In Which History Brushes the Dirt off its Shoulders and Starts Happening Again


Never before has the English Channel seemed so oceanic.

Brexit is a dreadful portmanteau. I tried to divert myself last night coining better alternatives for other potential coming secessions, instead of “Frexit” and “Italexit” (my money’s on Fradieu and Italiciao, respectively).

But not only is the word ugly but so too the deed. Probably.

Given what our generation has grown up with – a fairly predictable march towards neoliberal consensus, general stability save the occasional earth-shattering global financial crisis, a world of solid borders and staid bureaucracy – we at least have an excuse for complacency in the absence of change. Those responsible for the referendum and the crisis that’s led us to this moment, not so much, as Adam Elkus pointed out. But it would seem that history is roaring back with a vengeance and threatening to upend the order we’ve taken for granted.

I would hope that an island’s decision to exit a common market does not throw the longest peace on the Rhine in a thousand years into jeopardy; indeed, this early on I cannot quite envision the chain of events that would lead to that (okay, well, since you asked, Brexit precipitates two to three other EU withdrawals, leading to a collapse of the European Union, returning us to a perfect Westphalian state of international anarchy, but I digress).

The mid-to-long-term effects have yet to be seen. In the short run, obviously the pound sterling has tanked (though seems to be making a slight recovery), wiping out significant economic value, and stock markets across Asia, Europe, and the United States have also opened down. This, however, seems a poor explanation for the panic breaking out online and in person, the sense of grief and loss that’s accompanied this momentous and shocking vote. Plummeting retirement accounts and weakened currency are disastrous, to be sure, but they’re hard to pinpoint as a source of raw emotion.

There’s also something unseemly about arguing that “the market” should have been given a veto over a decision of popular sovereignty. Which isn’t to say that material well-being shouldn’t be nor wasn’t a factor in yesterday’s vote, but the idea that the City of London’s reaction to a vote to leave should determine national standing in the world is rather jarring (if not entirely inaccurate even without a referendum at all).

No, what’s caused this international mood of mourning is something grander than sheer material impact. It’s the loss of an idea, that a united Europe could overcome the historical divisions and enmities that have led to so much bloodshed over the course of several millennia. To turn its back on that sectarian, internecine warfare and instead chart a common course towards a mutual future; in short, a true commonwealth.

Of course, the European Union as constituted was (and is) rife with problems of its own. It is both too unaccountable and too lacking in power. It enjoys a currency union without a fiscal one; legislative representation without political supremacy. The vote reflects general and intense (and well-deserved) dissatisfaction with the elite. There are cases to be made for exiting the EU as a positive, both from the right and the left. But they’re not wholly convincing, because whatever the “cost” or “savings,” the results of the referendum transcend a materialist analysis of Britain’s EU membership, and is the death knell of an ideal.

This a tragedy especially for the young people of Britain and Europe, who time and time again have had their desires thwarted by older voters who won’t be around long enough to live with the consequences. It happened in the US Democratic primary and to a lesser extent in Scotland; the trend was undeniable even before then. That comment from the Financial Times that’s gone viral really does summarize it well: there will still be an unaccountable elite, only with British accents instead of a European polyglot; and the freedoms to live, work, and study in Europe, to meet a future spouse there, to be exposed to the tremendous panoply of cultures that comprise modern Europe, to try and fit Britain into a larger context, into the world: all of that has been dashed by a generation that already got theirs.

So despair is the watchword of today. Of course, Parliament might choose to dishonor the results of the referendum, or there could be a second one, or the Queen could refuse her assent, or any manner of other things. At a minimum the process will take two years. But the fact that a majority of England and Wales would prefer to exist outside the European Union is a profound shift in the international order. Scotland, on the other hand, may well opt for a second independence referendum, given the significant changes since the previous one (i.e., no more EU membership). But with the price of oil having dropped significantly from its 2014 levels, the self-sustainability of that project might be more in question.


Sinn Fein, as is their wont, has also made their announcement calling for a Northern Ireland vote to reunify Ireland, given the impending border checks and controls that would arise from a Northern Ireland outside of the EU.

The unthinkable has been set in motion and may yet be halted. But this vote should be of absolutely no comfort to anyone. We’re in uncharted waters, and the idea of European unity and a whiggish progress towards some noble and enlightened end has been thrown into stark relief. As the developed world mourns the idea of growing integration and peace, we’ve been reminded that the trend of the past few years is no happenstance, but rather that chance and contingency are once again a part of geopolitics – for better or worse.

Expect the unexpected; choppy waters ahead.

What is “Systems Analysis”?

“Systems analysis,” as a concept, can be difficult to define and pin down. For much of my life, I assumed it was some sort of generic back-office IT function (see, for instance, the hundreds of man-on-the-street “American Voices” interviews in The Onion, which describe respondents in equal measure as ‘unemployed’ or ‘systems analyst’). But given the complexities of almost, well, everything in the modern era, an understanding of the logical underpinnings of systems analysis is critical.

Essentially, single variables cannot be considered in isolation. A new weapons platform or technological development or re-basing movement must be thought of in the context of existing technology, logistics capacity, weather, enemy reaction, enabling capabilities, fixed facilities, power projection, and so on, down an otherwise infinite fractal list of factors.

Dr. Bernard Brodie, RAND Corporation (Wikimedia)

But all this is a long-winded introduction to Bernard Brodie’s hypothetical systems analysis example in Strategy in the Missile Age is one of the best,  most succinct ways of describing just how complex this interplay is. Brodie, of course, had a front-row seat to this effort, as the RAND Corporation was the earliest home to a methodological approach to the field. Beginning on page 381 in the 1967 edition:

Let us consider, for example, the problem of choosing between two kinds of strategic bombers. Each represents in its design an advanced “state of the art,” but each also represents a different concept. In one, which we shall call Bomber A, the designers have sought to maximize range. They have therefore settled for a subsonic top speed in a plane of fairly large size. The designers of Bomber B, on the contrary, have been more impressed with the need for a high dash speed during that part of the sortie which involves penetration of enemy territory, and have built a smaller, shorter-ranged plane capable of a Mach 2 dash for a portion of its flight. Let us assume also that the price of the smaller plane is about two-thirds that of the larger.

Perhaps we can take both types into our inventory, but even then we should have to compare them to determine which we should get in the larger numbers. Let us then pick a certain number of specific targets in enemy territory, perhaps three hundred, and specify the destruction of these targets as the job to be accomplished. Since we know that both types can accomplish this job with complete success if properly supported and handled, our question then becomes: which type can do it for the least money?

We do not ask at this stage which type can do it more reliably, because within limits we can buy reliability with dollars, usually by providing extra units. Some performance characteristics, to be sure, will not permit themselves to be thus translated into dollars-for example, one type of plane can arrive over target somewhat sooner than the other type, and it is not easy to price the value of this advantage but we shall postpone consideration of that and similar factors until later.

Let us assume that Bomber A has a cruising range of 6,000 miles, while Bomber B is capable of only 4,000 miles. This means that Bomber A has to be refueled only on its post-strike return journey, while Bomber B probably has to be refueled once in each direction. This at once tells us something about the number of “compatible” tankers that one has to buy for each type (“compatible” referring to the performance characteristics which enable it to operate smoothly with a particular type of bomber). Up to this point Bomber B has appeared the cheaper plane, at least in terms of initial purchase price, but its greater requirement in tankers actually makes it the more expensive having regard for the whole system. In comparing dollar costs, however, it is pointless to compare merely procurement prices for the two kinds of planes; one has to compare the complete systems, that is to say, the weapons, the vehicles, and the basing, protection, maintenance, and operating costs, and one must consider these costs for each system over a suitably long period of peacetime maintenance, say five years. These considerations involve us also in questions of manpower. We are in fact pricing, over some duration of time, the whole military structure required for each type of bomber.

A B-36 Peacemaker, B-52 Stratofortress, and B-58 Hustler from Carswell AFB, TX en route to the former’s retirement in 1958. The B-52 would long outlive the more advanced Hustler. (Wikimedia)

Now we have the problem of comparing through a process of “operations analysis,” how the two types fare in combat, especially the survival expectancy of each type of plane during penetration. In other words, we have to find out how much the greater speed (and perhaps higher altitude) of Bomber B is worth as protection. If the enemy depends mostly on interceptors, the bomber’s high speed and altitude may help a great deal; if he is depending mostly on guided missiles, they may help relatively little. Thus a great deal depends on how much we know about his present and projected defenses, including the performance characteristics of his major weapons.

If our Bomber A is relying mostly on a low altitude approach to target, which its longer range may just make possible (we are probably thinking in terms of special high efficiency fuels for wartime sorties), it may actually have a better survival expectation than its faster competitor. Also, we know that penetration capability is enhanced by increasing the numbers of bombers penetrating (again, a matter of money) or by sending decoys in lieu of extra bombers to help confuse the enemy’s radar and saturate his defenses. Perhaps we find that the faster plane would outrun the decoys, which again might tend to give it a lower penetration score than one would otherwise expect. But decoys are expensive too, in acquisition costs, basing, and maintenance, and involve additional operating problems. The faster plane may be less accurate in its bombing than the other, which again would involve a requirement for more aircraft and thus more money.

We have given just barely enough to indicate the nature of a typical though relatively simple problem in what has come to be known as “systems analysis.” The central idea is that no weapon can be considered independently of the other weapons and commodities that are used with it, that all endure through some period of time and require men to service them and to be trained in their use, that all these items involve costs, and that therefore relative costs of different systems, as considered against some common standard of function, are basic to the problem of choice between systems. Systems analysis, which brings what is modern to present-day strategic analysis, is mostly a post-World War II development.

The challenges herein are immense, which in part explains the explosion not only of defense research and development but also of the defense bureaucracy as a whole. It’s a sprawling, tangled mass that can in many ways only be understood in relation to itself. But systems analysis is at least an attempt to build that into other assumptions and considerations.

Using this technique is not only a way to compare technologies with like missions; it’s an excellent tool for use in wargame design. This too is in fact an iterative process, as the insights from a wargame itself might reveal further interrelationships, which might then be used to craft a more complex operating environment (or refine the mechanics used to select force lists), and so on ad infinitum.

Practicality aside, Brodie’s writing serves as an excellent primer to what systems analysis entails, and more broadly, to the change in strategic thought and analysis since the end of World War II.

Intelligence Collection and Systems Thinking


Methods of intelligence collection

Methods of intelligence collection

Not performing enough human intelligence collection is a standard refrain these days. As the saying goes, “we’ve traded spies for satellites.” A golden age of honeypots and tradecraft and dead drops had been left behind at the dawn of the digital age. This is, purportedly, in keeping with the military establishment’s general overreliance on technology, stretching back to Rumsfeldian “transformation,” the ill-fated “revolution in military affairs” (RMA), and earlier. Conventional wisdom has it that this shift in emphasis was proven correct in the 1991 Gulf War, but it could also be argued that this was the war that the US military—especially the “armor guys”—had been itching to fight since the partition of Germany. Rather than the harbinger of a new era, the Gulf War was instead the last gasp of the Cold War.

But what does this have to do with human intelligence?

Contrary to the emphasis placed on the “spy games” aspect of Cold War diplomacy, intrigue, and espionage, the period between 1936 and 1989 saw a vast increase in technical methods of intelligence and relative devaluing of  human collection (analysis, as always, has remained a predominantly human province). Some of these technical methods and their operators became lore unto themselves—Francis Gary Powers in his U-2 (imagery intelligence, or IMINT) and the codebreakers at Bletchley Park (signals intelligence, or SIGINT) come to mind—but most operated in a behind-the-scenes way. And they certainly continue to do to this day, recent disclosures notwithstanding.

The intelligence community has additionally seen a change in the way it structures its collection and analysis missions. During much of the Cold War, capabilities were duplicated throughout different agencies. Thus, in addition to the Defense Mapping Agency that preceded the National Imagery and Mapping Agency and today’s National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had its own IMINT people in the form of the National Photographic Interpretation Center, the National Reconnaissance Office did its own thing with satellites, and so forth. While all of these organizations persist in one form or another, their functions have been streamlined, such that we have most IMINT running through NGA, much of the SIGINT community operating at the National Security Agency (NSA), et cetera. Gaps do exists, as do split missions, and the joint responsibility of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and CIA for HUMINT is one such example. But in general, we now have standardized methods and practices of intelligence gathering, processing, exploitation, collection, and analysis. The very concept of “all-source intelligence” during the Cold War would have been unthinkable—and still seems a novelty to many analysts in the intelligence community—because it would have meant someone was driving in your lane, and that would be unacceptable. Fortunately, this is no longer the case.

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Nike’s Revenge: The Return of Urban Missile Defense

News last week that the US is contemplating area cruise missile defense – around US cities – against Russian missiles, no less – was enough to fill me with a certain sort of  glee.

Given the problems we’ve had with defending against ballistic missiles and their far more predictable (and detectable) trajectories, the technological barriers to implementing an effective urban cruise missile defense are likely to be high. (On the other hand, if the Russian ICBM threat is as overhyped as State is playing it, then we’ve got some breathing room to develop such a system.) Of course, this wouldn’t be our first iteration of urban aerial defense.

Nike Hercules missiles on alert, 1970s.

The Nike program from the early Cold War was the US attempt to thwart Soviet nuclear attacks by shooting down bombers (at first, with Nike Ajax), and eventually expanding to target ballistic missiles (Nike Hercules/Zeus). Surface-to-air missiles versus aircraft, essentially. By the 1970s, the threat of a massive, overwhelming ICBM salvo led some missiles had begun to be armed with nuclear warheads, most notably those of the separate SENTINEL/SAFEGUARD program with its 5 megaton W71. But the last of the Nike sites was decommissioned in 1974, and Safeguard only lasted a few months before being shut down in 1975. An excellent overview of all this has been published, of course, as an Osprey book.

Raytheon/Kongsberg HAWK-AMRAAM mobile launcher.

The proposed system is a little different – new active electronically-scanned area (AESA) radars would enable F-16s to shoot down the cruise missiles, rather than relying on a ground-based interceptor. The fighters would be networked with some sort of barrage balloon-type airships carrying sensors, as well as radars and sensors at sea (too bad Washington must bid adieu to USS Barry – would that it might gain a second life from this effort). However, Raytheon is considering land-based versions of both the SM-6 and the AMRAAM, which would require some degree of construction for basing.

What’s most interesting to me is where exactly such systems might be deployed. In addition to the major SAC bases, various Nike anti-air batteries defended major industrial and population centers.

Nike sites in the continental United States

Reading a list of the 40″defense areas” from the 1950s is like a snapshot of US heavy industry at its peak: Hartford, Bridgeport, Chicago-Gary, Detroit, Kansas City, St. Louis, Niagara Falls-Buffalo, Cincinnati-Dayton, Providence, Pittsburgh, and Milwaukee (among others) were all deserving of their own ring of air defenses. But what would the map look like now?

It’s both a rhetorical and a practical question. The importance of place has changed, and in some ways the country as a whole is more sprawling than it was during the Cold War. More places to defend but also more targets for an enemy. As the JCS Vice Chairman Sandy Winnefeld is quoted, “we probably couldn’t protect the entire place from cruise missile attack unless we want to break the bank. But there are important areas in this country we need to make sure are defended from that kind of attack.” One can already imagine the hearings and horsetrading that would accompany any discussion of which cities are worthy of protection – picture the East Coast interceptor site debate multiplied a hundredfold.

Hopefully SM or AAMRAAM is a part of it, but if the new system of sensors and radars is indeed confined to mobile platforms – fighters, ships, balloons – we’ll be deprived of Nike’s wonderful legacy of ruins. Only one Nike site, that of Fort Barry in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Recreation Area, has been preserved and is open to the public. Others make for a nice, if haunting walk. Others have found new purpose – it was only in recent years that I learned Drumlin Farm, a wildlife sanctuary run by the Massachusetts Audubon Society and frequent field trip destination as a kid, was once home to  the control site of Launcher B-73 and its Ajax and later Hercules missiles.

Radar dome of Nike site Mike near Eielson AFB, AK.

Without the permanent physical infrastructure of a Nike-type program, our cruise missile defense initiative will be sorely lacking any vestiges for future generations to explore. Although how ironic is it that one of the better reasons to support a missile defense initiative is in anticipation of its eventual decommissioning? At any rate, it’s likely that any modern system would leave a smaller footprint than Nike, with presumably fewer control sites having command of multiple, if not all launch sites in a given area.

The land-based component might never be constructed. But at least with balloons in the skies overhead, we all might wake up one morning and wonder if we’ve been transported to some kind of alternate reality.

“Manhatan” (as it appeared on Fringe).

What-If, What-Could, What Might-Have-Been

Cass Sunstein has a review in The New Republic of Richard Evans’s new book, Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History. Evans is, to put it mildly, not a great fan of the counterfactual exercise in history, particularly as engaged in by historians.

With respect to history’s might-have-beens, he agrees with Thompson and Oakeshott: “In the effort to understand, counterfactuals aren’t any real use at all.” He laments that “fantasizing is now all the rage, and threatens to overwhelm our perceptions of what really happened in the past, pushing aside our attempts to explain it.” He insists that some things are “speculation, not history,” and generally uselesspossibly fun, but a distraction from serious business.

There is a long and treasured strand of anti-counterfactual history in the academy, the most eminently quotable example of such being E. H. Carr’s famous dismissal of alternate history as a mere “parlor game” in What Is History? Of course, Carr himself was a determinist who was solidly convinced that history could not have unfolded any other way (the “Morpheus school” of events, perhaps). Evans, on the whole, seems to fall into that camp as well, though as Sunstein points out, he “seems to be fascinated, perhaps in spite of himself, by the subject.”

Part of Evans’s unease with counterfactual history is that in a way, it is itself overly deterministic. That is to say, a single changed historical variable might produce a wildly different result, and that history is contingent on the “great man” or, to quote a number of books, on that one fateful day, be it June 28, December 7, or September 11.

In his account, historians are made uneasy by “monocausal 
explanations.” They “prefer to pile up causes until events are overdetermined, that is, they have so many causes that if one did not operate the others would, and the event in question would still have occurred.”

But to consider history in any form is essentially to allow for the fact that events occurred instead of another subset of events. After all, if there was only one set of possibly outcomes, why would we still care or study such events today? Famed World War II historian Richard Overy wrote a book that outlined the conditions that led to Allied victory in the war. But even while attempting to show the precariousness on which the Allied cause rested, he racks up an impressive string of advantages: some significant economic superiority (more specifically, the “sheer speed and scale of American rearmament”), unity within and among the Allies, a demonstrable sense of moral righteousness, and even organizational differences (e.g., an Axis inability to make full use of their own resources and production capacity). The gulf between Axis and Allies, particularly by the end of the war, was massive. But to look solely at that ignores the vast struggle that led to that balance of power, and belies the fact that this large number of factors in the Allies’ favor still required several years just to regain the strategic initative, much less win the war.

History, of course, has a lively following today, and so too does counterfactual history. My undergraduate professor, Fred Smoler, has periodically taught a class since my senior year called “The Music of What Happens” (PDF, p. 72), which is an exploration in both historical and literary terms of the alternate histories that have been and are being written today. This is also a roundabout way of saying that not all counterfactual works lie squarely in the realm of “history” as we know it and statistical analysis. Often, the outlandish settings of alternate history fiction are merely a backdrop for some other story (but which serve as way to explore that setting). Robert Harris’s Fatherland and works of literature like Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union feature a noir-esque, hard-boiled detective narrative as a familiar means of operating in an otherwise-unfamiliar world. (Even other world-building fiction like China Miéville’s The City & the City use a detective story as the foreground plot.)

I will admit, though, that in an article of this length I was surprised not to find any reference to Herbert Butterfield’s The Whig Interpretation of History, which still stands as one of the great reasons for alternate history to exist. “Whig history” is the protestant/progressive tendency to view the present as a logical extension of the past, inexorably moving forwards towards a bright future, which represents merely another point on the same continuum.To quote Butterfield:

It is part and parcel of the whig interpretation of history that it studies the past with reference to the present … Through this system of immediate reference to the present day, historical personages can easily and irresistibly be classed into the men who furthered progress and the men who tried to hinder it; so that a handy rule of thumb exists by which the historian can select and reject, and can make his points of emphasis.

The real problem with the whigs and the determinists is that they have denied the past any chance of their own agency. Instead, they characterize history as a series of preconceived steps that of course have brought us to this very moment. But the strength and appeal of counterfactual history is that it can restore a sense of contingency to historical actors, and to better understand the world as it was (and is): it was a series of choices to make, and the present is the result of those actions not chosen.

Different scenarios will have different utility to different thinkers: whether one cares about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ or an Al Gore victory in 2000 or an industrial China in the sixteenth-century depends greatly on one’s interests and research and career and available free time. But as it sounds like Richard Evans eventually comes around to thinking, albeit unwittingly, even just by disagreeing with a counterfactual, you lend the scenario some degree of credence: things might have happened very differently, indeed. And while this likely is not the best of all possible worlds, one can easily imagine a world much worse.


Threat Inflation

According to this calculator, one 1989 dollar is the equivalent of nearly two dollars in 2012 money ($1.82, to be precise). What had an intrinsic worth then seems to be even more nowadays. But what are you getting for your money?

That’s a really unsubtle preamble to a simple concept: that of threat inflation since the end of the Cold War (man, the Cold War has apparently been on my mind a lot lately). We talk about the threats posed by violent extremist organizations (VEOs) and non-state actors and rogue states and the possibility of state-on-state violence arising once again. But except for wars of choice, the latter two have certainly not materialized, and the more effective parts of our counterterror and counter-VEO strategies have involved a light footprint. A base in Djibouti, an airstrip in Saudi, and you’ve got the makings of a regional proactive defense (the merits of the “SOF-n’-drones approach” are, of course, debatable, but that is a separate issue).

While small, covert actions might point towards a way forward, the simple truth is that these threats in no way pose anything like the existential one represented by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

If you were to make a ranking with relative numbers for budgetary purposes with say, a notional ranking of the hierarchy of threats faced by the United States and the dollar amounts needed to counter them, a Cold War version might have looked something like this (obviously this is really, really crude, but bear with me):

  1. Soviet Union: $50 billion
  2. Soviet Union: $40 billion
  3. Soviet Union: $35 billion
  4. Soviet Union: $30 billion
  5. Soviet Union: $25 billion
  6. Third-world nations: $2 billion
  7. Nuclear proliferation: $1.5 billion
  8. Terrorism/non-state actors: $500 million

By 1992, the top five lines were all wiped out. Or at least, the entry in the threat column was. The sensible thing to do might have been to just lose that funding entirely, much like the how the current DoD hiring freeze is preventing new blood from circulating throughout the Pentagon (when someone retires now, more often than not that billet is lost entirely, rather than being re-filled). No threat = no money necessary to counter it.

To put it another way, what was a $2 billion threat during the Cold War was probably also more or less a $2 billion threat afterwards (in relative terms).

But rather than just wipe out the top five items, budgeted dollars and all, what we get instead is an upwards shift of the bottom-tier threats. What was #6 becomes #1 and so forth – including all the funding commensurate with such a position as a dire threat to the nation.

But of course, neither terrorism nor Iran nor cyberwarfare pose an existential threat to the United States. And that’s really an impediment to policymakers these days. I will grant, that out of all the banal clichés used to describe our modern threat environment, that “complexity” is in fact the case, and is in fact a difficult problem to surmount. The sheer number of threats might have increased – what was once a two-item list of 1) the Soviet Union and 2) everything else has now dramatically expanded – but the relative threat they pose is far, far lower.

DNI Clapper’s opening statement to Congress introducing this year’s Intelligence Community Worldwide Threat Report included the line: “I have not experienced a time when we have been beset by more crises and threats around the globe.” Sure, the sheer number looks a little daunting. But that hardly signals the imminent end of the Republic.

Like last year’s report, the 2014 edition singles out cyber as the most critical threat to US national security, and specifically mentions the financial and health care sectors as vulnerable, as well as industrial SCADA, 3D printing, and “smart objects” as potential targets. Which, as they’re new, must be feared.

What are we defending ourselves again? Our life and liberty seem increasingly assured in the face of terrorism (even the Boston bombings have not done injury to the American psyche at large), and our longstanding freedom from invasion remains unchallenged. But what is the business of US national security becoming? Unless the defense establishment of the United States of America wants to embrace a role as digital security guard for Big Finance, or as the ultimate arbiter of just what Americans – that wellspring of ingenuity and innovation – can use a computer to manufacture from the comfort of their home, it seems that grasping for something to defend the nation against has reached increasingly dubious conclusions.

We’ve defined threats in order to match budgets and huge dollar flows, and it’s fairly clear that we’re boxing with shadows and posturing against dreams.  Patrick Porter recently wrote something to this effect for War on the Rocks (his article deals more with the “small world” of globalization and its unintended consequences, but there is a degree of overlap). As usual, Porter’s entire piece is worth reading, but especially:

In the name of taming the dangerous “Global Village,” governments resort to anticipatory war, extraordinary rendition, torture, continual drone strikes and mass surveillance. Instead of containing threats in pursuit of affordable security, the US-led coalition sought to eradicate them in pursuit of absolute security. It set out to destroy rogue regimes, fix broken states, to wipe out terrorism itself. Some now argue that the American President should have an internet “kill switch,” creating a cyber as well as nuclear monarch. The stakes are high.

A closer look shows that the belief in a small world misconceives the security environment. Consider terrorism, supposedly borderless. On 9/11, Al Qaeda attacked under open skies. Yet Bin Laden’s pilots hit America not from Afghanistan, but from forward operating bases such as flight schools in Arizona and meeting houses in Berlin, bases that America quickly shut down. Its training camps and sanctuaries in Afghanistan, the US-led coalition destroyed. The unspectacular steps of intensified police work, tighter border controls, international collaboration, the strengthening of the Nunn-Lugar program for locking down “loose” nuclear material, and strengthened airport security widened the space between Al Qaeda and America. For the budding nuclear terrorist, America the “far enemy” has effectively become more distant.

Porter’s piece concludes that this trend “makes us all less powerful, but more secure, than we think.” And if this is the case: what are we all so afraid of?

Across the Ether

Forgive the indulgence while I briefly divert along a Geoff Manaugh-type tangent.

The Singapore strategy was employed by the United Kingdom as its dominant  in the interwar years, up until about 1941…when Singapore fell. Of course, the origins of the Singapore strategy arose as a counter to the Japanese and US Navies, the Royal Navy’s original nemesis of the German High Seas Fleet having been scuttled at Scapa Flow.

More importantly, though, was the later role that ghostly, sunken fleet would play: a source for “low-background steel.”

3D model of the wreck of the Kronprinz Wilhelm at Scapa Flow.

Now, the very concept of low-background steel is one that makes me shudder with excitement. Low-background steel is a necessary component in certain devices, particularly medical equipment and Geiger counters. The latter is of prime interest: nuclear explosions from 1944 onwards raised the worldwide level of background radiation to the point where obtaining a proper control requires quite literally salvaging the past.*

Every ounce of steel that has been produced in the postwar error has been irrevocably contaminated by a natural sin of background radiation levels and radionuclides. Humankind changed the entirety of the natural world. It’s kind of a mind-boggling idea.

What also intrigues me is that thought that a century from now our materials might be useful for similar reasons, as a sort of living archeological project or time capsule that doesn’t just reveal something about the past, but is a necessity; The only available option in the absence of time travel.

We live inside our own time capsules. The coveted “prewar” buildings in New York and Providence and Boston abound, particularly in the latter two, in which close to 40% of their housing stock was built before 1940. Could that too have some relevance to future researchers and laboratory scientists? Housing patterns and living arrangements before the advent of doormen and glass-and-steel constructs? And seeing the damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy, of sunken cars and drowned tunnels, one wonders if someday the subways and highways of New York might become their own aquatic monument to the past. The DC Metro, “America’s Subway,” submerged beneath the waves.

It is, of course, difficult to hear about low-background steel without thinking of the Fallout 3 series’ “pre-war artifacts.” In that universe, the Great War is when everything changed and hundreds of millions perished in a nuclear holocaust. But a player can still find mementos of a lost era. Pre-war money, steak, and soda can all be picked up – and in the case of the latter, consumed. Even the aesthetic of that bygone age – a heavily saccharine version of a 1950s idyll – remains a coveted item in the form of furniture for your house.

Perhaps, if there’s a unifying theme across all these disparate threads, it’s that war and conflict and destruction serve as a natural line of demarcation, and once crossed, nothing will ever be the same again. What reserve fleets and low-background steel and prewar buildings and all the rest offer us is a tenuous link with that past, and a means of making it tangible. It’s comforting to think that maybe no era is truly lost forever.

*It should be noted that since the advent of the Partial Test-Ban Treaty background levels have dropped worldwide. But they still remain significantly higher than pre-war levels.

Argo Fuck Yourself

So Kevin B. Lee decided to publish a total #slatepitch of an article on the terribleness of Argo. It doesn’t really need to be argued with, but I already wrote most of this, so here we go.

Kevin Lee has completely missed the point. Argo is not a film about the Iranian Revolution, nor is it a film about Operation Eagle Claw, nor is it an attempt to explore the rule of the Shah or the CIA’s complicity in it. It’s essentially a heist movie, with a historical backdrop, “inspired” by a real event. And it’s truly only about one event: those US embassy personnel who fled to the Canadian ambassador’s residence and the clever deception operation through which they were later exfiltrated.

All these other movies that Kevin Lee talks about? None of them are the film that Affleck sought to make. None of them are the film that he made. If someone else wants to make those, fine (and they probably should be made). But I absolutely hate it when filmmakers get criticized for not telling “the whole story” when the entire *point* of finding a small story in a much larger one is to make for a more compelling narrative.

You can make a World War II movie without addressing the Holocaust. Gladiator never directly confronted Roman slavery. Charlie Wilson’s War ends on a downer but without elaborating on subsequent events in Afghanistan (some of which remain pretty important) Black Hawk Down is a fine film without exploring the complete collapse of Somali central government. Air Force One certainly didn’t need to delve into the machinations of Serbian genocide and pan-Slav sentiment to be entertaining.

Sometimes history is fun, and makes for an enjoyable movie, regardless of surrounding events. Sometimes history is terrible, and we get Schindler’s List – a very good film unto itself. But not every film set in 2012 needs the Syrian Civil War as a backdrop, and Argo certainly doesn’t distance itself from the Revolution.

As one of my compatriots put it so succinctly, the tl;dr of Lee’s argument is “I wanted someone to adapt one of Chomsky’s books into a film! Now I’m going to have a temper tantrum because it wasn’t Ben Affleck!”

Oh, side note: Argo is a ton of fun, and you should see it.

Wot Won It?

From the London Evening Standard, more on American support to Britain during the Falklands Crisis:

President Reagan at first said the US would be impartial in the conflict between two of its allies. But on April 2, 1982, the day of the Argentinian  invasion, he sent Mrs Thatcher a note: “I want you to know that we have valued your cooperation on the challenge we both face in many different parts of the world. We will do what we can to assist you. Sincerely, Ron.”

A week later Reagan’s Secretary of State Al Haig visited London to mediate, but covertly delivered the message: “We are not impartial. We face a common problem. We must do all we can to strengthen you and your government.”

Much of what the article covers has been said already (the supply of Sidewinder and Stinger missiles have been known for some time). But there were some interesting tidbits to uncover, such as:

  • There was some sort of Civil Reserve Air Fleet support, at least infrastructure-wise: “The local Pan Am airline manager, Don Coffee, told us his president had told him that we had to make everything possible [on Ascension Island] available to British forces. He said he wasn’t referring to President Reagan, but the President of Pan Am.”
  • The Argentinian Air Force’s capabilities were qualitatively overestimated: Americans “assess at the outset that the Argentinians have about 220 first- and second-line combat aircraft — but only days after the landings at San Carlos on May 21, the Americans report about half the first-line Argentinian aircraft have been knocked out.”
  • Perhaps unlike my previous thesis, the Reagan Administration saw the USSR as the greater threat to the sanctity of the Monroe Doctrine: ” Washington believed the Soviet Union was prepared to provide ships, weaponry and ammunition to the Argentinians, in return for cheap grain.”

I assume there’s much more to be gleaned from the newly released Agency documents (you have to love that thirty-year rule), which seem to be held entirely at National Archives II, but a selection of which has been digitized by the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, available here. Looking forward to what else might be in there…

Now De-“Classified”

It wasn’t really “classified.” Just FOUO. But now it isn’t even that, so I’m pleased to present (even though I’m probably late to the game here) excerpts the NSA’s “Unofficial Vocabulary.”

DAY LADY: A mildly pejorative term used by workers on evening or overnight shifts to describe a person of either sex who works only “normal business hours”; often characterized by a compulsive concern for wearing a necktie or avoiding jeans.

DESK RATS: that’s OK, you know who you are.


HAMMERED: describes text with a significant number or garbles, misprints, or omissions that render it unreadable or call into question its validity.


KORLING: acronym for “Korean linguist,” an occupational speciality. It would look less like a Scottish sport or Canadian beer if spelled with a hyphen.


U STREET U: nickname for the Agency training school overflow building located on U Street in the District of Columbia during the 1950s. In itself, this is a diminutive for the slightly disparaging nickname “U Street University.”

The whole document is available right here.