We can learn much from the stories about Hillary’s health

Summary: The Campaign 2016 circus continues, each chapter weirder than the last. Trump’s caravan is weirdness on wings, with his bizarre stream of misinformation and fantasy. Also interesting (if less scary) are the stories about Hillary’s health. This is a follow-up to Important advice for us about the election from Obama’s doctor. Only by reviewing the full story — cutting through the lies, assembling the pieces from the daily news — can we see the full picture, identify the key questions, and draw useful conclusions. Update: see the new information in the last section.

Hillary Clinton
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

Recap of the story so far

As of Saturday concerns about Hillary Clinton’s health were deemed illegitimate by mainstream journalists and political gurus. For example, on Sept 6 WaPo reporter Chris Cillizza asked plaintively “Can we just stop talking about Hillary Clinton’s health now?“, referring to the “Clinton health conspiracy” (the all-purpose dismissive hand-wave). MSNBC analyst Jonathan Alter dismissed NBC’s mild story about her coughing with “this ain’t news“. Then she was ill on Sunday at a 9/11 event. We can learn much about our America by careful review of what happened next.

Clinton left the Manhattan event at 9.36 am. Here is the first official story, from campaign spokesman Nick Merrill — released aprox. 90 minutes later.

“Secretary Clinton attended the September 11th Commemoration Ceremony for just an hour and thirty minutes this morning to pay her respects and greet some of the families of the fallen. During the ceremony, she felt overheated, so departed to go to her daughter’s apartment and is feeling much better.”

The NY Times told us what came next.

“About 90 minutes after arriving {at Chelsea’s apartment}, Mrs. Clinton emerged from the apartment in New York’s Flatiron district. She waved to onlookers and posed for pictures with a little girl on the sidewalk. ‘I’m feeling great,’ Mrs. Clinton said. ‘It’s a beautiful day in New York.’”

This story was greeted with derision. The temperature was in the low 80s. Sometime after 5 pm Dr. Lisa R Bardack gave us a second story — with new information.

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Can we defeat ISIS by “killing them all”? We’ve learned nothing since 9/11.

Summary: What have we learned from our ways since 9/11? How have we changed since 9/11? The enthusiasm of our presidential candidates, except Trump and Sanders, for more of the Long War suggests we’ve learned nothing. The broad support for torture (63% in a recent poll) suggests that we have become more like the monsters we fight. This interview with noted military experts Ralph Peters shows both these trends, an ominous sign for our future.

“Kill them all; let God sort them out.”
— Loose translation of phrase attributed to Papal legate Arnaud Amalric before the Massacre at Béziers, in France at the start of the Albigensian Crusade.

Another demonstration of America’s failure to learn from our post-9/11 wars

Ralph Peters about 4GW

In the 15 years of our post-9/11 wars US forces have fought across the Middle East. We have employed the full trinity of US military methods — popular front militia, massive firepower on civilians (e.g., winning hearts & minds with artillery), plus sweep and destroy missions. Local forces have defeated us in Iraq and Afghanistan by the only metric that counts — they’re still there after we leave. Yet we have learned nothing from this expenditure of America’s blood and money, as we see here.

Ralph Peters (Lt. Colonel, US Army, retired) on Fox News, 22 March 2016

O’REILLY: Do you think the American people have the will to fight ISIS? I mean, the polls show that most favor ground troops, but an entire political party, the Democratic Party is against any kind of meaningful confrontation. What about the folks in general? What do you think?

PETERS: Well, I think the American people certainly could summon the will to defeat ISIS, to destroy ISIS, if properly led. But we are not properly led, and I’m afraid looking at the political landscape we may not be properly led. Because I’m not — generalities won’t defeat ISIS. I’m not hearing the kind of expertise, depth, and strength of character it will take. Worse, Bill, worse, we now have two generations of military officers educated, trained, convinced that it’s more important to prevent casualties and collateral damage than to win. Honestly, I don’t know if our military leaders have the character, the wherewithal to do what it takes to defeat ISIS. It’s not about winning hearts and minds, it’s about splashing their hearts and brains all over the landscape.

Even for Fox News, this is an amazingly ignorant statement to hear in the 15th year of our post-9/11 wars (he said much the same thing in 2014). We’ve learned nothing from our experiences, going back to our attempts to win by “killing them all” in the Vietnam War…

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To understand the War on Terror see Tom Cruise in “Edge of Tomorrow”

Summary: Every war brings forth a film that captures its special nature. For the American war in Vietnam that was Apocalypse Now, showing the violent purposeless madness that it became. For our post-9/11 interventions (weirdly named the “War on Terror”) that film is Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow. It perfectly captures the repetitive nature of the WOT, with one vital exception.


“Apocalypse Now”: The Do Lung Bridge
The 8 minute summary of the Vietnam War

“Did you find a C.O. captain?”
“There is no commanding officer.”
… “Like this bridge. We build it every night. Charlie blows it right back up again. Just so the generals can say the road’s open.”

Live, Die, Repeat
A fairy-tale version of the War on Terror

Edge of Tomorrow is a Tom Cruise film, so the plot moves from disorder and defeat to order and victory. His character repeats his experiences in battle, but unlike America he learns from them. We live in a dystopian version of this film, repetition without learning.

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Lessons from the hysteria about peak oil (2005-2013)

Summary: The peak oil hysteria provides rich lessons for us today about learning from activists and the value of listening to our major professional institutions. Easy cynicism led people to believe outlandish forecasts, wasting valuable time and resources. Worse, we have had many such barrages by doomsters — aided by their clickbait-seeking enablers in the media — which have left us almost numb to warnings, no matter how well-founded. We can do better.

It's an Oil World

Where were you during the peak oil hysteria? It began in 2005 and died in 2013, marked by the opening and closing of The Oil Drum website. Despite their analysis and forecasts proving to be mostly wrong, most of their authors are still “experts” publishing elsewhere (see this bizarre example). That follows the pattern of modern American doomsters, such as those in the 1970s who predicted global catastrophes from pollution and famine. Perhaps the activists predicting a climate catastrophe will add their names to this list in the next decade.

It’s not just historical trivia. We must learn from these bouts of irrationality if we have any hope of regaining the ability to govern ourselves.

Maximum World Oil Production Forecasts

Memories have faded, but a decade ago the predictions of end of oil were hot news. Comment threads overflowed with people terrified of the future. Conferences were held and books sold trumpeting certain disaster as the lifeblood of our industrial civilization dried up. Many of the following names were highlighted in journalists’ Rolodexes as the go-to people for hot quotes. Then as now, the names least often consulted proved to have the more accurate forecasts.

  • 2005 – Pickens, T. Boone (Oil & gas investor).
  • 2007 – Bakhitari, A.M.S. Oil Executive ((Iranian National Oil Co. planner).
  • 2007+ – Groppe, H. (Oil / gas expert & businessman).
  • 2007 – Herrera, R. (Retired BP geologist).
  • 2008+ – Westervelt, E.T. et al (US Army Corps of Engineers).
  • 2009 – Deffeyes, K. (retired Princeton professor & retired Shell geologist).
  • 2009 – Simmons, M.R. (Investment banker; see the posts about his work).
  • 2010 – Goodstein, D. (Vice Provost, Cal Tech).
  • 2010 – Wrobel, S. (Investment fund manager).
  • 2010 – Bentley, R. (University energy analyst).
  • 2010 – Campbell, C.  (Retired oil company geologist; see the posts about his work).
  • 2010 – Skrebowski, C. (Editor of Petroleum Review).
  • 2011 – Meling, L.M.  (Statoil oil company geologist).
  • 2012 – Koppelaar, R.H.E.M. (Dutch oil analyst).
  • 2012 – Pang Xiongqi (Petroleum Executive, China).
  • 2015 – Husseini, S. (retired Saudi Aramco).
  • 2020 – Laherrere, J. (Oil geologist , France).
  • 2020+ – CERA Energy (consultants).
  • 2020+ – Wood Mackenzie (consultants).
  • 2025+ – Shell.
  • 2030+ – EIA and IEA.
  • No visible peak – Lynch, M.C. (Energy economist).

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Tom Engelhardt: the key to winning wars in the 21st Century

Summary: The greatest US tragedy since 9/11 is our failure to learn from our failed wars, making it impossible to win future wars. We roll on from one disaster to another even larger disaster. Our wars are the seldom-mentioned elephant stalking our candidates on the campaign trail (other than GOP chants to bomb bomb, bomb). Here Tom Engelhardt, who has chronicled our misadventures since right after 9-11, gives a masterly summary of the steps that brought us here. It’s the first step to learning, more valuable than the hours of sound-bites from any of the debates.

Learn from mistakes


Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda

The U.S. Military Bombs in the 21st C
By Tom Engelhardt at TomDispatch
Reposted with his generous permission


Here’s my twenty-first-century rule of thumb about this country: if you have to say it over and over, it probably ain’t so. Which is why I’d think twice every time we’re told how “exceptional” “or indispensable” the United States is. For someone like me who can still remember a moment when Americans assumed that was so, but no sitting president, presidential candidate, or politician felt you had to say the obvious, such lines reverberate with defensiveness. They seem to incorporate other voices you can almost hear whispering that we’re ever less exceptional, more dispensable, no longer (to quote the greatest of them all by his own estimate) “the greatest.”

In this vein, consider a commonplace line running around Washington (as it has for years): the U.S. military is “the finest fighting force in the history of the world.” Uh, folks, if that’s so, then why the hell can’t it win a damn thing 14-plus years later?

If you don’t mind a little what-if history lesson, it’s just possible that events might have turned out differently and, instead of repeating that “finest fighting force” stuff endlessly, our leaders might actually believe it. After all, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, it took the Bush administration only a month to let the CIA, special forces advisers, and the U.S. Air Force loose against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s supporters in Afghanistan. The results were crushing. The first moments of what that administration would grandiloquently (and ominously) bill as a “global war on terror” were, destructively speaking, glorious.

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We live in the now. That makes it difficult for us to learn.

Summary: Can we cope with the challenges of the 21st century? If not, why? These are among the questions most worth asking, although lost in the tide of factoids and daily trivia that fill the news. Here are some examples that suggest one of our core problems: we live in the now and so find it difficult to remember and learn from experience.

It's always Now on this watch

Five years ago 24 conservatives — economists, investment advisers, academics, and others — write an open letter to Chairman Bernanke warning that ” The planned asset purchases {QE2} risk currency debasement and inflation, and we do not think they will achieve the Fed’s objective of promoting employment.” Time has proven their analysis almost totally wrong. A post by Brad DeLong (Prof economics, Berkeley) asks and answers an important question about this episode…

Justin Wolfers asked if any of the signers to this took their much-deserved reputational hit for signing it, or whether any of them have provided any sort of apologia.

The answer is “No: reporters somehow quote them, but do not ask them why they got it so wrong in late 2010. Reporters do not ask them how they have revised their visions of the Cosmic All as a result of getting it wrong. Reporters remain eager to take their quotes down and publish them as if they were the informed views of experts.”

And the other real shame — besides the journalistic one of pretending that this embarrassment never happened and continuing to burnish the reputation and media presence of the signers — is that, to my knowledge at least, not a single one of the signatories has gone back and explained {why they were wrong}. Marking their beliefs about the world to market is just not something that any of these people ever do.

This is a serious problem affecting America’s ability to see and understand the world (aka our Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action loop). As DeLong, Paul Krugman, and others have noted, conservative economists have predicted rising inflation (even hyperinflation) and a falling US dollar repeatedly during the past six years (e.g, Obama making the US into Zimbabwe) — yet the same people still remain experts to journalists — considered gurus by conservatives.

Fourteen years ago the US invaded and occupied Afghanistan. Twelve years ago the US invaded and occupied Iraq. Both expeditions were expensive failures in terms of their goals and any rational calculation of costs and benefits. Yet the civilian and military architects of these fiascos retain their status as experts, gracing our TV screens with new rounds of probably disastrous advice.

What happened to those stoking hysteria about Ebola in America? Or to those describing the OPM hack as devastating to US national security (89 weeks since the first hack and still no visible effects)?

You can make your own list of such things. It is easy to make a long one.

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Martin van Creveld: it’s the age of failed airpower. Yet we try, try, try again.

Summary: Today Martin van Creveld examines one of the great oddities of our time — our persistent and absurdly unjustified faith in the power of airpower to defeat 4th generation foes. Future historians will marvel at our inability to learn from experience, of which this is just one example.

Italian-Turkish War
First aerial bombing: 1 Nov 1911 in Libya, Italian-Turkish War.

When Will They Ever Learn?

By Martin van Creveld
From his website, 1 October 2015
Posted with his generous permission

For over a year now, the US armed forces have been fighting The Monster. AKA ISIS, AKA DAESH, AKA one of the most ferocious band of cut-throats the world has ever seen. Joining President Assad’s Army, who is the only one with the necessary guts, as of this writing Turkish, Russian, and French forces have all entered the fray. So, in less direct ways, have some 60 other countries. As the growing list of belligerents indicates, without too much success. Fearing casualties, officially at any rate none of the above mentioned interventionist forces have deployed boots on the ground. They prefer to rely on air strikes instead.

So just to remind those of you who may have forgotten, here is a short list of some of the things airborne devices, regardless of whether they are or are not manned, fly high or low or circle the earth in the manner of satellites, can not do:

  • The cost-benefit relationship of airborne devices means they have difficulty coping with a widely dispersed enemy. In plain words: one cannot send an F-16 or a Predator after every terrorist, real or, much less, suspected.
  • Airborne devices cannot take prisoners and interrogate people. In other words obtain HUMINT from both enemy combatants and the civilian population.
  • Airborne devices cannot look inside houses and other buildings which terrorists/guerrillas/insurgents use to hide, plan their operations, store weapons, recuperate, and so on.
  • Airborne devices, owing to their inability to look inside, cannot normally block transportation arteries except by shooting up everything that moves on them. In other words, they cannot do so in a discriminating manner; it is either/or.
  • Airborne devices cannot occupy territory and hold it. To quote a World War I saying which still holds true in many cases: They come from the devil knows where; drop bombs on the devil knows what; and disappear to the devil knows where.

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