A War About Nothing

Seinfeld has already sparked books about nihilism, philosophy, bible study, and sociology, and a website on economics. And now, the ongoing narco-war violence in Mexico:

The Mexican narco-war may be the first real 21st-century war—a war that is, in the end, about nothing. Yes, there are regional and clan identities involved—loyalties of a sort to Tamaulipas, to Michoacan, to Sinaloa—but they are too fluid, too subject to betrayal, for the war to be defined as tribal. Yes, the Mexicans are torturing and killing one another over money and the smuggling routes that provide it, but much of the savagery, as noted, is over the smaller profits of the domestic market, the street corner, the sprawling colonia—savagery perpetrated for little real reward, and mainly for its own sake. Mexico’s war has no single propelling cause, no single objective, and certainly no grand ideology. It is a conflict of a post-political era. It belongs to an age of aggressive hyper-materialism. The drug lords are of course not alone in this. There are “legitimate” corporations all over the world whose only credo is greed and whose only iconic value is “the brand.”

In short, ‘why they fight‘ might be irrelevant. It might not even have a real answer, or a real reason – it is “a war of the digital age, fought as much on YouTube and mobile phones as it is in city streets and backroom torture chambers.” Even if it is a ‘narco-war’, drugs almost seem a byproduct, rather than a means or an end. They might just be another symptom. How do you even begin to combat such a phenomenon? Are there underlying root causes to be addressed?

Or is this just yet another sign of impending systemic breakdown? I’m leaning towards that. It’s sort of a ‘what’s the goddamn point?’ approach, which seems to explain more each day. Better stock up on your Toyota Hiluxes and your Gerber “hedge trimmer” machetes now.

“It’s Up to You!”

Staff of "The Campus," Sarah Lawrence College student newspaper, 1950s.

I’ve been reading the Hicks translation of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (sold as The Emperor’s Handbook), and there’s a phrase that keeps jumping out at me. Of course, it helps that it was specifically called out in the introduction, but nevertheless, “it’s up to you!” resonates beyond its obvious hokeyness.

There are so many permeations and variations on the phrase, and countless adoptions of it, that at times the simple meaning of it can be lost. I went to an all-boys school for five years as a kid, and our motto was “sua sponte” – “in your hands.” It wasn’t until the last few years that I learned that the Army Rangers have the same motto, only translated more formally as “of their own accord.”

Anyways, I guess what I’m trying to say is that one of what seems to be the big problems in modern society is the total lack of agency, and that Aurelius’ writings remind me of that.

Things suck right now, on a deep, fundamental level (much more on that next week). Between economic malaise and my total, total disillusionment with American politics, I don’t know what I even want to do any longer. But it’s not totally out of our control. It’s up to us in all sorts of ways. We have an entrepreneurial spirit unmatched by few in the world.  And if I can’t find a job, or something meaningful to do, then it’s time to literally make something of, and for, myself.

Jumping to Conclusions

Well, um, whoops. Not so much the teabagging type, but rather “a Connecticut man, a naturalized United States citizen from Pakistan” named Faisal Shahzad.

So yes, mea culpa. Though the white guy in his 40s remains a ‘person of interest’, clearly he’s not the focus of the investigation, and for that I apologize. But I do think we’re overdue for a reckoning with the enemies of a domestic variety, as all the commentary spouted that subtly sympathizes with them might even serve to legitimize their cause. It certainly increases the likelihood of a right-wing Times Square bomber, though there probably aren’t enough government buildings there to hold their interest for long.

Michael Sheehan has a perfect analysis of this in the New York Times, as well as suggestions on how to stave off ‘lone wolf’ or ‘home grown’ terrorists:

Law enforcement has to focus on preventing sophisticated terrorist organizations from establishing a presence within the United States. The good news is that we know how to do this. The bad news is we aren’t doing it enough. No other American city even attempts to do what New York has accomplished.

[…]

For society as a whole, paying for a handful of detectives at the local level is far more efficient than spending billions inside the Beltway on bloated bureaucracies and large-scale defensive measures that will most likely have little practical effect. And while issues of civil liberties are important, they can be managed with close legal oversight of terrorism investigations.

Attacks won’t come from the center, but from the fringes. You can’t centralize national security, nor can you completely disperse it.

Until then, keep following. And keep following afterward. Remain vigilant.

Chinese Knifefight

China’s bizarre wave of elementary school knifings continued yesterday, with 28 children, two teachers, and a security guard all wounded by a deranged 47 year-old, and the next day five more were wounded by a 45 year-old with a hammer before he set fire to himself.

Sadly, these are surprisingly frequent events in China. And they’re just so odd – no connection to the victims, no clear motive, et cetera. So why are they lashing out?

What we’re witnessing, I think, is the first pangs of this severely male-heavy generation. by 2020, the male-female imbalance in China is expected to reach 24 million, thanks to the one-child policy and other social engineering measure of the Communist regime. This is one of the major destabilizing factors that Gordon Chang thinks will limit China in the twenty-first century. The Era of China, indeed.

But basically, we’re about to see a massive wave of angry, frustrated young men with little-to-no marriage prospects, traditionally one of the drivers of men beyond adolescence and into maturity. The best we can expect is an emotionally stunted class of mental dwarfs, but far more likely is a cohort coming to power and lashing out. Or the whole edifice crumbling around them.

Forgive the rambling; it just seems like a such a fundamental weakness in the character of a nation (and a more-than-likely explanation for the spate of knifings). It can only end poorly.

Mexican Standoff

Gunmen killed an American consulate worker and her husband in Ciudad Juárez. Their baby was found in the back seat.

News comes that the cartels in Ciudad Juarez have finally started targeting U.S. nationals, murdering three last night. One was a pregnant consulate worker and her husband, the other was the husband of another consulate employee. I’m suprised only that it took so long (and that only now is the violence in Mexico “provoking an angry reaction from the White House”).

If we don’t end the War on Drugs, the impetus and justification for organized crime and narcotics trafficking will only increase, as will the profitability of murder. As the Times reminds us, “more than 2,000 people were killed there last year, giving it one of the highest murder rates in the world.” American students are arriving in Acupulco now for spring break. And for the cartels, the risk-reward benefit right now is too large to ignore.

But violence itself isn’t the only thing to fear here. The cartels and gangs (this particular shooting was blamed on Los Aztecas, who only get more impudent) have effective control over much of northern Mexico. The crippling government weakness is now affecting the very legitimacy of the Mexican state. The catastrophic death toll has:

prompted the government to shift course after three years of its military-led crackdown on drug cartels and acknowledge that it has to involve citizens in the fight and deal with the social breakdown fueling the violence. [emphasis mine]

For now, those efforts will be government-coordinated. But in the future, who’s to say that the citizenry won’t take matters into their own hands, like in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro? Chirol thinks that the future of the border patrol will be a similiar, civilian, militia-style solution, at least on this side of the border. The key, though, is probably fixing that whole ‘social breakdown’ thing. Restore faith, restore legitimacy.

At least the problem is finally back on the radar again.

Men of the West

Babatim at Free Range International has a new update from the ground in Afghanistan. One quote struck me; either for the truth it holds or its stunning audacity (probably a little of both):

Less experience[d] cadres will do one of three things; stay in place because they are too freaked out to move, break contact and run because they are too freaked out to stay, or quickly surrender because they are too freaked out to fight.  Afghans do not have a cultural history of standing firm in battle and slugging it out toe to toe with heavy infantry.  Only men of the west fight using that style of warfare which is why western armies have dominated those of other lands since the battle of Plataea in 479 B.C.  I am not saying the Afghan Taliban does not have brave fighters….they do but brave individual fighters do not a cohesive combat unit make.  The shock of rapid violent assault by multiple platoons from multiple angles is something only a well trained, well equipped, well supported western army can handle.  [emphasis mine]

This, of course, is the same thesis of Victor Davis Hanson’s Culture and Carnage (later retitled more directly as Why the West Has Won) – that the west has a superior, innate ability to win the kinds of battles that shape the entire world. There are two sides to this – execution and will – and while the west has proved itself quite adept at winning (even so, not always), its will to fight in the first place seems diminished and continues to shrink.

The metaphors and parallels you could draw are all contradictory and point in very different directions: the U.S. as Rome to Britain’s Greece, the Greek bankruptcy, 300, a rousing speech from Aragorn, John Ford/John Wayne movies… Perhaps that’s just my train of thought leaving the station at full steam.

But what if the west starts abdicating its position, and what if it continues to cringe in the face of particular struggles? Western society is so risk-averse now that the slightest risk of harm – to regular, professional soldiers – now leads to accusations of “authoritarian” leadership. For heading into danger in the military! Thankfully the Dutch example is not pervasive throughout NATO (nor the Netherlands themselves, for that matter).

The Dutch have the 7th highest per capita rate of any nation in Afghanistan, Steve Coll calculated. But 21 dead is now enough to call off an entire deployment of a wealthy, western NATO member. Europe is certainly in decline. America too, albeit at a slower pace. But that’s just when the Netherlands needs to reassert itself as a full and willing member of the west. As does the rest of Europe. All need to be willing to defend themselves and their interests, with force if necessary.

Stand, men of the west!

War in the Pacific

I, like just about everyone, am looking forward to HBO’s new miniseries The Pacific. I mean like, really, really psyched; it’s been much too long in the making. But I’m really liking the Hanks-Spielberg team as of late.

Semperpapa at David Bellavia has taken Hanks to town, though, for the latter’s comments on the ‘true’ meaning of war in the Pacific. I responded at the source, but I also think the arguments deserve a full presentation, so here are his, followed by mine:

I was somewhat disappointed by Tom Hank’s simplistic look at what WWII represented for our Nation, when, during an interview, he stated that the reason America wanted to kill the Japanese was because they were different. They looked different, they believed different.
[…]
I could even understand that Tom, as a good Liberal, would hold America responsible for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, because after all the American fleet was an “imperialistic” obstacle to the “legitimate” expansionist needs of Japan toward South Eat Asia.
[…]
In the interview, Hank points out his latest project wanted to honor the bravery of the American troops

“…but we also wanted to have people say, ‘we didn’t know our troops did that to Japanese people.’”…

I don’t know that Hanks’s opinions, overly simplistic as they are, can be blamed on his liberalism. There weren’t too many alternatives to what we did in either theater. Rather, his misinformation can be attributed to the general American ignorance about the Pacific theater.

Much of whatever vague impressions Americans get of the Pacific are from sources like Dr. Seuss’s wartime propaganda and the various posters attacking “yellow” “Japs.” Which if it’s all you’re getting, definitely paints a one-sided picture.

He’s also not entirely wrong. To a degree much more pronounced than in the ETO, the American war effort dehumanized the Japanese as both a race and a nationality. In Germany, we were fighting Hitler, but in the Pacific we were fighting the Japs. There was a distinct conflation of politics and racism there that was absent from Europe, or at least the western front in Europe. The Pacific shared a viciousness with that life-or-death struggle on the eastern front, where the choices were literally reduced to a binary: victory or death and enslavement.

But I don’t mean to condemn that brutality entirely. In most ways our response was a tit-for-tat regarding Japanese behavior. After enough incidents occurred when surrendering Japanese troops instead carried out the equivalent of a suicide bombing, we stopped taking prisoners. As a tactical solution it was entirely justified. We took no prisoners – but with good reason. See John Dower’s War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War for a fairly deep analysis of the course of the Pacific theater.

Basically, the dehumanization we carried out in the press and other media is being misattributed by Hanks to a cause of the war, rather than the fairly standard wartime practice and response to in-theater events that it was.

And of course, the Japanese behavior speaks for itself.

Another Canary

Smoke billowed from a seven-story building after a small private plane crashed into a building that houses an office of the federal tax agency in Austin, Tex.

The Metro Gunman – John Patrick Bedell –  who shot two policemen at the Pentagon metro station on Thursday, is the second anti-government terrorist to attack in as many weeks. Joe Stack was the first. While their respective manifestos differ in focus, they share a number of common elements that indicates there is more to come. Bedell is more of a conspiracy theorist (particularly harping on James Sadow, the marine killed in 1991) and wanted to establish “the truth of events such as the September 11 demolitions.”

We haven’t reached critical mass yet, but we’re getting there. Stack and now Bedell are each a “canary in the coal mine,” as John Robb puts it. He lays out three main drivers for this kind of terrorism: extreme frustration/hopelessness, few mitigating influences, and rage and a loss of government legitimacy. And while Stack and Bedell do have their differences, the crucial part is that they both came to the same conclusion.

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One Man’s Malaise is Another’s Motivation

We’ll see if I can’t get up and running more regularly, but this is such an accurate quote to describe the lack of anything being undertaken in Congress that I needed to risk another meltdown:

Members of Congress—including seven Republicans who had proposed the idea—were even too chicken to vote for a bipartisan commission. This is the political equivalent of being too timid to take a nap.

I’ve jury-rigged the laptop to work in spurts while I wait for my backup to get sent, so I’ll have a semi-regular selection of new material for you. But hell, this one post alone has made my week more productive than the United States Congress.

For Love of Country, Part III

Part 3 of a 5-part series.

In the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny, whether the Indian Army was exclusively for garrison purposes (at its furthest extent, the invasion of bordering states), or if it could be deployed overseas was a matter of some concern.

The British Expeditionary Force towing artillery across Ethiopia, 1868

Trust in the native infantry regiments reached its nadir in the wake of the Sepoy Rebellion, but when the Emperor Tewodros of Abyssinia began holding British nationals hostage in 1866, they were the nearest available option for the British to deploy. Thanks to the telegraph, a force of 13,000 led by Lieutenant General Robert Napier that included four Native Cavalry regiments and ten Native Infantry regiments (with only a single cavalry squadron and the artillery fully manned by Britons) arrived within two months of receiving Queen Victoria’s orders.

After a brutal three-month, 400-mile trek through mountainous jungle and desert, the expedition reached Tewodros’ stronghold. The brief battle of two hours resulted in 700 Abyssinian deaths and 1,200 more wounded. The British (including native troops) suffered twenty wounded. Not one was killed. The Indian Army had proven itself more than capable of serving outside the provinces from where it was raised.

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