A tank or fighter jet is prized not for its practical utility

Friday, October 11th, 2019

American defense experts who come to the island all agree that the Taiwanese military needs cheap, expendable, mass-produced weapons systems to deter a Chinese invasion force, but that’s not what Taiwanese leaders buy:

On June 6, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense announced a $2.25 billion arms purchase from the United States. package was broken down into two parts: $250 million for a consignment of Stinger missiles, and $2 billion for 108 main battle tanks. The first part of the package fits well enough within a distributed “anti-access” defense posture. The second purchase does not.

Taiwan is a piebald of jungle-covered mountains, muddy rice paddies, and densely populated urban cores—terrain that frustrates tank maneuver. The most likely use for tanks like these would be in formation near beaches for counter-landing operations, where they would be extremely vulnerable to attack from the air. As Chinese commanders would never land an invasion force unless they first secure air superiority, these tanks will never amount to anything more than 108 very expensive sitting ducks.

The purchase fits a longstanding Taiwanese pattern: prioritizing high-prestige platforms over people. The Ministry of National Defense has cut military pensions and failed to pay volunteer soldiers a competitive wage or provide them with necessary benefits, and it doesn’t have enough bullets on hand for conscripts to practice riflery more than a few times in their entire course of duty.

Yet in addition to buying the tanks, President Tsai Ing-wen’s administration has promised to find $8 billion—equivalent to 70 percent of Taiwan’s 2019 military budget—to purchase 66 new F-16 fighter jets (even though in the event of a conflict with China most of these would be destroyed by PLA missiles while still on their runways). The Taiwanese navy also regularly promotes plans for an indigenously constructed helicopter carrier and Aegis-style destroyer. Billions have been poured into developing indigenous jet engines and fighters. Most disastrous of all, around one-tenth of the defense budget has been earmarked for the development of Taiwan’s indigenous submarine program. According to the wildly optimistic government projections, the very first of these submarines will be seaworthy in 2025. Only a few more could be built before the decade’s close, at an estimated $1 billion per ship.

Taiwanese leaders’ defense priorities make a perverse sort of sense, T. Greer argues:

Taiwanese leaders have a powerful political incentive to raise Taiwan’s stature on the international stage and publicly resist Chinese attempts to cut it away from its allies. Similarly, they are incentivized to show that under their leadership, the Taiwanese military remains a world-class fighting force. Purchasing fancy military equipment makes little strategic sense, but it accomplishes both of these objectives.

In an anonymous interview, one DPP official told me why he believed the purchase of the tanks was so important: “The purchase is a signal that the DPP can lead on defense. It will give the people more confidence that we are not being outclassed by the Chinese. And most important, that Tsai’s good relationship with the Americans is the reason for that.” A senior official interviewed by a Center for Security Policy Studies research team justified Taiwanese requests for F-35 fighter jets, rather than less expensive drones, with similar logic: “You can’t create a hero pilot of a UAV.” The CSPS team concluded that for most of the Taiwanese officials they interviewed, “buying advanced aircraft from the United States was at least as much about assuring the public as it was about improving war-fighting capability.”

This is especially important given Taiwan’s lack of a formal alliance with the United States. For Taiwanese leaders, weapons sales are one of the few metrics available to judge the U.S. commitment to their cause. Taiwanese leaders can trumpet their purchase of American-made weapons systems as something their party has done to raise Taiwan’s international stature. A tank or fighter jet is prized not for its practical utility but its symbolic value.

It produces leaders who were taught from birth to lead

Tuesday, October 8th, 2019

The Guardian takes a curious look at the Americans who think a monarchy would solve their political problems:

Sean wasn’t always a monarchist. The history graduate student, who’s in his early 20s, grew up Catholic in central Massachusetts in what he described as “a pretty staunch Republican household”. But in college, a love of history, particularly the Roman Empire, ultimately drew him to monarchism and away from what he described as the “rah-rah American republicanism” of his childhood.

“Most people tend to get more liberal in college,” he told me. While earning his undergraduate degree at a Catholic liberal arts school close to where he grew up, he explained: “I ended up looking into medieval political theory and getting more conservative. The monarchies I find most interesting and think we should replicate go back to the late Middle Ages.”

Sean’s views shifted not only thanks to his medieval studies, but also after learning more about US foreign policy.

“Having a background in history, I naturally gravitated toward monarchism because I felt that my national government wasn’t looking at issues of public welfare or national coherence or national unity,” he said. “Our political system has been irrevocably poisoned by political partisanship.”

[...]

For an American monarchist like Sean, his preferred system of government “is some manner of elective monarchy modeled to a degree after what you saw in the Holy Roman Empire”, he told me. “The individual governor of each of the 50 states could vote amongst themselves on a new monarch in the event of an emperor stepping down … One of the reasons that I, and many others, favor monarchy, has to do with the benefits that a single individual can have when it comes to matters of foreign policy, international relations, international trade, et cetera.”

Others were drawn to monarchy more explicitly because of Trump. One self-identified American semi-constitutionalist explained: “I always had some monarchist sympathies, but I went full turncoat when I saw how moronically people were treating politics after 2016 and realized that our current system was breeding a bunch of nutjobs. After that I became convinced that a monarch or something is needed to keep politicians and the like in check.”

[...]

In 2018, the New York Times cited a study conducted by a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, which discovered “‘robust and quantitatively meaningful evidence’ that monarchies outperform other forms of government”, and provide nations with “stability that often translates into economic gains”.

[...]

“When I was younger I thought monarchy was stupid and made no sense, like most children who were raised on republican (not the American political party) propaganda,” one Reddit user explained to me. “I can’t remember a specific moment when I thought for the first time, ‘monarchy is the best form of government,’ it was just a gradual change. Why am I a monarchist? I’m a monarchist because I believe that monarchy produces a stable government and unites a people, it produces leaders who were taught from birth to lead.”

Can we solve this by building trustworthy systems out of untrustworthy parts?

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2019

The United States government’s continuing disagreement with the Chinese company Huawei underscores a much larger problem with computer technologies in general, Bruce Schneier points out:

We have no choice but to trust them completely, and it’s impossible to verify that they’re trustworthy. Solving this problem ­ which is increasingly a national security issue ­ will require us to both make major policy changes and invent new technologies.

The Huawei problem is simple to explain. The company is based in China and subject to the rules and dictates of the Chinese government. The government could require Huawei to install back doors into the 5G routers it sells abroad, allowing the government to eavesdrop on communications or — even worse — take control of the routers during wartime. Since the United States will rely on those routers for all of its communications, we become vulnerable by building our 5G backbone on Huawei equipment.

It’s obvious that we can’t trust computer equipment from a country we don’t trust, but the problem is much more pervasive than that. The computers and smartphones you use are not built in the United States. Their chips aren’t made in the United States. The engineers who design and program them come from over a hundred countries. Thousands of people have the opportunity, acting alone, to slip a back door into the final product.

There’s more. Open-source software packages are increasingly targeted by groups installing back doors. Fake apps in the Google Play store illustrate vulnerabilities in our software distribution systems. The NotPetya worm was distributed by a fraudulent update to a popular Ukranian accounting package, illustrating vulnerabilities in our update systems. Hardware chips can be back-doored at the point of fabrication, even if the design is secure. The National Security Agency exploited the shipping process to subvert Cisco routers intended for the Syrian telephone company. The overall problem is that of supply-chain security, because every part of the supply chain can be attacked.

Can we solve this by building trustworthy systems out of untrustworthy parts?

It sounds ridiculous on its face, but the internet itself was a solution to a similar problem: a reliable network built out of unreliable parts. This was the result of decades of research. That research continues today, and it’s how we can have highly resilient distributed systems like Google’s network even though none of the individual components are particularly good. It’s also the philosophy behind much of the cybersecurity industry today: systems watching one another, looking for vulnerabilities and signs of attack.

Security is a lot harder than reliability. We don’t even really know how to build secure systems out of secure parts, let alone out of parts and processes that we can’t trust and that are almost certainly being subverted by governments and criminals around the world. Current security technologies are nowhere near good enough, though, to defend against these increasingly sophisticated attacks. So while this is an important part of the solution, and something we need to focus research on, it’s not going to solve our near-term problems.

At the same time, all of these problems are getting worse as computers and networks become more critical to personal and national security. The value of 5G isn’t for you to watch videos faster; it’s for things talking to things without bothering you. These things — cars, appliances, power plants, smart cities — increasingly affect the world in a direct physical manner. They’re increasingly autonomous, using A.I. and other technologies to make decisions without human intervention. The risk from Chinese back doors into our networks and computers isn’t that their government will listen in on our conversations; it’s that they’ll turn the power off or make all the cars crash into one another.

All of this doesn’t leave us with many options for today’s supply-chain problems. We still have to presume a dirty network — as well as back-doored computers and phones — and we can clean up only a fraction of the vulnerabilities.

Japan was the world’s only really different country

Tuesday, October 1st, 2019

One can fly to Japan from anywhere, Edward Luttwak says, but from Japan one can only fly to the Third World:

[I]t hardly matters whether one lands in Kinshasa, London, New York or Zurich: they are all places where one must be constantly watchful and distrustful, where one cannot leave a suitcase unattended even for ten minutes, where women strolling home through town at 3 a.m. are deemed imprudent, where the universal business model is not to underpromise and overdeliver but if anything the other way round, where city streets are clogged at rush hour because municipal authorities mysteriously fail to provide ubiquitous, fast and comfortable public transport, where shops need watchful staff or cameras against thieving customers, and where one cannot even get beer and liquor from vending machines that require no protection from vandalism. Japan was the world’s only really different country when I first visited forty years ago, and it remains so now, despite many misguided attempts to internationalise its ways to join the rest of the world.

(Hat tip to our Slovenian guest.)

The CIA paid $240,000 to buy the world’s entire supply of LSD

Saturday, September 28th, 2019

The director of the CIA’s infamous MK-ULTRA program, Sidney Gottlieb, was the unwitting godfather of the entire LSD counterculture:

In the early 1950s, he arranged for the CIA to pay $240,000 to buy the world’s entire supply of LSD. He brought this to the United States, and he began spreading it around to hospitals, clinics, prisons and other institutions, asking them, through bogus foundations, to carry out research projects and find out what LSD was, how people reacted to it and how it might be able to be used as a tool for mind control.

Now, the people who volunteered for these experiments and began taking LSD, in many cases, found it very pleasurable. They told their friends about it. Who were those people? Ken Kesey, the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, got his LSD in an experiment sponsored by the CIA by MK-ULTRA, by Sidney Gottlieb. So did Robert Hunter, the lyricist for the Grateful Dead, which went on to become a great purveyor of LSD culture. Allen Ginsberg, the poet who preached the value of the great personal adventure of using LSD, got his first LSD from Sidney Gottlieb. Although, of course, he never knew that name.

Her creepy imaginary friend is called Captain Howdy

Sunday, September 15th, 2019

In Primal Screams Mary Eberstadt cites former U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, social scientist James Q. Wilson, and Elizabeth Marquardt, author of Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce, to document how the Sexual Revolution created Identity Politics:

A writer she doesn’t mention, however, is William Peter Blatty, author of the blockbuster 1971 horror novel The Exorcist. Those who have never read the novel, or are familiar only with its 1973 cinematic incarnation, probably believe the book to be a potboiler about demonic possession. But it is also an allegorical warning about the importance of the traditional family unit and the devastation wrought when it breaks down. Curiously, this aspect of the novel went largely unnoticed by the book’s earliest reviewers.

Back in 1971, the advent of no-fault divorce laws in the United States was seen in liberal circles as an unalloyed benefit for society. Thus, the book critics for most of the mainstream publications that bothered to review The ExorcistTime, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, etc. — treated the book as either a modern day pastiche of Poe and Mary Shelley, or else as a traditional story of the battle between Good and Evil. What’s odd about this is that Blatty made no effort to hide his social conservatism. You don’t have to be a postmodern literary detective to find it in the subtext. Blatty was not a subtle writer, and he set his message out on the page for all to see, although very few have ever remarked upon it.

The Exorcist tells the story of Chris MacNeil, a recently divorced American movie star, and her 12-year-old daughter Regan Teresa MacNeil, whom Chris calls “Rags.” The story takes place in Washington, D.C., where Chris has rented a home a few blocks from the campus of Georgetown University. She is the star of a movie about unrest on campus that is being filmed at Georgetown. Neither Chris nor her daughter have yet recovered from the divorce. And Regan has begun to demonstrate troubling behavior (using obscenities, operating a Ouija board with a creepy imaginary friend, lashing out at the adults around her) that leads Chris to seek help and advice, first from psychiatric professionals.

Every few pages, the reader is reminded about the absence of Regan’s father. Early in the book, as Chris is hanging up a dress in Regan’s closet, she thinks: Nice clothes. Yeah, Rags, look here, not there at the daddy who never writes. Regan appears to be in search of a substitute for the father she has lost, and television seems to be one of the places she has been looking. Her creepy imaginary friend is called Captain Howdy, clearly a reference to two TV characters popular with children of the Baby Boom, Captain Kangaroo and Howdy Doody.

I was shocked years ago, when I learned from watching the DVD extras, that The Exorcist was written as a piece of pro-Catholic propaganda.

Dour observations fall on deaf ears

Saturday, September 14th, 2019

Dictators suppress speech, because the truth hurts, right?

If you want to bring an incumbent dictator down, do you really want to be hamstrung by the truth? It’s far easier — and more crowd-pleasing — to respond to a pack of official lies with your own pack of lies. When the dictator claims, “I’ve made this the greatest country on earth,” you could modestly respond, “Face facts: we’re only 87th.” Yet if it’s power you seek, you might as well lie back, “The dictator has destroyed our country — but this will be the greatest country on earth if we gain power.” Even more obviously, if the current dictator claims the sanction of God, the opposition doesn’t want to shrug, “Highly improbable. How do you even know God exists?” Instead, the opposition wants to roar, “No, God is on our side. Our side!”

What then is the primary purpose of censorship? It’s not to suppress the truth — which has little mass appeal anyway. The primary purpose of censorship is to monopolize the pretty lies. Only the powers-that-be can freely make absurdly self-aggrandizing claims. Depending on the severity of the despotism, you may not have to echo the official lies. But if you publicly defend alternative absurdly self-aggrandizing claims, the powers-that-be will crush you.

Why, though, do dictators so eagerly seek to monopolize the pretty lies? In order to take full advantage of their subjects’ Social Desirability Bias. Human beings like to say — and think — whatever superficially sounds good. Strict censorship allows rulers to exploit this deep mental flaw. If no one else can make absurd lies, a trite slogan like, “Let’s unite to fight for a fantastic future!” carries great force. Truthful critics would have to make crowd-displeasing objections like, “Maybe competition will bring us a brighter future than unity,” “Who exactly are we fighting?,” or “Precisely how fantastic of a future are we talking about?” A rather flaccid bid for power! Existing rulers tremble far more when rebels bellow, “Join us to fight for a fantastic future!”

George Orwell has been a huge influence on me. When you read his political novels, you often get the feeling that dictators fear the truth above all. If only Winston Smith could take over the Ministry of Truth and tell all Oceania that it needlessly lives in poverty and fear. In the broad scheme of things, however, unvarnished truth is only a minor threat to tyranny. After all, rulers could respond to ironclad fact with a pile of demagoguery: “Smith is slandering our great country!” “He’s a willing tool of Eurasia!” Or even, “We’re not rich because the greatest country in the world is too proud to sell itself.” The real threat to the regime would be a rival set of demagogues offering Utopia after a brief bloodbath sends a few wicked, treasonous leaders straight to the hell that they so richly deserve.

Doesn’t this imply that free speech is overrated? Yes; I’ve said so before. While I’d like to believe that free speech leads naturally to the triumph of truth, I see little sign of this. Instead, politics looks to me like a Great Liars’ War. Viable politicians defy literal truth in virtually every sentence. They defy it with hyperbole. They defy it with overconfidence. They defy it with wishful thinking. Dictators try to make One Big Political Lie mandatory. Free speech lets a Thousand Political Lies Bloom.

Yes, freedom of speech lets me make these dour observations without fear. I’m grateful for that. Yet outside my Bubble, dour observations fall on deaf ears. Psychologically normal humans crave pretty lies, so the Great Liars’ War never ends.

Blue gets its ass handed to it

Friday, September 13th, 2019

“In our games, when we fight Russia and China,” RAND analyst David Ochmanek explains, “blue gets its ass handed to it.”

How could this happen, when we spend over $700 billion a year on everything from thousand-foot-long nuclear-powered aircraft carriers to supersonic stealth fighters?

[...]

“In every case I know of,” said Robert Work, a former deputy secretary of defense with decades of wargaming experience, “the F-35 rules the sky when it’s in the sky, but it gets killed on the ground in large numbers.”

Even the hottest jet has to land somewhere. But big airbases on land and big aircraft carriers on the water turn out to be big targets for long-range precision-guided missiles. Once an American monopoly, such smart weapons are now a rapidly growing part of Russian and Chinese arsenals — as are the long-range sensors, communications networks, and command systems required to aim them.

So, as potential adversaries improve their technology, “things that rely on sophisticated base infrastructure like runways and fuel tanks are going to have a hard time,” Ochmanek said. “Things that sail on the surface of the sea are going to have a hard time.”

(That’s why the 2020 budget coming out next week retires the carrier USS Truman decades early and cuts two amphibious landing ships, as we’ve reported. It’s also why the Marine Corps is buying the jump-jet version of the F-35, which can take off and land from tiny, ad hoc airstrips, but how well they can maintain a high-tech aircraft in low-tech surroundings is an open question).

While the Air Force and Navy took most of the flak today at this afternoon’s Center for a New American Security panel on the need for “A New American Way of War.” the Army doesn’t look too great, either. Its huge supply bases go up in smoke as well, Work and Ochmanek said. Its tank brigades get shot up by cruise missiles, drones, and helicopters because the Army largely got rid of its mobile anti-aircraft troops, a shortfall it’s now hastening to correct. And its missile defense units get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of incoming fire.

The video gets going about 13 minutes in.

The supercomputer from WarGames has started reading Jung

Monday, September 9th, 2019

Jesse Walker of Reason has dug up a 1956 episode of the NBC radio series X Minus One, which adapts Philip K. Dick’s short story “The Defenders” — which I’ve covered here before. Here is Walker’s description:

It’s as though the false world in The Matrix is being run by the supercomputer from WarGames, which has started reading Jung and lecturing everyone about shadow projection.

His slaves were legally shipped to Cuba and Brazil

Saturday, September 7th, 2019

Nigerian novelist Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani looks back at her great-grandfather, the slave-trader:

Down the hill, near the river, in an area now overrun by bush, is the grave of my most celebrated ancestor: my great-grandfather Nwaubani Ogogo Oriaku. Nwaubani Ogogo was a slave trader who gained power and wealth by selling other Africans across the Atlantic. “He was a renowned trader,” my father told me proudly. “He dealt in palm produce and human beings.”

Long before Europeans arrived, Igbos enslaved other Igbos as punishment for crimes, for the payment of debts, and as prisoners of war. The practice differed from slavery in the Americas: slaves were permitted to move freely in their communities and to own property, but they were also sometimes sacrificed in religious ceremonies or buried alive with their masters to serve them in the next life. When the transatlantic trade began, in the fifteenth century, the demand for slaves spiked. Igbo traders began kidnapping people from distant villages. Sometimes a family would sell off a disgraced relative, a practice that Ijoma Okoro, a professor of Igbo history at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, likens to the shipping of British convicts to the penal colonies in Australia: “People would say, ‘Let them go. I don’t want to see them again.’ ” Between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries, nearly one and a half million Igbo slaves were sent across the Middle Passage.

My great-grandfather was given the nickname Nwaubani, which means “from the Bonny port region,” because he had the bright skin and healthy appearance associated at the time with people who lived near the coast and had access to rich foreign foods. (This became our family name.) In the late nineteenth century, he carried a slave-trading license from the Royal Niger Company, an English corporation that ruled southern Nigeria. His agents captured slaves across the region and passed them to middlemen, who brought them to the ports of Bonny and Calabar and sold them to white merchants. Slavery had already been abolished in the United States and the United Kingdom, but his slaves were legally shipped to Cuba and Brazil. To win his favor, local leaders gave him their daughters in marriage. (By his death, he had dozens of wives.) His influence drew the attention of colonial officials, who appointed him chief of Umujieze and several other towns. He presided over court cases and set up churches and schools. He built a guesthouse on the land where my parents’ home now stands, and hosted British dignitaries. To inform him of their impending arrival and verify their identities, guests sent him envelopes containing locks of their Caucasian hair.

Funeral rites for a distinguished Igbo man traditionally include the slaying of livestock — usually as many cows as his family can afford. Nwaubani Ogogo was so esteemed that, when he died, a leopard was killed, and six slaves were buried alive with him. My family inherited his canvas shoes, which he wore at a time when few Nigerians owned footwear, and the chains of his slaves, which were so heavy that, as a child, my father could hardly lift them. Throughout my upbringing, my relatives gleefully recounted Nwaubani Ogogo’s exploits. When I was about eight, my father took me to see the row of ugba trees where Nwaubani Ogogo kept his slaves chained up. In the nineteen-sixties, a family friend who taught history at a university in the U.K. saw Nwaubani Ogogo’s name mentioned in a textbook about the slave trade. Even my cousins who lived abroad learned that we had made it into the history books.

At what point is defending Japan no longer worth it?

Friday, September 6th, 2019

At what point is defending Japan no longer worth it?, T. Greer asks:

We are in a very grim situation in the West Pacific. If a war started tomorrow there is no guarantee the United States would win it. In fact, unless China started this war already a bit spent in other engagements (say, with Taiwan) it is quite certain we would lose the initial battles.

His new piece out in Foreign Policy explains:

Ten years ago the PLA had fewer than 100 cruise or ballistic missiles capable of targeting U.S. air bases in Japan; according to the U.S. Department of Defense’s most recent report on the PLA, they now have around 1,000 ballistic or land-attack cruise missiles with this capability.

Missiles like these fly at extreme speeds. In a potential conflict, the first wave would arrive in Japan 6 to 9 minutes after being launched from mobile missile launchers scattered across China. This wave’s target list would include anti-missile and air defense systems, command centers, and communication systems. A review of PLA documents by Ian Easton and Oriana Skylar Mastro reveal a special focus on targeting runways of American bases in Japan. With runways cratered, American aircraft would be stranded, sitting ducks for the next wave of inbound missiles.

Simulations of these attacks are nauseating. In a 2017 report for the Center for a New American Security, Tom Shugart and Javier Gonzales conclude that the missile defense systems of every single American air and naval base in Japan would be overwhelmed by the PLA Rocket Force’s very first volley. They estimate that more than 200 aircraft, almost all fixed American command centers, every U.S. runway, and most of the American fleet at berth would be destroyed—tens of billions of dollars in military equipment gone in less than 30 minutes of fighting. Recent Rand Corp. war games found similar results. In response to the games, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work offered a caustic assessment: “In every case I know of, the F-35 rules the sky when it’s in the sky, but it gets killed on the ground in large numbers.”

There is a very real chance that America’s front-line forces would be crippled in the first moments of a conflict with China.

Fiction was the most effective way to communicate the essence of totalitarianism

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2019

Duncan White’s Cold Warriors looks at the writers who waged the literary Cold War:

He captures something essential about [novelist Mary] McCarthy, who during the Moscow Trials of the 1930s had defied New York’s Stalinist literary establishment and whose clarity about communism suffered a period of credulity during her fierce protest of American involvement in Vietnam. But a lapse is different from a lifetime of mendacity, and McCarthy’s late-career comment about the Soviet apologist Lillian Hellman — “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’” — remains the most famous line she ever spoke or wrote.

Mr. White’s massive volume begins with the Spanish Civil War, that savage proxy fight between fascism and the U.S.S.R. in the years before the brief, unholy nuptials of the Nazi-Soviet pact. The English poet Stephen Spender, handsome and well-intentioned, went to Spain out of sympathy with the Loyalists and to extract his boyfriend from an imprudent enlistment with the anti-Franco British Battalion. Harry Pollitt, head of England’s Communist Party, thought a dead Spender might make an attractive martyr, and when that didn’t work out converted his disgust over the boyfriend business into leverage for blackmail. Before long Spender “began shuffling backward to liberalism,” eventually contributing an essay to “The God That Failed” (1949), the famous volume of regretful ex-Communist essays edited by Richard Crossman.

Pollitt also distrusted George Orwell ’s motives for going to Spain. As Mr. White explains, “ Orwell said he wanted to see what was going on himself before committing to anything” in what had become “a civil war within the civil war.” When he threw in with Spain’s homegrown Trotskyist POUM instead of the Stalinist International Brigades, Orwell became anathema to Britain’s leftist editors and had a hard time finding a publisher for “Homage to Catalonia” (1938), the memoir of his Spanish experiences.

Throughout this period the Soviets were collectivizing poets and novelists into a Writers’ Union; enforcing the principles of “socialist realism”; denouncing European modernists like Joyce for apolitical experiments in form; and killing off their own new undesirables: The revered short-story writer Isaac Babel met his death after exhibiting “low productivity” of work that conformed to ideological standards. Mr. White unfolds the sordid tale of Soviet literary history through all its later decades of crackdowns, thaws and renewed panics; the shunnings and imprisonments and “internal exile” that claimed Akhmatova, Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn. Andrei Sinyavsky, who pseudonymously published fiction in Western Europe and in 1960 issued a manifesto against socialist realism, was put on trial in 1966 and sentenced to seven years in a labor camp. The New York Times, with its always keen sense of moral proportion when it came to the U.S.S.R., decried Sinyavsky’s treatment as “Soviet McCarthyism.”

The United States, Mr. White makes clear, came late but more subtly to the business of “weaponized” words. In 1950, a year after the Waldorf Conference, the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), with financing from the CIA, convened a rival artistic assembly in West Berlin. “Freedom has seized the initiative!” Arthur Koestler cried from the rostrum. Over the next two decades, while the U.S. State Department sent writers behind the Iron Curtain on speaking tours, the CIA secretly funded liberal magazines such as Encounter and helped conduct operations like the one that got “Doctor Zhivago” into the hands of Soviet readers. Russian visitors to the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair could quietly obtain a smuggle-ready copy from the Vatican pavilion.

The writers sent abroad by State (Mary McCarthy among them) were hardly middlebrow boosters of Dwight Eisenhower, and a sophisticated irony resided in how “the dynamics of the Cold War made the [U.S.] government the champion of difficult elitist art — that of James Joyce, Jackson Pollock and William Faulkner — in large part because it was banned in Moscow.” Frank Wisner, who directed the CIA’s covert cultural ops, knew that liberal essays published in Encounter would have more credibility and democratic impact than right-wing huzzahs for America. Indeed, Peter Coleman ’s history of the CCF, “The Liberal Conspiracy” (1989), points out how the organization “kept its distance from political conservatism . . . magazines like the American National Review were considered outside the pale.”

The most mournful realization generated by “Cold Warriors” involves the since-diminished potency of literature itself, particularly the novel. Mr. White argues that Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon” (1940) revealed to Orwell “that fiction, rather than journalism or memoir, however scrupulous, was the most effective way to communicate the essence of totalitarianism.” Before long Koestler would be pronouncing “Animal Farm” a “glorious and heart-breaking allegory.” Even the Queen Mother read it. A few years later, “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (1949) became “not just a novel about the emergent Cold War” but “a part of it.” Orwell may have disliked attempts to turn him into a mascot for capitalism — something that Solzhenitsyn, too, would have to resist — but it was the wide appeal of serious-minded fiction that made him such an attractive ally. Mr. White’s book opens with the CIA, in 1955, making “copies of… Animal Farm rain down from the Communist sky”; they’d been launched toward Poland, in “ten-foot balloons” from West Germany — a genuinely strategic act, not just a gesture.

Few have emerged from the job unscathed

Wednesday, August 28th, 2019

General Mattis has a book coming out, Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead, and the Wall Street Journal has published an (adapted) excerpt:

On my flight out of Denver, the flight attendant’s standard safety briefing caught my attention: If cabin pressure is lost, masks will fall…Put your own mask on first, then help others around you. In that moment, those familiar words seemed like a metaphor: To preserve our leadership role, we needed to get our own country’s act together first, especially if we were to help others.

[...]

When the president asks you to do something, you don’t play Hamlet on the wall, wringing your hands. To quote a great American company’s slogan, you “just do it.” So long as you are prepared, you say yes.

When it comes to the defense of our experiment in democracy and our way of life, ideology should have nothing to do with it. Whether asked to serve by a Democratic or a Republican, you serve. “Politics ends at the water’s edge.”

[...]

When I said I could do the job, I meant I felt prepared. I knew the job intimately. In the late 1990s, I had served as the executive secretary to two secretaries of defense, William Perry and William Cohen. In close quarters, I had gained a personal grasp of the immensity and gravity of a “secdef’s” responsibilities. The job is tough: Our first secretary of defense, James Forrestal, committed suicide, and few have emerged from the job unscathed, either legally or politically.

[...]

The Marines teach you, above all, how to adapt, improvise and overcome. But they expect you to have done your homework, to have mastered your profession. Amateur performance is anathema.

The Marines are bluntly critical of falling short, satisfied only with 100% effort and commitment. Yet over the course of my career, every time I made a mistake—and I made many—the Marines promoted me. They recognized that these mistakes were part of my tuition and a necessary bridge to learning how to do things right. Year in and year out, the Marines had trained me in skills they knew I needed, while educating me to deal with the unexpected.

Beneath its Prussian exterior of short haircuts, crisp uniforms and exacting standards, the Corps nurtured some of the strangest mavericks and most original thinkers I encountered in my journey through multiple commands and dozens of countries. The Marines’ military excellence does not suffocate intellectual freedom or substitute regimented dogma for imaginative solutions. They know their doctrine, often derived from lessons learned in combat and written in blood, but refuse to let that turn into dogma.

Woe to the unimaginative one who, in after-action reviews, takes refuge in doctrine. The critiques in the field, in the classroom or at happy hour are blunt for good reasons. Personal sensitivities are irrelevant. No effort is made to ease you through your midlife crisis when peers, seniors or subordinates offer more cunning or historically proven options, even when out of step with doctrine.

In any organization, it’s all about selecting the right team. The two qualities I was taught to value most were initiative and aggressiveness. Institutions get the behaviors they reward.

During my monthlong preparation for my Senate confirmation hearings, I read many excellent intelligence briefings. I was struck by the degree to which our competitive military edge was eroding, including our technological advantage. We would have to focus on regaining the edge.

[...]

It now became even clearer to me why the Marines assign an expanded reading list to everyone promoted to a new rank: That reading gives historical depth that lights the path ahead. Books like the “Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant,” “Sherman” by B.H. Liddell Hart and Field Marshal William Slim’s “Defeat Into Victory” illustrated that we could always develop options no matter how worrisome the situation. Slowly but surely, we learned there was nothing new under the sun: Properly informed, we weren’t victims—we could always create options.

[...]

Nations with allies thrive, and those without them wither. Alone, America cannot protect our people and our economy. At this time, we can see storm clouds gathering. A polemicist’s role is not sufficient for a leader. A leader must display strategic acumen that incorporates respect for those nations that have stood with us when trouble loomed. Returning to a strategic stance that includes the interests of as many nations as we can make common cause with, we can better deal with this imperfect world we occupy together. Absent this, we will occupy an increasingly lonely position, one that puts us at increasing risk in the world.

It is not the seller and so can’t be responsible

Sunday, August 25th, 2019

Amazon has shifted from something like a big-box store to something much more like a flea market:

A Wall Street Journal investigation found 4,152 items for sale on Amazon.com Inc. ’s site that have been declared unsafe by federal agencies, are deceptively labeled or are banned by federal regulators — items that big-box retailers’ policies would bar from their shelves. Among those items, at least 2,000 listings for toys and medications lacked warnings about health risks to children.

The Journal identified at least 157 items for sale that Amazon had said it banned, including sleeping mats the Food and Drug Administration warns can suffocate infants. The Journal commissioned tests of 10 children’s products it bought on Amazon, many promoted as “Amazon’s Choice.” Four failed tests based on federal safety standards, according to the testing company, including one with lead levels that exceeded federal limits.

Of the 4,152 products the Journal identified, 46% were listed as shipping from Amazon warehouses.

[...]

Amazon’s common legal defense in safety disputes over third-party sales is that it is not the seller and so can’t be responsible under state statutes that let consumers sue retailers. Amazon also says that, as a provider of an online forum, it is protected by the law — Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 — that shields internet platforms from liability for what others post there.

[...]

Third-party sellers are crucial to Amazon because their sales have exploded — to nearly 60% of physical merchandise sales in 2018 from 30% a decade ago, Amazon says. The site had 2.5 million merchants with items for sale at the end of 2018, estimates e-commerce-intelligence firm Marketplace Pulse.

Amazon doesn’t make it easy for customers to see that many products aren’t sold by the company. Many third-party items the Journal examined were listed as Amazon Prime eligible and sold through the Fulfillment by Amazon program, which generally ships items from Amazon warehouses in Amazon-branded boxes. The actual seller’s name appeared only in small print on the listing page.

[...]

In contrast, Walmart Inc. requires all products on store shelves be tested at approved labs, company documents show. Target says it requires suppliers of store-branded products to undergo additional inspections and testing beyond government standards.

Target and Walmart have created online marketplaces for third parties to sell directly to consumers. Target’s site, launched earlier this year with several sellers, is invitation-only. Walmart had around 22,000 sellers at the end of 2018, according to Marketplace Pulse. It requires an application that can take days for approval, and only a fraction of merchants applying make it through the vetting, says a person familiar with Walmart’s policy.

Less than 1% of the city’s population accounted for more than half of its lethal incidents

Saturday, August 24th, 2019

Since Sept. 11, 2001, hundreds of Americans have died in terrorist attacks and mass shootings — while more than 100,000 have died from common street violence:

Urban violence accounts for most murders in the U.S., but politicians focus on everything except the violence itself, instead issuing sweeping calls to ban guns, legalize drugs or end poverty.

In a 2016 paper, my colleague Christopher Winship and I analyzed reviews of more than 1,400 studies on anti-violence programs around the world. We discovered that urban violence is sticky, meaning that it tends to cluster among a surprisingly small number of people and places. In New Orleans, for instance, a tiny network of less than 1% of the city’s population accounted for more than half of its lethal incidents between Jan. 1, 2010, and March 31, 2014. In Boston, more than 70% of all shootings between 1980 and 2008 were concentrated in less than 5% of the city’s geography. In almost every city, a few “hot people” and “hot spots” are responsible for the vast majority of deadly violence; the key to addressing the problem is to pay close attention to them.

I don’t think we’re supposed to look too carefully at these hot people and spots.