Category Archives: History

Learning from the past

The first rule of American war is not to believe what we’re told

Summary: Another war starts with its barrage of propaganda on America, raising the usual questions. Can we learn from experience? Will we demand accurate information and better analysis, laughing at those who have been so often wrong?  Today’s post provides some context that might help you decide what’s happening, or at least create useful doubts.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

“‘Truth,’ it has been said, ‘is the first casualty of war’.”
— Philip Snowden in his Introduction to Truth and the War, by E. D. Morel (1916).

Ministry of Truth

Contents

  1. Update from Ukraine.
  2. About previous clashes with Russia.
  3. Compare Ukraine with Vietnam.
  4. Conclusions.
  5. Other posts in this series.
  6. For More Information.

(1)  Update from Ukraine

The US Army announced that “about 300″ soldiers from the 173rd Airborne arrived in Ukraine on April 14 “to begin a six-month training rotation with Ukrainian national guard forces”. The NY Times describes the training in the upbeat prose typical of its stenographers repeating what they’re told, with a few specifics (“The courses will train 705 Ukrainian soldiers at a cost of $19 million…”). Canada has sent 200 trainers, Britain has sent 35, and perhaps Israel has sent some as well.

There’s no mention of involvement by US Special Forces, the premier trainers of foreign armies in the methods to fight civil wars, beyond a bland announcement by Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR) of deployments to train local troops in “Poland, Slovakia and the Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia involving several hundred personnel from U.S. special forces”.  No mention of direct involvement of US special operations troops, the covert tip of DoD’s spear — but then we shouldn’t expect to be told.

Relive the cold war

(2)  Compare it to previous direct confrontations with Russia

As usual with American geopolitical analysis, many “experts” quickly lose their perspective at the first hint of conflict, venting breathless warnings that we’re in a new Cold War — perhaps even sliding to nuclear war. It led them to predicted scores of great power wars since WWII; every month brings a new crop of war rumors (last year the hot “news” concerned war between some combo of Japan, the Philippines, and China).

Back on Earth, nuclear powers tend to walk lightly around each other after their first close call. For the US and Russia that was a close brush with death in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis (see the tapes of the NSC meetings described in Virtual JFK; you’ll have a far higher opinion of him after reading it). For India and Pakistan that was a not-close but still scary moment during Kargil War in summer 1999.

One glimpse of atomic death convinces national leaders to avoid direct confrontations of armed forces, relying instead on proxies willing to die for the interests of their great power sponsors. After centuries of experience, western governments have become expert in managing these.

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Notes from the Victory Parade in Moscow about our amnesia, & peace

Summary: Yesterday Russians celebrated their history, the 70th anniversary of VE Day. On the day marking this great shared accomplishment, America displayed our ignorance with a pointless gesture of the kind that damages the amity among nations and prevents diplomacy.  {1st of 2 posts today.}

2015 Victory parade in Moscow.

2015 Victory parade in Moscow. Photo by RIA Novosti/Maksim Blinov.

 Lest We Forget: a note about our past and present

By Simon Hunt, Simon Hunt Strategic Services. Posted with his generous permission.

On Saturday 9th May Russia held the Victory Parade in Moscow to mark the anniversary of The Great Patriotic War — as Russia’s defeat of Germany is called. Victory came at a terrible cost. Combat deaths totaled some 10 million Soviets plus another 17 odd-million civilians and prisoners of war of which about 70% were ethnic Russians. About 15% of the Soviet Union’s population was wiped out by the war. Only 3% of Soviet kids who graduated in 1941 survived the war. In contrast, Germany lost 3.5 million people, America 400,000 and the UK 280,000. Still huge numbers but nothing like those that the Soviet Union lost. Continue reading

Assassination as Policy in Washington: How It Failed Then and Fails Now

Summary: The horrific effects of our long War on Drugs have spread like heroin through the Republic. Wasted resources, wrecked communities, eroded rights. This post looks at a lesser-known example, how it accustomed us to use of assassination. Even less-known is that it failed then just as its failed in the War On Terror.  Today is the 3rd of today’s series about our FAILure to learn, with lessons from the past that we have ignored at great cost. It’s a weakness that can bring the greatest of nations to its knees. If American’s leaders won’t learn, its citizens can.

Why do they hate our freedom?Flying Terminator

Excerpt from The Kingpin Strategy
Assassination as Policy: How It Failed Us, 1990-2015

By Andrew Cockburn at TomDispatch, 28 April 2015.
Posted with their generous permission.

The Kingpin Strategy Arrives

At the beginning of the 1990s, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was the poor stepsister of federal law enforcement agencies.  Called into being by President Richard Nixon two decades earlier, it had languished in the shadow of more powerful siblings, notably the FBI.  But the future offered hope.  President George H.W. Bush had only recently re-launched the war on drugs first proclaimed by Nixon, and there were rich budgetary pickings in prospect.  Furthermore, in contrast to the shadowy drug trafficking groups of Nixon’s day, it was now possible to put a face, or faces, on the enemy.  The Colombian cocaine cartels were already infamous, their power and ruthless efficiency well covered in the media.

For Robert Bonner, a former prosecutor and federal judge appointed to head the DEA in 1990, the opportunity couldn’t have been clearer.  Although Nixon had nurtured fantasies of deploying his fledgling anti-drug force to assassinate traffickers, even soliciting anti-Castro Cuban leaders to provide the necessary killers, Bonner had something more systematic in mind.  He called it a “kingpin strategy,” whose aim would be the elimination either by death or capture of the “kingpins” dominating those cartels.

Implicit in the concept was the assumption that the United States faced a hierarchically structured threat that could be defeated by removing key leadership components.  In this, Bonner echoed a traditional U.S. Air Force doctrine: that any enemy system must contain “critical nodes,” the destruction of which would lead to the enemy’s collapse.

In a revealing address to a 2012 meeting of DEA veterans held to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the kingpin strategy’s inauguration, Bonner spoke of the corporate enemy they had confronted.  Major drug trafficking outfits, he said,

“by any measure are large organizations. They operate by definition transnationally. They are vertically integrated in terms of production and distribution. They usually have, by the way, fairly smart albeit quite ruthless people at the top and they have a command and control structure. And they also have people with expertise that run certain essential functions of the organization such as logistics, sales and distribution, finances, and enforcement.”

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Machiavelli warns us against listening to Iran’s exiled terrorists

Summary:  Our foreign policy consists largely of repeating mistakes from the past. This post examines two example — one from a decade ago, one from today — along with a comment by Machiavelli chastising our folly. This is the 2nd of 3 posts today about our FAILure to learn, each with a lesson from the past that we have ignored to great cost. If American’s leaders won’t learn, its citizens can.

Amnesia: the dark descent
For an individual or people to profit from experience it must be remembered (avoid anterograde amnesia). Greatness for a nation requires learning from history (avoid retrograde amnesia). We seem to have both kinds of amnesia. We live in the now, playing on the information highway.  We have the ability to do better. Remember our past; every day is a teachable moment.

Our leaders’ refusal to learn

This post gives another example of our leaders’ fascination with failed tactics: helping anti-American insurgents to overthrow regimes of our rivals. We’ve repeatedly done so since President Carter authorized Operation Cyclone, helping set the Middle East aflame by overthrowing secular regimes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and (in progress) Syria — all replaced by jihadists. Future historians will think us mad.

A key part of this strategy has been listening to the siren songs of exiles. Such as Ahmed Chalabi, who sold Bush a fabric of lies about how easily he could govern Iraq as our puppet once we gave it to him. We held Iraq for 8 years before its government forced Bush to sign a Status of Forces agreement that booted us out.

Since we do not learn from experience (or even remember it) Congress prepares to respectfully listen to Maryam Rajavi, a co-leader of the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) — a group on the State Department’s list of terrorist groups from 1997 to 2012 — removed after a multi-million dollar program of payments to influential DC figures (the free market in selling America) despite its history of anti-Americanism and (of course) terrorism. She’ll urge Congress to overthrow Iran’s elected government — again. Its people still hate us for doing so in 1953, and installing a tyrant. Will doing so a second time win any friends in Iran or elsewhere?

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Stark evidence from our past about our inability to learn today

Summary: Nothing shows our FAILure to learn more than how we’ve repeat so many of our mistakes of Vietnam in Afghanistan. No hegemon, no matter how powerful, can survive a rapidly changing world, filled with rivals and foes, if it doesn’t profit from its experience. Today is FAILure to learn day, with 3 lessons from the past that we have ignored, to great cost. If American’s leaders won’t learn, its citizens can.  {1st of 3 posts today.}

“Hegel says somewhere that all great historic facts and personages occur twice, so to speak. He forgot to add: ‘Once as tragedy, and again as farce.’”

— Opening line to Karl Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1869).

Vietnam: closer than you think.

Here is the final pages of David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest (1972), describing how Nixon took ownership of the Vietnam War from LBJ — much as Obama did from Bush. I was going to change the names to those from our war in Afghanistan. But why bother? The parallels are obvious.

Remember, because every day is a teachable moment.

Henry Kissinger

————————————————

About the same time Henry Kissinger, who had emerged as the top foreign policy adviser of the Administration (in part because he, like Nixon, was hard-line on Vietnam, whereas both William Rogers, the Secretary of State, and Mel Laird, the Secretary of Defense, had been ready to liquidate the war in the early months of the Administration), was asked by a group of visiting Asians if the Nixon Administration was going to repeat the mistakes of the Johnson Administration in Vietnam. “No,” answered Kissinger, who was noted in Washington for having the best sense of humor in the Administration, “we will not repeat their mistakes. We will not send 500,000 men.” He paused. “We will make our own mistakes and they will be completely our own.” There was appreciative laughter and much enjoyment of the movement.

One thing though — Kissinger was wrong. To an extraordinary degree the Nixon men repeated the mistakes and miscalculations of the Johnson Administration, which prompted Russell Baker to describe it all as “the reign of President Lyndon B. Nixonger.” For step by step, they repeated the mistakes of the past. They soon became believers in their policy, and thus began to listen only to others who were believers (they began to believe, in addition, that only they were privy to the truth in reports from Saigon, that the secret messages from the Saigon embassy, rather than being the words of committed, embattled men, were the words of cool, objective observers).

Doubters were soon filtered out; the Kissinger staff soon lost most of the talented Asian experts that had come in with him at the start of the Administration. Optimistic assessments of American goals, of what the incursion into Cambodia would do, of what the invasion of Laos would do — always speeding the timetable of withdrawal and victory — were passed on to the public, always to be mocked by ARVN failure and NVA resilience.

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Books to help us see the strange new world following the revolution in gender roles

Summary: To understand the strange future that lies ahead it helps to better understand our present and past. We can do that by turning to people who have written about these things. Here are some recommendations, books about our strange world to prepare us for an even stranger future.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

This isn’t our future, although we might have the flying car:

The Jetsons: a 1950s family of the future.

The Jetsons: a 1950s family of the future.

Books should be our first stop on our journey to see the future. They can help clear away the underbrush of falsehoods about our situation. They can explain the inescapable biological basis of gender in humanity. They can show us the mind-blowing range of sexual practices and family structures in world history (however strange the future, there are always precedents). They can point us to literature, where artists explore both the reality and dreams about our lives. Here are my recommendations, places to start amongst the vast body of work about this most interesting of subjects.

Book Recommendations

  1. The Myth of Male Power: Why Men Are the Disposable Sex
  2. The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature
  3. Love and Friendship
  4. Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty
  5. Sex in History
  6. Pink Samurai: Love, Marriage and Sex in Contemporary Japan

(1) The Myth of Male Power: Why Men Are the Disposable Sex

By Warren Farrell (1993) — So many of the assumptions of feminists are factually incorrect. Farrell gives us a list. You might not agree with every one, but this point is incontrovertible.  Summary from Publishers Weekly:

“Readers of this significant study will find that they haven’t lost the ability to cry after all. While some feminists may assert that it is an attack on women, the book attempts to show areas in which males operate at a disadvantage without claiming that women are responsible for their plight. Psychologist Farrell stresses economics, pointing out that the 25 worst types of jobs, involving the highest physical risk, are almost all filled by men. He also considers warfare, in which virtually all of the military casualties are men; the justice system, where sentences for males are customarily heavier; and sexual harassment, which has become a one-way street. He concludes with helpful advice on “resocializing” the male child, adolescent and adult.”

The Myth of Male Power: Why Men Are the Disposable Sex is available at Amazon.

(2) The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature

By Matt Ridley (1993) — despite all our ever-growing technological power, we are anchored to our humanity by a billion years of evolution. Ridley doesn’t ask what happens when we can tinker with the biological essentials of our design.  Summary from Amazon:

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Did we win the War on Poverty?

Summary:  Despite their role in building America, a long campaign of misinformation by the Right has discredited government programs (except for war). Their top target has been the anti-poverty programs of the Great Society. Here we take a brief look at the numbers to see the actual results to this, one of America’s greatest collective efforts.  {1st of 2 posts today.}

“This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort. It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won.”
— Lyndon Johnson’s State of the Union Address, 8 January 1964.

“Some years ago, the federal government declared war on poverty, and poverty won.”
— Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union Address, 25 January 1988.

LBJ

 

Excerpt from “The War on Poverty: Was It Lost?

By Christopher Jencks
New York Review of Books, 2 April 2015

Review of Legacies of the War on Poverty, edited by Martha J. Bailey and Sheldon Danziger.

Lyndon Johnson became president in November 1963. In January 1964 he committed the United States to a war on poverty. In August he sought and gained authority to expand the war in Vietnam. Of course, the War on Poverty was only a figure of speech — a political and economic promise, not a war from which young men would return in body bags. Nonetheless, most Americans look back on the two wars as kindred failures. Both have had an exemplary part in the disillusionment with government that has been reshaping American politics since the 1970s.

Asked about their impression of the War on Poverty, Americans are now twice as likely to say “unfavorable” as “favorable.” In one poll, given four alternative ways of describing how much the War on Poverty reduced poverty, 20% chose “a major difference,” 41% chose “a minor difference,” 13% chose “no difference,” and 23% chose “made things worse.”  {See this survey by the Center for American Progress}

Legacies of the War on Poverty is a set of 9 studies, edited by Martha Bailey and Sheldon Danziger, that assess the successes and failures of the diverse strategies that Johnson and his successors adopted to reduce poverty. The chapters are packed with evidence, make judicious judgments, and suggest a higher ratio of success to failure than opinion polls do.

… Census Bureau publishes a table every September showing its estimate of the “official” poverty rate for the previous calendar year, along with the rate in every prior year back to 1959. Figure 1 (see below) shows these estimates. They indicate that 19% of Americans were poor in 1964. Five years later, in 1969, the official rate had fallen by roughly a third, to 12.1%.

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