Streetwise Professor

March 26, 2019

The Strategic Genius Putin Reinforces Failure (and a Failed State) in Venezuela

Filed under: History,Politics — cpirrong @ 6:57 pm

As something of a coda to the previous post, it’s worth commenting on Sunday’s story that Russia dispatched 100 troops to Venezuela. Within hours of their arrival, the power went out, and the country was plunged into darkness yet again.

This is how deep Russia must dig to find allies, all in a pathetic effort to tweak its bête noire, the US. Yet this is the colossus that has preoccupied the fevered minds of the American governing class since 8 November, 2016.

It is also a rather scathing commentary on Putin’s alleged strategic genius. There’s an old adage: never reinforce failure. Venezuela is a failure–and a failed state–on a grand scale. Yet perhaps thinking of his previous “investments” in the country, Putin reinforces this failure.

Succumbing to the sunk cost fallacy is hardly a sign of strategic genius.

Further, if Trump is in Putin’s thrall, why has Trump ramped up the pressure on the Maduro regime? Maybe Max Boot or Bill Kristol can enlighten us.

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The NYT Figures Out That Putin Is Not An Omnipotent Dr. Evil. Well, I Guess 12 Years Late Is Better Than Never.

Filed under: Economics,History,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 6:35 pm

The image of Vladimir Putin as an all-powerful mastermind was central to the Russia Collusion Hoax. In this telling, the omnipotent and omnipresent Vova, secure in his lair in Moscow, could manipulate at will the electoral process in the most powerful country in history. His power, devious intelligence, and malign purpose made it especially reprehensible and dangerous for Trump to collude with him, and the image of the Putin evil mastermind made collusion with him a grave threat to the republic, in a way totally different from, say, assorted Chinese boodlers boosting Bill Clinton.

The entire Russian Collusion Hoax was farcical to me from the beginning, and this grotesque exaggeration of Putin’s power and influence was the most farcical part of the charade. It was particularly annoying to hear about it from idiots who hadn’t paid the slightest bit of attention to Russia since, well, ever, and who when they did weigh in on Russia it was to slam Mitt Romney for calling it a threat, and to chortle at Obama’s snarky response to Romney’s alarums.

Put simply, most of these people who have been running around with their hair on fire about Russia since, come to think of it, the minute that Hillary conceded defeat and needed an excuse, couldn’t find the place on a map, despite the fact it is the biggest country on earth. But all of a sudden they were experts on all things Putin and all things Russia.

Perhaps in a signal to the hysterics that they should back off, the NYT ran an oped titled “How Powerful is Putin Really?” The answer: pretty much the same one I gave 12 plus years ago, and repeatedly–not very. Because Russia is not that powerful, and because Putin’s main role is to be an intermediary in wars between completing clans in the security forces and business, rather than to be a grandmaster moving inanimate chess pieces around the board.

This is comic gold:

The gulf between what Mr. Putin says and what happens in Russia raises a fundamental question about the nature of his rule after more than 18 years at the pinnacle of an authoritarian system: Is Mr. Putin really the omnipotent leader whom his critics attack and his own propagandists promote? Or does he sit atop a state that is, in fact, shockingly ramshackle, a system driven more by the capricious and often venal calculations of competing bureaucracies and interest groups than by Kremlin diktats?

I won’t keep you in suspense as to the answer. Hell, if you have been reading here anytime since around 2007, you know the answer. But then again, if you read me you probably haven’t been drinking the NYT Kool-aid, and won’t need them to tell you the answer 12 years too late.

If you read the rest of the article, you will see a description that echoes exactly the one I first applied to Russia in April, 2007: “a natural state.” As I quoted North, Weingast, and Wallis:

natural state is a specific way of structuring political and economic systems so that the economic rents created by limited entry are available to secure credible commitments among politically powerful groups. Potential rivals in a natural state stop fighting (or fight less when the economic rents they enjoy depend on continued existence of the sate and of social order. Natural states limit economic entry to create rents and then use those rents to credibly commit powerful groups to support the state. In other words, natural states use the economic system as a tool to solidify the stability of the ruling coalition.

I also quoted Celeste Wallander:

Patrimonial authoritarianism is a political system based on holding power in order to create, access, and distribute rents. It is well known that Russia is deeply corrupt, but corruption in the Russian system of patrimonial authoritarianism is not merely a feature of the system; it is essential to the very functioning of political power. The political system is based on the political control of economic resources in order to enrich those within patron-client clans. The patron remains in power by rewarding clients, and the clients are rewarded by supporting their patron. The patron requires support from his clients, and he must access and distribute rents for that support. Without the creation and control of rents, political power disappears. At the top of the political system, Putin manages relations among competing patron-client clans headed by top government and business figures, such as Development and Trade Minister German Gref, Deputy Prime Minister and Gazprom chairman Dmitry Medvedev, Gazprom president Alexei Miller, and Igor Sechin, deputy head of the presidential administration and chairman of Rosneft. Each of these individuals in turn has his own set of clients, who are in turn patrons of their own clans, and so on, creating a complex web of relationships that sustain political power and distribute patronage rents.

The basic point of the analysis was that of course someone like Putin is powerful within such a system, but he is not all powerful. Further, his power derives from his ability to intermediate between independent sources of power within Russia. The main purpose of the state in Russia is to organize theft, and divide the spoils. The main purpose of Putin is to keep that process from devolving into violent chaos.

Put differently, I’ve often emphasized the deinstitutionalized, highly personalized nature of the Russian state. The personalism is a bug, not a feature, and inherently limits the power of the person at the top. It is a great mistake to confuse the prominence of the public face of a shambolic state with actual power. Institutions are necessary to generate national power, either domestically or abroad. The power of deinstitutionalized state is inherently constrained.

But especially post-8 November, 2016, the left and the media and Hillary needed a figure to personify evil, and to tie him to Trump, so the reality of Russia and Putin and Putinism–which is pretty plain to see if you actually look–was deliberately ignored, and in its place our “elite” became fixated on a cartoonish Dr. Evil figure in a way that would make the most crazed 1950s Bircher blush.

These are people who fell for the scary wizard and his pyrotechnics, and paid no attention to the little man behind the curtain. Some because they were fools. Some–the worst of them, and the most powerful–because it advanced their political agenda.

So I say to the NYT: Bravo! Better 12 years late then never! But this should be a lesson: don’t pay the slightest bit of attention to those Bozos, because their news and editorial “judgments” are driven by a political and ideological bias that is impervious to readily observable realities.

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February 20, 2019

Maybe We Should Have Bombed Them More

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 8:07 pm

Poor widdle Angela Merkel is apparently flustered that the Bad Orange Man is such a meanie to her. She’s “ruffled” by the prospect of more meanie-ness. And indeed, after meeting with Trump, Austrian president Sebastian Kurz said Trump “seems to have it in for German in particular.”

Well boo frickin’ hoo.

What? You have a problem with that? Not me! Merkel’s Germany is truly loathsome, and hardly an American ally. Furthermore, their hypocrisy–on issues like Nato, Russia, and Iran–is off the charts.

Who do you think is the bigger threat to Nato? Trump, who insists that Nato members make contributions commensurate with those of the US, and the sizes of their economies? Or Germany, whose pathetic military–to quote Patton–“couldn’t fight its way out of a piss-soaked paper bag“?

Germany military expenditure is about half of the minimal level of 2 pct of GDP it pledged to Nato, so spare me the lectures on how the US under Trump is undermining the alliance. And even that is exaggerated by including spending on the autobahn. And as the linked Politico article shows, what money they do spend is absolutely wasted because it provides precisely zero combat power.

Who is a bigger patsy for Russia? Trump, who has imposed sanctions, increased military spending, green-lighted military aid to Ukraine, repeatedly sent destroyers into the Black Sea, etc.? Or Germany, which has jammed NordStream II down the throats of the rest of Europe, thereby selling out not just the Ukranians, but the Poles and other eastern European members of the EU?

Who are the real antisemites? Trump, whose daughter converted to Judaism (hence making his grandchildren Jewish), and who has done more for Israel than any president in American history (perhaps only Truman excepted), including greatly ramping up pressure on Israel’s sworn enemy Iran? Or Germany, which cringingly sucks up to the Mullahs in Tehran?

Case in point. The execrable German Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, slobbered all over Iran on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of its Islamic Revolution:

Germany’s largest paper Bild reported on Wednesday “On the 40th anniversary of that day, friendly greetings from Berlin arrived in Tehran by telegram: the President of Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier (63), sends ‘Congratulations’ on the occasion of the national holiday, ‘also in the name of my compatriots.”‘
 

“Friendly greetings” to a nation dedicated to completing what Germans started, but failed to finish: the annihilation of Jews.

How nice of him. And his “compatriots.” I think I understand the true roots of his friendliness.

Truth be told, German antisemitism has been sublimated, not eliminated. Opposition to Israel and support of Iran is objectively antisemitic, but can be portrayed as subjectively humanitarian (e.g., portrayed as supporting oppressed Palestinians).

So Trump is perfectly justified if he “has it in for Germany.” They’ve earned it. Maybe we just didn’t bomb them enough, so they need a supplemental dose of corrective measures.

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February 16, 2019

The Idiotic Freak Out Over Putin’s Middle East Diplomacy

Filed under: China,History,Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 8:59 pm

There has been a steady chorus of wailing about how the US “retreat” from the Middle East (which is at present limited to an announced intention to draw down in Syria) is empowering Russia, and that Putin is exploiting the “vacuum” left by Trump.* This WSJ oped is representative of the genre. Which is to say it is incoherent to the point of idiocy.

For one thing, this piece, and the entire genre, mirrors one of Putin’s most glaring intellectual failings: zero sum thinking. If Russia gains, the US must lose, right?

Wrong. The US has global interests, and does not have unlimited means to pursue them. Strategic prioritization–most notably, focusing on China–and redeploying resources to focus on the new priorities is vital and beneficial and advances US interests. Perhaps Russia gains in some ways from this, but those gains do not come anywhere near erasing the benefits accruing to the US of downplaying peripheral theaters and focusing on more important ones. Further, any local gains Russia may achieve in, say, Syria are almost certainly to be more than offset by the disadvantages of competing with a United States that has its strategic priorities straight. Putin–and other American adversaries/enemies, notably Iran–have exploited US misadventures in the Middle East. Focusing efforts and husbanding resources makes the US stronger, not weaker, both absolutely and relative to would be competitors–including Russia.

I have yet to see anyone make a remotely plausible case of why an enduring US role in Syria makes any strategic sense. As I’ve said from the very day that Putin put troops there–if he wants the shithole, let him have it. It has no strategic importance to the US, especially in its utterly wrecked current condition. We have far more important issues to deal with, China foremost among them.

The WSJ piece also provides room for considerable doubt about Putin’s prospects. Specifically, it inadvertently demonstrates the inherent contradictions in Putin’s policy. The author, Angela Stent, spends much of the piece fretting about the warming relationship between Russia and Israel. She also frets about the cooperation between Iran and Russia. Well, those policies are utterly incompatible, given that Israel and Iran view each other as existential enemies. The rapprochement between Russia and Saudi Arabia is similarly incompatible with a strong cooperative relationship between Russia and Iran. Something has to give.

I also fail to see why having Russia and Israel on good terms is a bad thing, especially in light of the fact that the Soviet Union was Israel’s arch-enemy (except for a brief, historically miraculous moment in which Stalin thought supporting Israel–and arming it–advanced Soviet interests), and armed its enemies (including Syria) throughout the Cold War. This was a major reason why the US had to take substantial risks to defend Israel in the Cold War–and why some said this risk wasn’t worth it, and that the US should jettison its support for Israel. Indeed, Soviet support for Arab states waging war on Israel brought the USSR and the US to the nuclear brink in 1973. A Russia that values its relationship with Israel is more likely to put a brake on Israel’s enemies with whom it has influence (notably Iran and Syria). That reduces the likelihood of conflict in the Middle East, and reduces a source of friction between the US and Russia.

Tell me why this is a bad thing.

And don’t forget–it takes two to canoodle. Here Putin is canoodling with Benjamin Netanyahu, who is (a) extremely hawkish, and (b) recognizes that Israel’s security depends crucially on the US. If Netanyahu believes there are gains to trade to be realized from dealing with with Putin, it is likely that the US is a gainer too.

Having Russia on friendly terms with Israel enhances the Jewish state’s security, and thereby advances American interests. And if in the end Russia chooses Iran and Syria over Israel, the pearl clutching about a budding Russian friendship with Israel will look rather foolish, no?

The friendliness between Russia and KSA can be analyzed similarly. The contrast with the Cold War again deserves comment. The inflection point in US involvement in the Middle East generally, and KSA in particular–the Carter Doctrine–was a response to the perceived Soviet threat to seize the Arabian Peninsula. Although the military threat ebbed with the collapse of the USSR, a KSA with fewer enemies and threats requires less US protection.

Here it should be added that the main reason for KSA and Russia to cooperate now is oil. But this in many respects is a confession of weakness, not strength. The resurgence of US as a major oil producer has undercut the market power of the Saudis and Russia, and their cooperation is largely defensive, rather than offensive.

Those who are paying attention, moreover, realize that there is considerable disagreement within Russia about the desirability of cooperating with OPEC (which, in effect, means with KSA) on oil output. In particular, my old buddy Igor Sechin is lobbying hard against continued cooperation, claiming it is a strategic threat to Russia:

“The participants of the OPEC+ agreement have actually created a preferential advantage for the USA – that sees raising its own market share and the seizure of target markets as its primary task – which has become a strategic threat to Russia’s oil industry development,” the letter [from Sechin to Putin] seen by Reuters says.


“The key strategic challenge which the domestic oil industry is faced with today is the further decline in Russia’s market share, despite the availability of quality recoverable oil reserves, necessary infrastructure and personnel,” it said.

Here Sechin is actually expressing some economic reality. Given its market share, Russia’s–and Rosneft’s–demand elasticity is substantially greater than one, and restricting its output reduces its revenues/income. Russia/Rosneft would likely be better off with a lower price and higher output–which is precisely why for years it abstained from cooperating with OPEC.

This internal discontent among extremely powerful players–and Sechin is arguably the most powerful player in Russia after Putin–sharply limits the potential for enduring cooperation between Russia and the KSA. Again, the fears are vastly overblown.

In sum, freaking out over greater Russian diplomatic efforts in the Middle East is totally unjustified. Russia’s gains are not America’s losses–the world is not zero sum. There are inherent contradictions in Russian efforts that will inevitably force them to make choices that limit their influence. And some Russian initiatives could actually serve to reduce the likelihood of major conflicts that would harm US interests.

I can’t write about this subject without mentioning today’s remarks by the most annoying leader in the world today. And no, I don’t mean Putin–I mean Angela Merkel. At the annual security conference in Munich, Frau Merkel chastised the United States for its plans to draw down in Syria and Afghanistan:

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned that a hasty U.S. pullout from Syria runs the risk of strengthening the roles of Russia and Iran in the Middle East.
Speaking at the Munich Security Conference on February 16, Merkel questioned whether the planned U.S. withdrawal was “a good idea.”
“Will it once more strengthen the capacity of Iran and Russia to exert their influence?” she asked.
She also cautioned against a premature U.S. withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan, saying that NATO’s Resolute Support mission in that country was dependent on the U.S. military’s commitment.

Well, for starters, lady, if you are so convinced of the need for military engagement in Syria and Afghanistan, why don’t you order your pathetic military to pick up its broomsticks and take the lead in the fights there? Oh. I forgot. You are the leader of the biggest free rider in Nato, who constantly lectures everybody else about global responsibilities, but who never puts her money–or the lives of German soldiers (assuming they still have any) where her fat mouth is. Until you do, you can kindly STFU.

The outrageousness of Merkel’s bloviation is even more remarkable given that in the very same speech called Russia a “partner” and “made a robust defense of Germany’s foreign trade relations and ties with Russia during her speech.”

Why, some might call that collusion!

So which is it? Russian influence is something to be contested, or embraced?

Merkel has also been a robust defender of the nuclear deal with Iran, and critical of the Trump administration’s withdrawal from it. German has led efforts to circumvent US sanctions on Iran–which are intended precisely to limit Iranian influence. But then she tells us we have to garrison Syria to fight Iranian influence.

Square that circle for me.

Angela cannot go away soon enough. But alas, no doubt she will be replaced by someone equally annoying. Germany is not America’s friend. But it is probably too much to expect that those who are demented by Trump hatred will understand that, just as it is too much to expect that said demented people will recognize that some modest Russian diplomatic achievements in the Middle East do little harm to the US, and indeed, may actually redound to our benefit.

*The whole idea of a US “retreat” in the Middle East is so completely unmoored from reality that anyone who uses this term, or similar expressions, should be ignored and mocked. The US is still in Iraq. It has actually increased its involvement in the Persian Gulf, most notably in its confrontation in Iran. It supports the Saudi’s fiasco in Yemen. It periodically bombs Libya. Support for Israel is at unprecedented levels. Egypt’s military government is getting military and political assistance from the US. If this is retreat, I’d hate to see an advance. Reducing involvement in what is arguably the least important country in the region–Syria–when its whole reason for being there (the presence of ISIS as a territorial entity) is strategic rationality, not a retreat.

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January 16, 2019

Don’t Bother Me With the Facts! I Have a Narrative I Need to Flog!

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 7:20 pm

US ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell recently tweeted that the Trump administration had been tougher on Russia than any of its predecessors. The reflexive anti-Trumpers wouldn’t stand for this. Not for a second.

NYT columnist Bret Stephens leaped into the lists to tilt at Ambassador Grenell:

And let’s play no word games about the difference between USSR and “Russia.” Putin’s Russia is the USSR reborn under the exact same management.

That’s what’s called “projection”, Bret, for you are playing word games by transmogrifying Putin’s Russia into the USSR.

Today’s Russia “is the USSR reborn” only in Putin’s wildest dreams. By any objective measure, Russia today pales in comparison to the USSR as a threat to the US (or the West generally). From 1945 through 1991, the Soviets had millions of men and thousands of tanks poised on the borders of western Europe. Today the men do not exist and the tanks are rusting away in storage–and all are hundreds of miles to the east of the Elbe. The Soviet Union had a very credible navy: Russia’s navy is back from the utter decrepitude of the 1990s and early 2000s, but is still a pale shadow of what it was under Admiral Gorshkov. Whereas the Soviet Union posed an extreme conventional threat to the US and the west, Russia poses no threat at all.

Oh, by the way Bret–where is Putin’s Warsaw Pact? Oh, that’s right–they are all Nato members.

The USSR was also a formidable ideological adversary, and its ideology was aggressive and expansionist. Especially prior to the 1980s, the Soviet ideology had substantial international appeal, especially in the Third World. The Cold War was as much intellectual and ideological, as it was military and economic.

Putin tries on new ideologies like a teenage girl tries on new clothes. But his ideological fashion choices are primarily for domestic political effect, and have no appeal outside Russia’s borders. Zero. Zip. This is in large part because most of Putin’s ideologies are nationalist and insular. His embrace of Russian Orthodoxy is a particularly telling in this regard. It only has very limited appeal even within Russia, and none whatsoever outside it.

Russia is not an ideological nation. It is a kleptocratic regime.

Yes, Putin laments the demise of the USSR. But his efforts to rebuild it are pathetic in the extreme. In his nearly 20 years in power, his efforts to reconstitute the USSR have succeeded in reclaiming–wait for it–Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and some rather decrepit bits of Ukraine. These are the offal of the USSR. He is now putting the squeeze on Belarus–but Lukashenko has no desire to go back to the Soviet Union.

And even these “accomplishments” have succeeded primarily in isolating Russia, with one of the consequences being economic stagnation that leaves Russia even further behind the US in the wellsprings of military power. After a brief splurge in defense spending, the realities of Russia’s parlous economic condition have forced Putin to cut back again, and announce new weapons with great fanfare–but not to produce them in meaningful numbers. Potemkin revisited.

In sum, Putin’s Russia is at best a pitiful simulacrum of the USSR. To equate the two, as Stephens does, is beyond farcical.

So after dispensing with Stephens’ sleight-of-hand turning 2019 Russia into 1979 USSR, let’s evaluate Ambassador Grenell’s statement on the merits, administration by administration post-USSR.

The Clinton administration was all in propping up Yeltsin. When Yeltsin shelled the Duma in 1993, Clinton said: “I guess we’ve just got to pull up our socks and back Ol’ Boris again.” When Yeltsin was in grave peril of losing the 1996 election, Clinton said: “I know that means we’ve got to stop short of giving a nominating speech for the guy. But we’ve got to go all the way in helping in every other respect.” (Can anyone say “interfering in an election”? I knew you could.) The Clinton administration also supported Russian policy in Chechnya.

Bush II famously gazed into Putin’s eyes, and his administration got on rather well with Russia. Even the 2008 invasion of Georgia did not trigger a vigorous response.

And Obama. Where to begin? Of course there’s the Reset, complete with Hillary grinning like a buffoon standing next to Lavrov, holding an idiotic button (mislabeled in Russian, no less). Then there was Obama paling around with Medvedev–they were burger buddies, remember? Oh–can’t forget the hot mike statement that Medvedev should tell Vladimir to be patient, as Obama would have more flexibility after the 2012 election. In the 2012 campaign, Obama mocked Romney saying that Russia was a threat.

Given this, it’s not surprising that Putin smelled weakness, and that his peak aggressive phase occurred during the Obama administration.

Obama’s response was 90 percent petulance and condescension about Putin not following the arc of historical progress, and 10 percent rather ineffectual measures.

It is against this standard–not that of Cold Warriors facing an existential threat–that the Trump administration should be measured. And as Grenell said, by this standard Trump has indeed been far more robust. He has provided Ukraine with weapons (which Obama steadfastly refused to do). He has embarked on rebuilding the US military. He has implemented more vigorous sanctions than the Obama administration. And the US military smoked 200+ Russians who tried to throw their weight around against US forces in Syria.

Further, look at other news involving Grenell. The Germans are in apoplexy over Grenell’s threat to sanction any company that cooperated with the Nordstream II pipeline that will bring Russian gas to Europe. Merkel’s party spokeswoman huffed: “The American ambassador operates in a, shall I say, somewhat unusual diplomatic manner. He’s shown that not only through this letter [on Nord Stream 2 sanctions] but also from when he took office.”

And this is not a new thing. Trump has been bashing Nordstream since he took office–and the Germans have been reacting with outrage every time.

Trump’s notorious criticism of Nato is also hardly pro-Russian. His main criticism is that Nato countries–especially Germany–don’t do enough to counter Russia, but expect the US to do it for them.

This is not a hard call. The Trump administration has objectively been far harder on Russia than its predecessors–including most notably its immediate predecessor, whom people like Bret Stephens now lavish praise on. It isn’t even close. To claim that US policy towards the USSR is the appropriate yardstick by with to measure US policy towards the decrepit, dissolute successor state of Russia requires breathtaking intellectual dishonesty. But Bret Stephens is obviously up to the task

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January 7, 2019

Lost in Space? Some Musings on the Economics of an Independent Space Force

Filed under: Economics,History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 8:30 pm

One of the Trump administration’s (and really, Trump is the one pushing it) more interesting ideas is the creation of an independent military “space force” as a separate service branch, co-equal with the Army, Air Force, Marines, and Navy. Given that this proposal gores many, many political oxen inside the military and without, it’s hard to get an objective viewpoint. Everyone’s opinion is colored by their vested interest.

I have no answer as to whether it’s a good idea or not. But I do have some thoughts on the appropriate framework that could contribute to a more objective evaluation. Specifically, transactions cost economics and property rights economics (and organizational economics, which has some overlap with these) address issues of how formal organizational structure, and the ownership and control of assets, can affect the allocation of resources, for better or worse. And that is the issue here: can a reorganization involving the creation of a new entity that has control rights over assets heretofore controlled by other entities improve the allocation of defense resources?

I mused on this topic long ago, but have never really pursued it in a serious way. But I’ll muse some more given the newfound topicality.

It’s useful to divide the analysis into two parts. First, how does organizational structure, and in particular the assignment of rights of control over existing assets (e.g., artillery pieces, aircraft), affect military effectiveness and combat power? Second, how does organizational structure affect the choices regarding which assets to invest in?

With respect to the first issue, over the centuries militaries have devoted considerable effort and thought to organizational charts, and the allocation of control rights over military hardware and military units. Some simple examples: should each division have its own artillery, with all guns being under division control, or should some guns be assigned to battalions subject to control at a higher level (e.g., corps, army)?; should all tanks be concentrated in armored divisions, or should infantry divisions also have organic tank units?; should submarines be employed in support of fleets, or operate independently?

As with all resource allocation decisions, there are trade-offs, and militaries have struggled with these. There has been experimentation. There has been success and failure. Changes in technology have necessitated changes in organization, because the nature of specific weapons systems may affect the trade-offs. These are arguments that never end, as the incessant reorganizations of militaries (e.g., the U.S. Army’s recent shift to a brigade-based structure) demonstrate.

A couple of transactions cost economics insights. First, most decisions regarding the use of military assets are made subject to severe temporal specificity. If I am under attack, I need fire support NOW. Moreover, it may be the case that even in a large military only a few resources are available to provide that support. Temporal specificity creates transactions costs that can impede the allocation of resources to their highest value use.

Second, trade is unlikely to be a viable option, especially given temporal specificity. “Hey. I need some artillery support on my position right now. Can you give me an offer on what that will cost me?” Yeah–that works. The prospects for spot exchange are almost non-existent, and intertemporal exchange is unlikely because (a) timelines are short (for a variety of reasons), making end game problems acute, and (b) potential parties to an exchange are unlikely to be interacting repeatedly over time with reciprocal needs.

Since voluntary exchange is out (except in very unusual circumstances) resources need to be allocated by authority. Which makes issues of organization and the allocation of authority (control rights) paramount.

With respect to space assets, the case for a space force relates to the fact that many space assets (a) offer value to air, naval, and ground forces, and (b) there are economies of scale and scope. Having each service invest in its own space assets likely sacrifices scale and scope economies, but eliminates the need for inter-service bargaining over access to these assets, and reallocation of these assets in response to shifting military needs.

Allocating space assets to one existing branch (e.g., the Air Force) would facilitate exploitation of scale and scope economies, but would require inter-service bargaining to permit the non-controlling service to get access. A specialized space force permits exploitation of scale and scope economies, but also necessitates inter-service bargaining. The key question here is whether a specialized force would have better incentives than an operational force. For example, the Air Force might favor itself over other services when deciding how to utilize space assets, whereas a separate space force would not be as parochial.

With respect to the second issue–which assets are procured–the impact of organization on the Congressional procurement process is paramount.

The services are highly politicized organizations, and certain specializations within a service may exercise disproportionate influence. For example, the “fighter mafia” in the Air Force is legendary. As another example, in the pre-WWII U.S. Navy, battleship admirals held sway. These factions within a service may warp and stifle the development of new technologies, new doctrines, or investment decisions: the stultifying effect of the dominant infantry branch within the pre-WWII U.S. Army on the development of armored forces (both hardware and doctrine) is an example.

Creation of a separate force that invests in assets provided by the other branches would tend to undermine the power that any faction in a particular branch could exercise. The branches would have to form coalitions to influence Congressional funding decisions. But the creation of a new entity with its own vested service interest and its own ability to influence Congress could prove problematic as well.

For example, in the immediate aftermath of the formation of the Air Force, beliefs that nuclear weapons made most conventional forces–including conventional air arms–obsolete, led the Air Force to try to persuade Congress to slash spending on conventional forces in order to focus on strategic forces, especially bombers. This led to the “Revolt of the Admirals.” It also led the Navy and even the Army to invest in nuclear capabilities in order to claim strategic relevance and maintain their share of the budget. These investments were almost certainly wasteful, and would not have been made but for the independent Air Force’s influence.

Perhaps the most important historical example that could shed some light on the desirability of an independent space force is the creation of a separate Air Force in 1947, and the Johnson-McConnell agreement of 1966, in which the Army ceded to the Air Force control over all fixed wing aircraft.

The effects of this reorganization were probably beneficial overall, but there certainly were problematic effects. In particular, it almost certainly attenuated the Air Force’s incentives to provide ground support, and resulted in the Army investing excessively in rotary wing aircraft (i.e., attack helicopters) to provide it.

Perhaps a better idea would have been to create a separate strategic air wing (first including strategic bombers, then strategic bombers and ICBMs, as well as air superiority fighters), and permit the Army to operate tactical aircraft for ground support. This was essentially what was done in in the immediate aftermath of WWII, with the creation within the Army Air Force of a Strategic Air Command, a Tactical Air Command, and an Air Defense Command.

The Marine Corps, and to some degree the Navy, provide a model. Each operate their own fixed wing air services, specialized to provide the kinds of air power each needs. Marine air is relentlessly focused on providing close air support. The Marine operational commander has control over these assets, and does not have to haggle with another service to get them. Moreover, the Marines’ acquisition decisions (notably the division between fixed and rotary wing aircraft) are oriented towards getting the optimal mix for the specific mission.

I have only touched upon some of the relevant considerations–there are no doubt others I have missed. Moreover, I have given only superficial attention even to the issues I raise. But this should be sufficient to show just how complicated this issue is. Organizational decisions, such as the creation of a separate space force, will have profound implications for how military resources are allocated, and what resources will be invested in in the first place. Crucially, the assets in question cannot be allocated by markets or the price system, so it is not a question of organization v. market, but the form of the organization(s). Further, military assets are complex, long-lived (and becoming more so–note that B-52s may be operational for more than a century), and can be extraordinarily specialized and hence specific (in the TCE meaning of that term). Technology is incredibly dynamic, and needs shift dramatically over time as new threats emerge. This all means that organization and the allocation of control rights matter. A lot.

And perhaps most importantly, organizational choices will be made in a politicized environment, and will affect political bargaining in the future. This will inevitably distort current choices (e.g., whether a space force will be created in the first place, what assets it will control) and future choices as well. It also makes it very difficult to sort through the debate on the topic, because everybody involved is a political player with its own political interests.

That makes it all the more important to establish a relatively objective and rigorous intellectual framework in which to analyze these questions. I think that transactions costs economics and property rights economics hold out great promise as the basis for such a framework.

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January 5, 2019

Vox Populi v. Vox Domini Super Eos Electos

Filed under: Economics,History,Politics — cpirrong @ 7:27 pm

For weeks France has been wracked by the “gilets jaunes” protests directed at President Emmanuel Macron. The protests had slackened recently, but today they flared up again, perhaps due to the arrest of a gilets janues leader. (Was this just stupidity, or does Macron want to stoke the protest? Dunno.)

The French protests represent yet another battle in the global war between the hoi polloi and the elite. The catalyst for the French protests was a quintessentially elitist policy initiative: a tax on motor fuel, with the stated purpose of combating climate change.

Even on its own terms the tax is stupid. Even assuming a very high temperature sensitivity to CO2, the reduction in emissions resulting from the tax would have a vanishingly small effect on global temperature. Furthermore, like most of Europe, French gas taxes are extremely high, and almost certainly far above the level that would efficiently address externalities arising from motor fuel consumption.

The protestors may understand that the tax does not make sense as a way of addressing climate change. But their interests are far more down-to-earth. This is another tax imposed on the most heavily taxed country in the OECD. Further, it falls most heavily on the rural population, and the working population, and has little impact on the metropolitan elites. It is, in a sense, the straw that broke the camel’s back.

With consummate tone-deafness, Macron galvanized the protestors with remarks that would make the fictional Marie Antoinette (“let them eat cake”) blush. Hey, if driving costs too much, just carpool! Or take the bus! Yeah. He actually said that (unlike Marie and the bit about the cake).

After the initial shock, Macron caved, and shelved the tax. But the protests continued, with varying degrees of violence around the country (e.g., torching toll booths). This is because the tax’s significance was more symbolic, relating to the excessive taxation in France, and the sneering indifference of the elite to the fate of non-elite France, which Macron has personified all too well. So, as is often the case in coordination games, once people became aware of each others’ dissatisfaction, the protests took on a life of their own even after the initial catalyst was removed.

Today the protestors gathered in front of the Paris Bourse, demanding Macron’s resignation. Surely, he won’t, but his evident unpopularity will hamstring his ability to govern for the remainder of his term.

The government response has been somewhat amusing. One tack was that police resources were inadequate to deal with both the protests and terrorism. “France Doesn’t Have Enough Cops.” That is, the government of the most heavily taxed advanced economy in the world cannot perform the primary duty of the state: to secure the safety and property of its citizens. So don’t protest, because that make it impossible to combat terrorists.

But of course they should be given more money and power.

In the United States, there is also an outcry against the president, but it is the inversion of the one in France. Whereas in France it is the ordinary people taking to the streets in opposition to the governing elite, in the US the governing elite is taking to the media and the bowels of the state to oppose Trump.

There are no widespread protests on the streets of the US (Antifa freaking out in Portland doesn’t count), and especially lacking are protests by ordinary citizens against Trump. And why should there be? For most Americans, the last two years have been pretty good insofar as bread-and-butter issues are concerned (as epitomized by yesterday’s job report, both on the number of jobs and wage growth). No, the frenzy in the US has focused on issues that ordinary Americans don’t give a rat’s ass about, but which drive the governing class into paroxysms of fury–e.g., alleged (but completely unproven) allegations of “collusion” between Trump and Putin/the Russians.

These allegations are merely useful cudgels with which to beat Trump. The fury of the governing class really stems from his running roughshod over their presumptions and privileges. He’s just not one of them. He insults them. He tramples their amour-propre. He does not worship their idols. Indeed, he trashes them. Icky people like him.

So whereas the ordinary French have taken to the streets, the governing class has taken to pulling the levers of its power–the FBI (even before the election), the American star chamber (aka the Mueller Investigation), incessant and hopelessly biased media coverage, and now, threats of impeaching “the motherfucker.” (To which I say–be my guest. Look at how well that worked out in 1998-99.) There are even those who have advocated a coup.

I daresay that the governing class in the US sees what is going on in Paris and other places in France, and shudders. It shows how deeply loathed the governing class is, and how a seemingly small spark can ignite a political firestorm against them. They have certainly questioned the protests’ legitimacy, at times in their desperation succumbing to the last refuge of the idiot–blaming it on the Russians. Case in point, the pathetically hilarious Max Boot (hey, Max, can you do a pushup?) who at one time pined for an American Macron, only to be subjected to ruthless–but completely warranted–ridicule when the French protests erupted. In a nauseating attempt to rationalize the complete popular repudiation of his man crush on Macron, Max insinuated that although the Russkies may not have caused the protests, they fanned the flames through their diabolically clever exploitation of social media.

The condescension here is palpable, and reflects a pattern that I’ve pointed out going back to 2015. Rather than acknowledging that widespread popular dissatisfaction with the elites–as epitomized by Brexit, the Trump election, various European elections, and now the protests in France–were due to repeated elite failure unsullied by any success, they add insult to injury by accusing their opponents of being stupid, unwitting pawns of their current bête noire.

It is indeed amazing to see that an incessant barrage of attacks from the governing classes have not moved the needle on Trump in the slightest. If anything, they have bound him and his supporters more tightly, because the latter recognize that an attack on Trump is just as much an attack on them.

The most common divide in polities around the developed world right now is between the governing and the governed. The self-conceived and self-congratulatory elite vs. the ordinary. France is just the most recent battleground. It wasn’t the first, and it won’t be the last. The battle is becoming more intense because the objects of popular disdain refuse to acknowledge any responsibility for creating the conditions that have spurred popular discontent.

The same thing happened in France, 230 years ago. The nobility in the ancien regime stubbornly and righteously clung to their privileges, and their conviction in their own superiority. Worked out swell for them, right? But some people never learn.

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December 29, 2018

Is the Withdrawal From Syria a Bitter Pill for Jacksonians to Swallow? I Think Not

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 8:02 pm

I admire the work of Walter Russell Mead a great deal. I especially admire his identification of Jacksonians as a uniquely American political community, and his respectful and understanding treatment thereof, which is in stark contrast to the treatment given them by the sneering classes. I was therefore surprised by his recent column, which in my view completely misreads how Jacksonian America will respond to Trump’s decision to leave Syria and (perhaps–there are conflicting accounts) draw down forces in Afghanistan.

It’s fair to say that I was among the first (along with Mead) to identify Jacksonians as Trump’s core constituency, so I think I have some insight as to how they will react to his decision. And I think that Mead is off-base here:

That harmony may soon sour. Mr. Trump’s decisions on Syria and Afghanistan risk a rift between the president and his Jacksonian supporters and provide a way for some in the GOP to break with the president without losing their own populist credentials. The betrayal of the Kurds, the benefits to Iran of American withdrawal, the tilt toward an Islamist and anti-Israel Turkey, and the purrs of satisfaction emanating from the Kremlin are all bitter pills for Jacksonians to swallow.

Of the two wings of the GOP populist movement, the Jacksonians are the stronger and, from a political standpoint, the more essential. The GOP base is more hawkish than isolationist, and from jihadist terrorism to Russian and Chinese revisionism, today’s world is full of threats that alarm Jacksonian populists and lead them to support a strong military and a forward-leaning foreign policy.


Neoconservatives tried and failed to rally GOP foreign-policy hawks against Donald Trump. Should Jacksonians turn against him, they are likely to pose a much more formidable threat.

Where does Mead go wrong? Well, in part by forgetting some of the key attributes of Jacksonians that he identified about 25 years ago. One is the Jacksonian way of war. He noted that Jacksonians are reluctant to engage in foreign wars, but when they do they favor the massive application of brutal force to achieve rapid and total victory. Kill a lot of people, destroy a lot of stuff, and go home.

The wars in Syria and Afghanistan are the antithesis of this. Jacksonians were on board for the initial action in Afghanistan, oh so long ago. The US went in hard, employed all elements of its national power (except nuclear), and achieved what appeared to be a decisive and rapid victory. Then came 17 years of grinding, inconclusive combat. There is no prospect of a decisive outcome there. Similarly in Syria, the Jacksonian objective–destroying ISIS–has been largely achieved, and it is decidedly un-Jacksonian to get involved in a protracted Game of Thrones where there are no obvious good guys, and indeed, pretty much everybody is a bad guy by Jacksonian lights.

Insofar as allies are concerned, there is absolutely no cultural affinity between American allies in Syria or Afghanistan and Jacksonians, and as Mead noted, Jacksonianism is a peculiarly cultural, as opposed to intellectual, mindset. Further, as Mead also noted, Jacksonians despise corruption, and it is hard to imagine more corrupt societies and polities than Afghanistan and the Middle East. The tendency of our allies in both regions to turn their guns on American soldiers in “green on blue” attacks only confirms deep misgivings that our ostensible allies are not honorable people–and honor is a preeminent value among Jacksonians.

Jacksonians support wars that smite American enemies, and redeem American honor. Wars to build up nations with profoundly alien cultures that appear incapable of becoming stable polities, let alone ones that are grateful for American sacrifice on their behalf–not so much.

The Kurds may be something of an exception, but Jacksonian America has never shown much interest in them, despite the US’s long involvement with the Kurds in Iraq in particular. It is sad, but nonetheless true, that the US has sacrificed Kurdish interests on many occasions in the last 30 years. All without eliciting a peep from Jacksonian America. Why should now be any different?

Further, if they learn more about the Kurds, Jacksonians will realize that it is hardly a black-and-white picture. Yes, the Kurds have fought against ISIS, and fought well (as is their wont), but this is a matter of survival. But the long-running Kurdish fight with Turkey, led as it is by hard-core communists and socialists, and using as it does terrorist methods, will not garner sympathy from Jacksonians. They are not likely to be enamored with Erdogan’s Turkey either, but given the lack of a clear good guy that appeals to Jacksonian sympathies and sentiments, the likely response is to be to hell with them all, that’s not our fight.

Insofar as Iran is concerned, Trump has been sufficiently aggressive in going after the mullahs to counter any concern that he is soft on those who shout “death to America.” There are hardly purrs of satisfaction emanating from Tehran.

Similarly, Trump has been far more aggressive with respect to China, and even Russia, than his predecessors. Russian crowing about Syria stands in sharp contrast with their incessant bitching about everything else Trump has done, so despite the media’s and the Democrat’s and the anti-Trumpers’ insane claims that Trump is Putin’s pawn Jacksonians will not be fooled.

If anything, Jacksonians will conclude that Trump is focusing on the big adversaries where it matters, rather than frittering away American lives and treasure where it doesn’t. That is, they realize that Trump is hawkish where it counts, is not isolationist, and is working to rebuild the military. Against these big things, Syria is a trifling matter.

So, pace Dr. Mead, I don’t think that Trump need to have any concern that his most important constituency will find his recent decisions on Syria and (perhaps) Afghanistan a “bitter pill to swallow.” They are more likely to conclude that he has his priorities right. Furthermore, they are sure to notice that the people who are screaming the loudest about Trump’s decision are people they despise and who despise them in return. The louder that the Bill Kristols and Max Boots squeal, the more Jacksonians will conclude that Trump is doing the right thing.

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December 22, 2018

Given the Realm at Stake, Why Play This Game of Thrones?

Filed under: China,History,Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 2:57 pm

The most recent shrieking emanating from DC and its various satrapies is the result of Trump’s decision to exit Syria and draw down forces in Afghanistan, with the clear implication that the US will leave there too in due course. The conventional wisdom is almost universally against him, and as usual, the conventional wisdom is flat wrong.

In evaluating any policy or operation, the first question to answer is: what is the objective? In Syria, is it a limited one–the defeat of the rump of ISIS? Or is it a more grandiose, geopolitical one–to control the outcome of the Syrian civil war and determine who rules there?

Trump has made it clear that his objective is limited and tactical. He has apparently decided that although ISIS has not been extirpated in Syria, it has been so attrited that its remaining enemies can contain it, or finish it off. And there is a Machiavellian aspect to that: why not let American adversaries, Russia and Iran, spend their blood and treasure dealing with the dead enders that remain? You wanted Syria, Vlad–have at it!

The conventional wisdom embraces the more grandiose objective. Perhaps this is purely self-aggrandizement, and lets them resume their college dorm games of Risk for real. Issues of motive aside, it is beyond cavil that those who want the US to remain in Syria, and indeed, to become more heavily involved there want to commit the country to being a player in a Game of Thrones that puts the fictional version to shame.

And that is why the conventional wisdom is wrong. For what does the survivor who sits on the throne rule over? A country that was a largely irrelevant shithole even before seven years of internecine warfare that utterly wrecked and largely depopulated a nation that was already pitifully poor and weak before the war began.

Congratulations Bashar! Congratulations Vladimir! Congratulations Ali! Behold the spoils of your victory! And indeed, spoiled is the right word for it.

And again, from a Machiavellian perspective, tell me why it isn’t smart for the US to let Russia and Iran plow resources into rebuilding a devastated nation? If they do so, these are resources they can’t use against the US elsewhere. Furthermore, even if Russia gains a presence in the country over the longer term, it is an isolated and completely unsupportable outpost that (a) could not provide a base for power projection in the event of a real great power struggle, and (b) could be cut off and destroyed in a trice by the US. Let the Russians put their very limited resources into a strategic dead end.

As for the Iranians, yes, their presence in Syria poses a challenge to Israel. But (a) I am highly confident that the Israelis can handle it, and (b) it’s far cheaper for the US to support their efforts to do so with material support for the Israeli military. And just as is the case for Russia, for Iran Syria would be utterly unsupportable in the event of a real confrontation between Iran and Israel.

The principle of economy of force–something that the policy “elite” in DC appears never to have heard of–applies here. One implication of the principle is that you should concentrate your resources in decisive sectors, and not fritter them away in peripheral ones. For the US, Syria is on the periphery of the periphery. In any geopolitical contest with Russia and Iran, our resources are far better deployed elsewhere.

What’s more, despite the obsession of the foreign policy elite with Russia and Iran, they are secondary challengers to the US. China is far more important, and poses a far more serious challenge. Throwing military resources into Syria is to waste them in a peripheral theater of a secondary conflict.

When I first read of Trump’s decision, I turned to a friend and said: “I wonder what this means for Afghanistan.” And indeed, hard on the heels of the Syria announcement the administration stated that it would draw down forces in Afghanistan, with the clear implication that US involvement there would wind down fairly quickly.

All of the considerations that make Syria a strategic backwater for the US apply with greater force in Afghanistan. The country has spent over 17 years, the lives and bodies of thousands of soldiers, sailors, and Marines, and trillions of dollars on a country that is the poster child for shitholes. Yes, it was the refuge of a particular terrorist threat 17+ years ago. And yes, if we leave it will likely continue to be the cockpit of vicious civil war. Just like it has for the past two plus millennia. It was barely tractable for Alexander, and the British and Russia found it utterly intractable in their 19th and 20th century wars there. We’ve arguably done better, but not much. And again: what’s “winning,” and since the demise of the Silk Road, what in Afghanistan has been worth winning?

The war in Afghanistan has proved a sisyphean task. Sisyphus didn’t have a choice: the gods condemned him to roll the rock up the hill, only to watch it roll down again. The US has been engaged in that futile task by choice, and Trump has evidently decided that he doesn’t want to be Sisyphus anymore. (My skepticism about US involvement in Afghanistan also dates to years ago–as indicated by this post from almost exactly 9 years ago.)

One of the administration’s most important, and largely ignored, decisions has been to reorient US efforts away from conflicts against terrorism in isolated, poor, and peripheral places towards recapitalizing the military for peer conflict against China and Russia. This is the right choice, and long, long overdue. (I wrote a post in 2007 that expressed concerns about prioritizing anti-terror over conventional warfare capability.)

Alas, God will not restore the years the locusts have eaten in the Hindu Kush or on the Euphrates. But sunk costs are sunk. Looking to the future, the right strategic choice is to continue the pivot away from peripheral conflicts to focus on central ones.

And these costs are not purely monetary. Last night, due to a travel nightmare, I ended up returning to Houston on a flight that landed at 0230. On the plane were a half dozen young Marines heading home for the holidays. There were also two men, in their late-20s or early-30s, with prosthetic legs. They almost certainly lost them to IEDs in some godforsaken corner of the Middle East or Central Asia. With Trump’s decision in mind, I thought: what is the point of turning more young men like the fit and hearty 19 or 20 year old Marines into mutilated 30 year olds in places like Afghanistan and Syria? I certainly can’t see one.

I’m not a peacenick or a pacifist, by any means. But I understand the horrible cost of war, and fervently believe that it should only be spend on good causes that advance American interests. I cannot say with any conviction that this is the case in Syria, or in Afghanistan, 17 years after 911. Indeed, I can say the opposite with very strong conviction.

At the risk of stooping to ad hominem argument, I would make one more point. Look at the “elite” who is damning Trump’s decision in Syria. What great accomplishment–let alone accomplishments plural–can they take responsibility for? The last 27 years–at least–of American foreign policy has been an unbroken litany of bipartisan failure. The people who scream the loudest now were the architects of these failures. Not only have they not been held accountable, they do not even have the grace or maturity to admit their failures. Instead, they choose to damn someone who refuses to double down on them.

The biggest downside of Trump’s decision is that it apparently caused Secretary of Defense Mattis to resign. I hold General Mattis in the highest esteem, and believe that if he could no longer serve the president in good conscience, he did the right thing by resigning. But if he decided that Syria and Afghanistan were (metaphorically) the hills to die on, for the reasons outlined above I respectfully but strongly disagree.

My major regret at Mattis’ departure is again completely different than the conventional wisdom spouting elite’s. They lament the loss of an opposition voice within the administration. I cringe for reasons closely related to my reason for supporting a major pivot in US policy: I think that Mattis was the best person to oversee the reorientation of the Pentagon from counterinsurgency to main force conflict. We desperately need to improve the procurement process. We desperately need to focus on improving the quality and number of high end systems, and raising the availability of those systems we have: the operational availability of aircraft and combat units is shockingly low, and Mattis has prioritized increasing them. He has made progress, and I fear that a change at the Pentagon will put this progress, and the prospect for further progress, at risk.

Listening with dismay at the cacophony of criticism from the same old, failed, and tired “elite” reminds me of Einstein’s (alleged) definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results. The “elite” is invested in the same thing, and changing the same thing is a not so implicit rebuke for their failures. Until they can explain–which I know they cannot–why doing the same thing has led to such wonderful outcomes in the past quarter century, they should STFU and let somebody else try something different.

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November 30, 2018

The Most Tragic Day of a Tragic War

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military — cpirrong @ 9:19 pm
The American Civil War was an extremely grim conflict from first to last, but few–if any–days of that war were as grim as 30 November, 1864.  On that bleak day, John Bell Hood launched his Confederate Army of Tennessee in an assault over 1.5 miles of open ground against a larger force of steely Union veterans behind strong entrenchments.  The result was predictable–to all but Hood, apparently: an epic slaughter of some of the finest infantry of that or any war.

The battle is known–to the extent it is known, which is too little–for the deaths of six Confederate generals, namely Cleburne (not of Texas, but for whom a town in the state is named because a brigade of Texans served under his command), Carter, Granbury (of Texas, and commander of that Texas brigade, for whom a Lone Star town is named), Strahl, Gist, and Adams.  Seven other brigade or division commanders were wounded.   No other battle took such a toll on general officers.

Officer casualties at Franklin were horrible, but the carnage in the ranks was almost as bad.  Many excellent formations were nearly obliterated.

Case in point: the storied Missouri Brigade.  Arguably the best combat unit in the western theater, and arguably of the entire war, the brigade went into the battle with 696 men, of whom 419 (over 60 percent) were rendered hors du combat.  53 out of 56 officers–think about that for a minute, 95 percent–went down.  Although a pathetic remnant of the brigade tramped on to Nashville, to participate in the defeat there, for all intents and purposes the finest unit in the Army of Tennessee was wrecked beyond repair.

In some respects it is invidious to single out a particular brigade: virtually every Confederate formation was ravaged.

Virtually nowhere did the Confederates penetrate the Union entrenchments. General Adams made it literally half-way: he attempted to leap his horse over the rampart, only to have his horse–and himself–riddled by bullets in the attempt.  Adams was found dead on his horse, which had its forelegs on the Union side of the parapet, and the hind legs on the Confederate side.

The one exception was in Cleburne’s and Brown’s sector near the Cotton Gin and Carter House.  A blunder had resulted in two small Federal brigades (Conrad’s and Lane’s) of Wagner’s IV Corps division remaining several hundred yards in front of the main Union line, holding a thinly-manned rudimentary set of earthworks.  These men were overwhelmed by the assault of the two Confederate divisions and they broke for the rear, as sensible men will.   A cry went up from the Confederate lines: “Shoot them in the back! Follow them into the works!” And they did.  The defenders of the main line were hesitant to fire because Lane’s and Conrad’s men were in the way, and thus the Confederates were largely spared from the withering volleys that stopped their comrades on their right and left in their tracks, allowing Cleburne’s and Brown’s men to surge over the works.

But only for a short while.  Wagner’s third brigade, under Emerson Opdyke (which contained the 2d Board of Trade regiment, the 88th Illinois, by the way), launched a frenzied counterattack that resulted in hand-to-hand fighting around the Carter House (which stands today, along with outbuildings that still exhibit hundreds of bullet holes).  Supported by troops that had been driven from the works (including the 1st Board of Trade Regiment, AKA the 72nd Illinois), Opdyke drove back the Confederates.

But not far.  The rebels congregated in the ditch on the outside of the Union lines.  Because that was the safest place: to recross the field would have been suicidal.

For the next several hours, in the darkness of the late-autumn day, the contending forces slaughtered each other at point-blank range.  General Strahl was shot handing loaded muskets to his men.  Carried to the rear, he was shot in the neck and fatally wounded in the field beyond the ditch.  Men would thrust their muskets over the parapet one-handed, and discharge them into the seething mass on the other side.  Soldiers launched bayoneted rifles like spears into the masses on the other side of the line. Some became frenzied, and jumped on top of the works, only to be shot down.  By late in the evening, the ditch in front of the works was a crawling mass of wounded men, intermixed with the dead.

There is nothing like it in the Civil War.  Pickett’s Charge was similar in terms of numbers, and ground crossed, and ultimate result, but when the Confederates were repulsed, they withdrew.  That fight did not drag on for hours at point-blank range.  The carnage at Franklin did.

In the end, exhaustion caused the fight to ebb away, just as the lives of hundreds of men were ebbing away.  The Union army had bought the time to rebuild the bridges over the Harpeth River necessary to continue their retreat to Nashville, and stole away in the night.  The Confederates were too tired, and too bloodied, even to notice, let alone to try to stop them.

This was truly one of the great tragedies of a War full of them.  In a conflict full of futile and pointless assaults, Franklin stands out for futility and pointlessness.  The Union army ended up exactly where it would have if the battle had never been fought.  But a third of the 23,000 Confederates who made the assault were killed (around 1750) or wounded (5500).  The casualty rates were even higher in Cleburne’s and Brown’s divisions.  60 of 100 regimental commanders went down.

The Federals suffered about 2400 casualties, of whom 1100 (primarily in Conrad’s and Lane’s brigades)  were captured.  Only battles like Fredericksburg or Cold Harbor resulted in a similar disproportionate loss on the contending sides.

So why did this tragedy occur?  It clearly is the responsibility of one man: John Bell Hood.  I agree with (the General’s distant relation) Stephen Hood’s debunking of Wiley Sword’s claim that Hood’s judgment was warped by his reliance on laudanum to ease the pain of his horrific wounds (an arm crippled at Gettysburg, a leg lost almost at the hip at Chickamauga).   Accounts make it clear that Hood was outraged that his subordinates had let the Union army escape a trap at Spring Hill (to the south of Franklin), and this almost certainly dominated his thinking and made an attack seem to be the only option.  It has also been argued that Hood wanted to punish his army for its failure at Spring Hill, but I tend to doubt this interpretation.  He was mad (“as wrathy as a rattlesnake” in the words of one witness) at seeing what he considered to be a Jacksonian stroke come to naught, almost certainly exhausted, and predisposed to aggressiveness.  A deadly combination for the hardy and valiant men under his command.

Franklin illustrates like few battles the incredible deadliness of veteran soldiers by that stage of the war.  Whereas the brutal losses of the Overland and Petersburg campaigns had made Army of the Potomac regiments shadows of their former selves, re-manned with draftees with dubious combat effectiveness (as illustrated by battles like Ream’s Station), western Union regiments had seen extensive combat experience, but still had a strong core of veteran soldiers.

The Army of Tennessee had suffered in battle after battle (Perryville, Stones River, Chickamauga, the battles around Atlanta) but although these losses led to shrunken ranks, those who remained were lethally effective and brave beyond measure.  Veterans that they were, they were certainly under no illusions about their prospects as they stepped off from Winstead Hill for the long trudge to the Union lines at Franklin.  But forlorn hope or no, they attacked with a will.  Awesome is the only word for it.

Unfortunately, the field where these men underwent their agonies is largely unpreserved.  All of the trenches are gone.  The site of the climax of the battle around the Cotton Gin was scarred by a Domino’s Pizza for years.  Fortunately, preservationists have acquired that property, razed the structures, and have created a small park there, including a monument to Cleburne.  The Carter House exists, and preservationists are painstakingly buying property around it in an attempt to create a larger commemorative space.  But most of the Union line to the right and left was covered by pleasant suburban houses years ago.

Carnton Plantation, where the bodies of 4 of the slain generals were laid out after the battle, is still exists.  A Confederate cemetery is located on the grounds–one of the largest at any Civil War battlefield.  The fields around Carnton, where the Confederate right stepped off, are undeveloped, but the target of their assault is suburbia.

Although you can’t experience Franklin in the same way as you can Antietam, or Chickamauga, or Shiloh, or Gettysburg, perhaps that’s for the best.  Bucolic scenes with granite monuments cannot possibly convey the experience of those men who were sacrificed without prospect or purpose 154 years ago today.

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