Beauty of Gray

Friday, March 08, 2002

Thermobaric weapons

It was recently reported that the US forces had used some “thermobaric” weapons to help clear caves and tunnels during Operation Anaconda. The press reports were pretty vague on specifics, so other than the fact that they had a cool name, it wasn’t obvious exactly what these weapons did.

Just from the name, you can tell that they work via some sort of a combination of heat (thermo-) and pressure (-baric.) This sounded to me a lot like the older class of fuel air explosive (FAE) weapons that the US used to have, and I was wondering if they weren’t the same thing or a slightly modified version. Sure enough, a little googling revealed that this was indeed the case—the thermobaric bomb is a recently developed modification of the older FAE technology.

First, what is FAE? Check here for a detailed explanation, here if you just want to see cool pictures. Basically, FAE weapons work by exploding and dispersing a fine mist of highly flammable liquid over a large area. Once the mist is dispersed, a second detonation lights the fuel, which produces a big explosion. The resultant explosion produces a huge pressure impulse, which is actually what does the damage. FAE’s produce pressure impulses that are less intense at their peak, but of significantly longer duration than the blast waves from conventional explosives. So against many structures and vehicles, not to mention people, they do more damage. In Vietnam, they were widely used to clear landing zones and have been investigated for a possible use as minefield clearing devices.

As far as I know, FAE’s were phased out of US inventories in the early 90’s. They are fairly complex and expensive to build, as well as being a real pain to deal with—by design they are full of extremely combustible liquid, which makes them a big time explosion risk. It’s a lot easier to set off a FAE bomb by accident than it is a normal explosive weapon. This same problem makes them more of a risk if an aircraft carrier comes under attack. FAE’s can also leave enough fuel vapor in the area after detonation that a secondary explosion can result, which is bad for troops wanting to move through the area after the weapon is dropped.

Anyway, apparently a new, modified version has been developed, the BLU-118/B, which is designed as more of a bunker buster. Conventional FAE’s don’t work that well in enclosed spaces, since they rely on a broad dispersal of the fuel vapor prior to detonation. Apparently, some smart folks working for the defense department have come up with some way to overcome this problem and produce a destructive overpressure in a constrained space. Good for them.

As a side note, this weapon also shows the way in which war accelerates the development and acquisition process. The BLU-118B would probably still be in the middle of several years of operational testing if it weren’t for the war in Afghanistan. But under the pressure of events, they buckled down, checked it out, and shipped some out to the Air Force to use in theater. From this link:

The BLU-118B was successfully tested at the Nevada Test Site on 14 December 2001. During that test, a Guided Bomb Unit (GBU)-24 laser-guided weapon using the BLU-118B warhead was dropped from an F-15E attack aircraft. The laser-guided bomb was "skipped" into a tunnel and exploded with a delayed fuze, which produced a significant growth in overpressure and temperature in the tunnel. When compared to the standard BLU-109 explosive, results showed the new thermobaric weapon generated a significant improvement in overpressure and pressure-impulse in the tunnel complex. The test culminated a two-month accelerated effort to rapidly transition a developmental explosive to improve lethality against underground facilities.

On 21 December 2001 Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition Edward C. Aldridge officially announced that a small number of the weapons were being deployed to attack tunnels in Afghanistan. As of late January 2002, the Air Force had completed verification and validation of the technical data and operational flight clearances needed to deploy the BLU-118B warhead. Ten warheads were, as a result, immediately made available to the U.S. Air Force for deployment. These are compatible with the GBU-15, GBU-24, and Air-launched Surface-attack Guided Missile (AGM)-130 weapon systems for employment by U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle aircraft.

On or about Sunday 03 March 2002 a single 2,000-pound thermobaric bomb was used for the first time in combat against cave complexes in which al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters had taken refuge in the Gardez region of Afghanistan.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 11:17 AM

Information theory and punditry

In the field of information theory, the amount of information contained in a signal is related to the unpredictability of that signal.

“Information is symbols that contain unpredictable news, like our sentence ‘only infrmatn essentil to understndn mst b tranmitd.’

“The predictable symbols which we can leave out, which Shannon [the founder of information theory, and the greatest modern scientist you’ve never heard of] calls redundancy, are not really news.”

For example, the transmitted signal “1111111111111…” although it is arbitrarily long, doesn’t contain much information at all. An equivalent statement is that the signal can be compressed, to the message “1, repeat 10 million times” which can be transmitted much more quickly than a sequence of 10 million 1’s. That is to say, the amount of information in a message determines the lower limit to how far the message can be compressed. If a message can be compressed, that means there are redundancies in it. Shannon formalized this idea, using the concept of the entropy of a signal to determine its information content. His insights are at the core of coding theory, compression algorithms, and communications theory.

It occurred to me that the same idea can be applied to pundits and commentators. The value of a pundit, the information they add to a discourse, is directly related to their unpredictability. The more predictable someone is, the less worthwhile it is to listen to any particular comment of theirs.

This was one reason why I stopped watching the Sunday morning talk shows, Crossfire, and their ilk. Once you knew the players, there was very little value in actually watching the show. Given a basic knowledge of the political landscape, I could write the script for Elanor Clift, for example. Whatever the Republicans did was wrong, bad policy, and would hurt them in the next electio, while the opposite was true for Democrats. For the same reason, I never found much value the times I tuned into Rush Limbaugh on the radio.

And all the commentariat can be lined up along this “axis of unpredictability.” Sthe best, like Jack Germond, would surprise you with insight and unconventional views on issues, which made him worth listening to. It’s why thinkers like Andrew Sullivan, who cross party lines and hold unusual views, are looked to on issues. (Or at least, they used to be. Sullivan has been slipping dangerously close to becoming a Republican Party hack in recent years.)

Of course, this isn’t the only measure of how worthwhile a commentator is—you want logical and interesting argument in addition to unpredictability—but without it, there’s no worth to a column. I think that’s one underlying reason why excessively partisan columnists are usually dismissed. They’re not necessarily wrong; they’re just uninteresting and uninformative. Someone who simply toes the party line on every issue is not a predictor of anything, since they never distinguish between issues where the party’s positions are better or worse.

So the next time you’re ignoring the latest press release from the RNC, or confidently passing by Chomsky’s new book without even reading the back cover, tell them Claude Shannon sent you.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 9:36 AM

Thursday, March 07, 2002
What's wrong with Washington

Well, one thing at least. When pressed on the issue, everyone is against pork spending, but nobody actually wants to do anything about it. One man's pork is another man's vital development project.

It occurs to me that pork is an example of an external cost--excessive pork spending damages the country by wasting billions of dollars that could be spent on other things. But for each individual congressman, the pork projects are a net gain--he (or she) gets money for his district, with the costs borne by the entire country. So an individual congressman doing the right thing and forgoing pork spending makes only a small difference nationally, but a substantial difference to his district. Unless everyone can be compelled to play by the rules (ie-no pork projects), then it makes sense from a selfish standpoint for each individual senator to get as much money for himself as possible.

Classically, the solution to the problem of external costs (like the tragedy of the commons) is government regulation, which can impose the large global solution that individual selfish action can't arrive at. Unfortunately, in the case of pork spending, it's the government that is the problem, so it's not clear what the solution is. Tax cuts might reduce the problem by squeezing spending across the board, but it won't eliminate it, since the ability and incentives will both still exist. The only solution I can think of would be a line-item budget veto power for the president, a power many governors already have. That's appealing, but I haven't really thought it through. It's possible that could cause other problems, so that the cure would be worse than the disease.

Anyway, here's an example of pork spending in action, and proof that budgetary pressures are not a solution to the pork spending problem. Check out this appalling story from the Washington Post. Basically, the Army Corps of Engineers is being used to funnel federal money for various local projects, which probably aren't important enough to warrant the cost.

So Bush, as part of his budget package, wants to cut their funding by 12%. You can argue about whether the Bush tax cut was a good idea, and whether the Bush administration is being responsible or cavalier in their approach to the budget. But here is a clear case where they are trying to cut out some spending to help balance the budget.

The head of the Corps of Engineers, understandably, didn't like this decision to slash his funding, and made his opinion known, loudly and publically. The administration, in turn thinking that minor officials like this chap should spend their time doing their jobs rather than making loud public critiques of the administration they work for, canned him.

But a bunch of Senators have gone ballistic, frothing at the mouth and raging against the OMB, which was critical of the Corps. And why are they making such a ridiculous stink about it? Why, during a time of war and borderline recesion, when the federal government is strapped for cash, would a group of Senators spend such an effort on the Corps? Well, this paragraph pretty much tells the story:

This morning, Rep. Nick Lampson (D-Tex.) argued for more spending for the Port of Houston. Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) wants to rebuild aging locks on the Monongahela River. Rep. Marion Berry (D-Ark.) proudly noted that he is president of the Mississippi Valley Flood-Control Association. Everyone who spoke suggested that OMB's cuts would not stand, and they praised Parker for pointing out the potential impact they could have on the national economy.

This is a disgrace, and these Sentaors should be ashamed. Of course, they aren't, which is part of the problem, I guess. I know it's nothing new, but for some reason I found this story particularly disgusting and distasteful. Perhaps it's because these petty slimeballs are trying to scam federal money for their own little projects and loudly trumpeting the placement of their own narrow interests above those of the nation, at the same time that thousands of our soldiers are fighting, and some are dying, up in the mountains of Afghanistan to preserve the country that these grasping and decadent clowns claim to lead.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 2:26 PM

Tuesday, March 05, 2002
A quick primer on nuclear fission and fusion

Since it's in the news, I figured I'd give a quick overview of fission and fusion processes, and how and why it's possible that both these opposite processes can be used to produce energy.

Nuclei of atoms are made up of protons and neutrons. They all are held together by what is called the "strong force." (Apparently they were tired when they discovered it, and couldn't be bothered to come up with a more exciting name.) Anyway, any force binding things together is a form of energy--the stronger the binding, the lower the energy. A macro-example is a rock and the earth. The gravitational field of the earth pulls on the rock, so dropping a rock from outer space (increasing its binding) releases energy, in this case in the form of kinetic energy--increasing the velocity of the rock. The stronger the gravitational field, the more energy would be released (the faster the rock would go.)

OK, so far, so good. So the strong force holds the nuclei together, but this force is balanced by an electronic repulsion. Nuclei are made up of protons, which have a positive charge, and neutrons, which have no charge. Since like charges repel, the protons push out against each other. The more protons you have in the nucleus, the stronger this repulsive force is. The strong force holding the nucleus together also increases when you increase the total number of protons plus neutrons, so the extra neutrons act as a sort of "glue" to hold the nucleus together. (they add to the strong attraction without adding to the electronic repulsion.) This is why atoms with higher atomic numbers (more protons) have large numbers of neutrons as well as protons in the nucleus--they need the extra "glue" to hold it together.

Anyway, there are two countervailing trends here--the strong force holds things together, increasing with the number of nucleons. The electronic repulsive force, from the protons, also increases with increasing number of protons. The relative strength of these two forces determines whether a nucleus will be stable or unstable. As it turns out, the cross-over point is Lead [this is wrong--see below for correction]—it is the lowest energy nucleus. When the atomic number is increased, by adding more protons, the marginal increase in the attractive strong binding energy is not as large as the reduction in the binding energy (caused by the electronic repulsion) from the addition of the extra proton. The reverse is true for decreasing the atomic number.

This is why you can get energy both from fusion (bringing two nuclei together into one) and from fission (splitting one nuclei into two.) For atoms heavier than Lead, splitting them will result in a lower energy state, with the excess energy being released as radiation, which can be turned into heat and harnessed. Similarly, fusing together two atoms lighter than Lead will also result in a lower energy nucleus and will release the excess energy.

So why does anything exist in the universe besides lead? The reason is the strong force is very localized, only operating on a nuclear scale, while the electronic force can act over much longer distances. So two separated nuclei feel the repulsive electronic force but don’t feel the attractive strong force. They’re in a local energy minimum. You need to bring them very close together before the strong force takes over, and that’s very hard to do (which is why it requires really high temperatures. The nuclei have to be moving at very high speeds to have enough energy to overcome the repulsive force and get into the strong force regime.) Similarly, large nuclei are also in a (weaker) local minimum. If you can separate the nuclei just a little bit, it will fly apart. This happens at a low level in nature, which is why the heavy elements are radioactive. But humans accelerate the process by shooting neutrons at the material. These impact the heavy nuclei and provide it with enough energy to overcome the strong force and split into two separate atoms, dropping into the lower energy state.

Update: Steven Den Beste writes to politely correct me and point out that the minimum energy point is Iron, rather than Lead. So substitute Iron for Lead in all the discussion above. That's what I get for relying on my memory and not fact checking things I learned 10 years ago. See his correction and a good proof of this fact here.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 1:20 PM

Potential ground-breaking discovery

I'm getting on this a little late, but scientists from Oak Ridge National Laboratory are reporting on the apparent observation of "cold fusion." The article is being published in the Journal Science, and can be seen (.pdf file) here. A general press discussion in the Wasington Post, focusing more on the reaction of scientists than on the work itself, can be found here. A few thoughts.

First, Oak Ridge National Laboratory is a top shelf research institution--this isn't coming out from a group of half-baked loons. Second, and in contrast to the previous flap about cold fusion, the scientists in question are presenting their results cautiously. They didn't have a big press conference to announce the results, and they didn't jump the gun before they had publishable results. That's a good sign, but doesn't say anything about the results in question. However, the previous fiasco also means that anyone with suggestive results would be extra-careful about checking things out before publishing. As a final general note, the mere fact that it was published in a peer-reviewed journal does not, in and of itself, mean that much. The peer review process is important, and is a check that hopefully makes sure that no obvious mistakes in reasoning or interpretation have been made, and that all obvious checks or controls for the data have been done. But the key here is the measured data, and that is taken on faith in the review process.

Peer review is different from independant confirmation--the fact that the paper has been published doesn't mean that other scientists have gone and repeated their experiment in the lab. That step occurs now, after the paper has been released. And this is the key step here. The previous cold fusion announcement fell flat when no-one else could replicate Pons and Fleischmann's findings. It remains to be seen whether the current results can be reproduced. According to the Washington Post, "The publication of the results was delayed when other scientists at Oak Ridge could not reproduce the findings." That's not a good sign, but is not conclusive.

After reading the paper, I don't see any obvious problems, but that's not surprising--I'm just doing the same thing the reviewers did, checking for obvious mistakes. The proof (or disproof) will come over the next several months, when other research groups either replicate the results with their own equipment or fail to. If nobody else can get the same results, then that means the measurements are due to some artifact of the ORNL researchers' set-up, rather than the underlying fusion mechanism they have proposed.

The basic process they are proposing involves creating very small bubbles in deuterium-based acetone (acetone with deuterium substituted in for the hydrogen) by neutron bombardment, then letting the bubbles increase in size for a short period of time(essentially the fluid is boiling. It does so because the ambient environment is kept at a very low pressure. Fluids boil at lower temperature if the pressure is lower (like when you hike in the mountains); they're operating at a point where the fluid is ready to boil, and just needs a bubble producing event to provide a seed for it.) The bubble is then imploded by increasing the pressure in the liquid, and this implosion basically creates a pressure shock that they believe increases the temperature to that needed for nuclear fusion. It's sort of a miniature version of a thermonuclear explosion, only without the runaway chain reaction.

The evidence for the discovery comes from the detection of an unusual amount of tritium, combined with the detection of neutron bursts that seem to be coincident with the implosion of the bubbles. They admit that the neutron detection is tough, because it's barely above background.

Update: Comments from the group of scientists that failed to replicate the original data can be found here. They attempted the experiment with a better data acquisition system and bigger detector and couldn't find any neutron signal above the background. If this holds up, the original result isn't fusion. A possible alternative explanation is that the energy in the implosions or in the boiling is dissociating some of the acetone into constituent parts. The Deuterium based acetone could also have trace impurity levels of Tritium that are also being released as part of this dissociation. This could also explain why the base, hydrogen based acetone didn't show the effect--it is likely to have a much, much lower level of Tritium in it than the Deuterium based liquid.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 1:18 PM

Permanence of Power?

Clinton’s ill-conceived remarks did spark me to consider just how secure our military position is, though. Recently, there has been a lot of triumphalism among commentators about how powerful and unparalleled the US military might is. We are undoubtedly pre-eminent today. But how worried, if at all, should we be about the future?

First, a few general considerations. While the US hegemony may eventually be challenged, I don’t see that essential US security will ever be in question from conventional assault. The US is big enough that we’ll always have a substantial military, and our isolated position, with two large oceans on either side, means that even if China or India eventually became stronger than the US, they still wouldn’t be able to project power against the continental US.

Right now, the basic key to US military power is our underlying economic strength. We have the largest economy in the world and are willing to spend some of the resultant revenue on our military. So to directly challenge the US on the current playing ground, a rival would have to equal our military expenditure (or come close to it.) We have the most powerful military because we spend the most money on it, which means we have the most advanced equipment and the best training. How long is this dominance likely to continue?

I’ll consider China, since that is the rival most often invoked in future scenarios. If you assume that China will sustain a long term growth rate of 7%, it would take it around 30 years for its GDP to equal the current size of the US GDP. If the US GDP grew at 2% over that same period, it would take China close to 50 years to catch up. (I’m using these numbers, which I can’t vouch for, so I could be off a bit.)

And that’s in absolute terms, Since the Chinese population is also much larger, the per capita GDP of China (and hence it’s available surplus money available for government use) would be smaller for the same size GDP. So just looking in economic terms, a direct challenge to US military supremacy is not likely for around 50 years, barring tremendous economic upheavals.

From a procurement perspective, the US is a generation or two ahead of other countries in our military technology. The timeframe from original proposals to the actual fielding of a system is relatively long, varying from 5 to 10 years for advanced systems like missiles or aircraft. If you assume that it would take another country 2 to 3 generations to catch up with the US in terms of technology, then you’re looking at a timeframe of 15-30 years for another country to start fielding comparably advanced systems to the US. So even if another country today was able to start spending equal amounts of money on defense and defense R&D to what the US does, it would still take around two decades to fully catch up.

So, while there may be a long term conventional threat, the conventional balance of power is unlikely to change anytime soon. No other country is likely to seriously challenge US power on a one-to-one, system by system basis. That is, they’re not going to build more planes and tanks than the US and simply outslug us.

The potential equalizer is the possibility of a big new advance that would level the playing field—something cheap that everyone could get, which could eliminate the US power advantage. Obviously, something like this is impossible to predict, but I can’t think of any real candidates. The only real possibility is in a new anti-air weapon system which could negate US air power.

The introduction of radar-guided SAMs in Vietnam looked like a big advantage for the defense, but changes in US tactics limited their effectiveness. And now, radar guided SAMs seem to have become somewhat obsolete. Stealthy US planes require fairly powerful radars to be detected. But turning on a radar is a beacon to US planes with anti-radiation missiles—and to maintain guidance on a missile, the radar needs to be on for an extended period of time. The ability to stay at relatively high altitudes and still drop precision munitions also limits the effectiveness of short range mobile SAMs, since you are stressing their range capability. The small radar cross-section of the US planes also makes standard counter-measures (chaff) much more effective. Meanwhile, larger emplacements which might have radars powerful enough to detect stealthy planes and big SAMs which can reach the necessary altitudes are easily detected from satellite imagery and are perfect targets for cruise missiles. This combination of stealth, cruise missiles, and HARM anti-radar missiles seem to have largely negated the threat from radar guided SAMs.

Infrared guided SAMs are a tougher threat to destroy, since they can be made much smaller (like the Stinger) and detect and track planes passively—they don’t emit any radiation which can be detected to provide an early warning to the pilots, or a homing beacon for HARM missiles. On the other hand, shoulder-launched IR SAMs are designed to engage low-flying planes (the small portable missiles don’t have the range to hit high flyers), so the ability to bomb at a high altitude largely negates this threat. Shoulder-launched SAMs are a helo pilots worst nightmare, but for jet pilots, they are not a big concern now that GPS weapons allow them to stay comfortably up at 15,000 feet. Up to now, there have been very few larger IR guided SAMs, perhaps because IR detection doesn’t work well at longer ranges—you need to find the target with radar first. IR detectors are improving, though, so this could be a problem. On the other hand, there are reasonably effective countermeasures against IR missiles, so I’m not sure if there is any long-term advantage for the defense here.

The other option would be some sort of completely new anti-aircraft system. Something mobile, so that it can’t be pinpointed and destroyed. Something that has IR detection ability, and a long enough range to engage planes at 15,000 feet, plus a quick hitting capability so the operator wasn’t vulnerable. The only thing I can think of is some sort of a laser weapon system, but those are still very cutting edge. But that’s what I’d be worried about, if I were thinking long term. IR cameras are getting better and cheaper, so IR detection capability is probably pretty good now. And lasers are also getting more and more powerful, to the point that the US is seriously considering using them for point defense and anti-missile missions.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 12:03 PM


I was struck, when visiting Westminster Cathedral a few years ago, with how fleeting even great fame was. For those who haven’t been there, the Cathedral is filled with the graves and crypts of famous Englishmen, making it a sort of national shrine.

There were numerous ornate markers for men who, in their own day, were presumably among the most powerful in the kingdom. Dukes, Earls, and ministers, towering figures. But to me, hundreds of years later, their accomplishments were meaningless and totally forgotten.

It is the same with events in history and even entire empires. It’s not uncommon, when reading a work of history, to find a seminal event, one which changed the history of it’s day, but which has so receded into antiquity that it no longer stands out above other events of the time. They have all fused into a vague general trend. (An effect which assists those who argue for a more mechanistic view of history, rather than one emphasizing specific achievements. The great men debate, one which is answered in favor of the individual whenever you delve deep enough into any specific to uncover the actual contributions made by leaders.)

How many today remember the Battle of Manzikert, which shattered the military power of the Byzantine Empire and established the Turks as a dominant power? Or the Battle of Hattin which ended the rule of the crusader states in Palestine and established Arab power there, an event which is still reverberating to this day?

For me, this is the appeal of the study of history. It lets you dig beneath the surface of broad trends and uncover more detailed causes. It has a similar appeal to studying physics—understanding not just what happened, but why it happened, and filling in the details and structure underneath the visible arc of events.

However, the humility which the study of history instructs us in can also be taken to illogical extremes. Which is the case with President Clinton’s recent remarks, to the effect that America won’t be on top for long, and in 50 years, when we’re struggling, we will wish we were nicer when on top. This is nothing more than defeatism. There is no clear arc of history which will inevitably result in our downfall. But we will certainly fall if pessimistic and inane sentiments like this one gain predominance. His statements would be foolish under the best circumstances. On our current war footing, they are dangerous as well as stupid. Clinton’s time has passed; it was gone in an our on September 11. It’s time for him to realize this and to shut up and leave the rest of us alone for a while, since he so clearly has nothing valuable to contribute.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 9:09 AM

Sunday, March 03, 2002
Illini win!

In an amazing, ugly, crazy win, my Illinois Fighting Illini rallied to score the final 10 points and edge at Minnesota, at Minneapolis, for a one point win and a share of the Big Ten title. This makes it the third season of the last 5 that Illinois has shared the conference title.

However, while I'm a fan, there are also some big weaknesses in the Illini, notably lack of perimeter speed and reliable 3-point shooting. They're big and strong, but not particularly athletic. If they get matched up with a quick tam with good 3-point shooting, they are a good candidate for an upset, for those of you participating in NCAA tourny pools. On the other hand, if things are clicking, they could make it to the Final Four.

And that, my friends, is one of the reasons college basketbal is the best sport in the world, and it isn't even close.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 4:09 PM

The Rebel

I recently finished rereading the Rebel by Camus. I went back to in the hopes of gaining some insight into the phenomenon of terrorism, since Camus’ aim is to investigate how it is that the impulse to rebellion is corrupted into murder. Since that’s a pretty good summary of terrorism, I was hoping he might have something interesting or thought provoking to say.

Unfortunately, this is not the case. I was surprised how dated the work was. Reading it made me realize what an epochal event the ending of the Cold War was. Even with a narrow historical perspective, it was clearly a fundamental event, signaling the end of a 50 year struggle. But after reading The Rebel it’s clear that the Cold War was not a completely self-contained conflict. Rather, the Russian revolution and the Western fight against it were really the culmination of European history since the French revolution. And with the fall of Communism, the period of 200 years of secular revolution really seems to have ended. And as a result, while Camus certainly has some passages of surpassing brilliance and insight scattered throughout the book, the Rebel is now of mostly historical interest.

The reason why Camus has little to say about the current situation is that he dealt only with secular revolutions—a rebellion originating in the individual and the assertion of individual dignity. All his analysis proceeds from this starting point. But the Islamicists are different, since their rebellion is motivated by religion rather than philosophy, and Camus has little to say about this.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 4:03 PM

The dead are not like you and me

It’s easy when reading history to fall into the trap of thinking that the people in the past were just like they are today, just without cable TV. This is especially true in military history, since while technologies have changed, fundamental principles have not. So the details—lines of supply, mobility, wings, centers, missile weapons, infantry—are more or less the same as they are today. But then every once in a while you’ll run across a passage which makes you remember how alien ancient societies were, in important ways.

Speaking of one of the battles during the Emperor Justinian’s reign, when the Byzantines were attempting to reconquer Italy, Procopius writes:

Narses [the Byzantine commander] left the initiative to Totila and awaited the attack, which was long delayed because the Gothic king waited for the arrival of the 2,000 horsemen he had ordered to join the army. To occupy the time, in gilt armour he gave a solo display of horsemanship between the two lines…

Here is clear evidence that, by 552 (when the battle took place), the old forms of the Roman Empire had been lost and the barbarian invaders had brought a return to the heroic age of warfare, where individual valor rather than discipline and leadership were the dominant features. Totila, in his display of horsemanship, in closer to Achilles than he is to Caeser or Wellington.

The transition was gradual, and heralds the advent of the Middle Ages and end of the classical age. The Roman legions were, at the time of their conquests, great infantry armies that won victories by virtue of superior discipline and the power of the state that backed them up. The Roman manipole, a modification of the older Greek phalanx, was able to withstand and repulse attacks by cavalry, and so could win the field against them. Their weapons were short range—the javelin and stabbing sword, backed up by the strength of their arm and the defense of their shield wall. This sort of fighting depended on organization—it is mass fighting. An individual separated from the phalanx or manipole was vulnerable. The strength lay in the mass.

However, in the later Roman Empire, because of the devastations of frequent civil wars, the burden of taxation on the population, and the embrace of monasticism by a substantial fraction of the population (hundreds of thousands or even millions, according to Gibbon), the Empire was no longer able to muster enough manpower to fill her armies from within. As a result, the Romans were forced to recruit barbarians to fill out the legions. But the barbarians fought in a different style, focusing more on missile weapons and cavalry than on close combat. The bow or sling, however, requires both hands to be free and requires space on either side. As a result, the later legions fought in looser lines and without shields, which made them vulnerable to heavy cavalry charges.

As a result, over time, heavy cavalry came to predominate in western warfare and the age of knighthood was born, with all its attendant political and social implications. It was not for nearly a thousand years that infantry was to return to prominence, and not until World War I that it was to disappear entirely. It was not, in fact, gunpowder that toppled the knights from their perch. Early arquebuses and other infantry firearms were inferior in every way to the crossbow—the had less range, less hitting power, a slower rate of fire, and had the nasty tendency to blow up and kill the operator. Rather, it was the rediscovery of coordinated infantry tactics by the Swiss in their battles for independence that signaled the revival of infantry and the beginning of the modern age of warfare.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 3:43 PM

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