Streetwise Professor

January 18, 2015

Chris Kyle & Alvin York: Avatars of Jacksonian America

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 10:11 pm

Last night I saw American Sniper. I recommend it. It’s a very straightforward telling of the story of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL who served four tours in Iraq, serving mainly as a sniper providing “overwatch” for Marines operating in the mean streets of places like Fallujah and Sadr City. Kyle was credited with 160 kills, an American record. (The all-time record is held by a Finn who killed over 500 Russians in a few weeks during the Russo-Finnish War of 1940.) This tally included a 2000+ yard shot, which is the sort-of climax of the movie. (Amazingly, he did this with a Macmillan Tac 338,  rather than a 50 caliber Barrett.)

I say sort-of climax, because the movie doesn’t have the standard narrative arc. That reflects its hewing closely to Kyle’s life, and most lives aren’t like classic movie scripts.

Bradley Cooper does an excellent job at portraying Kyle. You can see interviews with Kyle on YouTube, and Cooper’s Kyle captures the real thing in appearance, voice, and mannerisms.

The movie is quite powerful, and the ending which uses film from Kyle’s funeral procession and memorial service in Cowboys Stadium is quite moving.

The best indicator of the impact of the movie is that when screen darkened and people were departing the theater, no one spoke a single word. I am not exaggerating: I did not hear anyone speak, and after noticing the silence I listened for voices, and heard none. People shuffled out in silence, as they might leaving a funeral of a friend struck down too young.*

Walking back from the theater, my mind flashed back to one of my favorite old movies, Sergeant York starring Gary Cooper. (And no, it wasn’t the common last name of the stars that brought that comparison to mind: I honestly didn’t notice that until just now.) There are some interesting comparisons and contrasts. Both Kyle and Alvin York were Southerners who grew up around firearms and hunting. Both were somewhat rambunctious as young men. Both were very patriotic.  Both became celebrated war heroes, and of course, subjects of biopics.

There are of course substantial differences. York found religion, foreswore his previous wild ways, and became an ardent pacifist. He attempted to obtain an exemption from conscription as a conscientious objector, but as his sect was not recognized his request was rejected. Kyle, conversely, volunteered for a branch of the service most likely to see combat.  York’s heroism was compressed into a few hours-a few minutes, really-on a single day in October, 1918: he killed as many as 28 Germans, with as many shots. Kyle served four long tours in Iraq, and his tally was spread out over nearly 1000 days.

The most striking similarity is how they justified killing. Here’s the dialog from Sergeant York:

Colonel: Of course, if you’d rather not tell me,why, it’s quite all right.
York: Well, I’m as much against killing as ever,sir. But it was this way, Colonel. When I started out I felt just like you said. But when I hear them machine guns a-going and all them fellows are dropping around me, I figured that them guns was killing hundreds, maybe thousands, and there weren’t nothing anybody could do, but to stop them guns.
And that’s what I done.
Colonel: You mean to tell me that you did it to save lives?
York: Yes, sir. That was why.
Colonel: Well, York, what you’ve just told me is the most extraordinary thing of all.

In American Sniper, Kyle says that he was killing to protect his comrades, and that the only thing that he regretted is the ones he couldn’t save.  The psychologist to whom Kyle tells this is as surprised at this statement as York’s colonel was. (Other noted American snipers, such as Chuck Mawhinney and Carlos Hathcock, expressed similar views.)

A similarity in the movies is that both were nominated for Oscars as Best Picture, and both Coopers received nominations for Best Actor. Gary won in 1941, though the movie did not. It remains to be seen how Bradley and his movie do 74 years later.

That may have something to do with politics, and perhaps the most interesting contrast between Sergeant York and American Sniper relates to politics.

In some respects, there is a very strong political subtext to Sergeant York. When the movie was released, the US was very divided about whether to become involved in the World War that was then raging in Europe, and in China. There was a strong isolationist and pacifist streak in the nation, and although Roosevelt was nudge the country towards intervention, there was considerable opposition. Indeed, while Sergeant York was still in theaters, the House of Representatives extended conscription by the margin of a single vote. Viewed against that background, York can be seen as an allegorical figure: a committed pacifist who comes to recognize that killing is sometimes justified because it saves more lives, just as some were arguing that a peace loving US needed to intervene in the world conflict in order to save humanity from murderous regimes.

Even given this political subtext, the movie was not controversial. It was, in fact, wildly popular: it was the largest grossing film in 1941. Moreover, it did not generate any real political controversy. Indeed, its patriotic themes were widely praised. On December 7, 1941, it seemed prescient.

In contrast, Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is not avowedly political, but it has been the focus of intense political criticism, mostly from the left. Eastwood portrays Kyle like he was. Patriotic. An ardent supporter of the war in Iraq. A man who believed that the US was fighting evil there.

And all of that just won’t do, will it? Since all of these things are an anathema to the progressive left, they have subjected the movie to shrill criticism. The most absurd example of this being the “review” in The New Republic, which was written by someone who hadn’t seen the movie. (I refuse to link to such tripe: you can find it yourself if you want to read it.) Because, hey, who needs to see a movie to judge it, when its plot and its real life protagonist conflict with the accept progressive narrative, right? The most odious example is fittingly from that most odious of progs (quite a competition, that), Michael Moore, who tweeted that snipers are backshooting cowards. (Again, not linking. You’re own your own if you want to subject yourself to his bile.)

Kyle was the type of man who gives the left the vapors. He epitomized the people Obama belittled as “clinging to their guns and religion.” He was a Jacksonian par excellence, and any movie fairly portraying a Jacksonian is beyond the progressive pale. Such men are the true enemies of the progressive left, far more threatening than any jihadi/Salafist/Islamist terrorist, as Obama’s stubborn refusal to utter these words plainly reveals.

But the key thing to note is that Kyle stands out in the movie for his commitment to the war in Iraq: he is the exception, not the rule, among his comrades in arms. There is a scene where Kyle unexpectedly meets his brother, a Marine, on a tarmac in Iraq. His brother is going home after his combat tour, and makes it clear that he detested the war and wants to get far away from it as soon as possible: this leaves Kyle befuddled. One of Kyle’s comrades on several tours is killed, and at the funeral stateside his grieving mother reads his last letter, which is a cri du couer condemning the futility of the war. Kyle tells his wife that the letter killed his friend: he had lost his commitment to the cause, and it had killed him. Eastwood presents both sides and in this, and other parts of the movie, he conveys the grays of the war and the diverse responses of those who fought it. Which is utterly unacceptable to those who see it purely in black and black, and who can only conceive of Kyle as a blood-crazed psychopath.

This should not be surprising, as a recent speech by James Bowman indicates:

Miss Ryzik’s application [in a review of Zero Dark Thirty] of progressive historicism to movie criticism may at first seem just a little incongruous, but it shouldn’t. The politicization both of movie criticism and of the movies themselves has been progressing, too, for decades. Nowadays almost everything written about movies or popular culture by the scholars and academics paid to study such subjects by universities is so reliably progressive, as we now understand the term, that it will seem to ordinary readers already to come from the future. This impression is reinforced by the fact that it is written in a futuristic language only vaguely related to English, a language which is beginning to leave its impression on our own with words like Melena Ryzik’s “narrative” in place of an old-fashioned word like “movie.” She is far from being the only person to think nowadays that “narrative” sounds more intelligent and sophisticated than more concrete language.

We are seeing this in spades with American Sniper.

But this too is revealing: the disconnect between progressive opinion and the popularity of the film is telling. It cleared over $90 million over the weekend of its release, and with tomorrow being MLK holiday, the opening weekend take is likely to be on the order of $115-$120 million. As I noted, the movie clearly moved the audience, and I believe that this is because they admired him and were saddened by the closing scenes of his funeral procession, memorial service, and funeral. Perhaps saddened specifically by the knowledge that he was killed by an emotionally troubled veteran he was trying to help. The progressives may hate Chris Kyle and what he stands for, but apparently vast swathes of America don’t.

In his article on the Jacksonian tradition in American politics (linked above, and which is a must read), Walter Russell Mead notes:

Despite its undoubted limitations and liabilities, however, Jacksonian policy and politics are indispensable elements of American strength. Although Wilsonians, Jeffersonians and the more delicately constructed Hamiltonians do not like to admit it, every American school needs Jacksonians to get what it wants. If the American people had exhibited the fighting qualities of, say, the French in World War II, neither Hamiltonians, nor Jeffersonians nor Wilsonians would have had the opportunity to have much to do with shaping the postwar international order.

Two men portrayed by actors named Cooper nearly 75 years apart-Chris Kyle and Alvin York-personified what Mead writes. At times of trial, Jacksonian America has produced remarkable men who would be misfits in a faculty lounge or the halls of politics, but who make those things possible. They were rough men of a type that permit us to sleep in our beds at night because of their willingness-one reluctantly, one enthusiastically-to do violence on our behalf (to paraphrase the remark often attributed to Orwell). They are the kind of men whom progressives despise. Fortunately, however, it appears there plenty of Americans who think otherwise. Maybe there’s hope for us yet.

*Scott relates a similar experience in the comments. When I was waiting to get into the Rec center this morning, several students were talking about the film, and made the same observation. My daughter said that friends had told her the same thing. It’s a phenomenon.

 

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January 1, 2015

Will Bomb For Food

Filed under: Economics,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 2:11 pm

Russia is leasing 12 SU-24 swing wing Fencer fighter-bomber aircraft to Argentina. Argentina is paying with . . . food, specifically beef and wheat. The 1970s-era SU-24 was, um, very similar to the US’s 1960s-era F-111, which the US retired in 1996. (Seriously: look at pictures of the Soviet SU-24 and the American F-111 and it’s hard to tell the difference.)

The UK is unsettled by the transaction, because the jets could threaten the Falklands. And of course Argentina is in such great shape that it can easily afford a few wars of choice. After all, the last one went so, so well.

But look at it this way. If Argentina prevails this time over an emaciated British military, it will conquer islands with 500,000 sheep. Just think of how many weapons the Argentines will be able to lease from Russia in exchange for all that lamb, hogged, mutton and wool. Chile, look out!

I have another suggested trade between the two countries. They should just exchange their currencies. That way, each can obtain more varied wallpaper.

So no, Russia is not isolated. It is a fully paid member of the Drowning Men’s Club, whose desperate members grab onto one another for dear life as they go under once, twice, and yet again. Look at its economic and political allies, such as they are. Argentina, Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea, Syria. Decrepit losers, every one. Hell, even Belarus is looking for ways to escape the embrace of a drowning Russia.

This deal is so revealing. Russia, once the world’s breadbasket, can’t feed itself. But what does it have to trade? Decrepit military equipment from another era, and a derivative design largely lifted from the evil Americans at that. When “Will Bomb For Food” is only a slightly exaggerated characterization of a country’s comparative advantage, it says everything you need to know about Russia’s economy 23 years after the end of the Soviet Union and 15 years after the advent of Putinism.

 

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December 24, 2014

A Christmas From Hell, 70 Years Ago

Filed under: History,Military — The Professor @ 5:56 pm

Seventy years ago, on the night of 24-25 December, 1944, the US 75th Division mounted an assault in attempt to seal stem the German counteroffensive in the Ardennes. One of the men in the 75th was my uncle, Norbert Katarski.  Norbert was crawling along the snowy frozen ground cradling his heavy, water-cooled M1917 machine gun when a tree burst horribly wounded him. He suffered compound fractures of both arms, and numerous shrapnel wounds in his back and legs. One piece of shrapnel traveled ripped through his scalp: a fraction of an inch lower, and he would have been killed.

I told Norbert’s story here. Christmas was always a blessed time for him. Most years, he would give the sanitized version of his experience. Two Christmases before his passing in 2009, he told the story, in all its horrific detail.

Please remember men like Norb, and their sacrifices, while you enjoy your Christmas.

And to all of my readers. Thanks so much for your kind attention over the year. I wish you a very Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year.

Cheers!

SWP

 

 

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December 22, 2014

This Day in US Military History

Filed under: History,Military — The Professor @ 7:01 pm

150 years ago, 22 December, 1864, Sherman captured the city of Savannah, GA. Sherman telegraphed Lincoln: “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the city of Savannah with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition and also about 25,000 bales of cotton.”

Two Pirrong ancestors (from the distaff side) served in Sherman’s army, one in the 46th Ohio (4th Division, XV Corps, Army of the Tennessee) and the other in the 92nd Ohio (3rd Division, XIV Corps, Army of Georgia).

70 years ago, 22 December, 1944, Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe, Assistant Division Commander, 101st Airborne Division, responded to a German demand for the surrender of Bastogne with one word: “Nuts!” The Germans were non-plussed by the reply, so the American delivering the message translated it as “Go to hell.”

The 101st held out against intense German assaults until Patton’s Third Army arrived on 27 December. The 101st wasn’t relieved, however. It was ordered onto the offensive, fighting until mid-January in the meat grinder battle to push back the Germans.

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December 21, 2014

Bomb the ISIS Bandwagon

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 7:30 pm

An operational plan is clearly shaping up in Iraq. From 12/15-12/17, coalition air forces carried out 45 strikes on 50 targets in support of Peshmerga forces in Ninewa Province: this is a large number, by comparison with the rest of the air campaign, and it is significant that they were carried out in support of a ground offensive. With the help of this support, the Kurds cleared Mt. Sinjar, and have taken a large part of the city of Sinjar. This is important because the city lies on the main road between ISIS’s positions in Syria and Mosul. Furthermore, Iraqi counterterrorism units parachuted (!) into the Tal Afar airport. Tal Afar lies to the east of Sinjar, and is also on the road from Syria to Mosul. If the airport can be secured, this would serve as a base to support advances east and west.

These moves are obviously intended to isolate Mosul from support from ISIS forces and logistics in Syria.

In the meantime, Iraqi forces have made a concerted effort to take Baiji on the Tigris, and also Tikrit somewhat further south. Controlling, or at least interdicting, the line of the Tigris would isolate Mosul from Anbar, ISIS’s main stronghold in Iraq. For this reason, ISIS is counterattacking hard in Baiji, and is also attacking in Ramadi and elsewhere in Anbar, most likely in an effort to draw off Iraq forces from their operations along the Tigris.

Some Iraqis have expressed a desire to attack Mosul soon, but the US is holding them back. It is evident that in addition to needing time to train up Iraqi troops to some semblance of a military force, the US is taking a methodical approach of isolating Mosul and squeezing it for a while before giving the go ahead for an assault.

The US can also use the interval to attrit ISIS troops in Mosul, and undermine morale. This last is a realistic possibility, as recent reports indicate serious discontent among ISIS fighters. ISIS is demanding its minions to swear featly, and to report regularly to keep them from slipping away. Moreover, it is carrying out exemplary executions of those of doubtful enthusiasm or loyalty.

This is most pronounced in Syria, where ISIS’s insane persistence in attacking Kobani has led to an estimated 1000 ISIS KIA. ISIS fighters in Raqqa are beginning to rebel at being sent to Kobani to become JDAM magnets, and there are reports that after many foreign fighters attempted to desert ISIS summarily executed 100 of them, pour encourager les autres. I guess a lot of the Ali Gs who thought jihad would be a lark involving beheading the defenseless and the acquisition of sex slaves in this life are less enamored with the prospect of 72 virgins in the next.

The new ISIS motto is apparently “The executions will continue until morale improves.” Hardly the sign of a confident force.

Time to turn up the pressure. I’ve said that ISIS is like a shark that needs to keep moving to survive. Recruits flocked to its banners when it appeared unstoppable, and about to realize jihadist fantasies. If its inevitability is proven chimerical, the sunshine beheaders will fall away, leaving the hard core types. It is just at such a time, when enemy morale begins to show cracks, that it is imperative to ramp up the pressure. The air campaign is still too desultory, but it has shown results. Increasing its tempo and intensity would almost certainly expedite the unraveling of ISIS, the first signs of which are now manifest.

Napoleon said the moral to the physical is three to one. Let’s use our physical superiority to pressure ISIS’s moral center of gravity. Bombing the bandwagon is the best way to consign ISIS to oblivion.

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December 4, 2014

The Hamster Wheel From Hell: Putin’s Presidential Speech Edition

Filed under: Economics,History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:58 pm

Putin gave his annual Presidential address today. It was the by now familiar combination of anti-American paranoia, historical fiction, hyper-nationalism, and economic idiocy.

The most notable thing about the speech is how much in Putins head the US is. Everything that ails Russia originates in the US. A sample:

Speaking of the sanctions, they are not just a knee-jerk reaction on behalf of the United States or its allies to our position regarding the events and the coup in Ukraine, or even the so-called Crimean Spring. I’m sure that if these events had never happened – I want to point this out specifically for you as politicians sitting in this auditorium – if none of that had ever happened, they would have come up with some other excuse to try to contain Russia’s growing capabilities, affect our country in some way, or even take advantage of it.

The policy of containment was not invented yesterday. It has been carried out against our country for many years, always, for decades, if not centuries. In short, whenever someone thinks that Russia has become too strong or independent, these tools are quickly put into use.

However, talking to Russia from a position of force is an exercise in futility, even when it was faced with domestic hardships, as in the 1990ies and early 2000ies.

We remember well how and who, almost openly, supported separatism back then and even outright terrorism in Russia, referred to murderers, whose hands were stained with blood, none other than rebels and organised high-level receptions for them. These “rebels” showed up in Chechnya again. I’m sure the local guys, the local law enforcement authorities, will take proper care of them. They are now working to eliminate another terrorist raid. Let’s support them.

Let me reiterate, we remember high-level receptions for terrorists dubbed as fighters for freedom and democracy. Back then, we realised that the more ground we give and the more excuses we make, the more our opponents become brazen and the more cynical and aggressive their demeanour becomes.

Despite our unprecedented openness back then and our willingness to cooperate in all, even the most sensitive issues, despite the fact that we considered – and all of you are aware of this and remember it – our former adversaries as close friends and even allies, the support for separatism in Russia from across the pond, including information, political and financial support and support provided by the special services – was absolutely obvious and left no doubt that they would gladly let Russia follow the Yugoslav scenario of disintegration and dismemberment. With all the tragic fallout for the people of Russia.

In Leninist terms, the US is Who, Russia is Whom.  The object, not the subject. Putin even blames the US for Chechen terrorism. The last paragraph is a great example of Putin’s historical distortions. In fact, the US was deathly afraid of a chaotic, Yugoslavia-like break up of a nation with thousands of nukes and massive stocks of chemical weapons: recall that Bush I even opposed the breakup of the USSR, let alone Russia.

The irony, of course, is that whereas Putin (and Russians generally) imagins that every American goes to bed at night and wakes every morning scheming to subjugate Russia and rob it of its riches, the truth is that 99+ percent of all Americans couldn’t care less about it. That’s a truth Putin and other Russians just can’t handle. So they construct this alternate reality in which the US is obsessed with Russia.

 

The cooperation on “the most sensitive issues” that Putin’s mentions involved mainly the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which involved the US spending billions of dollars in Russia to secure nukes. Moreover, the Russian Federation assumed the USSR’s Security Council seat (with its veto), and was admitted to international organizations such as the G-8 for which it was manifestly unqualified.

Putin’s historical revisionism did not stop there. He elevated Crimea to a central-indeed holy-place in Russian history:

All of this allows us to say that Crimea, the ancient Korsun or Chersonesus, and Sevastopol have invaluable civilisational and even sacral importance for Russia, like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem for the followers of Islam and Judaism.

The equation of Crimea to the Temple Mount is, well, original. It is bizarre that Putin makes the “Temple Mount” sacral for Muslims, and puts them ahead of Jews. Yes, al Aqsa mosque is on what the Jews (with abundant historical and archeological support) claim to be the site of their Temple, but Islam’s veneration of the site has nothing to do with it being the “Temple Mount”, and indeed, there is an active campaign to deny that this was the site of the Jewish temple.

A good rule for reading the speech is to play the opposite game: take what Putin says, and interpret it the opposite way. There are far too many cases of this to cover them all, so I’ll just mention a couple of the greatest hits:

  • “We will tell the truth to people abroad, so that everyone can see the real and not distorted and false image of Russia.” (That’s what RT does, for sure!)
  • “We will actively promote business and humanitarian relations, as well as scientific, education and cultural relations.” (Tell to the “foreign agent” NGOs, the British Counsel, etc.)
  • “We will do this even if some governments attempt to create a new iron curtain around Russia.”
  • “We will never enter the path of self-isolation, xenophobia, suspicion and the search for enemies.” (My favorite, by far. Every word an inversion of the truth. This is the official Russian government translation. The New York Times quotes Putin as saying “paranoia” instead of “self-isolation, xenophobia.” Either way, pure gold.)
  • “The most important thing now is to give the people an opportunity for self-fulfilment. Freedom for development in the economic and social spheres, for public initiatives is the best possible response both to any external restrictions and to our domestic problems.” (Look at the rising flight of Russians to points west, because the opportunity for self-fulfillment in Russia is minimal.)
  • “Conscientious work, private property, the freedom of enterprise – these are the same kind of fundamental conservative values as patriotism, and respect for the history, traditions, and culture of one’s country.” (Yeah. Russia. The land of private property and free enterprise.)
  • “Finally, it’s crucial to abandon the basic principle of total, endless control.”

I could go on. And on. And on.

Some commentary I read said that Putin did not mention anti-corruption efforts, but this isn’t true. He did, but very obliquely:

A huge economic reserve is lying on the surface. It is enough to look at government-financed construction projects to see this. At a recent forum of the Russian Popular Front, examples were cited of funds being invested in grandiose buildings or the construction costs of same-type – I want to emphasise this point – facilities, differing several times over, even in neighbouring regions.

I believe that it is necessary to phase in a system of a single technical contracting authority, and centralise the preparation of standard projects, construction documentation and the choice of subcontractors. This will make it possible to overcome the existing disparity in construction costs and ensure significant saving of public funds spent on capital construction projects, between 10 percent and 20 percent. This practice should be extended to all civil construction projects financed from the federal budget. I instruct the Government to submit relevant proposals.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister and I discussed this topic. Of course, there are some pitfalls here, and knowing what they are, it is important to avoid them, move with caution, implement several pilot projects in several regions and see what happens.

However, leaving the situation as it is today is no longer an option. As I said earlier, construction costs of similar facilities in neighbouring regions differ many times over. What is this?

Diversion or embezzlement of budget funds allocated for federal defence contracts should be treated as a direct threat to national security and dealt with seriously and severely, as in the suppression of the financing of terrorism. I mention this for a reason.

I don’t think there is anything to hide or gloss over here. We have just held our traditional meeting in Sochi under the leadership of the Defence Ministry, combat arms and services commanders and leading defence company designers.

On certain positions, prices double, triple or quadruple, and in one case they grew 11 times. You realise that this has nothing to do with inflation or with anything, considering that practically 100 percent of funding is provided in advance.

In other words, state construction projections and defense contracting are rife with corruption. But Vlad has it under control. He has decreed more intensive oversight of contracting. That’s never been tried before, surely, and just as surely will work like a charm.

Putin acknowledged the fraught economic situation, including the Ruble’s decline. In that fine demagogic tradition, he rounded up the usual suspects: speculators:

Today we are faced with reduced foreign exchange proceeds and, as a consequence, with a weaker national currency, the ruble. As you are aware, the Bank of Russia has switched to a “floating” exchange rate, but this does not mean that the Bank of Russia has withdrawn from controlling the exchange rate, and that the ruble may now be the object of unchecked financial speculation.

I’d like to ask the Bank of Russia and the Government to carry out tough and concerted actions to discourage the so-called speculators from playing on fluctuations of the Russian currency. In this regard, I’d like to point out that the authorities know who these speculators are. We have the proper instruments of influence, and the time is ripe to use them.

At this point, Central Bank head Nabiullina was probably looking for sharp objects to jab into her carotid artery. The “proper instruments of influence”-presumably burning reserves to buy Rubles and hiking interest rates-will dent Russia’s reserves and hammer its already reeling economy.

Hilariously, the moment Putin mentioned the Ruble, it resumed its inexorable decline, going from 52.65 before he opened his mouth to 54.45 (more than 3 percent) by the end of the trading day.

Putin recognized the inflationary impact of the Ruble’s decline, but he has a solution! Controlling prices:

Of course, a weaker ruble increases the risk of a short-term surge in inflation. It’s imperative that we protect the interests of our people, first and foremost, those with low incomes, and the Government and the regions must ensure control over the situation on the food, medicine and other basic goods markets. I’m sure this can be done without any problem, and it must be done.

Yes. It can be done “without any problem,” just like it has been since Diocletian.

Putin also mentioned capital flight, and proposed a complete amnesty to those repatriating their money, no matter how dirty it is:

Of course, it is essential to explain to the people who will make these decisions what full amnesty means. It means that if a person legalises his holdings and property in Russia, he will receive firm legal guarantees that he will not be summoned to various agencies, including law enforcement agencies, that they will not “put the squeeze” on him, that he will not be asked about the sources of his capital and methods of its acquisition, that he will not be prosecuted or face administrative liability, and that he will not be questioned by the tax service or law enforcement agencies. Let’s do this now, but only once. Everyone who wants to come to Russia should be given this opportunity.

We all understand that the sources of assets are different, that they were earned or acquired in various ways. However, I am confident that we should finally close, turn the “offshore page” in the history of our economy and our country. It is very important and necessary to do this.

Somehow I doubt that anyone who spirited any ill-gotten gains-or even honestly-gotten gains-out of Russia will put much faith in those assurances, so don’t look for the money to start flowing east anytime soon.

The last half of the speech focused on economics, and presented a laundry list of goals without anything resembling even an outline of how to achieve them. Productivity growth, diversifying the economy, import substitution, high tech exports, and on and on and on. But unless Putin gets some ruby slippers or finds a genie who grants unlimited wishes, none of this is going to happen. This part of  the speech was just another spin of Putin’s Hamster Wheel From Hell.

Nothing in the speech should be a surprise. Putin has no economic ideas, and just repeats the same nostrums year after year after year. In foreign policy, he is doubling down on truculence and confrontation. In other words, stagnation at home and aggression abroad. The foreign adventures will rest on a crumbling economic foundation. Collapse is inevitable. The only problem is that Putin can wreak much havoc and inflict much harm before the inevitable occurs.

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November 30, 2014

The Battle of Franklin: Sublimely Valiant Sacrifice in the Service of a Bad Cause

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military — The Professor @ 4:11 pm

Today is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Franklin, one of the most brutal and intense combats of the entire Civil War.

The battle was the pivot of Hood’s Nashville Campaign.  November, 1864 saw the bizarre phenomenon of the two major armies in the Western Theater, Sherman’s Armies of the Tennessee and Georgia, and Hood’s Army of Tennessee, marching in opposite directions. Sherman embarked south on his March to the Sea, and John Bell Hood launched a desperate lunge north, hoping to reach the Ohio River and accomplish . . . something. Just what he could have accomplished is a mystery, as the logistical obstacles alone made the campaign a forlorn hope.

That said, Hoods campaign started well. He deftly outmaneuvered John Schofield, commander of the largest force that Sherman left behind to hold northern Georgia and Tennessee. Schofield’s force consisted primarily of his XXIIIrd Corps (grandiloquently referred to as the Army of the Ohio) and the IVth Corps (of the Army of the Cumberland). Schofield retreated to Columbia, TN, on the Duck River and dug in. Department Commander George Thomas ordered Schofield to retreat to Franklin on the Harpeth River, but before he could do so, Hood stole a march and outflanked him. Schofield had to retreat precipitously from Columbia, but Hood was in position to cut him off near Spring Hill.

In events still shrouded in mystery, the Confederates did not close the trap at Spring Hill. Two rebel divisions remained in place within sight of the Columbia Pike, along which Schofield’s men were marching for their lives. Some Unionists unwittingly wandered into the Confederate lines to light their pipes in the burning fires. While the Confederates waited, Schofield slipped by and made it to Franklin.

The bridge over the Harpeth being destroyed and needing repair, Schofield had his men dig a semicircular line of entrenchments with its flanks anchored on the Harpeth. Due to a confusion in orders, one division (Wagner’s) remained a half-mile in front of the Federal main line. Well, two brigades did, anyways. The third, under irascible Emerson Opdycke, who thought the order idiotic, continued to march into the Federal lines, collapsing exhausted near the Carter House a few hundred yards fro the trenches.

Hood awoke  to find that Schofield had escaped. He excoriated some of his corps and division commanders, including Frank Cheatham and Patrick Cleburne, arguably the most able soldier in his army, for their failure to destroy the fleeing Federals. He urged his troops forward in pursuit.

There is some controversy about his mental state. Some, notably Wiley Sword (whom I know slightly) claim that Hood was enraged, and intent on punishing his army for its failure to attack with vigor at Spring Hill. Others, including Eric Jacobsen and Hood biographer Stephen Hood (a distant relative of the general) vigorously dispute this. Regardless, Hood’s subordinates, including the often inebriated  Cheatham, expressed unease at attacking a dug in Schofield, but Hood dismissed their objections, claiming that he would have to fight them somewhere, and it was better to do so in Franklin before they were able to retreat to the formidable fortifications in Nashville, to which Federal reinforcements were rushing from the west and north. He believed that these were the best odds he could hope to face, as bad as they were.

The assault was over two miles of open ground. It would have been blasted to oblivion well before it closed with the Federals, but for those two Union brigades sitting alone, 1000 yards in front of the main works. Cleburne’s division overlapped and overwhelmed Wagner’s isolated troops, who broke and ran. Up went a cry from the Confederates: “Follow them into the works!” With Wagner’s Yankees and Cleburne’s Rebels all mixed together, the Federals in the trenches held their fire and Cleburne’s men were able to surge over the earthworks between a cotton gin and the Carter House.

Enter Opdycke. The cantankerous Ohioan led his veteran brigade of Ohio and Illinois regiments in a wild countercharge that slammed bodily into the panting Confederates in the grounds around the Carter House. A swirling melee ensued. Opdycke emptied his pistol, then used the butt as a hammer to bash a Confederate over the head. In brutal hand-to-hand fighting, Opkycke’s men pushed back the Confederates, but only to the ditch at in front of the Federal lines. There ensued a battle reminiscent of the struggle at the Bloody Angle at Spottsylvania. Men at the rear would load muskets and pass them forward to soldiers who would thrust them over the top of the trench and fire them at point blank range into their enemies’ faces. When one would fall, his body would be pulled back and some other hardy soul would shoulder forward to take his place. Muskets with bayonets attached were hurled over the earthworks like javelins.

The primal combat extended into the night. The muzzle discharges flashed in the dark until the firing petered out, due to the mutual exhaustion of the adversaries.

While the face-to-face killing went on between the Cotton Gin and the Carter House in the center of the Union lines, the Confederates mounted large assaults on either flank. These attacks were shot down by the well protected Federal veterans, secure behind their stout earthworks.

The Harpeth bridge being repaired, Schofield’s men faded away from their works under the cover of darkness and the exhaustion of their adversaries, and wearily made their way north to Nashville.

The battered and spent Confederates awoke to visions of a holocaust. Dead men were heaped in the ditch in front of the Federal earthworks. Windrows of dead lay in fields over which the Confederates had charged.

But the dead were mainly on one side of the works: the Confederate side. Southern casualties were appalling, totaling about 1750 dead and nearly 4000 with disabling wounds. These represented about 40 percent of the attacking force. The size of the attacking force was larger than the Pickett-Pettigrew charge at Gettysburg, and the total casualties were larger as well.

Among the Confederate dead were six generals: Cleburne, Adams, Granbury, Gist, Strahl, and Carter.

Union losses were trivial by comparison, with less than 200 dead and about 1000 wounded, with a disproportionate share of those losses suffered by Wagner’s hapless troops. The Federals behind the earthworks suffered hardly at all.

The Army of the Tennessee dragged itself to Nashville, which it was utterly incapable of assaulting given its shrunken numbers and the city’s formidable defenses. Hood’s men dug a miserable line south of Thomas’s and sat, unable to go forward and unwilling to go back. Federal reinforcements flowed into the city, and after a two week pause (which drove Grant crazy), Thomas attacked and hammered Hood’s hopeless men in a two day battle that destroyed the Army of Tennessee as a fighting force.

But the fate of Hood’s army had been sealed  in the fields south of Franklin. The Confederate assault was insanely brave, all the more so because as veterans the men knew the fate that likely awaited them. It was a valiant sacrifice, but it was also a tragic waste made in the name of a bad cause.

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November 26, 2014

Obama: Preferring Micromanaging Failure to Delegating for Success

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 9:41 pm

In a sign of the impending apocalypse, I am sorry to see Chuck Hagel depart as Secretary of Defense, because what it says about the prospects for combat operations in the Middle East, and military matters generally. I have been harshly critical of the man as being completely overmatched by the demands of the job. Alas, he was too competent and too assertive for Obama.

The initial story put forth by the administration was that this was planned, something that had been under discussion for some time. Which is patently bologna, given that the administration had no one waiting in the wings to stop into Hagel’s position: a planned transition would be much smoother than this, where the leading candidates are at pains to make clear that they have no interest. (More on this below. Compare this mess to the process of Holder’s resignation and the quick naming of a successor.)

In fact, the real reasons for Hagel’s axing are plainly obvious. He had questioned the coherence of the administration strategy in Syria. He has made statements about the dangers posed by ISIS that patently contradicted Obama’s “JV” characterization and the president’s desired softly-softly approach in Iraq and Syria. He agreed with the uniformed military and imposed a quarantine on service personnel returning from Ebola-stricken reasons. Brought into to oversee substantial budget cuts, he began to support the Pentagon’s position that the military was becoming dangerously underfunded.

In other words, he showed some spine, and pushed back against Obama and his coterie in the White House and the NSC in particular.

I am also quite sure that there is a near insurrection under way at the Pentagon, due to deep differences over the conduct of the campaign against ISIS and funding of the military. Obama wants to reassert control over the building.

Obama has now blown through three SecDefs. Two of those-Gates and Panetta-have blasted Obama for his micromanagement exercised through the White House/NSC staff. Hagel was supposedly similarly frustrated.

And indeed, the very limited nature of the campaign in Iraq and Syria provides compelling evidence of that. No serious military person would carry out this campaign in this way. There are no ground troops  to identify targets and call in air strikes. The number of sorties is laughably small, a small fraction of those mounted even during the relatively limited Serbian operation, let alone in Gulf Wars I and II. Hell, the shambolic Syrian air force is mounting more strikes than the US. (I have seen suggestions that the low number of strikes reflects the fact that the US military is overstretched. If this is true, the budgetary constraints have created a true crisis when a war ravaged Syrian military can operate at a more intense tempo.)

Obama has allegedly expressed frustration that the military has not come up with “creative solutions” to the challenges in Iraq and Syria. He has prevented them from implementing the techniques developed through long experience which have been deployed with great success ever since the campaigns in Europe in WWII, and which were perfected since the mid-1980s’ AirLand Battle concept was introduced. Apparently Obama cannot accept that military realities cannot be wished away to satisfy his personal opposition to the deployment of robust force, and particularly to the deployment of any combat personnel on the ground.

The miserly approach  to the application of force in Iraq and Syria is epitomized by what is occurring in the crucial city of Ramadi. It is a strategic location in Anbar, and ISIS, which already controlled about half of it, has launched an attack to capture the rest. Its assault has reached the government center. The town is at serious risk of falling.

Any ISIS concentration provides  the perfect opportunity to employ air power: this is what has happened at Kobani. But even though the US is only launching 20 or so strikes a day in theater, it can’t spare anything for Ramadi: it launched a single attack on a checkpoint on the outskirts of town while the center was under a serious assault. The embattled Iraqis are begging for air support, but it’s not forthcoming:

“The governorate building has been nearly cut off,” said a Baghdad security official in direct contact with the operations command for Anbar, the province where Ramadi lies. The official said that Islamic State forces had cut roads to the Iraqi Army’s 8th Division base to the west and the road to Habaniyya airbase to the east. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters.

. . . .

Local security forces and tribesmen initially succeeded in resisting the Islamic State’s newest advance, but commanders on the ground say a lack of continuous air support and reinforcements has made it impossible to hold that territory.

Ahmed Mishan al Dulaimi, a Ramadi police lieutenant, said that coalition airstrikes had been critical to stopping the Islamic State’s initial assault but that the strikes had stopped. “We were told (the aircraft) were occupied” with other fronts.

“If the coalition doesn’t continue targeting the nests of Daash, everything that we’re doing now will just be in vain,” he said, using an Arabic term for the Islamic State.

For the want of a nail.

And now the Pentagon is leaderless. Ominously, the two leading candidates, Senator Jack Reed and former Undersecretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy have withdrawn their names from consideration.

And is there any wonder? It is plain that Obama is hostile to and suspicious of the Pentagon. It is equally plain that those sentiments are repaid with interest. Who wants to be in the middle of that?

Moreover, it is abundantly clear that even though his micromanagement has been widely criticized, and that the results of this micromanagement have been nearly catastrophic, Obama is intent on maintaining a tight control over military operations and the budget, exercised through such lightweights as Ben Rhodes and Susan Rice: there are more munchkins in the White House (and the NSC) than there were in Oz. Hagel’s firing shows that Obama will brook no dissent. Only a cipher would be willing to work under these conditions. It is a sobering thought that Hagel wasn’t enough of a cipher to satisfy Obama.

The decline in talent at the upper echelons in an aging, lame duck administration is inevitable: Obama’s management of the Pentagon makes that decline even more pronounced. To think that we will pine for the likes of Chuck Hagel. My God.

Obama clearly prefers micromanaging failure to delegating for success. But perhaps that’s not fair. Perhaps Obama believes that letting the military devise and implement a plan that would have a realistic chance of defeating ISIS will lead to other consequences that he considers worse than the current fiasco. I shudder at the thought.

 

 

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November 23, 2014

Obama’s FOF Foreign Policy

Filed under: Energy,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 12:36 pm

The Marines have a saying: “No better friend. No worse enemy.” Obama is hell-bent on reversing that formulation.

One leg of his foreign policy could be dubbed FOF: F’ Our Friends. I’ve discussed one example of that recently: Obama’s inveterate opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, and his fact free defense of his indefensible position. In adhering to this position, Obama is giving Canada the back of his hand.

The Australian reports of another example. Obama spurned the advice of the US ambassador to Australia, and delivered a truculent speech that directly attacked the Australian government’s climate change policies:

The US embassy, under the leadership of ambassador John Berry, advised the President, through his senior staff, not to couch his climate change comments in a way that would be seen as disobliging to the Abbott government, sources have revealed.

When The Weekend Australian put this information to the US embassy, a spokesman said: “As is the case with all presidential speeches, President Obama’s remarks at the University of Queensland in Brisbane were prepared by the White House.”

It is normal practice when the US President makes an overseas visit that the ambassador in the country he is visiting is consulted about the contents of major speeches. It is unusual, though not unprecedented, for an embassy’s advice to be ignored.

The Obama speech in Brisbane was added to the President’s program at the last minute. During his extensive talks with Tony Abbott in Beijing at APEC, Mr Obama did not make any mention of a desire to make a speech, or of any of the contentious climate change content of the speech.

Only in Naypyidaw, in Myanmar, immediately prior to the leaders travelling to Brisbane for the G20 summit, did the US party demand that the President make a speech and that it be to an audience of young people. At the speech, the President did not ­acknowledge the presence of Governor-General Peter Cosgrove.

Despite repeated Australian requests, White House officials refused to provide a text of the speech to their Australian hosts in advance, and did not provide a summary of what would be contained in the speech.

Mr Obama’s repeated references to the climate change debate in Australia, his accusation that Australia was an inefficient user of energy and his repeated references to the Great Barrier Reef, which has figured heavily in the climate change debate, have led observers to conclude that the speech was a deliberate swipe at the Abbott government.

Historians of the US-Australia relationship are unable to nominate a case of a visiting president making such a hostile speech for the host government.

That’s our Barry. Always the gracious guest, always making history.  (If you can’t access the article through the previous link, you should be able to get there from here.)

Canada and Australia have been stalwart allies for years. Both are fighting beside the US against ISIS and Afghanistan. The Australians fought with us in Viet Nam. Of course both made huge contributions in WWII, especially once their sizes are considered. Both are highly responsible and constructive nations. To a considerable degree, they share a common heritage with us, and a common belief in liberty and representative government.

Maybe it’s something about the Anglosphere. Obama’s animus against the UK (which has also fought shoulder-to-shoulder with America in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait and now against ISIS) is well-known.

And for what is Obama slagging our allies? A farcical war on CO2.

While the FOF campaign is in full swing, Obama continues his Ahab-like pursuit of a deal with a nation that has been assiduously killing Americans for 25 years.

That’s Obama’s America. No worse friend. No better enemy. Two years cannot pass quickly enough.

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November 21, 2014

Swatting the Gold Bugs

Filed under: Economics,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:41 pm

There are idiots. There are morons. Then there are gold bugs. It would be a full time job fighting their insanity, and doing so is like kicking a manure pile: it raises a stink and a cloud of flies. But sometimes it just has to be done.

Recently it was reported that Russia has been buying gold at a furious rate. Gold now represents almost 11 percent of the country’s reserves.

The gold bugs buzzed in glee. To them, it represented another nail in the coffin of the doomed dollar, and Putin was an economic genius making a decisive move in his war against the US. And of course, Zero Hedge peddled this line (by posting an article by a bug site):

Russia’s central bank Governor Elvira Nabiullina told the lower house of parliament about the significant Russian gold purchases. She is an economist, head of the Central Bank of Russia and was Vladimir Putin’s economic adviser between May 2012 to June 2013.

This announcement is unusual and to our knowledge has not happened before. The announcement by the Russian central bank governor was likely coordinated with Putin and the Kremlin and designed to signal how Russia views their gold reserves as a potential geopolitical and indeed financial and currency war weapon.

(The comments are priceless.)

Here’s another, from July:

Reserve Currencies In History – Dollar’s Demise Cometh

Central banks continue to be buyers of gold at these attractive price levels. As sanctions, economic war and currency wars intensify we expect Russian and Russian ally buying of gold reserves and selling of dollars to intensify. Aggressive buying of gold and particularly silver by Russia will likely lead to defaults on the COMEX gold and silver futures exchanges and potentially an international monetary crisis.

See important guide to Currency Wars here Currency Wars: Bye, Bye Petrodollar – Buy, Buy Gold

The truth, of course, is much different. This is actually another symptom of Russian economic desperation, rather than a diabolically brilliant blow against the dollar:

Russia’s central bank has been forced to step up its gold buying this year to absorb domestic production that Western sanctions are making it hard for miners to sell abroad, and to boost liquidity in its foreign reserves, sources said.

Most Russian gold mine production is sold to domestic commercial banks, such as Sberbank or VTB, which can then sell the metal on to either the central bank or to foreign banks.

This year, sources say, foreign banks are holding off buying Russian gold after Western powers implemented sanctions against the country over the Ukraine crisis.

The central bank has therefore had no choice but take domestic mine production that cannot be sold to foreign banks, two sources said, and has bought most of the metal that commercial banks had available.

. . . .

While the sanctions do not expressly prohibit them from buying gold, Western banks are cautious over any business done with their Russian counterparts, sources said.

What’s more, the Russian CB can pay for the domestically-produced gold with rubles. It’s the only way it can really bolster reserves without selling rubles for dollars or euros.

Thus, rather than a blow against sanctions, it is yet another action forced on the Russians by them.

It’s also interesting to note that gold hasn’t been a great investment for the Russians. Gold purchase data is available on a quarterly basis. Assuming that Russia purchased gold in a quarter at the average price during those three months, based on IMF data and the current spot price of gold, I estimate that Russia has lost well over $1 billion on the gold purchased since 2009.

Speaking of Russia’s reserves, this piece by Anders Aslund is well worth reading. When he breaks down the numbers, Russia’s vaunted reserves look much less impressive. In particular, Anders points out that the National Wealth Fund and the Reserve Fund are not under control of the Central Bank, and committed to supporting pensions and the federal budget. Moreover, sharks like Sechin are already laying claim to big pieces of it. Further, Russia’s large external corporate debt cannot be refinanced due to sanctions, and payment commitments over the near to medium term will rapidly draw down the remaining reserves, and the current account surplus will fall substantially due to lower oil prices.  

One last gold item. ISIS are gold bugs. They have announced the creation of a currency, based on circulating gold, silver, and copper coins. They really believe the gold bug stuff. They are aficionados of ZH and currency warrior James Rickards (whose mug pops up everywhere, including on mainstream media websites like WaPo, in advertisements for his buy gold, buy a bunker, for the end is nigh book).

I was particularly amused by this:

 The gold and silver purchases are strange enough, he said. “But what is striking is how elements of the organization have seized power transmission cables and other copper components,” Obeidi said. The fighters are burning the insulation off the cables and harvesting the copper [to fashion into coins], he said.

So they’ll have metallic coins but no electricity. Which may be OK with them, given how much they want to live a 7th century lifestyle.

This is great news. If a shambolic Iraqi military can’t destroy the Islamic State, economic mismanagement based on wacko gold bug theories might achieve that result instead. I suggest that the CIA carry out a mission to translate Rickards’ Currency Wars into Arabic, and clandestinely distribute it in ISIS-controlled lands. A very cheap, but very effective, form of subversion.

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