Tag Archives: war

September 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • Fueled by supercharged sea temperatures, the 2017 hurricane season was a terrible, terrible season for hurricanes devastating coastal regions of the United States. One reason is that these storms not only were powerful and hit densely populated areas, but they set records for rapid intensification. Beyond all the human suffering, one thing I find disturbing is that I feel desensitized at this point when I think back to how I felt after Hurricane Katrina. The first major city destroyed is a shock, but later you get numb to it if you are not actually there. Then finally, a remote island territory is all but wiped out in what should be shocking fashion, and the public and government response is decidedly muted. This is what the age of climate change and weapons proliferation might be like, a long, slow process of shifting baselines where the unthinkable becomes thinkable over time.
  • In a story that U.S. media didn’t seem to pick up, China seemed to make a statement in its  official state-run media that it would defend North Korea in case of an unprovoked attack by the U.S. and its allies. John Bolton  and Lindsey Graham made comments suggesting they think any number of Korean dead would be a price worth paying for an unprovoked U.S. attack. The Trump administration is openly using Nazi propaganda.
  • During the Vietnam War the United States dropped approximately twice as many tons of bombs in Southeast Asia as the Allied forces combined used against both Germany and Japan in World War II. After the Cold War finally ended, Mikhail Gorbachev made some good suggestions for how to achieve a lasting peace. They were ignored. We may be witnessing the decline of the American Empire as a result.

Most hopeful stories:

  • It’s possible that a universal basic income could save the U.S. government money by replacing less efficient assistance programs.
  • There are also workable proposals for a U.S. single-payer health insurance program, although this one would somewhat obviously mean the government spending more money, which it would have to collect in taxes. People would come out ahead financially if the taxes were less than the premiums they are paying now, which doesn’t seem that hard, but of course this is politically tough given the incredibly effective propaganda the finance industry has used to kill the idea for the last 50 years.
  • Utility-scale solar energy cost dropped 30% in one year.

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • The FDA has approved formal trials of Ecstasy to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • I learned that the OECD Science, Technology and Innovation Outlook named “ten key emerging technology trends”: The Internet of Things, Big data analytics, Artificial intelligence, Neurotechnologies, Nano/microsatellites, Nanomaterials, Additive manufacturing / 3D printing, Advanced energy storage technologies, Synthetic biology, Blockchain
  • In automation news, Tesla is testing automated truck platoons. And there’s a site that will try to predict whether robots will take your job.

Battlefield Casualties and Ballot Box Defeat

This surprising study from Boston University and University of Minnesota concludes that military families that suffered casualties in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars might have been the swing voters that put Trump over the top in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

Kriner, Douglas L. and Shen, Francis X., Battlefield Casualties and Ballot Box Defeat: Did the Bush-Obama Wars Cost Clinton the White House? (June 19, 2017). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2989040

America has been at war continuously for over 15 years, but few Americans seem to notice. This is because the vast majority of citizens have no direct connection to those soldiers fighting, dying, and returning wounded from combat. Increasingly, a divide is emerging between communities whose young people are dying to defend the country, and those communities whose young people are not. In this paper we empirically explore whether this divide—the casualty gap—contributed to Donald Trump’s surprise victory in November 2016. The data analysis presented in this working paper finds that indeed, in the 2016 election Trump was speaking to this forgotten part of America. Even controlling in a statistical model for many other alternative explanations, we find that there is a significant and meaningful relationship between a community’s rate of military sacrifice and its support for Trump. Our statistical model suggests that if three states key to Trump’s victory – Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin – had suffered even a modestly lower casualty rate, all three could have flipped from red to blue and sent Hillary Clinton to the White House. There are many implications of our findings, but none as important as what this means for Trump’s foreign policy. If Trump wants to win again in 2020, his electoral fate may well rest on the administration’s approach to the human costs of war. Trump should remain highly sensitive to American combat casualties, lest he become yet another politician who overlooks the invisible inequality of military sacrifice. More broadly, the findings suggest that politicians from both parties would do well to more directly recognize and address the needs of those communities whose young women and men are making the ultimate sacrifice for the country.

I acknowledge and am willing to believe the numbers. I am not sure I buy the conclusions these authors draw from the numbers – that communities with ties to the military will vote for candidates they think are least likely to send their children off to war. On the contrary, I would hypothesize that people in these communities might respond more strongly to patriotic rhetoric, and be more likely to support military approaches to geopolitical problems.

facts about the Vietnam War

A series on warontherocks.com recounts the facts and figures on U.S. firepower during the Vietnam War.

During the Vietnam War the United States dropped approximately twice as many tons of bombs in Southeast Asia as the Allied forces combined used against both Germany and Japan in World War II. Between 1964 and 1973, U.S. aircraft expended over seven million tons of bombs in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, compared to 3.4 million tons dropped by the United States and its allies in all of World War II. There were restrictions on some targets, particularly in areas of North Vietnam that were close to China and where U.S. leaders were concerned that American airstrikes might provoke a Chinese response. But those do not change the fact that the American air campaign in the Vietnam war was the heaviest in the history of war, by a very large margin…

For most of the period of U.S. involvement, the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies used air and ground munitions at a rate several hundred times higher than the Communist side. Pentagon records for 1969, for example, show that U.S. forces expended nearly 130,000 tons of ammunition a month. About three-fifths of that was delivered by air and the rest in ground fire. By comparison, the highest Communist firepower expenditure of the war, not reached until 1972, was about 1,000 tons a month.

what does North Korea want?

Nobody wants to defend the choices of the North Korean government. They have kept their people in abject poverty for decades, worked people to death in prison camps, and not only threatened neighbors with weapons of mass destruction but contributed to the spread of those weapons, increasing the risk to everyone on the planet. And yet…the story we get from the our supposedly free press is very black and white. Are they so completely irrational and random that there is no possibility of negotiation? Or is there something they want, like assurances they won’t be attacked by their neighbors? A group at Johns Hopkins has a blog called 38 North that does nothing but tackle these questions of policy and how the media is covering them. Here is an excerpt from an article from August 15 on the media coverage:

ABC’s analyst uses fancy graphics to show what North Korea’s weapons could do and potential US military responses. There is no discussion, however, of what North Korea is trying to do with its weapons. ​Is Kim waiting to negotiate only after feeling that he has enough military might? Is he hoping to have cover for skirmishes and other kinetic actions across the border with Korea? Does he think he is deterring the US from toppling his regime? Instead, audiences are left with the overwhelming impression that the North’s growing capabilities are simply to start a nuclear war.

This is amped up by the idea that Kim Jong Un is “crazy” and thus presents a unique threat to the United States. But in reality, Kim is not crazy and there are many learned people available to explain this to people like, say, Joe Scarborough, who refers multiple times to Kim as a “madman” in this segment from last month…

Senator Lindsey Graham’s, “If thousands die, they’re going to die over there,” comment is the most egregious expression of the idea that South Korea can be sacrificed in this crisis. When US leaders imply or openly threaten to bring a devastating war to Korea because Pyongyang now may have the potential to hit America with an intercontinental ballistic missile, South Koreans understandably start to view the United States as an unreliable ally and patron. What good is the US nuclear umbrella if it doesn’t stop aggression? What good is the alliance if the mutual prosperity it once supported can be so quickly unraveled?


John Bolton: “How do you feel about dead Americans?”

On Fox News September 3, here is John Bolton advocating a U.S. invasion of North Korea regardless of the cost in South Korean lives.

If I were the government of South Korea, I might be asking whether the benefits of the U.S. alliance outweigh the risk to my citizens, especially when my country has the technological and financial means to defend itself.

“China will prevent them from doing so”

From the Global Times, which is an English language paper published by the Chinese government:

Beijing is not able to persuade Washington or Pyongyang to back down at this time. It needs to make clear its stance to all sides and make them understand that when their actions jeopardize China’s interests, China will respond with a firm hand.

China should also make clear that if North Korea launches missiles that threaten US soil first and the US retaliates, China will stay neutral. If the US and South Korea carry out strikes and try to overthrow the North Korean regime and change the political pattern of the Korean Peninsula, China will prevent them from doing so.

China opposes both nuclear proliferation and war in the Korean Peninsula. It will not encourage any side to stir up military conflict, and will firmly resist any side which wants to change the status quo of the areas where China’s interests are concerned. It is hoped that both Washington and Pyongyang can exercise restraint. The Korean Peninsula is where the strategic interests of all sides converge, and no side should try to be the absolute dominator of the region.

terrifying Putin quote

Vladimir Putin either made a very terrifying statement here, or it just didn’t translate well.

An AI arms race doesn’t necessarily have to be a winner-takes-all scenario, though. Putin noted that Russia did not want to see any one country “monopolize” the field, and said instead: “If we become leaders in this area, we will share this know-how with entire world, the same way we share our nuclear technologies today.”

What a generous guy.

August 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • Around 200,000 people may be dying prematurely in the U.S. each year due to air pollution. Meanwhile, the Trump administration may be trying to censor the National Climate Assessment, which presents the consensus among serious scientists in the United States government that climate change is very real and a very real threat to our country.
  • The U.S. may already be in the middle of a soft military coup. We have a batshit-crazy President playing nuclear chicken with all our lives. And with the legislative branch not even trying to do anything about this, we are actually hoping the generals who are running our country will be the coolest heads in the room when it comes to preventing nuclear war. North Korea may be closer to submarine-launched nuclear weapons than previously thought. Meanwhile, there are three ways for terrorists or other non-state actors to get their hands on nuclear weapons: “transfer—the sale or handoff of a weapon from a nuclear-weapon state; leakage—the theft of a nuclear weapon or weapons-grade fissile material; and indigenous production—the construction of a nuclear device from illicitly obtained weapons-grade fissile material.” And the U.S. and Russia are no longer cooperating on non-proliferation.
  • The U.S. construction industry has had negligible productivity gains in the past 40 years.

Most hopeful stories:

  • The United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution (in July) that could eventually, maybe lead to the total elimination of nuclear weapons on Earth.
  • The Aichi Biodiversity Targets are some very specific numerical targets that have incorporated in the 2015 Sustainable Goals.
  • Great Transitions are ideas for how the world could transition to a sustainable state without going through a major setback along the way.

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • Elon Musk has thrown his energy into deep tunneling technology.
  • When you sow seeds, it makes sense to sow the ones that have the most trouble establishing at the highest density.
  • You can use R to recreate the famous plot of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.

As I am writing these words on Labor Day, the news is about a North Korean nuclear test. In a strange coincidence, I happened to see both the USS New Jersey, which was involved in the Korean War, and the Korean War Memorial here in Philadelphia yesterday (which never came). That war caused a lot of pain and suffering on all sides. It would be a tragedy to let it flair up again, and an even bigger tragedy if nuclear weapons were to be involved.

Frontline in Yemen and Mosul

PBS Frontline probably makes the most consistently depressing documentaries. They also somehow get consistently amazing access to war zones. They did an episode on Yemen recently, and they have one on Mosul coming up. I find these extremely disturbing – if the measure of success in fighting terrorism were taken to be the cost in civilian lives and human rights, I am not sure any of these wars would be worth it. Humanitarian war is an oxymoron – if our political leaders are waging war to achieve geopolitical objectives with little regard to human rights, the people need to understand how horrific that is and try to come to terms with it. These documentaries do a pretty good job at that.

not the Cuban Missile Crisis

Sheldon Stern, who was a historian at the JFK library for 23 years, points out that JFK stood up to his military leaders who were hell-bent on a full-scale invasion of Cuba, while today we are hoping that our military leaders might stand up to a President’s reckless decision to unleash the military and risk nuclear war.

It is all but impossible to imagine this kind of informed, rational and mature leadership coming from the Oval Office today. If discretion and common sense are to prevail, it will require, as noted above, turning the central dynamic of the Cuban missile crisis upside down; this time, the top military figures in the administration may be forced to try to short-circuit an impulsive over-reaction by their commander-in-chief. Today, fortunately, most senior military officers are vastly more politically sophisticated and historically educated than their 1962 counterparts (who received most of their formal military education before the advent of nuclear weapons). Indeed, Mattis has edited an important book about American views of our military and McMaster is the author of a highly-regarded study of the failure of civilian and military leadership to prevent the escalation of the Vietnam War. There is room for hope.

I too hope that cooler heads will prevail, and if the coolest heads are in the military at the moment I am behind them. But if the coolest heads are the military, it is a sign that the civilian leadership has completely failed. I am not confident that it will get us out of trouble this time, and even if it does it is a scary precedent for the future. Basically we are saying it is okay for the military to step in and take over in an emergency. Nothing in our constitution is supposed to allow that, and for it to happen the President has to be extraordinarily weak and the entire rest of the civilian government has to stand by and do absolutely nothing.