Streetwise Professor

November 28, 2023

Tales of Two Wars

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia,Ukraine — cpirrong @ 2:12 pm

The war in Ukraine grinds on with no appreciable movement on either side–except in the body counts.

The conflict is often compared to World War I, but this is in some respects unfair to World War I. Territorial gains on both sides are measured in meters–when there is any progress at all. Even catastrophic assaults like the Second and Third Battles of Artois in 1915 saw the French advance a few miles.

The most extreme current example is the sustained Russian assault on Avdiivka. Day after day for more than a month the Russians have mounted attacks on the three fronts of the Ukrainian salient enclosing the town. And day after day their attacks are repelled with massive losses. Many times the assaulting troops do not even make it to the contact line, being smashed by Ukrainian artillery and drones as they move to contact.

At most the Russians take a field or two here, a tree line there.

The Ukrainian experience to the south, around Verbotene, is much the same. The Ukrainians made some decent (albeit slow) progress there during the summer, creating a modest bulge in the Russian positions, and here and there breaching Russian minefields and fortifications. But for months the two sides have fought to a standstill, exchanging fields and tree lines here and there.

Moreover, in each location the attackers at first attempted armored assaults, only to suffer massive tank losses from mines, artillery, and drones. Consequently, each now mounts small infantry assaults. In Avdiivka, the Russian AFVs drop off their mounted infantry a couple of kilometers from the front. The soldiers slog forward and then throw themselves into frontal assaults.

You can find lots of video of the results on Telegram. It is not pleasant viewing.

And if these infantry assaults succeed breaching enemy lines? Nothing will change. Just as in WWI, infantry cannot exploit a penetration by infantry. The “successful” attackers are worn out and often combat ineffective due to heavy losses. Even if they were capable of moving forward, or reserves could be rushed into the breach (something neither side has proved able to do) the defenders can withdraw and regroup faster than the attackers can advance. Meaning that a “breakthrough” just moves the stalemate a kilometer or two. Absent the ability to exploit with armor–and crucially, without the logistics to support armored exploitation–decisive advances are impossible.

The stasis of the battlefield is in large part due to the inability of either side to achieve air superiority. In Ukraine, air superiority does not refer to manned fixed wing aircraft or helicopters, but drones. Both sides are able to operate drones for both reconnaissance and attack with relative impunity. This is a major reason (mines being another) for the impotence of armored forces.

The only front holding out the prospect for maneuver is in the south, on the left bank of the Dnieper/Dnipro River near Kherson. Unlike on the remainder of the front, here Russia did not create deep lines of entrenchments, and its forces are spread relatively thin. But an advance here would require Ukraine to send large amounts of supplies over a wide river, and it is doubtful that it is capable of doing this. (Its logistic capabilities to support a deep drive are suspect generally, even without the necessity of bridging a wide river, and defending the bridges.)

The Ukrainian government and its Western supporters claim that if it only had more weapons, it could drive out the Russians. Given the trivial incremental effect of the offensive weapons already supplied, this is to be seriously doubted.

The real constraint on Ukraine now is manpower, not equipment. It started at a severe manpower disadvantage, exacerbated by the emigration of many military aged men, evasion of conscription, and lukewarm volunteering. In contrast, Russia has proved able to replace its ravaged ranks by hook and crook, even without resorting to a formal nationwide mobilization. Even at an inflated exchange ratio, this meat swap is a contest that Ukraine cannot win.

That said, there is no real prospect for peace because Zelensky and many others in Ukraine are still wedded to the idea of driving Russia out of Ukraine altogether, and Putin is perfectly willing to pay the exchange rate for as long as it takes to out wait Ukraine.

Israel stupidly hit pause in the other war, in Gaza, apparently bowing to U.S. pressure. The pressure was stupid, and bowing to it was too. Israel was making steady progress at extirpating Hamas and digging up–literally–its military infrastructure.

The deal it made with Hamas takes off the pressure on the terrorist organization. Moreover, the terms of the deal, in which Israel releases more prisoners than Hamas does hostages only encourages future hostage taking. This is utterly insane.

The fecklessness of Biden and his administration exceeds even what I had expected–which is saying something. The only American hostage released so far is . . . wait for it . . . a relative of one of the connoisseurs of Hunter’s art. I mean you cannot make this shit up. And it demonstrates that the administration calculates that it will pay no political price.

The proper response to the taking of American hostages should have been reboot of “Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead.” The Hamas “leadership” livin’ large in Qatar (apparently on large stacks totaling billions) should have been told: all our hostages alive, or you dead.

But noooooo. Indeed, that’s not even the worst example of his cravenness. Yesterday, he abjectly apologized to five (unnamed) Muslim heavyweights for questioning whether Gazan “authorities'” (AKA Hamas stooges’) casualty figures are accurate.

Joe is disappointed in himself. Aren’t we all. Aren’t we all.

He “promises to do better.” Even though the bar is very low indeed, I’m taking the under on that one. It’s always the sure bet with Biden.

War is always grim. These wars are even grimmer than most. They will be long running attractions, with no constructive results.

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November 19, 2023

A Dozen More Observations on Israel-Hamas

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 5:42 pm

About 3 weeks have passed since my previous post making 18 observations on Israel v. Hamas. Events in those 3 weeks prompt some additional observations.

  1. Israel appears to be filtering out the near universal screeching, preaching, and second guessing regarding its methodical campaign in Gaza, where assault by fire has been succeeded by a ground assault. It recognizes that a cease fire or “pause” would rescue Hamas from destruction, and likely in the long run result in more Gazan (and Israeli) deaths than will result from a campaign that extirpates the terrorist organization that rules Gaza. That is, it has determined not to play Sisyphus again.
  2. It is likely that Israel recognizes that the screeching, preaching, and second guessing is almost totally ineffectual posturing by pusillanimous western politicians and Hamas fellow travelers, and that the costs of bending to this criticism far exceed any benefits that would result from doing so. Doing so would spare Israel’s enemies, and not make it any friends. So the dogs are barking loudly, but the Israeli caravan is moving along inexorably.
  3. Indeed, those who could pose the greatest threat to Israel–namely Arab states, especially the Gulf states–are making only perfunctory criticisms at most–when they are not outright criticizing Hamas strongly as the UAE did today. It is telling that Saudi Arabia does not permit pro-Palestinian (i.e., pro-Hamas) protests while the streets of Paris, London, and Washington are awash with them. One can only imagine what the Saudis, etc., are telling Israel in private.
  4. Meaning that the pro-Palestinian ferment is a far bigger threat to western governments than to Israel. Which helps explain the bleating of those like Macron.
  5. The Biden administration is like a deer in the headlights. Its initial unambiguous pro-Israel stance unleashed a firestorm on the Democratic Party’s left that jeopardizes Biden’s already extremely shaky political situation. This firestorm has led to–well,what better way to put it?–insurrectionary actions (at least as those have been defined for the last 35 months). These include a boisterous protest inside the Our Lady of Our Democracy, AKA the Capitol, an attempt to storm the White House, and an attack on a reception at Democratic Party headquarters in DC. This is a no-win situation for Biden and the Democrats. Breaks me all up.
  6. There is opposition to the administration’s largely pro-Israel stance from within the State Department. I’m shocked! Shocked! Well, not really. The State Department has been anti-Israel since 1948. Truman recognized Israel only over the determined resistance of the “striped pants boys” in the State Department. La plus ca change.
  7. Reactions in the West generally, and the U.S. in particular are quite clarifying. In particular, the Left’s embrace of Hamas–largely dishonestly camouflaged as concern for oppressed Palestinians–is quintessential the-enemy-of-my-enemy “logic” that demonstrates the profound anti-western animus of the left. The Palestinian cause has been a major element in the anti-Western alliance since the 1960s. The USSR was a major supporter of Palestinian “resistance,” and now Islamist Iran–a rabid revisionist anti-Western nation–is the major supporter of violent Palestinian forces. Political Islam is also profoundly anti-Western. The Western left is also rabidly anti-West–and terms like “colonialism” are barely concealed anti-western code. A common enemy unites Western leftists and Islamist terrorists, and explains the enthusiasm of the former for the latter. They don’t love the Palestinians. They both hate you.
  8. The most bizarre manifestation of this nutty nexus is “Queers for Palestine” and the like. If the self-described queers actually went to Gaza, the only question among the Palestinians would be whether to hang them from cranes, throw them off rooftops, or crush them under large rocks. But since the self-described queers have no intention of setting a single painted toenail in Gaza, they can embrace Hamas from the safety of leftist enclaves like Cambridge and Amherst as a means of undermining traditional Western societies, ethics, and morality.
  9. The events since 7 October 2023 have demonstrated beyond any doubt the utter depravity of western–especially American–universities. Certainly the humanities and most of the social sciences, and clearly the administrations (administrators being a dominant force in the modern university), but also a non-trivial portion of the STEM faculties. And the more “elite” the university, the more profound the depravity. There really was not much doubt about the state of universities prior to 7 October, but whatever doubt that remained has been pulverized. I know how we got here, but I don’t see any way back. The institutional dominance of anti-western forces in the quintessential product of Western Enlightenment is too entrenched to be overthrown.
  10. These events have also made plain the depravity of public education in the United States. The vacuity of Zoomers, and their embrace of pathological pro-Palestinian propaganda like Osama bin Laden’s post-911 letter, show that the left’s march through the institution of public education has triumphed. And again, I don’t see any way back, especially given the vice grip of the teachers’ unions. Until that is broken, public education will become even more broken.
  11. Hezbollah doesn’t appear to be in any hurry to commit suicide by throwing in with Hamas. Its histrionics and support of groups that pull Uncle Sam’s beard in Syria and Iraq aside, the same is true of Iran. Which makes it all the more inexplicable that the Biden administration continues to shower billions on it. All that will do is convince the mullahs that they can go further without triggering a response that hits them where it hurts.
  12. Insofar as the Israeli campaign itself is considered, it is proceeding relentlessly and methodically. It has surrounded northern Gaza, then proceed to cut that half almost in half (from east to west). The Israeli inkblot will continue to expand until Hamas is eliminated in all of northern Gaza. There are very few reports of pitched battles, suggesting that Hamas realizes it is overmatched and that Israel’s overwhelming force and obviously long-standing operational plan make all but scattered resistance futile. The urban warfare nightmare widely predicted for Israel has not materialized. Casualties have been light, as compared to expectations and previous experiences in urban battle (e.g., Fallujah). Total Israeli casualties so far amount to the toll of a few hours of Russian assaults on Avdiivka, Ukraine. But that is a subject for another day.
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October 27, 2023

18 Observations on Israel-Hamas

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 2:13 pm
  1. Israel has played the role of Sisyphus in Gaza for virtually the entire nearly 2 decades since it left Gaza. The horrific Hamas attacks of 7 October reveal the futility of that “strategy,” and persisting in it will only guarantee a repeat–or worse. Although success is not guaranteed, at least at a price acceptable to Israel, it should now endeavor to push the rock down the other side of the mountain and extirpate Hamas.
  2. Israel seemed determined to do that in the immediate aftermath of the horrific attacks, but has delayed, apparently due to pressure primarily from the US but also Europe. The claim is that the US needs a delay in order to rush anti-air and anti-missile defenses to protect its troops and facilities in the Middle East. Perhaps, but the mixed messages coming out of Washington suggest that there are elements within the administration who are opposed to Israel eliminating Hamas.
  3. The US’s and Europe’s interests are not aligned with Israel’s. The “leaders” of other nations do not face the threat from Hamas that Israel does, and would much prefer to kick the can down the road and make the reckoning the problem of future governments. Furthermore, Europe in particular is infested with Arab and Muslim populations who are violently anti-Israel. Feckless Europeans are deathly afraid of mass uprisings among these populations in the event of an overwhelming Israeli invasion of Gaza.
  4. The 7 October attack obviously represents a colossal intelligence failure by Israel and the United States. Virtually all such intelligence failures reflect not the failure to obtain the necessary information, but instead the failure to interpret the information properly. Such failures are almost always attributable to the dominance of preconceived beliefs that are inconsistent with the information. That is, to an overweighting of prior beliefs and a failure to update them upon receipt of contrary information. In the presence of such beliefs, the information produces, at most, cognitive dissonance that leads to its being dismissed.
  5. That appears to be the case for 7 October. Israel had been engaging with Hamas for months, and had become convinced that Hamas had become focused on economic development in Gaza, and hence that it would not jeopardize greater access of its population to Israeli labor markets and the like.
  6. There is no doubt in my mind that Hamas deliberately cultivated such beliefs precisely in order to lull Israel into a false sense of security. This is a staple of Muslim, Koranic war fighting doctrine. Israel and the United States–again–mirror imaged by thinking Hamas was motivated by the kinds of economic considerations that guide policy in their countries, and by ignoring Hamas’s adamant Muslim beliefs and tactics.
  7. Post-7 October and during the period of threatened a massive Israeli move into Gaza there has been a virtually unanimous outcry for a renewed pursuit of the “Two State Solution.” The Two State Solution is a zombie idea advanced by zombie politicians. It will never live but it won’t die.
  8. Those who matter in the Palestinian polity–the hardest men with the guns–have no interest whatsoever in the 2SS. None. Zero. Zip. Nada. They are interested only in a One State Solution, with the extermination of Israel and the creation of a Palestinian state “from the river [Jordan] to the sea.” And these maximalist goals are supported by a large majority of Palestinians. The refusal of Western politicians to listen to Palestinians’ openly stated goals is precisely why these poltiicans are utterly useless, and why this conflict persists. Denial ain’t a river in Egypt, and it is a disastrous basis for policy.
  9. To the extent that various Palestinian interests do play along with a 2SS they are just reenacting Mohammed’s hudna with the Quraish–and at times have said that openly (e.g., Arafat). A means to buy time and gather strength for an ultimate resumption of a war of extermination.
  10. All of the above implies that all of the conventional wisdom and shibboleths that have dominated Western discourse and policy for the past 50 plus years should be eliminated, with extreme prejudice. But the scales still obviously remain over Western eyes–and many Israeli eyes too. Politicians are loath to admit failure or to admit that they were wrong. They are loath to jettison the comforting belief that this is a conflict that can be resolved through some Westphalian negotiation between non-ideological sovereigns, rather than an intractable ideological struggle between implacable foes with utterly incompatible objectives. So the zombies carry on with their zombie policies, meaning that the horrors will carry on as well.
  11. One wonders what Hamas intended to accomplish on 7 October. Perhaps an orgy of murder and rape was a sufficient end in itself for Hamas, because beyond that it accomplished nothing for Hamas and indeed may have put it in an existential crisis by greatly increasing the likelihood that Israel would respond by attempting to eliminate Hamas.
  12. But there is no reason to believe that Hamas is primarily an independent actor. Looking at cui bono, the most likely beneficiary is Iran. These events occurred precisely when Israel and Gulf Arab states were on the verge of mutual recognition that would have created an anti-Iran axis. That rapprochement is now in shambles. Thus, one explanation for the Hamas attack, and its timing, is that it was intended to prevent this development.
  13. If so, it has succeeded admirably–at least on the surface. If the Saudis et al do indeed back away from the normalization of relations with Israel, they will be handing Iran a victory. One can only hope that their public statements are a blind, and that in private they are actually continuing to move forward with Israel.
  14. Iran is the center of gravity in this conflict. Financially and militarily it is the driving force behind the anti-Israel axis (which includes Hezbollah as well as Hamas and Islamic Jihad). Heretofore, Iran has been largely immune from direct attack because it can act powerfully through its proxies. A crucial question is whether Iran will remain merely the puppet master and paymaster if Israel succeeds in destroying Hamas. Its calculation will depend on its perception of the consequences of direct intervention (by, for example, launching missile strikes on Tel Aviv).
  15. Minimizing this threat requires putting at risk things vital to the Iranian regime. The two most precious things are their own hides, and their nuclear program.
  16. Russia has come out foursquare behind Hamas and against Israel. (A Hamas delegation is in Moscow as I write this). This despite the fact that Putin has had good relations with Israel historically. But the reason is readily understood–again, it is Iran. Iran is a major supplier of weapons (especially drones) to Russia in its war against Ukraine.
  17. One would think that since everything and everyone remotely pro-Russian is an anathema in present day DC, the Russian-Iranian alliance would make Iran an anathema. Yet the US has been notably circumspect in its condemnation of Iran despite its obvious central role in fomenting anti-Israel violence. The administration has bent over backwards to say it has no evidence of “direct” Iranian involvement in the Hamas atrocities–although what short of Iranian missiles impacting Tel Aviv would constitute “direct” involvement remains unstated. In his statements Biden has avoided even saying the word “Iran.”
  18. This is another baleful legacy of Obama’s obsession with treating with Iran and normalizing the Islamic republic. Taking his statements at face value (not that you should), Obama believed he was (and is, via his marionette successor) contributing to stability in the Middle East that would allow the US to pivot to Asia. How’s that working out, genius? Empowering Iran (via monetary payments, reintegrating them into the world oil market, restraining Israeli actions against it, etc.) has instead led to a situation in which substantial American military resources are being sucked back into the region. But the pro-Iran elements in the administration (and the State Department) still seem to be driving policy–yet another zombie policy implemented by zombie politicians and apparatchiks.
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September 21, 2023

The Rock of Chickamauga, Reconsidered

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military — cpirrong @ 3:07 pm

One hundred sixty years ago, the battered Union Army of the Cumberland gathered at Rossville, Georgia, near Chattanooga, Tennessee, in the aftermath of its catastrophic defeat at the Battle of Chickamauga, 18-20 September, 1863. Fortunately, logistical difficulties and the inevitable disorganization following a battle in which the victors had suffered 30 percent casualties prevented the Confederate Army of Tennessee from pressing their advantage. Consequently, the Army of the Cumberland was able to shake itself into a semblance of order at Rossville, and retreat into the defenses of Chattanooga on the 22nd.

Chickamauga was the second bloodiest battle in the Civil War, with casualties in excess of 34,000 out of roughly 125,000 men engaged. It was by far the most decisive Confederate victory west of the Appalachians, yet it was barren of strategic results. The Army of the Cumberland survived to fight another day. Besieged in its works, it neared starvation but the Lincoln administration rushed reinforcements from the Army of the Tennessee in the Mississippi River valley (under Grant and Sherman) and from the Eastern Theater (under Joseph Hooker). These forces opened a supply line, and eventually in late-November launched assaults that drove the Confederates in precipitate flight into northern Georgia.

(My grandfather’s great aunt Amanda Roberts remembered seeing trainloads of Union soldiers trundling through southeastern Ohio on their way to Chattanooga. It was an eventful summer for her. Earlier, she and her family had fled to the woods with their animals to escape John Hunt Morgan’s raiders.)

Rather than fighting the Yankees, after Chickamauga the Confederate generals fought one another. Or more accurately, Longstreet, Buckner, D. H. Hill and others fought army commander Braxton Bragg. Chickamauga was a bitter victory.

The battle was a meeting engagement fought in deep forests, which resulted in confused and confusing actions. On the first full day of action, neither side knew quite where the other was, and plunging into the woods time and again they came unexpectedly upon their adversaries, to their mutual surprise. For much of the second day, the battle took place along a relatively static line to which the Union army had withdrawn on the night of the 19th.

The actions included the attack of Cleburne’s division:

These troops are firing at my great-great grandfather, George Immel of the 92nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, located a few hundred yards in their front. They missed! (Luckily for me. Perhaps due to the rude log breastworks that the Union troops had erected in the night. They also missed at Missionary Ridge, the entire Atlanta Campaign, the March to the Sea, and the Carolinas campaign. George returned home to sire eight children.)

Few commanders came out of the battle with burnished reputations: many saw their reputations destroyed. Union army commander William S. Rosecrans was relieved by Grant when the latter arrived in Chattanooga a few weeks after the battle. As noted before, Bragg’s management of the battle and the barren results resulted in widespread criticism throughout the South.

Only James Longstreet and George Thomas emerged from the battle looking good–and Longstreet soon undermined that by his squabbling with Bragg, his failure to prevent the Union from opening a supply line through Lookout Valley, and the disaster of his Knoxville Campaign. Thomas went down in history as the Rock of Chickamauga for his stalwart defense of Horseshoe Ridge/Snodgrass Hill on the 20th. His defense saved the Union army from utter destruction.

It must be said that the Union defense was only made possible by the decisions of small bodies of men to rally on Horseshoe Ridge, and later Reserve Corps commander General Gordon Granger’s decision to march to the sound of the guns without orders.

Thomas’ defense overshadows some dubious decisions.

Although by reputation a cautious and deliberate general (his knickname was “Old Slow Trot”), on the 19th Thomas ordered two divisions to attack into the woods on the basis of sketchy information. One of these decisions (Baird’s) was routed, and the other (Brannan’s) was roughly handled. Rosecrans’ army was in a false position, in danger of being cut off from its base at Chattanooga: Thomas should have established a solid line to protect the army’s line of communication (the Lafayette Road) and performed reconnaissance to find out where the Confederates were rather than plunging into the unknown.

On the night of the 19th-20th, and through the morning of the 20th, Thomas constantly importuned Rosecrans to reinforce the left (which Thomas held). (He sent something like 20 couriers to Rosecrans asking for the latter to send Negley’s division to the left.)

Now, it was the case that the left had to be held to prevent Bragg from interposing his army between Rosecrans and Chattanooga. That said, Thomas had easily repelled the attacks on his direct front (due in large part to those rudimentary log works), and those Confederates (of Breckinridge’s division) who did circle around Thomas’ left were defeated in detail. Moreover, Thomas had a reserve line in Kelly Field that could have been used to extend his flank beyond the Lafayette Road.

Moreover, Thomas was myopically focused on is own situation, and ignored the truly parlous situation of the Union right, which had been hammered the day before. The far right was held by Davis’ small division, that had been handled roughly in Viniard Field. Next to Davis was Wood’s division: Buell’s brigade of that division had also been hammered there.

Thomas’ constant call for reinforcements led the mercurial Rosecrans–whose judgment was probably clouded by an extreme lack of sleep–to make hurried adjustments to his line, pulling out some units to send them to Thomas and shuffling in other troops to fill the gaps thus opened up. This led to considerable confusion, not least in Rosecrans’ understanding of his dispositions. When he received a report of a gap between Woods’ and Reynolds’ divisions (the 92nd Ohio being in Reynolds’ outfit)–a gap that did not exist, but was in fact held by Brannan’s division–Rosecrans order Wood to pull out and “support” Reynolds. This opened a gap into which tragically or fortuitously, depending on your rooting interest, Longstreet’s powerful attack of four divisions poured. The entire Union right was routed, and the detritus of the smashed units–and one relatively intact one, Harker’s brigade of Wood’s division–formed the forces on Horseshoe Ridge.

Rosecrans probably deferred to Thomas due to fatigue, and the evident psychological dominance of the latter over the former. Regardless of the cause of Rosecrans’ deference, the confusion and shifting of troops caused by Thomas’ insistence on being reinforced set the stage for disaster.

Rosecrans is of course ultimately to blame because it was his responsibility to consider the position of the entire army. But Thomas pushed a psychologically fragile commander into bad decisions.

One pet peeve. I noted earlier that Thomas’ final defense occurred on what is known as “Snodgrass Hill,” a bald spur of the wooded Horseshoe Ridge. The monuments for Harker’s brigade are all located there, and it is undisputed that the repeated volleys of Harker’s brigade (the soldiers expending 100 rounds per man) were essential to Thomas’ defense.

But whom were they shooting at? The only Confederate unit in the area, Humphrey’s brigade from the Army of Northern Virginia that Longstreet brought to Georgia, suffered few casualties, and did not report making any attacks, let alone the numerous attacks directed at Harker. It was hundreds of yards south of Snodgrass Hill, and the accounts of the attacks on Harker’s line all indicate that the Confederates made it within a few yards of it.

Years after the battle, Archibald Gracie, the son of the commander of the Confederate brigade that finally breached the Horseshoe Ridge line (also named Archibald) wrote The Truth About Chickamauga, a sometimes polemical revisionist account which disputes the placement of the monuments, and the official War Department (later Park Service) account. Gracie’s book was based on a meticulous study of the Official Records and extensive correspondence with veterans of the combat there. I have always found Gracie’s case to be persuasive, but every modern account repeats the official version. The otherwise excellent Maps of Chickamauga, for example, has Harker’s brigade firing those tens of thousands of rounds at Humphrey’s distant (and stationary) troops.

Gracie more plausibly placed Harker’s brigade on what is referred to as “Hill One” of Horseshoe Ridge. That makes much more sense for many reasons.

Gracie is an interesting character. He survived the sinking of the Titanic, and wrote a book about it, though he died from the effects of the ordeal before it was published. Gracie Mansion in New York is named for one of his forebears (also Archibald). His father was killed at Petersburg.

Postscript: I edited this post to change the references to “Opdyke’s brigade” to “Harker’s brigade.” Opdyke commanded the 125th Ohio in Harker’s brigade.

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September 16, 2023

I Dread the Thought of the Place: A New Standard in Civil War Battle History

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military — cpirrong @ 6:49 pm

Tomorrow (Sunday, 17 September 2023) is the 161st anniversary of the Battle of Antietam (or Sharpsburg to those daring enough to admit Confederate leanings). I have spent the days leading up to the anniversary reading D. Scott Hartwig’s massive account of the battle and its aftermath, I Dread the Thought of the Place. It is almost certain to be the definitive account of the battle for years to come.

Antietam is a battle with many moving parts, many of them moving simultaneously. Hartwig does a masterful job of describing each part down to the regimental and sometimes company level, and crucially, helping the reader understand what was going on elsewhere in the battle when X was happening at location Y.

Antietam was the bloodiest single day in American history. Perhaps the most impactful part of the book is how it gives some sense of how much carnage occurred in short periods of time in small spaces. Many paragraphs in the book describe the killing or wounding of several individual soldiers–often by name–in a single company or regiment in a period of a few minutes. The serial slaughter of color guards is particularly notable in this regard. Although of course nothing can possibly convey the shock of such violence experienced by the participants, the book individualizes the combat and its human consequences in a way that allows us to glimpse, at least distantly, how intense and concentrated the violence was.

One thing that the book makes abundantly clear is the often decisive role played by artillery in the battle. Stephen D. Lee, a Confederate artillery battalion commander at the battle, called Antietam “artillery hell.” It was for Lee, given the pounding that his batteries took on the Dunker Church Plateau. But it was an artillery hell especially for infantry on both sides who were pounded by guns that had unobstructed fields of fire seldom found on Civil War battlefields. Hartwig shows that artillery played a more decisive role at Antietam than at any other battle of the Civil War, including Gettysburg. Before reading the book, I did not appreciate role of Confederate artillery in stymying Burnside’s assault on the Lower Bridge.

The book is also remarkable in its integration of the entire vertical of the battle, from the commanding generals down through each echelon to the lowest private. It describes the actions of each, and is judicious in its judgments on the command decisions at every level of command, from the captains of companies; to the field officers of regiments, to the brigade, division and corps (or wing) commanders; and finally to army commanders McClellan and Lee. These judgments are well reasoned, and often surprising: I can’t say that I’ve ever seen anyone write favorably of Samuel Sturgis, as Hartwig does! Some come in for praise–such as Hooker. Others, not so much. The acerbic D. H. Hill would certainly take issue with Hartwig’s critical assessment of his generalship. The book’s treatment of Edwin Sumner is particularly brutal, but completely warranted given the brutality that Sumner’s soldiers experienced as the result of his blundering.

Hartwig does not shy from criticizing icons, notably Stonewall Jackson. And he comes to the defense of the often-maligned, most notably Ambrose Burnside, whose generalship at the Lower Bridge (sarcastically called Burnside’s Bridge by posterity) Hartwig treats with understanding of the challenges posed by terrain, bad staff work (notably by the Army of the Potomac’s Topographical Engineers), and equivocal orders issued by AoP commander McClellan. Hartwig makes it painfully clear that McClellan did Burnside dirty in his final report on the campaign, unjustly and counterfactually putting blame on Burnside (who by that time was discredited by the disaster at Fredericksburg) in order to distract from his own failings.

The book could have used some more careful editing. There are numerous who/whom mixups. At times left and right flanks are also mixed up, which led me to have to re-read a few descriptions, map in hand. I caught at least one curious name mistake. Union brigade commander Colonel William Howard Irwin suddenly became Colonel Irvin, and remained so for the rest of the book. Although perhaps the shade of Colonel Irwin is grateful, as his rather appalling–and perhaps drunken–incompetence (that led to the butchering of the 7th Maine) can be laid at someone else’s gravestone.

I therefore heartily recommend I Dread the Thought of the Place. But be warned!: it weighs in at a massive 790 pages (and 4.25 pounds). It is not for the faint of heart or anyone looking for an introduction to the battle.

Reading the book brought home how Civil War scholarship has developed and improved in the 50 plus years that I have been devouring books on the subject. When I first went to Antietam on my own, in 1978, the standard work was James V. Murfin’s A Gleam of Bayonets, published in 1968. It was a good, say, 20,000 foot view of the battle. Stephen Sears’ 1994 A Landscape Turned Red was more detailed, giving a say 10,000 foot view of the engagement. In subsequent years, microhistories focusing on specific parts of the battle have appeared: these give you a drone’s eye view of particular actions.

Examples include David Welker’s The Cornfield and two volumes by Marion V. Armstrong on the disastrous attack of Sedgwick’s Division–one focusing on the Union side of the action, the other on the Confederate side. John Micheal Priest’s Antietam: A Soldier’s Battle focuses (as the title suggests) on the action from the perspective of those with muskets in their hands. The Brigades of Antietam and The Artillery of Antietam describe the actions of each brigade and battery in some detail. Ezra Carman’s early detailed history has been republished, including as Visual Antietam (in 3 volumes, edited by Brad Butkovich). Then there are tour guides, like Carol Reardon’s and Tom Vossler’s A Field Guide to Antietam or Ted Ballard’s Staff Ride Guide: Battle of Antietam. Moreover, there are two excellent compendiums of maps, Bradley Gottfried’s The Maps of Antietam and Brad Butkovich’s The Antietam Battlefield Atlas. (Although the maps in I Dread the Thought of the Place are good, I strongly recommend reading it with either Gottfried or Butkovich in hand.)

Thus, there is an abundance of choices to those who want to take a deep dive into Antietam. But D. Scott Hartwig’s book is pretty much one stop shopping. It tells the fascinating story of America’s bloodiest single day of battle in incredible detail. It represents a new standard in battle history.

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September 11, 2023

So, You Really Want Elon Musk Unilaterally Making US War Policy?

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia,Ukraine — cpirrong @ 12:38 pm

Elon Musk is taking a lot of heat from the Ukraine Amen Corner over his decision not to extend Starlink internet service to cover Crimea–Sevastopol in particular–because of fears that Ukraine would launch an attack on the Russian fleet based there, and this would spur a massive retaliation by Russia. Musk has claimed in particular that he feared the possibility of a nuclear retaliation.

There are conflicting stories. The one is that SpaceX turned off Starlink coverage to Crimea precisely when Ukrainian submersible drones were inbound. Denied navigational assistance and control provided by the satellites, the drones went stupid and the attack failed. The other–which Musk laid out himself on X–is that Starlink did not cover Crimea, the Ukrainians asked him to activate its coverage there, and he declined.

The second story is more plausible than the first. How would Musk know that an attack was on its way? And there has been no evidence of any such attack: in more recent drone strikes, the Russians have provided images of beached drones and video of drones being sunk by Russian gunfire.

The umbrage from the usual quarters–illustrated by the rant from Jake Tapper–is over the top, as is the response by Ukrainian official Mykhailo Podolyak: “By not allowing Ukrainian drones to destroy part of the Russian military (!) fleet via #Starlink interference, @elonmusk allowed this fleet to fire Kalibr missiles at Ukrainian cities.”

For one thing, this assumes that the drone strike would have inflicted devastating damage on the fleet. Subsequent strikes (guided how?) have inflicted some damage, but have hardly posed a major threat to the striking power of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.

For another, since when is an American company obligated to make its resources available to a foreign country to commit an act of war against a nation with which the US is not at war, and which has the world’s largest force of nukes to boot? Indeed, do we want CEOs making those kind of choices, given that especially when dealing with someone like Putin the target would immediately attribute responsibility to the United States? Such would be a major national security policy decision and should be made by those Constitutionally responsible–although given the current government, they may not be constitutionally fitted. But even given the dubious judgment of the current administration, it is they who should be making such decisions, not corporate CEOs.

If anything, it should go the other way. Companies should be prohibited from making such clearly belligerent moves on their own hook.

Indeed, note that US law requires approval of arms sales by US companies:

The FMS sales process begins when a country submits a formal Letter of Request (LOR). Ideally, this includes both a desired military capability, and a rough estimate of what the partner is able to spend.  Sales are approved following U.S. government review and, when required, after Congressional notification. After the sale is approved, the DSCA issues a Letter of Offer and Acceptance (LOA) specifying the defense articles, training, and support being offered for delivery.  Major FMS sales formally notified to Congress are publicly announced on the DSCA website

Providing an asset complementary to things that blow up–and which are indeed necessary for the use of the things that blow up even if they don’t blow up themselves, as Starlink supposedly was in this instance–should be subject to the same strict scrutiny and approval.

And again ironies and idiocies abound here. Those who consistently condemn Putin as evil and perhaps irrational dismiss Musk’s concerns about nuclear retaliation. Those who routinely attack Musk’s actions–and his management of Twitter in particular–want to delegate war making decisions to him.

Elon making decisions about waging war on Putin. Yeah, nothing unpredictable or frightening about that, right?

It should also be noted that the United States has been extremely circumspect about supplying weapons that Ukraine could use to strike at Russian territory, and at Crimea. The hemming-and-hawing about F-16s is one example, as is the continued reluctance to supply long-range ATACMS missiles. Even approval of main battle tanks–which pose little threat to Russian territory proper–occurred only after much debate and indecision. And for years–even following Russia’s invasion of Donetsk in 2014–the US was incredibly stingy about providing even clearly defensive weapons (like ATGMs) to Ukraine.

Meaning that those who attack Musk for not facilitating Ukrainian offensive capability into Russian- and Russian-claimed territory should really direct their fire at the administration. It’s their call, not Musk’s, and they have been just as cautious–if not more–than Elon.

The utter ingratitude of Ukraine to Musk is truly astounding. He kept Starlink operational over Ukraine for months on his own tab, and it was vital to its military operations. Yet since he doesn’t cater to their every whim–even potentially very ill-considered ones that implicate the United States–they demonize him incessantly. I believe that if Musk was not so dependent on the US government generally, and the security state in particular (especially insofar as SpaceX is concerned) he would tell them to GFY.

I have been very critical of Musk on some things, more favorably disposed on others. Here is a case where he is clearly in the right.

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August 27, 2023

Prigozhin F’d Up: He Trusted Putin.

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 6:26 pm

Last week Russian warlord/PMC impresario Yevgeny Prizoghin met his demise, as his plane plummeted from the skies near Tver, killing him and several other high ranking Wagner personnel.

Two theories of the cause of the takedown of his aircraft (it is not a crash, per se) are in play: (1) his Embraer corporate jet was taken down by SAMs, or (2) a bomb was planted on the plane and detonated in flight.

The second theory has been pushed by Russian sources, which is reason enough to discard it. When the theory was first advanced, skeptics pointed out that the plane fell with the fuselage intact but minus a wing, whereas a bomb in the passenger or cargo compartments would have seriously damaged the fuselage. The Russian sources then pivoted to say the bomb had been planted in the wheel well, located in the wing, which would explain its loss. Subsequent photos of the detached wing show it to be intact, however,and crucially, the landing gear and tire are pristine and bear no signs of fire or explosion.

Support for the first theory comes from (1) the observation of smoke or vapor trails pointing skyward in videos of the plane’s descent, and (2) photographs of plane pieces with many small holes, characteristic of the shrapnel jettisoned with the explosion of a SAM warhead. (FWIW, there are rumors that the corpses of the victims also contained shrapnel wounds.). It should also be noted that the takedown occurred close to a military base at Tver where SAMs are stationed.

So I’m strongly leaning towards the shoot down theory.

So whodunit, and why? Well, of course the near lock primary suspect is Putin. Prigozhin’s/Wagner’s Kornilov moment exactly two months before Yevgeny et al bit the dust was a threat to Putin, and worse, an insult (despite Progozhin’s protests he wasn’t targeting Putin) led virtually everyone to believe he was a dead man walking. The only question was how? Tea that would break a Geiger Counter? A window? “Suicide”?

Indeed, the most confusing thing about the entire episode is that not only did Prigozhin live so long, he was apparently traveling to, from, and within Russia with impunity. This led some to hypothesize that the entire June “coup” was some sort of scheme drawn up by Putin and Prigozhin, others to conjecture that Putin was too intimidated to move against him.

Or more likely, Putin figured revenge is a dish best served cold. And further, he needed to destroy not one man, but to decapitate Wagner altogether–and Prigozhin and his confederates did not provide the opportunity to do so until they boarded the plane this week.

One can only consider Prigozhin as a fool. He fucked up–he trusted Putin.

He was also a fool because he forgot the old adage–if you strike at the king, you must kill him. By recoiling at the last minute, he sealed his fate.

Now of course we’ll never know if Putin gave an explicit order. Perhaps it was a hint, hint, nudge, nudge will no one rid me of this turbulent boyar kind of thing. But it’s extremely unlikely that this happened without Putin’s approval.

Of course, like Murder on the Orient Express, many had a motive to kill Prigozhin. Most notably the Defense Minister Shoigu and the Armed Forces Commander Gerasimov, both of whom Prigozhin had attacked furiously and whose removal he demanded. But I seriously doubt they have the stones to do something like this on their own hook. Indeed, their sad-sackiness is exactly what drove Prigozhin nuts and which endears them to Putin.

What now? The hardcore nationalist factions in Russia are furious, and Wagner rank-and-file could pose a threat. But they are leaderless, and no doubt the FSB and GRU are sweeping up and eliminating the most dangerous of them. No doubt some hardcore elements will survive, perhaps fleeing to Africa, and attempt to move against Putin a la how French paratrooper veterans of Algeria tried to snuff De Gaulle. But the very public De Gaulle represented a much easier target than the reclusive Putin, and even then the disgruntled French soldiers failed in their attempts.

Presumably the event has also scared straight anybody else thinking of mounting a challenge against Putin. Indeed, the very extravagance of the killing–much more lurid than a mere fall from a high place–puts an exclamation point on the assassination, and sends a very strong message.

But it’s not immaterial that Putin felt it necessary to engage in such extravagance and send such a message. A confident leader, like Caesar in many instances, can show mercy. A shaky or fearful one cannot. And perhaps it was the lesson of Caesar that convinced Putin that longtime colleagues can be extremely dangerous. “Et tu Yevgeny” were not words Putin was going to utter, if he could help it. And he could.

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The Service Academies: Either Toughen Them Back Up or Close Them Down

Filed under: Military — cpirrong @ 5:15 pm

As someone who experienced Plebe Summer and Plebe Year at the Naval Academy, and the close relative of someone who did 18 years earlier when both were much tougher, I can say with confidence that those currently in charge of evaluating it, and the programs of the other service academies, are clueless idiots. Why? Consider this:

“The training environment and overall climate at the academies are undermining their ability to prevent harmful behavior,” Elizabeth Foster, executive director of the Pentagon’s Office of Force Resiliency, said Thursday. “Unless some of these more structural and foundational issues are addressed within the training environment, these problems are going to persist.”

What are the “structural and foundational issues”? This:

Each of the service academies uses some form of a “Fourth Class System” where second- or third-year cadets or midshipmen are the primary trainers for incoming freshmen, sometimes referred to as “new cadets” or plebes. But the Pentagon researchers said the older students don’t have the maturity or experience to act as suitable mentors.

And this:

“The peer leadership structure is actually creating unhealthy power dynamics that lead to hazing that further exacerbates this risk,” said Andra Tharp, senior prevention adviser for the Defense Department’s Office of Force Resiliency.

The active-duty military officers assigned to the individual cadet or midshipmen units were often seen more as disciplinarians than mentors, the Pentagon researchers said.

“They didn’t know when or how to prioritize a cadet or midshipman’s well-being over discipline,” Ms. Tharp said

Talk about people unclear on the concept. The system at the academies has nothing to do with “mentorship.” It is about training officers and leaders. The system is set up for learning-by-doing. When you are a plebe, you are learning to take orders, to observe military discipline, and to structure your life in a military environment that is completely alien to the environment in which you grew up. You are also learning to lead by watching others–and in many cases, learning from their mistakes.

And the “hazing”–which is a shadow now of what it was 46 years ago which was already a shadow of what it had been in my uncle’s day–also has a purpose. Several purposes. It helps identify who really wants to be there. It melts the snowflakes who can’t hack it. It provides a jarring separation from your civilian life–which is essential. It tests and develops your ability to think and act under pressure. It reveals and develops your toughness–especially mental toughness.

When you enter the 3rd class (a “Youngster” at Navy, sophomore in the civilian world) you get very modest leadership responsibilities over some plebes. 2d Class, a little more leadership responsibility. 1st Class, a lot more; and among the 1st Class mids/cadets, there is a hierarchy with ranks, with those holding higher ranks having more leadership responsibility. The 1st Class Mids assigned to Plebe Summer duty have a lot of responsibility and influence.

But it is very much learning by doing. And yes, there are good leaders and bad. There are assholes and sadists. There are also some very good ones. And they get to learn and practice leadership before being thrown into active duty where they will have much greater responsibilities. Some learn from their mistakes and get better. Some don’t.

As an extreme example of bad leaders–and bad humans with rank and responsibility–my bête noire in my 2 years at Navy was a guy named Scott Pickles. Yes–real name. He was always trying to bust my balls. I emphasize “trying” because I was repeatedly able to evade his traps, like the time he thought he had caught me red handed wearing civvies in Annapolis, and I pointed him to the reg saying that those with a leave address inside the 7 mile limit (measured from the Chapel Dome) could wear civvies, and telling him to look at my leave chit–which indicated a leave address at St. John’s College across the street from the Academy (where a high school friend attended and in whose room I crashed).

But he evidently had some complex about me, and a few of my buddies, and was always trying to screw with us. (I have theories why.) He was a failure as a leader, and the system at Navy gave him an opportunity to learn and overcome, but he didn’t.

His failure wasn’t due to the system. It was him. His personality. I always thought he was a werido and indeed a sicko, and years later I thought it was a tragedy that my roommate didn’t carry through on his threat to throw Pickles out our 4th story window when the latter threw a tantrum when inspecting our room. Why a tragedy? Because he killed his wife and 3 kids in their sleep after failing as a lawyer. (His outrageous and disgusting acts are why I do not hesitate calling him out by name.)

So yeah. A sicko. If the system failed, it was for not recognizing that he was a sicko.

And that’s the flaw I see in the system. Once you get past 3rd class year, if you keep up your grades and don’t get demerits, they turn you loose on the fleet (or the Army or AF) even if you’ve proved to be a bad human being with toxic leadership traits. Conditioning commissioning on a realistic appraisal of leadership performance, rather than rubber stamping a Scott Pickles with a 2.5 GPA, would turn the alleged liabilities of the system into an asset. You can’t pass “Wires”–you’re gone. The same should hold for demonstrated unfitness for leadership–which the system gives every opportunity to demonstrate.

That would turn the alleged flaws identified by the Pentagon minders into a real strength.

I would also say that being exposed to bad leaders at an academy is valuable training in itself. You will come across bad leaders as an officer. Knowing how to identify them and deal with them is a skill in itself.

And yes, company officers (the commissioned officers referred to in the last quoted paragraph) are in charge of discipline. You can’t realistically “mentor” 100+ mids/cadets, let alone be their therapist and ensure their “well-being.” And again, in the force, your superiors are not going to be your caretaker either: you have to learn a lot of self-reliance, and it’s far better to do that at an academy than when you have a billet that could require sending people to die. Further, the commissioned officers are not supposed to pre-empt the learning-by-doing leadership system.

The very fact that the Pentagon has an Office of Force Resiliency fretting about plebes getting yelled at tells you a lot about today’s US military.

The ostensible reason for these criticisms of the academies is “a ‘disturbing and unacceptable’ recent rise in reported sexual attacks and sexual harassment at the nation’s leading service academies.” The Pentagon fretters claim that this is due to the nature of the training system.

I will definitely not minimize the severity of sexual assault. But I have to say that this assertion of a causal link is almost wholly unsubstantiated, at least based on this article. Women have been at the academies since 1976-7. If anything, the environment was more “toxic” (by the fretters’ definition) then than now–as I can personally attest. So how could the system cause a “recent rise” in such (reported) incidents? When a background condition remains the same or gets better, it is not plausible to attribute changes in other variables to it.

I therefore think that the fretters have totally misdiagnosed the problem, and hence are recommending a quack cure.

I am also curious about how recent is recent. Like, did it coincide with COVID, when life at the academies was much more restrictive, mids/cadets were in much more constant contact than before, normal stress relieving activities–and fun activities–were almost eliminated, and life in general (for everyone, not just academy students) was highly stressful?

Also, what is the control group here? I recollect that there are also claims of increasing rates of reported sexual assault and harassment at civilian colleges and universities, which could reflect a higher incidence, or a greater willingness to report, or both. Are the academies outliers relative to these? Or is this reflective of broader social trends, unrelated to venerable academy training regimens?

Look. I obviously didn’t find a career as a naval officer attractive–I punched out of the Academy after my 3rd class year, despite the attempt of the Superintendent (a 3 star admiral and Medal of Honor winner, William P. Lawrence) to talk me out of it. I put up with the Mickey Mouse, but I understood the point. I learned from it. The Office of Force Resiliency, not so much.

I actually think the choice is binary. Either retain the existing system (and even revert to the way it was years ago, rather than softening it more than it has been softened already), or closing the academies altogether. I think a strong case can be made for the latter option. That case is all the stronger if the fretters get their way. The system they envisage is basically ROTC with uniforms 24/7, at a vastly higher cost. What’s the point of that?

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July 24, 2023

The wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy, 2023 Edition

Filed under: China,History,Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 11:32 am

There is considerable angst over the glacial pace of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. This angst is a product of unrealistic hopes and expectations derived from totally different circumstances.

The unrealistic expectations derived from the stunning success of the Ukrainians last year, around Kharkiv/Kharkov and Kherson. These successes were rooted in Russian errors. The Russians overextended themselves in their initial offensive in 2022, leaving open flanks and exhausted forces that made them extremely vulnerable to Ukrainian attacks. The Russian situation last summer was in many respects comparable to the Ukrainian situation in 2014, when they overextended themselves in pushing at separatist forces, leaving them open to a devastating attack by Russian forces.

(Both episodes remind me of a maxim my mother uttered during one of our many tours of Civil War battlefields (she was a saint to take me on so many): “Nobody ever won a battle, but some people sure lost one.”)

Circumstances are totally different now. The Russians had ample time to dig in extensively, and in particular, sow extensive minefields. It’s a totally different proposition attacking deep, heavily mined defenses than pouncing on the flanks of demoralized, exhausted troops in the open.

The Ukrainians, Zelensky in particular, have been damning the West vitriolically for failure to provide enough of, well, everything. Sorry, but “enough of everything” would really mean deployment of several American heavy divisions, and most importantly, a good chunk of the USAF. American doctrine for attacking prepared defenses involves an extended period of intense air attack to degrade them, followed by assaults by heavy divisions (i.e., divisions other than the 82nd and 101st, and 10th Mountain), supported by continued air attacks and massive artillery.

Not happening in Ukraine. Never was going to happen. Never will happen.

I am a Patton fan, but this quote from the movie is wildly incorrect:

Fixed fortifications, huh? Monuments to the stupidity of man. When mountain ranges and oceans could be overcome anything built by man can be overcome.

As Patton surely knew, history is replete of examples of the power of fixed fortifications. Ironically this statement was made about the fortifications at Metz, which stymied Patton for months. (And it is amusing that in the same film Patton gives a tour of the fortifications of Malta, and describes how the Knights of Malta used them to stop the Turks.)

Given these realities, the Ukrainians have adapted. They are gnawing through some of the minefields (at non-trivial cost), but are also executing WWI-like trench raids to attrit front line units and deep strikes with drones and Western-supplied weapons (notably HIMARS and StormShadow) to undermine Russian logistics.

This has some chance of succeeding–eventually. Chewing a wide enough gap may permit a breakout, with someplace like Tokmak playing the part of St. Lo. Russian reserves and operational mobility are likely inadequate to contain such a breakout–if it can be engineered. With “engineering” being the operative word, because making the gap that could be exploited is first and foremost a combat engineering task.

But nothing will happen quickly, if it happens at all.

In the meantime, both sides are acting like exhausted fighters in a no-holds brawl, with attacks on civilian and infrastructure targets being the equivalent of eye-gouging and ear-biting. The Russian attacks on Ukrainian grain-exporting capacity are the most prominent example of this.

(NB, especially to people like supposed commodities expert Javier Blas. The first thing that pops into the minds of most when attacks on Ukrainian grain-handling infrastructure is wheat. But Ukraine is a much bigger player in corn than wheat.)

And these attacks carry the risk of dramatically escalating the conflict. Today Russia extended its missile attacks westward from Odesa/Odessa to the banks of the Danube, and executed a strike that landed ~100 meters from Romanian territory. That is, Nato territory.

All this raises the question: what’s the point? And I don’t mean the point for Russia and Ukraine, or more particularly their governments. I mean for the interests of the United States.

A strong case can be made that the US has already achieved–courtesy of tens of thousands of Ukrainian lives and tens of billions of American dollars–about all of the conceivable strategic benefits of this war. Courtesy of Putin’s idiocy, Russian military capacity has been (a) dramatically reduced, and (b) shown to have been not that great in the first place. The threat to Europe posed by Russia (which (b) suggests was not that serious in the first place) has been neutered, at the cost of increasing the US’s vulnerability in a more vital theater–Asia. Good strategic thinking should not focus on making the rubble bounce, but should pocket gains in eastern Europe and focus on Asia.

So rather than acceding to Zelensky’s ever greater demands, the message to him should be: take half a loaf, and make a deal. For the sake of your people.

But that is not the attitude of America’s (and most of Europe’s) ruling class. They are monomaniacally focused not just on restoring pre-2014 borders, but crushing Putin and transforming the Russian state. As illustrated by this:

Vladimir Kara-Murza writes: There is only one outcome of this conflict that would be in the interests of the free world, of Ukraine and, ultimately, of the Russian people: resounding defeat for Putin, to be followed by political change in Russia and a Marshall Plan-type international assistance program both to rebuild Ukraine and to help post-Putin Russia build a functioning democracy so that it never again becomes a threat to its own people or its neighbors. That is the only way to make sure Europe can finally become whole, free and at peace — and stay that way.

Sounds great! How is that going to happen, exactly, Vlad baby? Especially the part about “build[ing] a functioning democracy so that it never again becomes a threat to its own people or its neighbors”?

This reminds me of a statement that I saw from China today, about how government policy makers promised to “optimize and adjust policies” in response to the real estate meltdown. Optimization is not a plan–it is an aspiration. Almost to a person the policy establishments in the US and Europe are hooked on a categorically, metaphysically unachievable aspiration and are willing to spend countless lives and dollars in the futile attempt to achieve it.

These people believe in fairy tales. Murderous fairy tales that cannot possibly come true.

In an ironic twist, a war in Europe (not Asia) is now “The wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy.” (I’m not a big Omar Bradley fan, but he got that one right.) But our policy “elites”–of both parties–are hyper-focused on the wrong war. (Why that is is a story for another, and probably much longer post.)

War and geopolitics require cold-blooded calculations. The cold-blooded calculation for the United States is definitely not to dream of magically transforming a notoriously intractable and autocratic society into Switzerland with nukes. (The possession of nukes in itself making such a transformation wholly fantastical.) It is instead to push for an outcome that satisfies none of the combatants–and indeed infuriates them–and shift focus from eastward to westward. Don’t fight the last war. Prepare for the new one–in order to prevent it.

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June 24, 2023

The Wagner Putsch: Kornilov Redux or Something More Threatening?

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 1:30 pm

The news of the day is that Yevgeny Prigozhin has reversed direction, and instead of attacking Ukraine has occupied Rostov-on-the-Don and Veronehz, and has advanced some distance into the Moscow Oblast in an attempted putsch. As in all things Russian, good information is hard to come by–and the Russian authorities are doing their best to shut down all non-official “information” sources.

Prigozhin launched a broadside against Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the military chief of staff Valery Gerasimov. In a version of the old “the tsar doesn’t know and is being misled by bad boyars” trope, Progozhin claims that this pair of mouth breathers deceived Putin about the need for an invasion of Ukraine and the ease of accomplishing it, and continue to deceive him by downplaying casualty figure. This is a transparent attempt to claim–incredibly–that this action is directed against Putin. Since Putin is the only man who matters, any challenge to the state is a challenge to Putin.

There are reports of combat between Prigozhin’s Wagner forces and the Russian military, with the former claiming to have shot down several military helicopters and at least one SU-34. There are also reports that some Russian military and national guard forces have thrown in with Wagner, or stood aside.

Some analysts claim that Wagner represents a real military threat to Putin. The conventional wisdom is that it does not: on the BBC Mark Galeotti claimed that Wagner has only 10,000 men at his disposal. But information is scarce, everything is in flux, and there is always the prospect that enough military and security force commanders are so disenchanted with the Ukraine fiasco that they will start supporting Wagner, or refuse orders to attack it, or block other units from doing so.

The most recent reports, from less than reliable sources (such as the Belarussian administration), are that Prigozhin has agreed to return to barracks. Which would be suicidal unless he has some sort of ironclad deal.

The fact is that the die is cast. Prigozhin made his choice and he must win or die. Any pause will be a tactical one.

My conjecture is that Prigozhin has known for some time that Shoigu and Gerasimov and the rest of the establishment intend to eliminate him and Wagner with extreme prejudice. The “sign a contract or else” ultimatum was just setting up the legal justifications for such an action.

Given that, Prigozhin was desperate, and had to throw the dice. He had nothing to lose.

The uncertainties in a situation like this make prediction perilous. If I had to guess, I wold say that this will play out something like the pathetic Kornilov Affair in 1917, when the eponymous general marched on the capital (then St. Petersburg) in an attempted coup against the Kerensky government. (Though some claim that Kerensky was part of the plot–and not surprisingly I have seen some claim that Putin is actually in cahoots with Prigozhin.) The coup attempt collapsed within 3 days.

But you never know.

As for Putin, this morning he gave a fiery speech denouncing the putsch and promising that it would be crushed. In so doing, Vova treated us to some of his Fractured Fairy Tale history:

A blow like this was dealt to Russia in 1917, when the country was fighting in World War I. But the victory was stolen from it: intrigues, squabbles and politicking behind the backs of the army and the nation turned into the greatest turmoil, the destruction of the army and the collapse of the state, and the loss of vast territories, ultimately leading to the tragedy of the civil war.

For one thing, Russia was hardly on the verge of victory in 1917. In fact, its army was teetering on the edge of collapse–and at times did collapse. Widespread desertion and mutiny contributed to the crisis that culminated in the abdication of Nicholas II. After something of a recovery following the February Revolution, the collapse of the military resumed after the utter failure of the Kerensky Offensive. And vast territories had already been lost by 1917.

For another thing. Wait, whut? The Putin I know lamented the fall of the USSR as the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century. This Putin–is he an imposter?–is lamenting the revolution that resulted in the creation of the USSR. Just another illustration, I guess, that to Putin history is purely instrumental, meant to be distorted to meet the needs of the political moment.

Although who will win in Russia is in doubt, there is no doubt that the biggest winner here is Ukraine. Chaos at the top will distract the Russian military leadership from managing operations in Ukraine. If the Wagner threat persists Putin will have to divert units from fighting Ukrainians to fight Russians.

Regardless of how this plays out, it is a clear sign that all is not well in Putin’s Russia. In fact, things are quite bad. Some natives are restless–and with good cause. Meaning that Putin is confronted with a war on two fronts, precisely when experience has shown that he is incapable of handling just one.

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