Friday, November 8, 2013

Who Lost on Tuesday?

Are we finally witnessing Peak Tea?
We know that Bill de Blasio, Terry McAuliffe, Chris Christie and Bradley Byrne won.  In the sense that elections are a snapshot of a frozen moment in time, these winners reflect the current state of the Republican brand more than any particular unifying quality.  But if the winners don't tell us anything about the future state of the American electorate, what can we learn from the losers?

An easy answer is that we are seeing the decline of the tea party, or at least that we have reached "Peak Crazy".  There is no doubt that the overall American appetite for exclusionary, apocalyptic madness has its limits, but make no mistake - Americans will continue to be tribal, bigoted, sectarian nationalists for a long time to come.  So while we may be seeing the end of the tea party as an effective force in American politics, it's worth thinking about to what extent this might be a good thing.

When you think about the GOP as the political arm of an ideological movement, it's important to recognize that it represents two separate political agendas.  The first, primary, overarching agenda of the Republican party has always been, and will continue to be, upward redistribution of wealth in American society.  That means low taxes, limited government spending, limited government regulation and the elimination of government programs that transfer money to the poor or middle class.  This primarily economic portion of the "conservative" agenda is the foundation for all that comes after it, and when all else is stripped away, will remain the hill they will die on every time.

But forty years ago the powerful elites of the Republican party realized that their constituency under those terms - the very wealthy and the corporate leadership - was, by itself, far too small to empower a national political party.  So they turned to the famed "Southern Strategy" to turn the white South into a Republican bastion through racial hatred, and they enlisted the vast numbers of American evangelical Christians through their anti-abortion stance.  These additional factions gave them the numbers they needed to win many elections in the upcoming years, at the cost of dragging the party farther and farther to the extreme right.  In particular, their response to any political setback was to demand greater ideological purity from their candidates.  Eventually, you got the tea party and the inmates were effectively running the asylum.

So you got Todd Akin and Christine O'Donnell, but you also got Ted Cruz and Mike Lee.  And the fever swamp got deeper, and the tantrum got louder, and finally you got the "War on Women", the failure of a perfectly reasonable universal background check law, a spittle-flecked rear guard action in the wake of marriage equality successes and a party that abandoned any hope of a Latino constituency by once again scuttling immigration reform.

So Cuccinelli lost Virginia, Lhota lost New York and Dean Young even lost Alabama.  So, the tea party's on the wane, right?

It certainly would appear so. You can't exclude everybody but white males from your electorate and have much hope of remaining a viable national political entity.  But if we assume that we're seeing the decline of the truly crazy wing of the GOP, the larger question becomes "is this a good thing".  The key thing to remember is that the core ideological principle of the Republican party is toxic and destructive.  If they were to abandon their racial, tribal, gender and sectarian baggage and focus on their core economic agenda, it would not be better for most Americans.  Sure, we'd get immigration reform and marriage equality, but we'd get more pollution, more homeless, more food-borne disease and fewer safety net programs to help the victims.

So if the Republican core "establishment" decides to rid themselves of the tea party millstone, they'd lose many of their most reliable base voters, it's true. But while the extemist Right may well be the GOP's most intense voters, you can't vote 'harder'.  One vote is just the same as another.  So if they stopped alienating women, gays and Latino voters, and started tailoring their message of economic bamboozlement to a more inclusive audience, they could once again begin to be competitive in national elections.  And, of course, like their mirror images on the far left, the far right voters would find themselves with no real option but to hold their nose and vote for the Republican who was on the ballot, not the one they wish was on the ballot.

In a sense, for all their madness and hate, the tea party can be seen as a moderating factor in American politics.  They are the ones who have destroyed the Republican brand.  They are the faction that has turned the 'Party of Lincoln' into a white male regional political organization with no real national importance.  They are the voters who are preventing the election of those so-called 'moderate' Republicans who "only" want to take your job, your health and starve your grandma.  I know people who fear that America has no future with the tea party commanding the Republican party, but I submit that America's future is much darker without them.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Time After Time...


Whew.  That was close, wasn't it?  An ugly two week government shutdown was bad for everyone but Democratic politicians, but at least, when the clock was ticking toward midnight John Boehner was true to his word and allowed the House to pass a CR and Debt Limit bill on the strength of Democratic votes.  Everyone on every side - with the exception of the known lunatics - agreed that the US could not be allowed to default, especially not when it would be an unnecessary, intentional act.  In other words, the tea party broke the number one rule of hostage taking - they took a hostage that John Boehner was unwilling to shoot.

Of course, the CR and Debt Limit bill they passed were very short term fixes, with the CR expiring in January and the Debt Limit hitting again in February.  There are some differeences this time, however.  First, it seems vanishingly unlikely that the Republican leadership will allow the threat of a US Sovereign default to be used again anytime soon as political leverage.  The problem with using nuclear weapons in hand-to-hand combat is nobody wins.  But the two events are not so close in time now.  The CR must be extended by January 15th or the government shuts down again, but the Treasury will make use of their "extraordinary measures" to push back the deadline for raising the debt ceiling into the summer, June or even July.

So the tea party will take the budget hostage, and the Republican leadership has already proven that's a hostage they're willing to shoot.  There isn't going to be a budget agreement - the Democrats won't accept entitlement cuts without increased revenue and spending on things like infrastructure, and the Republicans are NOT going to bend on revenue increases. The only way that gets resolved is if the 2014 mid-term election is a referendum on divided government, and the Democrats re-take the House of Representatives.  Until one side or another has the power to actually enact their agenda, this is what American governance looks like.

Discretionary spending at Sequester levels and no important legislation passed for at least another year. Repeated artificial crises and short term fixes, all wrapped in the spittle-flecked hatred and political posturing of an American far-right movement that has lost its mind.  It's telling that they don't even try to describe what they see as the problems with the current government, they just deny that it has any legitimacy.  They say 'Obamacare' is a "train wreck", but they don't explain how that is.  They say government spending is "out of control", when it's at the lowest levels in decades.  They say Obama is taking away their 'liberties', but they don't say which liberties, or how they are losing them.  And in the one case where the Administration IS actually taking away their liberties - the police state levels of domestic surveillance without any oversight - they actually seem to approve.

Meanwhile, the economy sputters along, one real shock away from another recession, as the nation becomes a global laughingstock. Other countries wonder how it is that the most powerful nation on earth can't find a way to solve even its most pressing problems.  They wonder what is so good about a democratic system of governance if it leads to helplessness and chaos.  Emerging global and regional powers are learning lessons from this, but they are not the lessons we'd want them to learn.  They may fear the United States for it's raw military power, but any respect they might have had for our highly-touted values is fading rapidly, and the remaining pool of goodwill is drying up before our eyes.

Monday, September 30, 2013


Annnnnd - That's a Wrap
The premise, from the very beginning, was that Walt was going to die. His death, ultimately felt not only inevitable, but natural.  There was no other way for it to end for Walt.  The question that needed to be answered was how would Walt die - not so much in the mechanistic terms of the proximate cause of his demise, but rather what path he would take to his death, and what would he leave behind.  There was always a certain tension as you watched him build his empire and become the brutal, murderous Heisenberg, wondering whether he would live long enough to die from the cancer that riddled his body. But mainly, it was about how the man and the quest interacted in the process, and how a plan to leave his family with enough money to live after his death became a plunge into madness and brutality that left everyone around him dead or damaged.

It's interesting that such a dark series had such a 'happy' ending, at least in Breaking Bad terms.  There was no fixing the damage Walt had caused, or regaining the love of his family.  Hank was dead, his son and wife hated him, Jesse was gone, and Todd was running the meth business as only a good-natured psychopath could. But there were things Walt could do, a short term bucket list if you will, things that would settle matters and tie up loose ends for him.  The choices that remained for him were to act against the people who represented a threat to his family, the ones who had killed Hank, taken Jesse and brought about Walt's complete debasement.  THEY were the remains of Walt's to do list in which the last item was 'lay down and die'.

Terrorizing the Schwartzes into laundering the White family fortune was a perfect example of Walt's combination of brilliance and brutality.  In checking the first box on the bucket list, he corrupts them, making them in some way complicit in his crimes in a way they can never quite escape.  Walt knows that as time goes by his plan will become their plan, and accomplishing it will be a kind of success.

Item number two was that pesky ricin. It's been in play for years, and now it comes out.  A brief five minute meeting with Lydia in a coffee shop, followed a day later by a triumphant phone call to let her know that even though she's not dead yet, he had murdered her.  Brutal, as the final admission to Skyler: "I did it for me" was brutal honesty.

Then, in an almost cartoonish climax, the old machine gun in the trunk trick wiped out Jack, Todd and the Nazis.  But it had to be - Jack shot Hank in front of Walt, and Walt was never going to let that stand, no matter how weak and helpless he appeared to be in that cabin in New Hampshire.  But it was key to the actual denouement - the final confrontation with Jesse.  And when Walt implores Jesse to shoot him, and Jesse tosses him the gun saying "do it yourself", we are witnessing the true end of Breaking Bad.  Jesse walks out, free and something approximating whole, and it remains only for Walt to lay down next to the meth lab he built and die.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

This Week in Jihad

Busy week for Jihadis and those that love them.

Respect your enemy - this dude had courage
and commitment
For at least the eighth time, Alabama born rapping jihadi Omar Hammami has been declared dead.  As you might have heard (if you are so pathetic that your life includes paying attention to such things), he had a major falling out with the leader of the al-Shabab organization for which he has previously been a fairly effective field commander in Somalia, and they've been aggressively trying to kill him as part of a purge of “foreign fighters”.  In June he reported via his Twitter account that he had been “shot in the neck” but was, apparently, not dead and he went into hiding immediately afterward.

The FBI had him on its Most Wanted list, which seems somewhat silly as he was fighting in the seemingly endless Somali civil war and not really doing anything the FBI should care deeply about.  For that matter, it certainly seems as if al Shabab head Moktar Ali Zubeyr missed a significant funding opportunity if he simply killed Hammami and buried him in the desert, as has been reported.  The FBI was offering $5 million dollars for him - seems like that would have been a good trade-off for the organization.

At any rate, to whatever extent the world is better off rid of him, I will miss him for the entertainment value he brought to an otherwise mundane on-again off-again African bush war. And while they apparently neither supported nor understood his life’s work, his family misses him too. In his fathers words, "If he indeed died, he died fighting for his principles, whatever they are."

Fighting Jihad with AKs and VHS tapes
since 1988
This was also the week with another anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, so that means another audio only missive from the worlds favorite terrorist surgeon, Ayman al-Zawahiri.  Much of core al-Quaeda in the Pakistani hinterlands have been decimated by fighting in Afghanistan and American drone strikes, but Zawahiri just goes on, in sole command of the remaining organization now that his partner Osama bin-Laden has gone to his reward.  

While bin-Laden was fixated on very large, spectacular attacks, from the USS Cole bombing to the African Embassy attacks, culminating in the 9/11 hijackings and attacks on New York and Washington, Zawahiri seems to be more pragmatic, cognizant of the reduced operational and financial resources available after more than a decade of relentless attacks by the global counter-terror forces.  And sure enough, in his message commemorating 9/11 he called for small-scale “lone wolf” attacks within the United States.  His premise, essentially accurate, is that these sorts of attacks, car bombs and random shootings, would have a powerful negative impact on the American economy, making the US weaker as we dedicated more and more resources and stripped away ever more civil rights trying to prevent these kinds of attacks.

Indeed, in light of the Snowden NSA surveillance revelations, al-Quaeda terrorists have to acknowledge that their organizational options are significantly reduced as they must work without cell phones, email and web-based organizing and communication tools.  But ever since 9/11, I have been very surprised that organized Islamic terrorist groups haven’t adopted this kind of tactical doctrine against the United States.  There is no doubt that a steady drumbeat of two widely geographically diverse small-bore attacks a month, even with minimal loss of life, would create an outpouring of insanity in American society that would utterly transform the culture and the economy.  The main reason that Americans are so generally comfortable with waging war around the world is that those wars never happen in our cities and towns - they are always thousands of miles away.  You bring even a low level guerrilla conflict to US soil and things will get ugly and stupid very quickly.

The US must end these drone attacks
immediately. (Wink. Wink)
Meanwhile, in Pakistan, the spokesman for the Foreign Office, Aizaz Chaudhry announced that Pakistan will be taking the issue of US drone strikes to the UN.  I’m still quite sceptical.  It’s true that Nawaz Sharif based much of his campaign on resistance to American bombing of Pakistani territory, and it’s also true that Zardari has been willing to play a classic double game of publicly denouncing drone attacks while secretly authorizing and even encouraging them.  But it’s also true that if the Pakistani government and military leadership sees the aerial bombardment of their land as a violations of their sovereignty, they should be using their well developed air defense capability to at least try to prevent the foreign attacks.  As long as they refuse to do so, one can reasonably conclude that they are more interested in keeping the US funds flowing and paying lip service to political realities while permitting the US to bomb targets in the Tribal Areas.

So what does the UN complaint mean?  And what can the UNSC actually do when America holds a veto?  It’s worth recognizing that the drone bombings in Pakistan have very little, if anything to do with terrorism.  At least 90% of these attacks are about force protection in Afghanistan, killing and disrupting fighters that have safe havens in the Pakistani borderlands.  So Obama is unlikely to discontinue the bombing until the American presence in Afghanistan is reduced or ended.  But regardless of the involvement of the UN, the story has the same ending it always had.  If a nation is under aerial attack, and refuses to deploy its air defenses to resist that attack, it’s safe to assume that nation is complicit in those aerial attacks.  Everything else is just a political smokescreen.

Monday, September 2, 2013

American Offensive Power and the "Drive By Shooting"

This is no joke.  Repeat, this is no joke
Just a couple of random, unrelated thoughts about the potential counter-CW strike on Syria.  I've seen a large number of comments from people who, typical of Americans, don't know what it means to be under aerial bombardment - comments to the effect of "Meh. We throw a hundred and fifty cruise missiles at them and call it a day".  The fact is, yeah, this is exactly what we do. The deep disconnect is the misunderstanding of what that means, and what it accomplishes.

First, the problem with the mainstream, as opposed to the more professional discussion of an attack on the Ba'athist Syrian regime is that it casually conflates a response by the international community to the use of Chemical Weapons against a civilian population with an intervention in the Syrian civil war with the goal of producing a favored outcome.  What we're talking about here is an attack intended to deter the use of Sarin as a lethal crowd control solution.  Sarin is a brutally efficient counterinsurgency tool, that can clear entire neighborhoods without damaging them, and those neighborhoods can be repopulated in a matter of hours.

So why would a quick 48 hour 'drive by' attack by US naval forces in the Mediterranean serve to deter a desperate regime from clearing the suburbs of his Capital city with nerve gas?  The key is to understand the combination of factors that make cruise missiles effective.  They are essentially 1000 pound bombs, capable of leveling a large building, and they are pinpoint accurate, using a combination of GPS signalling and terrain maps to actively guide to a very precise predetermined impact point.  A hundred and fifty 1000 pound bombs, placed precisely on the right targets, can change the history of a nation.  So from that standpoint, it's important to understand that the attack being proposed is not a pinprick, nor is it some kind of symbolic statement - a great deal of damage can be done with an attack like this, damage to the most critical infrastructure that al-Assad is using to kill thousands of his people every month.

Regardless of how you feel about American involvement in the Syrian civil war, there are questions here that must be answered.  There is no doubt that there was a release of Sarin gas that killed well over a thousand civilians in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, and you'd have to be pretty blind or dishonest to believe that release was the action of rebel forces.  So the real argument we're having here is 'what is the role of the international community in deterring the use of CW by government forces in internal conflicts"?  If the answer is that the world should not get involved in these matters, that government forces putting down rebellion by any means is nothing more than an internal problem, then you have to acknowledge the kind of world you're willing to live in.  Because, despite their unfortunate conflation with nuclear weapons, chemical toxins are easy to produce and are an ideal solution to a restive population - at least for a brutal dictator with no compunction for taking the lives of thousands of his citizens.

For me, I'd like to see the world respond violently to any CW release anywhere, any time, by anyone.  I don't think humans should be exterminated like bugs - and make no mistake, Sarin is just RAID for humans.  And without a strong reaction from the global community, I believe we're going to see more autocrats use nerve gas as an ultimate crowd control tool when they are confronted with democracy activist protests.  Just think about the massive overuse of tear gas in Turkey this summer and ask yourself, honestly, how far we are from just a little more toxicity to bring the 'terrorists' under control?

I guess in an ideal world we'd be having a discussion of our role in protecting civilians from their own government - a discussion we were not willing to have after Srebrenica, and again after Rwanda.  We found a way to do the right thing over Misrata in the Spring of 2011, but even then, the world wasn't willing to develop a framework for making determinations about when they can contribute to reduce the slaughter, and when a Western military solution has nothing to offer.  But the world can't figure out how to have conversations like that, so we address each new atrocity like it's something new, something we've never seen before.  And more often than not, we bungle it, and a whole lot of people die.  And we should recognize that if we could have prevented that, we own some responsibility for it.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Passing of a Master

Elmore and Raylan
At least we still have "Justified"
In the beginning, there was Travis McGee.  The classic creation of John D. MacDonald, he was my introduction to life or death battles over small stakes, local wars with tiny armies and life-changing outcomes, a world in which greed and violence were destructive on a smaller scale, and yet the stories could teach me so much about courage and honor and the things people on both sides are willing to do to get what they want.

And my love for MacDonald and his Knight in Rusty Armor eventually led me to Elmore Leonard.  Though his first Detroit crime book was City Primeval, the first Leonard novel I read was “Split Images”.  And my mind was absolutely blown.  Here was something different, weird and quirky and yet disturbingly recognizable, the actions of brutal, greedy men in their own little milieux, casually wrecking the lives of friends, neighbors and loved ones.  Here was people talking to one another in comfortable rhythms, speaking of the banal and the horrific in the same paragraph. The only thing close to it was “The Friends of Eddie Coyle”, but this wasn’t greedy small-time mafia thugs, this was smaller time and objectively crazier people, circling and jostling each other in small orbits.

That juxtaposition of life and death writ small, a world where a casual contact one day could lead to a bloody confrontation the next, where a man could decide to bet it all on a desperate grab for a big bag of cash, where threat and menace could be the clear subtext of a mundane conversation.  While I loved Split Images and immediately set out to gobble up the entire Leonard library, it turned out that the rest of his work was, in an odd sense, gentler than my first sip at the cup.  Split Images was a harsh, brutal story, punctuated by the classic Leonard wit, and occupied by the kind of off-center and even distinctly unbalanced characters that are simultaneously the most fun to create and the hardest to carry off.  I went back to the beginning, and I read “City Primeval”.

If you have never read it, stop what you’re doing right now and order it.  Because, remember, this was his first work outside the Western genre, and the climactic scene, in a kitchen with spoken and unspoken narrative around the refrigerator, a couple beers and a bottle opener seems banal, even friendly.  But it is a deadly confrontation, and the underlying reality is two men trying to position themselves to get the jump and shoot the other dead.  It is classic Elmore Leonard in every way, a kind of scene you see played out time and time again in his novels, his movies and in Justified, the television series he created with his quirky US Marshall Raylan Givens as the lead character, and a classicly twisted foil in Boyd Crowder, played by the endlessly mesmerising Walton Groggins.  The only thing I have ever read that comes even close to that climactic set-piece in City Primeval was a scene in a cantina in the incredible, though sadly out of print R. Lance Hill novel “The Evil That Men Do”.  I doubt if you can find it, but if you can you’ll be quite glad you did.

In 1976 Elmore Leonard introduced us to Frank Ryan, ex-con, professional armed robber and the author of the Ten Golden Rules for a successful career in armed robbery.  If there was any doubt remaining, that closed the deal for me.  Here was everything I wanted in a novel - primarily no freaking “good guys”, just bad guys to root for and bad guys to root against.  A protagonist who was a thief, whose life goal was to be a successful thief and who was willing to develop and enforce a set of discipline and rules around that goal.  A thoughtful and careful thief, sure, but one who willingly chose his life without regret.

Elmore Leonard went on to garner great fame and fortune, unsurprisingly in the movies, where his dialog-heavy stories lent themselves so ideally to that kind of format.  From Travolta in “Get Shorty” to Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” to Clooney and Lopez in “Out of Sight” to even Russell Crowe and Christian Bale in “3:10 to Yuma”, a 1953 Elmore Leonard short story, his successes at the box office dwarf his reputation as an author.  But if you want to see inside the mind - and the heart - of Elmore Leonard, go back to those early crime novels, City Primeval, Split Images, Swag, and Unknown Man #89.  The settings were richly detailed, the City an actual character in the books, the characters deeply human and nuanced, and the stories were kinetic and plausible.

A few weeks ago, Elmore Leonard had a stroke, and on Tuesday he died in his home outside of Detroit at the age of 89.  He was a master of the American novel - not seeking to produce some kind of classic literary prose but rather the novel in it’s purest form - the novel as entertainment.  He wrote stories people wanted to read, set in places and occupied by characters that were at once familiar and exotic.  His mastery of the American dialect - North, South, Black or White - lent a powerful realism to his dialog.  You can see his influence in people from Quentin Tarantino to Aaron Sorkin, and as he famously said in his 10 Rules of Writing, “if it sounds like “writing”, rewrite it”.

His loss is a profound one for the millions he has entertained for decades, a unique American literary voice that might be equalled, but can never be replaced.  Thank you, Mr. Leonard, for all the hours of joy you gave me, for the insight into what the written word can be, and most of all, the understanding that big things happen in small places, and the magnitude of the event is measured locally, by the people it impacts.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Christie, Barrett and the Limited Value of Symbolism in Solving Problems

Yes, Congresswoman, that is one
helluva great big gun
Everyone knows, and essentially agrees, that the political environment for legally reducing access to and use of firearms in America today is terrible.  There is that horrifically destructive constitutional guarantee, which empowers the toxic political forces on the right to depict any common-sense attempt to regulate the availability of deadly weapons as a challenge to the very foundational values of the United States.  In light of the political difficulty of passing ANY legislation that limits the availability of firearms in any way, the people who refuse to accept that the loss of so many lives is a necessary or acceptable cost to assure the integrity of the constitution and the freedom of the American people to legally own firearms have been forced to look for small-bore legislative victories. Some of these have happened at the state level, in states where legislators are not so deeply in thrall to the worst impulses of the right-wing madmen.  But those must be limited in scope, lest they draw a legal challenge and are struck down as violations of the second amendment.

So in spite of the tragic and infuriating reality that virtually ALL of the thousands of gun murders, suicides, assaults, robberies and accidents happen with common, garden variety handguns, people seeking to reduce gun violence in the US are limited to trying to find cases at the margins that can generate enough support to pass in Congress.  And when you realize that even comprehensive background checks couldn't garner sufficient support to become law, you begin to understand how narrow that window truly is.  Sadly, however, this condition results in some pointless, silly, even farcical legislation that, in the end, makes smart, caring people who are trying to reduce the carnage look small, petty and uninformed, while doing NOTHING at all to stop the violence.

First there were "Cop Killer Bullets".  Of course - who could possibly be in favor of cop killer bullets? So there was strong bi-partisan support for a ban, which was duly passed by Congress.  Only later did it slowly become clear that regular old non-cop-killer bullets were just as deadly, and the threat from armor piercing rounds was mostly hype.  Later came the calls to ban Assault Weapons.  There was a national ban which expired in 2004, and various states, notably California, have bans on various types of weapons.  Again, the result of these laws was to reinforce the realization that these types of weapons are not a significant factor in our gun violence problem - they are large, expensive, impossible to conceal and difficult to replace - and banning them did nothing to reduce gun violence.  What's worse, even the bans were impossible to implement effectively, because no matter how the laws sought to define the term "assault weapon" it was easy for the manufacturers to redesign their weapons to avoid running afoul of the law.  At the end of the day, all semi-automatic rifles that used a removable magazine and were chambered in 5.56x45 or 7.62x39 worked the same, and the features that were being banned were entirely cosmetic.

Which brings us to New Jersey today.  The State Legislature passed a bill banning rifles chambered in .50 BMG.  Why?  That's unclear.  It's true that this is a powerful, devastating weapon, with a range of well over 2000 meters, a weapon that is classified by the US Army as an "anti-materiel" weapon - that is, one to be used against vehicles and structures more than against people. But no one can remember one ever being used in a crime.  The rifle costs ten thousand dollars or more and is huge, five feet long and weighing over 30 pounds.  Rounds of .50 BMG ammunition cost over five dollars each.  Just not the kind of weapon you'll see used in most murders or gas station stick-ups.  Plus, for all the vaunted power of the .50 BMG, there are MANY other calibers in the same class.  .416 Barrett, .460 Weatherby, .300 Winchester Magnum and the round rapidly replacing .50 BMG on the battlefield, .338 Lapua.  So the law was pointless, accomplished nothing, affected few and was nothing but a gift to Governor Christie, who has been denounced as insufficiently nihilistic by tea party types.

Today Governor Christie vetoed the ban on .50 BMG rifles, gaining back some credibility with the far right without any cost.  There will be no grieving families on the Statehouse steps tearfully recounting how their child was killed with a fifty caliber rifle.  There will be no fewer gun victims, but there will be no more either.  Until the people who want to reduce gun violence begin to adopt realistic priorities and tactics, there will be no change in the status quo - and more children will die tonight.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Bernie Fisher - Choices

They look pretty happy to be there...
When we think about heroism in combat, we usually think about the legends of the genre - from Alvin York to John Basilone to Audie Murphy. These were the men who stood, in the sustained roar and gore of battle, under intense fire, and they held the line.  We honor their courage, their commitment and their willingness to do what it took to do their job.  It is also part of the lore that for Americans, our greatest war heroes were also very deadly, killing dozens or even hundreds of enemy soldiers in a brief few hours of fire and madness.

But we often overlook the courage that some men demonstrate by the choices they make.  In many of these cases, there was no choice at all - sure, Audie Murphy climbed up on a burning tank destroyer, but without the gun on that vehicle he'd have simply been another GI killed in action on the German border that bloody winter of 1945.  And sure, Randy Shughart and Gary Gordon asked, no, demanded permission to insert at the 'Blackhawk Down' crash site in Mogadishu in '93.  But even so, some choices demand more recognition, more respect, more AWE than others.  It is in that sense that I have always held a special honor for Bernie Fisher.

In the spring of 1966, the American troop buildup in South Vietnam was well underway, and the disastrous Tet offensive was still two years in the future.  Major Fisher was assigned to the 1st Air Commando Squadron flying A1 Skyraiders out of Pleiku.  The rugged terrain along the Cambodian/Laotian border was contested territory, and the strategic center of it all was the A Shau Valley.  The valley was defended by a US Army Special Forces (Green Beret) A Team and about 300 indigenous forces.  On the night of March 8th, they were attacked by 4 Battalions (about 2000 troops) of NVA soldiers.

Even in 1966, the A1 was an anachronism.  Perhaps the pinnacle of WWII era piston-engine technology, it was a huge single engine attack plane with a payload greater than the B-17.  It was pressed into service in Vietnam because of it's tremendous bomb load and ridiculous loiter time. The A1 could stay aloft, fully loaded, for over six hours.  It flew slow enough to identify and target specific units on the ground, making it much better in the CAS (Close Air Support) role than the "Fast Movers" from the Navy and Air Force.  The pilots who flew the A1 nicknamed it the 'Spad' because it was just so old compared to the modern jets.  While the Skyraider became famous for it's role as 'Sandy' in CSAR operations throughout the theatre, Air Force veterans who wanted combat hours in the mid to late sixties had to be willing to transition back to piston engines, and few took to that transition better than Bernie Fisher.

On the Morning of March 10th, the camp was falling.  The weather was terrible, preventing reinforcements from getting to the scene, and ammunition was low while casualties mounted.  At dawn the NVA assault force broke through the East wall, and after hours of bloody hand-to-hand combat the defenders pulled back to a defensive perimeter on the North wall.  They called in air strikes on their own camp to keep it from being completely overrun.  These strikes were delivered by a six-ship flight of Spads that included Bernie Fisher and his wingman "Jump" Myers.  Fisher and the Air Commandos had been over the camp the day before, and for his actions on the 9th he would be awarded the Silver Star.  But this was a new day, filled with new possibilities - almost all of them bad.

It was a dismal, misty, rainy day in the A Shau valley, and the ceiling was less than 800 feet.  The Spads were delivering their ordnance in passes so low that the NVA gunners were actually firing down at them.  Almost inevitably, one of them got Myers.  Too low to jump out, and even if he could somehow bail out and survive, he would find himself on the ground surrounded by thousands of North Vietnamese infantryman.  When POW is the BEST possible outcome you can imagine, you switch to Plan B.  That's what Jump Myers did.  He made a desperate, wheels-up belly landing on the airstrip right outside the camp's perimeter.

Remote airstrips like the one at the A Shau Camp were set up quickly using "PSP", perforated steel plates that locked together to form a strong, smooth runway surface.  This one, however, had been in the midst of a major battle for days, and was pockmarked with shell craters and littered with debris, notably from a resupply plane that had been blown up on the strip a few days earlier, but also, now, with pieces and chunks of Jump Myers' crash-landing Skyraider.  The big fighter skidded to a halt, smoking, and Major Myers jumped out and ran toward the camp.  He was immediately targeted by the NVA soldiers, so he took cover behind a berm at the edge of the runway.  Behind him was the camp, fighting desperately to avoid being overrun.  Two hundred yards across the runway was the North Vietnamese Army.

A few hundred feet above, his fellow airman watched this all play out.  Fisher set up his top cover, keeping the remaining A1s circling tightly overhead, making gun runs to keep the NVA at bay.  The pilots were quickly informed that the rescue helos were a half hour out.  The problem with that was that Myers wasn't likely to survive another ten minutes in his situation.  This was the moment when choices had to be made.

The pilots could never be faulted for doing their best to protect their downed compatriot, making gun passes until they ran out of ammunition and then continuing to make low passes to try to buy that precious thirty minutes.  But courage, and love, and loyalty and adrenaline and commitment and who knows what other ingredients creates a witches brew that can produce acts of unbelievable valor.  Fisher told the other Spad Drivers he was going to land on the airstrip and pick up Myers.  The hardest choice imaginable, and he made it almost without thought.

By that time there were fresh warplanes arriving on the scene, and the local air controller kept them coming in a continuous stream, pounding the far side of the airstrip with bombs, guns and even napalm, while Fisher circled over the camp, turned up wind, and lined up for the hardest landing of his flying career.  But the wind was blowing smoke from the buring camp and the napalm across the airstrip, and by the time he had a clear view he was halfway down the runway.  Fisher pushed on power, and S-Turned at the end of the valley, coming back the other way to set up his landing.  At the threshhold he cut his throttle and dropped the big plane onto the battered runway.  Enemy small arms fire started hitting the aircraft immediately, as he delicately worked the brakes to steer around the worst of the holes and pieces of metal.  When he managed to get the Skyraider stopped - well past the end of the runway - he hit the throttle and stood on the left rudder, spinning the plane around and taxied almost the entire length of the airstrip - under heavy fire - to where Myers was crouched.  The Skyraider version the Air Commandos flew was the A1E, which had two seats side by side rather than the A1H "Sandy" single-seat version.  Fisher grabbed Myers by the seat of his flightsuit and dragged him into the cockpit head first.  They continued to take ground fire until they disappeared into the clouds.

Even at that very moment, after three days of fire and blood, the A Shau Camp was falling.  The defenders had pulled back to a single bunker and fought for their lives, but the camp was overrun by 11am and the Green Berets called for evacuation.  The evacuation was hard, ugly and chaotic, with two HH-43 Helos lost and more American airman dead and wounded.  By mid-afternoon, the camp was abandoned and the NVA had won, although, typically of modern warfare, at horrific cost of almost a thousand casualties.

How do you explain what Bernie Fisher did that morning in the Central Highlands?  How do you rationalize a decision to put everything you will ever be on the line, not to kill the enemy, not to 'win', however you define that, but just to rescue one man you care so deeply about there are not words to speak it?  How do you know when the risk is too high, when the effort is pointless, or when the choice is really no choice at all?  Heroism, ultimately, isn't about fighting, or about winning.  It's about making the choice to do something crazy, maybe even stupid, to stand between your friends and their certain death.  THAT'S what Audie Murphy did, that's what Gordon and Shughart did in Mogadishu, and above all, that's what Bernie Fisher did that dark grey day in the A Shau Valley.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Real Gunfighters - Clyde Barrow & the BAR

Coulda been me - just that close
I wanted to write a post about the Browning Automatic Rifle.  The first American Squad Automatic Weapon, designed by John Moses Browning, the patron saint of firearms with a hundred year lifespan, the BAR was a man-portable machine gun that could be carried and fired by a single infantryman.  It fired a ferociously powerful .30-06 round and was more than sufficient for providing fire support for a small unit maneuvering to close with the enemy.

But here's the thing - for all it's history, the BAR is inextricably tied up with one of the greatest and most notorious gunfighters in American history, Clyde Barrow.  You can't paint Clyde with the same 'bloodthirsty thug' or 'mindless criminal' label that so many of his peers earned in spades.  Where Dillinger wasn't a fighter at all, and Nelson and Floyd used brutality and savagery above weapons and tactics, Clyde Barrow was something apart.  He fought to maintain his freedom, using his weapons almost exclusively against armed opponents.  Now it's true that he was a "bad guy" and the lawmen he shot it out with time and time again were nominally the "good guys", but those distinctions could get a little fuzzy in the depression and dustbowl era Midwest.

The BAR was a unique kind of hybrid, a full power .30 caliber rifle that fired full automatic, or maybe a limited capacity machine gun that, instead of being belt fed, fired full power rounds from a 20 round magazine.  However you looked at it philosophically, it was simply the most devastating weapon that could be fielded and operated by a single individual at the time. In combat it was impossible to counter, and in America, in battles with the law enforcement agents of the day, it was the closest thing you can imagine to a nuclear weapon.  It gave Clyde Barrow an overwhelming firepower advantage no matter how many cops he was facing.  And make no mistake, Clyde fought cops - he wasn't one to shoot civilians or seek bloodshed - but he wasn't going to be taken without a fight, and in those few months in '33 and '34, that became clear to all, even without Bonnie's poetry to drive it home.

The thing is, Clyde put more thought into his weapons and tactics than his peers did, and more than most of his opposition.  The fad was the Tommy Gun, and sure, you could do worse, but Clyde knew something that other gangsters and many cops either didn't grasp or managed to overlook.  The thing about killing is that it's not about guns, but rather about bullets.  The legendary Thompson Submachine Gun, for all its cachet, fired a pistol round, the .45 ACP.  And Clyde understood at his core that the only thing pistols were good for was fighting your way to your rifle.  You might look cool with a Thompson, but you can shoot your way out of trouble with a BAR.

But Clyde didn't stop there.  He created the 'Whippet Gun', so called because you could just "whip it out" when nobody knew you had it.  He took a BAR, cut down the stock, sawed off the barrel to about sixteen inches, and screwed a leather sling to the back of the stock.  The idea was you could hang it over your shoulder under a jacket, barrel down along your side.  And at the first sign of trouble you could swing it up and send 20 rounds of 7.62×63mm full-power rounds downrange in about three seconds.

Clyde's Famous Whippet Gun
The BAR was both an important step in the evolution of automatic weapons and a touchstone of American history.  You can't watch the first fifteen minutes of "Saving Private Ryan" without being confronted by it's incredible combination of portability, usability and devastating firepower. But for me, it's a smaller, more intimate part of our collective history and guilt.  The weapon that defined an outlaw who took his profession seriously enough to understand that guns aren't for looking at, they're for winning fights, and Clyde won a helluva lot more fights than he lost.  It's interesting to note that when Frank Hamer's posse finally found themselves face to face with the notorious gunfighter in Bienville Parish Louisiana in late May of 1934, they used their own custom BARs in .35 Remington, firing more than 120 rounds from ambush, hitting the young couple with more than fifty rounds and killing them instantly.

There are lessons to be learned here, one large, and one small.  The large lesson is that when they come to take your life, it is a fight, and you don't have to concede.  You just don't have to quit fighting, ever, and sometimes things work out.  The smaller lesson is that it pays to be practical, to think beyond the fads of the day, to work to understand what works and what doesn't, and just because the conventional wisdom is pointing one way, start at the other end, think about what it will take to accomplish your goals, and equip yourself accordingly.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Government Surveillance - You Don't Have to Close Your Eyes and Think of England

Computers are tremendously powerful tools. Modern computers, even tablets and smartphones, have more compute power than you could put on a desktop a dozen years ago.  They are, it must be remembered, platforms for running software, nothing more or less than a system that can execute any code that can be developed for them.  The NSA exploits the power and flexibility of modern hardware and Operating Systems to intercept, capture, store, sort and query your digital communications.  Programs like PRISM, XKeyscore and Tempora are nothing more than stacks of software systems and hardware platforms designed to manipulate digital data.

But wait - what's that thing on your desk?  It's also a computer, isn't it?  You are not helpless - you just need to educate yourself. You have the compute power and digital resources to resist, and even defeat the most sophisticated government surveillance, but you need to educate yourself and gather a few basic tools.  Nothing is certain in this world, but if you are uncomfortable with the idea that the US government is capturing and perhaps analyzing your communications and Internet activity, you should at least try to protect yourself.

The first thing you need to do is understand that digital communications and Internet activity are two different things. You can't conceal your web searches and site visits, so the best solution is to find a way to decouple those activities from your identity.  The fast and free solution is to use TOR.  TOR stands for The Onion Router and is designed to conceal your IP address and substitute it with a randomized address - the NSA will still capture your traffic, but nothing in those packets will connect it with you.  TOR works by stripping the identifying information from the packets it receives and then bouncing that traffic around a random set of member routers.  No one, not even the people who run TOR, knows where it will emerge.  When it does, it will appear that the packets originated at that TOR exit point, with no remaining data that can be used to forensically trace them back to their actual source.

It was just revealed that the TOR Browser Bundle was hacked - exploiting a vulnerability in Firefox - by the FBI, apparently with a technical assist from the NSA.  The vulnerability has been patched - just make sure you get the current version of the TOR bundle.  Firefox represents the weak link in the TOR bundle, but there's hope on the way. Jason Geffner announced a new TOR tool, Tortilla, at the BlackHat InfoSec conference last week.  Tortilla provides a secure, anonymous means of routing TCP and DNS traffic through Tor regardless of client software and without the need for a VPN or secure tunnel.  It's open source, so implementations should start to appear for your platform of choice soon.

Anonymizing solutions are great for protecting the privacy of your web browsing, but obviously aren't a viable solution for communications.  In order to protect your files and messages, you have to encrypt. The amazing thing is that encryption tools, even the free ones available to you today, are so powerful that, used correctly, it would take even the NSA thousands of years to decrypt a single email message.  You can use the free, open source Truecrypt software to encrypt your files, folders and even whole disks, both on your local network storage and in the cloud.  Email encryption requires that both the sender and recipient have the public key for the message, which causes people to think it's "too hard" to encrypt emails.  But if it's not every bit as important to the recipient to maintain the privacy of the communication, then you should think very carefully about what information you want to send them.

An easy solution is for you and your contacts to use Hushmail.  A free service, Hushmail encrypts the email on their server, transfers it using TLS protocols and allows the recipient to decrypt it.  It is considered secure from capture by intelligence agencies and hackers, but the company does acknowledge they will respond to court orders (they are in Canada, not the US, for what that's worth).  Beyond that, get started with one of the OpenPGP/GPG platforms, get a key pair and start protecting your messages.

These tools and solutions are anything but breaking news to the people who have been professionally at odds with government surveillance for years.  Whether journalists, whistleblowers, dissidents, criminals, terrorists or hackers, the basic tradecraft for secure digital communications is part of life for them. But that means all these tools are available to you - at whatever level you feel that you should resist.  Bear in mind that Apple, Microsoft and Google all provide your information to the government without telling you - ask yourself how confident you feel using their core operating system platforms.  There are alternatives, alternatives we KNOW do not contain back doors or government connections because anyone can freely parse the source code.  So bear in mind that if your Operating System provider is compromised, nothing you can do will protect you - they are capturing your data as you create and download it, before you can take any steps to protect yourself.

The bottom line is simply this: if you feel that the revelations about NSA spying on American's digital communications is an unacceptable and extra-constitutional intrusion on your privacy, and you regularly say so and express outrage at these clear examples of government over-reach, and then you do NOTHING to protect your digital communications from interception and compromise, you are a fraud and a hypocrite.  Yes, it DOES mean you're going to have to learn some new technologies and understand a little more deeply how to implement secure communication protocols.  If you "don't have time" or "can't be arsed", then fine, accept that you are sharing your life with the US Government and whoever they care to share it with, and shut up about it.

There's a ton of information at  Use it or don't - it's up to you.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Greatest American Hero You've Never Heard Of...

Quick - who's the all time greatest American Fighter Ace?  That's a question that will stump most people.  Some might guess - Eddie Rickenbacker or Chuck Yeager, maybe Pappy Boyington or Gabby Gabreski.  But very few will come up with the name Richard Bong.  There are a few reasons for that - Major Bong didn't live to see the end of the war (although he wasn't killed in combat - more on that in a bit) and he flew land-based P-38s in the Southwest Pacific theater rather than in the classic single-engine fighters in the more highly glamorized air battles over Europe.  Bong had 40 confirmed air-to-air kills, the most of any American pilot in history, but far less than the leading German and Japanese aces.  It is interesting to note that America's second highest scoring fighter ace, Tommy McGuire, also flew P-38s in the Southwest Pacific.

Richard Bong was, above all, a consummate pilot.  He wanted to fly from his childhood, growing up in Wisconsin, and before he ever enlisted was enrolled in the Civilian Pilot Training Program, a WWII era government funded program to increase the available stock of trained pilots. As a personal aside, my father was also trained in the CPTP, and in 1940 his entire graduating class elected to go to England and join the RAF to fight in the Battle of Britain.  My father eventually decided to stay in the US and marry my mom, while every other member of his class was dead before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

After enlistment, in the summer of 1942, Bong was assigned to the 49th Fighter Squadron, training in the P-38 Lightning at Hamilton AFB in North Marin County, California, about a mile from where I grew up.  The quintessential hotshot fighter pilot, he almost didn't get the chance to fight, after being severely disciplined for buzzing a friends house in San Anselmo, flying down Market Street in San Francisco below the roofs of the buildings, and most famously, flying UNDER the Golden Gate Bridge.  He was eventually officially reprimanded by General Kenney, who told him "If you didn't want to fly down Market Street, I wouldn't have you in my Air Force, but you are not to do it any more and I mean what I say."

The unusual thing about Bong was that, unlike so many other Americans who had grown up hunting and shooting, he was famously terrible at gunnery.  But he was such a remarkably superior pilot that he made up for that deficiency by maneuvering so close to the Japanese aircraft that even he couldn't miss.  A number of times his Lightening was actually damaged by the pieces coming off the disintegrating Japanese fighter.

In most other militaries, the best and most skilled pilots were in it for the duration, being considered irreplacable at the front.  Hence the German and Japanese pilots flew combat constantly for years, and the ones that survived long enough ran up impressive scores.  But American doctrine was to rotate their most successful combat veterans home, both for public relations purposes and, more importantly, to make certain that the lessons they learned in fire and blood were passed along to the next generation of fighter pilots.

In May, 1944, with 28 confirmed kills, Bong had surpassed the former American ace-of-aces, Eddie Rickenbacker, who had 26 kills in World War One.  As America's combat rockstar, he was rotated back to the US for a War Bonds tour.  In September, he was sent back to New Guinea, as a staff officer with V Fighter Command, an executive, not a combat role.  Nonetheless he still flew missions regularly, and racked up another 12 kills over the Philippines.  In December, General MacArthur awarded Major Richard Bong the Congressional Medal of Honor and sent him home for good.  America's top ace had 40 confirmed kills. McGuire was still in action in the Philippines with 38 victories, but before he could surpass Bong's score, on January 7th, he would die in aerial combat over Los Negros Island.

Meanwhile, Richard Bong settled into life on the home front.  He married his college sweetheart and went to work as a test pilot at Lockheed Burbank, flying the P-80 jet fighter.  On August 6th, the same day that the US dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Major Richard Ira Bong was killed when his P-80 crashed in North Hollywood shortly after takeoff.

Humans are inveterate score keepers.  Whether it is our competitive streak or a compulsion for record keeping, we have always indulged in this kind of quantitative measurement.  Ultimately, it doesn't mean a great deal - wars are not won by individuals, and a few hundred air-to-air victories one way or the other would have no bearing on the outcome.  But in some cases where success and survival depends on a few measurable skills, it becomes a much more important exercise to identify those individuals who, for whatever reason, are the masters of a violent and unforgiving environment.  And thus, at the end of an era the likes of which we'll never see again, we can arrive at an informed conclusion about who was the greatest of them all.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Dune as a Mirror on Tactical Doctrine

Admiral Yamamoto wants a do-over
I'm an unabashed fan of Frank Herbert's Dune. I'm fascinated by the construction of an entire, completely plausible universe with an understanding of politics, religion and economics.  One of the things that makes Herbert's Dune universe work is a specific set of technological assumptions that channeled the options for conflict in specific directions.  The use of  personal shields precludes guns - so called 'projectile weapons' - along with directed energy weapons like lasers.  Each feudal House had a stockpile of nuclear weapons - the 'Family Atomics" - but, just as with the world we have lived in for the last sixty years, the use of these weapons is impossible because every scenario for their deployment leads to the destruction of modern civilization.

So conflicts in the Dune universe are limited to a very specialized form of edged weapons combat and various kinds of skulduggery and poison.  The idea is that you learn to do a few very unusual, highly specialized things in order to win in single combat, and those that are truly gifted and perfect these otherwise arbitrary skills become the legendary warriors of their time, the Duncan Idaho of their cohort.

There are genuinely fascinating parallels between that sort of specifically limited combat options and the once-in-a-species experience of air-to-air combat in WWII.  The required skills seem obvious - airmanship, tactics and gunnery.  But this was both simpler, and infinitely more complex.  High speed individual combat in 3 dimensions, spatial awareness, understanding both the capabilities and limitations of your aircraft, your weapons and your colleagues.  Early in the war the most gifted warriors in this unprecedented form of single combat learned things like 'Never turn with a Zero' and developed a life-preserving tactic called the 'Thatch Weave'.

When you think about it, this set of highly specialized skills only had salience for a few years in the mid twentieth century.  There were air-to-air battles in Korea and Vietnam, but they were much different, performed at higher speeds and mediated by greater technology than the earlier fights that were truly dependent upon the capabilities of the humans at the controls. Indeed, in both the European and Pacific theaters, the Axis loss of trained, experienced fighter pilots was the decisive consideration - training is great, but in order to succeed you needed people who could survive long enough to learn how to fight in this very specific kind of battle.  And it took both good airframe design and a real focus on air-sea rescue that could keep the best pilots in the fight.

It's hard to overstate how odd and time-specific this type of warfare actually was.  You have to go back to the medieval knights to find a time when individual, one-on-one combat had a place in a larger military campaign.  There's a great deal of discussion around the glory and honor of air-to-air combat - I'll leave that judgement to the reader - but the fact remains that you have to have such an odd technological and geopolitical balance in order to ever utilize that kind of combat at all.  Ultimately, it's a technological battle - the Mustang, Thunderbolt, Corsair and Hellcat gave the Americans a real qualitative advantage no matter what other factors you measure, but it still only took one mistake in tactics, one error in energy management or one lapse in judgement or awareness and you would lose to a technologically weaker foe.  It's another similarity to the medieval knights - a better horse could still stumble - or the Dune universe, where a better fighter could make a simple tactical error and pay the ultimate price for doing so.

The last hundred years has seen the technological evolution of warfare - from the repeating rifle to air power to missiles and nuclear weapons - that has resulted in the geopolitical stalemate we're seeing all over the world.  But it has, for brief periods, produced some tremendously odd forms of warfare that we see as normal, but when viewed in a larger context are simply highly specialized manifestations of the current status of technology as applied to human conflict.  And when viewed through that lens, the accelerating nature of technology can be expected to continue to be disruptive to all the best-laid plans of Admirals, Generals and Joint Chiefs all over the globe.  From ballistic missiles reducing the forward role of aircraft carriers to unmanned combat aircraft limiting the natural inhibition to attack, warfare is getting smaller, closer and more personal after a century of huge armies and continental battlefronts.  Just like Frank Herbert presented in Dune, advancing technology can actually make warfare more personal, and more dependent on a few individual's skills.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Guns Before Guns Were Cool...

In the days before movie and teevee gun fetish, there was the anti-gun, a gun carried by characters who's focus wasn't on gunfighting, and yet who somehow mastered the ability to deploy this farcical toy in real world confrontations in order to dominate the situation and kill (or wound) the enemy in one climactic scene after another.  From Inspector Erskine of The FBI to Mike Stone in Streets of San Francisco to Barney Miller and Maxwell Smart, the snub .38 was both the easy to carry gun for detectives and some kind of magical ender-of-fights when the plot called for a denouement.

Whether the classic Colt Detective Special, the aluminum frame Smith & Wesson Airweight or the tiny five-shot Chief's Special, these were small frame revolvers chambered in .38 Special, with short barrels, round butts and often a bobbed or shrouded hammer.  The reality is that the .38 Snubby was the gun you carried if your job required you to carry a gun but you never really expected to have to use it.  It was the classic "belly gun" of the streets, not something that could not be shot accurately, but rather intended to be used at contact distances.  Tactical doctrine was simple - you pulled it from concealment, pressed it against your foe and squeezed the trigger.

Out of a 2" barrel, the low-velocity .38s were not ballistically impressive.  There would be no expansion, very little penetration - indeed, both car windshields and heavy winter overcoats tended to provide sufficient protection against this round - and the standard load, the 158gr LSWC was unlikely to stop a determined attacker.  This was a gun for people who didn't care about guns, for people who never even thought about guns.  This was a "gun" in the most generic terms, intended to remain in a well worn leather holster over a 20 year career, fired at the range four or five times a year, and passed on to a son at the end of a life of service to one's community.

Make no mistake - the .38 Snub of the mid-twentieth century was a lethal weapon, and took a lot of lives.  But contrast it with the iconic handguns of the current era.  From Sonny Crockett's Bren Ten to the Beretta 92F carried by Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon to Raylan Givens' Glock. These are not as much lawmen as gunfighters, and they pay infinitely more attention to the tools of their 'trade' than their predecessors.  Those earlier cops would have been a little embarrassed at that kind of attention paid to their gun.  Carrying it was part of their job, part of their uniform, part of their daily life, but shooting it certainly was not.  They represented the image of the cop-as-crime solver, not the kind of cop-as-warrior gunfighter we have grown so comfortable with today.

Today, sitting in a restaurant having lunch, we think nothing of local cops coming in dressed in tactical gear, pants bloused into their boots, ballcap and sunglasses, tactical holster slung low on their thigh, tac vest with STANAG mag pouches and a bundle of flex-cuffs on their belt.  These are men (and women) who are entirely conversant in the use and capabilities of their weapons.  They are not the people who would have clipped a .38 snub on their belt and gone to another day at the office.

I guess I will leave the question of whether we are better or worse off for this development as an exercise for the reader.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Syria Impossible

And a Cocktail
Two things are absolutely true about Syria's political future.  First, Bashar al-Assad's Alawite Ba'ath regime cannot be permitted to retain power.  His brutal slaughter of his own people, his contempt for their ideological and economic aspirations and his refusal to permit any kind of political process, even to the point of mass murder has stripped his government and his party of all legitimacy.  Secondly, at the same time, the greatest risk to regional peace is the fall of al-Assad's government.  At that point a bloody civil war becomes a horrific free-for-all, with each faction, bolstered or resisted by the rump loyalist military and their massive weapons stockpiles, will turn its guns on all the others. Local nations from Qatar and Saudi Arabia to Turkey and Jordan to Iran and Iraq will rush in to try to put a lid on the wildfire ignited by a true leadership vacuum in Damascus, and the stage will be set for a regional war.  Meanwhile, the US, NATO, Russia and China stand poised just outside the war zone, armed to the teeth and prepared to protect their "interests", however they choose to define them.

In a sense, al-Assad is serving as a stabilizing force, keeping the outsiders out and limiting the scope of the war to a fairly simple to understand two-sided civil war.  About the only thing that Islamists, Secularists, Christians, Kurds, Communists and Sunnis agree on is that the Ba'ath loyalist regime and their Shi'ite supporters are the enemy.  As soon as there is no loyalist regime, that one point of concurrence will have been eliminated and blood will spill everywhere.  It's not even clear that there is a basis for any of the factions to work together with any of the others, and to whatever extent 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend' comes into play it will be a temporary truce - every small victory resulting in a realignment of factions and targets.

These sorts of wars are what you have in a world with superpowers, nuclear weapons, resource wealth and instant global communications. Nationalist factions no longer necessarily hold sway, and many of the organized groups fighting these conflicts have priorities above and beyond the establishment or preservation of a nation.  There are ethnic, tribal and sectarian groups fighting for primacy and economic dominance more than anything else, and as Afghanistan so graphically demonstrates, holding political power in the Capitol is meaningless in the larger context of the conflict.

In the '90s during the Balkan wars we all became familiar with the term "ethnic cleansing", as it became the poster child for these kinds of sub-national and trans-national wars that are now the norm, to the point where they are the only kinds of wars that are even possible.  With the dominance of air power, satellite surveillance and long range missiles it has become impossible to put an army in the field and fight a conventional maneuver war to take  and hold territory.  So the only possible end-game for these modern conflicts where multiple factions fight for varying goals might be some kind of voluntary division of territory that allows the factions to stand up a community and a government in their own vision.  There is, of course, so much wrong with this approach that it probably can't even begin to work - which territory has the resources, which governments treat their people in an unacceptable fashion, how to prevent border wars from breaking out constantly - but what people are demonstrating clearly is that they simply cannot find it possible to live alongside one another in a diverse population, tolerating the differences in ideology and religious beliefs in the name of peace and prosperity.

So we conclude that it is unacceptable for Bashar al-Assad to remain in power in Syria, and that it is unacceptable for Bashal al-Assad's regime to fall.  Thirty years ago in the movie "War Games", the computer Joshua observed:

"A strange game. The only winning move is not to play."

Worth thinking very seriously about today.


Thursday, June 13, 2013

Weapons Not Food Not Homes Not Shoes

Maybe they could use some cool uniforms
Nobody has any idea what to do about Syria.  People who offer sage counsel are either lying to promote an agenda or are utterly delusional and you should run from them as fast as you can.  In general, it's a civil war where neither side can win and neither side can quit. In specific, there are many more than two sides, each with a different vision for Syrian post-war society, and none with any historical or ideological ability to compromise.  On a larger level, the conflict is spreading and metastasizing, dragging in Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Turkey and Iran.  This is quite possibly the root of the "regional conflagration" people have feared in the Mideast since the end of WWII.

Intervention is a non-starter.  Western military power could certainly tilt the balance in one direction or another, but that wouldn't end the fighting - very likely NOTHING can end the fighting.  Certainly there's no military path to peace, or even a stable Syrian government.  Negotiations aren't viable because the al-Assad government cannot accept the primary rebel demand - if they step down they'll either be tried for war crimes or murdered outright.  And with 100,000 dead and millions immiserated, the sectarian and ideological hate will not be affected by a signed agreement.

But nonetheless, in capitols all over the world politicians squirm, and feel a powerful drive to "do something", urged on by pundits with clean hands and dirty souls who know no compunction when it comes to destroying lives violently and on an industrial scale.  So it becomes a political calculation.  How to achieve political goals without getting ensnared in an endless, increasingly sectarian conflict with no viable way to define 'victory' and no end-game.

There is an easy answer, a short-cut that, in the manner of 'prayer', allows nations to do claim to be doing something without actually doing anything at all.  That is the historically popular and effectively meaningless strategy of arming the rebels.  Let's be clear - the rebels HAVE arms.  They have fought the Syrian army to a standstill over two years despite having a qualitative disadvantage in battlefield weaponry.  Why?  Because they are rebels.  It's a matter of ambushes and bombs, short sharp firefights and controlling crossroads to control territory.  It's sniper rifles and IEDs, PKM machine guns and some of the infinite supply of Kalashnikovs in which the continent is awash.

The arms calculation is ultimately simple. It is as it was in Libya, as it might have been in Tunisia and Egypt, as it will be in Iran and Bahrain and Saudi when their turn comes.  The regime loses people, and weapons, and territory, but holds on by dint of three things: Air Power, Armor and Artillery.  The regime equips its most loyal troops with heavy weapons, and deploys them against the rebels in population centers in a kind of collective punishment that is designed to chill support for the rebels while punishing anyone in proximity to them.

But here's the real question.  What are you going to give them that might make some kind of difference?  The challenge is Air, Armor and Artillery. You can't really give a rebel army tanks, and if you give them artillery or vehicles they are only vulnerable to air attack.  Of course, you could give them shoulder-fired MANPADS air defense systems to protect these assets, but if you're worried about terrorists that is pretty much the LAST weapon system you want to put into circulation.  So the question that needs to be asked - and nobody seems to be asking - is what weapons, and why?  What is the goal?  Because if you just give one side enough firepower to stay on the battlefield, you've done nothing more than extend the conflict, and increase the suffering.  The idea behind intervention in a civil war is to make that intervention decisive, and if it can't be decisive, it's probably pointless.

There are things the rebels could make great use of, certainly, but they are all small-bore, incremental options, nothing sexy or impressive enough for the mouth-breathers and grandstanders in the US Congress, not to mention the various EU Capitals. Digital communications gear, night vision equipment, possibly even something as mundane as boots and body armor.  For that matter, obsolete but effective weapons like 106mm Recoilless Rifles and M-72 LAWs sit in stockpiles all over the world - they could be delivered at low cost in large numbers.

To me, the only intervention worth considering in the Syrian civil war is to carve out some territory on the Turkish or Jordanian border and set up real, comprehensive refugee services.  Water, food, housing, health care and serious, committed defense against al-Assad's murderers.  Build a perimeter, defend it and try to relieve some of the suffering.  These are not your grandfather's wars.  They don't end, not for years, not for decades. There are too many '-isms' in play.  Sectarianism, nationalism, tribalism - along with layers of ideology, resource and wealth distribution and just plain hope for the future.  No one can win, and no one can quit fighting.

Dan Drezner and others float speculation that a viable explanation for an American strategy that has no upside, no benefits for US interests and only serves to widen and escalate the Syrian civil war is that it significantly ties down and weakens virtually all US/Israeli adversaries in the region, including al-Assad, Iran, Hezbollah and al Quaeda.  While it's true that this may be the result of the US and European position, I really don't want to believe that the US government would contribute to the ongoing slaughter in pursuit of such opaque and ambiguous goals.  If it is the case, however, it is a very dangerous game.  If the slaughter does create a regional sectarian conflagration, US and Israeli interests, both economic and geopolitical, are very likely to suffer some very serious setbacks.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Tradecraft in the Age of PRISM

At least they have a bad-ass logo
Verizon. PRISM. Boundless Informant.  As if someone opened up a spigot, a seemingly endless stream of revelations and disclosures of the American surveillance state arrived this week. It's way too early to figure out what it all means, or what it might lead to, but we can certainly start to arrive at a few conclusions. First, from the government/law enforcement/counter terror standpoint, it seems as silly and pointless as taking off your shoes in the airport security line.  As a purely tactical matter, using metadata around phone calls and information from internet providers like Google, Microsoft and Facebook doesn't seem shocking, novel or unusual.  It may very well be constitutionally suspect, but one has to expect government agencies to do something like this.  If I was involved in a serious criminal conspiracy, I would assume all these surveillance practices were in place, and would be very careful to avoid showing up in their analysis.

Who would actually be caught by these obvious, basic authoritarian surveillance practices? The vast majority will be innocent people, and that's where the real problem lies. Otherwise, they might be better called "The Darwinian Solution to the Problem of Stupid and Amateur Terrorists".  The solution, that is, to the extent that stupid and amateur terrorists are an actual problem.  It seems that, over the last few years, the FBI had recruited, entrapped, supplied, funded and encouraged most of the 'terrorists' they then prosecuted.  It now appears likely to me that these sort of surveillance programs are how they originally located those targets.  I'll leave it to others to decide how valuable they think a program that by definition can only catch the delusional and the rank amateur, but for me, well, I have trouble believing these programs are protecting me from much of a threat.

Real criminals and terrorists have been devising effective tradecraft counters to this kind of electronic communication surveillance for over a decade. It's worth noting that the Abottabad compound where Osama bin Laden died hard did not have an electronic connection to the outside world, and his support staff did face to face meetings, not phone calls.  The delay ('latency' in ELINT speak) was well worth it in terms of operational security.  It is well understood in these circles that government agencies often don't even try to intercept message content, not because of legal or constitutional niceties, but because real bad guys use strong encryption.  It is the meta data around those messages - call patterns, cell and network member IDs and locations that are the only available data.

Have you ever been in a poor neighborhood, pretty much anywhere in the world?  Go into a liquor store, a little bodega or a shop in a market.  You will be able to buy, for cash, prepaid cell phones, the cheap hand-helds popularized on the TV show "The Wire" as 'burners'.  They are cheap, disposable and untraceable.  If you get one of the TMobile variety, and prepay at least $100 in airtime, it will not expire for one year.  If you don't have one, well, think about it in terms of an 'investment'.  For that matter, you can buy a cheap Windows computer. If you only ever boot it from a Linux USB drive, it will look like a brand new, unused computer with all your data and history on the USB drive, which can be hidden, destroyed or tossed a lot easier than a computer can. The point is that anybody who's life, freedom or mission success is dependent on avoiding government surveillance already knows how to avoid government surveillance. The whole thing is pointless, endless and useless.

An interesting point of speculation is how these revelations happened, and why they all came to light now.  One entirely plausible thought is that the exposure of these programs was engineered by the Chinese government, just as global pique at Chinese cyber-espionage is growing into a firestorm. It may not be coincidental that this same week President Obama is meeting with President Xi - if the Chinese knew about these programs and wanted to put Obama on the cyber-defensive, this would have been a pretty good way to do it.  Apparently, the leaker fully expects to be identified and prosecuted, so we can expect to know more about this in the future.  But here's the thing - it's kind of like murder. Once you're wanted for a murder, the inhibition to commit further murders is removed.  As the old saying goes, they can only hang you once. At this point, there really is no reason why the leakers that have provided the revelations of this week shouldn't go all in with everything they can get out of the building.

One conclusion is a certainty: Your electronic documents, messages and searches are subject to government surveillance, and you really can't expect constitutional guarantees to protect them.  The fight for personal privacy in the age of the internet is over, and corporations and government won.  If you find this bothersome, there are actions you can take.  You can look for providers of internet services that are not in the US, and are not subject to the kind of coercion the NSA used against the big providers like Google, Microsoft and Apple.  You can get a VPN for a few dollars a month.  Most of all, you can encrypt.  Real Public Key encryption, done right with a large enough key, cannot be realistically cracked, even by agencies like the NSA.

So ultimately, what to think about all these revelations of government electronic surveillance?  It really doesn't matter.  As long as Congress refuses to limit the surveillance and war-making power of the Executive, and as long as the Judiciary is unwilling to aggressively protect any constitutional protections except the Second Amendment, then we have no democratic recourse.  In light of the lack of a functioning Constitutional democracy, we have a kind of hybrid-autocracy with certain kinds of freedoms but no real institutional rule of law.