Instead of realizing its own Sputnik moment, it is triggering one in China

January 19th, 2021

The US responded to the rise of the USSR and Japan by focusing on innovation, Dan Wang says, but so far the US is responding to the technological rise of China by kneecapping its leading firms:

So instead of realizing its own Sputnik moment, it is triggering one in China.

This year, the US doubled down. It produced two rounds of novel restrictions on Huawei, threatened wider restrictions on Tencent and ByteDance, forced the sale of TikTok to a US consortium, and limited technology exports on SMIC, DJI, and dozens of other companies. Aside from Alibaba, it’s hard to name many big Chinese tech firms that have not faced sanctions or the threat of one from the US.

The actual effects of these regulatory actions have been uneven. Designation to the entity list hasn’t always had a major impact on every company’s operations. Federal courts have tied up the bans on Tencent’s WeChat and ByteDance’s TikTok. At the same time, Huawei is trying to work through major difficulties, especially in its smartphone business. TikTok, China’s most successful tech export, still might be sold off. And more generally, Chinese firms are starting to be locked out of developed markets. Lack of access to the richest and most discerning consumers makes it more difficult to make the best products in the world.

The US can revel in Huawei’s pain. But its actions have not been costless to itself. By withholding components that Chinese companies have relied upon, the US government has turned American firms into unreliable suppliers. These restrictions can sometimes block non-American firms from making sales too. In an extraordinary assertion of extraterritoriality, the US declared in August that any company, anywhere in the world, needs to apply for a license to sell a product to Huawei if it is produced on the basis of US technologies.

Nothing can be easier to destroy than trust. Chinese companies have responded by de-Americanizing their supply chains because they have no choice. US politicians can observe the sometimes-devastating impacts of sanctions. What they don’t seem to realize — or want to believe — is that they’re simultaneously pummeling the American brand writ large. I’ve documented for Dragonomics the uncomfortable questions American companies tell me they’re starting to face on whether they can credibly be long-term suppliers. Elsewhere, the Economist has reported that even poultry farmers in China are wondering if they’ll be able to import baby chicks from the US. And there are now multiple reported instances of Japanese companies marketing themselves as more reliable than their American competitors. Moreover, I hear growing unease from companies in the rest of Asia and Europe on buying American. Can everyone really be sure that this denial campaign will be limited to a handful of bad Chinese actors? Or is a better model of the US government that once it has found a fun new toy, it will keep playing with it until it is no longer fun?

With these regulations, the US has initiated one of the greatest and strangest antitrust actions ever, against potentially all American exporters. The US Treasury has for years expressed worry about the potential decline of the dollar’s dominance following excessive use of blocking sanctions. This fear is turning into reality for the real economy. One might expect alarm bells to be going off in DC, but it doesn’t appear that there’s much pushback against these regulations, except for murmurs from trade associations. It’s possible to defend these moves as correct — for example by justifying that the costs on American firms are worth it for the chance to slow Huawei down right now — but the government does not appear to have had a vigorous debate about the tradeoffs. Instead, the strategy seems to be a result of bureaucratic kludges, pushed forward by whichever faction has the upper hand, made mostly because the financial sanctions office has resisted dealing a serious blow to Huawei in a single stroke.

For the most part, the control hawks faction of the government has had a run of the table, shown by the fact that US agencies have been more focused on taking down Chinese firms than extending US strengths. At a time when it’s more important than ever to advance its semiconductor companies, the government is crippling their sales to their largest or fastest-growing market. When research capabilities at US universities need to grow, the government is denying them students. And when the US should be attracting more talent to its shores, the government has made it more difficult for people to immigrate. Thus the US looks committed to a strategy to destroy the scientific and industrial establishment in order to save it.

Meanwhile in China, these actions have triggered a surge of interest in mastering technology. For the first time arguably since the industrial rise of Japan in the 1950s, a major country is committed to thinking deeply about the invention of its own tooling. A whole generation of scientists and engineers must examine foundational problems like to build leading tools (like lithography machines) and create the best materials (like wafers and chemicals). And the state is fully behind that effort. After steady calls from Xi throughout the year to master technology, the Central Economic Work Conference announced in December that science and technology work will be the top priority in 2021; the conference has never broken science and technology out as an independent item, never mind give it top spot.

In open battle no amount of savage cunning could substitute for firepower

January 18th, 2021

More than once, T. R. Fehrenbach notes (in This Kind of War), the world has seen an American army rise from its own ashes, reorient itself, and grow hard, bitter, knowledgeable, disciplined, and tough:

They had learned the Chinese could be cunning, but also stupid. Failing to meet quick success, he could not change his plan. Often he continued an operation long after it had turned into disaster, wasting thousands of his troops. Lacking air cover, artillery, and armor, his hordes of riflemen could be — and were — slaughtered, as the Eighth Army learned to roll with the punches and to strike back hard.

Again and again, with the prodigal use of men, he could crack the U.N. line at a given point. But the men at the point had learned to hold, inflicting terrible losses, and even if the line gave, the Chinese could not exploit, while U.N. reinforcements, mechanized, rushed to deploy in front of them and to their flanks.

In the terrain of South Korea, battle was more open, and in open battle no amount of savage cunning could substitute for firepower.

China is the country with the most can-do spirit in the world

January 17th, 2021

This convinced Dan Wang that China is the country with the most can-do spirit in the world:

Every segment of society mobilized to contain the pandemic. One manufacturer expressed astonishment to me at how slowly western counterparts moved. US companies had to ask whether making masks aligned with the company’s core competence. Chinese companies simply decided that making money is their core competence, and therefore they should be making masks. The State Council reported that between March and May, China exported 70 billion masks and nearly 100,000 ventilators. Some of these masks had problems early on, but the manufacturers learned and fixed them or were culled by regulatory action, and China’s exports were able to grow when no one else could restart production. Soon enough, masks were big enough to be seen in the export data.

It’s obvious that the authorities in Wuhan screwed up big, but it’s also the case that the central government organized an effective response to virus containment. It’s not just the manufacturers: the consumer internet companies leapt into action in a way that their US peers did not. Francis Fukuyama states that high-trust societies have “spontaneous sociability,” in which people are able to organize more quickly, initiate action, and sacrifice for the common good. On each of these metrics, I submit that China should receive high marks.

As every discussion on China grows more strident, and as every proposition about it has to be vested with sentiment, I submit that it’s all the more important to be able to see things as they are. That entails having coming to terms not just with a rise of its repressive capabilities, but also with its growing commercial and institutional strengths. US elites have abandoned the idea that China would liberalize nicely. They should put another idea to bed: that this authoritarian system, riddled with weaknesses, is on the brink of collapse. The country’s strengths are real and improving while the government becomes more nasty towards its critics and the rest of the world.

[...]

It’s difficult to draw a clear line from tighter speech restrictions to worse economic outcomes. Greater censorship over the last decade has coincided with still-impressive levels of economic growth as well as the growing competitiveness of many more companies. And I think it’s worth considering that the authoritarianism of the late-Prussian and early-German state coincided with the creation of the modern research university as well as fantastic advances in chemistry, physics, and electrical engineering.

But there’s more on-the-ground evidence that ordinary people are growing nervous. In so many settings, one has to tread on eggshells in a public discussion in China, with organizers taking pains to remind audience members of sensitivities. Sometimes even in private, people beg off with an embarrassed laugh that they can’t discuss a subject due to unspecified difficulties. WeChat blocks sensitive keywords, which today includes “decoupling” and “sanctions.” It’s now inconvenient to use the app for professional conversations, and I’ve been pretty insistent to my contacts to use Signal instead. And since I brought up Germany, I wonder if the right analogy for China today is as a successful East Germany.

The Army needed legions, but society didn’t want them

January 16th, 2021

Korea was the kind of war, T. R. Fehrenbach says (in This Kind of War), that since the dawn of history was fought by professionals — by legions:

It was fought by men who soon knew they had small support or sympathy at home, who could read in the papers statements by prominent men that they should be withdrawn. It was fought by men whom the Army — at its own peril — had given neither training nor indoctrination, nor the hardness and bitter pride men must have to fight a war in which they do not in their hearts believe.

The Army needed legions, but society didn’t want them. It wanted citizen-soldiers.

[...]

No one has suggested that perhaps there should be two sets of rules, one for the professional Army, which may have to fight in far places, without the declaration of war, and without intrinsic belief in the value of its dying, for reasons of policy, chessmen on the checkerboard of diplomacy; and one for the high-minded, enthusiastic, and idealistic young men who come aboard only when the ship is sinking.

The other answer is to give up Korea-type wars, and to surrender great-power status, and a resultant hope of order — our own decent order — in the world. But America is rich and fat and very, very noticeable in this world.

It is a forlorn hope that we should be left alone.

The Trump Reality Distortion field doesn’t extend that far

January 15th, 2021

Trump pushed his luck one last time, Steve Sailer notes, by inviting a big crowd of Trump die-hards to Washington DC to serve as a cheering backdrop for his Power of Positive Thinking fantasy of a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington ending;

Now obviously, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington wasn’t going to happen. The Trump Reality Distortion field doesn’t extend that far.

But why did Trump’s Luck fail him so ignominiously as having part of his crowd that he foresaw as an applauding audience turn into the mob that forced its way into the Capitol?

For one reason, there’s a selection effect between Trump going to a Trump rally in the hinterlands and Trump calling one last rally in DC: when Trump goes to his supporters, they are the salt of the earth.

But when he calls for his supporters to come to him from all across the country, the cost of travel is selecting for more extremism. So he winds up with a crowd that consists of tens of thousands of law-abiding citizens, a few thousand adventurers who are up for taking selfies inside the Capitol, a few hundred street brawlers up for for a good old fight shoving and bashing their way in, and few dozen real crazies who might or might not have done some very bad things if they’d got their hands on political enemies.

The war was over, and every man coming in knew it

January 14th, 2021

The Army could have fought World War III in 1950, T. R. Fehrenbach says (in This Kind of War), but it could not fight Korea:

As a case in point, take the experiences of one platoon sergeant in Fort Lewis, Washington. During the big war he had held sway over a platoon of seventy-two enlisted men. The platoon was his to run; the officers rarely came around the barracks.

The platoon sergeant was a reasonable man, in charge of reasonable men, who knew why they were in the Army. Their average age was thirty-two; one-fourth of them, roughly, were college trained. Almost all of them were skilled, in one trade or another.

This kind of man cannot be made to dig a six-by-six hole to bury a carelessly dropped cigarette, nor double-timed around the PX on Sunday morning.

The platoon sergeant relieved a multiple-striped young idiot — as he termed the man — who tried just this. The platoon, as platoons can, ruined the former sergeant.

The new platoon sergeant told his men the barracks needed cleaning, but if everyone would cooperate, each man clean his own area each day, he could get a few men off detail to clean the common areas, such as the latrine, and there need be no GI parties.

The platoon cooperated. There were no GI parties, no extra details. A few men went off the track, now and then; the older men of the platoon handled them quietly, without bothering the platoon sergeant.

This was discipline. Ideally, it should well up out of men, not be imposed upon them.

The platoon prospered. It won the battalion plaque for best barracks so often it was allowed to keep the plaque in perpetuity.

Even after VJ-Day, every man fell out for reveille, promptly, because the platoon sergeant explained to them this was the way the game was played. And the platoon was proud of itself; every man knew it was a good outfit, just a little better than the next.

Then, one by one, the men went home, as the war ended.

The platoon sergeant now was promoted to first sergeant, six stripes, an enlisted god who walked. He got a new company of several platoons, all filled with the new, callow faces entering the Army to be trained.

The war was over, and every man coming in knew it.

The first sergeant, wise now in the ways of handling men, as he thought, carefully explained to the newcomers that the barracks must be cleaned, but if everyone would cooperate, each man clean his own area each day, there would be no GI parties, and there would be passes.

On Saturday the barracks were dirty.

The sergeant, who thought that men needed only to understand what was required to obey, carefully explained what he wanted. Friday, with a great deal of hollering, shouting, and horseplay, the new men cleaned the barracks.

On Saturday, the barracks were still dirty, and the captain made a few pointed remarks to the sergeant.

The sergeant got everyone together, and told them how it was going to be. These men on the mops, these men on the brooms, these men with the lye soap. No hollering or sloshing of water or horseplay — just clean the goddam barracks.

It took most of Friday night, and the men had to stay in the latrines to clean their rifles, but they cleaned the barracks. A few of them got out of hand, but there were no older hands who could — or would — hold them in check. The sergeant handled each of these himself.

The platoon prospered, but it wasn’t easy, particularly on the sergeant. Gradually, he came to realize that seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds, mostly from the disadvantaged areas of society, had no feeling of responsibility to the Army or to the Republic for which it stood. They were not self-disciplined, and they tended to resent authority, even more than the college men and skilled artisans he had commanded before. Probably some had resented their parents; definitely most resented the sergeant, even as most of them, back in their home towns, had instinctively resented the police.

There is no getting around the fact that cops and sergeants spoil your fun.

The platoon prospered, as a sort of jail, until someone wrote to his congressman. After that the captain spoke to the sergeant, telling him that it was peacetime and that perhaps the real purpose of an Army was not to learn to use the bayonet, but to engage in athletics and take Wednesday afternoons off.

The sergeant, now a confused young man with six stripes who walked, left the Army, and graduated from college. If the Army was going to hell, it was a lot more pleasant to watch it go to hell from the Officer’s Club than from the Orderly Room.

A decade after Korea, the military traditionalists still grind their teeth. The sociologists still keep a wary eye on them. Both still try to use the Korean battleground, and its dreary POW camps, to further their own particular myths of human behavior.

Probably, both are wrong.

China used to have something quite similar to Twitter

January 13th, 2021

China used to have something quite similar to Twitter, Spandrell explains:

It started as an outright clone, later evolved on its own, quite interesting way. I’m talking of Weibo.

Weibo started in 2009, and a year later already had 100 million users. Chinese people are very online, and they very much enjoy the sort of casual, easy dopamine release that comes from microblogging. The Japanese are also avid Twitter users, incidentally, while they never had much of a blogosphere. The language also helps: 150 Chinese characters amount to about triple that in English, so you can say quite a lot.

As usual in China, there’s little regulations, and little enforcement of existing regulations, so once Weibo came in it was very free and open. It was the first national forum of public opinion that the Chinese had ever seen. It became huge almost instantly, and of course the most popular part of it was political debate. Everyone and their mother had become a political pundit on Weibo, rather amusingly forgetting they lived in a Communist single-party state. For a couple years people shat on their mayors, their governors, this or that politician, this or that policy, or even the Communist party itself. The American Embassy joined the party with their famous Air Quality reports (at the time air quality in China was really awful and the government refused to release figures), which were promptly retweeted by 300 million boomers with added comments on how much better America was at everything.

Well that situation couldn’t last. China was at the moment undergoing a rather big leadership transition (Xi Jinping assumed power in late 2012), so the massive agitation going on at Weibo went on undeterred. But governments, certainly the Chinese government, might be slow, but once they get moving they’re unrelenting. In 2013 China decided to crack down on free speech on Weibo, and crack down they did. Famous accounts which had been too edgy politically got visits by police, if not outright arrested. Some were jailed, others had to make public proclamations of loyalty to Socialist values. We’re talking of people with tens of millions of followers; China is a big country.

Once the big guys were dealt with pour encourager les autres, the masses were targeted with the beginning stages of what has now become a very sophisticated apparatus of keyword censorship. In Weibo today you just can’t search what you want. If there’s a rumor that Xi Jinping has farted this morning, the word “fart”, “frt”, “f4rt” and all permutations that might come up are all promptly banned from searching at any sizable Chinese social media. That’s step 1: stop the thing from going viral. Step 2 is deleting already existing mentions of the fart. The thing. That takes time but they have an army of censors (which Weibo was forced to hire at their expense) to take care of that. Step 3 is banning you from tweeting about the fart, but that’s a last resort, as it’s the most annoying and harder to implement.

Soon enough Weibo just became unusable. Most people up there were on the platform precisely to shitpost on politics, to be edgy, to shit on the government, to be a viral pundit, retweeted by 50 million people at least once in their lives. The new regulations were so oppressive that most people just left. Not to some other similar platform. There had been some at the beginning but they all lagged off and eventually were killed, and the government wouldn’t allow a new microblogging site. When Weibo was censored people just left, period. They abandoned the public square. They mostly retreated to WeChat, the national instant messaging app. Some didn’t get the message and started being edgy on their public statuses, but most just retreated to private chat groups, where they could be safe from the prying eyes of government. The public square was killed, on purpose, and it never recovered.

Well, not quite. After politics were banned from Weibo, only the most inane stuff was allowed to remain. Mostly celebrities and PR accounts, and the odd clueless boomer. But it’s been years now, so plenty of people who need an easy internet exposure but have no intention to talk politics are still on Weibo, many producing quite decent content. A lot of aspiring intellectuals have also learned what is politically correct and what not and have managed to survive. Plenty still get banned mercilessly after some innocent mishap though, as Carl Zha (by all indications a paid propagandist for the government) who lost 10 million followers after dissing some Chinese fighter jet or something. But the platform is lively again, if in a more boring, sanitized way. Half a generation of youngsters have grown up without knowing what legal shitposting was like, and so just don’t do it. You can’t miss what you’ve never known.

Now, America isn’t China, so there’s no guarantee that the situation will evolve in the same way. Maybe Parler or Gab manage to survive the multi-pronged assault by every single part of the tech stack, and they thrive as a hotbed of right wing activism. I don’t find it very likely though. I see Twitter becoming a sanitized platform where only government-approved speech is allowed, and most people will be fine with that. I’ll stay on Twitter if only to follow a bunch of academic linguists who I find interesting. Also Japanese Twitter has its charm, as Twitter censorship is much, much weaker in exotic languages.

So to recap: I think we should do what the Chinese did, which is retreat to private groups. So go to Telegram, to Urbit if you’re smart.

This was all very democratic and pleasant

January 12th, 2021

It was perfectly understandable, T. R. Fehrenbach says (in This Kind of War), that large numbers of men who served (in World War 2) didn’t like the service:

There was no reason why they should. They served only because there had been a dirty job that had to be done. Admittedly, the service was not perfect; no human institution having power over men can ever be. But many of the abuses the civilians complained about had come not from true professionals but from men with quickie diplomas, whose brass was much more apt to go to their heads than to those of men who had waited twenty years for leaves and eagles.

In 1945, somehow confusing the plumbers with the men who pulled the chain, the public demanded that the Army be changed to conform with decent, liberal society.

The generals could have told them to go to hell and made it stick. A few heads would have rolled, a few stars would have been lost. But without acquiescence Congress could no more emasculate the Army than it could alter the nature of the State Department. It could have abolished it, or weakened it even more than it did — but it could not have changed its nature. But the generals could not have retained their new popularity by antagonizing the public, and suddenly popularity was very important to them. Men such as Doolittle, Eisenhower, and Marshall rationalized. America, with postwar duties around the world, would need a bigger peacetime Army than ever before. Therefore, it needed to be popular with the people. And it should be made pleasant, so that more men would enlist. And since Congress wouldn’t do much about upping pay, every man should have a chance to become a sergeant, instead of one in twenty. But, democratically, sergeants would not draw much more pay than privates.

And since some officers and noncoms had abused their powers, rather than make sure officers and noncoms were better than ever, it would be simpler and more expedient — and popular — to reduce those powers. Since Americans were by nature egalitarian, the Army had better go that route too.

[...]

The so-called “caste system” of the Army was modified. Captains, by fiat, suddenly ceased to be gods, and sergeants, the hard-bitten backbone of any army, were told to try to be just some of the boys. Junior officers had a great deal of their power to discipline taken away from them. They could no longer inflict any real punishment, short of formal court-martial, nor could they easily reduce ineffective N.C.O.’s. Understandably, their own powers shaky, they cut the ground completely away from their N.C.O.’s.

[...]

Now an N.C.O. greeted new arrivals with a smile. Where once he would have told them they made him sick to his stomach, didn’t look tough enough to make a go of his outfit, he now led them meekly to his company commander. And this clean-cut young man, who once would have sat remote at the right hand of God in his orderly room, issuing orders that crackled like thunder, now smiled too. “Welcome aboard, gentlemen. I am your company commander; I’m here to help you. I’ll try to make your stay both pleasant and profitable.”

This was all very democratic and pleasant — but it is the nature of young men to get away with anything they can, and soon these young men found they could get away with plenty.

A soldier could tell a sergeant to blow it. In the old Army he might have been bashed, and found immediately what the rules were going to be. In the Canadian Army — which oddly enough no American liberals have found fascistic or bestial — he would have been marched in front of his company commander, had his pay reduced, perhaps even been confined for thirty days, with no damaging mark on his record. He would have learned, instantly, that orders are to be obeyed.

But in the new American Army, the sergeant reported such a case to his C.O. But the C.O. couldn’t do anything drastic or educational to the man; for any real action, he had to pass the case up higher. And nobody wanted to court-martial the man, to put a permanent damaging mark on his record. The most likely outcome was for the man to be chided for being rude, and requested to do better in the future.

[...]

In their neat, fitted uniforms and new shiny boots — there was money for these — the troops looked good. Their appearance made the generals smile.

What they lacked couldn’t be seen, not until the guns sounded.

There is much to military training that seems childish, stultifying, and even brutal. But one essential part of breaking men into military life is the removal of misfits — and in the service a man is a misfit who cannot obey orders, any orders, and who cannot stand immense and searing mental and physical pressure.

For his own sake and for that of those around him, a man must be prepared for the awful, shrieking moment of truth when he realizes he is all alone on a hill ten thousand miles from home, and that he may be killed in the next second.

The young men of America, from whatever strata, are raised in a permissive society. The increasing alienation of their education from the harsher realities of life makes their reorientation, once enlisted, doubly important.

[...]

Orders in combat — the orders that kill men or get them killed, are not given by generals, or even by majors. They are given by lieutenants and sergeants, and sometimes by PFC’s.

When a sergeant gives a soldier an order in battle, it must have the same weight as that of a four-star general.

Such orders cannot be given by men who are some of the boys. Men willingly take orders to die only from those they are trained to regard as superior beings.

[...]

The Old Army, outcast and alien and remote from the warm bosom of society, officer and man alike, ordered into Korea, would have gone without questioning. It would have died without counting. As on Bataan, it would not have listened for the angel’s trumpet or the clarion call. It would have heard the hard sound of its own bugles, and hard-bitten, cynical, wise in bitter ways, it would have kept its eyes on its sergeants.

It would have died. It would have retreated, or surrendered, only in the last extremity. In the enemy prison camps, exhausted, sick, it would have spat upon its captors, despising them to the last.

It would have died, but it might have held.

[...]

The trouble is, different men live by different myths.

There are men who would have a society pointed wholly to fighting and resistance to Communism, and this would be a very different society from the one Americans now enjoy. It might succeed on the battlefield, but its other failures can be predicted.

But the infantry battlefield also cannot be remade to the order of the prevailing midcentury opinion of American sociologists.

[...]

Over several thousand years of history, man has found a way to make soldiers out of this kind of man, as he comes, basically unformed, to the colors. It is a way with great stresses and great strains. It cannot be said it is wholly good. Regimentation is not good, completely, for any man.

But no successful army has been able to avoid it. It is an unpleasant necessity, seemingly likely to go on forever, as long as men fight in fields and mud.

We should avoid the nirvana fallacy

January 11th, 2021

We are nowhere close to utopia, Arnold Kling reminds us, and we cannot see how to get there:

A major reason for this is lack of knowledge. We know today much more than we knew one hundred years ago. It seems reasonable to expect that in another hundred years, today’s level of knowledge will seem low. If we look at all of the past beliefs that today seem wrong-headed, we should be hesitant to commit to what we believe now.

[...]

1. We should be humble about predicting the consequences of public policies. In an economics textbook, a single “market imperfection” is shown in isolation, with the implicit assumption that everything else is perfect. Under those assumptions, the right tax, subsidy, or regulation can reliably produce improvement.

Most economists are familiar with the “theory of the second best,” which points out that trying to fix one problem, when there are other problems or constraints, can make things worse. This is a useful concept, but it only scratches the surface of strong imperfection.

2. We should welcome trial-and-error learning. The economic and social progress we have made is largely due to trial and error, not central planning. Because of strong imperfection, we know that many flaws and problems still exist. It is likely that solutions will come from trial and error going forward, just as in the past.

3. We should try to limit the number of personal flaws that we see as inexcusable. Both as a society and as individuals we should try to extend tolerance and forgiveness. Given our current state, I do not think we can do away with prisons, but I think we should be aiming in the direction of limiting their use. I also think that we should be reducing the number of “firing offenses” in the work place, not adding to them. As individuals, we should aim to reduce the set of excuses for cutting people off as friends.

4. We should avoid the “nirvana fallacy,” which involves comparing the current state to a perfect state. The most realistic change is likely to be from an imperfect current state to another imperfect state.

5. We should resist becoming Manichean. The motives of opponents are usually not as bad as we are inclined to make them out to be.

The volunteers came and went, and the Army changed not at all

January 10th, 2021

The men of the Inmun Gun and the CCF were peasant boys, T. R. Fehrenbach explains (in This Kind of War) — tough, inured to hunger and hardship:

One-third of them had been in battle and knew what battle meant. They had been indoctrinated in Communism, but no high percentage of them were fanatic. Most of them, after all, were conscripts, and unskilled.

They were not half so good soldiers as the bronzed men who followed Rommel in the desert, or the veterans who slashed down toward Bastogne.

They were well armed, but their weapons were no better than those of United States design, if as good.

But the American soldier of 1950, though the same breed of man, was not half so good as the battalions that had absorbed Rommel’s bloody lessons, or stood like steel in the Ardennes.

The weapons his nation had were not in his hands, and those that were were old and worn.

Since the end of World War II ground weapons had been developed, but none had been procured. There were plenty of the old arms around, and it has always been a Yankee habit to make do. The Army was told to make do.

In 1950 its vehicles in many cases would not run. Radiators were clogged, engines gone. When ordered to Korea, some units towed their transport down to the LST’s, because there was no other way to get it to the boat. Tires and tubes had a few miles left in them, and were kept — until they came apart on Korean roads.

In Japan, where the divisions were supposedly guarding our former enemies, most of the small arms had been reported combat unserviceable. Rifle barrels were worn smooth. Mortar mounts were broken, and there were no longer any spare barrels for machine guns.

Radios were short, and those that were available would not work.

Ammunition, except small arms, was “hava-no.”

These things had been reported. The Senate knew them; the people heard them. But usually the Army was told, “Next year.”

Even a rich society cannot afford nuclear bombs, supercarriers, foreign aid, five million new cars a year, long-range bombers, the highest standard of living in the world, and a million new rifles.

[...]

Before 1939 the United States Army was small, but it was professional. Its tiny officers corps was parochial, but true. Its members devoted their time to the study of war, caring little what went on in the larger society around them. They were centurions, and the society around them not their concern.

When so ordered, they went to war. Spreading themselves thinner still, they commanded and trained the civilians who heeded the trumpet’s call. The civilians did the fighting, of course — but they did it the Army’s way.

In 1861 millions of volunteers donned blue or gray. Millions of words have been written on American valor, but few books dwell on the fact that of the sixty important battles, fifty-five were commanded on both sides by West Pointers, and on one side in the remaining five.

In 1917 four million men were mustered in. Few of them liked it, but again they did things the way the professional wanted them done.

The volunteers came and went, and the Army changed not at all.

But since the Civil War, the Army had neither the esteem nor the favor of public or government. Liberal opinion, whether business-liberal or labor-liberal, dominated the United States after the destruction of the South, and the illiberal Army grew constantly more alienated from its own society.

In a truly liberal society, centurions have no place. For centurions, when they put on the soldier, do not retain the citizen. They are never citizens to begin with.

There was and is no danger of military domination of the nation. The Constitution gave Congress the power of life or death over the military, and they have always accepted the fact. The danger has been the other way around — the liberal society, in its heart, wants not only domination of the military, but acquiescence of the military toward the liberal view of life.

Domination and control society should have. The record of military rule, from the burnished and lazy Praetorians to the juntas of Latin America, to the attempted fiasco of the Légion Etrangère, are pages of history singularly foul in odor.

But acquiescence society may not have, if it wants an army worth a damn. By the very nature of its mission, the military must maintain a hard and illiberal view of life and the world. Society’s purpose is to live; the military’s is to stand ready, if need be, to die.

Soldiers are rarely fit to rule — but they must be fit to fight.

The military is in essence a tool, to be used by its society. If its society is good, it may hope to be used honorably, even if badly. If its society is criminal, it may be, like the Wehrmacht, unleashed upon a helpless world.

But when the Wehrmacht dashed against the world, it was brought to ruin, not by a throng of amateurs, but by well-motivated, well-generaled Allied troops, who had learned their military lessons.

Some men, of kind intention, are always dubious because the generals of the Wehrmacht and the men of West Point and V.M.I. and Leavenworth read the same books, sometimes hold the same view of life.

Why not? German plumbers, Americans plumbers, use the same manuals, and look into the same kind of water.

In 1861, and 1917, the Army acted upon the civilian, changing him. But in 1945 something new happened. Suddenly, without precedent, perhaps because of changes in the emerging managerial society, professional soldiers of high rank had become genuinely popular with the Public. In 1861, and in 1917, the public gave the generals small credit, talked instead of the gallant militia. Suddenly, at the end of World War II, society embraced the generals.

And here it ruined them.

A coup would at least make sense

January 9th, 2021

What happened on Capitol Hill on Wednesday was uniquely bizarre and unwonted, Bruno Maçães notes, but perhaps not in the way it looked at first;

It was not a coup, if by a coup one means the illegal and violent seizure of power. Illegal and violent the day most certainly was, but there was no question of seizing power by sending a cosplay gallery of motley characters to the Senate chamber. Even as a pretext for military action from Trump, the event was hardly suitable. A coup is a different kind of political act altogether. Turn to Turkey in 2016 for an example.

[...]

This was not theater, because a play is a safe and riskless activity, but it was roleplaying, which can be decidedly more dangerous for the participants — five people have died in these events. The “coup” ended, appropriately, when the main plotter was banned temporarily from social media. It was not a coup in the real world, but it was experienced as one by those taking part. More interestingly, those shocked by the events in the Senate were no less captured by the fantasy and might still believe that a real coup was attempted and defeated. In Washington, you can apparently now have the full “coup” experience in just a few hours. The action takes place in a kind of virtual reality, where terrible accidents can and do happen, but more tragic consequences to the political regime and the viewers at home are somehow prevented.

Does this mean that the Capitol extravaganza was trivial or unimportant? Not at all. In some strange way it was more significant than a real coup. A coup would at least make sense, while the almost complete replacement of serious politics by subterranean fantasy and roleplaying induces a sense of vertigo. Our traditional way of relating to the world has increasingly collapsed. Nothing seems real, and doubts persist about what to think or say in the face of this new situation. In the Senate debate that preceded the chaos, Ted Cruz was heard shouting to his colleagues: “Be bold. Astonish the viewers.” Prophetic words. We were astonished.

[...]

In this vision, the world exists to provide a stage for our fantasies. This is harem politics on the grandest scale. Unseemly and, in its current form, most likely unsustainable. What strikes is how much it relies on destruction as a force. There was only one alternative to Trump and that was to push Trumpism to the breaking point. And yet, all throughout the Trump years, the system worked. I think it worked even better than people assume, because the American system of government is not meant to be a placid Northern European social democracy. It is meant to create considerable room for the enactment of political fantasies, while preventing them from becoming too real. Every time Trump pushed things in the direction of reality—in the direction of imposing his stories on everyone else as real—the system pushed back, not so much by moving toward some more-accepted version of the world but by insisting that Trump and his followers remain mostly within the domain of fiction and playacting, that is, in the world of Dreampolitik. The system worked, but the problem is it now works to prevent only catastrophic outcomes, and it works through cycles of boom and bust.

The day of the gunboat and a few Marines would never return

January 8th, 2021

During the first months of American intervention in Korea, T. R. Fehrenbach explains (in This Kind of War), reports from the front burst upon an America and world stunned beyond belief:

Day after day, the forces of the admitted first power of the earth reeled backward under the blows of the army of a nation of nine million largely illiterate peasants, the product of the kind of culture advanced nations once overawed with gunboats.

[...]

The people of Asia had changed, true. The day of the gunboat and a few Marines would never return. But that was not the whole story. The people of the West had changed, too. They forgot that the West had dominated not only by arms, but by superior force of will.

During the summer of 1950, and later, Asians would watch. Some, friends of the West, would even smile. And none of them would ever forget.

News reports in 1950 talked of vast numbers, overwhelming hordes of fanatic North Koreans, hundreds of monstrous tanks, against which the thin United States forces could not stand. In these reports there was truth, but not the whole truth.

The American units were outnumbered. They were outgunned. They were given an impossible task at the outset.

But they were also outfought.

In July, 1950, one news commentator rather plaintively remarked that warfare had not changed so much, after all. For some reason, ground troops still seemed to be necessary, in spite of the atom bomb. And oddly and unfortunately, to this gentleman, man still seemed to be an important ingredient in battle. Troops were getting killed, in pain and fury and dust and filth. What had happened to the widely heralded push-button warfare where skilled, immaculate technicians who had never suffered the misery and ignominy of basic training blew each other to kingdom come like gentlemen?

In this unconsciously plaintive cry lies buried a great deal of the truth why the United States was almost defeated.

Nothing had happened to push-button warfare; its emergence was at hand. Horrible weapons that could destroy every city on earth were at hand — at too many hands. But push-button warfare meant Armageddon, and Armageddon, hopefully, will never be an end of national policy.

Americans in 1950 rediscovered something that since Hiroshima they had forgotten: you may fly over a land forever; you may bomb it, atomize it, pulverize it and wipe it clean of life — but if you desire to defend it, protect it, and keep it for civilization, you must do this on the ground, the way the Roman legions did, by putting your young men into the mud.

The object of warfare is to dominate a portion of the earth, with its peoples, for causes either just or unjust. It is not to destroy the land and people, unless you have gone wholly mad.

Push-button war has its place. There is another kind of conflict — crusade, jihad, holy war, call it what you choose. It has been loosed before, with attendant horror but indecisive results. In the past, there were never means enough to exterminate all the unholy, whether Christian, Moslem, Protestant, Papist, or Communist. If jihad is preached again, undoubtedly the modern age will do much better.

Americans, denying from moral grounds that war can ever be a part of politics, inevitably tend to think in terms of holy war — against militarism, against fascism, against bolshevism. In the postwar age, uneasy, disliking and fearing the unholiness of Communism, they have prepared for jihad. If their leaders blow the trumpet, or if their homeland is attacked, their millions are agreed to be better dead than Red.

Any kind of war short of jihad was, is, and will be unpopular with the people. Because such wars are fought with legions, and Americans, even when they are proud of them, do not like their legions. They do not like to serve in them, nor even to allow them to be what they must.

For legions have no ideological or spiritual home in the liberal society. The liberal society has no use or need for legions — as its prophets have long proclaimed.

Except that in this world are tigers.

Having older brothers or sisters isn’t just a great plot point in a life story

January 7th, 2021

In The Best: How Elite Athletes Are Made, Mark Williams and Tim Wigmore point to two surprising factors that contribute to athletic success — older siblings, and growing up in a mid-sized town:

Rosalsky: One of the factors that Michael Jordan credited with driving him to win on the court was playing with his older brother, Larry.

Jordan: I don’t think from a competitive standpoint, I would be here without the confrontations with my brother. I always felt like I was fighting Larry for my father’s attention.

Rosalsky: According to a new book, The Best: How Elite Athletes Are Made, having older brothers or sisters isn’t just a great plot point in a life story. It shows up in a lot of research about who is more likely to become a champion. The book was co-written by sports scientist Mark Williams and sports writer Tim Wigmore.

Wigmore: Even when two siblings both become elite athletes, the younger one is better in about two out of three cases.

Rosalsky: Wigmore says another good example for the younger sibling effect is Serena Williams. She has an older sister, Venus, who is also a great tennis player. But Venus didn’t win as many Grand Slam titles as Serena. As kids, younger siblings are exposed to sports through their older siblings, and they’re usually smaller and weaker than them, which means they have to work harder to keep up. Wigmore says this helps them gain skills and grit.

Wigmore: And so with Serena Williams, actually, you look at pictures of her playing with Venus as a kid and there’s often two or three inches between them. And that means she has to try and make up for that that whole time.

Rosalsky: Another factor helping younger siblings, he says, is parents are usually more hands off with them. Younger siblings are often given more time to mess around and play sports with their friends or older siblings. This informal play helps them not only play more but also develop their athletic skills through trial and error, as opposed to top-down rigorous instruction.

Wigmore: Kids who do more informal play, it’s better for their creativity. They’re also just exposed to more variables, more different situations. They get more chance to learn, more chance to fail. And that’s really good for you.

Rosalsky: Another ingredient that helps create elite athletes — growing up in a midsize town, a place small enough to have lots of space and opportunity to play sports but big enough to have good coaches, facilities and competitors.

Wigmore: Where you grow up is one of the biggest factors that influences whether you become an elite athlete. So in the U.S., amazingly, if you grow up in a town of between 50,000 and 100,000, you are 15 times more chance of becoming an elite athlete than if you grew up in areas smaller or bigger.

Rosalsky: Michael Jordan, for example, grew up in the midsize town of Wilmington, N.C., which was under 100,000 people when he grew up there. During the 20th century, Wilmington produced a whole host of elite athletes, including Sugar Ray Leonard, an Olympic gold medalist in boxing. Sugar Ray, by the way, also had an older brother, Roger, who started boxing first.

(hat tip to Annie Murphy Paul, author of Origins, The Cult of Personality, and soon The Extended Mind.)

How the gasoline, tanks, and ammunition reached him was somebody else’s concern

January 6th, 2021

Field Marshall Erwin Rommel once said he had no real interest in logistics, T. R. Fehrenbach explains (in This Kind of War):

He would do the fighting; how the gasoline, tanks, and ammunition reached him was somebody else’s concern.

Both Marshall and Rommel, splendid men, did not really understand the world they lived in. A war can no more be successfully fought without political concerns for the future than a panzer can roll without gas.

Glucosamine may reduce overall death rates as effectively as regular exercise

January 5th, 2021

Glucosamine may reduce overall death rates as effectively as regular exercise:

[Dana King, professor and chair of the Department of Family Medicine at West Virginia University] and his research partner, Jun Xiang — a WVU health data analyst — assessed data from 16,686 adults who completed the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 1999 to 2010. All of the participants were at least 40 years old. King and Xiang merged these data with 2015 mortality figures.

After controlling for various factors — such as participants’ age, sex, smoking status and activity level — the researchers found that taking glucosamine/chondroitin every day for a year or longer was associated with a 39 percent reduction in all-cause mortality.

It was also linked to a 65 percent reduction in cardiovascular-related deaths. That’s a category that includes deaths from stroke, coronary artery disease and heart disease, the United States’ biggest killer.

“Once we took everything into account, the impact was pretty significant,” King said.

The results appear in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine.