Tag Archives: war

Book Review: The Empty Quarter

The Empty Quarter, by David L. Robbins

Another free Kindle find, and another solid piece of fiction. Set in the present day, The Empty Quarter explores realities of modern warfare – specifically, American involvement in the Middle East and the war on terror. Told from three points of view, the story covers a handful of intense days. On one side are the American pararescue jumpers – soldiers whose job is to jump into battles to rescue the wounded. Following mostly a medic called LB, we see the group’s near-superhuman performance in multiple theaters of war, and they’re perhaps the least well-rounded characters in the book. The second point of view belongs to Josh, an American diplomat in Yemen who is bored with his assignment as a cultural attache. He jumps at the chance to participate in something a little more interesting than attending parties. The third narrator is Arif, a former Saudi mujahideen who fought on behalf of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and later turned against the repressive Saudi government. He married a princess from the Royal Family before escaping with her to Yemen and turning to computers to continue his attack on the Saudi government. The setting, apart from a handful of early war zones, is Yemen, and it’s rendered beautifully. The country features harsh and severe geography and similar people, bound by tribal loyalties and codes of honor. All of these come into play when the story reaches a crescendo.

You’ll notice I haven’t described the plot very much. That’s not intended to be criticism, but trying to avoid spoilers. I’ll go as far to say that Arif plans a cyberattack on his father-in-law, and that several locals are interested in his experience as a Jihadi. Much more happens, but I’d give away many early twists if I elaborated.

Solid read that doesn’t avoid the harsh choices of the war on terror and isn’t afraid to paint an ugly picture of what it requires. If I had to criticize it, I’d say the second half is somewhat too linear, but I kept turning the pages until the end.

3.5 out of 5 drones.

Blog Note

Apologies to my regular readers (assuming the plural still applies) for the slow posting the past couple of weeks. It’s largely a combination of travel, work, and world-induced depression. The violence in Gaza put me over the top, since Gaza is basically a prison to begin with, and unlike in Ukraine (and a lesser extent Syria*) those people have nowhere else to go.

*Yeah, war is still going on in Syria, though at this point it’s a third-string war.

I don’t believe that the current…troubles, shall we say, are an indicator of longer-term problems. Steven Pinker is probably basically right that the longterm trend is toward peacefulness rather than war. That said, spams of violence shall be with us, and this one is outright depressing. I’m choosing to avoid discussing it for my own mental health, but it also makes it more difficult to post some of my usual inanities.

I’ll release some previously written posts soon just to clear the backlog, but there will be little new content until the violence has gone on long enough for me to become accustomed to it.* In the meantime, I suggest you join me in doing something nice for your fellow man – donate, volunteer, or just be nice to someone. It’ll make you feel better, help someone else, and make the world a little less ugly.

*Like in Syria.

The Most Misunderstood Column Of The Week

Blog-favorite Tyler Cowen has a thought-provoking piece in the NY Times, unhelpfully titled (by an editor, no doubt) “The Lack of Major Wars May Be Hurting Economic Growth.” Many, probably without reading the piece, dismissed it for advocating the long-discredited idea that government spending on wars invigorates the economy – it doesn’t, since that money has to come from somewhere.* Others predictably attacked it for advocating wars. The article, of course, does neither.

*If war spending were actually helpful, every country could bomb the crap out of an uninhabited island daily on the way to prosperity. Needless to say, spending real resources on something that you destroy is not the way to better living standards.

I won’t summarize the article here; it’s a combination of history, economics, and psychology that deserves a full read. The basic idea is that threat of extermination through war imposes discipline on otherwise harmful government behavior, which limits its harmful interference to let the productive society grow strong and survive the external threat. It’s basically the idea that a parasite, which usually weakens your body, backs off and lets you grow strong when someone attacks you, because killing you would also kill the parasite.

There’s a beautiful logic to this, and to the corollary that the lack of such threats in recent decades has permitted the more invasive parasite government to take hold. Even the controlling regulatory/surveillance state makes sense in this light: its utter uselessness or active harm are only possible because there is no existential threat to the United States. There is plenty to debate about this thesis, and as Cowen points out, it’s nice to live in a slower-growing but peaceful world even if a conflict-laden one would grow faster. Still, this is worth thinking about in policy terms: without the threat of disaster, is there any way to contain the parasite?

Book Review: The Better Angels Of Our Nature

I finally made my way through The Better Angels Of Our Nature (Goodreads says I finished this book in 16 months, but that’s more a function of having lost the book in a move).

I’m a long-time fan of Pinker, and there are few I would trust more to analyze complex societal trends fairly. The Better Angels Of Our Nature is another Pinker tour-de-force, chock-full of statistics and peppered with anecdotes that bring those statistics to life. The case Pinker makes, by the time he’s done with it, seems unassailable: the decline of violence in human societies is real and it’s enduring. The causes of of it are admittedly complex and I won’t even try to summarize them all here. Pinker covers everything there is, though: politics (the rise of the state and the spread of democracy), psychology and sociology (the moralization gap), evolutionary biology (tribalism), economics (gentle commerce), religion (divine mandates), and many other fields of knowledge. He weaves these together to explain a long-running and complex phenomenon, pointing out where the evidence is unclear (does commerce cause peace or does peace cause commerce?), and analyzing different possible explanations. You’ll notice just how thorough Pinker is every time he states something obvious (say, the peaceful benefits of commerce) and then proceeds to dissect it more ways than you could have imagined. You’ll find yourself flipping back and reviewing something you read 400 pages ago to put in context with what you just read. Best of all, you end up reading 800 pages reminding you that life, in many ways, is better than it’s ever been.

The language is crisp and clear, and considering we’re talking about a huge sociological tome, very readable. Recommended as an excellent contribution to human knowledge.

The Mandatory 9/11 Post

While the best take on the “post 9/11 world” (including that phrase) is, as many things are, at Cracked, I’ve had a few thoughts of my own. September 11, 2001, is about halfway through my “conscious” period: I turned 8 in 1990, and through a series of unfortunate events I became aware of world geopolitics early and quickly. What surprised me most about 9/11 weren’t the terrorist attacks, it was the reaction. That’s when I realized how much differently I looked at the events compared to my college classmates (it was the first week of college), and, ultimately, the media and public at large. Specifically, for me, 9/11 changed nothing.

I’m not sure when I realized that terrorism is a thing, but by 2001 I remember largely accepting it as a feature of the world. I was aware of the initial World Trade Center bombing in the 1990s, and vaguely aware of other similar attacks. As a result, when I heard that airplanes had hit the WTC on 9/11, I was far less shocked than most. In fact, I was baffled when the school scrambled to make announcements, schedule group sessions and counseling, and otherwise pay way more attention to this event than I thought was warranted. Not that acknowledging the victims wasn’t warranted, of course – it’s the parts that treated the day like a huge paradigm shift in the world confused me. To me, this sort of attack had always been a possibility, and the fact that it actually happened didn’t affect my world view very much. On September 10, 2001, people existed who wanted to commit acts of terror against the United States, had tried so before, and who were not deterred by laws of war or compassion for human life. The fact that they hadn’t had a successful attack on US soil in some time didn’t really change, for me, the existence of the problem or how it should be approached. To analogize poorly: if you lived in a known crime-ridden neighborhood, the fact that your friend was shot shouldn’t change how you feel about it – you should have been trying to protect yourself and get the hell out already. I felt the same about the US/West vis-a-vis fundamentalist terrorism.

That reaction turned out to be very different from most people around me, and certainly the media. (I don’t mention politicians because they have different agendas from the truth.) The “this is a whole new world we’re in now, and everything has changed, and old rules no longer apply” attitude was so prevalent that I found myself listening to people to see just how different their thoughts were from mine. The ultimate reaction to the attacks, ably dissected at the Cracked link above, was clearly far from what I thought was warranted. Multiple invasions, ongoing occupations, the Patriot Act, the *spit* TSA, and now the new NSA revelations- this is more consistent with an overreaction to something surprising than with an adjustment to a new demonstrated weakness. (It saddens me to think that most of our in-flight safety improvements comes from better cockpit doors.)(I hate the TSA.) That this mindset persists to the present day is not a victory due civilization.

One last thought: the al-Qaidas of the world may have inadvertently set too high a bar with 9/11 that has helped, in a small way, keep smaller attacks at bay. Recreating an attack as visually imposing as 9/11 if difficult, but it was so effective that it presents a goal for wannabe terrorists such that they eschew smaller attacks. This could be a good thing, until we’re lulled to safety, an attack succeeds, and this whole cycle restarts.

On Syria

The evidence that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against the rebels and civilians is pretty persuasive now, and Western governments, including America’s, are weighing their options, having long ago threatened that the use of such weapon would trigger military intervention. Now the debate in the US centers on whether the US should, in fact, intervene (presumably via long range missiles) in the civil war which at last count had claimed a victim count upwards of 100,000. The irony, pointed out by many, would be that the US would be helping the rebels, many of which are allied with al-Qaida. My self-selected media sources tend to be more libertarian than most people’s, and the views there are largely anti-intervention. best captured here.

I’m sympathetic to the arguments at the previous link (except the one where they say intervention would complicate our relationship with Assad’s ally Russia; if we can’t discuss military action in face of chemical weapons with the Russians, to hell with our relationship with Russia). The past decade has shown the difficulty of a limited intervention in the Middle East, and it’s unclear that there is a side in this conflict whose interests are aligned with the United States (and other Western governments). The benefits to the intervening parties are tenuous at best, and the costs are clear. Most importantly, there’s a constitutional and moral argument to sending missiles into other sovereign countries.

On the other hand, I have some personal experience with foreign intervention in civil wars. They CAN work out: Bosnia and Kosovo, among others, went about as well as such interventions can go. A few bombing raids, mostly by American forces, on military installations accelerated the end of both conflicts; in Bosnia, a cease fire was reached within a few weeks of the initial bombing runs. The damage was mostly inflicted on munition factories, bridges on supply lines, and and weapons caches, so collateral damage (the pleasant term for dead children) was also limited. As a result, I go back and forth on this issue.

Trying to look at it with the goal of a long-run minimization of violence, there’s a few effects here to consider. That is, which course will, in the long run, create the fewest casualties in Syria and elsewhere in the world, and the fewest violation of rights? In theory, if a permanent totalitarian dictatorship took over France and then immediately created peace in Syria, I’m not sure that would be worth the tradeoff. One thing I am certainly not considering is how the ideal policy would affect any election anywhere.

  • An intervention most likely saves lives in the short run. Taking out weapons caches, munition factories, explosive stashes, and the like makes killing more difficult. It’s not unreasonable to assume that destroying them will make large-scale warfare more difficult for the damaged party for a few days/weeks/months.
  • An intervention will certainly cause casualties. We’re talking about bombing populated areas. Someone will die from the attacks. It’s unclear whether the direct hits would offset the lives saved from the destruction of weaponry.
  • Ideally, the intervention could force a quicker end to the war. Since it seems that the Assad government feels like it has the upper hand, an international support for the rebels could convince them to agree to a cease fire to look for a diplomatic solution. This has worked particularly well in the Balkans.
  • However, an intervention that does not force such an end can make the war worse: both parties could rush to kill more enemies/conquer more territory to win or improve their bargaining position before a second intervention becomes politically viable in the West.
  • An end to the war may result in further violence as the winners, as is so often the case in civil wars, go after the losers. It’s hard to see, however, why this would be worse in an intervention-caused end to the war. If the rebels, supported by the West, won, they would ideally feel some debt of gratitude and agree to be less than genocidal in the aftermath.
  • There is also the possibility of a genuine ally to the West in the rebels, if they ascend to power with the West’s military help. History (hi, Afghanistan!) tells us this is unlikely.
  • There’s a possibility of a wider deterrent effect on other governments who would be more reluctant to use violence on their own people if they expected intervention. At the very least, chemical weapons might be used less liberally. Libya’s Gadhafi supposedly surrendered his nuclear program to the West after the US invaded Iraq to avoid the same fate (which did not work out all that great for him). The deterrent effect of a smaller intervention might even be larger than that of Iraq: other countries know that the US couldn’t support a second Iraq (a third Afghanistan?) but they also know that a few bombing raids aren’t a big deal.
  • At least some, and maybe most, rebels are sympathetic toward al-Qaida, and might retaliate against the West if it fails to act on their behalf. (The risk is smaller, but not non-existent with the Assad regime.) Not only does this create immediate casualties, it also creates a temporary atmosphere of fear and leads to illiberal policies in the West (hi, TSA!)
  • I’m not optimistic that either post-war government would be particularly free or fair. The Assad regime is obviously repressive, but an Islamist successor might be even more so (see generally, Egypt). A popular uprising (if that’s what the rebellion is) might make democracy somewhat more likely, but it’s not as if democracy is the only value in a government.
  • Finally, an intervention lowers the political and moral cost of future interventions, including many that would not be morally justifiable in any sense. That is, if we intervene in such a muddled situation as here, it makes it easier to intervene in the affairs of other countries in the future. In the age where the US is sending rockets into Yemen and drones over Pakistan like it’s no big deal, I don’t think this cost is particularly high any more. That doesn’t mean it’s not important to at least consider.

The Syrian war could have benefited for more diplomatic pressure on Russia to reign in their ally, and more humanitarian aid to the innocent civilians. Now it’s been many months and several lines have been crossed. At this point, going over my arguments above, I conclude that the best course of action, with the goal of minimizing violence, is for the president to have lunch with a couple of guys named Victor.