Monday, May 28, 2012

De Morituris

I have a post that has been my standard for Memorial Day for years. But this year I'd like to think less about those gone than those still here.
Since 2003 the U.S. seems to have slipped into a bizarre schizophrenia. Our attitude towards the expeditionary wars we have ginned up since the end of the punitive campaign in Afghanistan has varied between a cynical resignation to a hesitant distaste. Meanwhile, our attitude towards the ridiculously small, self-selected group of people who have fought them "for" us has varied between a sort of passive bumper-sticker patriotism to an exaggeratedly disproportionate "gratitude". Charlie Pierce has a fairly good summation of this;
"Now, for the veterans of the two wars of the past decade, we're giving them all kinds of favors and goodies and public applause, and maybe even a parade or two, overcompensating our brains out, but, ultimately, what does all the applause mean at the end of the day? We are apparently fine with two more years of vets coming home from Afghanistan, from a war that 60 percent of us say we oppose. But we support The Troops. Will we become a more skeptical nation the next time a bunch of messianic fantasts concoct a war out of lies? Perhaps, but we support The Troops. Will we tax ourselves sufficiently to pay for what it costs to care for the people we send to one endless war and one war based on lies? Well, geez, we'll have to think about that, but we support The Troops."
The Army I joined, the post-Vietnam, pre-Reagan Army of the early Eighties, had a pretty cynical attitude. We'd seen our brothers, the men who were our platoon sergeants and First Sergeants, used up and then tossed away in RIFs after the end of a war that we tried desperately to pretend that we'd "won" because we were never beaten in the field. We referred to the Army as "the Green Machine" and had a pretty good understanding what the priority of "accomplishing the mission" meant to the "welfare of the troops" if the mission meant that a lot of those troops would die for and in the usual ratio of "pointless" to "contributing-to-the-accomplishing-the-mission".
We understood - because we'd seen it or lived through it - that our "leaders" both civilian and military would "lead" us into unprofitable wars, lie to us about their cunning plans to "win" them, and then toss us aside like used contraceptive devices after the inevitable ugly mess ensued. We had heard the rhetoric about "freedom" and "peace" and knew that as often as those terms meant their face value they were a happy-face sticker for "whatever advances our policy" and "make a wasteland". We were ready to do the things our government told us to do while being pretty cynical about the combination of ambition, distraction, uglification, and derision that determined the way our government would decide what those things were and how they would sell them to the herd.

This stands in fairly dramatic contrast to the current volunteer force, where supposedly: "Six out of seven soldiers and Army civilians, [a new study] reveals, trust their senior leaders to make the right decisions for the Army, and 90 percent of those surveyed remain willing to put the Army’s needs above their own."

This trusting and sacrificing seem both disproportionate and inappropriate after the concatenation of lies, damn lies, and statistics that have characterized the "War on Terror". It would seem to me that having watched one administration lie it's way one war and another continue a second long after it's sell-buy date that it would behoove my country and all Americans to pause on the day we set aside to honor those killed in wars and consider just exactly what it means to "trust" their "leaders" with the lives of their fellow citizens absent any indication that that government, and those leaders, are willing to do the hard calculus to ensure that the exchange of those lives in return for the advancement of the national interest is a transaction that justifies the cost in wrecked lives and shattered bodies.

So. I'd like to think that this Memorial Day that my fellow citizens would do more than just pat the yellow-ribbon magnet on their bumper in a hat-tip to those of my fellow soldiers who went to do their nation's bidding and never returned. I'd like to think that those citizens would remember that the intent of the Founders and Framers was that We the People are supposed to be sovereign.

That it is supposed to be in our names those lives are given or taken, and that if we allow - or, worse, encourage - those who we elect to throw those lives away in the pursuit of lies, or impossibilities, and then once those lies and that nonsense are exposed, do not hold those people and ourselves to account, then we have failed to honor our pledge to them, that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
And, hey; I like tradition as much as the next guy.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Forehead of Zeus

I want to invite the patrons here to visit our friend Labrys for a Memorial Day trip to Ft. Maclellan, Alabama for Women's Army Corps Basic Training, 1974.
"I hate running, I hate hot weather. So how on earth did I end up in Women's Army Corps Basic Training in Ft. McClellan, Alabama in August of 1974? I would have done most anything to get the hell out of Kansas. My father laughed and said "So my little girl is joining the Whore Corps."
As much as there is very little that remains of the Army I knew, Labrys brings to life an Army that literally no longer exists except in memory, and does it with her usual frank eloquence.
I can't recommend her post too highly, both for her subject - a piece of U.S. Army life that is almost as forgotten as brown shoes - as well as her writing, which hits like an M-14 round. What better way to spend the Memorial Day weekend? Forget the hamburgs in the grill and go read. You won't regret it.

And don't forget to ask her to keep going - she remembers another place and time that have almost vanished; the U.S. Army, Europe in the Seventies, and the Bavarian glories of Flint Kaserne. Hoch, hoch, Labrys!

Friday, May 25, 2012

From which legends are born

We just returned from a trip to northern Greece with a bunch of our neighbors. It included a stop at the Roupel Fortress (on the Metaxis Line), where some 900 Greek troops held 6,500 Germans with Luftwaffe support at bay for four days. One of the young Greek Army soldiers who are part of the border guards and visitor guide detachment spoke English, so we were able to have a nice chat, in addition to the truly excellent presentation by his colleague, which was in Greek, and thus only partially understandable. Talk about dominant terrain!
The battle is the stuff from which legend is born. The Greek defenders acquitted themselves so well that German General List took two very unusual actions. First, when the garrison fell, he directed that the Greek soldiers be afforded full military courtesy, to include an order that Germans render a proper salute to any Greek of higher rank that they encountered. Second, List did not take any Greeks into captivity, but had them leave their weapons in place and allowed them to safely "rejoin their compatriots" in the city of Serres. None of List's records or reports used the terms "defeat", "surrender" or "retreat" in reference to the Greek Army. Local legend interprets this photo as a German Brigade Commander initiating a salute to the Greek Garrison Commander. We were able to walk through some of the underground facilities. One advantage the Greeks held was that since virtually all of the facilities were underground, German intel was unable to make an estimate of the Greek force defending Roupel Pass. The resistance was so fierce, the Germans over estimated the Greek force by a few orders of magnitude. It was a complete underground base, with only gun ports fighting positions above ground. The "tunnels" have survived quite well since then, attesting to the quality of the construction. Amazing to see the equivalent of a fully underground base. The English speaking soldier said that he enjoyed the assignment. Roupel is in the middle of nowhere, overlooking the Bulgarian border. He alternated between "honor guard" duty for visitors and "border guard". Much of the border protection (primarily to prevent illegal immigration) facilities still use the Metaxis Line positions, so he said he spends every duty day "walking in military history".

Thursday, May 24, 2012

If I had a rocket launcher...

Filed under the heading of "can we have a better effing media" is this article from the LA Times; L.A. gun buyback yields rocket launcher, assault weapons.
"A $2,000 pair of pocket pistols and a military rocket launcher -- sans rocket -- were among the 1,673 firearms that Los Angeles residents traded in for gift cards in the city’s gun buyback this weekend."
reads the first paragraph of this little item.

Charlie Pierce goes wild with this, asking;
"Who in the holy hell goes out and buys a freaking rocket launcher? What are you hunting? Traffic helicopters? And then, who in the holy hell turns it in to the cops? Shouldn't this engage the interest of the FBI's crack Set-Up-The-Loonies unit that has been so successful elsewhere?"
and on the face of it, given the newspaper article, his concern seems like a legitimate one.

But - speaking as someone who has had his rocket launchers in the day - wellll...let's just say that there are "rocket launchers" and "rocket launchers".

If this thing was, say, the "launcher" section from an RPG-7, well, that's bad. That really is a "rocket launcher"; you get your hands on the grenade round and you're in business.
But if this thing was - as I suspect it was - the dunnage from an old LAW or an AT-4, well, frankly, that's just a piece of fiberglass pipe. It's expendable, and is somewhere between difficult and impossible to reload. It's issued as a unit, launcher and projectile, and once it's fired the "launcher's" only real use as a weapon is as a bludgeon and not a very effective one, at that.
I will not disagree that the U.S. is pretty freaking ridiculous on who can tote around what weapon and why, but not sure that the whole "rocket launcher" thing here is really the cherry on the top of the self-licking ice cream sundae.

But you'd never know that from this article, and I suspect that there's one of two reasons for that;

First, it's possible that the LAPD did not produce the "rocket launcher" for the reporter, or describe it other than as such. In which case, one would think that the stupid fucking reporter would have asked an actual question, you know, like reporters in movies do, about the exact nature of this weapon.

Or, second, it's possible that the police DID produce the thing, and the reporter stared at it like a cow at the minutes of the Council of Trent, and ambled away as fucking clueless as he was before seeing it.

It's hard to tell which is worse.

But what is telling is that Charlie had a neat little quote from James Madison in his blog the following day:
“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

-- James Madison to W.T Barry, August 4, 1822
which sums up the utter fuckupitude that this little newspaper article represents.

In our current civilization We the People are asked to make many decisions on issues we have no personal knowledge of, in places we have never visited, and with information perforce supplied by others.

And the only way we can arm ourselves with the power of knowledge on these issues, from wars to traffic law, is through the reportage of others.

But if this article does anything, it shows how a simple question of physical fact - one that could have been clarified with a single, simple question - can be rendered not just completely, utterly useless but actively misleading - "OMFG, there are rocket launchers out there on the streets of LA!!!!" - through the total incompetence and ignorance of one local reporter.

And this is to completely elide the pernicious influence of maliciously deliberate liars of the Glenn Beckian sort.

It remains in me, therefore, no real sense of wonder that we are so thoroughly fucked.

Update 5/24 p.m.: In the Comments section, Andy (one of our most reliable regulars here - the next round's on me, Andy...) does his usual thorough job of fact-finding and tracks this nonsense down further. He finds a photo of this fearsome weapon of mass destruction at the Bakersfield TV station site and notes that it is, as suspected, an inerted training aid - in this case, of a U.S. AT-4.
So, no, the streets of LA are not in danger of becoming Beirut or Ramadi, LA Times, as a few simple questions would have established.


Why, oh why, can we not have a better fricking media?!?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Die Wacht am Rhein

Apropos of U.S. military junketing, for all the minimal level of public discussion regarding the adventuring going on in places like Yemen and Libya, what I find even more fascinating is the utter lack of discussion regarding the fact that more than twenty years after the last mechanic stopped wrenching on the last T-80 assigned to the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany the U.S. still has something like 50,000 troops stationed in the kasernes they occupied when the Red Horde was poised to roll through the Fulda Gap.
Not advocating one way or the other - seriously; I really have no idea whether or not moving these troops or leaving them where they are would have an impact on either the defense budget or the policy of the U.S. - but IMO the complete indifference of any of the usual suspects here in the Land of the Free Because of the Brave to even mentioning the subject is an interesting non-comment on the state of the "public discussion" regarding What Should We Be Spending That Precious Tax Money On.

But perhaps the citizenry and "leadership" is deeply immersed in the important business of discussing what naughty ladies do with their lady parts to make unborn babies, and are thus distracted.

(n/t to Atrios, who brought this up)

Friday, May 18, 2012

A Foreign Affair

According to the reportage of the New York Times, bombing and strafing Libya has, shockingly, failed to weed the garden of Liberty and let freedom reign.

All of this post-intervention militia-fueled chaos had, also shockingly, failed to make so much as a blip on the national geopolitical "discussion". The same people who advocated bombing the Gaddafi regime have been, shockingly, silent about the mess that followed or the very poor prospects for the former dictatorship to go anywhere but down into failed-statedom. Their adversaries - who were fine with bombing so long as it was in Iraq or Afghanistan - are likewise mute. Nobody seems to want to talk about this outside Libya and there, they're too busy shooting the place up to bother.

So we have, on the one side, the neocons and their coterie that advocated "more rubble, less trouble" as an excuse for ginning up a war in southwest Asia that turned a marginally pesky dictatorship into an all-but-Iranian ally and turbulent mess, have not been rebuked, are not repentent, and appear to have suffered no significant consequences for being oh-so-wrong.

And on the other, the liberal interventionists that argued that "helping" the Libyan rebels by flying overhead bombing and strafing their enemies was the functional equivalent of Treaty of Alliance of 1778 and, likewise, appear neither abashed nor upbraided for the mess they have, if not made, at least done little or nothing to solve and may have, in fact, contributed to.

All of this suggests that regardless of which faction rules in Washington the Washington Rules will continue to apply. The U.S. will continue to send its military into foreign disorders, rebellions, and civil wars.

So, as a private citizen I would ask; what should I hope for, at least, in a future foreign intervention to assist my country in spending it's treasure and (perhaps) it's blood wisely. If we're going to play the Game of Thrones, how and where should we play?

To think about how do this, let's look at the history of just major U.S. interventions since WW2 and see if we can find any common threads of success and failure - just the U.S. examples to keep it simple.

Here's the interventions I'd like to look at, starting in 1945. We won't count the occupations of Germany and Japan (though those were extremely successful interventions) as being, in effect, continuations of WW2.

Korea 1950-1953: Success (U.S. objective to deter capture of ROK by DPRK, attained and maintained at present)
Vietnam 1955-1975: Failure (U.S. objective to establish separate RVN not attained)
Lebanon 1958: Success (U.S. objective to back Lebanese government of President Camille Chamoun attained, status quo maintained for 18 years until civil war of 1975)
Dominican Republic 1965: Success (U.S. objective to "stabilize" DomRep post-Trujillo attained by "election" of caudillo President Joaquín Balaguer, 22 years of one-man rule)
El Salvador 1980-1992: Success (U.S. objective to bolster existing Salvadorian government attained, rebellion defeated)
Grenada 1983: Success (U.S. objective to remove remnants of New Jewel Movement and cut ties between Grenada and Cuba attained)
Lebanon 1983: Failure (U.S. objective of supporting the Lebanese government in the ongoing civil war not attained)
Panama 1989-1990: Success (U.S. objective to remove remnants of Torrijos regime and install U.S.-friendly government - recently led by, ironically, the son of Omar Torrijos!)
Kuwait 1991-1992: Success (U.S. objective of restoring territorial integrity of Kuwait attained)
Bosnia 1992-today: Success (U.S. objective of containing Serbia and stabilizing Bosnia/Croatia attained and maintained to present time)
Somalia 1992-1993: Failure (U.S. objective of stabilizing Somalia/Mogadishu not attained)
Kosovo 1999: Success (U.S. objective of functionally supporting Kosovar independence from Serbia attained)
Afghanistan 2002-today: Undetermined, initial Success, but probably long-term Failure (U.S. initial objective of dispersing Al Qaeda and AQ-friendly Taliban regime attained, long-term stability of successor Afghan government in doubt)
Iraq 2003-today: Undetermined, but largely Failure (U.S. initial objective of replacing Hussein regime with compliant pro-U.S. government only partially attained, long-term stability of successor Iraqi government in doubt)
Libya 2011: Undetermined, initial Success, possible, even probable long-term Failure (U.S. objective of removing Gaddafi dictatorship attained, long-term stability of successor regime in doubt)

Where are the successes, and what do they have in common?

Korea, Lebanon 1958, the Dom Rep, El Salvador, Grenada, Panama, Kuwait, and the Balkans all had one or more of the following:

- a relatively stable society and economy, and, often, an extended period of of stability prior unrest and U.S. intervention (even if the stability was dictatorial, or transient; even the Balkans, chaotic as it was in 1992, had been quiescent under Tito showing that civil society was possible again after the shells stopped falling and the Croats and Bosnians were able to use the USAF as their air force to beat the Serbs. The exceptions to this I can think of - El Salvador and the Dom Rep - were not genuinely sound economies, being tilted strongly towards an elite governing class at the expense of the majority that provided one of the central causes of their rebellions. The former has made some land and economic reforms while the latter has not, but in both cases the underlying economic grievances weren't really "solved". Also in both cases it didn't matter - the strong central government and the army aided by U.S. largesse made continued rebellion untenable.)

- a coherent and functional local government for the U.S. to ally with (i.e. someone on the ground to seize and/or hold power once U.S. forces had completed their operations. In the case of Grenada this had to be more-or-less created, but the NJM had not scorched the earth and local politicians were in place to take over.)

The failures are also similar in lacking these elements;

South Vietnamese society was deeply divided between the Francophone/Catholic elites and the Buddhist/Vietnamese populace, and it's economy was similarly imbalanced. Lebanon was well on it's way to being a failed state by 1982, and Somalia was a failed state in 1992. The "economy" of Afghanistan appears to be a huge and largely unaddressed problem with the long-term stability of that mess, and in both Iraq and Libya we see the problems with a petroeconomy in a weak or failing state in that most if not all the benefits are typically hijacked by corrupt, kleptocratic elites.

The failures - especially Lebanon, Somalia, and Libya - are also typically pre-Westphalian (tribal or immediately post-tribal) societies. Strong tribal and sectarian divisions are present in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Similar problems were present in the Balkans, but I think a large part of the difference is that by the time of the U.S. intervention in 1992 an extended period of ethnic cleansing allowed rough homogeneity to coalesce into the Bosnian/Serbian/Croat territories once U.S. airpower helped defeat the irredentist Serbs. A similar process allowed a similar success in Kosovo, and has allowed what success has been attained in Iraq - the end of the insurgency owes as much to the fact that there are no more Shiite and Sunni enclaves for rival militias to make war on as it is the Baghdad government gaining control.

In terms of governments, well, Somalia and Libya just don't have any and never did after their respective dictators were overthrown. South Vietnam had a real problem in that it's government was largely the relict of the French colonial elite. Lebanon in '83 had no groups strong enough to securely hold political power until the Syrians intervened. We established a Shia-majority government in Baghdad but the country has effectively fragmented into a Kurdish mini-state in the north and a south whose relations with the Sunni minority are still problematic. Similarly, the Northern Alliance-based government of Afghanistan is troubled with internal divisions and fundamental kleptocratic dysfunction.

So what do I think should the take-home lesson for our future U.S. global policeman be?

Obviously, the initial calculation should be, as it always should be, is the gain worth the risk? Is there a benefit on the ground to be had from the commitment of U.S. lives, wealth, and political standing?

But, second, I would opine that there are two fundamental conditions to be assayed.

Is the locale fundamentally stable, is there a real, or at least potential, underlying social and political cohesion, and is there a competent local ally available NOW to work with?

If so, then the chances are that the problem really is some sort of transient issue, and that the application of force is capable of destroying divisive or chaotic factions - people and organizations - that are producing the instability and producing an outcome favorable to U.S. geopolics. And once those factions are attacked, the rebels killed or imprisoned, their organizations degraded or destroyed, the local ally is capable of imposing itself on the polity and continuing that favorable outcome at least in the medium-term.

This is likely to be ugly and brutal for the locals, but, remember; we're thinking not like human beings but like a Great Power here. What matters is "results", not human lives.

But...if those conditions are NOT present...

Then the only reason I can see for intervening is if the potential for continued local troubles has a high probability of causing larger, regional or global trouble for the U.S. in the short- or medium-term, or the effort involved will be utterly trivial, and the likely bad outcome will be likewise insignificant. The alternative is that any U.S. intervention will need to be a genuinely massive one; an occupation-of-Germany sort of thing. And even if we try that, as we did in Vietnam, the outcome is still pretty dicey if the local conditions are as poor as they are, say, in Somalia, Libya, Liberia, or the Congo.

So I'd argue that under this rubric the interventions in Lebanon 1983, Iraq, Somalia and Libya would probably not have happened, and the intervention in Afghanistan would have likely been confined to a punitive expedition in 2002. Or all the above would have been expanded to full-on post-WW2-style long-term occupations (and I'll carry your ruck from here to the Halls of Montezuma if you think the U.S. public would have gone all-in for that...).

Do I think this will happen?

No - as I said at the top; nobody who supported or supports the present system, the one that has produced this hit-or-miss pattern of interventions since 1990, has paid a political price for the lack of geopolitical rigor involved in picking our fights.

But...should it?

What is the appropriate process, and policy, for a Great Power - especially a supposedly-republican Great Power - to do in an increasingly multipolar world? How do you go about re-writing the Washington Rules?

Monday, May 14, 2012

A Fine Whine

Seems like ten years into the Global War on (Some Kinds of People Using Some Forms of) Terror, at least one jet-jockey isn't feeling the love:
"The last time we bought this few aircraft was in 1916, when we were still the Aviation Section of the Army Signal Corps. In just FY13, the Army and the Navy will buy more aircraft than the Air Force will buy in the entire FYDP [Future Years Defense Plan]! Everything I see indicates that senior leadership doesn’t understand, or worse, doesn’t care, why we have an independent Air Force."
Heavens to Key West! Is there rebellion in the hangars? Anyone out there know whether this is a good indication of the condition of the USAF, or just one fighter jock feeling miffed?

Libya Redux

"Libya has no army. It has no government. These things exist on paper, but in practice, Libya has yet to recover from the long maelstrom of Qaddafi’s rule. The country’s oil is being pumped again, but there are still no lawmakers, no provincial governors, no unions and almost no police. Streetlights in Tripoli blink red and green and are universally ignored. Residents cart their garbage to Qaddafi’s ruined stronghold, Bab al-Aziziya, and dump it on piles that have grown mountainous, their stench overpowering. Even such basic issues as property ownership are in a state of profound confusion. Qaddafi nationalized much of the private property in Libya starting in 1978, and now the old owners, some of them returning after decades abroad, are clamoring for the apartments and villas and factories that belonged to their grandparents. I met Libyans brandishing faded documents in Turkish and Italian, threatening to take up arms if their ancestral tracts of land were not returned."
I know this is not news, but; you cannot bomb a place into civilization.

The reason I didn't want my country getting involved in Libya's problems was not because I hate Libyans.

It's because through thirty-odd years of adulthood I have never seen military force "solve" problems.

Weapons can, sometimes, if everyone involved is smart, and cautious, and above all, lucky, kill people who are causing problems and destroy objects that are threatening lives, liberties, or security.

But without some sort of willingness, capability, and the resources to employ both to either rebuild or construct something better than what was killed and destroyed the result is madness:
"We’re the national army, we want to go to the front line.’ They didn’t stay one hour. One of them pissed his pants. They say 35,000 men have joined the national army. I tell you, if all 35,000 came here, they could not get past our 200 men. Until there’s a true government, no one will give up power.”
No shit?

Because - and the post-civil-war Libya should remind us, again, that military force simply replaces one set of problems with another.

We had a very impassioned debate here back in March a year ago, about our ideas, and ideals, concerning the West's part in the Libyan civil war.

And yet here we are, a year later but largely silent, as Libya devolves into the sort of terrifying half-civilized ruin that sounds more and more like the aftermaths of the other disastrous internal collapses that are Somalia, and Liberia, and Iraq, and Afghanistan, and Chechnya...

And yet...I listen to the rhetoric that occasionally fountains up regarding Iran and think; who ARE these people who seem to think that "more rubble, less trouble"? And why do they not tremble when they look at Libya today?

I did then. Back in March 2011 my summation to seydlitz was:

"1. I think that the U.S., and Obama, will get absolutely zero political or military capital out of this. If it works, it will be treated like Kosovo was, or Gulf II was, and will be overwhelmed by domestic events.

2. I think the rebels will turn out to be more shambolic, less competent, and more vicious that we think. I think Libya will, in the long run, turn out to be the same mess it has been since independence. In other words, I think that all this will mean a cup of warm spit (see above).

3. I think the very best that will come of this is that some people who would have died won't. But that's a very dim prediction, and it might just end up the other way around, if Gaddafi's people turn out to be more tenacious, and the rebels more vituperative, than they look right now."

Well, Gaddafi's people were a little more tenacious but we flattened in the end. But from the linked article above it seems that the rebels are, if not more vituperative, at least as incompetent, shambolic, and vicious as they seemed to me then and still do.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Second Guangzhou 1841

This month's "battle that changed history" over at GFT.

Siege engines of love,
mad dogs, Englishmen, and no Chinese allowed.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

"History" can bite you in the ass

Back in late Summer, 2002, a retired flag officer friend from our yacht club returned from DC with an interesting tidbit. He said that an invasion of Iraq was inevitable. When pressed for more, he said that his former colleagues at the Five Sided Building sorrowfully told him that the decision was made, and that all that was remaining was to take care of was the "justification". When one of those in the group asked him if the military was counseling against it, he said that any opposing view was to be submitted with a request for retirement as the cover sheet. Interestingly, he noted, the number of flag officers requesting retirement "earlier than normal" had risen significantly in the preceding months, an occurrence that the various Military Times newspapers had already commented on. IIRC, the Times had simply suggested that it was as a result of Rumsnamara's efforts to reshape the military. One of the great "mysteries" (to me) of that time was Colin Powell's seeming complicity in the whole thing. Whether you like him or not, he spent too many years in uniform to be so easily misled. All I could attribute it to was his previous 30+ years of obeying the lawful orders of POTUS inhibiting the ability to be a lone voice that stands up and says, "This is bullshit, Sir, and I cannot be a party to it". Now I wonder if he was just being "trusting" of the crap fed to him as a sort of coping mechanism? A pathetic coping mechanism, at that, considering the wasted treasure, both US and Iraqi, that resulted. Powell has now written his memoirs, and joins the ranks of those who state, without reservation, that the decision to invade Iraq was done without discussion or debate. What he says is pretty damning, not just to GWB , Cheney, Rice and Co, but to himself. Whether Powell's admission lifts any blame from his shoulders, I am appreciative that he has added to the growing body of evidence that supports exposing the reckless behavior of GWB and Co. Carl Rove said that he could create a "reality" of his choosing. What Rove and his disciples fail to understand is that when their "created reality" passes into history and is subjected to objective analysis, it can easily bite you in the ass.

Monday, May 7, 2012

"Intimate History of an Attitude", 1942 . . .

From Howard K Smith's classic Last Train from Berlin:
A few months before, the Germans had, in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles, marched in the Rhineland. A friend of mine and I bicycled to Worms to see what we could see. The town was not in war, yet, but it was the best imitation of a town-in-war I have ever seen. The streets were filled with soldiers. On every corner forests of new sign posts told the way of parking ground for motorized units, regimental headquarters, divisional headquarters, corps headquarters, field hospitals. We elbowed our way the length of the main street and saw not another man in civilian dress. That evening we spent in a beer-hall, in whose upper stories we had rented rooms. The beer-hall was packed with fine-looking young officers, drinking, shouting, singing. The tables were wet with spilled beer and the air hazy with blue cigarette smoke.
I do not know what it was, except that the turn of this reaction was logically due - it was perhaps partly that the beer had loosened up my imagination - but watching the faces of these men, my own age, my own generation, caused me to think of their military culture, for the first time, in terms of me and my culture. For the first time I thought of Germany, not as an academic subject studiously to gather facts about for discussion at home, but as a real, direct and imminent threat to the existence of a civilization which gathers facts and discusses. A schism deeper than the Grand Canyon separated my world from that of the young man across from me, whose face bore fencing scars and carried a monocle over one glassy eye. The fetishes of my world, the values it worshiped, if it did not always attain them, were contained in words like "Reason", "Think", "Truth". His fetishes and his values were "Feel", "Obey", "Fight". There was no base of pride for me in this involuntary comparison; rather, a terror like that which paralyses a child alone in the dark took hold of me. For, my world, with all the good qualities I thought it had, was in terms of force, weak; his was mighty, powerful, reckless. It screamed defiance at my world from the housetops. One had to be deaf not to hear it. (Summer 1936)
The title is the chapter heading from HKS's book. Attitude. That seems to be the main problem. There is something quite different about HKS's perspective as well. Notice there is no hint of the American exceptionalism that runs riot among US pundits today, that forms that basis for everything that follows. Why? Two reasons I think. First off let's look at the cultural component. HKS was from the South, Louisiana to be exact. Why should that make a difference? Because he knew what happened to a culture/political community when "history happened" . . . C. Vann Woodward wrote about it in his essay "The Irony of Southern History". There is no trace of American exceptionalism here:
. . . It explains in large part the national faith in unlimited progress, in the efficacy of material means, in the importance of mass and speed, the worship of success, and the belief in the invincibility of American arms.
The legend has been supported by an unbroken succession of victorious wars. Battles have been lost, and whole campaigns - but not wars. In the course of their national history Americans, who have been called a bellicose though unmartial people, have fought eight wars, and so far without so much as one South African fiasco such as England encountered in the heyday of her power. This unique good fortune has isolated America, I think rather dangerously, from the common experience of the rest of mankind, all the great peoples of which have without exception known the bitter taste of defeat and humiliation. It has fostered the tacit conviction that American ideals, values, and principles inevitably prevail in the end. That conviction has never received a name, nor even so much explicit formulation as the old concept of Manifest Destiny. It is assumed, not discussed. And the assumption exposes us to the temptation of believing that we are somehow immune from the forces of history.
The country that has come nearest to approximating the American legend of success and victory is England. The nearness of continental rivals and the precariousness of the balance of power, however, bred in the English an historical sophistication that prevented the legend from flourishing as luxuriantly as it has in the American climate. Only briefly toward the end of the Victorian period did the legend threaten to get out of hand in England. Arnold J. Toynbee has recalled those piping days in a reminiscent passage. "I remember watching the Diamond Jubilee procession myself as a small boy," he writes. "I remember the atmosphere. It was: well, here we are on the top of the world, and we have arrived at this peak to stay there - forever! There is, of course, a thing called history, but history is something unpleasant that happens to other people. We are comfortably outside all that. I am sure, if I had been a small boy in New York in 1897 I should have felt the same. Of course, if I had been a small boy in 1897 in the Southern part of the United States, I should not have felt the same; I should then have known from my parents that history had happened to my people in my part of the world."
The South has had its full share of illusions, fantasies, and pretensions, and it has continued to cling to some of them with an astonishing tenacity that defies explanation. But the illusion that "history is something unpleasant that happens to other people" is certainly not one of them - not in the face of accumulated evidence and memory to the contrary. . .
This perspective is something HKS actually had in common with those German officers in Worms. They too knew that history "could happen". What made HKS different is that he was not willing to put his faith in a "great man". One who was thought destined to lead the nation to glory, to revenge over their enemies. This leader would lead and take on the responsibility for the entire people, the army acting as executer of his will, with the responsibility his alone. A pre-modern notion to say the least, but common to all sorts of notions of human perfection requiring blind, unquestioning faith. Something to be rejected by a product of the Enlightenment who also understood tragedy such as HKS.
The second reason for HKS's "realism" that precluded the current virus of American exceptionalism, was historically based. He had come of age during the Great Depression, having been born in 1914, so he knew that the US as "the greatest economy in the world" had a hallow ring to it. In fact being a man of his times with critical faculties he could not but notice a strong connection between corporate control and fascism. The Nazis were not anti-capitalist at all, but supported the cartels. Assuming a firm link between democracy and corporate capitalism would have been ludicrous for HKS and many others who considered themselves unclouded by ideology.
This brings up the question as to whether there were any similarities between HKS's view and the view he assumed of the German officer sitting across from him at the Worms beer hall. I think we can make an argument that there was a very strong common view. That is in the instrumentality of technology, of the technological approach. That technology was essentially value-less and could be adopted by whatever ideology without being affected or affecting that ideological view. Thus later in his book, HKS advocates the use of strategic bombing to destroy the will of the German people to fight on, in fact he advocated mass destruction of a culture and people to whom he had much affinity.
Taking a broader view was Lewis Mumford writing in 1944:
Unlike his liberal and democratic opponents, Oswald Spengler drew the inevitable conclusion from this situation. If values are unreal and if humane purposes are chimerical, then even scientific technique must ultimately become subservient to brute force: the need for rational restraint and self-discipline of any kind disappears. Thus technicism leads directly to irrationality - and the cult of barbarian power salvages the technician's otherwise growing sense of frustration and futility. It is no accident that Germany produced both the most mechanized type of personality in tis robot-like soldiers and civilians, and the most unrestrained reaction against humane discipline, in the form of an exultant sub-animality.
Spengler ignored all the creative tendencies in modern life, except those associated with the machine: little though he relished the thought, his essential creed favored Russia and the US even more than it did the fascist countries. Spengler accepted as "real" only those elements which emphasized modern man's automatism, his deflation of values, his subservience to mechanical organization, and the savage irrationality which takes the place of reason in other parts of the personality. And because these forces cannot be confined within their original frontiers, Spengler predicted, far more accurately that hopeful philosophers, the disastrous downward course that modern civilization is still following at a steadily accelerating pace. Through its emotional impact, Spengler's word as a whole constitutes a morbid Sage of Barbarism. It began as a poem of defeat; it finally became an epic justification for the fascist attack on the very humanity of man - an attack that has already gone so far that even democratic peoples have torpidly swallowed as their own, without retching, the fascist doctrine of totalitarian air warfare: one of the deepest degradations of our age.
Spengler's day is not yet over. These are ominous times and Spengler is like a black crow, hoarsely cawing, whose prophetic wings case a shadow over our whole landscape. The democratic people cannot conquer their fascist enemies until they have conquered in their own hearts and minds the underlying barbarism that unites them with their foes. In the passive barbarism that the US now boasts under the cover of technical progress, there is no promise whatever of victory of even bare survival. Without a deep regeneration and renewal, the external triumph of American machinery and arms will but hasten the downfall of the Western World. Only those who are ready for that renewal with all its rigors, its sacrifices, its hard adventures, and entitled to celebrate even our temporary victories.