Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Count me Out

Two Sundays hence, in a frantic paroxysm of that particularly garish nationalism we Americans like to identify as "Patriotism", coupled with our endless capacity for angry victimhood, the entire country will come together in an outpouring of overwrought emotion, jingoistic bigotry and tribal hatred to once again revel in our one and only homeland experience of the horror and brutality of warfare.

For a few hours that bright summer morning ten years ago, we endured a bloody attack by a foreign enemy, not in any meaningful way dissimilar to the kinds of raids, invasions, incursions and "security operations" regularly experienced by the largest percentage of the human population, endlessly and repeatedly, for thousands of years.  For us, it happened once in 200 years.  We lost some buildings, something just over three thousand lives, and our collective minds that morning.  In many other places in the world, they call that a pretty good month.

It’s hard to even begin to grasp the worst outcome of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but there is little doubt now, with the perspective of a decade lived in their shadow, that the least of them is the death and destruction suffered at the hands of Mohammed Atta and his gang of murderers.  But I think we can make a fairly clear judgement now that, of all the misguided reactions, widespread destruction and abject cowardice Americans have demonstrated in the face of what, to much of the world’s population, was nothing more than just another violent convulsion of a world ruled by madmen with powerful weapons, our utter capitulation in the face of a single al Quaeda provocation is by far the worst.

In spite of the horrors and loss of that day, all the very worst damage to America and everything it means to be an American has been entirely self-inflicted.  Indeed, the outcome could not have been worse if it were none other than Osama bin Laden himself directing the American response.  The pointless destruction and bloodletting of a virtually random military response.  An opportunistic and manipulative political response that played on its own citizens' fear and anger.  A collective willingness to run away from all the best American values in a pathetic cowardly demand that our government KEEP US SAFE!  A government, for that matter, that seemed only too eager to embrace the worst instincts of police states since Torquemada.  None of this even to mention the trillions of dollars wasted destroying Iraq, propping up dictators, creating the appallingly named Homeland Security infrastructure - the loss of those funds now especially scandalous in our current dismal economic straights.  Virtually every step of the way we had a chance to act thoughtfully and effectively, and every time we quickly and with minimal deliberation decided to follow bin Laden’s playbook.  That is the original sin, the root cause underlying our shame.

Was 9/11 a tragedy of the first order?  Certainly, to the extent that thousands of innocent lives taken in a tantrum of hubris and hate are all tragic.  But every response, any act of commemoration at this point seems simultaneously petty and excessive.  With trillions of dollars wasted, more than a hundred thousand humans dead, millions more lives ruined and entire cities destroyed with no ‘victory’ to show for any of it, it’s very hard to understand what it is we’re marking.  We showed the world our fear and tribal bigotry, we unleashed a massive war machine on many more innocent civilians than were in New York and Washington that day, we ran away from our unique American values in sobbing terror - our response to that tragedy was to kill, to torture, to imprison, to destroy, and most of all, to cower is mindless fear.  And for all that, the overarching message you’ll see repeated not just Sunday but over and over through the week?  Pride.

We’ll stand up and say how proud we are to be Americans, and how special a people we must be to have survived this dreadful attack.  At no time will we notice that a woman in Darfur, or a child in Kandahar, or an old man in the Congo, along with millions of others, has stoically and courageously withstood orders of magnitude more.  We’ll beat our chests and tell each other how we beat back the existential threat of Islamic terrorism, for you see, as Americans we are bred to believe that violence is a perfectly reasonable and effective way to solve disagreements.  We’ll exchange breathless “where were you that day?” stories and never notice that for almost ALL of us, not only were we nowhere near the attacks, but we have suffered not the slightest from them.

Well, not me.  I’d like to mourn the dead, I suppose, but their loss seems somehow distant and even trivial at this point.  And today, every thought of that September morning a decade ago merely evokes disgust and loathing.  For the perpetrators, certainly, but also for the ugly, venal, manipulative, stupid and misguided who found a way to turn a spasm of tribal hatred and political violence into an unspeakable, global human tragedy unmatched in recent history.  There’s nothing to mark, nothing to ‘honor’, nothing to commemorate, just a dark decade wherein we came to see the outline of our own decline and fall.  There is much to mourn, for much has been lost.  But as for 9/11?  You can count me out...

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Internet is Annoying Me

You would think that the Internet would, at this point, merely be a digital representation of society at large. It is, after all, comprised of the same people you interact with at work, at the grocery store, at Home Depot and the local Thai eatery.  And yet the Internet is filled to overflowing with ignorance, mindless idiocy, conspiracy theories, thoughtless tribal partisanship, magical thinking, easily debunked beliefs and assumptions and Cubs fans.  It is deeply ironic that the very medium that provides access to the collected knowledge and wisdom of mankind should also be populated by so many whose lack of knowledge, illogic and utter inability to think critically makes one despair for the public schools system.

You see this in any discussion on any topic on the Web - there are always people who simultaneously hold strong opinions and minimal expertise.  There are others who are deeply invested in a single topic, point or position, and refuse to allow any discussion to drift away from their well cared for pet peeve.  I have no doubt that you will find the same kind of belligerent idiocy on knitting and furniture making forums that you find in science, firearms or literature threads, but there is one area that stands above all others for the mindless anger and tribal partisanship of it's denizens - politics.  Public policy, economics, international affairs - here it seems that for every couple of thoughtful, well-meaning people who have put in the time and effort to educate themselves and understand both the primary issues and the second - order questions that arise, from unintended consequences to ethical considerations, there is a snarling hater, a bloviating oaf or a Rah Rah cheerleader to whom "our" side represents goodness and light and can do no wrong and "their" side, an abyss of evil and foul intentions that must never be given a drop of credit.  And despite their willful, even joyful parade of ignorance and blinkered vision, there is no point, absolutely zero, in confronting them.  With the inexplicable exception of Bruce Bartlett, nobody on the Internet ever changed their mind about anything.

These tireless characters can take many forms, and even shift between them at will.  But there are a few that I find particularly trying:

1.  Conspiracy Theorists
I've always been fascinated by people, and man, there are a LOT of them, who will tell you of dark plots and deeply - held secrets, so foul and dangerous that people have disappeared just for discussing them.  But they never seem to notice the odd contradiction that THEY know all about these world-changing secrets and, in fact, anyone who doesn't is a "sheep", falling for 'their' patently ridiculous cover stories.  If you ask them how they know these things that are supposed to be the well-kept secrets of governments, they will, at best, refer you to a website, often one that lists links to other websites - none of the operators of which, sadly, have yet disappeared.

2.  Motivation Matters
When someone tells me that Barack Obama is helping the terrorists, or that the Department of the Interior is in league with the Muslim Brotherhood to implement Shari'a law in the US, or that various political, judicial, government and military leaders are working with our enemies to bring down the United States, or that lifelong Climate scientists are actively involved in a far-reaching hoax, I tend to ask them "why".  What is their motivation?  Why would someone who has risen to a leadership position in America be working to destroy it all?  Why is a Cabinet secretary from the Midwest so invested in Islamic law?  Why would ANYONE assist terrorists?  Why would someone put their career, their family, their community, their reputation and their nation at risk?  Now there might actually BE reasons, from money to blackmail, but if you can't provide a plausible explanation for this kind of massive betrayal you're just a crank.

3.  Repeaters
These are truly a blight on my bandwidth.  People who are too lazy and/or stupid to form their own arguments, they arrive at nebulous, ill formed and often incoherent conclusions and merely repeat other people's arguments to support them.  Talking points, quotes, historical anecdotes, they typically are not familiar with their own arguments, and often do not even understand them.  They are usually seen falling victim to some kind of correlation/causality fallacy, which, when it's pointed out to them, only confuses them more, or they are caught depending upon a historical event that never happened, or using a famous individual's words stripped of context so they appear to be saying precisely the opposite of what was originally intended.

4.  Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten
You know the ones.  They haven't learned a single new thing since high school.  They don't read, and critical thinking skills have never been part of their repertoire.  They know only one thing: Which "side" they're on.  That leads them to a simple, black and white conclusion in every event.  You can usually identify them on the Internet for their use of less-than-clever slurs, such as Demoncraps or Rethuglicans. To them it's no different than Cardinals/Phillies or Patriots/Colts.  There is nothing "our" team can do wrong except lose, and there is no possibility that "their" team can mean well, or do good.  And if one of 'our' guys does something that DOES disappoint them, well, that's easily explained - deep down, he was one of 'their' guys all along.  It is the simplistic case of our tribe good/their tribe bad, and while this is often a wingnut position I am often disappointed by how many self-identified "liberals" do precisely the same thing.

Seriously.  If you want to have an intelligent and productive discussion about anything, at least take the time and put in the effort to understand it at some reasonable level.  At the very least read through the
Wikipedia treatment on a given topic or event before invoking it as some kind of persuasive touchstone, OK?


Saturday, August 27, 2011

Alas, the World Just Isn't That Interesting a Place

Just stop it.  No.  There are no "aliens" here.  They aren't visiting us in their cool little spaceships, they aren't abducting hillbillies and subjecting them to all sorts of proctological research, and most importantly, they haven't come here for our resources, our planet, or lunch.  They are not here.

How can I be so sure?

Look.  We've been suspending our disbelief for so long now, from the guys who went to the moon with a cannon to Flash Gordon to Captain Kirk to Battle:Los Angeles that we've forgotten the salient point in all this.  That is, if in between unlearning evolution and basic climate modeling, we ever actually understood it at all.  But it's simply this.  The Galaxy is a VERY big place, the stars are VERY far apart, and it would take decades or even centuries to go from one to another.  It would require a HUGE craft that could support a giant crew for generations, growing food and synthesizing an atmosphere and water and all the things a good sized city needs throughout it's entire life.

If you assume a civilization built this craft, powered it with massively redundant nuclear ion propulsion and plenty of fuel, along with all the systems it would need to support and maintain itself and it's crew, and assume that it was advanced enough to achieve a cruising speed of 0.5C (one half the speed of light) then to reach a star only 100 Light Years away would take well in excess of 200 years. What would be the point?  It wouldn't be to increase their knowledge - half a millennium at least just to return the knowledge gained from the first mission to the home world?  I suspect that civilization would find better, more immediate uses for those resources.

As much as we love the ideas of interstellar travel and meeting new species, we have allowed our imaginings to blind us to the indisputable fact that FTL travel is impossible.  You might not want that to be true, but just as learning that Santa Claus is your mom and dad, Jesus didn't have blue eyes and Glocks are much cooler to look at than they are to shoot, there is no getting around it.  Here's a little math problem for you:  At the speed of light, mass becomes infinite.  Try to work out how much energy it would take to move an infinite mass.  Extra credit if you don't use crayons.

An interesting special case might be in star clusters.  Probably not in Globulars, which tend to be old, metal-poor stars that wouldn't likely give rise to intelligent life, even without considering the UV, gamma rays and radiation resulting from having so many stars in such close proximity.  But in a galactic cluster, a few hundred stars all the same approximate age within a few light years of each other might give rise to at least one spacefaring civilization, perhaps more, and might develop quite a robust multi-stellar community, replete with trade, wars and shifting alliances.  One can at least hope.

While I don't expect an abrupt end to the "Star Wars" kind of fantasy we have all come to love, I'd like to see these realities come into the discussion whenever people see bright lights in the sky, and from the standpoint of science fiction, it might be interesting if someone actually approached the genre within the constraints of the actual physical laws of the universe.  I'd read that book.

Oh.  While we're on the subject.  In a vacuum, outside the gravity well, changes in velocity are linear.  That is, spacecraft can't turn the way aerodynamic vehicles can within the atmosphere.  They can accelerate, and they can change their attitude and accelerate again.  That is, they would have to rotate 180° and fire their engines again to decelerate.  So in a space opera, when you see the spaceships in "dogfights", let's be clear - that's utterly impossible.  Rather, an engagement between two spacecraft in deep space would very likely be a single pass, with a very high closing speed and one shot, likely with a vectored thrust missile as directed energy weapons require larger power generation capacity than these smaller spacecraft would have.  Interestingly, this was the same air combat tactics adopted by the American airmen in the Pacific early in WWII.  The Wildcat and Lightning pilots couldn't turn with the Zeroes, so they tried to get above them and dive through the formations at maximum speed, inflicting what damage they could, then continued their max-speed dive down to the deck. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

I hope I haven't ruined your enjoyment of the next Aliens vs. Humans movie that comes along - that certainly wasn't my intention.  I guess I just don't have enough to think about these days, and I wanted to talk about something other than Barack, Rick and Irene.

Carry on...

Friday, August 26, 2011

I Has An Orb Weaver

Though the dawn may be coming soon
There still may be some time...
Fly me away - to the bright side of the moon
And leave tomorrow behind
Ooohh Orb Weaver...
I hate spiders.  In fact, it's safe to conclude that anything that wants to bite, poison or beat me up is going to be something I emphatically dislike.  So when this guy showed up outside my dining room window a few weeks ago, I made a brief, attention-span limited and somewhat desultory attempt to kill him (her?).  But there was no good way to get there without taking off the window screen, and I find that half the time, when you do that, you end up with a damaged or ill-fitting window screen.  And since the toxic creepy-crawly was actually outside, it seemed the rules or at least the guidelines of human-arachnid warfare mitigated against the use chemical weapons.  So I stepped back, flummoxed.

Alright, I decided, as long as you stay out there, we'll see if we can coexist in peace.  As the days passed, I began to notice his routine, and his behaviors.  I noticed that if I tapped on the window, he'd start frantically jiggling the various structural components of the web, I suppose in some spider-based attempt to locate the presumptive insectoid snackage.  I watched him with some regularity (I do not have a job, and money is quite tight, so it's not like I was sacrificing a tremendous amount of productive activity in order to monitor the life and times of my fast-growing araneidae friend), but I never got to see him (I'm presuming the male because he looks tough - I don't know if there's a way to actually determine his gender, and besides, c'mon, who freaking CARES?) actually bite anything.  Mores the pity, that would have been cool.  Unless it was me.

Objects in Window May be Creepier than they Appear
So the other day, inspired by the cool butterfly, bee and bird pictures along with the charming commentary at Thunder's place, I decided to provide my newfound spider buddy a bit of immortality of his own.  First things first.  I needed to know what he was, in somewhat more exacting detail than "scary looking".  But then, that's what the Internet's for, right?  So I found this page.  It seemed to describe him physically and got his behaviors down precisely, including his bizarre propensity to hang upside down in the center of his web.  What the hell, is he some kind of Kiwi or something?

Next, for some photographs.  On the upside, he lives on a glass sheet, so getting good pics is fairly simple.  On the downside, I only get pictures of his nether regions, as, due to the effectively 2-dimensional arrangement of his domicile, I've never actually even seen the top of him.  For all I know, he could be paisley and psychedelic.  But the Orb Weaver web page probably would have mentioned that, so I won't dwell on it.  Much.  Anyway, I got a few pretty good shots of his striped spindly legs and creepy mouthparts, which I am delighted share with you.


Update:  In the couple days since I took the pictures and got around to posting them, he has left.  I can only assume that he's had significant trouble with paparazzi before, and when I broke out the camera he knew it was time to mosey along.  Can you mosey in base eight?  Kind of a pity, I was getting used to him, and when you've lived alone as long as I have, you don't find it at all bizarre to spend an hour or so talking to a spider.  They're good listeners!  Vaya con dios, mi amigo...

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Steve Jobs and the Future of Consumer Technology

Steve Jobs resigned.  At least he turned over his CEO duties to Tim Cook.  He's still there, still in charge.  And people everywhere are buzzing with two questions.  First, why now.  I think that's an easy one, and everybody knows it.  They just are loathe to say it.  I'm not - I'm nobody, so it's easy for me.  He has an expiration date.  His docs have told him the clock is running, and even given him a number of options for how long it has to run.  So he pulls the trigger on the transition strategy, occupies the Chairman position to cement the business strategy and moves up the publication of his biography to make sure he has control of his legacy.  For a Cancer and transplant survivor beginning to show his age, this doesn't seem to be a great leap.

The second question concerns the future of Apple in a post-Jobs world.  But when people ask this question, they're not asking about Apple, not really.  For Apple defines the arc and trajectory of consumer technology, and consumer technology defines this century, from culture to lifestyle, from creation to consumption, from books and music to movies and teevee,  how we gather information, entertain ourselves, work, date and learn  What Apple does, and what Apple doesn't do, will be seen as describing and defining the way digital content is created, distributed and consumed in the twenty first century.  Apple's plans are usually regarded as a great mystery, an untold future as well analyzed by prophesy as by analysis, a fuzzy portal to a black box behind the legendary Jobs Distortion Field.  But is this really the case?

MP3 players, SmartPhones and Tablets were well known long before Apple defined their final form.  We were not shocked by the capabilities of the iPod, just it's size and the way it worked.  We had digital music, Jobs just gave us the right way to consume it.  Likewise iTunes.  We'd known for years we would eventually be buying our music this way.  Jobs was the one with the power, wealth and vision to create it.  The iPhone didn't signify any great technological breakthrough - it was really nothing more that what RIM SHOULD have done with the BlackBerry, the handheld digital communications device updated with readily available technologies.  But Jobs did it better than they might have, with bulletproof software and a genuinely usable interface.  And Tablets?  Tablets have been around in various forms for literally decades.  What Apple did was wait until all the pieces of technology were ready for prime time, from displays to processors to batteries and all the little bits that make them so broadly useful, like GPS and accelerometers.  Then, when they knew they could produce something people would want to buy, they took the iPad to market.  Again, no real breakthrough, just good design and a finely honed sense of market demand.

In that light, we shouldn't have trouble discerning what the future of digital consumer technology might look like.  It is increasingly evolving to an "always connected" model with minimal demands for local storage.  That leads to a complete transition to the "streaming" consumption model, where we have access, either paid or free, to books, music, movies and teevee shows.  We have a pretty good idea of what the devices we consume this media will look like - HDTV, Notebook computers, tablet computers and SmartPhones - So the battle comes down to efficiently and effectively delivering that content, and delivering the broadest variety.  That essentially leaves the market to a few Datacenter powerhouses with the resources to fight that battle: Apple, Netflix, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Comcast, those sorts of players.

There's really nothing new to deliver, and no new way to consume it, so the breakthroughs will have to come from the other end of the wire -  mostly invisible, except that they'll be easier, faster and, perhaps, cheaper.  The extent to which these content delivery services are actually cheaper will be entirely dependent upon the existence of real competition - and the barriers to entry are gigantic.

One area where there IS substantial space for innovation and development is in content development.  As we naively complained decades ago, there were "a thousand channels and nothing on".  Now there are infinite channels - and millions of consumers beginning to see the value in paying for content.  Sometimes.  Under some circumstances.  There might be a number of new form factors that people will want.  Short non-fiction e-books, 10-20,000 words.  Episodic series in the 10 to 15 minute-per-episode range, whether animated, CGI or real actors.  Participatory entertainment, with HD Webcams and real-time networks.  The system supports a myriad different ways to inform and entertain, and people will find new ones they like.  Whether they represent a viable market remains to be seen.

What we can recognize at this point was the perfect timing of Steve Jobs.  Just as the technologies became available, he oversaw the infrastructure buildout, from the consumer consumption devices to the global marketplace to the delivery mechanisms.  Apple may continue to dominate this market, but there are challenges ahead for Cook and the people at post-Jobs Apple.  The consumer hardware is in a purely evolutionary mode, with the rest of the industry starting to catch up with Apple in both hardware and software.  And we learned something critical over the weekend, when people rushed out to buy a Tablet they had already rejected merely because it reached a critical price point - the storied $99.  Apple has to know that they cannot maintain market dominance if they are confronted with a significant price disadvantage - and you can bet that this phenomena did not go un-noticed by some of the larger global manufacturers of consumer electronics.  Also, the next big steps in the evolution of these technologies will not be at the consumer end, but will be in the datacenter, and with the telcos and ISP that provide the access.  And these backend technologies have not traditionally been Apple's strength, although the Cupertino braintrust has not shirked their recognition of this reality, building one of the largest state-of-the-art datacenters in the world in North Carolina.

My guess is Apple will do just fine in the Post Jobs environment.  They are a mature company, steeped in the Jobs ethos of building excellent products and controlling every bit of the user experience.  They have a passionate base of consumers who are the opposite of price sensitive, and they still enjoy a one to two year hardware development advantage over the competition, even as the software gap (between iOS and Android) closes rapidly.    For everything I've always found annoying about Jobs and Apple, we as consumers are better off for what they built, even if we don't own a single Apple product.  And that should be enough legacy for anyone...

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

God - Bad Designer, Poor Manager, Pathetic Motivator

I suppose it was predictable, just as the sun follows the rain, as diarrhea follows Mi Puebla's deep fried goat burrito, today we have the professionally stupid invoking God's punishment to explain the Washington earthquake.  This time it's Worldnet Daily's Joseph Farrah, also known as the Man With MY Mustache, saying “Occasionally God really does shake things up as a sign to us of the consequences of disobedience and indifference to our Creator...”

Let's just quietly sneak past Farrah's unabashed belief that he understands the actions and motivations of the creator of the universe.  Let's even duck behind the hedge in order to avoid his hubristic expectation that the people will unquestioningly accept him as God's interlocutor.  OK, now let's just sit down on the curb here with a lemonade and think this through.

God's, like, omnipotent, right?  I mean, he can make anything happen.  Hell, he made the whole universe 'happen', right?  So if he wants humans to act a certain way, why doesn't he just MAKE them?  Just control their behavior so that they do things exactly the way HE wants them to.  Mission accomplished n shit, right?  Now I don't pretend to understand the motivations of the people who collectively pretend to understand God's motivations (go back and read that again, I dareya), but I suspect their answer to the "God's just a big bully" hypothesis would go something like "Something something Free Will Yadda yadda".  I dunno, I think it's kind of quaint that he sets up these rules restricting his own superpowers, probably to make the game more interesting because he's been around forever and most of that time he didn't even have a universe, let alone a Teddy Bear, and he's BORED!  So I guess the rules say he can coerce people with death and destruction, but he can't actually get in their heads and drive.  OK.  I'm not sure where it says that in the New Testament, but what the hell - I'm in.

But because we've all grown up steeped in the tradition of a vengeful old-testament Yahweh, we let a lot of this rubbish go by without considering how deeply weird and twisted these loonies believe their master of the universe to be.  I mean, think about it.  He makes the universe.  Eventually he makes some intelligent bipeds on planet Earth.  He makes them clever social creatures, with agile minds and a propensity to explore.  He endows them with free will and some sense of right and wrong and sends them on their way.  But then they DO things.  Things that bug him, that piss him off, that get right under his all powerful skin.  "Dammit", he thinks.  "Why are they doing that?  I don't WANT them to do that."  Now, he has a whole universe to tend to, he's a busy, busy supreme being, but those annoying homo sapiens just keep irritating him.  So he keeps coming back and trying to make them change their wicked ways, but he always plays by the rules of the game.  So he wipes out New Orleans.  Hey, the little bastards LIKED New Orleans.  Surely THAT'LL get 'em back on the straight n narrow.  But sure enough, they kept up all that stuff that just makes God CRAZY, so he came back by yesterday and gave Washington DC a good shaking - just a warning, you see, to go back to living the way he WANTS you to.  Then it was a quick hop over to let Joseph Farrah know what he was doing and why, and it was back to that pesky universe.

There's a lesson here.  Actually a couple, but we'll go with the cautionary tale at this point:  "Create a universe and you'll never have a moment's rest".

Sunday, August 21, 2011

When Despots Fall - Libya Edition

We appear to have reached the endgame in Libya.  With Tripoli cut off, much of the loyalist forces have stopped fighting, allowing the residents of Tripoli to take to the streets, supported by clandestine weapons shipments and reinforcements from the rebels outside the city.  It's really only a matter of time, and blood, before the fight is over and we can begin to see the shape the new Libyan government will take.

I readily confess that I take a certain pleasure in watching the end of the Gadhafi regime.  He was one of the great megalomaniacal autocrats of the twentieth century, a thorn in the side of the West going back beyond Reagan, a leader who took the seat of power at the point of a gun, and will only relinquish it the same way.  From the bombing of the La Belle in Berlin and the resultant US air strikes to that icon of tragedy, to the crumpled cockpit of PanAm 103 lying broken in the verdant fields of Lockerbie, he has always been dangerously willing to translate rhetoric and oil wealth into action in a long, incoherent asymmetric war with the US and her allies.  And despite the bombings, the sanctions and the decisive losses in occasional air battles over the Gulf of Sirte, he relentlessly demanded a position on the world stage all out of proportion to his actual status - and more often than not he received it.  But ultimately, the actions taken by the leader of a single-party police state to suppress dissent and hold onto power erode his support among the people, creating a cycle of increasingly brutal suppression and a more radicalized population.  The ultimate result is very often rebellion or civil war.

Of course, we cannot know at this point how this will all play out.  Libya is another one of those artificial constructs, a nation with borders drawn by arrogant colonialists without regard to Tribal realities.  It remains to be seen whether the competing demands of Tribal politics, ethnic antipathy and religious intolerance can be set aside to allow the establishment of some sort of national identity without the coercive control of a traditional "strongman".  But one fact is, even now, hard to overlook.  For perhaps the first time, the international community came together to provide the appropriate level of military intervention to prevent a wholesale slaughter of innocents and level the playing field just enough for the people to have a fighting chance to win their freedom.  This was done with extremely limited military force, with no ground troops, no occupation and no coalition casualties.  The fact that the world can now have confidence that it can honestly, fairly and decisively intervene to prevent a humanitarian disaster should give pause to any despot considering massacres as a method to hold onto power.

Well, why not Syria, you ask.  How can this formula apply to Gadhafi and not Bashar al Assad?  The answer is simple - sadly so.  International intervention can be compared to a medical procedure, and "First do no harm" is a critical guiding principle.  If intervention has the likelihood of starting a regional war, a scenario where it would create far more suffering than it might alleviate, that is a situation in which it cannot be used.  One of the necessary keys to international military intervention, then, is it can really only be used against the more isolated of regimes - those with powerful or local allies (or both) are mostly inoculated against the world community acting against them.

But we should remember Rwanda, and Srebrenica, and we should point to Libya and resolve that we never need let it happen again...

Monday, August 8, 2011

A Terrible Love of War

Waste is a slippery concept.  One man's waste is another man's art, another man's life's work, and yet another man's sustenance.  What we see as waste might actually be fulfillment, or comeuppance, or just another narrative chapter.  If risk is the price tag for reward, then the ultimate price should come with the ultimate reward - but in an odd twist, here the rewards are earned up front, collected throughout a career filled with immeasurable highs and unspeakable lows, and the price is collected last, savagely erasing all the days of effort and nights of terror, all the moments, forever.

30 Americans died at once on Friday, simultaneously, in a pointless war in a valueless place for a meaningless goal, and some might call it a tragedy, and cry out to mourn our national loss.  But to do so would be a failure of understanding, an inability to grasp what, precisely, has been lost, the banal conflation of what and why.  These men were, even in the midst of this most cynical of political gamesmanship, not wasted.  Indeed, it is not possible to waste lives such as this.  There are professional soldiers, certainly, but these were not that - not really.  These were professional warriors, men as there have always been, less committed to the ideal or even the goal than they are simply to the fight, men who have been to war and want nothing more than to go back.  Men for whom the fight is the point, and are therefore willing to do anything it takes for another chance to fight other men to the death.

Mourning them would serve no purpose, indeed it would obscure rather that clarify the way this story ended.  This was the outcome that was always there, the thing against which they measured themselves and their comrades every time they fought, at once the likeliest result and the one so often repeatedly avoided.

On an individual level this was not really a tragedy, and certainly not a waste.  It was, in a very real sense, just another day at the office, the consequences unusual only in number, otherwise no different than a severed finger at the lumberyard or the terminal deceleration of an avid parachutist having a very bad day.  These guys were doing exactly what they wanted to do, what they LOVED to do, and every single last one of them had taken human lives, weighed culpability against responsibility, considered and accepted their accountability and, having seen it and smelled it and tasted both the warm flow and the red mist, opted to return once again to that place where lives are traded, the exchange rate measured in lead.

To be clear, one should not feel compelled to honor them either.  They represent the part of human evolution that has, to this point at least, failed.  They are killers, not by training or by temperament, but at some deeper, vocational level.  Everywhere throughout history you will find similar men in prisons and graveyards, the same drive fueling a different path, but always with similar outcomes.  They have always been amongst us, and they have always been co-opted and recruited by those with wealth and power to serve whatever cause ordered.  They were crusaders and assassins, outlaws and pirates, the tip of the spear and the last line of defense.

Afghanistan is a waste, a waste of resources, a waste of lives, a waste of geopolitical credibility and diplomatic leverage.  Most of the lives lost there are wasted, and most of the lives spent there are wasted too.  America's involvement in Afghanistan fully ten years after the attacks of September 11th is a permanent toxic stain on what remains of her tattered honor, calling simultaneously into question both American political integrity and military capacity.  But for these men, Afghanistan was exactly where they wanted to be, for exactly the reasons we saw play out.  The fact that we'll bury these Sailors all at the same time means they died doing what they wanted to do more than anything in the world, and regardless of how you might feel about that, for them it was no tragedy...