A more comprehensive and devious approach

Saturday, April 22nd, 2017

An enterprising group of hackers targeted a Brazilian bank with a more comprehensive and devious approach than usual:

At 1 pm on October 22 of last year, the researchers say, hackers changed the Domain Name System registrations of all 36 of the bank’s online properties, commandeering the bank’s desktop and mobile website domains to take users to phishing sites. In practice, that meant the hackers could steal login credentials at sites hosted at the bank’s legitimate web addresses. Kaspersky researchers believe the hackers may have even simultaneously redirected all transactions at ATMs or point-of-sale systems to their own servers, collecting the credit card details of anyone who used their card that Saturday afternoon.

“Absolutely all of the bank’s online operations were under the attackers’ control for five to six hours,” says Dmitry Bestuzhev, one of the Kaspersky researchers who analyzed the attack in real time after seeing malware infecting customers from what appeared to be the bank’s fully valid domain. From the hackers’ point of view, as Bestuzhev puts it, the DNS attack meant that “you become the bank. Everything belongs to you now.”

RIP WeaponsMan

Wednesday, April 19th, 2017

The “quiet professional” behind the WeaponsMan blog, Kevin O’Brien, has passed away, his brother reports:

He was born in 1958 to Robert and Barbara O’Brien. We grew up in Westborough, Mass. Kevin graduated from high school in 1975 and joined the Army in (I believe) 1979. He learned Czech at DLI and became a Ranger and a member of Special Forces.

Kevin’s happiest times were in the Army. He loved the service and was deeply committed to it. We were so proud when he earned the Green Beret. He was active duty for eight years and then stayed in the Reserves and National Guard for many years, including a deployment to Afghanistan in 2003. He told me after that that Afghan tour was when he felt he had made his strongest contribution to the world.

[...]

In the winter of 2015, we began building our airplane together. You could not ask for a better building partner.

Last Thursday night was our last “normal” night working on the airplane. I could not join him Friday night, but on Saturday morning I got a call from the Portsmouth Regional Hospital. He had called 911 on Friday afternoon and was taken to the ER with what turned out to be a massive heart attack. Evidently he was conscious when he was brought in, but his heart stopped and he was revived after 60 minutes of CPR. He never reawakened.

He will be missed.

Better villains, bigger explosions

Wednesday, April 19th, 2017

A Twitter follower offered David Frum a memorable explanation of the weak hold of the First World War upon the American consciousness.

“Americans prefer the sequel: better villains, bigger explosions.”

Decivilization in the 1960s

Friday, April 14th, 2017

Steven Pinker discusses decivilization in the 1960s:

After a three-decade free fall that spanned the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War, Americans multiplied their homicide rate by more than two and a half, from a low of 4.0 in 1957 to a high of 10.2 in 1980 (U.S. Bureau of Statistics; Fox and Zawitz: 2007). The upsurge included every other category of major crime as well, including rape, assault, robbery, and theft, and lasted (with ups and downs) for three decades. The cities got particularly dangerous, especially New York, which became a symbol of the new criminality. Though the surge in violence affected all the races and both genders, it was most dramatic among black men, whose annual homicide rate had shot up by the mid-1980s to 72 per 100,000.

[...]

The rebounding of violence in the 1960s defied every expectation. The decade was a time of unprecedented economic growth, nearly full employment, levels of economic equality for which people today are nostalgic, historic racial progress, and the blossoming of government social programs, not to mention medical advances that made victims more likely to survive being shot or knifed. Social theorists in 1962 would have happily bet that these fortunate conditions would lead to a continuing era of low crime. And they would have lost their shirts.

[...]

When rock music burst onto the scene in the 1950s, politicians and clergymen vilified it for corrupting morals and encouraging lawlessness. (An amusing video reel of fulminating fogies can be seen in Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.) Do we now have to – gulp – admit they were right? Can we connect the values of 1960s popular culture to the actual rise in violent crimes that accompanied them? Not directly, of course. Correlation is not causation, and a third factor, the pushback against the values of the Civilizing Process, presumably caused both the changes in popular culture and the increase in violent behavior. Also, the overwhelming majority of baby boomers committed no violence whatsoever. Still, attitudes and popular culture surely reinforce each other, and at the margins, where susceptible individuals and subcultures can be buffeted one way or another, there are plausible causal arrows from the decivilizing mindset to the facilitation of actual violence.

One of them was a self-handicapping of the criminal justice Leviathan. Though rock musicians seldom influence public policy directly, writers and intellectuals do, and they got caught up in the zeitgeist and began to rationalize the new licentiousness. Marxism made violent class conflict seem like a route to a better world. Influential thinkers like Herbert Marcuse and Paul Goodman tried to merge Marxism or anarchism with a new interpretation of Freud that connected sexual and emotional repression to political repression and championed a release from inhibitions as part of the revolutionary struggle. Troublemakers were increasingly seen as rebels and nonconformists, or as victims of racism, poverty, and bad parenting. Graffiti vandals were now ‘artists,’ thieves were ‘class warriors,’ and neighborhood hooligans were ‘community leaders.’ Many smart people, intoxicated by radical chic, did incredibly stupid things. Graduates of elite universities built bombs to be set off at army social functions, or drove getaway cars while ‘radicals’ shot guards during armed robberies. New York intellectuals were conned by Marxobabble-spouting psychopaths into lobbying for their release from prison (Pinker 2002: 261–262).

Read the whole thing. (It’s an excerpt from The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.)

Should America have entered World War I?

Friday, April 7th, 2017

The US entered the Great War 100 years ago, but why?

The war lasted only another year and a half, but in that time, an astounding 117,000 American soldiers were killed and 202,000 wounded.

[...]

America intervened nearly three years after it began, and the “doughboys,” as our troops were called, engaged in serious combat for only a few months. More Americans in uniform died away from the battlefield — thousands from the Spanish flu — than with weapons in hand. After victory was achieved, Wilson’s audacious hope of making a peace that would advance democracy and national self-determination blew up in his face when the Senate refused to ratify the treaty he had signed at the Palace of Versailles.

But attention should be paid. America’s decision to join the Allies was a turning point in world history. It altered the fortunes of the war and the course of the 20th century — and not necessarily for the better. Its entry most likely foreclosed the possibility of a negotiated peace among belligerent powers that were exhausted from years mired in trench warfare.

Although the American Expeditionary Force did not engage in combat for long, the looming threat of several million fresh troops led German generals to launch a last, desperate series of offensives. When that campaign collapsed, Germany’s defeat was inevitable.

How would the war have ended if America had not intervened? The carnage might have continued for another year or two until citizens in the warring nations, who were already protesting the endless sacrifices required, forced their leaders to reach a settlement. If the Allies, led by France and Britain, had not won a total victory, there would have been no punitive peace treaty like that completed at Versailles, no stab-in-the-back allegations by resentful Germans, and thus no rise, much less triumph, of Hitler and the Nazis. The next world war, with its 50 million deaths, would probably not have occurred.

The pacifists failed:

Since the war began, feminists and socialists had worked closely with progressive members of Congress from the agrarian South and the urban Midwest to keep America out. They mounted street demonstrations, attracted prominent leaders from the labor and suffrage movements, and ran antiwar candidates for local and federal office. They also gained the support of Henry Ford, who chartered a ship full of activists who crossed the Atlantic to plead with the heads of neutral nations to broker a peace settlement.

They may even have had a majority of Americans on their side. In the final weeks before Congress declared war, anti-militarists demanded a national referendum on the question, confident voters would recoil from fighting and paying the bills so that one group of European powers could vanquish another.

Once the United States did enter the fray, Wilson, with the aid of the courts, prosecuted opponents of the war who refused to fall in line. Under the Espionage and Sedition Acts, thousands were arrested for such “crimes” as giving speeches against the draft and calling the Army “a God damned legalized murder machine.”

The intervention led to big changes in America, as well as the world. It began the creation of a political order most citizens now take for granted, even as some protest against it: a state equipped to fight war after war abroad while keeping a close watch on allegedly subversive activities at home.

To make the world “safe for democracy” required another innovation: a military-industrial establishment funded, then partly and now completely, by income taxes.

The Pentagon Is Making The CIA And State Department Obsolete

Thursday, April 6th, 2017

The Pentagon is making the CIA and State Department obsolete, Ryan Landry argues:

The State Department and CIA have been anxious since election night, not just because of the threat of a change of policy, but because these agencies now face an existential threat on some level.

As Trump’s cabinet was assembled in late fall, the nervousness grew as Blue Empire realized how many generals and former generals would serve in high-ranking positions. Unbeknownst to most Americans, the fear is based on change within Red Empire. The Pentagon’s growth into a one-stop shop for policy formulation and implementation threatens Blue’s existence and at a minimum, influence.

Since the planes flew into the Twin Towers, the Department of Defense has been in a steady growth mode not strictly limited to increases in spending and budgets. The very scope and nature of the DOD has changed. America’s wars of choice, the imperial wars after World War II, have forced the Pentagon to send a first-world military into regions with zero infrastructure. The U.S. military had to change and find ways to support such a military in many undeveloped areas from scratch. Random reports by American media outlets repeat the same phrase over and over. The Pentagon has become a one-stop shop for the presidency to seek advice, consider policies, and execute plans. For all the recent talk of a Deep State, the Pentagon has grown into a fully operational imperium in imperio.

If the president inquires, the Pentagon offers a soup to nuts service for policy that extends beyond warmaking. As one of the largest users of oil and oil products, the Pentagon needed to focus on securing oil, and therefore energy policy advisers and researchers sprung forth. The Pentagon has a budget and a literal army of individuals to enact policy with speed that other departments can only dream of enjoying. The need to defend America’s computer networks has had secondary consequences of a private ex-military IT network of contractors and systems experts.

Mission creep has created recent open reactions from rivals at State and CIA. CIA’s fear of former national security adviser Michael Flynn was not due to his supposed Russia connections, but rather because of his approach to intelligence. Flynn voiced concerns and criticism with the CIA’s approach. Flynn also built the Defense Intelligence Agency up to integrate intelligence units and analysis directly with Army units for faster, more efficient operations. CIA was out to get Flynn as part of a turf battle and legitimate fear of reform. If not reform, simple reorientation of who is used when and where in the empire.

Defense has also spent a generation pushing its officers into furthering their education. This is not simple credentialism, but also creating a corps of officers that could rival their mirror images in State.

Addicts wake up “sick” and need to “make money”

Tuesday, March 21st, 2017

Addicts wake up “sick” and need to “make money”:

Some neighborhood bodegas — the addicts know which ones — will pay 50 cents on the dollar for anything stolen from CVS. That is why razor blades, printer cartridges, and other expensive portable items are now kept under lock and key where you shop. Addicts shoplift from Home Depot and drag things from the loading docks. They pull off scams. They will scavenge for thrown-out receipts in trash cans outside an appliance store, enter the store, find the receipted item, and try to return it for cash. On the edge of the White Mountains in Maine, word spread that the policy at Hannaford, the dominant supermarket chain, was not to dispute returns of under $25. For a while, there was a run on the big cans of extra virgin olive oil that sold for $24.99, which were brought to the cash registers every day by a succession of men and women who did not, at first sight, look like connoisseurs of Mediterranean cuisine. Women prostitute themselves on Internet sites. Others go into hospital emergency rooms, claiming a desperately painful toothache that can be fixed only with some opioid. (Because if pain is a “fifth vital sign,” it is the only one that requires a patient’s own testimony to measure.) This is generally repeated until the pain-sufferer grows familiar enough to the triage nurses to get “red-flagged.”

The culture of addiction treatment is marked by an extraordinary level of political correctness:

Several of the addiction professionals interviewed for this article sent lists of the proper terminology to use when writing about opioid addiction, and instructions on how to write about it in a caring way. These people are mostly generous, hard-working, and devoted. But their codes are neither scientific nor explanatory; they are political.

The director of a Midwestern state’s mental health programs emailed a chart called “‘Watch What You Call Me’: The Changing Language of Addiction and Mental Illness,” compiled by the Boston University doctor Richard Saltz. It is a document so Orwellian that one’s first reaction is to suspect it is a parody, or some kind of “fake news” dreamed up on a cynical website. We are not supposed to say “drug abuse”; use “substance use disorder” instead. To say that an addict’s urine sample is “clean” is to use “words that wound”; better to say he had a “negative drug test.” “Binge drinking” is out — “heavy alcohol use” is what you should say. Bizarrely, “attempted suicide” is deemed unacceptable; we need to call it an “unsuccessful suicide.” These terms are periphrastic and antiscientific. Imprecision is their goal. Some of them (like the concept of a “successful suicide”) are downright insane. This habit of euphemism and propaganda is not merely widespread. It is official. In January 2017, less than two weeks before the end of the last presidential administration, drug office head Michael Botticelli issued a memo called “Changing the Language of Addiction,” a similarly fussy list of officially approved euphemisms.

In 1972 we had over nineteen hundred domestic bombings

Monday, March 20th, 2017

“People have completely forgotten that in 1972 we had over nineteen hundred domestic bombings in the United States.” — Max Noel, FBI (ret.)

As Bryan Burrough’s Days of Rage explains, in 1968, many radicals absolutely believed that the United States was getting ready to collapse:

SDS leadership is disproportionately well-off Jewish kids at elite universities. The kind of people who create Facebook.

Well, in 1968 you can’t go to the Bay Area & create a killer app, so if you want to disrupt stuff you literally have to start a revolution. And that’s the equation: Paranoid fervor of chemtrail-sniffers + Silicon Valley’s faith in its ability to change the world = the Weather Underground.

When it shakes out, two of the big SDS movers and shakers are John “JJ” Jacobs and Bernadine Dorne. Their goal: to take over SDS entirely. Because, remember, organization is critical. SDS is a nationwide organization. And college campuses are receptive to radical messages.

How receptive? In fall of 1968, there were 41 bombings and arson cases on college campuses. We’re not talking letters under doors or vandalism, here. We’re talking about Molotov cocktails setting shit on fire. Here’s how radical SDS was: Burrough notes that Weatherman’s opponents for leadership in SDS elections were “Progressive Labor,” who were literal Maoists. To distinguish themselves, Weatherman called for white radicals to live like John Brown: ie, to kill the enemies of black liberty.

The election was nuts; Weatherman literally expelled their opponents from the party before the vote, so SDS split. But Weatherman occupied the national office, which meant they could evaluate SDS members as potential recruits.

The FBI was up SDS’s ass, and Weatherman’s. They harassed the core cadre. Beat them. Threatened them. This does not dissuade revolutionaries. Weatherman started doing crazy stuff with SDS: street brawls, public nudity, sexual orgies, ordering established couples to break up. If you think it sounds like a cult, you’re right. This is literally cult indoctrination stuff. They were remaking people, seeking the hardest of hardcore.

[...]

In the end, the Weather’s fugitives turned themselves in with little trouble. To give you an idea: Bill Ayers was scott-free. Cathy Wilkerson did a year. Bernardine Dohrn got three years probation and a $1500 fine. The radical lawyers, accessories to Weather’s bombings? Nada. Zip. Zero.

They did pretty well afterwards. Bernardine Dohrn was a clinical associate professor of law at Northwestern University for more than twenty years. Another Weatherman, Eleanor Stein, was arrested on the run in 1981; she got a law degree in 1986 and became an administrative law judge. Radical attorney Michael Kennedy, who did more than any to keep Weather alive, has been special advisor to President of the UN General Assembly. And, of course, Barack Obama, twice President of the United States, started his political career in Bill Ayers’s living room.

This is the difference between the hard Left & hard Right: you can be a violent leftist radical and go on to live a pretty kickass life. This is especially true if you’re a leftist of the credentialed class: Ph.D. or J.D.

The big three takeaways for me about Weatherman, when it comes to political violence in America as we might see it in 2016:

  1. Radicalism can come from anywhere. The Weathermen weren’t oppressed, or poor, or anything like that. They were hard leftists. That’s it.
  2. Sustained political violence is dependent on the willing cooperation of admirers and accomplices. The Left has these. The Right does not.
  3. Not a violent issue, but a political one: ethnic issues involving access to power can both empower and derail radical movements.

The story gets much, much crazier.

I’m reminded of The Baader Meinhof Complex and Carlos.

Cloaks, Daggers, and Dice

Thursday, March 16th, 2017

South by Southwest included a talk called Cloaks, Daggers, and Dice, which examined how the CIA uses games:

In “Collection,” Clopper’s first CIA game, teams of analysts work together to solve international crises against a ticking clock. His second title, “Collection Deck,” is a Pokémon-like card game in which where each card represents either an intelligence collection strategy or a hurdle like red tape or bureaucracy.

[...]

Also speaking on the panel was Volko Ruhnke, who is an intelligence educator at the CIA and a freelance game designer. Ruhnke said he is particularly interested in one type of game: a simulation tabletop game to train analysts and help with analytic tasks. It could help forecast complex situations by forcing players to handle multiple scenarios simultaneously.
Ruhnke himself created a commercial board game to simulate the Afghanistan conflict and walk players through military, political, and economic issues in the region. It gives players “a much more dynamic understanding of the issues of modern Afghanistan,” Ruhnke said, adding that a similar game could be of use internally at the CIA as well.

Volko Ruhnke is famous — in the wargaming community — for designing the card-driven wargames Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001–? and Wilderness War. He was also the original designer of GMT Games’ COIN series, which includes Cuba Libre, A Distant Plain, and Liberty or Death: American Insurrection.

Pizzas, Loudspeakers and Moms

Wednesday, March 15th, 2017

US psy ops are drawing away members of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army with flyers and recorded messages from their families:

Leaflet campaigns saw widespread use in the Vietnam War, and the psyop team still relies on a 1960s military publication called the “Low, Medium and High Altitude Leaflet Dissemination Guide.” The guide was intended to add science to the art of tossing paper out of a moving plane, and it describes how to fit a message to a particular leaflet size and how to account for wind, air density and aircraft speed in planning a drop.

In Central Africa, the psyop team estimates it has dropped half a million leaflets over the past six months. Mr. Kony, according to defectors, tells his followers the leaflets are poisonous to the touch. He also warns them that the Americans can spy on rebels through the leaflets.

Mr. Ocitti’s family-tracking allows the psyop team to put rebels’ actual family photos on leaflets. Defectors sometimes turn themselves in with U.S.-made leaflets hidden in their pockets.

Kerensky’s Missed Opportunity

Tuesday, March 14th, 2017

One hundred years ago Tsar Nicholas II abdicated, ending 300 years of Romanov rule of Russia, and this so-called February Revolution presents one of the great what-ifs of history:

If this revolution — which actually took place in early March 1917 according to the West’s Gregorian calendar (Russia adopted that calendar only later) — had succeeded in producing a constitutional democracy in place of the czarist empire as its leaders hoped, the world would be a very different place.

If the leading figure in the provisional government, Aleksandr Kerensky, had seized on an opportunity presented by a now-forgotten vote in the German Reichstag, World War I might have been over before American troops reached Europe. In this alternative history, Lenin and Stalin would be obscure footnotes, and Hitler would never have been more than a failed painter.

Aleksandr Kerensky reviewing the troops in 1917

What is surprising, to anyone who has absorbed the standard victor’s view — according to which the Allies were fighting a defensive war to liberate small states — is that Britain was disingenuous about its war aims, while France declined to state them at all. The reason is that those aims were too discreditable to avow openly. In a series of secret treaties, they agreed in the event of victory to carve up the empires of their defeated enemies.

From the Russian viewpoint, the big prize was the Turkish capital, Constantinople, now called Istanbul; this was promised to Russia in a secret agreement in 1915. The subsequent publication of this and other secret treaties by the Bolsheviks did much to discredit the Allied cause.

Kerensky could have repudiated the deals made by the czarist empire and announced his willingness to accept the Reichstag formula of peace without annexations or indemnities. Perhaps the German High Command would have ignored the offer and continued fighting (as it did when the Bolsheviks offered the same terms after the October Revolution at the end of 1917). But the circumstances were far more favorable in July than they were at the end of 1917. As the Kerensky offensive demonstrated, the Russian Army, while demoralized, was still an effective fighting force, and the front line was far closer to the territory of the Central Powers. Moreover, Kerensky commanded credibility with the Western Allies that he could have used to good effect.

Kerensky’s determination to continue the war was a disaster. Within a few months, the armed forces were in open revolt. Lenin, who was transported across Germany in a sealed train with the High Command’s acquiescence in the hope that he would help to knock Russia out of the war, seized the opportunity. The provisional government was overthrown by the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution. This Bolshevik Revolution consigned the February Revolution to historical oblivion.

After accepting a humiliating treaty imposed by the Germans, Russia was soon embroiled in a civil war more bloody and brutal than even World War I. By its end, the Bolshevik government, launched as a workers’ democracy, was effectively a dictatorship, enabling the ascendancy of a previously obscure Bolshevik, Joseph Stalin, who would become one of the great tyrants of history. On the other side, the German High Command’s rejection of peace similarly led to defeat, national humiliation and the emergence of the 20th century’s other great tyrant, Adolf Hitler.

We cannot tell whether a positive response from Kerensky to the Reichstag peace initiative would have achieved anything. But it is hard to imagine an outcome worse than the one that actually took place.

The Only Thing That’s Curbed Inequality

Saturday, March 11th, 2017

The only thing that’s curbed inequality has been catastrophe, Walter Scheidel notes:

Throughout history, only massive, violent shocks that upended the established order proved powerful enough to flatten disparities in income and wealth. They appeared in four different guises: mass-mobilization warfare, violent and transformative revolutions, state collapse, and catastrophic epidemics. Hundreds of millions perished in their wake, and by the time these crises had passed, the gap between rich and poor had shrunk.

[...]

But what of less murderous mechanisms of combating inequality? History offers little comfort. Land reform often foundered or was subverted by the propertied. Successful programs that managed to parcel out land to the poor and made sure they kept it owed much to the threat or exercise of violence, from Mexico during its revolution to postwar Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Just as with the financial crisis of 2008, macroeconomic downturns rarely hurt the rich for more than a few years. Democracy on its own does not consistently lower inequality. And while improving access to education can indeed narrow income gaps, it is striking to see that American wage premiums for the credentialed collapsed precisely during both world wars.

Our magic beats theirs

Friday, March 10th, 2017

“You see, we’re not afraid of Boko Haram’s magic,” a Nigerian vigilante says, “because we have our own. Our magic beats theirs.”

At first glance the corrugated tin shack with its display of dried plants and powders in empty rice sacks spilling outside and animal skins tacked to the front door seems like any other roadside spice market or traditional medicine shop here in northeast Nigeria. But this humble depot is where members of the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) — a vigilante group integral to the Nigerian government’s counterinsurgency operations — procure the charms and amulets they believe protect them from the terrorists of Boko Haram.

Even before arriving at the shop, members of the CJTF from Bama, a city ravaged by the insurgency, giddily emptied their pockets, revealing a wealth of amulets. Pointing to bullet holes on their pickup truck from a recent raid into the rebel-infested Sambisa Forest, the members credit their safety to the amulets in their pockets, the special potions they bathed in and drank before the raid, and the charms they put in seat cushions of the car.

Manning the traditional medicine shop is the gregarious, flamboyant “Buba Saliki.” Draped in an intricately embroidered tunic with a floppy and worn cap, he greets the CJTF members with warm embraces. Pointing out their grins, he brags, “I am the king of the hunters,” another name for vigilantes in the region. “They can come to me for anything.”

He displays a leather band with several crudely sewn satchels dangling from it, explaining the significance of each charm. “This one, it will prevent the bullet from hitting your body”; his fingers slide to the next charm, “This one, it prevents your enemies from seeing you… It lets you see what you are hunting first”; the next, “It will wiggle and shake if you are going someplace dangerous.”

Each charm is filled with local medicine or papers with prayers scribbled on them. These protections don’t come cheap — Buba Saliki estimates that he could sell each for 150,000 to 200,000 naira (roughly $350-$500).

A relieved CJTF member cuts in to report that the CJTF gets these charms for free, as a gift from Buba Saliki. The vigilantes smile gratefully. Buba Saliki responds with a magnanimous grin and enthusiastic nodding.

It took Buba Saliki 20 years to learn the trade, starting from when he was 9 and studying under his grandfather. He, of course, doesn’t merely make amulets for vigilantes; much of his business comes from selling traditional medicine to cure town residents of “typhoid, malaria, and their eye problems.” His work has become more difficult recently, as Boko Haram’s reign of violence has complicated the process of “going to the bush to retrieve the local medicines,” but he has made do.

While the efficacy of the charms is subject to debate — when a CJTF member who asks to be called Kashim is questioned about a comrade who recently died in a fight against Boko Haram, Kashim says with a wry smile, “Up to now we don’t have a charm against bomb fragments…”

Whether you think of all this in terms of the placebo effect or psychological warfare or something more pejorative, Buba Saliki is like a one-man USO for the vigilantes, sustaining their morale in a very dangerous fight.

Before we leave his shop, he insists on demonstrating how powerful his charms are. The vigilantes excitedly agree and assemble themselves into a semicircle around the entrance, all making sure that they have a good view.

Buba Saliki takes off his shirt, ties on a belt of charms, and takes a swig of a potion from a beaten-up plastic water bottle. He begins his performance by sharpening the rough knives strewn across his shop floor; with a flourish, he cuts through sheets of paper, demonstrating their sharpness. Then he rubs the paper against his charms and tries to cut it again — the knives seem to slide off of the edges of the paper. He begins to saw harder — but the paper will not relent. He takes another sheet of paper and shreds it with the knife. Smiling to the crowd, he takes that knife to his own body, making exaggerated slicing movements across his chest and stomach. Each swing of his arm is punctuated by a whistling that sounds eerily like a dog’s squeaky toy. He turns the knife to his eyes, making movements as if he would slice them open or gouge them out. His mouth and nose are assaulted next, then he even puts the knife to his throat — yet it seems he is unaffected.

Erik Prince’s Training Bases in China

Wednesday, March 8th, 2017

I remember being shocked when I first learned that Erik Prince was able to start a mercenary company in the US. (Blackwater was originally just a tactical training facility before it started hiring out private military contractors.)

He has since moved on to providing logistics in dangerous places via his Frontier Services Group, but they’re not just helping Chinese mining interests in Africa. They’re now setting up Blackwater-style training camps in Chinese provinces:

In December, Frontier Services Group, of which Prince is chairman, issued a press release that outlined plans to open “a forward operating base in China’s Yunnan province” and another in the troubled Xinjiang region, home to the mostly Muslim Uighur minority.

“He’s been working very, very hard to get China to buy into a new Blackwater,” said one former associate. “He’s hell bent on reclaiming his position as the world’s preeminent private military provider.”

In an email to BuzzFeed News, a spokesperson for Frontier Services Group provided a statement and strongly disputed that the company was going to become a new Blackwater, insisting that all of its security services were unarmed and therefore not regulated. “FSG’s services do not involve armed personnel or training armed personnel.” The training at the Chinese bases would “help non-military personnel provide close protection security, without the use of arms.”

Amateurs talk abouts tactics; professionals study logistics. I guess the true professional provides logistics without dirtying his hands doing anything explicitly tactical at all.

By the way, Erik Prince is Betsy DeVos’s brother. I’m surprised that doesn’t come up more often.

Forged Through Fire

Sunday, March 5th, 2017

Tyler Cowen deems Forged Through Fire a very important book and shares its main thesis:

If the modern democratic republic is a product of wars that required both manpower and money for success, it is time to take stock of what happens to democracy once the forces that brought it into being are no longer present.  Understanding war’s role in the creation of the modern democratic republic can help us recognize democracy’s exposed flanks.  If the role of the masses in protecting the nation-state diminishes, will the cross-class coalition between political inclusiveness and property hold?

…a second question is what is to become of the swaths of the world that were off the warpath in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries when the European state was formed?  Continued and intense warfare forged democracies with full enfranchisement and protected property rights in the Goldilocks zone: in countries that had already developed administrative capacity as monarchies, and where wars were horrendous but manageable with full mobilization…

The bad news is that in today’s world, war has stopped functioning as a democratizing force.