Beauty of Gray

Thursday, March 14, 2002

Maybe someday we’ll get serious in the war on terror

Two depressing reports from the Washington Post today. This one, which has gotten a lot of play, details the various expressions of outrage from President Bush and Senators at the outrageous incompetence shown by the INS in granting visas to two of the September 11th terrorists.

But the INS has been a mess for years, and everyone has known or should have known this. Their enforcement was spotty and capricious. While tens of thousands of immigrants lives in the US with expired papers, an Indian friend of mine in grad school came a few days away from being deported, because of a problem in the filing of his student visa paperwork.

There was a lot of concern from civil rights groups about people being detained on minor immigration charges in the wake of September 11th. But I didn’t see anyone put 2 and 2 together and question the fact that apparently pretty much any immigrant the FBI wanted to question was actually, when the papers were examined, living in the US illegally. That right there was a pretty clear indication that the INS hadn’t the slightest shred of competence, and was an organization that had almost completely ceased to function.

It seems to me that the first step, and maybe a permanent solution, should be to suspend the issuing of visas to applicants from the Arab states. Despite all the pious bloviating about how we shouldn’t be racially profiling, and terrorism isn’t a problem with Islam, etc., the unpleasant fact is that the terrorism is largely an Arab Muslim problem. Maybe this is a little narrow, and the moratorium should be extended to Pakistan and some other countries. But the principle remains.

When these countries stop producing citizens who want to blow up buildings and kill Americans, then we can start letting them back in. But right now, if the INS can’t even manage to filter out known terrorists, with names burned in the memory of every citizen, then how on earth can we rely on them to reliably identify possible future terrorists? It seems to me that, if we were serious about stopping terrorists from getting into the US, such a “better safe than sorry” attitude would be the logical first step.

The second report tells of the Senate killing a push to raise fuel efficiency standards in automobiles. As a corollary to the fact the Gulf Arab states are the main exporters and funders of terrorism is the fact that this terrorism is supported by the purchase of oil from those states. In fact, it could be argued that the flow of easy wealth from oil that props up the despotic regimes in those countries provides a uniquely fertile ground for terrorism to grow.

Regardless, a truly serious attempt to fight terrorism root and branch must necessarily involve reducing our dependence on Middle Eastern oil and slowing the flood of western money to the tyrannical governments that oil brings. A full strategy for this would involve increasing fuel efficiency standards, aggressively pursuing and developing alternate energy sources, and in the meanwhile probably also drilling in the arctic refuge and other areas.

Instead, the message the Senate has delivered is that this whole war on terror thing is OK, as long as it doesn’t actually inconvenience anybody. Ask not what you can do for your country pretty much sums up the apparent attitude. I’m afraid that Bush and Cheney’s existing ties to Texas oil and energy interests and the prejudices that go along with them will prevent any real re-evaluation of energy issues, and they’ll continue to push Cheney’s backwards looking plan rather than taking the opportunity to make more progress. It’s becoming more and more apparent that September 11th didn’t, after all, change anything.

As a side note, it's also a little depressing, in a different way, that a Senator (in this case Senator Kerry) seems to be completely ignorant of the meaning of a Pyrrhic victory.

After the vote, Sens. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) abandoned plans to offer a rival amendment..."You have to count votes around here," Kerry said. "I'm not interested in Pyrrhic efforts."

As Inigo Montoya would say, "You keep using that word. I do no-a think it means, what-a you think it means." The phrase Pyrrhic victory comes from the Greek king Pyrrhus, who was called in by rebellious Roman city Tarentum to fight the central Roman power. He achieved several battlefield victories over the Romans, but in the process suffered such heavy casualties that his forces were unable to continue to resist the Romans, who were able to reinforce their legions with new recruits. Don't they teach kids anything anymore?

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 10:39 AM

Wednesday, March 13, 2002
Shhh, nobody tell him about Mardi Gras...

God forbid that somebody should allowed to have some fun anymore. I am, quite frankly, ebarassed for my school that a hypersensitive dimwit like this guy is employed there.

With many Irish-Americans planning to celebrate their roots as St. Patrick's Day approaches, Boyle said he is angry and disappointed that the school's administration refused to put a stop to the student-sponsored event that he believes demeans Irish culture and reinforces stereotypes of drunkenness.

"They go from bar to bar and they drink themselves sick in the name of St. Patrick," he said.

And not only did this underoccupied whiner object to the pub crawl, he's now complaining that his work environment has been made hostile, apparently because lots of people have told him he was being a jackass. The moral of the story is that being an aggressively stupid meddler and trying to tell other people what they can and can't do does tend to make them annoyed. Especially when it involves something important like beer.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 8:18 AM

Tuesday, March 12, 2002
6 months and counting

Never forget.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 1:58 PM

Gratuitous France-bashing

I wasn’t going to post this, since it’s both mean and more than a little unfair, but then I ran across this article on the USS Clueless about French pilots refusing to attack targets assigned to them by the US command, which just infuriated me. It’s fine if they want to sit around and carp and piss and moan about the US not listening to their wise councils and being too unilateral, and just in general being an ankle-biting annoyance to the people actually working to fight the terrorist problem. This is kind of obnoxious, but we in the US have gotten used to that sort of stand from the French, since it pretty accurately describes their entire Cold War policy—hiding under the umbrella of US force, while puffing out their chest, second guessing the US, and pretending anyone else cared.

That’s not ideal, but it’s tolerable. What’s not acceptable is promising to lend substantive assistance, wanting in on the game to at least preserve the last fading vestiges of the appearance of relevance, and then backstabbing and sabotaging the effort by pulling the plug on it while their planes are actually in the air and while US troops are on the ground. Here’s a clue: if you don’t want to the US to act unilaterally, then don’t make it so that US acceptance of your “aid” is an active hindrance to our military efforts.

Actually, as long as I’m handing out clues, I think it’s time for the French leadership to wake up and smell the history. France has, with one or two exceptions, been a second rate country militarily its entire history. Thirty years under Charlemagne and fifteen under Napoleon, and that’s pretty much it during 1000 years of history. In most of the major engagements during the Hundred Years War, small English expeditionary forces annihilated larger and better equipped French armies.

Under Louis XIV, the French were in a dominant strategic position, with an overwhelming force advantage and facing a fractious coalition of England, the Netherlands, and the Empire. Yet they were defeated so frequently and decisively by smaller English armies under Marlborough that the French generals were terrified to take the field against him. Decades of fighting on the part of the huge French army brought little except ruinous debt to the French crown. The economic drain of these futile aggrandizing wars, combined with Louis XIV’s policy of destroying the independent power of the nobility, set the stage for the French Revolution where the French introduced totalitarian tyranny to the world, and followed it up with another destructive attempt to conquer Europe. Thanks for everything, France.

Their more recent history is more familiar, with them slipping behind not only England but Germany as well, not to mention the US. Their armies were decisively beaten in 1870-71. They fought valiantly in WWI, despite horrific generalship, but at the end the French were prostrate and the war was won mainly by the English, with an assist to the Americans. France was happy to contribute bellicosity and intransigence to the Versailles negotiations, however, demanding the punitive peace settlement which helped drive Germany into the arms of extremism. A policy they ably complemented with craven appeasement and conflict avoidance until it was too late, and their military was ready for yet another humiliating and decisive defeat.

De Gaulle then set the pattern for French policy since then, bringing the allies a fancy uniform, a huge ego, no army, and a big mouth filled with the demand for equal treatment.

And don’t get me started on French foreign policy. You’d think the country responsible for 40 years of brutal civil war in Algeria would shut the hell up when it comes to Israel and Palestine, but France brings a unique measure of arrogance to the table to combine with their incompetence, and don’t let their own all too obvious failings get in the way of their strenuous efforts to tell everyone else how to run their own affairs. Of course, Algeria is not alone—there’s a strong pattern of devastation left in the wake of French and Belgian colonialism that contrasts with British and US former colonies. Algeria, the Congo, Uganda, Rwanda, Lebanon, Cambodia and Vietnam, all enjoyed the mismanagement, tyranny, and civil wars that were the fruits of French and Belgian mismanagement.

And of course, French appeasement of Middle Eastern tyranny is nothing new. While Venice, the Pope, and the Mediterranean league were straining to fight the Turks, who had conquered Constantinople and were threatening central and western Europe, France was busy negotiating a peace treaty with them, in the hopes they could avoid conflict and piracy.

So France has a history of near uniform military and foreign policy disaster. At least they have been a bright shining light of culture, right? Not so fast. Despite French cultural hegemony in Europe for several centuries, the French contribution has been notable more for its lack of genius and inspiration rather than its brilliance. There were no French composers to match Germany, no painters to match Italy or the Netherlands, no engineers to match England or the US, no novelists to match Russia, no poets to match England. In each field, France has produced one or two major figures, if that, a remarkable lack of achievement given her large population and central position in Western Europe. Heck, even when it comes to wine, if you're looking for a good bottle under $20 you're better off checking for bottles from Australia, Chile, South Africa, and the US than the French selection.

So please, France, take your jets and your attitude and go home, and stop bothering the countries that still matter. And rest assured, while you’re sitting in a flat in Paris ranting about the cultural degradation of the McDonald’s down the block, that you won’t be missed at all.

Update: As was pointed out by Dr. Weevil, Uganda was actually a British colony, and so should be removed from the list above. He also correctly points out that I sneakily lumped in Belgian colonies with the French ones to make my argument look stronger. (Hey, I admitted that my post was going to be unfair. That includes dirty tricks like lumping France and Belgium together when convenient.) Check out his post here, to read about the mysterious Emperor Bokassa, and stick around to learn about veneral disease, Caligula, and lots of other neat stuff. A very nice blog, which will go into the permalinks section as soon as I get my act in gear.

Second update: Grasshoppa also comes to France's defense, pointing out a number of their contributions which I either overlooked or didn't mention. He brings up the Norman conquest of England, which I didn't mention because the Normans were actually recent transplants from Scandanavia. (Hence the name: Northmen---Normans.) He does rightfully emphasize the great French painters of the late 19th century--Monet, Manet, Renoir, etc.--who I had forgotten about.

He also brings up philosophers, listing Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau. Rousseau was actually Swiss, although he spent much of his adult life in Paris, splitting time between there and Geneva. Voltaire I remembered, but will now hide behind my "one or two major figures" weasel words in the original post. Descartes certainly deserves a place at the head of the table in any discussion of great European philosophers, and was also a major mathematical innovator, giving his name to the Cartesian coordinate system which is the foundation of modern algebra and calculus. Actually, the French have had a raft of excellent mathematical thinkers--Pascal, Fermat, Descartes, Cauchy, Poincare, etc., that could match up with any nation's. And I just disagree with him on composers--I think Debussy, Ravel, and Berlioz were all second tier figures. I'd take Beethoven or Bach's catalog over the combined output of all French composers throughout history.

However, even admitting these examples, I'm not sure France produced as many great thinkers and artists as her population and position would lead you to expect. At the least, not enough to justify a view of French culture as especially great. Any country France's size would certainly have produced quite a bit throughout 1200 years of history, but it seems to me that France has produced rather less than comparable countries. They seem to have had many excellent artists and thinkers, but relatively few of unquestioned genius and greatness. But of course any claim like that is a matter of opinion and debate rather than anything that could be settled conclusively.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 10:35 AM

Great moments in advertising

At the dollar store the other day I noticed that they were selling bags of Spree, which I hadn’t seen in a long time. They put Sweet Tarts to shame, and are also the ultimate candy to eat while watching a movie; unfortunately movie theaters don’t seem to sell them anymore.

But I noticed when I got home that Spree’s new advertising motto, which is printed on the bag, is “It’s a kick in the mouth!” Is this really a good slogan? Even in the context of candy, does it really call up good associations? I’m sure the ad firm that came up with it (sad that somebody actually was paid to develop this slogan; I’m glad I have a job or I’d be very depressed that these guys were employed and I wasn’t) thought they were being cutting edge, appealing to the “extreme” youth of today. I’m betting not.

My all time favorite was the short-lived Subaru slogan: “Inexpensive, and built to stay that way.” Even if that’s true, I’m not sure it’s a selling point. Anyone else have any particularly bad advertising slogans?

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 10:27 AM

Monday, March 11, 2002
Report from the Front

There’s a good report on what is hopefully the beginning of the end of operation Anaconda here in the Washington Post. There were a couple of points from the article which struck me.

…senior U.S. military officials characterized the pullout as a rotation and predicted fresh American troops could soon join the fight.

Initially, he said, the squad expected to be in the combat zone for 12 to 72 hours; instead, they remained there for more than a week.

This is an important tactic—rotating troops in and out of the combat zone. In a battle of attrition like this one, the effects of such a rotation can be vitally important. The al Qaeda forces have been kept under a steady air bombardment, as well as sniping, artillery, and other ground attacks. This has the important direct effect of killing and wounding many of them, but also has the secondary effect of wearing them down. Under the constant bombardment, they are unable to rest, to get sleep, or to get resupplied. After a few days to a week, this produces a severe degradation in their fighting capacity. Lack of sleep slows reflexes and clouds decision making, giving US forces a big edge.

In battles like this, the ability to continuously engage the enemy for a long time without exhausting friendly forces can ultimately be decisive. Soldiers do not stand up well to continuous combat and bombardment. Over-exposure can quickly lead to combat fatigue and shell shock, which is exacerbated by interruptions in supply and communications. This has been known since WWI, and the lessons of that war have been applied to US combat since then, both in our policy of rotating troops on and off the front line, and in the tactics used to engage the enemy.

This tactic was used to great effect in the Gulf War. The constant pounding of frontline Iraqi troops by B-52 carpet bombing during the Air War quickly destroyed their fighting ability, and it was this attrition that led to their mass surrenders during the ground campaign. The al Qaeda fighters are more zealous and presumably have better morale, so they are unlikely to surrender, but the steady attacking does take a serious toll.

The other passages that struck me were these:

Sgt. Billy Stallings, 27, who led a squad of military police in the combat zone, described an experience that quickly shifted from surviving harrowing attacks during the first 48 hours to greeting relative quiet during the last several days. "It was surprisingly easy for us to walk in, and then the chaos started," he said. "One mortar round landed half a [yard] from where we were, but fortunately it didn't go off. Every soldier was praying."

"They were brave, but then so many planes and helicopters came in, and they had nothing like that," said Sgt. Justin Celano, 21, a sniper team leader who repeatedly spotted enemy positions on surrounding ridges and called in bombers to strike them. "After the first day, we did a lot of waiting."

This is a clear demonstration of how non-linear fighting is—how it tends to be either tough fighting or a strong advantage for one side, and how important hitting hard and establishing superiority is. When the troops first landed, all the al Qaeda in the area started firing on them, and it was a pretty even fight. It was tough to get helos in and there were so many targets that air attacks couldn’t hit them all. Then, after fierce fighting and numerous air sorties, the troops managed to suppress the al Qaeda and are now in a situation of superiority where any individual al Qaeda who attacks will immediately be subject to a withering counter-attack by air and artillery and sniper fire.

Once the superiority was established, it tends to be self-reinforcing. An al Qaeda fighter right now is relatively impotent, since any aggressive action will immediately stand out and will draw counter-fire. Whereas early in the attack, when the issue was still in doubt, the al Qaeda were able to fire without serious fear of reprisal. Since there were lots of them engaging the enemy, there was little risk that any one of them would be singled out for a counter-strike.

But as the US and Afghan soldiers began to suppress the al Qaeda, each remaining al Qaeda became that much more vulnerable. So winning the fighting is a self-reinforcing feedback phenomenon, which is what I meant by it being non-linear, although I don’t think I’ve explained it very well. But it’s not getting any better with successive rewrites, so I think I’ll just leave it here.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 11:16 AM

Why I'll never be a great Blogger

No posts this weekend, because I was busy getting engaged. I know, I know, this indicates a clear lack of priorities, but what can you do?

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 11:15 AM

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