We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Whose gambit over Syria?

The shooting down of a Russian military aircraft, by Turkey, allegedly after it passed into a sliver of Turkish airspace during a mission over northern Syria might well be an isolated incident, like Gadaffi’s clashes with the US Navy over the Gulf of Sidra in the 1980s. For me, I hear an ironic but distorted echo of the shooting down of the Korean Air flight 007 by the Soviets in 1983, when it was 90 seconds from international airspace after passing briefly through Soviet airspace, but that was a civil flight and a clear case of Soviet mass murder.

Whatever happened may not become clear, but why it happened is for now, even murkier.

Was it a ‘gambit’, like a pawn sacrifice (the eternal lot of the military) in chess to gain a strategic advantage, a pretext to escalate the situation or to force others hands?
Was the shooting down a provocation by a resurgent Erdogan, confident in his election victory, expecting to shield from Russia behind NATO?
Was it Russian testing of Turkish resolve, or vice versa?
Did both sides hope for a crisis too good to waste?
Is Russia hoping to drive a wedge between Turkey and the rest of NATO, expecting the wetter elements to take fright and use the ‘Polish veto’ of NATO?
Is Russia hoping for a prolonged spike in the oil price to boost its economy, and distract the hard-pressed masses from their troubles and toils?
Or was it just a trigger-happy pilot?
And what would be the best outcome for the West from this tragedy?

The upshot of the Syrian refugee crisis, and the recent terrorist attacks in Paris almost seems as they were 1960s KGB/GRU operations designed to sow discord within Europe and to set countries against each other and élites against the people, with Putin having dusted down an old plan and re-worked it. But is that not over-complicating matters?

Taranto – a kick in the balls for Mussolini – 75 years ago tonight

I doubt that many realise that it was on 11th November 1940 that the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy struck a blow at Royal Fascist Italy’s Navy that may well have slowed the march of the Axis powers in the Mediterranean and marked the first check on their advance after the fall of France. The operation, called ‘Operation Judgment‘, involved two waves of Fairey Swordfish biplanes (almost certainly the slowest surprise air attack of WW2 apart perhaps from the springing of Mussolini) attacking the Italian fleet at Taranto harbour on the ‘heel’ of Italy. The outcome was that the Italian surface fleet was severely reduced in capability, and the remnants moved further up the peninsula to Naples, thereby limiting their capability to interfere with British shipping in the Mediterranean and to re-inforce North Africa. British casualties were 2 aircraft lost, 2 men killed, 2 PoWs. The Italians lost one battleship, and had 2 battleships and 2 cruisers heavily damaged.

The raid had been planned for Trafalgar Day, 21st October, but was put back due to a fire, fittingly enough to Armistice Day. A Swordfish also went on to cripple the Bismarck, and later in the War they accounted for 22 U-boats. Not a bad record at all.

It has been speculated that this raid inspired the Japanese to use air power at Pearl Harbor, but perhaps emboldened would be a better term, after all, it is not as if Japan wasn’t gearing up for something by this time. The anniversary of the raid has attracted some comment, a piece here in the American Thinker (an organ of which I know little), but pointing out that it actually makes sense to attack your enemies, not to wait for them to attack you. I particularly liked this part:

Third, fight to win, and winning means destroying the power of those who hate us. Had the Second World War been, instead of a continuous struggle, a series of peace talks and ceasefires and diplomatic pussyfooting, it is certain that Hitler would never have lost. Democracies naturally loathe war and yearn for peace, but evil regimes who control their subject peoples can maintain war fever indefinitely.

You might think that that author had some people from the present-day in mind.

And for those brave men of the Fleet Air Arm, flying in open cockpits at night against a major enemy harbour, I shall raise a glass of prosecco tonight, to sink something Italian.

St Crispin’s Day

Six hundred years ago today

agincourt-reenact 002



21 October is an important date in the history of European political integration


Samizdata quote of the day

If Russia’s defense ministry really does believe that all the missiles found their intended targets, those sheep must have been up to something

Dave Majumdar & John Allen Gay

“Yay” or “nay”?

British jihadis are killed by drone strike ordered by the PM

The revelation that Khan, 21, from Cardiff, had been assassinated in the first RAF drone strike against a Briton triggered claims of extra-judicial killing. But Mr Cameron insisted the attacks were an act of self-defence

How say you?

What Trevor Dupuy says about the German military

Trevor Dupuy was a US soldier and a military historian who took a statistical approach to evaluating combat performance. He paid particular attention to casualty statistics. Casualties – in case you did not know – include deaths but also include wounded, missing and captured. They answer the general’s question: how many men do I have who are able to fight?

Of course, statistics aren’t everything. For instance, the North Vietnamese took vastly more casualties in the Vietnam War than the Americans but they still won. But all things being equal, being able to kill more of your enemy than he can kill of you is a good thing to be able to do.

In A Genius for War Dupuy enquired into the nature of the German army. He found that the statistics told a remarkable story: the German army was very good and had been for a long time. From the Franco-Prussian War to the Second World War the Germans were consistently better at killing the enemy than the enemy were at killing them.

Now you may be thinking that such comparisons might be skewed due to the Russians and Dupuy found that that the Russians were indeed every bit as bad as you might think. But even when he removed the Russian numbers Dupuy found that the Germans still held a clear and consistent superiority over the French, British and Americans. This superiority existed regardless of whether the engagement was offensive or defensive.

Chauvinists might be surprised to learn that there seems to have been no great difference between the western allies. French and British performance was more or less equal in the First World War. British and American performance was more or less equal in the second. The Americans in the First World War and the French in the Second are special cases.

Having satisfied himself that the German army was indeed superior, Dupuy asked why this was. His key finding was that there seemed to be nothing inherent in being German. Dupuy found a number of historical examples where the Germans proved to be anything but good fighters. These included largely-German units in the American War of Independence and various battles between German mercenaries and the Swiss.

So, if being German didn’t make you a good soldier what did? Dupuy’s theory was that it was all due to the German General staff. So what was so good about the General Staff? Dupuy listed several criteria. These included selection by examination, historical study and objective analysis. In other words it was an institution that thought seriously about war.

The doctrine that all this thinking led to might be summed up as bold plans tempered with flexibility. Perhaps the best-known example of bold planning was the invasion of France in 1940. No one on the allied side thought a tank-led thrust through the Ardennes was possible. But it was and France collapsed soon afterwards.

As many of you will know far from being an official General Staff masterplan the invasion of France was in fact dreamt up by Erich von Manstein in opposition to his superiors. But Manstein was still every inch the General Staffer.

Flexibility was also important. Contrary to the stereotype the German army did not want blind obedience. Not only did it allow subordinate commanders to figure out how to achieve their objectives but if opportunities arose which were unforeseen they were not only allowed to take advantage of them but expected to do so. “His majesty made you a major because he believed that you would know when not to obey his orders.” as Prince Frederick Charles put it.

I would like to thank Perry de Havilland for pointing me in the direction of Dupuy and his works.

What swots can do

What swots can do

How should we treat people coming over from enemy lines?

In my recent post on rent control, I quoted approvingly a comment from someone who said he had come round to our point of view on the harmfulness of rent control while still claiming to be a lefty. “You are not there yet, my friend,” I murmured. “But does not every journey begin with one step? Let us encourage this partial recantation, that it may be reproduced.” Perry de Havilland took a less tolerant view, while still encouraging reproduction. Niall Kilmartin took the middle road:

The naive young lefty, partly idealistic and partly enjoying the ego rush of being the good guy fighting the bad guys, gets successive hints from reality as they grow older. Over time, the accumulating hints force a choice: the idealism _or_ the ego rush; it can no longer be both. The more they shouted their hatred of the bad guys when they were young, the more dubious deeds they did “for the cause”, the harder it is for them to choose the idealism rather than the ego rush (as some college professors well know when they make activism part of the curriculum), but becoming “an apostate” is emotionally hard in any case. It can be a slow process. It can take years. From Robert Conquest to Thomas Sowell, some quite effective people were marxists when they were youngsters. So I’m sufficiently with Natalie to say that signs of doubt should not be discouraged (though I do understand why actual encouragement of those who are still fighting to retain their ego rush even as they admit doubt can sometimes stick in the throat).

If it sticks in the throat to welcome an incompletely-converted convert from an opinion we oppose, how much more so when the defector has joined and then abandoned a literal enemy.

Mother of five begs for rescue from Isis

THE British wife of an Isis fighter stranded in Syria with her five children is appealing for help to return home to Manchester.

In a video passed to The Sunday Times, Shukee Begum, who is of Bangladeshi origin, is heard repudiating Isis as “not Islamic” and telling how she had spent 10 months with her young children in the northern Syrian town of al-Bab, where she taught English to the children of foreign fighters.

She said the final straw was when the US-led coalition bombed the house where they were living, killing seven Isis commanders and members of their families.

While her husband, Muftah el-Deen, was away fighting, she escaped and was given shelter by members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a moderate group opposed to Isis.

Begum, filmed with her three girls and two boys on what appears to be a low-quality video phone, said she left Britain and was smuggled through Turkey into Syria late last year. She claimed her aim was to persuade Deen, who had joined Isis three months earlier, to come home.

This view is typical of the most popular comments to the story:

She ran off with five children to join her jihadi husband and now she says ISIS / Daesh are not Islamic? I might have a bit of sympathy if she said she completely rejected this cult of death, but she’s just saying that now she believes that sadistic slaughter, beheading and crucifixion is going a bit too far.

She wants to come back “home” and no doubt be quite Islamic, but eschew the mindless slaughter of unbelievers. Why should we believe a single word she says?

To which my reply would be that answering exactly that question is the job of the intelligence services to whom this lady will sing like a bird as a condition of being allowed to return. I hope and trust it does work that way and the local consular staff haven’t gone completely softheaded. We want defections and should make them easy but not cheap. It is painful to see crimes go unpunished – and I consider joining a group that boasts of its murders, enslavements and rapes to be a crime in itself – but renegades can help to stop the murders, enslavements and rapes, not to mention prevent the attacks here in the West that ISIS has promised. We have long allowed known criminals to turn Queen’s evidence / State’s evidence for very similar reasons. And her children are innocent.

From the Great Peace … to the ordeal of Adam Lyth at the Oval cricket ground

Between 1945 and about 1965, atom bombs and then hydrogen bombs were devised and demonstrated by the two biggest Great Powers, and then manufactured and attached to rockets in sufficient numbers to cause any all-out war between these two superpowers very probably to be a catastrophic defeat for both, to say nothing of being a similar catastrophe for all other humans, within a few hours. This new kind of destructive power also spread to a small club of lesser Great Powers.

This did not happen overnight. It didn’t all come about in 1945. But it happened pretty quickly, historically in the blink of an eye. It changed the world from a place in which Great Wars between Great Powers had to be prepared for, at all costs, to a place in which Great Wars between Great Powers had to be avoided, again, at all costs. That is a very big change.

I do not assert that all wars have ended. Clearly they have not, as one glance through a newspaper or news website will tell you. Small powers still have small wars, and Great Powers regularly join in, in small ways. Sometimes, Great Powers start small wars, like the one in the Ukraine now. But even these small wars have been getting less numerous and smaller in recent decades. Small wars can get big, so even small wars are now discouraged by Great Powers.

Nor do I assert that all preparations for war by Great Powers have ceased, or that they should. But more than ever, the purpose of such preparations is to enable mere confrontations to be emerged from victoriously or failing that satisfactorily, rather than for such preparations – such weapons – constantly to be “used”, in the sense of being fired, fought with, and so on. The purpose of weapons is to scare, as well as to win fights, and they are being “used” whenever anyone is scared by them. Great Powers will still spend lots of money on weaponry.

But what has not happened, for many decades now, and what still shows no sign of happening despite all kinds of diplomatic, ideological and financial turbulence, is an all-out fire-every-weapon-we-have war involving two or more Great – by which I of course mean nuclear – Powers. In this sense, countries like mine, and almost certainly yours too given that you are reading this, have become peaceful in a way that they have never experienced before in all of human history before 1945.

In case anyone mentions Iran, I don’t believe that Iran’s leaders want to use nuclear weapons, as in: detonate them. I think they want to scare their enemies while trying to win other, non-nuclear victories, just like any other nuclear power. I didn’t believe Chairman Mao when he played the nuclear madman either. He was just trying to scare people, and he succeeded also.

And if you want to say that like all historical trends, this one could end, because of this or that imaginable or unimaginable circumstance, then I of course agree with you. History keeps on happening. But for the time being, the trend is as I have described it. We now, still, live in an age of peace more profound than any of our ancestors have ever experienced.

There have already been many, many consequences of this historic turnaround, this Great Change, and there will surely be many more. Indeed, I would say that just about everything of importance, not just politically but in the wider culture, that has happened to the world, anywhere and everywhere, between 1945 and now, can only be understood properly if you factor in the invention of and the deployment of nuclear weapons.

Do I really mean that? Yes, I really do mean that. Indeed, I offer the world, and in particular the Samizdata commentariat, a challenge. Tell me about a change that has happened in the world in recent times, any change, to absolutely anything, and I will be able to show you, at about one or at the most two or three removes, how your particular change has been affected by this great thermonuclear transformation, this Great Change, that I have just described. Indeed, there is nothing in the entire world, I assert, that has not been affected, often very profoundly, by this Great Change. (I don’t promise actually to answer all such comment-challenges on the spot. I merely announce that if I had nothing else to do for the next week, I could. So, let’s make it a team effort. Let those of us who already understand the truth of what I am saying respond as a tag-team to those who are still unconvinced.)

Talking of team efforts, let me offer the example of sport, and in particular the inexorable rise in the importance and in the social and economic impact of professional sport, during the last clutch of decades.

→ Continue reading: From the Great Peace … to the ordeal of Adam Lyth at the Oval cricket ground

“Gradually, but inevitably, the voluntary is yielding to the compulsory”

I have posted very little recently from a century ago. This is because my main source, The Times, has become rather dull. You would have thought with hundreds of people being killed every day on three continents it would have lots to say but it doesn’t. Part of this is due to censorship. For understandable reasons, there is very little that the military authorities are prepared to make public. Another part of it is due to self-censorship. In wartime newspapers are extremely reluctant to criticise. Criticism is close to defeatism and defeatism is close to treason. Criticism can also carry a high price. A couple of months ago The Times criticised Lord Kitchener’s handling of munition supplies with the result that copies of the paper were burnt on the floor of the Stock Exchange.

Britain has to recruit, train and equip an army and until such time as she does there is very little she can do that’s going to make much of a difference. Even after she does these things it won’t make much of a difference because the army won’t have the experience to make itself truly effective.

So, actual front line reports tend to be all very similar. It’s all talk of our brave men, victories and heavy losses inflicted upon the enemy. Sure, the men are brave but it is difficult to cover up the fact that the frontline is hardly moving.

I was on the verge of giving up. My plan was to find a particularly egregious example of this sort of vapid war report and hang up my typing fingers until next year when things will get a bit more interesting. But occasionally you get an article that pricks your interest. In this case it’s a sentence: “Gradually, but inevitably, the voluntary is yielding to the compulsory”. It appears in a leader prompted by a bunch of City types asking the government – I kid you not – to increase taxes.

The sad thing is that it is true. Conscription will be introduced. Restrictions on the sale of alcohol are already starting to come in. Indeed, in some places it is already a criminal offence to buy a round of drinks. There will be rationing. Before long the Liberal Party will split and then wither away. Many liberals are giving up on liberalism altogether and becoming out and out socialists.

Before we condemn the war for this it is important to bear in mind that the voluntary principle was in big trouble well before its outbreak. The telephones had (effectively) been nationalised. State pensions and sick pay had been introduced. Many doctors found themselves working for the state. There were also the beginnings of unemployment benefit.

It’s all very sad – although not for The Times. The Times is all in favour of compulsion. Long before the war it was in favour of trade barriers or “imperial preference” (as it was then known) and national service. Ever since it has been campaigning for conscription and restrictions on the sale of alcohol. The paper is enjoying itself:

The truth is that all these so-called principles are nothing but expediency generalized and embodied in a formula. When the circumstances are sufficiently changed to make them no longer expedient, then they cease to be valuable and become mischievous.

The voluntary principle is a case in point. People are still clinging to it when it has already half gone and must go altogether. They cannot readjust their ideas, and the more they resist the more painful it becomes. They are kicking against the pricks – the pricks of war.

Nice, although it does beg the question if principles are bosh then what exactly does The Times think we are fighting for?

However, that is not to deny that this does rather put me in a bind. I think Britain was – perhaps I should say “Britons were” – right to fight the First World War. Willhelmine Germany posed a direct threat to Britain’s peace and prosperity. But do I really think the war could have been fought without compulsion? There are two questions here. After all, the British government existed long before 1914 and a government is nothing if not a mechanism of compulsion. So, could the war have been fought without any compulsion? and it could it have been fought without any extra compulsion?

I’ll deal with the second question and leave the first to the idealists. Could the men have been recruited? Large numbers of men signed up shortly after the outbreak of war and I have heard it said that conscription which was introduced in 1916 was not particularly successful. So maybe they could.
But could they have been equipped without a massive increase in either taxes or deferred taxes in the form of borrowing? That I very much doubt.

In the days before the welfare state there were all sorts of ways that funds were raised for “good” causes: friendly societies, public subscription and flag days were among them. There were all sorts of social pressures applied to get people to cough up. Not nice but a lot nicer than outright extortion via the tax system. Even so the amounts raised by the best-known funds were not spectacular. There was a fund created after the sinking of the Titanic and it raised a lot of money but nothing on the scale needed to fight a war.

It’s all very well sticking up for your principles but if a society that follows those principles can’t defend itself those principles are worthless. And if you abandon your principles in order to win what was the point of fighting in the first place? It seems to me that wars are often – if not always – battles of ideas. Oh, those ideas might be well hidden but more often than not they are there. War is often the ultimate test of political ideas. So, it seems a bit of cheat to go into war proclaiming a set of principles that you then abandon.

The Times 23 July 1915 p9

The Times 23 July 1915 p9

The US Navy is celebrating Earth Day… is this some kind of joke?

The US Navy, who job it is to, well you know, kill people when directed to, it proudly celebrating Earth Day.

No doubt this is a strategy to cause the ships of the Chinese Navy to collide, their captains unable to issue orders due to tears of mirth and uncontrollable fits of laughter.

If anyone doubted the western world’s political class and their retainers have been utterly debased … well, here we have proof positive… I can only hope we snap out of it collectively, before it is too late and the congruent cultural decline leaves us with the future prospects of Carthage. And no, I do not accept that it is already too late, and will ignore the usual wailing suicide note comments that suggest otherwise ;-)

On the history of death and taxes

I have recently been suffering from one of those annoying state-of-the-art flu bugs that made me properly ill for only a few days, but which then hasn’t allowed me to get truly better for another month. I still await full functionality.

When in such a state, I find serious writing difficult. (I can still manage unserious writing.) But what I really like to do when thus semi-incapacitated, is to read. And there is nothing, I find, like reading well-written history about long-ago times to make me count my modern blessings and cheer me up.

I recently began what looks like being a very good book about King Edward I. (A short excerpt from this book, on the subject of medieval historical evidence, can be read here.) Edward I was the English monarch who won the Battle of Crécy, and who soon after that presided – if that’s the right word – over the Black Death. You want a bug? That was a bug.

But I haven’t got to the Black Death bits yet. …

(LATER: And I won’t ever. I’m muddling Edward I up with Edward III, see commenter number one below, to whom thanks, and with apologies to everyone else. Edward III was the victor of Crécy, and I will wait in vain for anything about the Black Death in this book. I will be learning about such persons as Simon de Montfort. But the Black Death was, as I have read elsewhere, very nasty.)

… In the bits I have read so far, Edward is still a teenager, and his dad, Henry III, is fretting about how to crush a rebellion in his French possessions, and in particular (p. 16), how to persuade his English subjects to foot the bill for that enterprise:

The obvious solution was to impose a general levy on everyone – a tax – and Henry’s immediate predecessors had on occasion done just that. King Richard and King John had found that they could raise huge sums in this way – England, it bears repeating, was a rich and prosperous country – but such taxes proved highly unpopular, …

It is always worth keeping an eye out for a use of the word “but” when it would make more sense to have encountered the word “and”, or “therefore”. The unpopularity of taxes in England on the one hand, and on the other, the fact that England was a rich and prosperous country sound to me a lot like a cause and an effect. But the way that modern-day author Marc Morris phrases it, if your country is rich, it can accordingly afford to pay higher taxes without its richness being in any way disturbed.

It was this next bit that made me laugh out loud:

… but such taxes proved highly unpopular, and were regarded as tantamount to robbery.

Ah those medieval fools, so lacking in our modern grasp of the obvious and fundamental differences between taxes and robbery!

Here is a way in which things – things that in general are so much better now than then – have actually got worse.

I do not want to single out Marc Morris for criticism here. He is only describing matters in a way that most of his readers will immediately understand. Taxation? Of course. What he personally thinks about the idea of there now being higher taxes, to pay for such things as foreign wars, now, I do not know. As for me, although I will not live to see it, I look forward to a time when both taxation and death (at the sort of age that I will in due course be encountering it) are thought of in the same kind of way that we now think only of such things as the Black Death.

How on earth could those blundering and miserable twenty-first centurions not understand such obvious ideas?