Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Revolting versus revolution

The inimitable Strategypage has an interesting piece on "information warfare." It begins, briefly, with a discussion of the six retired generals who have called for Donald Rumsfeld's retirement over his handling of the Iraq phase of the war.

Let me first say that I'm sure these generals are men of courage. What I don't understand is why that portion of their courage that falls on the political spectrum apparently failed to make an appearance until after their next star was no longer on the line. As my dad points out, they're still "vulnerable," if you'd care to call it that, even in retirement, in that Congress could vote down their pensions, or something like that - but again, if mishandling of Iraq is a matter of conscience, and these men are men of courage and conviction, shouldn't their retirement packages be a secondary concern?

Nonetheless. They've been outtalked not only by the great mass of other retired generals and their active-duty brethren and sistern (as Anything Goes has it), but by the troops themselves, as Strategypage points out:

The mass media ran with the six generals, but got shot down by the troops and their blogs, message board postings and emails. It wasn't just a matter of the "troop media" being more powerful. No, what the troops had going for them was a more convincing reality. Unlike the six generals, many of the Internet troops were in Iraq, or had recently been there. Their opinions were not as eloquent as those of the generals, but they were also more convincing. Added to that was the complaint from many of the troops that, according to the American constitution, it's the civilians (in the person of the Secretary of Defense) that can dismiss soldiers from service, not the other way around.

Emphasis mine, and please note it well. The troops appear to have a better grasp of their place in American society than these few retired generals do - which, given the temperament that goes along with becoming a general, is perhaps not so surprising. A general, like a tenured professor or a CEO, has to have thick skin, unshakeable confidence, and a certain amount of arrogant belief in his or her own superiority, or he (or she) is not general-officer material. However, the framers of the Constitution, aware of this tendency (in spite of their close relationship with General Washington, whose innate arrogance he himself kept in iron check, at least where his civilian bosses were concerned), made it abundantly clear that the civvies were in charge.

All right then. So much for the revolting generals. Strategypage then goes on to the more interesting part - in which we learn that the Internet once again changes everything:

The troops got on line, found each other and have been sharing opinions and experiences, getting to know each other, and doing it all very quickly. The most striking example of this is how it has changed the speed with which new weapons and equipment get into service. Troops have always bought superior commercial equipment, usually from camping and hunting suppliers. And a lot more of that gear has been available in the last decade. Because the word now gets around so quickly via the net, useful new gear is quickly purchased by thousands of troops. After September 11, 2001, with a war on, having the best gear was seen by more troops as a matter of life and death. This quickly got back to politicians, journalists and the military bureaucrats responsible for buying gear for the troops. The quality of the "official issue" gear skyrocketed like never before because of the Internet pressure.

And more than just gear: Strategypage notes that milbloggers, early on, began to share "tactics and techniques" openly on their (publicly viewable) blogs. The DoD necessarily called a halt to this too-open information sharing - but in contrast to an earlier day, in which the DoD might have tried to hold back the tide and forbid the guys from trying to pass on what may have saved their lives in their last engagement:

The military got into the act by establishing official message boards, for military personnel only, where useful information could be discussed and exchanged. All this rapid information sharing has had an enormous impact on the effectiveness of the troops, something that has largely gone unnoticed by the mass media.

The brass have not tried to discourage all this communication, because the officers use it as well, for the same reasons as the troops.

This is a revolution - in a good way, so far. Strategypage points out that there may be negative consequences to all this connectivity, but that so far the benefits are clear. The military lives in tension: freedom versus imposed discipline (the imposition of discipline, which occurs nearly always without the threat of violence or legal consequences, is only possible because members of the military are themselves disciplined, by temperament or training); openness versus secrecy (which is another self-discipline issue); internal hierarchy versus civilian control (an even larger self-discipline issue, but because the concept is ingrained in our soldiers from the get-go, you won't be seeing a military coup anytime soon in this country). When the ignorant talk about GIs as if they're unlettered adolescents, zipped into inferior armor and sent out with inadequate training to perform an undefined mission, I want to take them by the ear and show them the inside of a Bradley. Your average nineteen- or twenty-year-old GI (who is not your average American soldier in Iraq, by the way) may or may not have read Jane Eyre, but he or she is highly trained, drilled, and disciplined in the mission, knows why he or she is performing that mission, and will perform it to the best of his or her ability out of a sense of pride and duty with which the ignorant critic may be completely unfamiliar.


Saturday, April 22, 2006

Iraq defies "conventional wisdom" again

All right, I don't have time for a real post, but -

Iraq has formed a unity government. Praises be. I'm actually too surprised and happy to use exclamation points - and I don't think they do the event justice in any case.

Jawad al-Maliki, an outspoken Shi'ite and member of the same party as the outgoing al-Jaafari (but apparently a more respected statesman than al-Jaafari), has been named Prime Minister. He hasn't been confirmed yet by the general assembly, but the major parties have backed him, which is a darn sight better than we've seen for months now. Via GatewayPundit, via Yahoo!News:

Parliament elected President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, to a second term and gave the post of parliament speaker to Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, a Sunni Arab. Al-Mashhadani's two deputies were to be Khalid al-Attiyah, a Shiite, and Aref Tayfour, a Kurd.

The tough-talking al-Maliki was nominated by the Shiites on Friday after outgoing Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari gave up his bid for another term the urging of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Benjamin Franklin of Iraq. I just want to send that man some flowers. Or, as GatewayPundit suggests, a Nobel Peace Prize, for heaven's sake.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The unbearable lightness of blogging

Spring break is over; the grandparents have returned to the Wild West; Little League baseball season opens this week; I have a staff meeting, a church playgroup, and a school auction project to complete tomorrow alone; a painter is discombobulating my house, life, and mind; and therefore I have nothing of value to say and probably won't until next week. Apologies in advance to both of you. Oh, sorry, is there someone behind the door there? All three of you.

Friday, April 14, 2006

How not to be offended

Many years ago, I read a science fiction short story called "It's a Good Day!" by Jerome Bixby. It inspired a Twilight Zone episode, and, if I recall, a Simpsons episode as well. And here's the synopsis, in chronological order rather than in narrative order, because I reread that story so much that its "history" took the place of its narrative in my mind:

A baby is born in a small town. Something terrible, and unspecified, is obviously wrong with the baby; the doctor, seeing the wrongness, drops the baby in horror, and WHAM! - the town is suddenly... nowhere. It's afloat in nothingness. You can walk off the edge of it.

The baby grows. The people of the town learn to fill their minds with la-la-la's and random counting and nursery rhymes, because this baby can read their minds and has a deadly combination of "talents": he can read minds, and he can make awful things happen, as someone who once tried to spank him (or something - fuzzy on the details) discovered. Anyone who has a negative or angry thought about the child that the child perceives (you may be safe if you're far away and surrounded by others - but then again you may not be) may find himself dead, or worse.

No one can kill the child, because first, there's the problem of getting close enough to kill him without one's intention's coming to his attention, and second, killing him will only doom the town; he's the only one keeping it functional (that is, with air, water, food), wherever it is. And there's the unspoken hope that as he grows older, perhaps some seed of conscience or reason will take root in his psyche - perhaps someday, on his own, he'll WHAM! the town back into the world (or was it the world that he WHAMMED!?) So the townspeople are reduced to blanketing their uncensored thoughts in gibberish, smiling until their faces ache, and periodically losing one of their number through error or sheer frustration. They walk around like automatons, declaring to one another, "It's a good day!" regardless of what horrible thing their neighbor has just been turned into.

It's one of the most chilling stories I've ever read. It holds out no real hope - there is only, as I said, the "hope," more of a desperate but utterly unfounded wish, that the boy will somehow grow self-discipline on his own, with no adult guidance at all. <shudder>

South Park just shone a white-hot spotlight on the stakes of ersatz "tolerance." Now, I never get to watch South Park any more - obviously we can't have it on while the kids are awake, and by the time they go to sleep I'm up to my eyeballs in end-of-day stuff - but here's my understanding of the situation: In the first of a two-part episode, members of the South Park community hear that The Family Guy (another animated series) is considering airing an episode in which Mohammed is portrayed. Some South Parkians - South Parkers? Parkites? whatever - undertake a campaign to keep the portrayal off the airwaves, in the name of tolerance and respect for Islam. Blah, blah, blah - end of first episode, on a cliffhanger note.

Second episode: apparently this is where the hammer drops. In this episode, the image of Mohammed is supposed to appear on The Family Guy, the South Parkians' campaign having failed - and, knowing the South Park creators' general way with stories like this, I'll bet global jihad was the result.

The unfunny punch line is that Comedy Central censored the episode. The scene in which Mohammed was to appear does not take place, and an on-screen message flashes up saying that Comedy Central has chosen not to show the scene. (Or possibly they blurred Mohammed's face - as I said, I didn't see the episode.) All this information can be found at firster-hand, so to speak, here on Protein Wisdom, with links to more first-hand reportage.

So Comedy Central, a network that exists to lampoon cultural taboos, with a record of subjecting many religions to its irreverence, has decided - for reasons of public safety - that Islam is exempt. Two points about this decision:

1. Comedy Central, notwithstanding protests from the Left that "fear" of Muslim fanaticism is a mirage of the Right, appears to believe that "fear" of Muslim fanaticism is sufficient justification for self-censorship.

2. By preemptively (as opposed to after-the-fact, which is how Comedy Central has dealt with its recent episode concerning Scientology, running it uncensored but then pulling it from the rerun rotation - not a victory for the First Amendment, but less egregious than this Mohammed thing) self-censoring over a rule of Islam not even followed by all Muslims, Comedy Central has demonstrated the best way to get things done, or more accurately not done, in our vaunted free-speech broadcast environment: threaten violence. Be amoral in its application. Behave, in essence, like an undisciplined child with horrible and disproportionate powers.

I think I'll leave it right there.

Monday, April 10, 2006

The paradox of law

Q: Why do laws arise?

A: Because someone breaks them.

Q: But... but...

This statement is not true of all laws. In today's America, it's possible to write and pass a law concerning behavior that's pretty well theoretical, which is a reflection not of how enlightened we are but of how bored legislators must get.

The laws that matter most, the laws that create society's framework and keep its many movement parts oiled and functional - these laws reflect an ethical state that already exists. They are in, at best, the fat part of the curve of societal evolution rather than at its leading edge; they may even be at the tail of the curve. What they are not is immutable.

Belmont Club discusses the changeable nature of law in the context of a tremendously powerful challenge to international law:

[UK Secretary of State for Defence John] Reid's points taken together comprehensively call into question the international constitutional system. It is unlikely the issues raised by those questions will be resolved any time soon because those issues are typically addressed by the victors after a war (Utrecht, Westphalia, Vienna, Versailles, etc) to codify a consensus that has emerged in the course of events. All one can say with the conflict still in progress is that current concepts of the Rules of War, pre-emption and territorial sovereignty will be called into question; that they will change under the pressure of future events is all but certain; but what they will change into is anybody's guess.

The points to which Wretchard refers are (1) whether the Geneva Conventions need to be updated in order to reflect an enemy that does not make war by the rules that the Conventions took as given when they were developed; (2) when pre-emptive military action against another country ought to be permissible (at present, legality for this type of action exists in a fuzzy cloud of "imminence"); and (3) the nature of sovereignty, in terms of whether a national leader, acting entirely within his own borders against people entirely under his leadership or rule, can act with impunity against them.

These three points are already settled among American hawks. Obviously Geneva has been no help in dealing with un-uniformed, extra-military, non-state actors; the remaining question is, do we rewrite Geneva, or do we somehow convince those who believe they do apply to these shadow-enemies that they don't? Because the arguments for the latter have been made and re-made without notable success so far, a rewrite would appear to be in order. Second, when small and unacknowledged groups can inflict mass casualties, pre-emption becomes not just a choice but a responsibility of a nation's leader. And third, it's astounding that in a world where Holocaust museums are thick on the ground, there's any question that the world community legally can and morally should "interfere" with a sovereign (elected or not) who is pursuing genocide or other obvious outrages against human rights.

But these same three points remain up for debate among too many others. I can't figure out why; they appear self-evident from my seat at the keyboard. I've long believed that "international law" was a lovely castle in the air; and the events of the last decade or so have confirmed my belief again and again. No one who understands power abides by international law unless doing so somehow consolidates his power. American hegemony is dangerous - of course it's dangerous; hegemony by anyone would be dangerous, because it implies, if not power, then influence beyond the realm of "fairness," and as such is open to abuse. But power, like nature, abhors a vacuum, so in the absence of multipolarity of powers there will be a hegemon; there is, in fact, a tacit hegemon, and it is the United States. The check on our hegemony is partly economic, partly political. But increasingly it appears that Europe sees its peril and is coming to accept a form of clienthood, in that Euro-armies are more and more involved in Afghanistan (how can you learn to fight an enemy if you never fight that enemy?). What Asia will do is beyond me; so far they appear to believe, or to act as if they believe, that their societies are too closed to be vulnerable to Islamist extremism. Africa is part of the problem at present, where it figures at all.

It's going to be an interesting century. New American? So far, yes.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

When will they ever learn? (or, Where have all the people quoting, "Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it," gone?)

Thanks to Pejman at the beautifully named A Checquer-Board of Nights and Days (it's a reference to the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam) for the tip on this story:

Venezuela's president Hugo Chavez yesterday seized control of a French-run oil field, strengthening his control of the country's vast oil wealth, the lifeblood of his "Bolivarian Revolution".


Mr Chavez has decided to redefine the terms under which foreign companies can operate in Venezuela, which has the largest oil reserves outside of the Middle East.

The new terms state that the Venezuelan government must have a 60 per cent share in any venture. [In brief, some major companies have knuckled under, Exxon-Mobil has sold its interests, and some others have refused to comply, which has led to the Venezuelan government's seizure of Total SA's operations.]


Mr Chavez is using his oil windfall to promote a social reform programme, arms purchases and to engage in anti-US diplomacy, selling oil at below market rates to detach Latin American nations from Washington's orbit.

"His oil windfall"? Is it actually a windfall when you shake the holy hell out of the tree?

Good luck to Mr. Chavez in seeking foreign investors for his "social reform programme."

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Taking it to the sticks

Michelle Malkin notes a bald attempt to create news (or possibly an international incident) on the part of NBC. From an email forwarded to Ms. Malkin by a reader:

I have been talking with a producer of the NBC Dateline show and he is in the process of filming a piece on anti-Muslim and anti-Arab discrimination in the USA. They are looking for some Muslim male candidates for their show who would be willing to go to non-Muslim gatherings and see if they attract any
discriminatory comments or actions while being filmed.
I'm urgently looking for someone who can be filmed this April 1st weekend at a Nascar event (and other smaller events) in Virginia.

And Ms. Malkin's comment:

Catch that? The apparent "sting" involves targeting Nascar and other sporting events. 'Cause that's presumably where the fair and balanced NBC news staff thinks all the bigots are.

Now. I have never watched NASCAR. I have only ever watched golf as a child when my mom was glued to the set and we were a one-TV family, for the same reason: I'm just not interested. But a close relative of mine is pretty high up on one of the NASCAR teams, and I'd love to know what he thinks of these shenanigans. As Eric McErlain of Off Wing Opinion pointed out,

If I were at NASCAR HQ, I'd be blowing a gasket about now, and getting on the phone to NBC Sports in New York. After all, this is ocurring against a backdrop of NASCAR's increased efforts to bring minority drivers and owners into the series, and expand its appeal outside of the traditional Southern fan base.

In other words, something like this may very well cost NASCAR some money. And while there are undoubtedly racists at any large sporting event that draws literally hundreds of thousands of people each weekend, I can't help but think that NBC's choice wasn't a coincidence.

(h/t to Instapundit.)

The calculus is easy to perform: a sport popular in the South, where a plurality, at least, of our military hails from; one or more people dressed in unordinary fashion for both the area and the event, with an agenda to fulfill. Is there any doubt that both Dateline and the Muslim people hired as "tethered goats" will be selective about their contacts and what is actually aired? After all, "I went to NASCAR and nobody cared" doesn't exactly bring home the bacon, you should excuse the expression, in the same way that "I went to NASCAR and had food/punches/insults thrown at me" would. As McErlain notes, in a crowd as big as NASCAR crowds tend to be, I wouldn't be surprised if there'll be some of both - but what's the likelihood that we'll be told the details of the mix?

Wait and see.

Update: Apparently the Virginia sting has already taken place. Here, from the AP, with a hat tip to Michelle Malkin, is what happened:

The NBC crew was "apparently on site in Martinsville, Va., walked around and no one bothered them," NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston said Wednesday.

And yes, NASCAR is blowing a gasket. And I should have mentioned yesterday that NBC is in its last year of covering NASCAR - next year the contract goes to Fox, ABC, and ESPN. According to the Instapundit link I put up yesterday, viewers were not happy with NBC's coverage even before NBC decided that to "expose" them as bigoted rubes.

Adding insult to injury, according to Malkin's latest, the sting operation may be moving to Texas (to a bigger, and hence rowdier, track, with an infield area where racegoers say the party crowd camps out) for another go.

Sheesh. I may have to start watching NASCAR just to stick my thumb in NBC's eye.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006


My son appears to believe that socks are disposable. This is one of the new ones. The picture would be more effective with half his foot sticking out through the hole in what used to be the toe, but you get the idea: it's a legwarmer now.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

The danger of frost

No doubt there's something profound and quasi-political to be said about the title of this post: something about the difficulties of living and working in uncertainty, and that hindsight is a cheap shot, and all that... but really, I'm just talking about gardening. For the first time in four houses, we have a yard with a sunny patch big enough for more than a couple of pots, so we've activated Plan Vegetable Garden. There are a few things I'd like to say about gardening, and here they are:

  1. I cut my teeth on an oscillating hoe.
  2. Figuring out your soil's composition, chemically and physically, is actually pretty easy if you know a couple of simple tests.
  3. And (a companion piece) figuring out how to correct your soil's composition is just a matter of memorizing a few simple rules, or even just having a decent gardening book handy.
  4. A small but productive vegetable garden can save you money and will certainly provide you with better-tasting food.
  5. Kids love to help in the garden; gardening is a great way to do something together as a family.
  6. Creating a show-worthy garden is less effort than you might think.

I'd like to say these things, but in all honesty I can't... My mother, though she gardened off and on when we were kids, proclaimed her own thumb "purple" and didn't try to draw out our interest - probably because she knew that #5 is a crock. Kids love to garden only if gardening means digging random holes, preferably in already-worked soil (because it's easier), and often "transplanting" picked flowers (dandelions are popular) into the holes, then getting really upset when they're dead the next day. The horticultural company that comes out with a flower that roots itself upon being picked and stuck into dirt will have the undying gratitude of parents everywhere.

To address the other points: As to #2 and #3, soil composition is mostly a closed book to me. When I'm digging in something that feels like reinforced concrete, I can make a pretty good guess that it's either reinforced concrete or clay; when I jump on my spade and sink to my knees I generally conclude I'm in either a pond or sand. But between these extremes, it's anybody's guess, and my solution to whatever I perceive as a "problem" with my soil's texture or chemistry is to add stuff to it that makes it feel and look more like potting soil. Sometimes I take what a good friend of ours terms the Darwinian approach, and figure that whatever can't thrive in the soil as it comes to the table, so to speak, ought by rights to be crowded out by That Which Survives. (This is the approach I've taken with the herb section of my garden this year: I did no soil amendment beyond mixing in the leftover bark mulch that we'd piled on the dirt last year, cut back my woody herbs from last year's pots almost to the ground, yanked them out of said pots and buried them in this year's garden plot, sprinkled on some water, crossed my fingers, and had a beer.)

As to #4, it's vaguely possible that I'll save money on lettuce, if the rabbits don't get to it. (The seven-foot deer fence we're going to have to put up may deter them. Then again, it may not; I've read Peter Cottontail.) But my savings are likely to go toward subsidizing my several attempts at tomatoes, which I've only successfully grown from seed by accident, in our compost heap.

As to #6, I calculated that I moved at least two, probably closer to three cubic yards of soil this weekend - that's somewhere between 54 and 81 cubic feet, or 400-600 gallon jugs' full. (I know that doesn't seem possible, but the conversion factor is 7.48 gallons per cubit foot. It's a conversion drummed into my head in the daily course of seven years of environmental consulting and project work, and I'll probably die with it on my lips.) With a cubic foot of damp soil (thanks to all the Powers That Be not wet soil) weighing in at about 100 pounds, I moved the equivalent of my Sienna with my extended family in it - maybe all that and a Mini Cooper on the roof rack - one spadeful at a time.

I do have a couple of things going for me: that patch of ground had been a garden before, though (again using the Darwinian approach) the daylilies had made it almost their sole turf, so it wasn't as compact as the lawn; seeds in little packets these days are made for the fumble-fingered home gardener rather than for the subsistence farmer whose life depends on their successful nurture; and anything grows in Pennsylvania. (OK, not citrus fruit. And nothing tropical. But "mainstream" veggies? There's a reason the Amish settled here.) Reality in the backyard may never touch my vision, but you gotta dream, right?