Ghost Fleet: A Review

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I was a bit late in getting to it, but I was pleasantly surprised by P.W. Singer and August Cole’s Ghost Fleet. It took a bit of effort to get into it, but the temporal leap the novel takes into years after a second Pearl Harbor attack allows for some very interesting worldbuilding. The United States has been taken down a peg and enjoys little to none of its previous dominance. What does the post-hegemonic era look like for America? How, in the fabled era of “degraded ISR,” can American armed forces operate and conduct operations? While we’re living through that transition now, Singer and Cole explore what that future might actually resemble.

Riddled throughout with trenchant criticisms of the current political-military-industrial complex (such as a “Big Two” defense contractors, numerous references to the failings of the F-35, and the Air Force’s institutional resistance to unmanned air-to-air platforms), the vision fleshed out in Ghost Fleet is not a flattering one to our current state of affairs. At times the references are a bit on the nose, but the degree of underlying wit makes up for it.

If nothing else, the opening sequence helps explain even to the layman the importance of sensor platforms and space-based assets, the US military’s dependence on them, and their exquisite vulnerability. Finite quantities of ship-launched missiles and other material become apparent in a way that can be challenging to discern in real-life operations. Our reliance on Chinese-produced microchips and other advanced technology becomes a easily-exploitable Achilles’ Heel, in a manner all too reminiscent of the Battlestar Galactica pilot miniseries.

A new techno-thriller is, of course, cause for comparison to Tom Clancy, and where this far outshines him is in its willingness to critique technology and current trends in military procurement rather than lauding it unreservedly, while crafting somewhat multi-dimensional characters (some of whom are even not white!). And as I’ve written before, even if wrong in the details, fiction like this helps broaden the aperture a bit and convey the potentialities of future conflict. If not China, then Russia; if not the F-35, then perhaps the long-range strike bomber: things will go wrong, technologies will fail, and the United States may well be caught unawares. Hopefully, with novels such as Ghost Fleet illustrating the cost of unpreparedness, it will be possible to forestall the future it envisions.

Diamond in the Techno-Thriller: The Value of Speculative Fiction

A few years ago, some sort of switch got flipped in my brain and all of a sudden I became far more capable of and willing to plow through half a dozen novels in a single stretch than to finish a single non-fiction book. Recently, equilibrium has been at least somewhat restored, but I continue to find myself immersed in fiction in a way that I rarely was before.

Some recent reading has included a pair of Larry Bond novels from the late 1980s and early 1990s, Vortex and Cauldron. Larry Bond is most famously, of course, the man who helped Tom Clancy game out many of his books’ wartime scenarios (and Bond co-wrote Red Storm Rising with Clancy). I hadn’t known Bond as an author in his own right, but recently read those two works of his in succession.

What’s wonderful about books like these is generally not their literary qualities, but nor is it even the conduct or proposed sequence of events in particular conflicts. Can fiction, in fact, predict the future of warfare? Perhaps, but more interestingly, such books serve as a time capsule of the era in which they were written. Much of the “valued added” from this is detailed (at times overly so) descriptions and explanations of the weaponry, arms systems, and military organization of the era. But furthermore, while not predictive in any meaningful way, these novels can help widen the Overton Window of the imagination, to at least consider a divergent future drastically different from our own.

With books set in the future, but now a dated future, it’s almost like reading alternate history. As of this writing, I’m reading The Third World War: August 1985, which is an account of World War III written in the past tense as a historical survey from the point of view of two years later (e.g., 1987). Of course, the book was actually published in 1979, along with a followup, The Third World War: The Untold Story, which was published two years later and dives deeper into specifics of nuclear postures, the war in the North Atlantic and the North Sea, Solidarity’s effect in Poland, and other issues. It is a look at a world that never was, but seemed frightfully close to being so. And from that perspective, it’s a chilling look at the prospective war facing the world of the past.

Obviously, these never came to pass, but when one considers what might have been, that can seem a blessing. Continue reading

The Struggle in the Bardo

AP/AP - An army helicopter flies over the Siachen Glacier on Pakistan-India border, 2003.

The base at Gayari, where the avalanche hit, sits at about 15,000 feet, near a border where thousands of Pakistani and Indian troops stand guard across a no man’s land at elevations up to 22,000 feet. The Siachen Glacier often is called the highest battlefield on Earth.

-Richard Leiby, “Himalayan avalanche buried scores of Pakistani troops, army says,” Washington Post, April 7, 2007.

Something about this phrasing – despite the tragedy of the situation – inspires wonder and awe. The fact that I’m captivated by it is a reminder that I’m still a nerd, which I appreciate. There’s a cinematic quality to it; an air of futility as well. It’s akin to spacefaring battles, or a war on the moon. An alien, inhospitable landscape that men are willing to die for.

This reflects my own tastes more than anything, but much writing on India and/or Pakistan, though especially the former, seems to take place in the teeming cities or lush semi-jungle areas. But there’s a very distinct subcurrent in military-related fiction and literature set in the mountains and passes. Think General Raj-Singh, the Tiger of Delhi. Or a temporary safehouse in Himachel Pradesh. 10th Mountain: there may be hope for you yet.

Of course, it helps that I can’t help but be reminded of the epic, climactic “War of the Asuras” in Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt (it should be fairly obvious why):

Their task now was to blast the defenses away and go south through that pass, down to some level below this floor of the universe. The pass to India, supposedly. Gate to a lower realm. Very well defended, of course.
      The “Muslims” defending it remained invisible, always over the great snowy mass of granite peaks, greater than any mountains on earth could be, asura mountains, and the big guns brought to bear on them, asura guns. Never had it been so clear to Bai that they had gotten caught up in some bigger war, dying by the millions for some cause not their own. Ice and black rock fangs touched the ceiling of stars, snow banners streamed on the monsoon wind away from the peaks, merging with the Milky Way, at sunset becoming asura flames blowing horizontally, as if the realm of the asuras stood perpendicularly to their own, another reason perhaps that their puny imitation battles were always so hopelessly askew.
      The Muslims’ big guns were on the south side of the range, they never even heard them. Their shells whistled over the stars, leaving white rainbow frost trails on the black sky. The majority of these shells landed on the massive white mountain to the east of the huge pass, blasting it with one stupendous explosion after another, as if the Muslims had gone crazy and declared war on the rocks of the Earth.

The Windup Girl: A Review

Everything I hoped it would be and more. This morning John Robb referenced aspects of The Windup Girl and that brought it all rushing back.

Bacigalupi paints the picture of a world where the “calorie men,” representatives of the midwestern agricultural combines that released the blister rust plagues into the wild, whose “U-Tex” and other genetically-engineered crops are the only defense against the diseases created by the same men, and the sterility of which forces India, Burma, and the other starving nations of the world into semi-feudal servility. A world in which rising seas have swallowed New York, Mumbai, New Orleans, and Rangoon, and where only the coal-powered monstrous pumps of King Rama XII prevent the similar fate from befalling Bangkok. Where the combustion engine has been replaced by kink-spring power wound by men and elephant-derived megadonts, where the exertion of labor to power the world requires the fuel of food, and calories are the currency of the realm.

In the midst of this, a former Japanese pleasure construct – the titular “windup girl” – discovers instincts and desires beyond the total obedience and urge to please that has not just been bred into her, but programmed into the very fiber of her being. An accidental übermenschen trapped among a peoples who regard her as trash, she represents a future that she can’t even understand yet. Which, coincidentally, is precisely what Bacigalupi has written here.

It is a rich portrait, indeed, and Bacigalupi excels at the alternate history/speculative fiction techniques of hint-dropping and hastily-sketched background details that he doles out like candy along a forest trail. But you’ll want to go where he’s luring you.

Corporate Warriors: A Review

It has been much too long in coming, but I finally finished P.W. Singer’s Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry. It is, quite simply, excellent.

Singer is one of the most intriguing defense/security writers out there, as his “thing” is basically finding heavily underrreported – yet crucial – developments occurring in the U.S. military. He seems to always be one of the first to really study in a comprehensive and coherent manner certain evolutionary changes in the way war is fought, and Corporate Warriors is no exception. His other works deal with heady subjects like robotics in war and child soldiers, and here he is at the forefront of yet another startling trend.

Corporate Warriors is an attempt to trace the lineage of the Private Military Firm (PMF) from early mercenaries to today’s corporate arrangements, and in doing so, to fit them into a theoretical framework for better understanding and predicting industry developments. Published on the eve of the Iraq War in 2003, the book mostly deals with the 1990s, though to fully explain the rise of the PMF it jumps back to earlier examples in the 1970s and 80s.

Much of Corporate Warriors is couched in the language of IR theory, but Singer never slavishly tries to fit all of his findings into a rigid framework. Chapter 2 is an excellent historical survey of privatized military history, ranging from mercenaries in the service of King Shulgi of Ur to Syracusan hoplites to the first “companies” of the Hundred Years War. Singer fully explains the ‘state as monopoly on violence’ and the prominence that mercenaries enjoyed from the dawn of history until the nineteenth century, explaining that the odd little gap between roughly 1860 and 1950 in which the state’s monopoly was the only game in town. But he is never overly concerned with the theoretical framework. Chapter 11, “Market Dynamism and Global Security Disruptions,” opens with an epigraph from Professor R.B.J. Walker:

The disjunction between the seriousness of international politics and the triviality of international relations theory is quite startling.

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Theories of International Politics and Zombies

A classic example of realist IR theory at work.

In the late summer of 2009, Dan Drezner came out with a delightful piece in Foreign Policy called “How International Relations Theory Would Cope with a Zombie Uprising.” It’s really quite clever, exploring the effects of a zombie apocalypse as seen through the eyes of  a structural realist, a liberal institutionalist, a social constructivist, and so forth.

Apparently, Drezner was so pleased with the idea that he ran with it and turned it into a book: Theories of International Politics and Zombies. And for the launch of the book, he’s doing some sort of speaking tour. I had the pleasure of seeing him talk last night, courtesy of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. There’s no way I could have passed it up – it combines two of my great pleasures in life. International relations theory and the walking dead.

Having an open bar was an excellent call for an event like this. There’s only so much gravitas you can hold while discussing the finer points of the constructivist critique; namely, that zombies “are what we make of them.” No single paradigm can accurately model zombie behavior, of course. Realism assumes that somewhere down the line zombie states will emerge. Liberalism sees the possibility of cooperation with the zombies. Constructivism thinks that the zombies can be socialized. None of these will hold true; the closest real-world comparison for the tactics and effects of massed zombies would include assymmetrical warfare, global transnational terrorism, and the spread of communicable disease.

Drezner was great, peppering his talk with clips from Night of the Living Dead, both the original Dawn of the Dead and the remake, Shaun of the Dead, and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. Also getting heavy mention was Max Brooks’ World War Z, which I was especially glad to hear as it meant I could ask a question about the Battle of Yonkers being a failure of RMA without having to explain the former. (Answer: not a failure of RMA, but a reflection of the bureaucratic morass at the Pentagon – the intransigence of Standard Operating Procedure.) Here are Drezner’s general conclusions:

  • Thucydides is still relevant in a post-zombie world
  • The zombie canon is too pessimistic (from Patient Zero to the apocalypse always takes about ten minutes)
  • International relations paradigms probably suffer from intellectual rigidity
  • Analytic eclecticism has its advantages to explaining a zombie uprising

And now, some highlights from the Q&A. Drezner’s zombie contingency plan:

If you don’t hear from me for a week, pack up and move to New Zealand.

The zombies’ effect on existing conflicts:

If zombies broke out in Belgium, you know the Flemish would throw the Walloons under the bus.

We would see a large exodus/mass migration from urban centers to far more rural areas:

Richard Florida would be devastated. And eaten.

A protracted counter-zombie campaign would most likely lead to a ‘counter-zombie policy fatigue’. We might, perhaps, come to take the same view of such a strategy as we eventually did of Prohibition. Drezner also suggested his next book, in keeping with Keohane’s After Hegemony, might simply be titled After Aliens.

Anyways, it was a great event, and many thanks to the Chicago Council for putting it on. Especially as a Young Professionals event. I picked up a copy of his book there (and had him sign it. “To Graham: hope you survive!”); expect a review soon.

The Fires: A Review

Joe Flood is perhaps the best possible name for the author of a book called The Fires. Or, more completely, The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City-and Determined the Future of Cities. That title is a mouthful, but accurately reflects the amazing and diverse subtopics that Flood effortlessly moves back and forth across in explaining the rash of fires in 1970s New York and the decline of the Bronx.

Starting with the machine politics of Tammany Hall and the various city departments’ resistance to reform, Flood traces the ascent of Fire Chief John O’Hagan, a unbelievably intelligent, young reformer in the FDNY with ideas of quantitative analysis in his head. Flood explores the origins of systems analysis and operations research in World War II, and then follows the rise of the RAND Corporation through the early days of the Cold War, and the inexorable meetings between RAND, O’Hagan, and Mayor John Lindsay that led to a radical new firefighting regime citywide.

Sophisticated computer modeling directed the closure of many fire stations throughout the South Bronx, which (unbeknown to me) had been an upscale, classy developed area mostly inhabited by Italians and Jews escaping the slums and tenements of the Lower East Side. As fire after fire engulfed the Bronx, and the fire department proved woefully inadequate at fighting them, a massive phase of white flight began to accelerate. Coupled with Robert Moses’ Cross-Bronx Expressway and  Lindsay’s repeal of a city law requiring municipal employees to reside within city limits, the number of whites in the outer boroughs dropped dramatically as they fled to suburban Westchester County and across the river to New Jersey.

Of course, there’s far more than even that to the story. Flood does an absolutely masterful job of weaving together all these disparate threads into a cohesive narrative. There’s Moses and his misguided plan for the Lower Manhattan Expressway (LoMEX), an eight-lane behemoth of an elevated highway that would have utterly destroyed Greenwich Village and much of the surrounding area. The Ford Motor Company and Robert McNamara make an appearance as early benefactors of RAND’s pioneering quantitative research. Flood also gives the rezoning of Manhattan that banished most industry and manufacturing a brief, if absolutely intriguing treatment. He excoriates the weak building codes that existed for much of the twentieth century, and the loophole of the World Trade Center’s construction by the Port Authority that allowed it to skirt New York City building codes.

It’s hard to do The Fires justice. It is so far-reaching – but never over-reaching – that to describe all the different components of its narrative would be impossible without actually writing the book again. But in that sense, hopefully this represents a new trend in historical writing, a truly interdisciplinary effort that never seems to bog down. From sociology to politics to urban planning to history to engineering, Joe Flood just bounces around without getting distracted, but while conveying the sheer complexity of a series of events like this. There’s no single explanation; there are six or seven. It’s an impressive feat.

While this book certainly is a “commercial” history (i.e. no footnotes), it has a wealth of information in the back anyways, using the page-number/quote-fragment system (on another note, does anyone know the actual term for this citation method). Much of Flood’s sourcing consists of personal interviews, giving him a truly first-hand perspective of the events he’s covering. The obscure documents he unearths in some instances also speak to his devotion to the subject. And I know that some of the random tangents he meanders down have given me ideas for a book of my own.

If it’s any kind of testament to the quality of The Fires, not only did I buy it for myself, but I got my father a copy for Christmas. I would buy pretty much everyone a copy of this if they don’t already have it. The Fires is unequivocally recommended by me to anybody who can read.

Buy The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City-and Determined the Future of Cities at Amazon.com.

Rational Pessimism

Matt Ridley’s new book about how we’ve got it so good today, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, has met with pretty decent reviews. I only just got around to reading Brendan O’Neill’s review for The American Conservative today (yes, yes, I know it’s dated August 1, but I’ve been busy), and it quashed any desire I might have had to read it.

I mean, I know I’m a pretty ornery cuss, but let’s face it: despite rapid advances in material prosperity, we as a society don’t seem particularly happy with our lot. O’Neill is right in saying that all the threats guaranteed to kill us all – Y2K, Bird Flu, that Man-Bird-Pig disease of a year or two ago – have never materialized, and that despite our constant worrying over the end, if it indeed comes it is almost certain to catch us by surprise.

And yet, there is so much of Ridley’s overall hypothesis that seems to make no sense. At the risk of becoming one of the “angry, graph-obsessed nitpicking” types O’Neill warns against, I think it would make sense to examine Ridley’s actual claims and see why they ring hollow.

In just the past 50 years, the average human “earned nearly three times as much money (corrected for inflation), ate one-third more calories of food, buried one-third as many of her children, and could expect to live one-third longer.”

Right off the bat, I can see one problem here: the average human. While wages and prosperity have risen steadily around the world, in the United States income disparity is at historical levels. Productivity has soared in the past fifty years,  but relative worker pay has dropped precipitously. We’re doing more and getting paid less to do it. So while much of the world may have seen a tangible increase in quality-of-life, we’re in many ways worse off than we were 20, 30 years ago. Continue reading

Cities Under Siege: A Review

It took far too long, but I finally got around to reading Stephen Graham’s Cities Under Siege.  In the end, I’m not entirely sure it was worth it.

Graham’s book is sweeping in its generalizations, its implications, and its conclusions. It broadly traces the rise of the city in military and popular conception as a hotbed of vice and perversion, as a target for military operations, and as an increasingly oppressed environment for its citizens. Cities Under Siege is split into sections covering such phenomenon of urban militarization as the rise of the SUV (“Car Wars”), autonomous drones and robot warfare (“Robowar Dreams”), the destruction and replanning of cities (“Lessons in Urbicide”), recreated urban training centers (“Theme Park Archipelago”) and the nexus of the “military-industrial-media-entertainment network.” It’s a mouthful, as is much of this book.

Continue reading

Freedom™: A Review

This author, with Suarez' duology at a London pub, May 2010.

After cruising through Daemon in about 2 days, Freedom™ was even quicker: I blew through it in about 24 hours (back in May). That’s no knock against it, though; rather, I just couldn’t put it down at all.

This review will be brief, even though it’s taken me almost three months to get around to finishing it. Basically, if Daemon was the end of the beginning, Freedom™ is the beginning of the end. Or at least of the next step. It lays out the climactic struggle much more succinctly, a titanic clash between people and business, corporate and individual. I found this particular passage most instructive:

You, sir, are walking on a privately owned Main Street—permission to trespass revocable at will. Read the plaque on the ground at the entrance if you don’t believe me. These people aren’t citizens of anything, Sergeant. America is just another brand purchased for its goodwill value. For that excellent fucking logo … No conspiracy necessary. It’s a process that’s been happening for thousands of years. Wealth aggregates and becomes political power. Simple as that. ‘Corporation’ is just the most recent name for it. In the Middle Ages it was the Catholic Church. They had a great logo, too. You might have seen it, and they had more branches than Starbucks. Go back before that, and it was Imperial Rome. It’s a natural process as old as humanity.

Of course, overreach leads to retreat and retrenchment, et cetera, et cetera. Even if the message seems a little obvious (and by no means subtly presented), it’s an important one, and it’s framed in an interesting new way. It’s that presentation that makes this not only legible, but well worth your time, if not just to see what the traditional cries of anticonsumerism and Adbusters-type activism look like in the digital age.

John Robb’s ‘holons‘ take some big strides here too; Suarez has done an excellent job of envisioning the resilient community concept, and doing so in a way that makes them seem not only possible, but inevitable. A blueprint for the future? Not necessarily. But at the least, a realistic portrayal of the kind of decentralized communities that we’ll hopefully be migrating to in the future. Thanks to Daniel Suarez, they’re more than just a concept.

So read Daemon and then read Freedom. Seriously, you won’t be disappointed. And even if you are, ignore the prose and focus on the message – it’s one we sorely need to listen to right now.

Buy Freedom™ at Amazon.com.