Saturday, June 29, 2013

Book review 289: The Iraq War

THE IRAQ WAR, by John Keegan. 268 pages, illustrated. Vintage paperback, $14

The war against Saddam Hussein exposed the incompetence of just about everybody concerned, including the newspaperman and military historian John Keegan.

The incompetence of the American high commands, military and civilian, ought to have been easy meat for Keegan, with his long experience of analyzing at leisure the errors of soldiers made (often) on the fly.

He whiffed three times, first in his contemporary reports in the Daily Telegraph, then again when writing this book after (as he vainly thought) the conclusion of the campaign, and again in 2005 when he added a postscript.

There is not enough room in a review to take note of all the errors, but some cry out for mention.

Keegan begins with a long review of the history of Iraq, which he observes correctly was never a country, although later he treats it as if it were. He gives no sources but lists Karen Armstrong in his bibliography. She no doubt is the origin of his ridiculous misunderstanding of jihad. It is not and never has been principally a term for an inner moral struggle of a Muslim believer.

He cannot even locate the Kurds where they live in Turkey.

He then provides a reasonably clear explanation of the political runup to the initiation of fighting. But he fails to mention anything about a strategy for the war.

It was not up to Keegan, a newspaperman, to identify a strategy; that was the job of the politicians. Incurious George and his moron advisers never did. It was Keegan’s job to notice they hadn’t.

On the military side, it was obvious that the United States did not have sufficient infantry  to win a war in Iraq, and Keegan ought to have noticed this. He does point out that a 21st century US “infantry” division is really an armored division (with more tanks than a World War II armored division). Later, he repeats the observation, mentioning that while the Army was (and is) deficient in infantry, the Marines are infantry-oriented.

So they are, but they are a small force. The necessity for infantry was not to battle the Iraqi army, which hardly fought anyway, but to occupy the country after the battles were over.

There is not one word of Keegan’s about the preparations for occupying and administering Iraq after eliminating its army. That is because Incurious George and his neo-con minders (who Keegan helpfully identifies as “mostly Jews”) made no plans whatsoever. When Incurious George posted the MISSION ACCOMPLISHED banner, he really did think that defeating Iraq’s joke army in the field was the extent of the mission.
With a large force of infantry, the Americans could have cowed and frightened most of the people in Iraq into submitting to another in history’s longest series of occupations of one place. Since the US had no infantry, it not only couldn’t do that, it could not even secure the munitions dumps that were (and still are) scattered everywhere in Iraq.

Keegan does not even mention these, although they supplied the explosives that were used to kill thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis, and are still being used against Iraqi civilians.

Since there wasn’t any fighting worth mentioning, the scope for a military analyst/historian is limited. But Keegan should have noticed that the US and Britain lost the war.

His triumphalism, more suited to a writer for the Telegraph in 1903 than in 2003, is not only distasteful but inaccurate. After the “complete victory” the victors couldn’t even drive from the Baghdad airport to their headquarters.

In his chapter on the war’s aftermath, Keegan descends into total fantasy -- following Incurious George, who started out there. After listing several imaginary accomplishments of the coalition, he concedes “the one front in which the coalition failed to make progress was in the location and identification of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.”

Not only is that “one front,” it was the point of the resort to war, so failure on that front is serious. But it is fantasy that progress was made on any other front.

The revised version of “The Iraq War” was published before the false success of the surge, so Keegan does not have anything to say about that. But it was obvious at the end of the surge that it had done nothing toward achieving a postwar settlement of an Iraqi polity. Like the Christmas bombing of Hanoi, all it did was provide political cover for an American bugout, to be followed by the collapse of civilian government.

Such has come to pass.

The most that can be said for this rotten book is that at least Keegan did not waste any words on whether or not it was a war for oil. 

Book Review 288: The Book of Genesis: A Biography

THE BOOK OF GENESIS: A Biography, by Ronald Hendel. 287 pages, Princeton, $24.95

Ronald Hendel’s “biography” of Genesis, the latest volume in the worthy Lives of Great Religious Books series, is good as far as it goes. Which is not nearly far enough.

He portrays the career of the scripture as a struggle to establish figural (hidden) interpretation or real (literal)readings, with real coming out on top, two ways.

The Higher Criticism (which he calls German scholarship) taught people like Hendel to read the book as if it were any other, non-scriptural text, written by humans and understandable with common methods; or the Fundamentalists, who treat it as literal but divine and therefore inerrant, so that its contradictions have to be explained away.

He attributes this outcome to Luther, Galileo and Spinoza and the like. For the first two thousand years or so, the figural, allegorical or allusive interpretation, partly Platonic, was supreme.

“Modern biblical scholarship argues that much of the history of the interpretation of Genesis is a history of error.” Nevertheless, following Erich Auerbach, he finds Genesis, with its unique (for its time) approach to creation the bedrock of western culture and not Homer, the other contender.

Of course, there was no western culture at the time of writing (or editing), nor does Hendel comment on the notion that Genesis, a Semitic book, stands oddly as the foundation of western culture. So, perhaps, it does, but then how western was western culture in the  period? Not very, you might think.

In fact, it seems that western culture may have been created not out of but by destroying the meaning of Genesis as its writers intended it to be.

In any event, Hendel’s deeply informed sketch flies at a very abstract level, considering what literary folks thought about Genesis.

The book has had and still has another life, more visceral, and I would argue that no marks on sheepskin have caused more misery than Genesis. Hendel entirely ignores the common or garden variety life of Genesis, as used by lawyers, priests, despots and power-mad sadists of every era (ours included), though he does mention that Bruno was burnt for dissing the conventional view of it and Galileo was threatened with torture and execution.

It would have been handsome if Hendel had at least spared a paragraph for all the victims of Genesis, since he finds space to report how Dickenson and Kafka used the book, surely among the least significant uses of Genesis in its long history.

He is no Fundie himself, quoting Professor Mark Noll (in “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis”) at length and approvingly, and Noll is worth quoting here, too:

“the Civil War . . . effectively handed the business of the theologians over to the generals to decide by ordeal what the Bible meant. As things worked out, military coercion determined that, at least for the purposes of American public policy, the Bible did not support slavery. [This verdict], though never self-consciously adopted by all Americans in all circumstances, has been followed since the Civil War. That course is an implicit national agreement not to base public policy of any consequence on interpretations of Scripture.”

Need I add that, to the limited extent that the Republican Party ever acquiesced in this view, it is no longer the case?

An old lesson in self-correcting markets

In an old book, Matthew Hale Smith's "Sunshine and Shadow in New York," I find the business story of Thomas E. Davies:

The great real estate speculator of his time was Thomas E. Davies. His speculations in Bleecker street were enormous. He made immense purchases in St. Mark's Place, and originated the phrase for fashionable residences -- "Above Bleecker." He founded the New Brighton Association, which purchased nearly the whole of Staten Island, from Quarantine round to Sailor's Snug Harbor. The Association obtained the gigantic loan from the United States Bank of $479,000 [RtO note: at a time when a night in a hotel, with meals, cost around 6 cents]. Of course the Association failed, and the property was sold in 1837 under a foreclosure.

Just to reinforce the point made yesterday ("Banker: All Your Money Are Belong to Us") that it does not require a CRA to create a real estate and banking panic; and that -- contra morons like Greenspan -- financial houses do not exercise caution or perform due diligence when lending money.

They should, but they never have. If you follow, say, Bloomberg News, you will discover that this month, American banks are busily reducing their requirements for real estate loans, because that market is heating up, and it's time to throw caution to the winds and make some fast and easy money:

 Lenders are easing underwriting standards as rising home prices reduce the risk of making new loans, said Michael Fratantoni, vice president of research and economics for the the Mortgage Bankers Association.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Book Review 287: Antisubmarine Warrior in the Pacific

The victories of the destroyer escort England get a couple of paragraphs in any general history of the war in the Pacific, always focusing on the decrypted intelligence that alerted the Navy that a scouting line of Japanese submarines had been set up.

Rolling up the line is then treated as a routine operation. According to John Williamson, who was executive officer of England, it wasn’t so simple.

England’s skipper was, according to Williamson, a dud who did nothing, so that Williamson ran the ship and, crucially, took the conn during the six successful attacks. Moreover, the other escorts in England’s division made unsuccessful attacks, before, at last, Williamson came in to finish up.

This sounds credible. Williamson seems to have had a geometrical mind, suited to judging where to throw his rounds to intercept a sub moving unseen below. (England used hedgehogs or mortar throwers, which exploded on contact.)

He developed something called a Williamson turn in order to bring a ship back exactly on a line she had traveled when attempting to retrieve a man overboard. This involved a a kind of complicated geometry that would be none too easy to work out on paper. He did it in his head.

Williamson wrote this memoir late in life. I wish he had said more about his background.

In the introduction, he says his family was so poor that they lived in a “tent with a retractable roof,” whatever that is. But after moving to Birmingham at a low point in the Great Depression, Williamson’s father, an electrician, seems to have done well enough. Well enough that Williamson was able to attend a four-year private college and graduate before Pearl Harbor.

Not many Alabama country boys managed that.

As a reserve officer, Williamson ended up in social circles that probably no other country  boy did. You will recognize the names of some of his dates.

For those more interested in warfare than in debutantes, Williamson provides a clear account of the difficulties of attacking submarines. His description of what it was like at the surface when a sub broke up below is more detailed than any I have read elsewhere.

The scene is grim.

Later in the war, as commander of England, Williamson’s ship was hit by a kamikaze plane, and his description of what happened then is also exceptional.


Banker: All your money are belong to us

After Reaganism crashed the economy, many people claimed that financial markets are self-correcting. Of course, they had also said that before the crash. Alan Greenspan, for instance.

So RtO must suppose that no evidence will ever bring the free marketeers into contact with reality. Further evidence comes from the saga of Jon Corzine. Bloomberg News summarizes the latest revelations:

The CFTC sued Corzine, 66, yesterday for failing to oversee the company properly while it spiraled toward failure in 2011 as $1.6 billion in customer funds went missing. The CFTC alleged he did nothing about inadequate controls over misuse of customer funds, that he was aware of the firm’s extreme shortage of cash and that he didn’t ask any questions about where the money was coming from to make transfers he ordered.
Somehow, Corzine mislaid $1,600,000,000.00 of customer money. He says he has no idea where it went. "Search me."

Note that this happened in 2011. It appears the finance capitalists did not learn anything in 2008. Nothing new, anyway.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Feets, do yo' stuff

Bloomberg News reports that the Army is planning to shrink by 12 brigades, about 4 divisions.

Invasions by state armies are almost unheard of any more.

Anything our army is asked to do will be more in the nature of a police action. Preferably, we would just support the national police of a functioning state under stress, but that isn't the kind of place we go.

If you are policing, you need feet on the beat. Therefore, more infantry, not less.

Did we learn nothing in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Yes, we learned nothing.

Monday, June 24, 2013

How ignorant are Texas rightwingers?

Unbelievably ignorant. Unless you've spent time in Texas, as I have, or unless you know Texas political history.

Although Wikipedia debunks the idea that Gov. Ma Ferguson really said: “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it ought to be good enough for the children of Texas.”

I actually knew many Christians in the South, not only in Texas, who would have thought that.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Guess who's coming to dinner

To an outsider, one of the odder sights in international relations is the steadfast support from Russia for the Alawite regime in Syria. As the government over a lot of unhappy Muslims, few of whom will sympathize with Alawite Islam, it seems self-destructive.

It probably is, but taking the long view, there could  be a reason for it.

Lately the Russian foreign ministry found a new reason to disdain the rebels: cannibalism. The Voice of Russia reports the ministry as saying:

 The recent resolution looks weird, particularly in the light of video footages of late where a Syrian rebel commander was caught in an act of cannibalism. Vladimir Isayev of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, reports:
"The recent resolution could affect preparations for the Geneva II conference. It should have been preceded by another one which would require sponsors to the Syrian opposition to discontinue their supply of weapons and money until the opposition got rid of savages who practice cannibalism. Such behavior is barbaric beyond reason."
Russia has not always been offended by Syrian cannibalism:
In a December 1973 address to the National Assembly, Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass stated that he had awarded one soldier the Medal of the Republic for killing 28 Israeli prisoners with an axe, decapitating three of them and eating the flesh of one of his victims.
It is only stating the obvious that, viewed from the perspective of foreign policy, the Bolshevik revolution in Russia never really happened. Russian policy -- aggressive, expansionist and unproductive -- has hardly changed over the past 300 years. Syria is as good an example as any.

There are no obvious reasons for Russia to be interested in Syria, but about 150 years ago the tsarist empire declared itself the protector of the holy places in Palestine, where Greek Orthodox fanatics were squabbling murderously with Latin Christian and Muslim fanatics. The Russian Orthodox church sought supremacy over other Orthodox sects, in part for religious reasons, in part in support of the state's drive for influence in the Balkans and Asia Minor, part of Russia's yearning for a warm-water seaport.

All Russia got out of that was the Crimean War. Nevertheless, having formed a habit of supporting Syria, it kept at it.

(Syria in those days encompassed all the Arab regions from south of Asia Minor to somewhere in Arabia and east to somewhere in Mesopotamia. There was no separate Lebanon or Palestine in most peoples' consciousness.)

The Bolsheviks had few opportunities to meddle in Syria. Russia was almost prostrate, and France was busy establishing itself as the protector of Latin Christian interests there. (300,000 Syrians, more or less, died in the process but no one thought it a humanitarian crisis worth bothering about.) The Syrians themselves were inclined to ally with the Nazis as the most effective antagonists of the French.

After World War II, Russia followed a traditional course, supporting Syria, although hardly coherently. It was the first to recognize the state of Israel, but did not lose interest in Syria, despite the anti-French postcolonialist regimes' decidedly fascist tone. The suicidally radical Syrian regimes were soon replaced by a slightly more temperate group of cannibals.

With Syria as a launching pad, the USSR sought to increase its influence throughout southwest Asia and northeast Africa, concentrating, for some reason, on places without oil.

Perhaps it was just force of habit.

Anyway, it is difficult to see what Russia got in exchange for its very expensive sponsorship. Various medieval regimes (Iraq, Libya) fell but not to be replaced with any version of communism, except in Yemen, the least valuable prize in the region.

In 1973, having lost its toehold in Egypt, at least partly because the Egyptian regime distrusted the Syrian regime, Russia found itself backing Syria in the Yom Kippur War. It had to face off the United States to do it, and possibly it saw that as necessary in order to preserve the antiAmerican Syrian and other regimes in the area.

This was very expensive in arms and prestige and got Russia, at best, least-bad rewards.

If it meant allying itself with cannibal savages, well, in those days that was a price the Kremlin was ready to pay.

It is difficult to see why Russia supports Syria today, unless it is fellow-feeling of one fascist regime for another.

As for the United States, which has never had much influence in Syria (as a government; American missionaries had a lot to do with fostering Syrian nationalist aspirations), it seems about to follow the tsarists into the Syrian quagmire. If our new allies prove to be cannibals, well, it wouldn't be the first time.


Saturday, June 22, 2013

Found Sounds 15: Hello NSA

Although RtO has blogged about Roy Zimmerman before ("Catching Up with Roy Zimmerman," July 11, 2011), it never dubbed him a Found Sound. An oversight, for sure, since Zimmerman is the wittiest singing satirist around.

A good introduction, and topical though written in 2006, is "Hello NSA." An updated version has recently gone up on Youtube.

Commenter The Scowling Schnauzer sez:

Finally! I've been wanting to link this video in response to every NSA joke on the internet. Altho it's a bummer my favorite line has been taken out - "Oh...won't you pleeeease-ah...tell...Condoleeeeeza...I ordered...extra cheeeese-ah...and I love her." I guess that's about as funny to kids as a Walter Mondale joke, but it still tickles my funny bone.
Which is apt.

 The hook line is "you really listen," although that does not seem to be the case. At least not so far as the phone records revelations indicate.

RtO does not trust the government not to intercept its calls, emails and sidelong glances, having grown up during the Cold War when Red Squads of ignorant boobs in local police forces trailed liberals around. (And not only here and not only then:

McLibel leaflet was co-written by undercover police officer Bob Lambert)

 From the Guardian, and isn't that more interesting and more unnerving that Greenwald's revelations that the NSA is hunting for people who are actually out to get me?

Well, well, well. RtO vindicated on guns (again)

I have mentioned several times -- more on other forums than here -- that debaters of the Second Amendment, pro or con, are on shaky ground when they turn their attention to the part about a "well-regulated militia."

Foes of overly-gunning America sometimes suggest that the only people who can claim a constitutional right to having firearms are those in a militia.

Fans of too many guns like to portray themselves as Minute Men who are the only people standing between jack-booted government thugs and the people.

Both are on the wrong track. The United States has never had a well-regulated militia. When I say this, I am thinking primarily of the various disasters of the militia in colonial days and, especially, during the War of 1812; and of events like the Ludlow massacre.

But also of the drunkenness, violence and general dam-foolishness that were a common feature of militia training days.

I know about the latter because over the past 50 years of miscellaneous reading in American subjects, I many times ran across off-hand remarks indicating that it was a commonplace to refer to the indiscipline of the militia. But I was not taking notes, so you'd have had to take my word for it.

Anybody familiar with American writing of the colonial and early Republic would have encountered the same.

But while following from link to link about another matter, I was led to this brilliant piece by Chris Rodda, senior research director of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. She is debunking the Christian bigot David Barton. And she presents (quoting from old newspapers) evidence of exactly the sort of badly-regulated militia that I referred to:

There were also numerous accidents on militia training days. A good number of these accidents happened during actual training, but many more happened before and after the actual training, and were caused by militiamen playing with their guns and showing off. A frequent cause of these training day accidents was the practice of a group of militiamen going to an officer's house to "give him a gun" or "give him a morning gun," which meant showing up early in the morning to "salute" the officer by waking him up with loud gunfire.

The main thrust of Rodda's piece is about gun wounds and fatalities involving young children:

I found a plethora of articles about hunting accidents and other accidental shootings among adults, but what I primarily want to focus here on the accidents involving children, since Barton's claim is that all children were taught to use guns and that is why there were no gun accidents.
This is a just small sampling of the articles I found, many of which, as you'll see, sound just like the articles you see today -- most of them ending with warnings to parents about leaving guns around children or letting children play with guns, and many of them noting that gun accidents were a very frequent occurrence:

As RtO observed the other day about the new gun nut campaign using the slogan "I am the NRA," what it really means is "I don't care who gets hurt."

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Book Review 286: The Last Knight

THE LAST KNIGHT: The Twilight of the Middle Ages and the Birth of the Modern Era, by Norman F. Cantor. 260 pages, illustrated. Free Press, $25

In “The Last Knight,” Norman Cantor attempts the difficult feat of pinning a civilization to the wall at the instant it changes, using the life of John of Gaunt.

Although I am an admirer of Cantor’s earlier medieval histories, “Last Knight” is not so successful, for two reasons.

First, Gaunt left no personal statements, so that while Cantor can guess at his conflicted attitudes toward Chaucer and Wyclif, these are at best guesses. Maybe good guesses, maybe not.

Second, while Cantor made his high reputation on both style and substance, “Last Knight” is repetitive and clumsily organized. Cantor hints that the chapters were written originally as separate essays, and if so, they should have been reworked to make a book.

On the other hand, Cantor is now an emeritus and free to insert himself into history in ways he did not in the past. A constant theme is to compare Gaunt, who was the richest man in Europe who was not a king, to today’s American billionaires.

In fact, today’s billionaires are pikers of Cantor’s admittedly rough estimate of Gaunt’s assets and income are accurate. He was more or less as rich as today’s top two billionaires combined.

But this is not just a simile made in an attempt to place a distant and very different world into a framework we can understand. It is also a sustained attack on today’s finance capitalism. Cantor’s barbs are worth thinking about and fun (for me, who shares some of his attitudes) to read but perhaps detract more than they add to his thesis.

Writing of the Plantagenets (Gaunt’s royal family), Cantor says, “they had no pity for the peasants or the poor in general. . . . This was the culture of domination the Plantagenets communicated to the world, and it is still common among the rich and powerful.”

This is not entirely fair to today’s billionaires. Some are indeed brutal bullies, but not all, and this is one difference between moderns and premoderns. The recognition of a common humanity is an innovation of the moderns that Cantor does not recognize (at least, not here).

Cantor is worth reading even when he falls short of his previous standards. We have to take his word for it that various statements he makes about the middle ages are well-founded, as the book is too short to offer evidence instead of dicta.

Here is his summary of Gaunt: “at bottom a moderate person who accepted the world he had been born into, sought to affect it at the margins, but never used his wealth and image to confront and change his world. . . . He was an enlightened and energetic aristocrat who lived at the dividing line between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.” 

The market is never wrong

Or so the free market fans assure us. So today the stock market fell about 2.5% on the news that the economy is improving.

Calling out a McCarthyite -- without mentioning Joe

RtO is far from the only observer to have noted that Texas senator and (as Wonkette puts it, Canada anchor baby) Ted Cruz uses the Joe McCarthy playbook.

He's prettier than McCarthy and not, so far as I know, a drunk, so he might turn out to be more dangerous.

Here is a devastating critique of Cruz's immigration stance that lays out the McCarthyite tactics, although Professor Professor Stephen Lubet is too polite or judicious to use the M-word.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Out of the way info

On Facebook, I am bombarded with anti-GMO, anti-Monsanto rants. So far, all the claims I have seen are ridiculous, but RtO hasn't addressed this. That might happen.

However, at LGF I noticed a link to an anti-anti-GMO article at a Website called Science Based Medicine. I've bookmarked it.

Not so much because it has excellent, clear posts on GMO, although it does, but because it looks like a treasure house of the kind of oddball information I like but haven't time to pursue myself. For example, the dope on skin tags.

Careful readers always get my vote, especially when they are restating the obvious. Here is SBM's comment about the ingredient list on a quack cure for skin tags: "Cedar leaf oil = Thuja occidentalis. It’s just another name for the active ingredient, yet it is listed as an inactive additive."

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Book Review 285: The Battle of the Tanks, Kursk, 1943

THE BATTLE OF THE TANKS, KURSK, 1943, by Lloyd Clark. 468 pages, illustrated. Atlantic Monthly, $30

When the western Allies finally opened the “real” second front in June 1944, Stalin was underwhelmed. The panicky calls for a “second front now” in 1942 were genuine.

The Soviets had defeated the Germans in September 1941 -- the Wehrmacht was weakening each day after that -- and if they could hold on, they would win whether or not there was a second front. But it was not clear they could hold on.

It would be interesting to know what was going on in that massive but convoluted brain of Stalin’s. By 1944, did he even want a second front? The help of the western democracies would shorten and cheapen the war for Russia, but Stalin took long views and was, so far as anyone can tell, unaffected by immediate costs.

With no invasion in western Europe, the old revolutionary would have had a free hand in Europe.

The battle of Kursk finally made it clear to anyone that Germany would not prevail. Lloyd Clark calls it “the greatest set piece battle in the history of war.”

“The Battle of the Tanks” is a disappointing look at it. The book has many good points, although the maps are not one of them. But despite its considerable length, it leaves much untouched.

For example, since this was the biggest tank battle of all time (although it is a grim thing to recognize that the tank battles in southwest Asia in 1973, between insignificant states, not superpowers, were in a similar class), it would have been well to have a summary of the characteristics of the various armored vehicles. This is available, in mind-numbing detail, elsewhere in the books designed to attract the creepy armchair war lovers, but it ought to have been here, too.

Clark relies heavily on the Red Army and English war correspondents, which is a good thing. Less use is made of the German reporters. It is hard to guess why.

Clark hammers the theme of flawed intelligence on the German side. The paranoid police state isolation of the USSR turned out to be a huge strategic asset. The Germans  had no real idea about how big Soviet industrial might had become and always underestimated it.

Considering that they (the Nazis, anyway) were supposed to  be intellectual disciples of Karl Haushofer who predicted the greatest concentration of political-economic power would be in the “world island,” which was, broadly, the USSR, this is surprising -- if we grant that the Nazis thought very deeply about anything, which they didn’t.

But even at the tactical level, the Germans (like the Japanese) had a fatal tendency to define rather than investigate their enemy. Clark states it well:

“From their many intelligence sources, the Soviets gained a full and well-rounded picture of their enemy and his intentions. But they made a concerted attempt to disguise this from the Germans, allowing them to think that they had maintained operational surprise by leaving them to go about their business unmolested.”

The Germans advanced into a trap. The Russians had prepared a defense of unbelievable depth. The Russian preparation was on a level of genius like Wellington’s at Torres Vedras.

There are a few errors indicating poor editorial work. The Nazis were not the largest party in the Reichstag at the end of the Weimar republic; General Warlimont’s name was Walter, not Alfred; and a few more.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Book Review 284: Hitler's Final Fortress Breslau 1945

(Almost through with the stack of books on the Eastern Front; new topics coming soon.)

HITLER'S FINAL FORTRESS BRESLAU 1945, by Richard Hargreaves. 268 pages, illustrated. Pen & Sword, $50

The siege of Breslau is mentioned often in the final diary entries of Josef Goebbels. The stand by “dear Hanke” did much to reinforce the Nazi propaganda minister’s fanaticism.

He did all he could to build up the same feelings in the German people. How much that had to do with the stability of German resistance will always be a question.

Of Goebbels’ fanaticism there can be no doubt. His sincerity is another matter. Karl Hanke, the brutal Nazi sent to organize the defense, had cuckolded Goebbels. Goebbels possibly regretted Hanke’s death (under uncertain circumstances) less than he claimed.

In any event, Richard Hargreaves has written a good account of a battle that turned out to have no significance in the war fighting, but in the aftermath reversed a major turning point in European history: Stalin saw to it that Poland recovered Silesia, of which Breslau is the capital.

It was the conquest of Silesia by rural, poor, backward Brandenburg-Prussia that provided the underpinnings for the development of the industrialized, aggressive modern Prussian state.

Hargreaves gives only the barest hint that the long siege (the longest on the German side of the Russo-German war, though nothing like as long as the siege of Leningrad) was due less to fierce German resistance than to a political game played by Stalin.

Hitler’s theory of “fortresses” assumed that the forces need to invest and reduce a fortress would weaken the power of the overall Red Army offensive. If ever true, it was no longer so early in 1945 when the Russians could detach an army to Breslau without noticing. (If anything, and here Hargreaves does not comment, the Red Army’s long supply lines meant that detaching an army made it that much simpler to get enough munitions to the mobile front.)

It appears that Stalin was content to leave Breslau untaken until his army of Polish communists, busy elsewhere early in 1945, could be sent to Silesia to oversee the clearance of Germans from the province.

The defense force was so small and poorly equipped that it seems the Russians could have overwhelmed it any time they wanted.

If this explains the odd strategy of the Red Army, it heaped extra misery on the civilians of Breslau. But in a brutal clearance as the cordon was being formed, the Germans already had expelled a huge mob of desperate people with no preparation. It is thought that 80,000 perished in the blizzards that covered them, those not shot down by the Russians.

After the fall, the Poles ruthlessly drove the Germans out. This was one episode of the clearance of about 12 million Germans from the East. It was this rolling back of an ethnic advance that had been going on for over 700 years that has meant that eastern Europe has not created any war scares over the past seven decades.

Excising Silesia from Germany, although it has left a small, irritating band of irredentists in Germany, had the important benefit for Russia of making any revived German fascist state militarily weaker.

Silesia is now the economic heart of Poland, with its capital, Wroclaw, which was Breslau and is today almost empty of Germans.

Friday, June 14, 2013


It does seem like kind of a long while since I've been able to point to somebody stating tge obvious so I can restate it. But here's a repeat that seems so obvious that it's astonishing that it took several days for somebody -- Kurt Eichenwald at Vanity Fair -- to say it:

(And before someone launches into the “F.I.S.A. is secret” wail, remember this: so are grand-jury investigations that result in subpoenas being issued in criminal cases.)
As are Family Court, legal disciplinary proceedings and much else.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Thumb drive follies

I don't know anything really about computer security, but I've read a few books about it. One thing I learned -- or thought I'd learned -- a long time ago was that thumb drives were a big threat but easily defeated: Just epoxy the USB ports.

I brought this up with a computer security expert some 20 years ago, and he told me, more or less, "We don't do that any more. We have internal methods that are better."

Seemed wrongheaded to me then, but what do I know? It's like keeping deadly weapons locked up where 4-year-olds cannot get at them. Seems a simple enough solution to me.

So how did Bradley Manning smuggle out his secrets? Thumb drive.

And Snowden? Thumb drive again, according to the Los Angeles Times.

My son-in-law has a security clearance, and at his facility (which I visited on family day last year), you cannot bring in a cellphone, or a camera (I was allowed to use a camera on the grounds outside).

This is in Hawaii, not far from the NSA offices where Snowden worked. Apparently the Air Force takes computer security more seriously than Booz Allen does.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

'Just a tragic accident'

In gun-very-friendly-Arizona, a father and his 4-year-old boy visit a friend. The friend has a gun "for protection" or, possibly, to amuse idle 4-year-olds.

Boy shoots dad. Dad dies. "Just a tragic accident," say police. Move along, nothing to see here.

The National Rifle Association has started a new publicity campaign that goes: "I am the NRA and I believe 'shall not be infringed' means exactly that."

More accurate would be, "I am the NRA and I don't give a damn who gets hurt."

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Forget guns, the rightwing is coming for your paycheck

RtO has had a little fun with Kenneth Rogoff, the spreadsheet-challenged rightwing Harvard economist, but that doesn't mean he is not worth reading. Not worth trusting, yes.

From the New Straits Times, a think piece about deflation actually comes to the same mantra that RtO has preached since its start in 2008 -- deflation is the baddest of the bad, because nobody knows how to counteract it, while inflation can be dealt with by using methods that are by now fairly well developed.

However, RtO is not interested in having Rogoff making like-minded statements. Just the opposite, if anything.

No, the reason his screed is worth a few moments of your time is the (unintentional I'm sure) revelation of what rightwing Teaconomists are really all about: This:

Back then, against a backdrop of government reluctance to force debt write-downs, along with massively over-valued real housing prices and excessive real wages in some sectors, moderate inflation would have been extremely helpful.

Wages are too high. Got it.

Later he returns to the scene of the crime:

 There is still a need for huge relative wage adjustments between Europe's periphery and its core.

He means the poor are not yet poor enough. Still later, he waves the magic wand in the invisible hand:

 But higher inflation would help to accelerate desperately needed adjustment in Europe’s commercial banks, where many loans remain on the books at far above market value. It would also provide a backdrop against which wages in Germany could rise without necessarily having to fall in the periphery.
Apparently, we are to worry more about paying well-paid, socialist Germans more than about paying Romanians enough to eat.

If you excised the quoted lines from Rogoff, a reader could be led to think that the piece had been written by Professor Krugman.

There is yet one more line from Rogoff that RtO rolls over on the tongue and savors:

 Weighed against the political, social and economic risks of continued slow growth after a once-in-a-century financial crisis, a sustained burst of moderate inflation is not something to worry about.

Well, it wasn't "once-in-a-century." It was twice in a century. The big gap between 1929 and 2008 was occupied by the New Deal. 

Monday, June 10, 2013

Smacked upside the head by an invisible hand

Couple of years ago, after a raucous fight over the right of assembly in Wisconsin (the Republicans were agin it), leftists were saying we-told-you-so about the subsequent failure of the state's economy to boom, especially as compared with neighbor Michigan, where antisyndicalism had not yet taken hold.

Well, that was then. We have since had a national election and the whole economy has begun to revive somewhat. Surely Wisconsin, having shucked off the carapace of sclerotic statism, is leading the way.

Not according to the Federal Reserve.

Wages are declining faster than anyplace else, except -- surprise -- gas-boomy Wyoming.

The librul Milwaukee Journal Sentinel opines:

 Even in a slow recovery, Wisconsin has been on the caboose. Few if any economists appear to have pinpointed the exact reasons, which has opened the issue to political posturing over economic policy from both sides.
Silly economists. I think we can figure it out without them.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Bernie Madoff was a piker

If you really want to steal, Russia is the place:

All this speaks of incompetence, but what really irritates shareholders is the company’s enormous waste and corruption. This takes various forms, such as asset stripping. The most egregious form is excessive capital spending.
Analysts at the state-controlled Sberbank (SBER) assess that Gazprom would need $11 billion a year for its gas production, but in 2011 its capital expenditure soared from an originally planned level of $27 billion to $53 billion. It stopped at $43.2 billion last year.
The analysts call this excess expenditure “value destruction,” which is their euphemism for waste and corruption, amounting to $30 billion to $40 billion a year. Investment analysts in Moscow suggest privately that two-thirds of this might be sheer corruption, while the rest is wasteful overinvestment. Corruption at that level may explain the poor management of the company’s official business.

This is from a Bloomberg News piece.

It tends to confirm several obvious things about Russia that drive the rightwingers wild:

1. Regime in and regime out, Russia doesn't change much.

2. Reagan didn't cause the downfall of Russian communism. It fell from its inability to manage the domestic economy, in particular agriculture. (Russian ag is still a mess, as it has been forever, but its overall importance in economic output is relatively less because of greater resource extraction, mainly oil and gas.)

3. The poor performance of the USSR economy is completely explained by a) Russia's eternal incompetence; and b) the destruction caused by a series of capitalist (imperialist and/or fascist) invasions (with about 30 million people slaughtered, mostly in their most productive years).

It may be that Bolshevism is a lousy way to organize a production system, but you cannot prove it from the Russian experience.

Nor can you from the so-called liberalization since the end of the USSR. The free market experts (in their own eyes, anyway) thought what Russia needed was an electronic stock exchange when what it really needed were all-weather farm roads and modern on-farm grain silos.

And less ideology of every brand.

(One of the stupidest women of the 20th C., Lady Astor (an American raised with all the prejudices and ignorance of te Virginia FFVs, but also the first woman elected to the House of Commons), was offered by the Bolshevik government some tsarist-era jewelry at a bargain price. "I don't buy," she said, "stolen property." Proving she did not understand thievery at all. That was in the late '20s. Ten years later she was a big Hitler fan.)

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Book Review 283: Eastern Inferno

EASTERN INFERNO: The Journals of a German Panzerjager on the Eastern Front, 1941-43, edited by Christine Alexander and Mason Kunze. 240 pages, illustrated. Casemate, $32.95

I have read a number of memoirs by German soldiers who fought in Russia and found them all revealing, sometimes unintentionally so; but none so much as the posthumous journals of Hans Roth.

The editors are his grandchildren.

Such journals as always suspect of selective editing, but I see no suggestion of that here.

For those interested in the big picture, some early entries are revealing. As early as July 12, 1941, when the invasion was barely three weeks along, Roth writes, “We have been humbled during these dreadful days.” The Red Army, contrary to the expectations of the high command, was fighting back.

A month later, Roth writes, “My group has dramatically shrunk in size . . . we cannot get replacements.”

Germany was already losing the war. By September, we now know, it had lost. It was too small to prevail over a huge Soviet Union that was prepared to resist.

On Sept. 26, Roth, in a pause in the battle, goes out to see the sights, and the sight he sees is a mass murder of Jews. This may have been the famous execution ground of Babi Yar.

The sight loosens his bowels, but not with pity for the Jews. No, he worries about the callousness of the 19-year-old executioner he meets. “What will happen when these people return to the homeland, back to their brides and women?”

Here the notorious self-pity of the German superman is displayed as starkly as it ever has been.

Just three days after witnessing the mass murder of perhaps 30,000 helpless people, Roth finds himself ruminating on the evils of Bolshevism, “which has consciously destroyed everything soulful, everything individual and private that also makes up the character and value of a human being.”

He does not say – or if he did, the editors left it out – that Jews are not humans, but we must suppose that was how he thought. The whole passage (pages 112-113) is amazingly close to the famous secret speech Himmler gave to his SS officers on their duty to “be hard.”

Roth, however, was an ordinary enlisted man. We see here how pervasive the Nazi ideology was throughout the German people.

The three surviving notebooks that were given to Roth's wife do not display a person who was, in his own mind, depraved. But they do show how smoothly the little cogs worked in the big engine of evil.

In the whole diary, there is only one statement that can be considered a moral reflection on what Roth was doing. In February 1942, when the German army was being pressed hard, Roth writes, “We know that all of this is asked of us because the greater purpose of the war demands it of us.”

What this greater purpose was, Roth never says. Cleanse the world of Bolshevism? Of Jews? Defend Germany? All of those?

One of his last surviving entries, when his desperate unit was trying to break out of a Red Army encirclement, provides a foretaste of what the rest of the war was going to be like for the landser (grunt): “Nobody helps you any more; everyone is on his own.”

Roth fought another 17 months. His grandchildren are certain that he was carrying a fourth volume of his diary when he disappeared somewhere in the maelstrom of Operation Bagration. But the three volumes we still have are enough.

What will we know and when will we know it?

The National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine suggest a program of research into gun use, since, they say, we don't know very precisely what we do with our unknown total number of firearms.

Well, maybe not, but 45 years in the newspaper business gave me a pretty good idea of the kind of things guns are used for.

In comments to the linked report, the gun nuts are quick to announce that they don't need no steenkin' data, they know.

Query, since the gun nuts stymied research on the federal dime for nearly 20 years, wouldn't this have been a good subject for a privately-funded program of research?

Friday, June 7, 2013

Book Review 282: The Men of Barbarossa

THE MEN OF BARBAROSSA: Commanders of the German Invasion of Russia, 1941, by Samuel W. Mitcham Jr. 296 pages, illustrated. Casemate, $32.95

I cannot figure out the point of Samuel Mitcham's book. A study of the leadership of the biggest military operation in history (up to that time) and why it failed would be valuable. But “The Men of Barbarossa” is not that.

We are given the postings of the various commanders when they were junior officers, which tells us nothing about their development as commanders. Sometimes we are told the names of their daughters, or at times that they were unhappily married.

Apparently Mitcham put in whatever he had, without any thought.

There is not even a general discussion about the education and training of German officers. This can be found elsewhere but should have been found here, too.

Most went from gymnasium (high school) to a cadet school, producing a caste of men with narrow outlooks and vast areas about which they were ignorant. With the Nazi officers, the situation was different. Some were highly educated in the civilian system (many doctorates), and some were basically dropouts.

As a result, these men were incapable of understanding even simple management questions. Here and there, Mitcham (who clearly knows a lot about the subject) drops a factoid that illuminates.

Georg Thomas, one of the rare educated generals, who headed the economics office, tried to tell the operational leadership that the manpower replacements available in late 1941 were no more than about 430,000 men.

If the German army suffered more than 430,000 casualties, it would start weakening. This mark was passed in September, when Russia had won the war.

No one (except perhaps Thomas) knew it at the time, but the decision had been achieved – so long as the Russians were able to replace their losses, which they did.

Also, there is no discussion of a very obvious problem faced by the German army in its officer supply. Every historian of the Russo-German mentions, at greater or less length, the handicap faced by the Red Army because most of its trained officers had been murdered in 1937-38.

Few, if any – although this book by Mitcham would be an obvious place for the topic to be addressed – bother to note that the Germans faced the exact same problem.

They had not shot nearly as many of their experienced officers as the Russians had, but the number of experienced officers they had was small (because of the Versailles Treaty restrictions), and not nearly enough to staff an army that was 40 times larger (by the opening of Barbarossa) than it had been eight years earlier.

But Mitcham does not discuss this either.

Funniest headline so far this year

From the Guardian:

Why France is gearing up for a culture war with the United States

As if the ones in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Mali are not enough (have I forgotten  any?).

I barely skimmed the story but apparently it is about financing movies. Aux barricades!

Well, the French have given us some very good ideas, like liberte, egalite, fraternite; and some very bad ones, like fascism.

But I don't think this one is worth fighting over.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Book Review 281: Ostfront 1944

OSTFRONT 1944: The German Defensive Battles on the Russian Front, by Alex Buchner. 304 pages, illustrated. Schiffer

Today (June 6) many Americans are commemorating the invasion of Normandy in 1944, called the “biggest invasion in history.”

It was the biggest seaborne invasion, but few Americans know that a much bigger invasion began on June 22, 1944, when the Red Army began Operation Bagration against the German Army Group Center.

Ostfront 1944,” although it is very narrowly focused, gives an excellent sense of the overwhelming size and strength of the Red Army's advance.

The size of the German forces in France and in Army Group Center in White Russia in June 1944 were comparable. The size of the Red Army dwarfed that of the combined forces of the western allies. And it outnumbered the Germans anywhere up to 10 to 1, except in aviation, where the Luftwaffe was virtually absent.

Alex Buchner, a company commander in the German army in the East, is concerned here only to tell how the German forces reacted and what difficulties they faced. He makes clear that the incompetent orders from the High Command (meaning Hitler) added to the German disasters, but the Red Army was going to prevail anyway.

The speed of the victory was blinding. The Normandy Allies were stuck in bitter fighting in hedgerow country for a month. The Red Army blasted through and obliterated divisions, corps and armies in two or three days.

Later in the summer, farther south, the Red Army obliterated an entire army (the Sixth) in 48 hours.

These were battles of annihilation – it was no coincidence that Bagration began on the third anniversary of the German invasion of the Soviet Union. In the Sixth Army, one division of 12,000 had one survivor. In Army Group Center, there were several examples of divisions that lost up to 99% of their strength.

In “Ostfront 1944” there are a few narratives of individual Germans or groups that made their way through enemy lines to their own after up to 80 days of scrabbling through the forests. But the numbers were tiny.

In instance after instance, after organized resistance ceased, “battle groups” or “breakout groups” of hundreds or thousands of men were harried and killed till only one or two, in some cases none survived.

Buchner barely mentions the civilian population, and only once or twice barely alludes to the atrocities committed by the Germans up to the 1944 defeats.

The Germans often left their badly wounded, expecting them to be murdered, which they usually were, although the usual German obtuseness and self-pity is evident all over “Ostfront 1944.”

For example, in the first instance when Buchner describes a reluctant decision to abandon wounded, he mentions that they were entitled to kind treatment “as per international law.” How typical of the Germans to call on the protection of international laws they never respected themselves.

Buchner makes much of the harsh, often murderous treatment of the German prisoners of war; but says nothing about the even worse treatment by his army of the Russian POWs.

Ostfront 1944” is clearly written by and for Germans and to give a later generation of them a lively sense of the suffering of theor armies and the ineptitude of Germany's leaders.

So far it succeeds. But as history otherwise it is dishonest and misleading.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

AOG is right about Chi-town

The biggest civil case I ever covered in 45 years resulted in a $52 million judgment; it was the biggest in Hawaii history.

The loser was a Chicago banker (who lived in Maui, which is how we got venue).

It was a few years ago, and today I was telling the story to a friend. I couldn't remember the banker's name, but Google led me to the Chicago Tribune story.

Four -- count 'em, 4 -- sentences.

I dunno how much you have to take to get four paragraphs. It's a tough town.

And, in case you're wondering, as of the last time I checked, the plaintiffs hadn't recovered a penny.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Once and for all, it wasn't the CRA

The diabolically devious socialist Obama has dished the Tories by nominating a particularly repulsive finance capitalist to his Cabinet, paying off a campaign debt and -- here's the sweet part -- trashing the desperately held belief of the rightwingers that it was the Community Reinvestment Act that crashed the economy in 2008 and not unsupervised financial markets.

Bloomberg  has the story.

Let's set the stage. In 1999, the intellectual father of the crash, Sen. Gramm, buffaloed Congress into dismantling the safety device set up by the New Deal to divide banks into safe and prudent places to sequester money and risky places to gamble with one's own or (usually) other people's money. From then on, all banks were hot money banks. If they didn't take big risks, they couldn't attract money and would wither away.

Meantime in Chicago, the Pritzkers had feasted on the juicy corpse of another Reaganite experiment in look-the-other-way regulation by buying a busted S&L. Over the next years, they sucked the life out of that bank (to the tune of $200 mil) and by about 2000 it was broke.

They could either put in more capital or:

In a May 2001 letter to the bank’s management and employees -- just two months before its closure -- Pritzker detailed a plan to revive the institution with an expansion into subprime lending. She wrote that her family was devising a $351 million recapitalization plan for the bank.
“Your resolve and dedication is a primary reason for the past successes of the bank and will once again restore Superior’s leadership position in subprime lending,” she wrote. “Our commitment to subprime lending has never been stronger and we are fully expecting to participate in restoring the bank’s presence through strong product lines and continued growth.”

Note this move into liar loans was purely voluntary on the bankers' part. They were not fulfilling any requirements under the CRA.

Later, surveying the wreckage, regulators concluded:

Subprime loans typically are given to people with the weakest credit, charging higher interest to cover the bigger risk of default, and Superior’s collapse turned out to be a preview of the financial crisis that came later in the decade.

With $1.9 billion in assets as of March 2001, Superior became undercapitalized because it overstated its holdings and used shoddy accounting, the Office of Thrift Supervision said in a July 2001 statement.

Superior “also suffered from poor lending practices, improper record-keeping and accounting, and ineffective board and management supervision,” the OTS said.

None of that was required by the CRA. But it sounds a lot like the S&L adventure under Reagan.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Birthday present

I don't read many new novels, and I usually regret it when I do. However, Helen Fielding has announced a third Bridget Jones book, due out on my birthday.

For anyone who also likes Bridget, you could do a lot worse in the meantime than read Fielding's first novel, "Cause Celeb," whose heroine is very Bridget-like. The book packs a punch, too, it's not just a novel of manners.

It was so little regarded that it wasn't even published in the US until after "Bridget Jones' Diary" became a big success.

I learned from the Guardian story that the Bridget movies were not popular in the US. Can't say I'm surprised. The books were much funnier.

Book Review 280: Enemy at the Gates

ENEMY AT THE GATES: The Battle for Stalingrad, by William Craig.  457 pages illustrated. Konecky

I read William Craig’s “Enemy at the Gates” when it was published in 1973. Rereading it 40 years later, I was struck by how sketchy the military history is.

It’s there, but details are lacking. In part this was because the Russians had not revealed that much about their great victory. Walter Kerr, who was a correspondent during the battle, did not publish “The Secret of Stalingrad,” based on a visit to the then-new battle museum, until 1978.

But Craig’s outline of victory and defeat stands up well.

Another reason for his approach could have been Cornelius Ryan. Ryan’s “The Longest Day” was a huge bestseller. Craig adopts his technique – then novel but now practically obligatory – following the adventures of a few dozen men and women, with minimal connecting narrative.

Stalingrad may have been, as Craig says, the biggest battle of all time. It provided plenty of incident. Some were memorable. The pilgrimage of the lonely, trapped German soldiers to worship – there is hardly a better word for it – a lathe made in Germany that they found in a Russian tank factory stuck in my mind for four decades.

Yet another reason for the presentation of Stalingrad as a human rather than a political drama may have been less consciously chosen. In 1973, American triumphalism was still near it peak. We had defeated Hitler, and the Eastern Front was mysterious, less important and slightly ridiculous sideshow to the main event in France.

Only a few westerners, mostly European leftists, bought the USSR’s claims that it had been the dominant foe in the fight against Hitlerism.

To accept that stuck in the craw of proud Americans, and especially of the 100% Americans who would (in many cases) have preferred making common cause with Hitler against Russin Bolshevism.

Nonetheless, history really is on the side of the big battalions  and today most historians have come around to the realization that Russia had defeated Germany in 1941, before the United States had begun to fight.

Most ridiculous spiritual belief?

So much to choose from, but right now I'm leaning toward "god never sends you more adversity than you can deal with."

A man I went to high school with has been spamming Facebook with this version:

How many of you want to succeed? Embrace adversity. It is your preparation for greatness. Did you see that one coming? God is the ultimate strategist. His way will pave the way for us not the other way around. But we must TRUST Him no matter what we face! Trust is the key.