Saturday, May 23, 2015

Memorial Day and America's Terrible Love of War

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Umm, NO. This is nothing to be proud of
So once again we find ourselves in the midst of the Memorial Day holiday weekend. And, in among the beer, barbecue and auto racing is the endless sanctimonious pandering and soldier-worship. The capacity of Americans to love war and warfighters is beyond comprehension, and requires an amazing suspension of historical understanding. The mythology, of course, is that American military might has stared down threats to freedom, liberty and our very way of life for hundreds of year. The reality is smaller, and very much uglier than that.

Start with America's unique geographic advantage. There are no border wars, no wars of territorial expansion, no violent disputes with neighbors. Unlike Europe, Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, even Latin America, there are not a lot of competing nations on the North American continent. And with two oceans providing a massive buffer, there is just no easy access to an invading army. So risks to the American national system have been overstated for years. You can make the case that the fascist threat to global order represented by the Axis nations in World War II justified the cost and effort the US made, but at the same time any rational reading of history leads to the conclusion that the Soviet Union won the war, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki were atrocious war crimes.

Almost no living war veterans have any claim to 'protecting' America, Americans or our freedom. The last war that can be remotely justified was Korea - it was the North Koreans that invaded, and there were a lot of Americans trapped in the Pusan Perimeter. To what extent it needed to go as far as it did can certainly be debated - after the Inchon landings, the UN forces rolled up the NorKor forces, and they could have stopped at the 38th parallel and it all would have been over.

After that, there's not a lot that America has done that can be truly admired. Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan - these were wars we chose to fight, against armies that had NO capacity to attack us, for political and economic reasons rather than the more honorable 'protecting freedom'. It's perfectly fair to say that American soldiers had no part in the decision making process, and were merely following orders, and that they may have often acted bravely and honorably, but those facts alone are not a sufficient basis for us to be 'grateful for their service'. In fact, their actions in illegal wars of choice have killed hundreds of thousands of innocents, destroyed lives, families, cities and entire nations, and resulted in more misery and chaos than existed previously. We should not hold them responsible, but we damn sure shouldn't be 'grateful for their service'.

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Note: I'm putting this on my blog rather than on, say, Facebook in order to avoid the kind of kneejerk internet arguments that I'm just not interested in having anymore. If you think I'm unAmerican or Socialist or something worse, that's fine - comments are open on the blog. Feel free to make your case. But in general, the most dangerous, warlike rogue nation on earth today is the United States of America, and you're going to have to defend aggressive war as policy.

Oh, and I'll remind you that the findings of The International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, which followed World War II, called the waging of aggressive war "essentially an evil thing...to initiate a war of aggression...is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole."
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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Unbearable Pointlessness of Climate Change Denial

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But the science is still in dispute
The American political right has, as we all know, staked out quite a radical position on climate change. They simply deny the science. Either they deny that the climate is changing, or they at least accept the measurements but deny the logical mechanism of causality, thereby arriving at the conclusion that there is nothing that can or should be done. Some have gone as far as to claim that there are benefits to a warmer planet, a position that blindly overlooks all the non-temperature related effects of a warming climate.

But why do they do this? You have to remember that their primary constituency is corporations and the wealthy, so anything they do must be seen in the light of how it benefits or challenges the business and investment community. And the answer to this question is simple: Corporate Profits. Any effective approach to carbon pollution mitigation is going to a.) drive up the price of fossil fuel based energy and b.) reduce consumption of fossil fuels. Both of these outcomes will certainly have a negative impact on many corporate bottom lines. The reality is that this is a feature, not a bug. The whole point is to increase the cost and reduce the consumption of fossil fuels - that will immediately reduce current levels of carbon pollution and bring renewable energy closer to cost parity with traditional energy sources, making them more attractive to build in the near future.

In one sense, this position underscores the calculated hypocrisy of the American Political Right. When they want to create deficit panic in order to justify further cuts in government spending, they relentlessly invoke the burden this economic debt will place on the shoulders of our children and grandchildren. But the worst impacts of climate change will occur two to three generations in the future, and they demonstrate an even greater cravenness by denying the scientific consensus and insisting that the scientific validity of the greenhouse effect is still unsettled. But it actually takes some effort to actually understand the vile calculation represented by this contemptible policy. Left unchecked, Climate Change will, directly and indirectly, kill billions. It will essentially reduce the capacity of the planet to support a population larger than a certain level. What that level is cannot be calculated (although it can reasonably be estimated), but it is certainly billions below today's population.

The important thing to remember is the entire debate is disingenuous. To whatever extent educated men and women with conservative ideologies actually believe that the consensus of climate science today is false simply doesn't matter - that is not the debate we need to have. That is the debate we are having because they have (correctly) calculated that as long as we're arguing over the science we won't be debating taking action on the science. This tactic is right out of the classic conservative playbook - arguing one or two steps up the decision chain to keep from ever having to debate the merits of the actual question. They classically do it with economics - by arguing relentlessly that spending and deficits are inherently bad and/or dangerous, they don't have to argue about entitlements - they can preempt the conversation by simply claiming that 'we just can't afford' to fund them.
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Friday, May 15, 2015

The Internet Killed God

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And there are fewer liars than there used to be
Lots of talk about the latest Pew findings on religion in America. And it's pretty much all good news. Fewer Christianists, fewer Christians, fewer participants and fewer believers overall. As toxic as religious mythology is to modern societies, its decline can only be welcomed and its ultimate demise will remove one more barrier to a community wherein the Human species can actually live together in peace. There have been many explanations and justifications for hatred and warfare, and we're a long way from solving all of them, but once the millstone of religion is removed from around society's neck, we'll all be substantially better off.

But what's the cause of this trend? How is it that suddenly religion is getting the treatment it so richly deserves? I submit that there has always been only one narrow path to sustain such ridiculous and unsupportable beliefs - early childhood coercive indoctrination - and all it took to break that generational cycle of 'faith through fear' was a global instant communications platform. That's right - the internet is more powerful than god. It allowed scattered voices of reason, from Dawkins to Harris to Hitchens to Hawking to Maher to Jillette, to point out that the emperor not only was naked, he was imaginary. It allowed us join in, to mock and blaspheme and argue, pointing out the obvious flim-flam involved in these just-so stories. It permitted - even encouraged - the one thing that religion could never allow its adherents to do - to question their faith. To ask why an all-powerful god who created the universe cares who I fuck? To ask why if god loves humans so much, why he made a world with so much disease and misery? To ask why, if god demands that we believe or suffer eternal torment, he doesn't make matters simple by appearing every few years to assure people that he's actually something that deserves belief.

The internet is a safe place for people to ask questions that would get them shunned by their families and communities. It's an opportunity to learn how  much humans actually know about the universe and our place in it. And while the religious leaders, with so much to lose in terms of wealth and power, push back against science and modernity, the internet provides an offsetting voice, a voice that says you don't have to KNOW, you just have to ask basic questions. And as Penn Jillette points out so effectively, once you ask those questions you are effectively an atheist. Religious mythology requires you to believe without question, to KNOW without evidence - once you are no longer certain, you are no longer a believer.

By enabling fully democratized two-way and one-to-many communications, the internet has created a global platform where communities could grow unshackled from geographic constraints. Rational, secular voices can be heard in the most oppressive, theocratic communities, and with that people can begin to question their indoctrination. Instead of just asking their families, neighbors and clergy "what do we know?", they can ask the whole world "HOW do we know?" And at that point their lives change for the better, and the world changes a little bit more.
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Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Sinking of the USNS Card

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The attack on the Card was quite successful
Quick. When was the last American aircraft carrier sunk in combat? If you're thinking sometime late in the second world war, it would make sense, but surprisingly, you'd be wrong. On May 2, 1964, fifty one years ago today, two Viet Cong commandos sunk the USNS Card in the Port of Saigon. Five American civilian workers died, and an escort carrier that had survived years of combat against German submarines in the North Atlantic lay on the bottom, in fifty feet of murky water.

USS Card was an Escort Carrier - a small aircraft carrier with a small complement of aircraft, primarily intended to provide air support for convoys of merchant ships. She served this role quite successfully in the North Atlantic in World War II, battling German submarines and sinking nearly a dozen of them in three cruises as the flagship of Task Group 21.14 in 1943.

After WWII, she was decommissioned, but in 1958 was recommissioned as a Utility Carrier (CVU). By that time she could no longer support air operations - the jet aircraft of the day required catapults to launch - but was still useful for transporting fully assembled aircraft across the ocean. As USNS Card, she was operating with a civilian crew under the Military Sea Transportation Service, and was soon designated to ship combat aircraft to the burgeoning buildup in South Vietnam.

Tied up alongside the pier in Saigon Harbor, she made an enticing target. And sure enough, Viet Cong irregulars led by Lam Son Nao swam out to the ship with two large explosives, planted them on her hull outside the engine compartment, and returned to shore safely. They both exploded, killing five sailors and ripping a huge hole in the hull, flooding the engine room and sending the ship to the bottom.

Although the Viet Cong celebrated the attack as a great victory, the Americans refused to acknowledge the sinking, claiming the Card was only damaged. They dispatched a team of US Navy divers led by founding Navy SEAL Roy Boehm, and in an amazing feat of engineering, they were able to re-float the ship in only 17 days. At that point she was towed to Subic Bay for repairs, and she re-entered service in December. USNS Card was ultimately retired from service and scrapped in 1970.

There's no grand point to make here - this is just a piece of US Naval history that very few Americans know. Although it IS a reminder that for all their own destructive capacity, aircraft carriers are huge and vulnerable. The US doesn't typically fight wars against modern first world near-peer competitors with 21st century weapons, but you can rest assured if at some point we DO go to war against a modern, capable force we will certainly lose one, and probably more than one carrier.
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Saturday, April 25, 2015

What Happens if There's No Deal?

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Centrifuges for Uranium separation. That's what all the
Shouting is about...
The hysterical attempts of the Israeli lobby and their congressional lapdogs to derail a diplomatic agreement with Iran over its nuclear program is utterly baffling. They say "no deal is better than a bad deal", but no deal is what we have now. If the P5+1 can hammer out a deal with Iran, there will be negotiated limits on Iran's nuclear R&D, and there will be an intrusive inspection regime to assure compliance. Sure, you can imagine a case where they would operate a secret nuclear weapons program in parallel, but they could be doing that now, and they could certainly do that much easier without the limitations in the agreement.

And just exactly how one-sided an agreement do they think Iran would be willing to sign? Their definition of a 'bad deal' seems to be one where both sides get what they want. A 'good' deal, then, would be one where Iran gives up all its rights under the NPT and other treaties in place with a hundred other nations in exchange for perhaps some sanctions relief. Even if Rouhani WANTED to agree to a deal like that, he would very quickly discover that he wasn't President anymore, and couldn't agree to anything on Iran's behalf.

Then there's the question of the sanctions themselves. If the rest of the world wants an agreement, and wants access to the Iranian market, and the US is seen as the intransigent bully who brought down the whole process for reasons of internal politics, there is going to be a very strong incentive to reduce the sanctions anyway. Certainly Russia and China will see no reason not to exploit the American diplomatic failure to reopen the Iran market for export goods and at the same time tweak the US. But beyond that, Germany, and France, along with much of the rest of the EU, are becoming increasingly frustrated with the unreasonable and unbalanced US/Israel position in the middle east, particularly the willingness to use disproportionate aggressive military force whenever they choose.  Certainly, the US unilateral congressional sanctions will stay in place, or even be increased, but they will be utterly ineffectual if they are not supported by the rest of the world.

So if the American political right and their Israeli allies are able to derail the agreement, they would find themselves in exactly the position they were in two years ago, at the outset of the diplomatic process. Iran would be a signatory to the NPT, and Israel and the US would be threatening her with attacks on a daily or weekly basis. Iran could run as many centrifuges, and keep as much stockpiled 20% enriched Uranium as it wanted. It could continue to move forward with the Arak heavy water reactor, a source of Plutonium. Plutonium bombs are much simpler to design, much easier to build and much more reliable than Uranium bombs.

The simple fact is that there is no evidence that Iran is working towards a nuclear weapon, so an actual war to 'prevent' them from developing that putative weapon is unlikely. Always remember that it would be a simple, low tech matter for Iran to close the Strait of Hormuz to shipping traffic, thus immediately removing more than 20% of the global oil supply and crashing the world's economies. Even the most bloody minded of corporate leaders would prefer not to see their profits destroyed for years to come.

Ultimately, this position is incoherent in the extreme. There is no way to arrive at the conclusion that the status quo is better than some agreement for ANYONE. If they derail the deal before it goes into effect, or if the deal collapses two or three years down the road, the outcome is exactly the same. Every claim that Netanyahu and Rubio make about the situation as it exists now would be 'true' then. The saving grace for the rest of us is that Iran is very unlikely to ever build a nuclear weapons program. But there is no doubt that Iran's breakout period will be much shorter without a deal - with 10,000kg of 20% enriched Uranium and an unlimited number of 2nd generation centrifuges spinning underground at Fordow, it's hard to understand why that would be seen as an improvement on a negotiated agreement.
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Monday, April 20, 2015

Deepwater Debacle

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Amazingly, this isn't the real disaster
Five years ago today, the end of the fossil fuel era on planet earth began. People had found, and accessed, all the easily available crude oil they could find, anywhere on the planet. The pursuit and development of this easily available oil had destroyed civilizations, started wars, generated incredible wealth and driven an industrial revolution that lead to a technological revolution that lead to the space age. But in April of 2010, oil wasn't easy to find, and it was even harder to get. Off the coast of Louisiana, BP did something almost unthinkable. They drilled a fifteen thousand foot well under five thousand feet of sea water. Everything was beyond their ability to control. The wellhead was too deep, the well was too deep, the oil reservoir was too highly pressurized, and if anything went  wrong there was just no way that the engineers could manage it a mile under water.

At 9:45 PM local time, the drill struck a pocket of very high pressure methane. The gas expanded up the well to the Deepwater Horizon rig, where it exploded, and the drilling platform burst into flames. Eleven workers died and the platform capsized and sank two days later. And just like that, nearly a mile under the surface, a wellhead was open and uncontrolled, and a huge volume of crude oil was gushing into the Gulf waters. 

All summer long we watched, the world watched, as the people who drilled the well, who told us the well was safe, who believed - or claimed to believe - that they had the technical and engineering wherewithal to manage such a difficult and monumental project tried one ad hoc scheme after another to seal the blowout. For 87 days, crude oil flowed into one of the richest fisheries in the hemisphere at a a rate of 62,000 barrels per day. Even worse, in a desperate attempt to mitigate an ongoing environmental disaster of the first order, they sprayed almost 2 million gallons of the toxic oil dispersant 'Corexit' into the gulf waters.

And all through May and June, on into July, day after day we saw the smartest people in industry and government try increasingly desperate untested solutions, and day after day they failed, leaving us with the same haunting dim view from a robotic camera 5000 feet under the surface, showing the blasted wellhead pouring crude oil into the gulf. 62,000 barrels every day. Finally, in early September, they were able to cap the well, although there is ongoing disagreement about how much crude oil continues to seep from the Macondo well.

Of course they continue to drill for the earth's remaining oil, regardless of how inaccessible it might be. They continue to recover oil from tar sands, and by hydraulic fracturing. But that night in April of 2010 was the peak, the beginning of the end, a rubicon that cannot be uncrossed. Despite the efforts of the fossil fuel industry and their corrupt politicians, renewables are the growing energy sector. Hybrid and electric cars are accepted in the market, and the price of solar and wind generated power was close to par with fossil fuels before the collapse of oil prices in 2015.

As other nations build out their alternative generation capacity, the demand for fossil fuels will continue to fall, and with surplus supplies, the price will stay low. In developed nations, electric vehicles will continue to gain in popularity as a usable charging infrastructure is developed. In developing nations, the air pollution problems have gone from nuisance to catastrophe, and they are taking rapid action to reduce their fossil fuel consumption.  Of course, it's very likely that we've already done irreparable damage to the climate and the oceans, but you've got to start somewhere, and all this started with the Deepwater Horizon disaster five years ago.
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Sunday, April 19, 2015

Putin's Missiles

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It's good. It's not magic.
So relations between Russia and the West are quite tense these days, so it should come as no surprise that the Putin government is going to take every opportunity to tweak the US. And sure enough, on the heels of the Iran Nuclear framework agreement, the Russian President announced that he was releasing the S-300/SA-20 air defense missile batteries, a sale that was blocked due to UN sanctions by then President Medvedev in June of 2010. But that's not really what I want to talk about here. I have been consistently appalled by the dishonesty, the misinformation and the gross inaccuracy of the reports around this transfer, not just in the media but by government spokespeople.

The inaccuracies fall into two general categories. First is the hysteria, most often implicit, that these missiles will make Iran a greater 'threat' to her regional neighbors, and second is the hyperbole attached to any discussion about the capability of the SA-20 system.

We can deal with the first category very quickly. Air defense systems cannot represent a threat to another nation. They are designed to defend against air attacks - they don't have a capacity to damage another nation's cities or militaries. This is the great irony of the generalized hysteria over Iran's potential purchase of advanced air defense systems. It makes it harder to launch an unprovoked air attack on Iran - that's essentially the complaint. We threaten them every day with aggressive war, and if they respond to those threats by trying to improve their defenses, do we really think it's a reasonable response to get all butthurt?

The second issue is much more interesting. SA-20s are truly modern air defense systems. They use a variety of modern radars and the missiles have powerful multi-spectral sensors and thrust vectoring that permits them to maneuver with their targets. They DO represent an increased risk to non-stealthy attackers. But that's not the entire context. We're being told that these systems would make it impossible to attack Iran. That's utterly ridiculous hyperbole. Modern doctrine is entirely premised on the reduction of enemy air defenses before the bombing campaign begins in earnest. The west has a variety of assets, from cruise missiles to stealth bombers to drones to Wild Weasels to detect, locate and destroy air defense radars and missiles. And that's the weakness of all these systems - in order to detect and target attackers, they have to radiate. Electronic warfare aircraft receive, categorize and pinpoint these emitting radar systems, and any of a number of systems will be released to destroy them in seconds. Even a mobile system like the SA-20 never has a chance to move. Once it lights up its search and track radar, its life expectancy is less than sixty seconds.

So in our desperate attempt to portray Iran as some kind of rapacious, marauding nation, an equivalent to 1938 Germany, we describe a defensive system as an offensive threat, we claim that an ability to deter unprovoked attacks is an aggressive stance, and then we claim that these systems, if delivered, would simply prevent any attack on Iran no matter what the motivation. The world we live in has become so dishonest, and so violent, that nothing makes any sense anymore. But sometimes you just have to point out the lies, and think about what they mean.
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