Bungling the Conclusions to Wars

Friday, December 19th, 2014

Insurgencies aren’t going away, so we should work toward doing counterinsurgencies better, Max Boot argues:

The first lesson may sound like a no-brainer, but it has been routinely ignored: plan for what comes after the overthrow of a regime. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the George W. Bush administration failed to adequately prepare for what the military calls “Phase IV,” the period after immediate victory — an oversight that allowed law and order to break down in both countries and insurgencies to metastasize. Yet Obama, despite his criticism of Bush’s conduct of the Iraq war, repeated the same mistake in Libya. In 2011, U.S. and nato forces helped rebels topple Muammar al-Qaddafi but then did very little to help the nascent Libyan government establish control of its own territory. As a result, Libya remains riven by militias, which have plunged the country into chaos. Just this past July — almost two years after U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed in Benghazi — the State Department had to evacuate its entire embassy staff from Tripoli after fighting there reached the airport.

This is not a problem confined to Bush or Obama. The United States has a long tradition of bungling the conclusions to wars, focusing on narrow military objectives while ignoring the political end state that troops are supposed to be fighting for. This inattention made possible the persecution of freed slaves and their white champions in the South after the American Civil War, the eruption of the Philippine insurrection after the Spanish-American War, the rise of the Nazis in Germany and the Communists in Russia after World War I, the invasions of South Korea and South Vietnam after World War II, and the impetus for the Iraq war after the Gulf War. Too often, U.S. officials have assumed that all the United States has to do is get rid of the bad guys and the postwar peace will take care of itself. But it simply isn’t so. Generating order out of chaos is one of the hardest tasks any country can attempt, and it requires considerable preparation of the kind that the U.S. military undertook for the occupation of Germany and Japan after 1945 — but seldom did before and has seldom done since.

Welcome to the War

Friday, December 19th, 2014

David Grossman (On Killing) introduces the role of physiological arousal and fear with this anecdote from Six War Years 1939–1945:

And then a shell lands behind us, and another over to the side, and by this time we’re scurrying and the Sarge and I and another guy wind up behind a wall. The sergeant said it was an 88 and then he said, “Shit and shit some more.”

I asked him if he was hit and he sort of smiled and said no, he had just pissed his pants. He always pissed them, he said, just when things started and then he was okay. He wasn’t making any apologies either, and then I realized something wasn’t quite right with me, either. There was something warm down there and it seemed to be running down my leg. I felt, and it wasn’t blood. It was piss.

I told the Sarge, I said, “Sarge, I’ve pissed too,” or something like that and he grinned and said, “Welcome to the war.”

How You Know

Thursday, December 18th, 2014

Paul Graham (Hackers & Painters) remembers little of what he’s read:

I’ve read Villehardouin’s chronicle of the Fourth Crusade at least two times, maybe three. And yet if I had to write down everything I remember from it, I doubt it would amount to much more than a page. Multiply this times several hundred, and I get an uneasy feeling when I look at my bookshelves. What use is it to read all these books if I remember so little from them?


Reading and experience train your model of the world. And even if you forget the experience or what you read, its effect on your model of the world persists. Your mind is like a compiled program you’ve lost the source of. It works, but you don’t know why.

The place to look for what I learned from Villehardouin’s chronicle is not what I remember from it, but my mental models of the crusades, Venice, medieval culture, siege warfare, and so on. Which doesn’t mean I couldn’t have read more attentively, but at least the harvest of reading is not so miserably small as it might seem.

This is one of those things that seem obvious in retrospect. But it was a surprise to me and presumably would be to anyone else who felt uneasy about (apparently) forgetting so much they’d read.

Realizing it does more than make you feel a little better about forgetting, though. There are specific implications.

For example, reading and experience are usually “compiled” at the time they happen, using the state of your brain at that time. The same book would get compiled differently at different points in your life. Which means it is very much worth reading important books multiple times. I always used to feel some misgivings about rereading books. I unconsciously lumped reading together with work like carpentry, where having to do something again is a sign you did it wrong the first time. Whereas now the phrase “already read” seems almost ill-formed.

Intriguingly, this implication isn’t limited to books.

104 Yards, Strong Hand Only

Thursday, December 18th, 2014

A few weeks ago an active shooter shot up downtown Austin, but that’s not the interesting part, Chris Hernandez explains:

Sergeant Johnson shot him from 104 yards away, with one shot from a pistol, firing one handed, while holding the reins of two horses.

A few comments I’ve read online suggested the 104-yard pistol shot was an Austin PD conspiracy, because such a shot is impossible. I’ve also heard people say Johnson must be lying or exaggerating. You just can’t shoot someone with one shot, one handed with a pistol from over a hundred yards away.

My own experience and training leads me to a different conclusion. That shot would be amazingly difficult, but not impossible.

Most police officers never train to shoot past twenty five yards. I’ve worked for three departments, plus served as a United Nations police officer in Kosovo, and I can’t recall ever shooting a pistol at long range during police training. But I’ve taken a few pistol courses from private training companies. One of them was at Tiger Valley, near Waco, Texas.

The owner/instructor, TJ Pilling, lined us up on the pistol range one day and said we were going to have a competition. He told us to fire one shot at our targets, which were half-size steel silhouettes. We were at twenty-five yards, and we all hit. He backed us up to thirty-five yards and told us to fire again. We all hit. Forty-five yards. A few missed. Fifty-five yards. Only I and one other officer hit. Sixty-five. I was firing a .40 Glock 22, and aimed just over the top of the target’s head. I missed. The other officer hit.

TJ asked me if I aimed high. I told him I did. He said, “Aim center mass.” I did, and shocked the hell out of myself by hitting the target.

TJ walked us to a bay with a full-size silhouette target at 110 yards, and said, “If you have a 9mm, aim center mass. If it’s a .40, aim at the neck.”

The guys with 9mms started pinging the crap out of the target. I fired several shots standing and couldn’t get a hit, so I went prone and tried again. Eventually, after a spotter helped me walk the rounds in like a mortar, I made repeated hits.

I was, to put it mildly, surprised. I’d been a cop for twelve years at that point, and all my training had focused on shooting twenty-five yards and closer. I’d been in the military seventeen years but received almost no pistol training from either the Marines or Army. Conventional wisdom taught me pistols were last-ditch, close-in weapons, and shooting at someone even twenty-five yards away was stretching it. I had struggled to make accurate hits at twenty-five, had missed a target at that range more than once, and had seen cops and soldiers miss numerous shots even closer than that.

Why Do Human Children Stay Small For So Long?

Thursday, December 18th, 2014

Why does it take so long for human children to grow up?

A male chimp and male human, for example, both end up with the same body weight but they grow very differently: at year one the human weighs twice that of the chimp but at eight the chimp is twice that of the human. The chimp then gains its adult weight by 12 — six years before the human. A male gorilla is also a faster growing primate — a 330-pound male gorilla weighs 110 pounds by its fifth birthday and 265 pounds by its tenth.

Clues to the answer can be found in the young human brain’s need for energy. Radioactive tracers allow scientists to measure the glucose used in different areas of the brain but this procedure is only used rarely when it is justified by investigating neurological problems. However, the few cases we do have reveal how radically different the childhood brain is from that in adults or infants.

From about the age of four to puberty, the young brain guzzles glucose — the cerebral cortex, its largest part, uses nearly (or more than) double that used earlier or later in life. This creates a problem. A child’s body is a third of the size of an adult but its brain is nearly adult-sized. Calculated as a share, a child’s takes up half of all the energy used by a child.

Map child growth against what is known about brain energy consumption and they shadow in a negative way: one goes up, the other down. The period in which the brain’s need for glucose peaks happens just when body growth most slows. Why? In a recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, I proposed that this prevents a potential conflict over blood glucose that might otherwise arise between brawn and brain.

A young child has at any moment a limited amount of glucose in its blood circulation (3.4g — the equivalent in weight to about three Smartie candies). Fortunately a child’s liver can quickly generate glucose, providing other organs do not compete against the brain for the glucose. But as French child exercise physiologist Paul Delamarche noted:

Even at rest, it would appear to be difficult for children to maintain blood glucose concentration at a steady level; an immaturity of their gluco-regulatory system would seem to be likely, therefore causing a delay in an adequate response to any stimulus to hypoglycemia like prolonged exercise.

Organs elsewhere in the body fuel themselves with energy sources that do not compete with the brain such as fatty acids. But skeletal muscle can compete when exertion is intense and sustained.

In adults, the liver quickly ramps up its generation of glucose so even active brawn does not usually compete against the brain. But conflict can arise even in adults, and it could pose a real threat to children. Luckily they do not let it happen: they stop exertion if it gets intense and sustained. Not that this makes children inactive — they do even more low and moderate exercise than adolescents and adults.

So putting a break on growth in childhood aids limiting skeletal muscle as a potential glucose competitor to the brain. And not only are their bodies smaller but they contain (as a percentage of their bodies) less skeletal muscle than in adults. And even that skeletal muscle, some research suggests, is of a type that uses less glucose than in active adults.

So human growth rate negatively shadows increased energy use in the child’s brain.

Small Caliber Rounds! What Are They Good For?

Thursday, December 18th, 2014

In today’s world of .22-caliber infantry rifles, it can be hard to remember that .30 caliber used to be small caliber, as this 1891 New York Times article makes clear:

In further comment, Captain Surgeon Marsh points out that, inasmuch as the resisting surface offered to the face of a small-calibre bullet has been thus reduced, the ball penetrates and passes through the tissues without having expended much of its energy in their destruction. Its track is so narrow that there is practically no destruction of substance in its path. Such a ball might pass through a large joint without touching the bones, or between the two bones of the forearm or leg without injuring them in the slightest, thus producing nothing more than a simple flesh wound, not grave enough to place the wounded man hors de combat.

A larger calibre ball, say of the Martini type, .45 calibre, striking in similar situations would inevitably shock the system and shatter the bones to such an extent as totally to disable the soldier for many months, if not for life. In adopting a lighter and smaller calibre ball there is sacrificed to a great extent the stopping power and shock possessed by the larger missiles.

Hazel’s Leadership Style

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

Richard Adams (Watership Down) does an ask-me-anything on Reddit and gets asked about Hazel’s leadership style and whether it was inspired by somebody he knew in real life:

Yes! I had the good luck to get accepted for service in airborne forces during world war 2. Not everybody who put their name forward was accepted for it. I felt tremendously proud. I went as an officer to 250 light company RASC airborne. The commanding officer was a Major called John Gifford. I admired him tremendously. He was very quiet — in fact one of the quietest I’ve ever known. Regardless all of his commanding officers respected him and obeyed him without question. All his officers were parachutists whether they were commanders or not. My point is that everyone in 250 light company respected and admired him, and he certainly influenced Hazel. He was so sensible. Not all commanders are sensible! I would even say his officers loved him.

Ineffective Government

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

Nearly all the well-informed and honest citizens of the United States agree, Scott Adams (How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big) suggests, that the Federal Government should not enforce marijuana prohibition in states that allow medical marijuana:

That’s an easy law to change, right? I mean, if something like 80% of voters agree on an issue, it’s a no-brainer.

But our ineffective government couldn’t pass a law that had overwhelming support because, I suppose, it is bad for reelection if someone labels you pro-drug. So instead, Congress quietly just removed funding for the FBI’s weed-chasing efforts. No budget means no action in the future. In effect, the federal war on weed is over.

While I appreciate that the government is moving in the direction the citizens prefer, how much does it tell you about the effectiveness of our system that lawmakers couldn’t change a law that nearly 100% of well-informed and honest (meaning not taking money from private prison lobbyists for example) folks prefer?

My point is not about weed. That fight is essentially over. We’re just waiting for the referee to count to ten, although that might play out over several years. Full legalization for adults (in effect) is inevitable because the data will be so clear after a few states do their test runs.

My point is that if your government can’t pass a law that has has nearly universal approval, do you really have a functioning government?

How to lose great leaders? Ask the Army

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

Tim Kane recommends that we move our military to a total volunteer force — one that treats officers as human capital with autonomy rather than as physical capital in inventory:

High quit rates are just a symptom of the deeper problem that too many military members are mismatched with their jobs.

In truth, military officers are only volunteers for one day: the day they sign up. Afterwards, they’re treated with the same kind of inflexible, coercive management that has defined militaries since history began. No electronic “job boards” list openings for the thousands of available jobs in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. No junior officers know where their next job assignment will be, or if it will fit with their interests, strengths and talents. And no commanders are trusted to directly hire the subordinates they feel their teams need.

Rather, junior officers are generally limited to rank-ordering the base locations they prefer. Commanders are limited to making a “by-name request” of some officers, but this is more often than not ignored by higher-ups. Labor supply is coordinated with labor demand by large bureaucracies that haven’t changed much since Harry Truman was president in the 1950s.

Why does this nonsensical and anachronistic approach persist? The mantra from the central planners in the bowels of the Pentagon has always been that the “needs of the military come first.” That’s dumb. Smart organizations in the private sector have learned that putting employees’ needs first — ahead of corporate ones — only seems unproductive to short-term thinkers.

This stat caught my eye:

Since the 1950s, America’s defense budget shrank from 17 percent of GDP to less than 4 percent today.

Defeating the Enemy’s Will

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

David Grossman (On Killing) discusses defeating the enemy’s will:

Defeating the enemy’s will is not too far removed from the process of inflicting psychiatric casualties on the enemy’s soldiers. In fact it would come very close to the mark to say that maneuver warfare (as opposed to attrition warfare) seeks to inflict psychic as well as physical damage upon the enemy, and a brief examination of the psychological price of modern war would be an appropriate place to begin our study of the psychological underpinnings of maneuver warfare.

In his book, No More Heroes, Richard Gabriel outlines the staggering “psychic” costs of war. “In every war in which American soldiers have fought in this century, the chances of becoming a psychiatric casualty… were greater than the chances of being killed by enemy fire.” In World War II, America’s armed forces lost 504,000 men from the fighting effort because of psychiatric collapse — enough to man fifty divisions! We suffered this loss despite efforts to weed out those mentally and emotionally unfit for combat by classifying 970,000 men as unfit for military service due to psychiatric reasons. At one point in World War II, psychiatric casualties were being discharged from the U.S. Army faster than new recruits were being drafted in. Swank and Marchand’s World War II study determined that after 60 days of continuous combat, 98 percent of all surviving soldiers will have become psychiatric casualties of one kind or another. (Swank and Marchand also found that the 2 percent who are able to endure sustained combat had as their most common trait a predisposition toward “aggressive psychopathic personalities.” The importance of this statistic will be addressed later.)

These factors contribute to the psychic costs of war:

The impact of physiological arousal and fear. Appel and Beebe are but a few of many, many observers in the field of the behavioral sciences who hold that fear of death and injury is the primary cause of psychiatric casualties. Richard Gabriel is among many who make a powerful argument for the impact of physical exhaustion caused by extended periods during which the sympathetic nervous system is activated in a continuous “fight or flight” response.

The weight of exhaustion. Among actual veterans, many accounts seem to focus on the fatigue and exhaustion they experienced in combat. The psychologist Bartlett states definitively that “there is perhaps no general condition which is more likely to produce a large crop of nervous and mental disorders than a state of prolonged and great fatigue.” The British General Bernard Fergusson stated that “lack of food constitutes the single biggest assault upon morale.” And Guy Sajer (The Forgotten Soldier), a German veteran of the eastern front in World War II, is one of the many veterans who learned that cold was the soldier’s first enemy. “We urinated into our hands to warm them, and, hopefully, to cauterize the gaping cuts in our fingers… each movement of my fingers opened and closed deep crevices, which oozed blood.”

The stress of uncertainty. The initial results of extensive research on the 1991 Gulf War indicates that one of the major stressors on individual combatants was the tremendous uncertainty of war. This constant state of uncertainty, which is a major part of what Clausewitz referred to as the “friction of war,” destroys the soldier’s sense of control over his life and environment, and eats away at his limited stock of fortitude.

The burden of guilt and horror. Richard Holmes, on the other hand, spends a chapter of his superb book, Acts of War, convincing us of the horror of battle, and the impact of the guilt associated with it: “Seeing friends killed, or, almost worse, being unable to help them.” And Peter Marin accuses the field of psychology of being ill prepared to address the guilt caused by war and the attendant moral issues. He flatly states that, “Nowhere in the [psychiatric and psychological] literature is one allowed to glimpse what is actually occurring: the real horror of the war and its effect on those who fought it.”

An aversion to hate and killing. In addition to these more obvious factors of fear, exhaustion, uncertainty, guilt, and horror, the less obvious but absolutely vital factors represented by the average human being’s aversion to hate and killing have been added here. These two factors are the most difficult to observe, but the very fact that they are not intuitively obvious makes them in many ways more important. These interpersonal aggression processes are the riddle that lies deep in the heart of darkness that is war.

Why the Battle of the Bulge Still Matters

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

This month marks the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, Michael Peck notes, but we can still learn valuable lessons from what may have been the greatest battle ever fought by the U.S. Army:

First, never, ever underestimate the enemy. The Western Allies did have every reason for confidence in December 1944. France and Belgium had been liberated, the German armies in the West had been decimated, and U.S. troops were fighting on German soil. With the Red Army relentlessly crushing the Third Reich from the east, final victory seemed just a few weeks or months away.

But there is a fine line between confidence and overconfidence, and the ordinary GI paid the price that dark December. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the last time. MacArthur believed the Communists were licked in Korea, until Chinese human wave assaults proved otherwise. In Vietnam, the “light at the end of the tunnel” was abruptly extinguished by the Tet Offensive. And “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq turned out to be anything but. Should America go to war with China, Iran or North Korea, the question is when—not if—they will unleash some surprise tactic or weapon unforeseen by the Pentagon.

Second, just because you think an idea is crazy, doesn’t mean the enemy will. Even Hitler’s own generals thought his Ardennes offensive was lunatic. Who would be insane enough to send immense columns of tanks, guns and trucks down narrow, ice- and snow-covered roads, fight through densely forested hills and over rivers, and then drive 125 miles to capture the vital port of Antwerp? A more realistic German plan would have been a spoiling attack to encircle and destroy a few American divisions to disrupt the final invasion of Germany.

Nonetheless, Hitler pursued his hopeless plan—and inflicted more than 80,000 casualties in a month. It was equally crazy for the Viet Cong to come out in the open and expose themselves to overwhelming U.S. firepower during the Tet Offensive. But they did, and the political repercussions helped turn the American public against the war. North Korea’s rulers are certain to have zany schemes that they believe will defeat the United States. But lunacy does not equal ineffectiveness.

Third, don’t ignore intelligence. There were some indications that the Germans were preparing some kind of attack (Eisenhower’s own intelligence officer warned of them), but most Allied commanders and their staffs were so blinded by victory fever that they ignored them. Similarly, there were indications that the Mao would attack in Korea, or that the Viet Cong would launch the Tet Offensive.

The Bulge also foreshadowed the excessive American reliance on technical intelligence. Allied ULTRA codebreakers had been reading German radio messages for years. But ULTRA didn’t detect German preparations, which was taken as an indication that nothing was happening. Even with the capabilities of the CIA and NSA, America was still surprised by Osama Bin Laden on 9/11.

Fourth, flexibility is everything. As bad the Battle of the Bulge was, it could have been a lot worse. Once the Allies recovered from the shock, they moved quickly to stop and then roll back the German penetration. The 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions were moved into the path of the offensive (the 101st reached the vital crossroads of Bastogne just in time), while Patton moved his divisions with remarkable rapidity to strike the German southern flank. Despite bad blood between American and British commanders, Field Marshal Montgomery deployed British troops in an example of coalition warfare that worked.

Looney Balloons

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

Google’s far-fetched Project Loon seems to be working:

[A]s you read this, some 75 Google balloons are airborne, hovering somewhere over the far reaches of the Southern Hemisphere, automatically adjusting their altitudes according to complex algorithms in order to catch wind currents that will keep them on course. By next year, Google believes it will be able to create a continuous, 50-mile-wide ring of Internet service around the globe. And by 2016, Project Loon director Mike Cassidy anticipates the first customers in rural South America, Southern Africa, or Oceania will be able to sign up for cellular LTE service provided by Google balloons. (Google is starting in the far Southern Hemisphere, which is relatively sparsely populated, before expanding elsewhere.)

It took a while to get going though:

On the first try, the balloon burst not long after liftoff, the nylon fabric overmatched by the 100,000 pounds of pressure within. The same happened on the second try, and the third—and the next 50 after that. The team kept tweaking the fabric and reinforcing it with more Kevlar-like ropes, but the balloons kept bursting until they got the length of the ropes exactly right. (They had to be shorter than the fabric to relieve the pressure, but not too much shorter.)

“We knew it was hard to make a super-pressure balloon,” Cassidy recalls. “We didn’t think it would take us 61 attempts until we succeeded.”

Even then, the success was short-lived. Instead of bursting, the balloon slowly leaked helium, bringing it down after just a day or two in flight. “Even a millimeter-sized hole will bring a balloon like this down in a couple days,” Cassidy says. “And that’s what happened to the next 40 or 50 balloons we made.”

Google’s engineers spent weeks trying to isolate the problem. They took balloons out of their boxes and inflated them in a cavernous hangar at Moffett Field in Mountain View, shined polarized light through them, and even sniffed for helium leaks using a mass spectrometer. Each balloon that went down was subjected to a “failure analysis” that included poring over meticulous records of who had assembled it, where, and using what equipment, and how it had been transported.

Eventually they pinned the leaks on two sets of problems. One was that the balloons had to be folded several times over to be transported, and some developed tiny tears at the corners where they’d been folded repeatedly. Google set to work finding ways to fold and roll the balloons that would distribute the stress more evenly across the fabric.

The second problem was that some balloons were ripping slightly when workers stepped on the fabric with their socks. The solution to that problem? “Fluffier socks,” says Cassidy. “Seriously, that made a difference. Softer socks meant fewer leaks.”

As the team cut down on the leaks, the balloons started lasting longer: four days, then six, then several weeks at a time. As of November, Cassidy says, two out of every three balloons remain in the sky for at least 100 days.

But keeping the balloons airborne is only the first of the monumental problems that the project presented. Keeping them on course may be even harder.

Why do this again?

Providing Internet via a fleet of algorithmically directed balloons might sound prohibitively expensive, but Cassidy says it’s actually an order of magnitude cheaper than setting up and maintaining cell towers, making it more economically viable in remote regions.

19th-Century Terrorism

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

To understand the terrorists of today, we can look at their forgotten forebears from the 19th century:

I discovered the secret through reading about 19th-century history, particularly the years from the 1848 revolutions to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. The key was Bismarck, the Prussian minister-president who unified Germany. If you want to learn about Bismarck, you will probably pick up a book by some historian of international relations, such as A.J.P. Taylor. That’s the right place to start. But it means you can read a lot about Bismarck before finding out about the time in May 1866 when a guy shot him.

Ferdinand Cohen-Blind, a Badenese student of pan-German sentiments, waylaid Bismarck with a pistol on the Unter den Linden. He fired five rounds. None missed. Three merely grazed his midsection, and two ricocheted off his ribs. He went home and ate a big lunch before letting himself be examined by a doctor.

But even the books that condescend to mention this triviality may not tell you about the other time a guy shot Bismarck: A young Catholic tried to kill him in July 1874, during the anti-Catholic Kulturkampf Bismarck had engineered, but only managed to score his right hand with a bullet.

The point is not that Bismarck was particularly hated, although he was. The point is that this period of European (and American) history was crawling with young, often solitary male terrorists, most of whom showed signs of mental disorder when caught and tried, and most of whom were attached to some prevailing utopian cause. They tended to be anarchists, nationalists or socialists, but the distinctions are not always clear, and were not thought particularly important. The 19th-century mind identified these young men as congenital conspirators. It emphasized what they had in common: social maladjustment, mania, an overwhelming sense of mission and, usually, a prior record of minor crimes.

It has become a pastime of mine to pick major royal or ministerial figures from 19th-century continental Europe and look up the little-known assassination attempts against them. Even in peaceful, isolated England, there were no fewer than seven attempts to shoot Queen Victoria. Russian czars, French presidents and Bulgarian prime ministers make particularly fertile ground.

Just try, for example, either Napoleon. A bomb designed to kill the first on his way to the opera injured or killed roughly 30 people around Christmas 1800; the conspirators were pro-Bourbon legitimists. Exactly the same thing happened to the third in 1858: A bomb planted by Italian revolutionaries killed eight and injured 142, while barely stopping the emperor’s carriage.

Biographies will often omit these events totally, much less note the astonishing Napoleonic parallel. Yet all this bombing and gunfire must have had a profound psychological effect on the leaders who were targeted, along with peers elsewhere. The prevalence of assassination obviously influenced the gory histories of the emerging Balkan states and, once you unlock the secret, you can see the imprint of terror on the history of Germany, with its countless princelings and kinglets — all of them frightened all the time, and thus predisposed to political overreaction.

No one sees the murders of three U.S. presidents between 1865 and 1900 as part of the same phenomenon, but it was. And the bad news is that the First World War, which began with a famous assassination, was in some ways a culmination of this tendency to desperate, violent action.

A New Laser Age

Monday, December 15th, 2014

The nature of directed energy weapons — lasers — favors surface troops, Jonathan Jeckell explains:

The U.S. and Israel have had increasing success lately testing lasers to intercept missiles and artillery. We could be entering a new laser age — with huge implications for American military power.

But it could be a mostly defensive, ground-based laser age, to begin with. Aerial energy weapons need a lot more work and could lag far behind.

In December, the Army shot down 90 mortar rounds and several drones using a truck-mounted laser. The Navy is adding an experimental laser gun to its Persian Gulf base ship Ponce. The Army and Navy weapons work today. The Air Force, by contrast, is planning to install an energy weapon on jet fighters around the year 2030.


Unlike missile defenses using projectiles — which must fight against gravity and require storage space and sophisticated manufacturing — lasers require only the requisite energy and the ability to shed excess heat.

Lasers also move at the speed of light, meaning the target would have no warning or opportunity to maneuver before it strikes. Suddenly the energetics that have favored air power are reversed.

Historically the high ground lent decisive advantages in combat because gravity works in your favor. Anti-aircraft shells and missiles flying up to intercept aircraft must struggle against gravity to approach their target. They lose energy, and the ability to maneuver, as they ascend.

Meanwhile, air-launched ordnance uses gravity to its advantage, increasing its range so it can often strike first and from a standoff distance. This has been a major factor in helping aircraft fend off increasingly sophisticated air-defense systems.

Lasers will level that field, as surface forces will have effective lasers first. Placing energy weapons on planes runs up against serious constraints on the weight and space needed for shedding waste heat and providing energy to the laser. The Air Force Airborne Laser project, for example, used up nearly all the interior space in a 747 for a laser capable of shooting down just a handful of ballistic missiles.

Better lasers might eventually solve these aerial problems with more compact cooling and improved energy generation — but these advancements will also enhance ground-based systems that don’t suffer gravity’s constraints. With energy weapons, the conditions are set for air defense to leap ahead of air attack.

Use of Force

Monday, December 15th, 2014

Back when Todd G. was in law school, he had a wonderful opportunity to teach his classmates about use of force:

For a project in one of my criminal law classes I was invited by the DEA tactical training cadre to bring half my class (and professor) down to the FBI/DEA “Hogan’s Alley” force on force training village in Quantico, Virginia. This was during the time that Waco & Ruby Ridge were being investigated by DOJ and federal law enforcement UOF rules were under severe scrutiny.

Our group was put through a number of exercises ranging from the classic Tueller drill (attacker 21 feet away charges at you with a knife) to team room-clearing.

A few days later I had to present my paper to the entire class. The half that attended the force on force (FOF) exercises sat on the left side of the room and the other students sat on the right.

Just a few minutes into my presentation I brought up the danger of a knife wielding attacker. The right side of the room grew indignant immediately and argued that someone twenty-one feet away — the length of an entire room — simply couldn’t be a deadly threat to someone with a gun. Before I could even reply, the left side of the room erupted in angry shouts: “You’ve never been there!”

Next we discussed opening a closet door to find a stranger holding a pistol that was pointed down toward the ground. Again the students on the right side of the room insisted he couldn’t be threat because he wasn’t pointing the gun at anyone. And again the left side of the room lost its collective mind: “Do you have any idea how fast someone can point a gun at you from that position? It’s faster than you can see it and respond before you get shot!”

It was the easiest presentation I’ve ever given.