Archive for the 'War' Category

The false consciousness parade

Maybe it’s because I’ve been studying for exams the last few weeks, so that my mind has become like the eyes when they’ve been staring too hard for too long, and things come into and go out of focus chaotically and lose depth and proportion, but there has been something strange about watching the NBA the last few days, especially the commercials.

I don’t know if there are so many commercials for the military just because it’s Memorial Day, but commercial breaks are starting to just look like different wings of the military vying with each other for fresh meat. Yes, it’s truly a new era of cooperation and harmony between the branches of the armed services in the post-9/11 world. I assume they think that basketball is the sort of manly spectacle that many potential recruits will be watching, but then again one of the series prominently features Manu Ginobili and Sasha “everyone wants to punch him in the face” Vujacic. Anyway, I was watching the game with an Indian guy the other night when a commercial for the Air Force “unmanned surveillance drone” came on. I glanced over at him and thought about asking him whether in his country military equipment gets advertised between commercials for Dockers and SUVs, but I still have a vestigial stump of national pride that, like a tail bone, might be painful to shatter.

I also like how they emphasize the “leadership and career skills” you supposedly learn as a soldier, as if the real goal of following the glorious calling of arms is to develop competence as a data enterer. And what are these delectable “leadership positions” that strafing Afghan shepherds with an M-16 gets you? The commercials seem to show a lot of car mechanics and TV camera operators. Funny, if I was lured by promises of career success it would be to escape from a future as a car mechanic or an equipment operator. So I’m not exactly sure what lower rung on the career ladder all this risking death or disfigurement is sparing them.

Nor can I quite determine what skill is necessary for becoming a car mechanic that any random person that has two hands and isn’t retarded can’t develop going to work at 17. And if that is all that’s necessary it might be a good thing for all the ex-soldiers, since although in the commercials they show montages of, for example, a soldier operating a rotating machine gun turret fading into the same person operating a video camera as if there was a seamless transition between the two, I can think of many career uses for proficiency with automatic weapons, but few of them are legal. Michael Corleone in The Godfather started out in the military, as did John Allen Muhammad, the “D.C. sniper,” so I guess those are advertisements for the military “providing the tools” for some kind of “career success.”

It begs the question, though, given that the main tangible career benefit of being a soldier, apart from the salary, is the GI Bill, which is supposed to allow poor kids to go to college, if the career paths that the brains behind the military advertising see as most likely for soldiers are fixing cars or operating a camera, how many soldiers do they expect to actually take up that opportunity to go to college? In other words, it could be a cheap way of luring in the less rational sort with promises of career “benefits” which turn out to be of a nature, i.e. money for college, that most recruits aren’t interested in and won’t use.

Even the cops are joining in the nationalization of commercial breaks with their ads warning us all to wear seat belts. One of them does so by just camera-staring at a quadrapalegic for 30 seconds, a message I could respect more if not for all those afore-mentioned military recruitment commercials. If the fine for risking paralysis or death by not wearing a seatbelt is $500, how much is the one for volunteering for the Marines? Or better yet, what about for enticing someone into volunteering? Oh, but as the ad says, “when you see a Marine you can’t help but look up to them.” Especially if you’re a Hadithan laying on the ground because they’ve ordered you to get out of your car and lie down in the road as a prelude to shooting you in the head. Wait, I forgot, there’s no judicially usable evidence of that happening because none of the witnesses are willing to come to America to testify. Yes, the fact that people aren’t willing to let the soldiers that they watched kill their neighbors take them into custody and out of the sight and reach of anyone who knows and cares about them in order to supposedly bring them to give evidence that would be hugely damaging to those same soldiers makes them completely irrational and unreliable witnesses.

Of course the military hasn’t been able to prevent a scandal simply by avoiding some farce military trial, but on the plus side for them, studies have found that home-field advantage yields up to up to an 84.6 % winning percentage for non-professional teams when visitors have to travel more than 200 miles. Since like all self-respecting imperialists the U.S. military has progressively invaded more and more distant locales, this could be a comprehensive excuse for its declining winning percentage.


The Queen of the Quagmire

“Some suggest today that the US failure in Iraq is due simply to lack of planning; to specific policy errors— debaathification, looting, the abolition of the army, and lack of troops; and to the absence of a trained cadre of Arabists and professional nation-builders. They should consider Bell and her colleagues, such as Colonel Leachman or Bertram Thomas, a political officer on the Euphrates. All three were fluent and highly experienced Arabists, won medals from the Royal Geographical Society for their Arabian journeys, and were greatly admired for their political work…But their task was still impossible. Iraqis refused to permit foreign political officers to play at founding their new nation. T.E. Lawrence was right to demand the withdrawal of every British soldier and no stronger link between Britain and Iraq than existed between Britain and Canada. For the same reason, more language training and contact with the tribes, more troops and better counterinsurgency tactics—in short a more considered imperial approach—are equally unlikely to allow the US today to build a state in Iraq, in southern Afghanistan, or Iran. If Bell is a heroine, it is not as a visionary but as a witness to the absurdity and horror of building nations for peoples with other loyalties, models, and priorities.”

It’s the Oil

“The occupation may seem horribly botched on the face of it, but the Bush administration’s cavalier attitude towards ‘nation-building’ has all but ensured that Iraq will end up as an American protectorate for the next few decades – a necessary condition for the extraction of its oil wealth. If the US had managed to create a strong, democratic government in an Iraq effectively secured by its own army and police force, and had then departed, what would have stopped that government from taking control of its own oil, like every other regime in the Middle East? On the assumption that the Bush-Cheney strategy is oil-centred, the tactics – dissolving the army, de-Baathification, a final ‘surge’ that has hastened internal migration – could scarcely have been more effective. The costs – a few billion dollars a month plus a few dozen American fatalities (a figure which will probably diminish, and which is in any case comparable to the number of US motorcyclists killed because of repealed helmet laws) – are negligible compared to $30 trillion in oil wealth, assured American geopolitical supremacy and cheap gas for voters. In terms of realpolitik, the invasion of Iraq is not a fiasco; it is a resounding success.

Still, there is reason to be sceptical of the picture I have drawn: it implies that a secret and highly ambitious plan turned out just the way its devisers foresaw, and that almost never happens.”

War for Votes

In a post from a few days ago, Patri Friedman points to a little back-and-forth between Alex Tabarrok and Brian Caplan about “freaky economics”. Therein, Tabarrok references a paper by Hess and Orphanides that suggests that presidents go to war to get re-elected:

If the economy is doing well, a sitting president is up on one score and without evidence can be assumed to be as good as the challenger in war-making ability. Thus, the president gets reelected. But if the economy is doing badly then an incumbent who cannot present evidence that he has superior war-making ability will lose for certain. Crucially, an incumbent can’t demonstrate war-making ability without a war – so when the economy is doing poorly and the President is up for reelection the model predicts more wars.

Hess and Orphanides define a war as “an international crisis in which the United States is involved in direct military activity that results in violence.” Using data from the International Crisis Behavior Project, they compare the onset of wars in first terms when there is a recession with (a) the onset of wars in first terms with no recession and (b) second terms. Stunningly, however, they find that in the 1953-1988 period wars are about twice as likely in first terms with a recession than in first terms with no recession and second terms (60% to 30%). The probability of this result occurring by chance is low.

Need I mention that the Hess and Orphanides model has proven to have predictive power?

Now, based on psychological intuition, I don’t necessarily disagree with Hess and Orphanides’ conclusions. Nor do I necessarily disagree with the Mencken line Patri summarizes with: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.” However, I do have an issue with the justification that H&O give for their theory (at least as summarized by Tabarrok; I can’t access JSTOR from home). First of all, why only use 1953-1988? The American presidency’s been around for over 200 years, so why only use 36 of the more recent years? My guess: because, given that those are the years at the heart of the Cold War, armed, international conflicts were far more prevalent and, therefore, indicative of the desired conclusion. Also, before I get into the above more deeply, note that the H&O model only predicts war if the economy is bad…but the 36 years being discussed were probably (I’m more or less just making this up, but I suspect the numbers would pretty much back me up here) the 36 years of greatest sustained large-scale growth in the history of the world and that, furthermore, arguably the worst period, economically speaking, occurred during the first (and only) term of Jimmy Carter, who was (again, arguably) the least war-like president of at least the last 7 decades or so.

Anyway, let’s be honest, here: those 36 years cover 9 election-cycles (which, depending on how you slice it, gives anywhere from 9 to 11 “presidential terms,” depending on how you classify 1964 and Ford’s time in office), which is a pretty damned small sample size to be drawing “predictive” conclusions from. This becomes more clear if we break it down more explicitly. I’m assuming that Johnson’s first year in office (after JFK’s death) isn’t really being counted as a first term, since he was still eligible to be re-elected in 1968. On the other hand, I’m assuming that Ford’s time in office does qualify, since, even if he had won in ’76, he wouldn’t have been eligible in 1980. Hence, we have the following terms and associated wars (as defined in the H&O paper and as I recall them; that being said, I’m sure I’ve missed some):

First Terms

  • Ike, 1953-56: Korea
  • JFK, 1961-64 (died 1963): Bay of Pigs, start/escalation (depending on how you look at it) of conflict in Southeast Asia
  • LBJ, 1965-68: Vietnam
  • Nixon, 1969-72: Vietnam
  • Ford, 1974-76: Vietnam (still)
  • Carter, 1977-80: None
  • Reagan, 1981-84: Lebanon, Grenada

Second Terms

  • Ike, 1957-60: None
  • Nixon, 1973-76 (resigned 1974): Vietnam
  • Reagan, 1985-88: None

So, by this count, we have “war” in 6 out of 7, or 71% of first terms (I’m guessing, in the paper, JFK gets put in the “no war” category, which is misleading, but, I suppose, technically correct, given their definition; anyway, that gives 5 of 7 or 57%, which rounds off to the cited 60%) and 1 of 3 or 33% of second terms.

Anyway, the point is, yeah, the percentages look pretty significantly different, but when you only have 3 items in the second category, it’s sorta hard to take those percentages seriously in terms of statistical significance.

Also note that if the paper had taken into account the years since 1988, things would look somewhat different. Each of the last five terms has included “an international crisis in which the United States is involved in direct military activity that results in violence”: Bush I had Iraq, Clinton had Somalia in his first term and Kosovo and Afghanistan in his second term (betcha forgot about Afghanistan, didn’t you?), and, obviously, Bush II has had Iraq and Afghanistan in both terms. If we include this period, all of a sudden the percentages become 8 of 10 or 80% for first-term presidents (or 90% if we include JFK) and 3 of 5 or 60% for second-term presidents going to war.

Viewed in that light, the apparent difference between hawks trying to get re-elected and dove-like sitting ducks (sitting doves?) begins to vanish. In fact, the truly cynical might look at those numbers and wonder whether the primary reason presidents get involved in violent international conflict isn’t simply that they have the capacity to do so. The cynic who holds such views might also note that none of the 12 aforementioned “wars” were waged under the auspices of a Congressional declaration of war. And the truly, incurably committed of such cynics might point this little factoid out not in the wistful if-only-we-would-go-back-to-the-Constitution way of knuckleheaded conservatives/Libertarians, but rather as a nod to someone with the initials JTK.