Protection in the Nuclear Age

Sunday, July 8th, 2018

Jesse Walker of Reason mocks an old civil defense film that I think I remember:

If I said I was about to show you a government film about how to survive a nuclear war, you’d probably guess that it came from the 1950s, that golden age of absurdly optimistic civil defense films. But Protection in the Nuclear Age was released in 1978, and it was made with an aesthetic that those of us who were in school in that era will recognize quickly. Some moments in these animations of pre- and post-apocalyptic life aren’t that different, in form if not content, from a 1970s guidance counselor’s collection of posters about emotions.

Like that guidance counselor, the movie strains hard to stay positive. “Defense Department studies show that even under the heaviest possible attack, less than five percent of our entire land mass would be affected by blast and heat from nuclear weapons,” the narrator claims at one point. “Of course,” he adds mildly, “that five percent contains a large percentage of our population.” But those people just might have time to flee to the rest of the country, which “would escape untouched — except possibly by radioactive fallout.” Oh, you and your little caveats.

In the early 1980s, it was hip to be extremely pessimistic about these things.

Marine experiment finds women get injured more frequently, shoot less accurately than men

Thursday, July 5th, 2018

The Marine Corps recently finished a nine-month long experiment at both Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and Twentynine Palms, California, to assess how female service members perform in combat:

It found that all-male squads, teams and crews demonstrated better performance on 93 of 134 tasks evaluated (69 percent) than units with women in them. Units comprising all men also were faster than units with women while completing tactical movements in combat situations, especially in units with large “crew-served” weapons like heavy machine guns and mortars, the study found.

Infantry squads comprising men only also had better accuracy than squads with women in them, with “a notable difference between genders for every individual weapons system” used by infantry rifleman units. They include the M4 carbine, the M27 infantry automatic rifle (IAR) and the M203, a single-shot grenade launcher mounted to rifles, the study found.

The research also found that male Marines who have not received infantry training were still more accurate using firearms than women who have. And in removing wounded troops from the battlefield, there “were notable differences in execution times between all-male and gender-integrated groups,” with the exception being when a single person — ”most often a male Marine” — carried someone away, the study found.

Female USMC Mortarman

The gender-integrated unit’s assessment also found that 40.5 percent of women participating suffered some form of musculoskeletal injury, while 18.8 percent of men did. Twenty-one women lost time in the unit due to injuries, 19 of whom suffered injuries to their lower extremities. Of those, 16 women were injured while while carrying heavy loads in an organized movement, like a march, the study found.

(This is old news, but I stumbled across it again.)

Target the terrorist, not the engine block or tires

Thursday, June 28th, 2018

It’s the season for outdoor festivals, concerts, and Independence Day celebrations, Greg Ellifritz notes, and all of those events are vulnerable to terrorist vehicle run-down attacks:

I did an informal poll of the 5000+ people who follow me on Facebook last week. I asked all my police readers to send me comments about what tactics and security precautions their police agencies were utilizing to specifically combat terrorist vehicle attacks. The single most common response was I received was “NOTHING.”

[...]

When I asked my question about police vehicle terrorism countermeasures, one officer described a rather unique way of acquiring large vehicles to block roadways. He contacted a local heavy equipment rental store. In exchange for some advertising at the event, the rental facility brought in a bunch of backhoes and bulldozers. The police placed these heavy pieces of equipment at key intersections they were trying to block off. They treated the parked heavy equipment like a “touch a truck” event for children. What young boy wouldn’t want to play around on a parked bulldozer?

[...]

Rifled slugs are the best weapon for penetrating vehicles during a ramming attack. The slugs will penetrate deeper into most vehicles than buckshot, handgun rounds, or even 5.56mm rifles.

Officers deployed as interceptors should use their shotguns to stop a terrorist attack vehicle if a physical blockade with the intercepting police cars is unsuccessful. Officers should be instructed to shoot through the windshield, side windows, or door panels to target the driver. It requires fewer shots to stop the driver than would be necessary to disable the vehicle with gunfire. Target the terrorist, not the engine block or tires.

[...]

Since many previous attackers have utilized large trucks in their attacks, I would recommend that the officers stationed as blocking/ramming vehicles use large city trucks (like dump trucks or garbage trucks) for this purpose. A police cruiser is not likely to stop a large box truck by ramming it.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution will transform the character of war

Wednesday, June 27th, 2018

The U.S. military has extensive combat experience — in small wars — but it may not know what to expect from war in the Fourth Industrial Revolution:

Schwab’s book has generated some fascinating discussions about how the Fourth Industrial Revolution will affect governance, business, and society. But surprisingly little of this discussion seems to have penetrated the U.S. military and influenced its thinking about future wars. What will it mean to fight wars in a world characterized by the Fourth Industrial Revolution — and what will it take to win?

Just as it will disrupt and reshape society, the Fourth Industrial Revolution will transform the character of war. The fundamental nature of war may remain constant, as Clausewitz argued so many years ago, but the ways in which wars are fought constantly shift as societies evolve. The synergies among the elements of the Fourth Industrial Revolution are already transfiguring the battlefields of the 21st century, in several different ways:

Space and cyber. These two relatively new domains emerged from the third industrial revolution, but have never been fully contested during wartime. There are no lessons learned documents, no historic battles to study, no precedent for how warfare in these domains might play out — and no way to know how cripplingly destructive it could be to modern society. And any battles in those domains will also hinder — and could even debilitate — the U.S. military’s ability to fight in the more traditional domains of land, sea, and air, since vital communications and other support systems today depend almost entirely on space satellites and computer networks.

Artificial intelligence, big data, machine learning, autonomy, and robotics. Some of the most prominent leaders in these fields are publicly warning about the dangers in an unconstrained environment. Military operations enabled by these technologies, and especially by artificial intelligence, may unfold so quickly that effective responses require taking humans out of the decision cycle. Letting intelligent machines make traditionally human decisions about killing other humans is fraught with moral peril, but may become necessary to survive on the future battlefield, let alone to win. Adversaries will race to employ these capabilities and the powerful operational advantages they may confer.

The return of mass and the defensive advantage. T.X. Hammes convincingly argues that the U.S. military has traded mass for precision in recent decades, enabling smaller forces using guided weapons to fight successfully. But the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution will enable a wide range of actors to acquire masses of inexpensive capabilities that they never could before, especially through advances in additive manufacturing (also known as 3D printing). That means the U.S. military must move away from today’s small numbers of exorbitantly expensive “exquisite” weapons systems toward smaller, smarter, and cheaper weapons — especially masses of autonomous drones with swarming destructive power. Hammes also argues that such swarms “may make defense the dominant form of warfare,” because they will make “domain denial much easier than domain usage.”

A new generation of high tech weapons. The United States and some of its potential adversaries are incorporating the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution into a range of innovative new weapons systems, including railguns, directed energy weapons, hyper-velocity projectiles, and hypersonic missiles. These new weapons will dramatically increase the speed, range, and destructive power of conventional weapons beyond anything previously imaginable. However, the U.S. military remains heavily over-invested in legacy systems built upon late 20th century technologies which compete against these newest technologies for scarce defense dollars. Here, rising powers such as China have a distinct new mover advantage. They can incorporate the very newest technologies without the huge financial burdens of supporting of older systems and the military-industrial constituencies that promote them (and, for authoritarian states, without adhering to democratic norms of transparency and civilian oversight). This challenge is severely exacerbated by the broken U.S. acquisition system, in which the development timelines for new weapons systems extends across decades.

The unknown x-factor. Secret technologies developed by friend and foe alike will likely appear for the first time during the next major war, and it is impossible to predict how they will change battlefield dynamics. They could render current weapons inoperable or obsolete, or offer a surprise war-winning capability to one side. And it is entirely possible that technologies secretly guarded by one side or the other for surprise use on the first day of the next war may have already been compromised. The usual fog of war will become even denser, presenting all sorts of unanticipated, unfamiliar challenges to U.S. forces.

The emerging characteristics of the Fourth Industrial Revolution suggest we are on the precipice of profound changes to the character of war. While the next major conflict will unquestionably exhibit all of war’s enduring human qualities, its battles, weapons, and tactics may well be entirely unprecedented. Military officers today may be marching, largely unaware, to the end of a long and comfortably familiar era of how to fight a major war.

The study of warfare has always heavily relied upon scrutinizing past battles to discern the lessons of those as yet unfought. But in today’s world, that important historical lens should be augmented by one that focuses on the future. Fictional writings about future war can help military thinkers break free of the mental constraints imposed by linear thinking and identify unexpected dynamics, threats, and challenges of the future battlefield. Stories such as Ghost Fleet, Automated Valor, Kill Decision, and many others all can help creative military leaders imagine the unimaginable, and visualize how the battles of the next war may play out in ways the lens of the past fails to illuminate. This will help ensure the first war of the Fourth Industrial Revolution does not result from a failure of imagination, as the 9/11 attacks have been so memorably described.

Where education was tried, it turned out to be futile

Tuesday, June 26th, 2018

Gwern reviews McNamara’s Folly — which is about one particular sub-folly, The Use of Low-IQ Troops in the Vietnam War:

It’s not well-known, but one of the most consistent long-term sponsors of research into intelligence has been the US military. This is because, contrary to lay wisdom that “IQ only measures how well you do on a test” or book-learning, cognitive ability predicts performance in all occupations down to the simplest manual labor; this might seem surprising, but there are a lot of ways to screw up a simple job and cause losses outside one’s area.

[...]

Gregory’s book collates stories about what happened when the US military was forced to ignore these facts it knew perfectly well in the service of Robert McNamara & Lyndon Johnson’s “Project 100,000” idea to kill two birds with one stone by drafting recruits who were developmentally disabled, unhealthy, evil, or just too dumb to be conscripted previously: it would provide the warm bodies needed for Vietnam, and use the military to educate the least fortunate and give them a leg up as part of the Great Society’s faith in education to eliminate individual differences and refute the idea that intelligence is real.

It did not go well.

The main value of the book is providing many concrete examples of what a lack of intelligence can mean (useful for people who spend their whole lives in high-IQ bubbles and have no idea of what that means; more examples in Gottfredson’s “Why g Matters: The Complexity of Everyday Life“), the difficulty of implementing social welfare programs (McNamara’s education fantasies never materialized for lack of funds & the enlistees not being smart enough to qualify in the first place), and a forceful denunciation of the harms & cruelty committed by a willful blindness to the fact of individual differences, harms which fall on those least able to understand or withstand them. (“…He was perpetually angry and aggrieved, and he talked back to the sergeants. When they cursed him and threatened him, he would say angrily, ‘I just wanna go home! Why don’t you let me go home?’”) The phrase “banality of evil” comes repeatedly to mind in examining the ramifications of McNamara’s blank-slatism through the military system.

[...]

Gregory describes how many would be sent to remedial training, repeatedly failing the exercise requirements because they didn’t understand how to correctly execute actions; in swinging from monkey bars, they would try to swing one bar at a time, coming to a halt each time; in running an obstacle course, they would have to pause in front of each arrow and think about what an arrow meant before understanding which direction to go, costing them too much time to ever beat the deadline; they would insist on throwing grenades like a baseball directly to the target, not understanding that throwing up in a parabola would gain them the necessary distance; and in the mile run, they would sprint as fast as possible at the start and be surprised when they became utterly exhausted long before the finish line. One mutinied from the drills, under the impression that being sent to the ‘stockade’ meant ‘going home’, until it was explained to him that the word meant ‘jail’.

[...]

Where education was tried, it turned out to be futile, and those who did train them found them too slow or too dangerous to trust. A man assigned to t-shirt printing shop was unable to understand alphabetization and had to pick out each letter for printing by scanning through the box one by one; a sergeant trained two men to drive military trucks somewhat successfully but they were too dangerous drivers to be used and were transferred out; another simply forgot to get back on the helicopters after a village search forcing a second retrieval mission; another was lucky enough to be sheltered by his sergeant in mess hall duties (until a mortar hit it, killing him); one played a prank on his squad mates, tossing a defused grenade at them two times, but on the third throw forgot to disable it; another wandered away from an ambush and wandering back, was killed by his squad; while yet another almost shot his commander with a LAW rocket when startled; another did kill his commander while on guard duty when he forgot to ask for the password before shooting; another forgot to put his rifle safety on (shooting a squad mate in the foot, who died); another tripped a booby-trap while not paying attention; another was captured by the NVA and went insane, screaming endlessly and defecating on himself while being beaten… It is unsurprising that many of them would be made to ‘walk point’, or ejected somehow, in addition to the constant insults and abuse – a new recruit was told the NVA would kill them all in a few hours, went insane from fear, climbed up a flag pole, and jumped off it; and another was beaten to death in Marine basic training.

(McNamara may have had good intentions, but in the social sciences, good results follow good intentions much as the rain follows the plow; which is to say, they do mostly by accident, and we find it easier to tailor our preferences to the results than vice-versa.)

Only a few of the stories, like the recruit who was confused by having two left boots and two right boots but no complete pairs of boots, or the one who thought semen was urine, or the extremely-short man who received an honorable discharge & medical pension for contracting the terrible disability of ‘dwarfism’ in a war zone, or the draftee who tried to commit suicide “by drinking a bottle of Head & Shoulders shampoo” could be considered all that funny. Most are painful to read. (But educational, again, especially if you are in a high-IQ bubble and have a lack of empathy for what low intelligence means.) Once you’ve read some of these anecdotes, other anecdotes, like Scott Alexander’s experiences in Haiti no longer seem like such a stretch.

A commenter added some useful details:

As to the McNamara experiment, according to the RAND report on this program, they did not accept men in the bottom 10% of the IQ spectrum. The anecdotes you cite refer to men in the 11-30% range. Of course, some sub-10% men were no doubt accidentally enlisted since the recruitment was based on only 1 IQ test. I wouldn’t expect that many of these recruits were “funny looking kids.” The clearest mistake of this program was allowing guys into combat who were so dysfunctional as to be dangerous to their comrades. But, the idea that it was a priori absurd to recruit guys at the 20th percentile (about 85 IQ), is a post hoc judgment and probably not even rigorously demonstrable (it is not clear from the 250 page RAND report). Combat efficacy increases as the soldier’s IQ increases with no ceiling. The question is whether there are thresholds that matter. The only clear useful threshold is the point at which lower IQ men become too dangerous to their comrades. Another threshold might be the point at which they become too financially burdensome or too ineffective against the enemy (ie, their mortality rate is higher than the enemy’s).

In World War II, the minimum IQ permissible was even lower than it was for this experimental program. They didn’t recruit 350,000 sub-89 IQ soldiers; they recruited millions of them.

Gun violence goes unreported by residents

Monday, June 25th, 2018

This Atlantic piece on the normalization of gun violence in poor communities seems like a decent political Roschach test:

Ralph A. Clark remembers the first time he went for a ride-along with police. He was in Baltimore, and a teenager had been killed. He says what shocked him was not the sight of the body on the street, but the lack of reaction from people at the scene — “as if nothing had happened.”

[...]

Clark noted that although much of the focus on gun violence in the U.S. is on mass shootings, they account for about 1 percent of all shooting deaths. The overwhelming majority of gun crimes are committed with illegally obtained firearms. Not only that: very few individuals are responsible for most of those gun crimes, he said. But the vast majority of persistent, ongoing gun violence goes unreported by residents who live in communities that are often poor and under-served by police.

“Eighty to 90 percent of the time a gun is fired, there’s no call to 911,” Clark said, “which means there’s no police response, which means that gun violence becomes normalized in these communities.”

Clark is the president and CEO of ShotSpotter:

Clark’s company’s technology is used in 100 U.S. cities, as well as in Cape Town, South Africa. It costs cities an annual subscription of between $65,000 and $85,000 per square mile per year. Smaller cities can get the service for about $200,000, but for larger ones like Chicago, which uses ShotSpotter to track gunfire across 100 square miles, the cost is about $5 million annually.

Look at both sides of the scissors

Tuesday, June 19th, 2018

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is housing six Syrian refugees:

Let me tell you, the Ba’aths have indoctrinated people to the point of maybe no return. People understand that Assad is not a god, but I bet you a lot of Iraqis would like Saddam to come back after what they saw.

The idea that they all have regarded as saying — if you were on the ground, you don’t have this theoretical thing. “This guy is an asshole.” OK, fine. You’ve got to realize what scissors. You got to look at both sides of the scissors.

That when you have civil war you have two groups fighting, so you take the least asshole becomes someone good in your eyes, but you’re only analyzing one portion.

Assad, his father blew up my house. My grandfather was a member of parliament, and voted for pro-Israeli candidate Gemayel, and he came in and blew up our house. So I have a hatred for Assad’s family, but at the same time I just realize I have a bigger hatred for the jihadis and for the clients of Obama.

This is how we can analyze it, comparatively, not naively like one-sided.

You get all the things that you want done for 2 percent

Monday, June 18th, 2018

Is Singapore antifragile?

Singapore has size going for it. You see that we’re talking about a city-state.

Who’s gonna invade it? One thing I’ve learned from history, particularly the Phoenicians. The Phoenicians don’t really have an army or an empire. At some point they had some army, but you might say it’s not economically viable. Why? When you come to invade them, unless you’re Nebuchadnezzar, and supposedly the history books say that he was very nasty, but then fact-checking take place. The genetics don’t actually show what really may have happened.

A guy comes in, very bloodthirsty, comes to you, and you tell him, “Listen, what do you want? You kill us all, you get nothing. Land is not interesting. What are you going to get? We’ll give you 5 percent. What do you want, 5 percent of something or 100 percent of nothing?”

That’s how the Phoenicians operated. Someone would come in. They had a hiccup with Alexander, one pound higher than a hiccup with Alexander.

They had an ego problem on both sides, but other than that, it worked very well as a system.

[The Seleucids did conquer the Phoenicians, right?]

The Phoenicians? No, the Seleucids came in, they said, “OK.” The system, at the time, was patronage. You come in, you’re a vassal state.

You guys here, you don’t understand. I live in New York City, so I have two options. One, pay the state — with all of this now, it’s going to go 50-some percent taxes — and you almost get nothing. Or, you can go to mafia now and give them 2 percent, and you get protection.

You get all the things that you want done for 2 percent. That’s exactly what happened. Think about the defense budget if it were run by the mafia.

The guy would come in, and the system at the time was the system of — when you say “conquer,” the imperial methods everywhere, including the Ottomans, before them the Romans, before them the Seleucids and the Ptolemies. The Ptolemies had more integration.

The whole technique was, you come in… And remember that government role, the GDP was, at the turn of the century in France, 5 percent, OK, last century. So having been, you’re not part of anything, you’re just paying taxes to someone you’ll never see — that was the thing. The integration usually was through commerce, not through military conquest.

The idea of Singapore, someone invaded — let’s say Malaysia decides to take over Singapore. What are they going to do with that? They’ve got nothing. It’s much better for you to go to Singapore, tell them, “We want 2 percent.” Or “We want 10 percent.” And then they will break it down to 3 percent.

Strategists had planned for one set of crises, but got another

Tuesday, June 12th, 2018

In 1914 few people expected great power conflict:

If there were to be a crisis, most Europeans expected it to come either on the Rhine River between Germany and France, or in the North Sea between the British and German fleets. But the French and Germans had resumed normal, even productive, relations after the 1911 Morocco crisis, and the Germans had largely ended their attempt to challenge the Royal Navy. In late June 1914, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife arrived in Sarajevo, sailors from the two fleets were getting drunk together at Fleet Week in Kiel. Winston Churchill, who was there, later observed that no one in Kiel could have imagined that they would be at war within a few short weeks.

The shooting of an obscure archduke ought not to have changed this placid picture; indeed, for most Europeans, it did not. Within a few days, the story of a supposedly deranged teenager’s act in a faraway city had largely disappeared from the front pages of newspapers in London, Paris, Berlin, and even Vienna. When European newspapers did discuss their fears of an impending war, they most commonly referred to the possibility of civil war in Ireland after the passage of a controversial Home Rule act in Parliament. If anything were to come out of the latest crisis in the Balkans, it would involve Austria-Hungary and Serbia only, and even then only if the Austrians could prove their allegations that Serbian officials had been behind the plot.

But the Austrian higher leadership read something different into the assassination. They believed that Franz Ferdinand’s assassination amounted to what we would today call state-sponsored terrorism. In their eyes, this meant that Austria found itself in a strangely advantageous strategic situation. All European governments and most European peoples sympathized with the murdered archduke and his wife. If Europeans knew anything about the couple, they knew that Franz Ferdinand had married the woman he loved, despite the fact that she was not a Habsburg. As a result, they had made a modern marriage for love instead of power, even though the emperor’s disapproval led them to be snubbed at court and their children excluded from the line of succession.

To the senior leaders of the empire, the sympathy pouring into Vienna meant that, for the first time in decades, Austria-Hungary appeared as an aggrieved party in a Balkan crisis. They therefore believed that European public opinion would permit them to push matters with Serbia a bit further than they had been able to do during past crises. Moreover, the absolutist regime in Russia might hesitate to support a state that backed regicide, even if the Russians publicly posed as Serbia’s nominal protector. Britain, meanwhile, was distracted by events in Ireland, and the French were enraptured by the final days of the trial of Henriette Caillaux, the wife of a prominent politician who had shot a newspaper editor. (Her lawyer claimed, for the first time in French legal history, that she was not guilty by reason of mental defect because, her husband having refused to challenge the editor to a duel, her female brain could not adjust to playing the male role of having to defend the family’s honor.) In any case, both Britain and France had shown themselves reluctant to get directly involved in past Balkan crises. Austria-Hungary’s leaders had every reason to believe that officials in London and Paris would move slowly during this one.

For senior Austro-Hungarian officials, the military situation created by the assassination was almost ideal. They guessed that no regime in Europe would jump to Serbia’s defense, not even Russia. The British, French, and Italians would likely stay neutral or, in any event, not intervene while Austro-Hungarian forces moved south. If those forces moved quickly and crushed the Serbians, they might present Europe with a fait accompli before the great powers could stop them.

Their German allies read the situation in much the same way. Senior military leaders in Berlin worried about Russian military and industrial growth. Within a few years that growth would render most German military planning obsolete, confronting the Germans with a two-front war that most assumed they could not win. Although only a few people knew it, the German war plan tried to get out of that dilemma by sending seven of its eight field armies against France no matter what diplomatic crisis triggered war. In this particular one, therefore, France might be caught sleeping, Britain might declare neutrality, and, for once, the Austrian ally in whom they had so little faith might have a motivation to fight well. The stars would likely never line up so favorably again.

Thus did Germany issue a “blank check” of support to Austria. If, as expected, Russia remained neutral, then Austria could inflict a devastating blow onto Serbia and Germany would gain by association without having to do anything. If Russia mobilized, then Germany could enact its war plan under extremely favorable circumstances, most notably by quickly attacking a distracted France, most of whose people saw no link whatsoever between themselves and an assassination in Sarajevo. Perhaps most crucially, the German regime could defend its efforts to the German people as a purely defensive response to Russian provocation.

Having drawn these conclusions, the Austro-Hungarians delivered their now infamous ultimatum to Serbia on July 23. It gave Serbia just 48 hours to reply, meaning that the long, slow diplomacy that had taken months to resolve and defuse recent crises in Morocco and Sudan had no time to work. Serbia tried to be conciliatory, but the Austrians, with German backing, wanted war on terms that they assumed were as favorable to them as they could ever hope to get.

Europe was stunned by the ultimatum, not the assassination; for this reason we call the crisis leading to war the July Crisis, not the June Crisis. Soldiers, including many senior leaders on leave in countries soon to be their enemies, hurried home to their units. Statesmen canceled vacations, and many foresaw that Europe was about to go to war over an issue that did not actually affect the vital interests of any of them except Austria-Hungary. They did not so much sleepwalk as awaken from a deep and pleasant slumber by a terrible fire that they could neither extinguish nor escape.

This is why the war that began in 1914 became the First World War instead of the Third Balkan War. The crisis hit too quickly and did not conform to the intellectual idea Europeans had of future war. It had not begun over a German-French confrontation as expected, yet the Germans were sending hundreds of thousands of soldiers to invade France and neutral Belgium. Perhaps more importantly, because Russia had mobilized first, every nation in Europe could defend its actions as essentially defensive in nature, and therefore just.

Europe, and by extension much of the world, was now at war for reasons no one could quite explain, except to say that they were fighting to protect themselves from an enemy immoral and inhuman enough to break the peace. Thus even socialists and most pacifists initially supported what they saw as a just war. Within a few dizzingly short weeks, the initial premise of Austria-Hungary’s demands on Serbia had fallen aside and the war had become a total war, fought for national survival and the complete destruction of the enemy. Unlike many past wars, there were no limited war aims to compromise over or to stop the fighting once attained. Thus were future mediation efforts by the Vatican, the Socialist International, and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson doomed to fail.

The causes of the First World War do not belong to a dead past of ancient ethnic grievances or governments ruled by incompetent aristocrats. Instead, the war began because of fatal miscalculations and unexpected contingencies. Put bluntly, strategists had planned for one set of crises, but got another. Their world, much like our own, had changed far too quickly for their plans or their intellectual preconceptions to adjust. In effect, they fought the wrong war, but all of the great powers could plausibly claim (at least in August 1914) that they had fought for the right reason, self-defense.

(Hat tip to Jonathan Jeckell.)

Conflicts can stop escalating even without deliberate agreement

Friday, June 8th, 2018

The most important lesson from micro level conflics that we can apply to the geopolitical level of nuclear war, is this:

Conflicts can stop escalating even without deliberate agreement, without negotiating, apologizing, or offering concessions.

In the world of international politics, the issue is generally posed as either taking a tough stance, or else turning to negotiations. But what do you do when the other side refuses to negotiate? Or when they make it clear that one thing that is not negotiable is building nuclear weapons that can wipe you out? This is a terrible dilemma. It makes advocates of negotiation look like they are shying away from a frightening reality through acts of blind faith. But micro-level conflicts show that there is another way out: threats of violence, even with the strongest expressions of hostility between the sides, nevertheless can arrive at an equilibrium that stops short of the brink. And this happens without negotiating, without making an explicit agreement.

When and how does this happen? Micro conflict shows it is a matter of shared emotional moods shifting over time. It is a minute-by-minute process, or day-by-day, even month-by-month. De facto de-escalation occurs with the sheer passage of time, avoiding irretrievable steps along the way, and keeping the sides in emotional equilibrium.

Look at the timing of how shooting wars break out — the timing of daily events that preceded the actual fighting.

[...]

In all these wars, the escalation of force — and the difficulty of de-escalating or extricating oneself– became locked in through a territorial incursion, when boots hit the ground.

[...]

Is this a conundrum, or an opportunity for violence to abort?

If neither side attempts a territorial incursion, we are in the same situation as a demonstration that doesn’t turn into a riot while the emotional danger-zone ticks by; in the same situation as gang members showing off their guns while trash-talking but only pointing them in the air. It looks dangerous, but it is survivable.

[...]

I am not saying that these leaders (or conceivably others) will decide not to strike, out of consideration for casualties of this scale. But they are feeling the emotional pressure. This adds one more force for delaying the moment, in the usual fashion of violence that does not come about because the “emotional moment that is ripe for violence” has not yet arrived.

Leaders will tend to prolong the decision. And waiting is itself a possible path to emotional de-escalation, perhaps the only path we have.

Show you are capable of violence

Thursday, June 7th, 2018

Different groups of people have their specific ways of carrying out quarrels, Randall Collins explains, their own cultures of quarreling:

But cutting across most of them is an unconscious common denominator: most of the time they have ways of keeping their disputes this side of violence. Research on quarrels among roommates or neighbours shows that such disputes often fester, but they almost never go all the way to violence. Gangs have an explicit culture of violence; they brag about it and measure their prestige by it. Nevertheless, close ethnographic observations by trained observers on the spot show that gang fights are much more about showing off their weapons than using them.

Street gangs have a turf and challenge anyone who enters it who fits the demographic of a rival gang; and often in a show of bravado they will invade someone else’s turf. But what happens then? If the groups are more or less evenly matched, they confine themselves to flashing their gang signs, showing their colors, exchanging trash talk. On a schoolyard in southern California, rival gangs pull up their shirts to show the guns tucked in their waist-bands; but nothing happens, until the school janitor comes out and shoos them away. On the streets of west and north Philadelphia, the local culture of gun gesturing has evolved in the last 20 years — opening your coat to show the butt of a gun; pulling the gun but keeping it pointed at the ground while continuing the duet of insults; pointing the gun in the air. This requires a good understanding of what’s going on, and accomplished tough guys need to be able to read the signs of where this ballet of danger displays is leading. Shootings do occur in these neighbourhoods, but most of the time these incidents are survivable.

In Chicago, ethnographer Joe Krupnick accompanied seasoned gang members — men in their 20s who had gone through years of living dangerously, and who always went armed. But although they often met members of rival gangs on the street (this was after the big hierarchic gangs had broken up and no one controlled the old turf in the city projects), they had an etiquette of how to pass one another, with just enough recognition, and without showing too much suspicion that the other would turn on them. When things got escalated, these armed men might even fire a bullet in the air — a way to alert the police, and giving everyone an excuse to leave the scene.

These gangs displayed what Elijah Anderson called “the code of the street”: show you are capable of violence, don’t back down from a threat, but recognize that if we both play by the street code, we can save face and at the same time avoid violence. You gain prestige by playing the street code, and the highest prestige comes not from killing other people but by showing you are in the fraternity of those who know how to handle such situations.

Keep it to common terms of abuse

Wednesday, June 6th, 2018

Small-scale violence most frequently aborts, Randall Collins notes:

Curtis Jackson-Jacobs, a UCLA researcher, followed a loosely-organized gang in Tucson, Arizona, as they went looking for fights. It consisted of a couple of dozen young white men, all of them bored with middle-class life style, who went to parties hoping to find someone to fight with. They were looking for opponents who would give them some action and boost their prestige, at least in their own eyes: black guys, tough guys, Hispanic gangs, bikers, athletes. But although there were plenty of over-crowded house parties in this desert city, with plenty of loud music and drinking going on, the surprise is how difficult it was for them to find a fight. They took a belligerent attitude, bumped into people, gave people the eye, but most of the time fights didn’t happen. Fights were rare enough that when one happened, the group would spend weeks thereafter talking about it, going over the details, bragging about what they did and even about taking a beating if they lost.

Why did this action-seeking group have so much trouble finding fights? Jackson-Jacobs spelled out the subtle details that had to happen if two sides were going to fight. These little details were only semi-conscious, but they boiled down to the fact that both sides had to decide that a fight was coming up, and this had to be a mutual feeling of emotion and timing. Like a demo only turning into a riot a couple of hours in, no one walks into a party and starts a fight from the very first minute. And if the minutes go by long enough, there is a feeling that this isn’t the time and place, so the action-seekers go somewhere else.

[Another hypothesis is that fights were also inhibited because typically rival groups fight within the same identity or demographic: as we know from gang murders in Chicago (Andrew Papachristos’ research) and gang fights generally, most such violence is segregated: black gangs fight with black gangs, Hispanic gangs with Hispanic, Irish gangs with Irish, Italian Mafias with each other. Jackson-Jacobs’ white middle-class guys were an anomaly on the tough-guy scene; they didn’t identify as skinheads, so they had no counterpart group to fight with them. J-J’s crew were looking for the prestige of fighting somebody tough; maybe they didn’t perceive that the same goes for the other side, and real fighting gangs didn’t think they were a worthy opponent.]

The pattern holds generally across different kinds of small-scale fights: most encounters where people threaten each other with violence do not actually end in violence. Most stay at the level of angry insults — the human bark is worse than our bite. Even if it gets physical, most fights do not go beyond pushing and shoving. Videos of fights (posted from cell phones) generally show that after a few wild swings, fighters tend to spin away from each other, leaving themselves at a distance just out of reach while the fight winds down. Showing your willingness to fight is on the whole more important than what damage you do. Researchers in England, using CCTV from pubs and the streets outside, found that angry disputes were broken up, in the great majority of cases, by friends separating the fighters.

[...]

A key feature that keeps quarrels from escalating is when they are balanced. Two guys quarrel with each other. They push out their chests, get their hands into fighting position. They yell insults at each other, each getting louder, trying to shout the other down. A lot here depends on what the audience will do — whether other people take sides or encourage them to fight; or do the opposite, ignoring the quarrel, which tends to take the energy out of it. Left to themselves, the belligerents usually find themselves repeating the same insults, over and over; they are both talking at the same time, which means they aren’t listening to each other, and it just becomes a contest of keeping up the noise. (How long do dogs go on barking at each other? Check it out.) After a short period of time — usually less than 60 seconds — this gets boring. They get tired of a quarrel that is going nowhere. Typically they will break it off, with a gesture of disgust, or slamming the door on the way out.

This suggests some practical advice. If you get into a threatening face-contest with someone, keep it in equilibrium. Just mimic what the other person does; don’t escalate it. After a while it becomes boring — and boredom is your friend. (Sir Francis Bacon, 400 years ago, wrote that if you are in an angry dispute, keep it to common terms of abuse; don’t try to score a cutting remark with a personal insult that your opponent will never forgive.)

When do demonstrations become riots?

Tuesday, June 5th, 2018

Randall Collins turns his sociological eye on protest demonstrations and when they do or do not turn into violent riots:

According to Dr. Anne Nassauer, sociologist at the Free University Berlin, most demonstrations are peaceful. Her research focuses on demonstrations in the US and in Germany, with comparisons elsewhere in Europe, where 92–98% of protests are peaceful. The impression that demonstrations easily turn violent is created because the news media ignore most demonstrations unless they are violent.

Even when participants announce in advance they will use violence, that is not enough to predict that a demo will be violent. Nor does it matter whether authorities announce a zero-tolerance policy, declaring that any provocation by demonstrators will be met by force and arrest.

It makes no difference whether or not a demonstration includes participants who come prepared to fight. Since the 1990s, demos have generally included an avowedly violent group known as the Black Bloc — who wear black clothes, facemasks, body armor and shields, and link arms in aggressive tactics against police and opponents. The names have changed over the years; in the 1960s the pro-violence faction were called “Maoists”, while very recently they have gone under the “Anti-Fa” banner. Such groups are usually a small proportion of a large demonstration. But as we can see in photos of riots, only 5-10% of the those present do all the violence; so a relatively small violent group can potentially make a demo into a riot. The surprising finding is that whether such a group is present or not does not make a difference in whether the demo will stay peaceful or not.

Avowed intentions do not matter much when it comes to violence. Declaring that you are going to be violent does not predict what you will actually do. On the flip side, declaring that a protest will be peaceful does not guarantee that it will turn out that way; violence can break out even when demonstrators plan to use non-violent tactics and the policing style is hands-off. As Nassauer shows, even when the police announce they will avoid using force, and both sides meet beforehand to plan the protest route and agree on how to avoid confrontations, things can go wrong. At the moment of outbreak, violence is inflamed by surprise and outrage on each side that their agreement was violated.

Why don’t groups of people do what they say they are going to do? In contentious protests, whether the event turns violent is the result of turning points that first increase tension on both sides, and then trigger off a collective reaction. It is less a matter of conscious planning than of emotions building up during the situation when the two sides confront each other face to face. It is an emergent process. Dr. Isabel Bramsen of Copenhagen University, who studied demonstrations and violence in the Arab Spring uprisings, called her analysis “Route Causes of Violence” — i.e. the causes of violent outbreaks emerge en route, rather than determining what will happen in advance.

Typically, if violence occurs during a protest demonstration, it will break out one to three hours in. A demo does not start out by being violent from the very first minute. Even if protesters intend to be violent, they don’t start off with using rocks, guns, or gasoline fire bombs; nor do authorities immediately fire tear gas and automatic weapons.

[This is true, amazingly enough, even in Arab Spring locations like Tunisia, Bahrain, and Syria. Bramsen found that even though authoritarian regimes order their forces to use force, they do not start firing at the first sign of a demonstration. Here, too, timing and collective emotions determine what will happen.]

It takes time to build up high tension, to build up the feeling of when the moment is ripe for violence. This is a mutual moment felt on both sides.

[...]

If the emotional trigger does not happen by then, both sides start to relax. As if both unconsciously feel, too late now, maybe next time.

Confrontational tension and fear make most violence incompetent

Saturday, June 2nd, 2018

Violence is difficult to carry out, Randall Collins reminds us:

This is the main finding of research on what happens when humans find themselves in situations threatening violence. It runs contrary to our cultural beliefs, and the way violence is depicted in the news and entertainment media. But the news reports violence that happens, not fights that abort, angry quarrels that fritter out, or guns that are pointed but not fired, or fired but miss. Films and TV shows make violence look dramatic, but if they showed what it actually looks like no one would want to watch it.

He summarizes his own Violence: A Micro-Sociological Theory:

Confrontational tension and fear: In situations threatening violence, participants may start out with angry bluster, loud voices, and menacing gesture. But when it comes to bodily attack on their opponent, even the most aggressive show tension and fear on their faces. This tension makes most violence incompetent. Soldiers and cops who are proficient on a firing range often miss when their target is a live human being; gang-bangers are even more incompetent, firing wildly and quickly running or driving away.

Micro-sociology triggers physiology, and bodily reactions get in the way of conscious intentions. Face-to-face confrontations are socially tense, pumping adrenaline, the flight-or-fight hormone, an undifferentiated arousal that can go either way. Many soldiers in combat do not fire their guns. Like cops in shoot-outs, those who do fire often have perceptual distortions, time slowing to dream-like or speeding up to a blur, a sound-proof tunnel where shooters can’t hear their own guns. Some freeze; some hit their own side in friendly fire; some go into a frenzy where they can’t stop firing in an overkill of bullets until they have emptied their magazine. The same applies to fists, kicks, or knife-stabs. The common denominator is high adrenaline levels, which mobilize the large muscles of the body but desensitize fine motor control of hands and fingers.

What happens in a confrontation depends on the relative levels of adrenaline on both sides. If one side can stay in the zone of medium arousal while the other loses bodily control, the more competent performer at violence will beat the incompetent performer. Not that the better fighter at the moment has to be really competent, just less incompetent than the other. At the extreme, one side becomes paralyzed at very high adrenaline levels, making an easy target for the opponent still capable of attacking.

To be skilled in violence is to keep your own adrenaline level down to medium levels, while driving up your opponent’s to high levels that make them incompetent. If adrenaline levels are equal, neither side performs worse than the other, and the confrontation stalls out, the fight aborting or winding down by losing momentum. We see this also in sexual aggression.

Attacking the weak: Confrontational tension and fear (ct/f ) is a barrier that aggressors have to overcome if they are to deliver any violence. There are several ways around this barrier. The most common pattern is attacking a weak victim: someone who is physically much weaker; someone who is unarmed when you are armed; someone who is running away. Outnumbering the opponent is a major confidence-booster. In photos of riots and brawls, the most common pattern is a group of between 3 and 6 attackers hitting and kicking an isolated individual. Without this advantage, evenly matched fights usually are stalemates, coming to nothing or quickly aborting; Having even one supporter on the weaker side shifts the emotional balance.

The advantage is not so much physical but emotional domination. Robbers with guns are nevertheless wary of hold-ups where one is a lone individual outnumbered by victims and bystanders; most successful robberies consist of 2 or 3 robbers against an isolated shop-keeper. Back-up in robberies is confidence-building, and a way to establish emotional dominance over the victim. Even police act this way; the more police on the scene, the more likely they are to commit extensive violence in making arrests. Successful violence comes from establishing the mood and rhythm from the outset, driving the opponent into passivity.

Confrontation-minimizing tactics: Another way around the barrier of ct/f is to avoid the main source of tension: threatening the other person face-to-face. Eye contact makes the encounter tense. Robbers and muggers find it easiest to attack from behind, where the two sides cannot see each other’s eyes. Wearing masks and hoods emboldens the attacker and disconcerts victims by making the attacker appear un-human. And in the modern high-tech world, cyber attacks are psychologically easy, since they involve no human confrontation at all.

Audience support: Onlookers who encourage a fight help overcome ct/f and enable fighters to carry on much longer than they would if there were no one watching. How long and severe the fight is depends on the size and attitude of the audience: most destructive where a large audience is unified in cheering on a fight; shorter and less harmful when the audience is divided or unsure; when bystanders ignore a fight it soon peters out.

Violence as fun and entertainment: Fights are particularly likely on occasions of leisure and fun: parties, drinking places, holidays, crowds at games and concerts. These are carousing zones where normal routines are suspended and special excitement is expected. Violence on these occasions still requires overcoming ct/f, finding emotional domination over weak victims, and/or support of an audience.

With the recent scandals in the news, he goes on to ask, Do the conditions for successful violence apply also to sexual violence? and supplies some examples where confrontational tension and fear play a large role:

A young man in his late teens followed an attractive middle-aged woman into her apartment building, by hurrying through the security door behind her. No one else is in the lobby. In the elevator he pulls a knife and threatens to rape her. Although a small woman (5 foot 2 inches), she is a top executive in a non-profit organization, used to exercising authority. She says disapprovingly, what would your mother think if she knew what you are doing? When the elevator door opened, he runs off.

A tall (5 foot 9 inches), attractive woman in her mid-20s is running in an open area, when a man about her age runs up behind her and grabs her. She turns around and swings at him, knocking off his glasses and breaking them. (What did he look like?) About six feet tall, long hair and mustache, medium build. He immediately starts apologizing. She steps on his glasses, and glares at him as he retreats.

The tables turned when the rapist fails to establish emotional domination. In the previous case, the attacker has a knife, but as in hold-ups, a weapon is not enough to be successful unless the victim is intimidated.

Short of rape, milder forms of sexual aggression often fail, perhaps most of the time. David Grazian’s research on night clubs found that male patrons often engage in “the girl hunt,” seeking pickups. But these young men did more talking among themselves about the women they saw than actually making contact with them. Generally they lowered their sights to getting phone numbers, not too successfully at that; and groups of young women who went to clubs together often gave them fake numbers. In other words, even in venues explicitly themed for sexual encounters, most of the “girl hunters” stayed on the sidelines, did not approach aggressively, and were rarely successful.

Is this true across the spectrum of sexual aggression? Accounts in the news media focus on aggressions that succeed, but even here we find most aggressors do not get far.

He has much, much more to say on the topic, but here’s his bottom line:

The micro-sociology of violence in general suggests there are pathways by which women can deter sexual aggression. Perhaps surprisingly, such micro-deterrence may be more successful in preventing the extreme forms of sexual violence — bodily rape, than lesser forms like verbal aggression. But we just don’t know, since we have so little evidence covering situations where women silence men’s verbal advances. The common denominators are, extrapolating from violence generally: keep facing your opponent; looking him in the face, head up, as directly as possible; keep calm and strong-voiced as possible; repeat-repeat-repeat to the point of boredom. Even the arch casting-couch rapist, Weinstein, failed in the majority of his documented attempts; and this is consistent with other evidence.

We fight for status, and we fight for belonging

Friday, June 1st, 2018

Former British Army officer Mike Martin’s Why We Fight explores the evolutionary psychology of warfare:

When you dig into it and you look at the data, there’s only two things that are worth risking yourself in war for, as an individual. The first thing is an increase in social status. And the reason why that’s worth risking yourself for is as you rise up the status hierarchy, particularly as a man, and men do most of the fighting, you get more mates, more sexual mates. When you have more mates, you have more children. That’s a reason to risk fighting in war.

But there’s another reason why people fight in war. That’s to ensure that they have membership of an in-group. This in-group could be a tribe or a nation-state. It’s the same mechanism, it’s the thing that causes us as humans to feel belonging. It’s the thing that makes you feel homesick. It’s the thing that sends shivers down your spine when you’re at a political rally, or a football match, or you’re singing in a choir in church. These are the mechanisms in your brain causing you to seek to belong.

In evolutionary terms, we need to belong to groups because they’re safe. The main reason that groups exist in evolutionary terms is because they protect us from other humans who are trying to kill us. We fight for status and we fight for belonging. We’ve got these ideas that these two things, status and belonging, and humans seeking those things are what cause individuals to fight in wars.

Actually, this makes sense. Look around the world. We’ve got two global level politicians and the idea of them seeking status and having status disputes with each other is very obvious in their behaviour. Leaders seek to dominate their own groups and that’s what they do. Running for the presidency of the United States is a massive status contest, it’s gruelling.

These people are driven to succeed and they’re driven to achieve high status. The mechanism that guides this seeking status is basically testosterone. The way it works is that the more testosterone you get, the more you seek status, but it’s a feedback loop. It’s a positive feedback loop.

When you get to the top of your group, i.e. you become the leader of your country or perhaps you become the head of your tribe, it depends what scale we’re looking at, you then seek to dominate other leaders who are the leaders of other groups. This is where we see wars at a product of a status disputes between leaders playing out.

Belonging comes into play when those who aren’t leaders seek to take part in wars. We can see this played out and the rise of identity politics at the moment, particularly in the States, but also across Europe. If Why We Fight is correct and war is driven by status and belonging, we’re entering a very dangerous period of history.”

Martin has much more to say on his own site. You may recognize him from his appearance in Adam Curtis’s Bitter Lake:

(Hat tip to Scott Adams.)