People begged for pieces of his cane as sacred relics

Thursday, September 2nd, 2021

I was aware that a gutta percha walking stick was used in the famous caning of Charles Sumner, but I had assumed that gutta percha was simply a hard wood, ideal for walking sticks, but gutta percha in much more interesting than that:

The stick is made of gutta percha, the hardened latex of the Palaquium gutta tree, originally native to Malaysia. This is a natural “thermoplastic” substance, meaning it can be softened with heat and shaped into a form that is retained on cooling. Gutta percha was introduced to Europe in 1842 by Dr. William Montgomerie, a surgeon serving with the British army in the East Indies who had come across the substance in Singapore, where it was being used to make handles for machetes. He thought the substance would be useful to produce handles for medical devices as well as splints for fractures.

Victorian society quickly took to gutta percha. Chess pieces, mirror cases and jewelry were fabricated with it, and dentists found it useful for filling cavities. But perhaps the biggest impact was on the game of golf. At the time, golf balls were made of feather-stuffed leather, were expensive, and not exactly aerodynamic. Balls fashioned out of gutta percha were cheaper and flew further. When they were dinged up, these “gutties” could be repaired by softening in boiled water, and then reshaping in a hand press. The ball’s popularity increased when it was discovered that grooves cut into the surface allowed for a longer flight. Gutties were the ball of choice until about 1900, when they were replaced by the Haskell ball, made of a solid core of rubber wrapped tightly with rubber threads.

Interestingly, rubber, which is also an exudate of a tree, and gutta percha have almost identical molecular structures. They are both polymers of a simple molecule, isoprene, so can be termed as polyisoprenes, but different “kinks” in the long molecules, referred to as “cis” or “trans,” allow for different properties. While gutta percha is thermoplastic, rubber is thermosetting, meaning that once formed into a shape it cannot be reshaped with heat. The rubber used in the Haskell ball was “vulcanized,” a process introduced by Charles Goodyear, who discovered that treating natural rubber with sulphur allowed it to be made into a very hard material. It turns out that the sulphur atoms cross-link the cis polyisoprene units to form a tough latex.

Michael Faraday, the brilliant English scientist who carried out numerous experiments with electricity, found that gutta percha was an excellent insulator — a property that allowed it to be put to use as a coating for the newfangled telegraph cables. In a monumental engineering undertaking between 1854 and 1858, the first transatlantic telegraph cable, insulated with gutta percha, was laid down. Unfortunately, it quickly failed. But by 1865, improvements in technology resulted in a properly functioning gutta percha-insulated telegraph cable that allowed messages to be sent between the continents in a few minutes. Prior to this, communication was via ships and could take weeks. Gutta percha proved to be a huge triumph and served well until it was eventually replaced by polyethylene insulation.


In 1856, Democrat Preston Brooks brutally attacked Republican Sumner with his walking stick on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Sumner, a dedicated abolitionist, had made a strong speech against slavery, a practice that Brooks favoured. The attack was so violent that Brooks’s gutta percha cane broke into pieces, some of which were recovered from the Senate floor and cut into rings that southern lawmakers wore on neck chains to show their solidarity with Brooks, who boasted that people begged for pieces of his cane as sacred relics.

(Hat tip to Hans Schantz.)

Dissenting voices were ground into dust by the national security bureaucracy

Wednesday, September 1st, 2021

We can divide what went wrong in Afghanistan into three decision-making failures, John Robb says, each owing to an inability to update operating assumptions:

First, a failure to accept that the Taliban had won the guerrilla war and adapt to the situation once it was apparent. Second, a failure to adapt to the speed of the Taliban’s offensive by building contingencies to protect the U.S. evacuation effort. Finally, a failure to appreciate the dangers of being besieged in Kabul and to take steps to protect U.S. troops and civilians.


The leadership’s unshakable attachment to the viability of the Afghan government and the success of nation-building wasn’t based on evidence. It was a belief based on a political and institutional need that it be true. It was necessary to maintain the illusion that the U.S. was there to modernize and globally integrate Afghanistan at the political level. Institutionally, it was needed to justify the losses (thousands of U.S. lives) and vast expense (trillions of dollars) already consumed by the venture and protect the careers of those involved with it. As a result of these imperatives, dissenting voices were ground into dust by the national security bureaucracy and by political factions committed to the social-reform effort there.


Guerrilla wars are slow-moving conflicts fought in the moral sphere. You can picture a guerrilla war as opposing planets competing through gravitational attraction. The way you fight it is to create the highest gravity possible (a moral pull that attracts: incorruptibility, moral integrity, altruism) while causing the competing planet to break apart (moral repulsion: corruption, unpopular social changes, selfish abuses). Because of the dynamics of this type of warfare, when victory arrives, it often does so suddenly, with the complete disintegration of the opponent. That’s what happened in Afghanistan, and we should have quickly accepted this fact.


When it became clear in July that the Taliban had won the guerrilla war and were conducting a maneuver-based offensive to take the country, the U.S. should have responded by deploying contingencies. Chief among them should have been retaking the abandoned and defensible (not surrounded by a heavily populated city) Bagram airbase north of Kabul to ensure air support and evacuation missions were always available, particularly if the single runway at Kabul’s airport was damaged or denied. With Bagram swiftly reopened, stepped up air-support missions for the Afghan army could have been provided, slowing the Taliban’s advance. Additionally, special operations units could have been employed to evacuate civilian personnel stranded by the rapidity of the Taliban’s advance. And the leadership should have radically sped up the evacuation of U.S. civilians and accelerated the awarding of visas to Afghan nationals who might be at risk. It didn’t: the State Department was still forcing citizens to pay a $2,000 repatriation fee—more for non-citizens—and sign promissory notes if they didn’t have the cash, up until August 20, five days after the fall of Kabul.

Instead of adapting, the U.S. leadership froze — overloaded by a fast-moving ground campaign that constantly shifted priorities and disoriented by deceptive Taliban diplomacy that promised a return to the status quo. While the U.S. talked, the Taliban acted. The result: textbook maneuver warfare. It was so effective that when the Taliban began to take major cities in early August, all American leaders could do was plead with the Taliban for mercy.


As the evacuation dragged on, it became increasingly evident, even to a U.S. leadership unwilling to admit it, that the Taliban could turn the U.S. mission into a hostage crisis within hours. To prevent this outcome, the U.S. was undoubtedly forced to make concessions to the Taliban. On the surface, this took the form of government public messaging that increasingly depicted the Taliban as reformed and reasonable rulers of a new Afghanistan — trustworthy partners who would help protect the U.S. mission from harm and assist in evacuations. Behind the scenes, there may also have been concessions on removing the Taliban from terrorist watch lists, removing trade restrictions, and providing access to Afghan government funds. Announcements on such concessions, if they occurred, would obviously be delayed due to the political costs of revealing them now; by the end of 2021, we’ll probably know the extent of the capitulation.


Despite this failure, it’s likely that nothing will be done to ensure that it doesn’t happen in the future. Politicized analysis of the retreat will depict it as a victory for diplomacy. Few U.S. soldiers were killed, and over 100,000 people were evacuated. Further, claims will be made that any analysis that doesn’t support this narrative is the equivalent of delusional disinformation. The institutional failures that prevented successful adaptation, from recognizing the failure of nation-building to the danger of relying on a single point of failure during a military evacuation, will be glossed over and forgotten. From the start of the effort decades ago to its ignoble end, nobody responsible for the venture will accept any accountability for it. No one will suffer damage to his career or incur reputational damage, except those brave souls who tried to stop it.