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]

Mastery of the waves

As we head in to the final days of the US elections, an issue that has been aired has been the size of the US navy. The number of ships that the US navy has will, according to Mitt Romney, decline from its current number of below 300 towards the lower 200s if projected cuts are put in place. Some conservative parts of the blogsphere, such as Pajamas Media, are giving Mr Obama a hard time for his comments, and maybe his arrogance is annoying, but is he necessarily wrong? Does the US actually need more than 300 vessels to do its job? And if so, what sort of vessels? If you have, say, a carrier, it needs a large fleet of support vessels and frigates, not to mention other kinds of support, to operate effectively rather than be a burden.

As I noted some time ago, the world of military hardware is being dramatically changed by developments in science and technology, as recounted in this astonishing book, Wired for War. Romney and his advisors should not just blindly go along with the “we need a vast navy to do our job” mindset. The US is broke; frankly, if Republicans want to be taken seriously on the case for cutting spending, they need to recognise that the sheer scale of the US military at present is financially unsustainable and needs to be focused more on domestic defence, and defence of certain key trade routes of importance to the US (which is where a navy comes in) against the likes of pirates.

I know it is going to get me unpopular around here, but not everything that Obama says or does is necessarily wrong, or even done for malevolent reasons (cue reaction from Paul Marks!). And even so, there is a need for small-government conservatives and genuine liberals to think about the fundamentals of what a defence policy should look like, and what can be afforded. This article at Reason magazine by Nick Gillespie is a good starting point, in my view, as this Reason magazine piece also.

Talking of the US navy, let’s not forget that this is the 200th anniversary year of the War of 1812, in which the sailors of the US gave the Brits quite a licking.

Two different photographs of the same London sculpture

Here is a photograph of a sculpture, which I recently chanced upon, in the part of the city that in London is known as the City of London:


The sculpture is called “Rush Hour”. It said so, on a sign in the ground in front of it. I also photographed the sign. This is a good habit for a photographer to get into. Cameras are not just for taking pictures. They are also for taking notes.

What struck me about this sculpture, as I looked at it and photoed it, was how depressed they all look, especially when compared with London’s sculpted warriors. The warriors depicted on war memorials had any number of agonies to contend with, yet they stick out their chests, jut out their chins, look the world proudly and defiantly in the eye and tough out whatever challenges and horrors they are obliged to endure. These office drudges, on the other hand, have given up. Their eyes point downwards, avoiding any contact with the world or with me and my eyes. They trudge forwards, following the person immediately in front. They do not look like people fighting a war, successfully. They look more like prisoners of war, in a war that their side is losing.

But, when I got home I checked out the website mentioned in the sign in the ground under the sculpture, the sign that I had photographed, and when I did, I got quite a shock. I was confronted by this:


These city commuters are facing the cares and stresses of their lives with a degree of stoical optimism, even heroism, that their cousins in my photograph conspicuously lacked. Urban drudgery may defeat lesser beings from foreign lands, but Britain can do it! We shall prevail! Final victory over financial services industrial monotony will be ours!

I actually had to study the above two photographs quite carefully before being entirely convinced that they are both of the same thing. Are there, I wondered, several versions of this sculpture, in different places? I slowly worked it out. These are the same statues, in each photograph. But the photo at the website was taken by someone crouching down, very low, and perhaps even lying on the ground (which means, for instance, that at least one of the figures at the back is entirely blocked from view). The figures are not on a pedestal, as both photographs make entirely clear. But this other photographer makes them look as if they are.

Particularly significant, as I say, is the matter of eye contact. In my photograph, the commuters dare not look at me. Instead they look downwards. This is why they look so defeated, so ashamed even. But in the website photo, they are looking straight at the camera, and although not happy exactly, they seem proud of what they are doing, and confident that they can face any challenges life presents them with.

The lighting is different, and that does make a difference. But mostly, the difference is in the angle of vision.

The point of this posting is not that the angle you see things from makes a difference. Most of us know this. My point is that, when it comes to the particular matter of human statues, it can make a very big difference, far bigger than I, at least, had realised, until I spent those minutes checking these two photos to be sure that they were of the same thing.

What, I wonder, might be the effect of photographing war memorial statues, statues that are on a pedestal, from a position of vertical equality, or even slight superiority? Suppose, while photographing the figures at the centre of the recently unveiled memorial to Bomber Command, that I had somehow raised myself up to their level, or even somewhat above that level. Might my photographs have looked different in their psychological atmosphere? Would the figures suddenly have seemed less heroic, less like the masters of their fate and more like the victims of it that many of them must surely have felt?

If so, it would appear that pedestals are an even more significant part of our civilisation than I had realised.

Arguments about drone-killing

I have been paying almost zero attention to President Obama’s campaign of robotised aerial execution, beyond noting that it has been happening. I didn’t know if this drone-killing was doing good, or harm, or what, besides the potential harm of causing governments maybe later to incline towards drone-killing or drone-harassing their domestic enemies, when foreign enemies have run out or have negotiated a truce. I still don’t know what I think about drone-killing, but recent Islamo-American dramas made me wonder slightly more than usual.

I was raised by an Anglo-Saxon trial lawyer (himself the son of another Anglo-Saxon trial lawyer) and by the daughter of yet another Anglo-Saxon trial lawyer. Barristers, we call these creatures over here. This was the mental and conversational equivalent of being raised by wolves. My father was eloquent enough to present very good arguments. My mother was eloquent enough to stop him ever pulling rank to win such arguments. We all had our turn.

Which may be why I understand things best by watching people argue about them. Only when there is disagreement do the experts feel the need to try to persuade the humans of their own rightness and of the other experts’ wrongness, and thus to speak in clear English rather than in very unclear Expert. And only then do I have much of a chance of getting a handle on things.

Today, the indispensable Instapundit pointed me towards just the sort of drone-killing arguments I had been keeping about a quarter of any eye out for.

Robert Wright, commenting on an article by Micah Zenko, concludes thus:

If this is a strategy for eliminating terrorists, what would a strategy for creating them look like?

This story, as Zenko and Wright tell it, reminds me of the classic counter-terrorism movie The Battle of Algiers. In this movie, the French soldiers spend almost the entire movie winning, by torturing and then killing all their enemies. And then in the final seconds of the movie, they lose. More enemies, enraged by the injustices suffered by their predecessors and clever enough to avoid suffering the same fate as them, have sprung forth out of nowhere. Hearts and minds are not, said this movie, won merely by the most hostile ones being blown to pieces. You have to win the argument.

The good news is that England did achieve total domination over Afghanistan, just two days ago. But, alas, this was only at twenty overs each way cricket.

LATER: Cricket? Sorry I mentioned it.

The War of 1812

Apart from history buffs, the conflict between the young United States and Britain in 1812 is a war – which ended in 1815 – that few people today know or care much about. The US Navy, justifiably proud of its performance in that campaign, is commemorating it, unsurprisingly as we are now in the 200th anniversary spot. The war was famous, among other things, for this doughty US Man O’War, the mighty USS Constitution, a ship that became known as “old Ironsides” on account of how British ships’ broadsides appeared to make little dent in its sides.

Among other things, the War of 1812 is a reminder of how “trade wars” can turn into military ones. This Wikipedia entry about the conflict seems pretty comprehensive in explaining some of the main causes and battles.

Olympic SAMs

The Ministry of Defense wants to put surface to air missiles in residential areas as part of security measures for the Olympics. This is highly irregular. They are to be used against…

…all manner of airborne attacks from the 9/11 style assault to a smaller “low and slow” attack from a single light aircraft.

I would be surprised to see hijacked airliners ever again. A light aircraft attack sounds plausible, but shot down aircraft wreckage landing on London might still be considered a win for the terrorist.

There are also to be army troops, fighter jets and naval ships at the ready. The MOD are certainly preparing for more than a kid with a bomb strapped to his chest.

Samizdata quote of the day

The thing I learned from the Beaconsfield by-election was that wars make Prime Ministers popular.

- Tony Blair, quoted by Max Hastings in a BBC television programme this evening about the Falklands War and its impact upon subsequent British military policy. The by-election in question happened during that war, and was a landslide victory for Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives, and Tony Blair’s only electoral reverse.

Making predictions about war is a tricky business

Take these for instance:

[The British] rifle at the present moment was the worst among those used by civilised powers.

…the opinion of most Infantry officers was that our rifle was inferior both to the French and German rifles.

It was clear, therefore, that if our soldiers had to fight troops armed with the German weapon they would do so under very great disadvantage.

…our rifle is inferior to the German and French rifles…

So what is this Austin Allegro of the military world?   Why, the Short, Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE) of course – Britain’s main infantry weapon in the First World War, the Second World War, and the Korean War; the weapon that when fired en masse in 1914, the Germans mistook for machine-gun fire and a weapon that was still in use by snipers in the 1980s.

And, on what basis are they criticising it?   Range.   Which I think will raise a titter from the firearm cognoscenti.   Please, oh commenters, tell me if I am wrong, but my understanding is that the big change in infantry firearms in the 20th century was the realisation that rate of fire was more important than range which led to the introduction of such weapons as the MP44, AK47 and M16 which while being able to fire at an extraordinary rate had nothing like the accuracy of the SMLE and its peers.   

Normally, at this point, I would make some remark about the stupidity of politicians but that last quotation comes from Field Marshal Roberts, so I won’t.

The Times, 21 February 1912, p12


The other day Jonathan was worrying about military drones. Well, you definitely want these guys on your side. Still, there are certainly peaceful applications.

For details, see the Institute for Dynamic Systems and Control, the GRASP lab, and Hack a day.

More on drones and their use

The other day I wrote a slightly lighthearted short item about the use of drones (in this case, by civilians). But it is clear that the use of these things, such as by the Coalition forces in the Middle East, for example, or by other agencies of states and private entities, raises a number of important ethical, military and related points. Over at the Cato Institute, there is an interesting collection of articles on this matter, which I recommend if you have the time to go through them.

An issue that bothers me, although it is not clear what the solution is, is when terrorist forces get their hands on such things and put WMDs in them. We cannot just assume that this is the stuff of Hollywood movies – the threat must be plausible in the not-so-distant future and I imagine and hope that our own defence forces are thinking about what to do about it. Another serious worry is that if we can send thousands of remotely controlled aircraft or sea vessels and destroy targets without putting our own humans in danger, that might encourage governments to get increasingly arrogant and reckless in the projection of force. (Think of how British forces thought they could easily control most of Africa via the Maxim gun, only to find how this technology would eventually be thrown at them in the First World War).

And this book, Wired For War, is an eye-popping tour around the use of modern technology and how it will effect warfare, including issues surrounding non-state actors. But remember, before getting nightmares, that the impact of this new tech will not, in terms of its impact, be necessarily any more severe than say the development of the muzzle-loading gun, the ironclad warship or the helicopter. And principles of self defence and the need to stand up to bullies while having the humility to realise the limits of state action, are unchanged.

World War 2 on Facebook




Why the military like Ron Paul

Some commenters on this blog got more than a little sniffy when I had a few critical things to see about Ron Paul the other day. I stand by my remarks, which actually were hardly the sort of fire-eating stuff that some people come up with, but I’ll happily repeat my respect for his genuine good points, as I see them.

David French, over at National Review, has an interesting item reflecting on why, of all GOP candidates, and of Obama himself, Ron Paul gets more respect in financial terms from the serving military. Here is the final paragraph:

“I know there are many other reasons why troops support Ron Paul (quite a few embrace libertarian economic principles), but this post is an attempt to explain his support within a national-security framework — how some of the most hardened warriors I know enthusiastically embrace a man whom others say is soft on national security. They don’t see him as soft. They see him as realistic. I disagree (strongly), but it’s an argument that won’t be defeated by ridicule, and it’s an argument grounded in a cultural reality that few Americans have experienced.”

This is going to rile up some of Ron Paul’s fans

Unlike Dale Amon, one of this site’s editors, I am not much of a fan of Ron Paul, or at least, not a fan of some of the people who back and cheerlead for his campaign. I can respect, even admire, how he has been consistent in pointing to the folly of central bank financial manipulation, which is why his campaign against the Fed is something I admire. I can also appreciate how he has pushed some important libertarian ideas into the political culture. A lot of people whose views I respect say that he has done a tremendous amount of good. And they argue that yes, that whole business about the letters back in the late 80s and early 90s was poor and did not reflect well on his judgement – hardly a good thing in a potential POTUS – but hey, plenty of people make mistakes and Paul has disowned this stuff.

But one of the things about the Ron Paul campaign that has concerned me is his foreign policy stance. I am not complaining about his anti-interventionism. That’s entirely consistent with a libertarian point of view; it draws on the wisdom of realising that one intervention inevitably breeds another and and another and so on in endless, disastrous profusion. But where he seriously leaves me behind is when he starts to make excuses, or gives the impression of doing so, for lousy regimes and individuals. Case in point being a video arguing that there would be a parallel between how Americans might feel if foreign troops were based in say, Texas, and the situation regarding US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Tim Sandefur, a long-time critic of Ron Paul (he has called RP a “conman” and not a libertarian), has a ferocious article about the video, and in particular, brings up the issue of the American Civil War to highlight what he thinks is wrong with the video’s underlying premises and arguments.

“The video starts out by inviting us to sympathize with the Islamofascists, who, we are told, are led to military “resistance” against a foreign occupier—that is, the United States. Imagine that, say, the Chinese or the Russians maintained a military base in Texas, and that thousands of armed troops from such a nation were patrolling American streets. Wouldn’t that be awful? So surely we can understand why al Quaeda in Mesopotamia plants roadside bombs to kill American soldiers, no?”

“One notices right away that this opening sentence demands that we ignore the differences between the American forces in Iraq or Afghanistan, and the forces of al Qaeda and its allies—or the relative characters of the nations or institutions on whose behalf they act. American troops, representing a democratic nation that liberated Iraq from the barbarism of Saddam Hussein and helped to institute the first-ever democratic governments there and in Afghanistan, are to be regarded as the moral equivalent of, say, the People’s Liberation Army patrolling the streets of Dallas. Of course, once one accepts this moral equivalence, one is prepared to accept anything.”

Then, several paras later, this is:

“The climax of this moral equivalency comes in the middle of the video, when we are explicitly invited to imagine ourselves joining with some Holy Army of Martyrdom to “defend our soil and our sovereignty” by fighting against this invading army—and to feel sorry for these freedom fighters who are (so sad) labeled by an unfeeling world as terrorists or insurgents. This absurdity mutates into a thinly veiled accusation that Americans are simply committing genocide. At this point, one loses any interest in watching further.”

“Soil and sovereignty” is a particularly interesting choice of phrase: note that even this video does not have the chutzpah to suggest that those who strap bombs to their chests or set IEDs by roadsides in the Middle East are doing so in defense of, say, justice, or individual rights. It is just a question of “soil and sovereignty.” Of course, “soil and sovereignty,” or “Blut und Boden,” has long been the favorite slogan of all fascists. What it really means is, “room to oppress with impunity.” It is the demand for the freedom to enslave. Failure to recognize this is what has so often led otherwise sensible and sensitive people to mistake despotic thuggery for wars of national liberation—often until it is too late, and the bell tolls for thee.”

A question, though, is that its defence of intervention into brutal regimes does beg the question of who gets to decide which regimes fail a test of decency and should therefore be dealt with? But it is a good article, and I recommend the whole of it. Here is the final paragraph:

“By ridiculing the notion of defending democracy and preserving the peace in the Middle East, by regarding the troops of a democratic coalition in a region pock-marked with totalitarian fascist states as equivalent to a communist military patrolling the towns of Texas, the video ignores the difference between justice and tyranny, between peace and desolation, between freedom and slavery. And one who chooses to blind himself to these differences has chosen to blind himself to everything of importance in the world.”

Exactly so. If one is serious about belief in expanding freedom, would one not, to take another example, want to do something about the guy down the street who is known to be torturing his wife and kids, even if his actions had no direct bearing on one’s own?

At the same time, this article, by constitutional scholar and classical liberal, Randy Barnett, is a thoughtful item about some of the possible contradictions and problems associated with issues of sovereignty, liberty, and war.

But the question remains: however powerful the sort of arguments that Sandefur presents – and they are very powerful – who gets to decide that it is okay to pull the trigger? That is what makes these debates so infernally difficult.