Streetwise Professor

January 19, 2020

1917–An SWP Review

Filed under: History,Military — cpirrong @ 7:29 pm

The film 1917 has received considerable critical acclaim and box office success. Some have called it the definitive World War I film. I therefore entered theater with great anticipation. I left it, alas, in great disappointment.

My one word review: Meh.

My objections, in order from large to small.

First off, it is wrong to call it a World War I movie. It is war movie set in WWI. There’s a difference.

A true WWI movie captures some essential feature of the unique horror of that conflict. A great example is Paths of Glory, a 1957 Stanley Kubrick film starring Kirk Douglas. It brutally portrays the utter cynicism and detachment of the high command, and the futility of the struggle of those under their command, that culminated in the French army mutinies of 1917. Another excellent example is the 1931 version of All Quiet on the Western Front, particularly for its evocation of the alienation of the front line soldier from the civilians who had no conception of what ordeals of the former suffered. Gallipoli is also excellent for its portrayal of the collision between the youthful enthusiasm of those who went to war and the pointlessness of their misery and bloodshed at the front.

Yes, in 1917 you see the blasted moonscape, littered with bloated corpses, that was the Western Front. There are moments of versimilitude, such as the Germans’ booby trapping of the fortifications that they abandoned in Operation Alberich in March-April, 1917. But this is scenery–backdrop–that places the film in time, without telling any deeper truth about that time.

As a generic war movie, the plot covers well-trodden ground: A small contingent sent into contested ground on a forlorn mission to save comrades. Saving Private Ryan tells the same basic story, but in a far more compelling way. In part this is due to the fact that in Private Ryan a few handfuls of men are involved, and much of the drama turns on their interactions in the crucible of war. A central part of the movie is helping us understand leadership, through the character of Captain Miller (Tom Hanks).

The mission in 1917 starts out with two men, one of whom is killed about half way through, leaving the remainder of the action focused on a single man. Yes, that creates a different sort of dramatic tension, but it is far flatter than in Private Ryan. As a result, 1917 cannot hold a candle to the World War II movie. War is a social endeavor that stresses the bonds between men in ways that nothing else can. A movie without that element–or which like 1917 loses that element relatively early on–is far less compelling. Yes, it is important to understand what drives a single man to pursue what seems to be a hopeless mission, but it is harder to understand how a man can get others to follow him on such a mission.

Perhaps due to the fact that the story and characters were not sufficient to hold my attention, I soon found myself unable to suspend disbelief, and as a result started focusing on irritating problems in the script. Many unrealistic things jumped out to a mind that was not raptly focused on the story that the director wanted to tell.

Would a general truly trust a message canceling an attack into an ambush to two men? Maybe 10 pairs of men, but not a single pair. And the general could have called on aircraft (portrayed numerous times in the movie) to attempt to drop messages to an otherwise isolated regiment (and this happened in the war).

Further, when the messengers were about half-way on their footslogging trek, one was killed. Immediately thereafter, a convoy of British trucks come upon the survivor. As it turns out, this convoy was destined for a waypoint along their mission, a French village. If convoys were being sent into the area abandoned by the Germans, why not use them to try to communicate with the isolated unit about to launch a suicidal attack? Or attach the messengers to the convoy? Why send two men walking across ground that whole companies were about to cross in trucks?

The protagonist’s journey on the trucks was aborted when the bridge over a river at the village was found to be destroyed. The commander of the convoy said that the only bridge was six miles upstream. But later, during a scene in which the protagonist had plunged into the river to escape the Germans, and was being swept down the raging stream, he passed under an intact bridge–which happened to be closer to the unit he was supposed to reach.

And about that river. There are no rocky rivers with rapids in Picardy. And the rivers flow west–not east.

Quibbles, perhaps, but I wouldn’t have cared, or even noticed, if the film had held my interest. An unengaged mind is the critic’s workshop 😉

In sum, 1917 is not a bad movie, but in my opinion it comes nowhere close to living up to the accolades it has received. It breaks no dramatic ground as a war movie (and indeed is somewhat derivative), and does not tell the audience anything in particular about the First World War, which is a shame because that is the seminal event of the past 200 years.

I reiterate my earlier recommendations. If you are really interested in movies that capture something essential about WWI, watch Paths of Glory, All Quiet on the Western Front, or Gallipoli. Despite their age (the last being the newest at 40 years old) and their necessarily more limited cinematography, they will teach you more about WWI than 1917. Much more.

January 16, 2020

Putin’s New Plan: Assuring That All Roads Continue to Lead to Him–In Russia, Anyways

Filed under: Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 8:13 am

Yesterday, Vladimir Putin (to whom, of course, all roads lead–just ask Nancy) proposed (which is equivalent to announcing) major changes to the Russian constitution. The most important element of his plan is a reduction in the powers of the presidency that has so assiduously built up over the past decades.

This is of course due to the fact that Putin is barred from another term in office, and resorting to some dodge like the “castling” maneuver that made the hapless Dmitry Medvedev president for a term would be too problematic even for Putin. So he is basically saying: “If I can’t be president, no one will be.”

This is not to say that Putin is going away, of course: far from it. He is basically playing a divide-to-rule strategy. The plan splits up the president’s powers, assigning some to the Duma and likely others to the heretofore advisory State Council. Furthermore, he imposes constraints on who can become president, eliminating anyone who has lived abroad in the last 20 years or holds dual citizenship. Since this group includes a wide swath of the Russian elite, the plan culls the heard of potential serious challengers to him, challengers who would likely attempt to reassemble the powers of the presidency were they to assume it.

This fragmentation of power plays perfectly to Putin’s strengths. Even in the current system his primary role, and source of power, is managing contending clans within the Russian elite. He is the balancer, the mediator. The mafia don ruling over squabbling mafiosi.

Fragmenting power actually increases the demand for mediation services. Under his plan, he will remain the essential man, and indeed become even more essential because under it there will be more disputes and more disputants.

So Pelosi’s phrase is apt, though her application to Trump is not: in Russia, all roads lead to Putin, and this new plan is designed explicitly to keep it that way.

Perhaps the diminution of his formal powers will impede his effectiveness as a mediator. But maybe not: a strong case can be made that he’s not a successful balancer because he’s president, but he’s president because he’s a successful balancer. The need for someone to play that role, and his unchallenged effectiveness in playing it, will remain. The formal appurtenances are of secondary importance.

In other words–no surprise here–Putin is designing a system that will perpetuate his role in a highly personalized, de-institutionalized political system.

Many Russians will no doubt breathe a sigh of relief, as this reduces the uncertainty surrounding his leaving the presidency in 2024. But their relief is only temporary, as this merely kicks the can down the road, and as we know, roads in Russia are horrible.

That is, this plan only defers answering the question: who replaces Putin? Maybe this maintains stability while he is alive–and sentient–but his life will end, and his physical and mental powers are likely to decline substantially before that time. What then?

The post-Putin transition was almost guaranteed to be a chaotic and vicious power struggle because of the highly personalized and de-institutionalized nature of the system he created. If anything, his proposed alternative is even more personalized and de-institutionalized because he will play the same functional role, but in an even less formalized structure. This, combined with the creation of new fiefdoms (e.g., by empowering the Duma) is likely to make the succession struggle even more fraught.

As the old commercial said: you can pay me now, or pay me later–with the implication that paying later will be far more expensive. So it will be in Russia, as in oil filters.

January 11, 2020

Contingency and Coordination in Iran

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 4:03 pm

Totalitarian regimes are acutely aware of the old adage: “there’s strength in numbers.” What they fear most is mass protest on a scale that can only be repressed with draconian brutality that further undermines whatever internal and external legitimacy they have.

The biggest problem that those who oppose such a regime face is coordinating such a mass protest. Who wants to be the first to step out, uncertain of how many will follow?

This is why such regimes devote considerable resources to impeding coordination. The measures they adopt include propaganda, which supports preference falsification and spreads doubt among individuals about how widely their dissatisfaction is shared. Another is brutal repression: cracking down hard on those who rise up even without universal support, pour encourager–ou, réellement–pour discourager les autres.

We have seen both of late in Iran. The organized mass funerals and mass displays of public bereavement for Suleimani is an example of propaganda at work. The (ironically, Suleimani-directed) brutal repression of anti-regime protests over fuel price hikes is another.

But sometimes chance events create a rallying point that overcomes the coordination problem. Something that is so universally reviled among the public, and which everyone in the public knows that everyone else reviles, can coordinate the spontaneous mass resistance that totalitarian leaders dread.

We may be seeing that in Iran this very moment. The admission–mere hours after statements saying that it was an impossibility–that the IRGC had shot down a civilian airliner, killing 176 people, has catalyzed mass protest in Iran. Among the chants: “Soleimani was a murderer, his Leader is too.” And “Reza Shah, Reza Shah, Rest In Peace!” And, most ominously for the regime: “Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid, we are all in this together.”

The shoot-down encapsulates the incompetence, brutality, and lies of the regime. It is out there for all to see, inside and outside Iran. It is exactly the kind of event that is most likely to unify discontented Iranians, and to overcome the coordination problem.

By the nature of such social phenomena, there is a positive feedback mechanism. If enough people rise up, that encourages even more to do so. It is precisely this feedback mechanism that leads totalitarian regimes to devote inordinate efforts to prevent it from starting. But sometimes chance–or a moment of cosmic incompetence and brutality that everyone can witness–overwhelms those efforts.

It is too early to see whether the grotesque murder of 176 people will culminate in the fall of the mullahs. But is the kind of thing that is most likely to do so. An act that all can witness. An act that implicates the regime. An act that evokes universal revulsion. No one has any doubt that most Iranians are shocked by what happened.

These events bring moments of truth to totalitarian regimes. Do they have the will to exert the force necessary to crush them, when the world is watching? Totalitarian regimes that survive do. Those that don’t, don’t. The jury is out on the mullahs.

They enter this crisis without their most reliable enforcer, who was just incinerated by the United States, which touched off the string of events that are climaxing in the streets of Iran. That changes the odds considerably.

This demonstrates the contingency of history, and the law of unintended consequences. Most of the criticism of Trump’s decision that has focused on unintended consequences has emphasized bad potential outcomes. But this string of contingent events shows that unintended consequences can lead to pleasant surprises too.

We shall see.

One last comment. The events in Iran demonstrate, as if further demonstration is needed, the fatuity of the American media. We have witnessed more than a week of fawning over Suleimani, with an emphasis on how universally beloved and revered he is.

Apparently, not so much.

Will the American media admit error? I don’t know about where events in Iran will lead but I do know the answer to this question: Never.

January 9, 2020

It Is Better to Be Feared by the Mullahs Than to Be Loved By Them (Which Will Never Happen Anyways)

Filed under: Energy,History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 6:29 pm

Where’s my World War III? I was promised a World War III!

As for indicators that the fact that the US blowed up Qassem Suleimani real good will not set off WWIII, or even Middle East Regional War MCCCLV, look at the oil price: it’s lower today than when Gen. Suleimani’s bell tolled.

The vaunted Iranian retaliation was of the “we have to do something but please don’t hurt me anymore” variety: they launched a few missiles towards bases in Iraq, and fewer still landed there, and those few that landed did not even inflict a scratch on an American.

This allowed Trump to act magnanimously. And limit his response to imposing more sanctions.

That is, the Dirty Harry equilibrium appears to be playing out. A rational thug put his hand on the gun, looked into the muzzle of a 44 magnum, and thought the better of it. Expectations have been reset. Deterrence has been revitalized.

“It is better to be feared than loved, when one cannot be both.” There is no way in hell the mullahs will ever love us: so fear it has to be.

There is other evidence that the mullahs and their security forces were petrified at the prospect of a robust US counterstrike–tragic evidence. It appears increasingly likely that a Ukrainian 737 that went down about the time Iran shot off its missiles was shot down by the Iranians. Interested parties–the US (though not yet officially), Ukraine, and Canada (which had many nationals on board)–have said it was highly likely that was indeed the case. Occam’s Razor says the same: the likelihood of a relatively new 737 spontaneously catching fire and crashing with no communication from the pilots is small indeed.

Shooting down a civilian airliner betrays an extremely jumpy–i.e., afraid–Iranian military that was dreading a US strike. It is horrible outcome–but one that rests entirely on the mullahs.

But not in the minds of many of the American “elite.” Apparently a memo went out dictating that talking heads assert that the plane was the victim of “crossfire,” and that the US generally, and Trump specifically, was to blame.

Representative of this regurgitation of the crossfire talking point was Susan Hennessey, well-known member of Lawfare, and hence a polyp in the colon of “The Resistance” and the deep state:

Hennessey received much push-back on her “crossfire” remark (as apparently did NBC journalist Heidi Przybyla, who cravenly deleted her tweet), and she felt compelled to respond, pissily:

Susie brings to mind Humpty Dumpty: “When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less. ” To non-Humptys, the word “crossfire” requires, you know, at least two people shooting. There was only one party shooting (evidently) in Iran. That being Iran. The US fired nary a shot after Senor Suleimani bit the dust.

Insofar as this was a consequence of Trump’s decision to respond to Suleimani’s extremely long history of terror–a history he reveled in–and the threat of terror to come, that is also squarely on the mullahs. They acted as if there were no consequences that they weren’t prepared to accept. Then there were. And then they panicked, and killed a further 176 people.

But everything must be blamed on Trump. Everything.

Along these lines, the media keeps slobbering over Suleimani, telling us how universally revered he is in Iran (while ignoring the other places in the Middle East where he is hated), and speaking in awed tones about the crowd at his funeral.

Arguendo, let’s assume that he is/was universally venerated in Iran. That is, a man who avowedly hated the United States, and ceaselessly waged war on it, and panted for its destruction (and that of Israel). What would that say about Iranians, and their attitude to the US?

Is that really the mullaphiles want to convey? Or are they just too stupid to grasp the implications of their idolatry?

January 6, 2020

Media and Political Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing (Except, Perhaps, Severe Mental Defect)

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 7:09 pm

The obliteration of Qassem Suleimani has done a great public service, if only for demonstrating the extreme levels of mental retardation among the so-called “elite.”

ZOMG! This will start WWIII.

Which is an extreme dumbing down of the concept of WWIII, which formerly was used to refer to a conflict between two powers possessing tens of thousands of nuclear warheads, and alliances encompassing dozens of nations. Iran has no nukes, and no allies. So other than that–totes the same!

A corollary stupidity is: ZOMG! They will reintroduce the draft! (Note that the Selective Service website crashed because of queries prompted by Gen. Suleimani’s impromptu car-b-que.)

ZOMG! Iranians are in the streets, chanting “Death to America!”

Which they’ve been doing for 40 effing years.

ZOMG! The Iranians will retaliate with terrorism!

Which they’ve also been doing for 40 effing years.

And let’s apply a little game theory. The equilibrium prevailing prior to January 2 could be characterized as the Chump Equilibrium. The Iranian leadership, Suleimani most notably, clearly believed that they could engage in a significant level of asymmetric warfare against the US without fear of serious retaliation or escalation from the US. The best evidence of this is the brazenness with which Suleimani operated.

Iranian beliefs were fully consistent with past American behavior. This explains their escalation in Iraq and elsewhere.

But then Trump demonstrates conclusively that the old beliefs are incorrect by smoking Suleimani. Whereas before, the mullahs and their military and paramilitary henchmen could operate on the belief that the US would not target their sorry selves, they now have to assign a considerable probability to the possibility that if they take American lives, they will pay a very personal cost.

So we have transitioned to the Dirty Harry Equilibrium: “Do you feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”

In the original Dirty Harry, the rational thug backed off: the crazy thug didn’t, and took a 44 magnum round to the chest.

We will now see whether the mullahs are rational thugs, or crazy ones. Personally, it doesn’t really matter to me. Or to reprise another Dirty Harry trope: “Go ahead. Make my day.”

The Iranians will certainly “play” crazy, in the hope of buffaloing the Euroweenies and the bedwetters in the US. Here, the very fact that said Euroweenies and bedwetters are virulently anti-Trump means this is another losing tactic, for this means that Trump DGAFF what they think or what they say.

So my prediction is that the intensity of Iranian asymmetric warfare will decrease, not increase.

There is other evidence that Trump has totally upended the mullah’s calculations. They are suffocating under the sanctions that Trump has imposed, and have engaged in various provocations (shooting down a US drone, attacking Gulf shipping and Saudi oil installations), almost certainly in the hope of provoking a response (e.g., a bombing campaign against Iran) that would that would rally world opinion behind Iran, eventually leading to the lifting of sanctions.

But Trump didn’t fall for that. Instead, he made a completely unexpected play greatly raised the dangers the mullahs face, and which did not create the innocent victims that the mullahs were hoping to exploit to undo the sanctions regime that is throttling them.

Not that the retarded elites in the US, and the West generally, have not done their level best to make Suleimani look like an innocent victim. The slobbering and blubbering over this evil thug in the media precincts, and the Democratic Party (same diff, I know) is a sight to behold.

Which will also redound to Trump’s benefit, as the Americans the Democrats need to persuade will be revolted by their eulogizing and lionizing someone who has waged war against the US for his entire adult life, and who reveled in killing and maiming Americans.

If anything, the idiocy is metastasizing, rather than abating. Today the media seized on an alleged letter from a US brigadier general to some Iraqi military figure, supposedly stating that the US was preparing to withdraw from Iraq.

Why would anyone take this seriously, or without a Siberian salt mine? Consider the problems:

  1. The letter was not signed.
  2. Does anyone with two synapses to rub together believe that such a major decision would be communicated first by an Army BG, rather than by the President, the Secretary of State, or the Secretary of Defense? FFS, there are BGs who serve coffee in Pentagon meetings.
  3. What is the likelihood that this represented US policy a mere hours after the cause of yesterday’s media freakout: Trump’s tweets saying that the US would not leave Iraq until they paid billions for the bases we built, and if they tried to force the US out, we would impose sanctions that would make those imposed on Iran “look somewhat tame by comparison”?

The story is now that this was a draft of a letter regarding redeployments within Iraq, and was sent without authorization–or a signature! Maybe–or maybe it is part of some accidentally-on-purpose psyop. It definitely psyched out the media.

But regardless, rather than expressing skepticism, the media ran with it, breathlessly–and brainlessly. (And maybe that was the point of the psyop–to demonstrate just how retarded the media is.)

Nigerian princes should focus their email scams on journalists. They’ll believe anything, apparently.

Another story making the rounds (courtesy of the NYT–you’ve been warned) is that, based on anonymous sources (I’m sure you’re shocked) the US military presented Trump with many options, and included whacking Suleimani as the extreme option, expecting Trump to choose the middle door instead. They were shocked, shocked!, that Trump went for the extreme.

Remember: there are loads of Obama-appointed people embedded throughout the government, including at high levels of the armed forces. Take every leak with a huge degree of skepticism.

And of course there is a counter narrative, 180 degrees from the NYT version. The WaPo states that Pompeo had been pushing to kill Suleimani for months, and that it took considerable persuasion, and the removal of numerous Pentagon officials, to get Trump to agree.

So take your choice. But discount both.

The fact is that Suleimani is dead, and that as a result the mullahs have to think seriously that Lockheed Martin or Boeing is putting the finishing touches on a toy with their name on it. All of the rest is sound and fury, signifying nothing. Or less than nothing.

January 3, 2020

Suleimani the Not So Magnificent

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 12:15 pm

If reality mirrors Beetlejuice, wherein you spend eternity in the condition in which you left this mortal coil, sometime last night a cloud of pink mist reeking of RDX and rocket fuel wafted through hell, that being all that was left of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Force commander Qassem Suleimani after an aptly named Hellfire missile interrupted his trip from the Baghdad Airport. I’d say rest in pieces, but I don’t think there are any.

I asked an Iranian friend what he thought. Beyond being giddy (for pace the WaPo, not every Iranian “revered” the thug or hates Trump), he related that he had been reading the “regime media,” and that it was in a state of “absolute shock.”

As well it might. Suleimani was no doubt shocked, or would have been in the instant before Hellfire lived up to its name. He obviously thought he was untouchable, shuttling between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, frequently appearing in public, and pretty much living the life of a terrorist rockstar who never dreamed that Great Satan (or even Little Satan) would attack him personally.

And perhaps that sense of impunity was understandable. The Bush and Obama administrations blamed him personally for hundreds of American deaths–and did nothing. They restrained the Israelis from snuffing him.

And Trump did nothing after Iran shot down an American drone. Or after attacks on Gulf shipping. Or after an attack on the most important Saudi oil installation.

Complacency is quite understandable, therefore.

So what changed? Well, in fact Trump made this abundantly clear, and did so on Twitter of course. Under Suleimani’s direction, Iraqi militias killed an American, launched an attack on sovereign US territory (its embassy in Baghdad) and was apparently planning additional attacks on American. Trump said if you kill Americans, you will pay. And he said that wasn’t a warning, it was a threat.

Khameini retorted “you can do nothing.” And Trump replied: “Really? Hold my Diet Coke.”

Trump’s red line is clear as day: Iran kills Americans, and he will kill those responsible. A return to the “Pedicaris alive or Raisuli dead” model of foreign policy, but expressed via Twitter rather than the telegraph. And using Hellfires and JDAMs rather than the Marines or gunboats.

The conventional wisdom set is of course in a state of apoplexy. Despite the fact that Suleimani gleefully directed the deaths and maiming of hundreds of Americans, the media and Democratic politicians engaged in a frenzy of but tweeting; “Yeah, he was horrible, but . . . ” Hell, some skipped over the horrible part altogether and made the guy sound like some sort of paragon.

The most comment lament–shriek would be more accurate–is that this will cause a massive retaliatory response from Iran. Really? These people remind me of the See-and-Say Barbie my daughters used to play with: pull the string, and they say the same damn thing over and over.

The Iranians will no doubt compelled to do something, but Trump has obviously completely upended their assumptions about American responses to their actions. They killed one American contractor, threaten our embassy, and we take out their most important operational figure.

The Iranians, unlike the bleating conventional wisdom complex, understand escalation dominance. The American capacity to escalate dwarfs Iran’s. The US can extirpate Iran, or its leadership, or its military capability, or any inconvenient individual. The American potential for escalation dominance in beyond question.

The mullahs of course knew this, but clearly doubted the American will to escalate in a way that seriously threatened them. Hence Suleimani’s hubristic existence up to the moment of his vaporization.

The mullah’s palpable shock demonstrates that they now understand Trump’s will is far different from his predecessors, or that of the foreign policy establishment in the US.

Deterrence requires a combination the capability to destroy and the will to use it. The capability has always been there. The Iranians now know that they have to dramatically alter their assessment of the will.

Given that, don’t be surprised if the hand wringers are wrong. Again.

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