Sunday, July 13, 2003

Tides of War by Steven Pressfield

You ask, Jason [the prisoner Palemides spoke], which aspect is most distasteful of the assassin's art. Knowing you as the paragon of probity you are, you no doubt anticipate some response involving bloodguilt or ritual pollution, perhaps some physical difficulty of the kill. It is neither. The hardest part is bringing back the head.

You have to, to get paid.

Athens and Sparta fought for dominion over what's now Greece and part of Turkey: Athens with its famous navy and Sparta with its famous army, and both with rosters of more or less reliable allies. Before its final defeat, Athens made a rather remarkable showing. At this distance in time it seems as though Athens defeated itself. In their fear of tyranny, the Athenians had made almost every office elective--including the military offices. What happens when a political faction succeeds in forcing the ouster and trial in absentia of the ambitious supreme commander of your armed forces--in the middle of a war?

Such is the setting for Tides of War: A novel of Alcibiades and the Peloponnesian War, as seen by Palemides (and his defence attorny Jason), a soldier, mercenary, marine, slave, bodyguard, and eventually hired executioner. Alcibiades was, of course, the historical large-than-life commander whose vision and charisma drove the course of the war; and whose god was Necessity. Necessity seems to have always meant taking bold steps to expand the empire... no matter which side he was fighting for.

I found the book a page-turner, though I didn't like it as well as Gates of Fire--probably because the hero is rather a less pleasant character, and partly because the interrupted flashback approach breaks the flow. Alcibiades sometimes comes across as a bit too much larger than life, but that may just be because I've not run across people like him or like Rogers from Northwest Passage, (which this book reminds me of).

I've a rough-and-ready rule for measuring how good a book is: How often do I reread it? Lord of the Rings I've reread many times, for example. I suspect I'll come back to this again someday.

Three cheers for the Young Eagles!

We went to the Oshkosh EAA Museum and Pioneer Air Field this past week. Our 9-year old son was thrilled to ride in a little 2-seater plane, piloted by a Young Eagles volunteer. The program gives 8-17 year olds a chance for a personal plane ride, in the hopes of encouraging interest in aviation. Afterwards, he didn't want to try a simulator--he'd ridden in a real one.

Wednesday, July 09, 2003

Intervene in Liberia?


Many people in Liberia are begging us to intervene to stop their horrible civil war--by unspecified means. Even President-by-intimidation Taylor is asking for help. Liberia's neighbors would also undoubtedly love to see us clean up this infectious hell-hole. UN leaders are asking for a peacekeeping force as well.

Do we have any duty to Liberians? If we have no duty to interfere, is it advisable on other grounds? Do we have any right to interfere? If we did interfere, what should we do?

The formal answer to the first question has to be no. The first duty of our government is to our own people, and secondarily to those with whom we have agreements of alliance. Liberians fall into neither category. But the formal answer isn't the whole story, of course. Most Americans know nothing of Liberia and its history with the US; but it has been a friendly and cooperative partner, albeit a rather corrupt one, for its whole history. From allowing air bases during WWII to siting a huge VOA station during the Cold War it has worked as a minor military partner--not an ally, true; but a cooperative partner.

Arguments that we have a duty to help Liberians don't seem overwhelming, but they're not negligible either. It might be a hard sell to Americans who don't know much about our mutual history, but could be successfully argued.

Unfortunately Liberia's troubles make that whole section of West Africa unstable and ungovernable; and we know what happens when a section of the world becomes ungovernable--especially a section of the world with a lot of Muslems in it. Contrary to statements I've seen elsewhere, Liberia does have a substantial Muslem population, and the Ivory Coast is becoming polarized a la Nigeria. Humanitarian issues aside, we have a strategic interest in making sure the region doesn't contain lawless pits where our terrorist enemies can form enclaves.

Quite a number of unrelated groups outside Liberia are also asking us to intervene on humanitarian ground, intimating that we can get back in their good graces by doing so. However, since these same people (Kofi et al) will wail about "imperialism" after the first Liberian casualty, we can safely discount any implied goodwill.

The question of a right to interfere is a rather vexed question with a counter intuitive answer.

When a nation's survival is at stake (no matter what philosophers and theologians say), we accept it as given that that nation has the right to attack its active enemies, and even enemies that are not currently threatening them if this makes strategic sense. We invaded Iraq on these grounds, though the proximate cause was Iraq's non-compliance with disarmament rules made to enforce the peace agreements. We invaded France as a step toward rolling up the Nazi empire, though France was not a grave threat to us.

Life is more clear-cut when you limit wars to self-interest. Mugabe is a despicable villain who uses starvation as a political tool, but he does not threaten American interests, and so he knows he is safe from US attack. But if we allow "humanitarian reasons" as a trigger for war, he cannot think himself safe at all. You may think "Wonderful! The creep ought to worry." But think instead what an amazingly wide scope "humanitarian reasons" covers. Mugabe starves only a small fraction of Zimbabwe's population. You can trivially find terrible abuses in South Africa, or Libya, or Morocco, or France, or any prison anywhere in the world. Suppose a group of Gypsies in Hungary beg for relief from the abuse of their human rights from anybody willing to invade Hungary. Do you need a threshold for action that says people's lives have to be in danger? Here in the US we have a population that the EU considers oppressed, and whose lives are at stake: death row inmates. Nobody is safe, anybody is a target.

You can't safely rely on appeals for outside intervention, either: who do you listen to, and who do you trust? You can find a Quisling in any country, to say that they need the German army to come restore order. Don't complaint about the grammar in that sentence, it means what it says.

The cold-blooded rule of self-interest turns out to restrict war more than the more tender-hearted defense of human rights. I have to class "humanitarian reasons" together with "our country's honor" and "our country's destiny" as invitations to unnecessary wars.

And . . . it never hurts to remember that power corrupts. We are not holy angels. Even our intricate systems of accountability don't always work, as the Arthur Anderson and the brokerage scandals recently showed. This time the cries of "No blood for oil" were so much cow dung--the Iraq war worked against the oil industry's interests. Next time it might be an honest indictment. Want to bet who'll be president in 2009? Bush has been an honest man, as far as I can tell. But who comes after him?

I don't see that the words "humanitarian relief" automatically give us the right to do what needs to be done.

What do we want to be done?

For starters, the status quo is abominable. Even if the rebels magically vanished, Liberia under Taylor hardly resembles a country at all. Taylor was elected by a thoroughly intimidated population. In no significant way has he tried to improve the country. I've seen the regular news articles about "The First Lady gave" this or that, but the dollar amounts are small. The Presidential mansion has electricity; nothing else does in Monrovia unless the firm has its own generator. The armies (one hesitates to think of them as a single force) are corrupt and poorly controlled. Taylor seems to have pioneered the use of drugged children as foot-soldiers. Their loyalty is assured by making sure that they participate in atrocities that keep them from ever going home again.

The borders are a joke. The armies are so far from controlling areas they nominally cover that rebel forces regularly bypass them. The war is more a matter of the encounters of wandering bandits than the of Western tradition of armies trying to overrun the land. Checkpoints are where the money is for the ordinary soldier, although he will make do by stealing the cookpots of the poor villagers he terrorizes.

The President is a cannibal kleptocrat who is and has been doing his level best to overthrow all of the region's governments.

Are the rebels any better? It is hard to say. They seem to be somewhat less interested in committing atrocities than Taylor's gangs, but unfortunately that isn't saying much. They are not very communicative.

So, what we want is for the government and rebel gangs to be suppressed, the current regime to go away (to prison or to Hell, whichever), the borders to be sealed to prevent incursions of rebel groups and (more importantly) the excursions of mercenary bands of Liberians into neighboring countries, and political and economic infrastructure to be rebuilt. Nation-building, in short.

Note well though, that peacekeepers cannot do the job. The standard-issue UN peacekeeper stands in the gap between the combatants and doesn't take sides. To solve Liberia's problems the intervening force has to take a side: against essentially all the other armed forces in the country, including what is considered to be the government. By the way, relying on ECOMOG troops (neighboring nation peacekeeping forces) proved to be a bad idea earlier in Liberian history, and also in Sierra Leone. They proved (especially the Nigerians) to be quite adept at theft themselves, and not very interested in nation-building.

Some parts of this are not technically hard. The bulk of the armed forces are ill-equipped and very ill-trained, and would scatter on hearing that Americans forces were planning to shoot back. However good they are at terrorizing unarmed villagers, they are lousy at coordinated and sustained fighting.

An incident from the war of Taylor's victory over Doe: During the battle for Monrovia some of Taylor's fighters wrested control of a street corner in Monrovia from Doe's (American-trained) troops. It being a fairly strategic objective, they were delighted, and went off to celebrate by looting some beer. When they returned, Doe's men had retaken the street corner.

Sealing the border is quite difficult: at a minimum we'd want to bulldoze a wide strip and patrol it to stop all traffic and commerce except at tightly controlled access points. That sounds to me like a couple of soldiers every 200 yards for 3 shifts over the entire border: say about 50 soldiers per mile for over 500 miles, with some reserves here and there to deal with large excursions. I estimate over 25,000 soldiers. (I've never been in the army, and these numbers are just my best guesses.) Don't even think of using Liberian soldiers for this purpose. That is too bitter a joke to be funny--they are the biggest part of the problem.

Chucking out the current government would not be very hard, but it would certainly be problematic. If we went in on invitation and then turned on them, it would set a precedent that would make it pretty much impossible for any country to contemplate asking for our assistance again, or even allowing us to base troops there. Very very bad idea. The Iraq invasion would have been impossible without bases nearby. If Qatar and Kuwait had been unwilling to let us base forces, we'd have had to give up on Iraq, invade somewhere else and install bases by force, or go nuclear. These don't seem good options.

Going in on the understanding that the current government has to go might be doable, if Taylor agrees to go first. Even so, whoever else has a vested interest in keeping in power might object and "change the government's mind," leaving us back with the previous paragraph's problem. We'd have to root out essentially all the old guard, and they won't like it. Diplomats can only do so much--we don't want to give the old guard what they really want, which is continued power.

So, let's pretend we want to intervene. What options do we have?

  • We can toss in some US troops to serve with a UN/ECOMOG peacekeeping force. We'd get a lot of respect and nominal cooperation at first, but if we go in with the usual UN rules of engagement that will evaporate pretty quickly. Liberia is afflicted with many free-lance bandit gangs, loosely associated with warring factions. Unless we have the authority to chase after them when they show up nearby, we're pretty useless.
  • If we go in with the understanding that our soldiers get to patrol wherever they want and shoot anybody who annoys them, the roadblock checkpoints will go away and the refugee problem will start to be solved. However, the same keptocrats that are currently entrenched will still be there, and with somewhat less of an imperative to change. It does not matter much whether Taylor himself is still in the country or not. The people he surrounded himself with are of the same stripe as he.
  • We can do the above, and start importing guns and ammo and training village elders in their use. Of course Taylor's people would go ape, but if we could get around that problem the scheme might actually work. The idea relies on the fact that the bandit groups are not trained, and rely on superior firepower to terrorize and make up for their poor marksmanship. If your bandit group discovers that villages can fight back, they can either try to change tactics or look for easier prey. Bear in mind that an attacked village doesn't have a lot to hope for as it is, so fighting back can't hurt. This scheme takes far too long, though: months at least to supply and train, and many more months for bandits to start getting scared.
  • We can intervene as part of a UN peacekeeping force, and then turn on the government. I've said before I think this a terrible option--probably the worst thing we could do.
  • We can try to get agreement beforehand that Liberia as a government and a country no longer exists. On the basis of our historic ties with the land we are in a better position than Britain, France, or the UN to try to chase out the bandits and rebuild the nation. This would be very scary to a lot of kleptocratic governments out there, but I think we might be able to define non-existence tightly enough to keep focused on the real basket cases. Then we land Marines. Since that can't happen instantly, Taylor et al will have time to escape. And possibly go back to the bush and try for another revolution when we're gone. So somebody needs to take out Taylor too.

See the followup

Tuesday, July 08, 2003

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (JK Rowlings) is good. I have a few minor quibbles (Umbridge isn't very politically savvy, Hagrid ought to be deadlier when he's mad, the Death Eaters are wayyyy out of practice at fighting), but set these aside. Harry's reluctance to confide in adults is even more pronounced as his teenage years advance, which is both insanely stupid in his circumstances and annoyingly accurate (three teenagers so far, two in waiting). As usual, Harry is not a solitary hero, though for a while you wonder if he will manage to keep any friends. Go read it. (You have to have read the other 4 books first, of course.)

The best children's books can be enjoyed by adults: Alice in Wonderland, Goodnight Moon, The Wind in the Willows, Gulliver's Travels, the old folk/fairy tales, and so on. (In fact, some were written for adults.) If you haven't read these, by all means do: they are good fun. (Goodnight Moon is a short and very fine poem: I wish I could write like that.) Likewise Harry Potter: I'll take that over The Accidental Tourist any day. ~

Sunday, June 29, 2003

Sex roles and betrayal

Many years ago I watched Flip Wilson do a comic sketch on the difference between the way a black man from the inner city spoke to a black woman and the way he would speak to a black man. To the woman he would speak in low tones, slowly and confidently; with movements to match. To the man his voice was high pitched, quick and agressive with short phrases. I remember thinking "Yep, I've seen this, and Flip nailed it."

Of course, things like this are more dramatic when seen from outside the culture. Still, if you look closely, you can see the same kinds of differences in how men act with other men and with women in mainstream culture. It's a bit harder to spot the differences in environments where everybody is taught to be aware of how they act and to be afraid of accusations of sexual harassment. Even so, watch the body language.

When women are around, men go on display. Married or single doesn't matter. Only with the very old or very young or close kin does this effect not kick in. [I assume the same thing happens with women but by definition I'm not there when women are alone together.] So long as a woman is around, the men are "strutting" and there is an atmosphere of . . . the only phrase that fits is "sexual tension." It is mild, of course--I'm not talking about heavy breathing and bedroom eyes; not talking about a mating dance; just a form of roleplaying.

Received wisdom to the contrary, I've never found any evidence that this is intrinsically bad. The details of the display vary from culture to subculture, but I see displays everywhere. When women arrive, men do the psychological equivalent of sucking in the gut and standing taller. And in some subcultures the change is quite dramatic.

When the women leave the men "relax." That doesn't mean they're glad when women leave, just that they stop the display.

You needn't remind me of situations where a woman is considered "one of the guys." Sure, that can happen; though I suspect she often isn't as much one of them as she thinks. I'm interested in the general picture here.

That general picture shows men going to the extra effort and tension of a display when women are around, and not taking on those extra roles when only men are present. It seems to me reasonable that men should properly want to spend time both with and without female company. Since this seems to be adequately backed up by observations of anthropologists (sometimes with very odd theories), I'll take it as given.

Given that men will want time with other men, what will their expectations be? During that time they expect no sexual tension; no need to display; and no worry of being evaluated on their sexual attractiveness.

This has nothing to do with "homoerotic" motives. On the contrary, introducing a homosexual into the group frustrates the expectations of the other men and can be experienced as a betrayal: betrayal of the expectation that there is no-one evaluating their attractiveness, betrayal of the expectation that "we can all relax and be secure."

Some claim that someone who reacts with displeasure to the presence of a homosexual is insecure with his own latent homosexuality. Aside from the utter lack of evidence for this claim, it never seemed very convincing psychologically. My "betrayal" model has just as much evidence to back it up, and seems to fit the character of some people I've known rather better.

Saturday, June 28, 2003

FYI: TV and radio ignorance

You may notice that I write virtually nothing about current radio and TV personalities. I know very little about them--just what I read in the papers, and I know how far to trust that. I watch virtually no TV, and listen mostly to the NPR classical music station when I have the radio on at all at work. (My daughters tend to monopolize the radio at home.) The only episode of Seinfeld I saw was while I was in the hospital emergency waiting room--for some reason the show didn't seem very funny. Chatter distracts me at work, and we found years ago that letting the kids watch TV made them hyper and hard to get to bed.

I got out of the habit of watching the tube, and never troubled myself to get back in. My experience of Rush is 15 minutes of his TV show over 15 years ago; I've no real clue who Michael Savage is; and what I've heard about Howard Stern tells me I don't want to hear him. Is this blissful ignorance?

Friday, June 27, 2003

Side effects :-)

I see that low-on-the-hips pants are quite popular among the young ladies, often with a fairly long bare midriff. The allure of bare skin needs no explanation. The very low pants line combines the element of danger (near falloff) with an emphasised hip movement.

When the waistline is high, the straight line rests on a part of the body that is stable during walking. The outer edges of the hips shift up and down, so when the waistline is low it seesaws, drawing attention to the hips. In addition, the straight line of the waistband contrasts with the curve of the hips, and once again emphasises the hips.

And all's well, if the woman is wearing shorts. However, long pants are in style, and so is wearing the waistband very low. If the lady wants the pants to stay on, she has to cinch them tight.

The result is perhaps not quite what the wearer intends... If you pull tight, the waistband pulls in and the flesh bulges out above and below. Now the seesawing waistline draws attention to a new curve--a pudge on an otherwise svelte lady.

I don't know if there's a big-screen market for a movie about Carrie Nation

but I think it would make a bock-buster video.

Thursday, June 26, 2003

The Power to Tax

is the power to destroy: Justice John Marshall. So, a tax on my income is like attacks on my income?

Monday, June 23, 2003

All the news that doesn't bother anybody, we print

I have no great interest in the sports pages, and I've noticed that referring to teams by mascot names leads to confusion (how many different Cardinals are there?). I don't doubt that some of the Indian mascot names really are offensive, and serve no particular purpose.

From this article in the Wisconsin State Journal, comes this quote:

Kathleen Rutledge, editor of the Lincoln Journal Star, the most recent paper to adopt a policy against using the offensive team names and mascots, said the issue of accuracy was discussed at her paper.

"But the thing that guided us at our paper was respect," Rutledge said. "We decided that respect trumped accuracy and objectivity."

When something is beyond satire words fail me. Is this really the guiding philosophy of their newspaper?

Saturday, June 21, 2003

Colors of the Wind
Blue is for the half-burned hydrocarbons
Red the nitrous oxides in a haze
Yellow is the airborne sulfur acids
And green is from a heavy metal glaze . . .
 Green is from a heavy metal glaze.
You can own the Earth and still
All you'll own is earth until
You can free the hidden elemental powers
And you paint with all the colors of the wind.

OK, so maybe that isn't quite the way Disney Co. wanted it to read. But there was a line from the original that I find horribly stupid: "But I know ev'ry rock and tree and creature Has a life, has a spirit, has a name."

There's a word for this: animism. The definition in the dictionary doesn't improve on Disney's lyric. In a nice comfortable country at a nice safe distance this view of the world sounds comforting and inspiring.

In the real world, though, nature is not all sweetness and light. For every beautiful vista there's a snake hiding in the bush. The terrors of nature--floods, lightening, cold, heat, silent predators, disease, death in childbirth--are more dramatic. If every rock and creature has a spirit, a lot of them are malign. The world of the animist is not full of joyful recognition but of terror and perpetual uncertainty--"have I run afoul of some spirit I didn't know about?"

I'm not being theoretical--this is how they actually live. We forget how liberating monotheism is.

Inquiring minds want to know

Do college English professors still give a play-by-play on Shakespeare?

When the baby spits his apple juice all over himself, does that make it a topical beverage?

Wednesday, June 18, 2003

Historical Fiction

Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield was recommended to me at a party last month--I'd never heard of him before. I'll be looking up his other books now. The story of Thermopylae is told from as the personal history of a squire to the Spartan knight Dienekes. I'm not a Greek history scholar, but wherever I knew something about the era Pressfield got it right. The descriptions of the battles are impressively detailed and plausible. Recall that the Greek soldiers used heavy shields with long lances marching in tight formation--rather like porcupines, with another line of porcupines right behind them, and then another. What do you do when fighting like this, and why? He shows how intelligent warriers would be willing to fight that way.

The Spartans used notoriously brutal training to produce some of the finest fighters of the era, and were held up as admirable models for almost two thousand years (they've fallen a bit out of favor lately). Pressfield makes you see how they could be admirable.

Scholarship is a good thing, but the point of a novel is to tell an engrossing story. I'm happy to say that Pressfield succeeds very well at both telling the story and at engaging your interest in the people from that almost-alien culture.

I have a few mild quibbles: To tell the story he has to get the Spartans to talk rather more than their fabled laconic style would suggest. Their attitude towards their slaves seems a little more benevolent than seems plausible. And although religion is a very big deal, and our hero has a divine encounter, he doesn't have the daily sense of fear/awe you expect to find in a polytheist/animist society. Minor quibbles all.

Go for it. Have fun. I did.

Department of Redundancy Department?

On a bag of Green Gro Composted Manure the label also reads:
"with organic matter."

Tuesday, June 17, 2003


Thursday as I sat resting after work with our idling computer behind me I suddenly heard the deadly tick-tick-tick that told of a hard drive now destined for the trash. And my last backup 5 months old--mea culpa... The smallest disk available (I'm cheap) turned out to be too big for the BIOS on the slowly failing motherboard, so I went for a new HP Pavilion 515 (and kissed disposable income goodbye for quite a while).

Nice features: it is quiet, compact, has things like the USB ports on the front (I don't use USB, but that's the right place for them), and a nifty hinged hard drive box so you can easily insert the un-returnable drive you picked up the night before. Kudo's to the engineer that came up with that one.

Not-nice: air circulation is very poor around the hard drive box--I'm going to have to kludge some fans to hang on it. The main drive is partitioned with one giant partition and a small system backup partition. For safety's sake I like a system partition and a user partition--but if I split the monster up the "drive" letter of the backup will change and I wouldn't bet that the backup will work right anymore. I miss having a copy of the OS around for the day when the hard drive goes south, but that lack isn't HP's fault. And some of the software is unwelcome, and not easy for a non-expert to get rid of: the hp-center and the freedom software come to mind, for example.