan and Afghanistan and found that some of them were empty, built by somebody else, or simply didn’t exist at all. The principals of a number of schools said they had not received any money from CAI in years.

Krakauer says a former board member of CAI told him he should stop giving money to Mortenson’s charity years ago. “In 2002, [Mortenson’s] board treasurer quit, resigned, along with the board president and two other board members…he said, in so many words, that Greg uses Central Asia Institute as his private ATM machine. That there’s no accounting. He has no receipts,” says Krakauer.

“60 Minutes” asked Mortenson several times for an interview, but he has not responded. CAI’s two other board members also did not respond to phone calls and e-mails requesting comment.

Obviously it doesn’t look great for Mortenson, but I’ll be interested to see if he has any kind of response. The position of Stones into Schools on the Patterson Summer Reading List may be in jeopardy…

Sunday Book Review: Matterhorn

[ 13 ] January 9, 2011 |

Matterhorn is the Das Boot of the Vietnam-era Marine infantry company.  Two tips when reading Matterhorn: Do NOT get attached to any of the characters, and have NO hope that things are going to get better.  The plot is fairly standard, with a young lieutenant from an Ivy League college is sent to Vietnam to serve in Bravo Company in 1969.  The story isn’t told solely from the viewpoint of our hero (such that he is), but he receives more attention than any of the other characters.  The action is… harrowing, and is centered on efforts to hold, take, and hold a couple of hills near the DMZ in 1969.

It isn’t quite right to say that Bravo Company is the victim of middle management incompetence, but the vagaries of middle management play a large role in the action.  Bravo Company suffers, in no small part, because several mid-career officers can’t quite manage to pull things together.  Still interested in moving up, but lacking either the talent or sobriety to act effectively, these managers find themselves bound up in their own promises, leaving Bravo dangling.  Marlantes does a fantastic job of explaining the situations that these officers faced, and why they made the decisions that they did.  Empathy for Bravo Company simply didn’t pay.  Moreover, Marlantes avoids resort to the Peter Principle, instead having a somewhat different account of competence, middle management, and promotion:

Blakely would have performed a lower-level job just as well as he performed his current job- competently, no perfectly, but well enough to get the work one and stay out of trouble.  He’d make the same sorts of small mistakes, but they’d have a smaller effect.  Instead of sending a company out without food, he might place a machine gun at a disadvantage.  But the Marines under him would make up for mistakes like that.  They’d fight well with the imperfect machine-gun layout.  The casualties would be slightly higher, with slightly fewer enemy dead, but the statistics of perfection never how up in any reporting system.  A victory is reported with the casualties it takes to secure that victory, not the casualties it would have taken if the machine gun had been better placed.  There was nothing sinister in this.  Blakely himself would not be aware that he’d positioned the machine gun poorly.  He’d feel bad about his casualties for a while.

The account of middle management in Matterhorn is reminiscent of both Mailer’s Naked and the Dead and Terrance Malick’s film version of Jones’ Thin Red Line, but is better than either.  Marlantes further emphasizes that modern (Vietnam era) communications exacerbate the middle management problem.  Decisions about the capability and fate of Bravo Company are made with only minimal knowledge of the company’s actual situation, as information only flows one way; the leaders of Bravo Company can’t communicate their own difficulties (it would be professional suicide for them to say “we can’t”) while the managers can communicate new objectives and requirements without any sense of the hardship afflicting the Marines. Our protagonist feels almost afflicted with a desire to move up the ranks, win medals, and win acclaim, even as he doesn’t envision a long career in the Corps.

A recurrent conflict within Bravo Company involves tension between white and black marines.  The Black Power conversations sometimes strike a discordant note.  I genuinely can’t tell whether this is because they’re not well written (Marlantes writes from many viewpoints in Matterhorn, and it would be understandable if he couldn’t master all of them, or if the moment in which such language made sense has passed.  In his introduction to Killer Angels, Michael Shaara suggested that he had considerably toned down the earnestness and sincerity of the soldiers political discussions, because the language that they used simply rang false to modern ears.  Gettysburg is a good deal more distant than Vietnam, but I wonder if the same phenomenon doesn’t introduce the discordant note; we are so distant from this particular form of political rhetoric that it rings false even as it expresses a truth.  Whatever the case, I would say that Marlantes is rather less successful in conveying the verbal expression of racial tension in the Vietnam era Marines than Shaara was in describing the conversations of the combatants at Gettysburg.

I don’t believe I’ve ever read a better description of an infantry assault against a defended position in either fiction or non-fiction.  Bravo Company has to launch two assaults against prepared PAV (People’s Army of Vietnam) defenses, and Marlantes gives a bravura account of the difficulties of such an assault.  Terms such a dead ground, empty battlefield, fire and movement, and suppressive fire will make much more sense after you read this book.  I am curious whether a film version is forthcoming; IMDB doesn’t indicate so, but I’ll be surprised if someone doesn’t try to make a movie of the book.  In this case, close fidelity to the battle scenes will be absolutely essential.  This should be possible, as battle scenes are one case in which chapters of text can be fairly rendered in a couple minutes of screen time.

Although I’ve decided to assign Matterhorn as a quasi-optional reading in my COIN course, it really isn’t precisely about counter-insurgency as we’ve come to appreciate to term.  This is to say that it isn’t about population-centric counter-insurgency; the only Vietnamese we see are either PAV regular or defectors.  The Marines of Bravo Company don’t protect any helpless villagers, but then they don’t burn any villages, either.  The descriptions of the actions bear more similarity to Iraq than to Afghanistan, with formations operating distant from base and encountering regular contact. The plot (and much of the frustration of the characters) is built around the abandonment of a particular hill and fixed defense in preference for the fruitless pursuit of PAV units in another part of the country.

Matterhorn isn’t an anti-war novel, or at least not in the same sense as Small Wars.  It’s difficult to read Matterhorn and come to the conclusion that the Vietnam War was a sensible war fought sensibly, but it’s not clear from the text that Marlantes has any particular view on war as such.  He’s keenly aware of the tension that war places on both young people and on society; Matterhorn certainly doesn’t romanticize conflict, even accidentally. Unlike Full Metal Jacket, I doubt that many young men will read this and decide that the Marines are for them.  Indeed, Marlantes makes reasonably clear that Marine machismo and esprit de corps often serve simply as an excuse for senior officers to engage in brutal abuse of junior officers and enlisted men.  Wounded, no food for a week, and facing harsh Vietnamese opposition?  No problem; it would be an insult to the honor of the Marines of Bravo Company to suggest that they need resupply or reinforcement.  But, and this deserves emphasis, for the most part the Marines do what is asked of them, even when the things that are asked are absurd or impossible.

Matterhorn is a great book.  I highly recommend that you give it some of your time.

Sunday Book Review: Small Wars

[ 3 ] January 2, 2011 |

Sadie Jones’ Small Wars is a novel about British efforts to put down the Greek Cypriot insurgency in the mid-1950s. Jones concentrates on the Treherne family, including Hal, a British military officer, his wife Claire, and their two children.  It’s not quite right to say that the settlement of British military families in the war zone is shocking, but for readers accustomed to the American counter-insurgency experience it’s certainly different.  With Cyprus (as with many of the other conflicts that characterized the dissolution of the French and British empires) there is no pleasant “we’ll stand down as they stand up” light at the end of the tunnel.  The British expect to be in Cyprus for the foreseeable future, and settling the families of officers and soldiers seems a natural way to maintain the empire.

Jones skillfully contrasts the domestic tension of life on the British military base with action in the field against Cypriot rebels.  At times, the action on the base can be more harrowing; the Treherne’s have twin girls about the same age as my own, and I found following their intense illness more difficult than following the pursuit of Greek Cypriot insurgents.  The plot is driven by the interference of war in the domesticity of the British base, resulting in three rapes, one of a British woman and two of Cypriots.  One of the rapes drives the domestic side, while the other two provide the matter for the institutional story of the British Army’s effort to quell the Cypriot insurgency.

The imagery of violation similarly informs the story of the British Army’s efforts to gather intelligence on the insurgency.  One unfortunate (and not fully developed) character witnesses two rapes, guesses at the other, and is a principal cog in the ongoing violation that the torture operations represents.  Perhaps the most affecting passages relate the apprehension of a juvenile terror suspect along a dirt road.  Two British officers drive past a couple of young Cypriots on bicycles when one of the boys panics.  The British officers, who wouldn’t have given the bicyclists a second thought otherwise, of course pursue and apprehend the boy, who is carrying a revolver.  The situation then develops in a predictable way; the boy is arrested, questioned, interrogated, and finally tortured by British and Cypriot authorities.  No “intelligence” results from this, but from the moment the boy panics the machinery of the state has to roll forward.

Jones certainly gives good account of how organizations defend themselves against embarrassment and humiliation.  It really isn’t as if the British Army doesn’t recognize that rape is a problem, or that the soldiers in question ought to be disciplined; almost everyone in the chain of command appreciates both the moral horror and the political damage of the incident.  However, the first impulse is protection of the service; the perpetrators can be dealt with internally, careers can be destroyed, men can be transferred, but a public reckoning must be avoided at all costs.

Our protagonist is no Colonel Mathieu; he graduates from Sandhurst in 1946, firmly believing in King and country but with perhaps a different vision of what it means to defend the Empire than what he eventually performs.  The events which lead him to set aside his duty are believable, even if the concluding chapters seem a bit rushed and rote.  As the novel comes to a close, Jones edges toward broad implications which don’t fit on the narrow workspace that she’s chosen.  Small Wars is a good novel, but not a great one.

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