Yemen – Still a Bad Place

Suez's little brother

A tricky neighborhood

And you probably thought the Yemen posts were done. Wrong! There just wasn’t much to report for a while.

Yesterday a group of Houthis launched a suicide attack on a Saudi naval vessel in the Red Sea, a short distance north of the Bab al-Mandeb, killing at least two sailors.  Early reports indicate three suicide boats attacked the Saudi frigate and at least  one caused damage and casualties. Things seem to have been quiet on the maritime front since October, but it’s picking up again. Stand by for more developments in February.

Remember, what goes on near this particular strait, even if it only concerns the locals, will end up touching us eventually. So take note.

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Units of Measurement

The real reason Bill Gates got rich

The real reason Bill Gates got rich

It’s official: Millennials really are worse off than their Baby Boomer parents. Adjusted for inflation, today’s 25- to 34-year old set is earning about 20 percent less than its equivalent cohort in 1989, according to the group Young Invincibles. This despite all that education that’s supposed to pay off.

Left unsaid: The Boomer generation is a terrible unit of measurement.

A recurring fallacy in American culture and politics is the idea that somehow conditions in the 1950s and early 1960s – coincidentally, when many Baby Boomers were growing up – is the natural norm. Nothing could be further from the truth. Not that I was there, as I’m one of those poor Millennials. But a little knowledge of history can get you a long way.

Let’s put it this way: If we ever have it that good again, we’re screwed.

The parents of the Boomer generation handed them two enormous gifts: a world where every industrial state outside North America was pulverized by war, and a giant section of that very same world walled off behind the Iron Curtain.

Anyone who wanted any high-end product after World War II had to buy it from an American (or possibly an enterprising Canadian). As a result, the U.S. could afford enormous wages and social programs because money was coming its way; all the competitors were still rebuilding. Accentuating this, offshoring production wasn’t possible when possible sites were either still bombed out or under Communist control. Domestically, the Cold War also induced enormous defense spending that, irrespective of deficits, provided great wages and benefits in the moment.

Over the years, Western Europe and Japan rebuilt and became powerhouses in their own right by the 1980s, but the groundwork had been laid in previous decades for continued U.S. economic expansion just as the Boomers hit the workforce en masse.

Timing is everything, and they hit it.

Boomer prosperity will not be recreated. Everything aligned for Americans of that generation politically, sociologically and technologically, and an amazing moment of growth was the result. It is only the collective self-absorption of the Baby Boomer generation that gives us the historical illusion that this was somehow right and proper. Lightning cannot be expected to strike twice.

Ultimately, Boomer prosperity was based on the outcome of World War II. That’s the sort of recipe that only works once – nor should we wish for a repeat.

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Up and Atom

radioactive_manA wise professor I had once declared that every war fought after August 1945 has been a nuclear war. Even if atomic weapons never actually came into play, the very thought that they could has had an outsize impact on a great many world events. For example, the containment of the Korean and Vietnam Wars to very limited areas of operation was, in the end, the result of American and Soviet leaders trying to avoid nuclear exchanges. Escalation would have been easy – hence Truman firing MacArthur – but the availability of nukes helped keep a lid on things.

And so it is that we are all told that only the U.S. has ever used nuclear weapons in anger, and then only twice, in a single week in a single country.

But that’s not entirely true.

Ask France. Or Algeria.

The long history of French Algeria is fascinating in its own right, though outside the scope of this little post. In short, France began to colonize it in the early 19th Century and came to consider it as more than a colony, but an outright piece of France proper (it’s closer to mainland France than Hawaii is to the Lower 48, after all). But in the aftermath of Vichy rule and the turmoil in WWII France, the fragile arrangement was doomed. Unrest spread as soon as the war in Europe was over, and by 1954 Algeria was in the throes of a full-fledged insurgency that lasted until 1961. By the end of it, official French policy was withdrawal from Algeria and eventual independence, and even then, they still managed to have two sets of enemies – Algerian guerillas (who also supported French withdrawal, but more violently), and French Algerian colonists (pieds noirs) who didn’t want to leave their homes and fought government efforts to get them out. Ugly.

France’s response to the Algerian War of Independence killed a couple hundred thousand people, ended the Fourth Republic, elevated Charles de Gaulle to power with the Fifth, nearly caused a military coup, and somewhere along the way, while everyone was busy, included a few nuclear weapons being set off within Algerian borders.

Yes, that’s right – in 1960-61, France detonated four separate nukes at Reggane, deep in the Sahara. Two more were detonated at Ekker before Algeria was granted independence on July 5, 1962. Strictly for testing, of course; data collection and, you know, science.

Um… but it’s hard to claim that these tests were for purely technical purposes with no political considerations whatsoever. By 1960 things were at their height, and a nice demonstration of enormously destructive fission right in the enemy’s backyard would be a handy way of demonstrating the coercive elements of French power. Such demonstrations are a core competence of nuclear weapons.

All players needed a reminder that the French government would decide the final outcome. Both Algerian natives opposed to all things French (specifically the FLN guerrilla group) and intransigent pieds noirs opposed to French withdrawal needed to understand this. Someone somewhere in Paris made the calculation that nukes would help make the point.

Anyway, these were nuclear weapons unleashed to affect the outcome of an armed conflict. Just because the blasts didn’t hurt anybody doesn’t mean they had no effect.

Beneath the Arc de Triomphe – France remembers

Beneath the Arc de Triomphe – France remembers

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Involuntold

Yes, I really did go for the ABC primetime soap image

OMG = Over-Mobilized Guardsmen

Scandal!

Well, maybe not that bad – but it looks like plenty of Reservists and National Guardsmen were caught, well, off guard. Courtesy of the Military Times:

Thousands of reservists who deployed over the past two years, thinking they were entitled to the benefits that mobilized and deployed reservists have typically received for years, have been bitterly disappointed upon their return. 

The culprit? The 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, which amended Title 10 of the U.S. Code with the now infamous (as of today, anyway), Section 12304b.

The issue? Section 12304b provides the service secretaries an additional authority to recall up to 60,000 Selected Reservists to active duty for periods under 365 days.

Why this other authority? Check out the section titles in Title 10, Chapter 1209; all will become clear. Compare Section 12302 – “Ready Reserve” – with Section 12304 – “Selected Reserve and certain Individual Ready Reserve members; order to active duty other than during war or national emergency.” This just goes to show that unwieldy titles generally denote bad news.

Reserve activations under 12302 cover any state of “national emergency declared by the President” – in short, the typical situations people think of when the Reserves need to be called up. Section 12304, though, provides authority to call up Reservists outside of those national emergencies; in the case of subsection 12304b, “a preplanned mission in support of a combatant command.”

In a nutshell, 12302 covers Reservists being mobilized for war; 12304 covers those being sent to conduct international exercises or other long-planned engagements.

Why the benefits problem? Laws governing benefits like the Post-9/11 GI Bill were written prior to 2012 and were never amended to cover Section 12304. There’s no conspiracy here. But still, a bunch of Reservists and Guardsmen involuntarily mobilized to support exercises instead of operations are left without access to many of the benefits they expected when they joined up. The gripes are justified.

What should you do? If you get involuntold to go somewhere, check Reference A in your orders, right under your name and address. The reference will tell you what authority you’ve been mobilized under. If it’s Section 12302, Title 10 USC, you’re good to go. If it’s any other number… you might want to get that checked out.

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Tradition!

There's a guy who knows tradition

There’s a guy who knows tradition

It was brought to my attention tonight that the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 has ended a great and glorious naval tradition. Or maybe not so glorious; anyway, one worth noting:

By law, Sailors can no longer be confined for three days on bread and water.

Shucks.

Now that both flogging and bread and water have been dispensed with, I think we’ve safely left the Middle Ages. Commanding officers still have it in their authority to reduce enlisted members in rank or withdraw pay – which is a lot scarier to most people.

No big news here, but an interesting historical note.

Happy Wednesday.

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The New Year Is Upon Us, Part II

Now under new management

Now under new management

Uh, “fake news” is your top concern? Is that the best you’ve got?

I mean, what about hangnails? And food spoiling when you forget about the leftovers in the fridge? And traffic! Traffic sucks! Let’s fix that!

I jest, of course. But something all of these have in common is that they are simply part of life. You can fix a particular situation, but the overall issue isn’t going away.

Oh, and for the latter three, you generally don’t have to abridge Constitutional freedoms to address them. The First Amendment protects people’s right to say stupid things, as reflected in American libel laws. And with regard to social media, it will take mere weeks for people to figure out how to game the system and flag real things as fake if they simply don’t like the content, thus defeating its purpose. There’s really nothing else to say about institutional “solutions” – they will all fail legally and practically.

Disinformation is best fought culturally, especially in a liberal society in which the state (ideally) maintains a light footprint in the world of speech. If we take our First Amendment seriously, no top-down effort can defeat propaganda. People (enough of them, anyway) simply have to know when to ignore it.

Foreign propaganda will not gain a following in a strong society that believes in itself and has confidence in itself. Members of such a culture will understand that what they are being told does not quite jive with who they know themselves collectively to be. Propaganda is effective because it is loosely based in truth; usually, the event (whether current or historic) being discussed is a real thing – but the intentions, motivations and other abstractions provide natural room for interpretation, and a foreign interloper can play in this space to sow doubt among a population about its nation’s doings. But members of a confident culture will understand that the doubt being sold does not comport with what they know to be true. And the propagandist will fail.

Belief is a human need. People have always had religion. People have always had national glory. And there have always been naysayers looking down on such beliefs as useless myths that hold us back. But even the naysayers still must believe something too – and foreign propaganda can provide that hook, especially if they are already conditioned to believe their society is regressive. A society that fails to believe in itself will find something else to believe in, some kind of narrative that explains the world, however imperfectly, and however contrary to its own interests.

Referring back to Part I yesterday, this is where Russia’s RT network lives. Its motto is “Question More.” This pretty much encapsulates the theme in the last paragraph. RT is saying, “Has the Western model got you down? You don’t believe in the great myth anymore? We’ve got another version that might fit you better!”

And you know what? They are welcome to say so. We do free speech here, and it applies to them too.

The solution is to come armed with an understanding of what America is – not just as an administrative unit or set of place names, but its nature as a maritime, free-trading state; a cultural outgrowth of England and the Enlightenment; and as an occupant of North America with the relationships and geographies that entails. And, even more importantly, an understanding of why people continue to come here, what their aspirations are, and why they believe they can better realize them in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world.

In a sense, our task is to get reacquainted with the myth. Not simply to regurgitate something about Columbus sailing the ocean blue, but to know why it’s important. Can we still call it a myth? Sure. No one can deny mistreatment of natives and slaves, and a million other injustices that occurred in the past. But a lot of great things happened in America’s past too, leading to the fastest and broadest improvement in quality of life in all of human history, which is, you know, nothing to sneeze at. In any case, the myth is less about the past than the future. The myth helps us determine what kind of people and what kind of country we want to be as we move forward, not looking back.

Bottom line: You should have no problem getting all your news from RT, al-Jazeera America and CCTV (the Chinese one). You will be impeccably informed on world events. But before you do, administer yourself an inoculation. It’s easy – all you need to do is believe in America. Seeing through the spin is easier than you might think.

And, yes, I recognize most people think of “fake news” as more an issue of random web sites outright making things up so people click on their links. The same principle above still applies. Fakery is bipartisan and international. Watch for signs that a story or study is serving someone’s narrative, which you can often judge simply by the venue of publication. Certain facts are uncontestable, but the abstract realms of intention and feeling can be twisted to totally change how different outlets interpret an event. Just remember what this country ultimately stands for, and that things are never as bad, nor as good, as the headlines may say.

Here’s to a mildly better-informed 2017.

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The New Year Is Upon Us, Part I

Pop 'em!

Pop ’em!

Welcome to 2017, folks.

So let’s talk about 2016. You’re safe now – it can’t hurt us anymore.

That whole election thing didn’t go the way most people thought it would. SMOD failed to make his much-anticipated appearance, for one. Of course, the expected victors have gone casting about for scapegoats and came upon two main (somewhat linked) guilty parties, in the forms of Russia and “fake” news.

I want to take on each of those in turn to discuss how we might make ’17 a little better. However, this post got long enough, I’ve split it into two. So Russia today (ha!), fake news tomorrow.

But let us first stipulate that neither factor threw the election – ultimately, in a contest between two incredibly disliked candidates (the non-meteor candidates, anyway), one was ultimately so disliked and represented things which so many people were fed up with, that that candidate simply lost, regardless of poorly-sourced clickbait or foreign propaganda. Under the rules that have served us well since 1788, that’s all there is to it.

For Russia – a few words. Russia has been doing what it does for a very long time. Toying with its opponent’s information environment and angling for strategic effect is a specialty of the old Soviet Union and Putin is well-acquainted with its methodology. The current situation is fortunate because we at least know about it, are discussing it, and are taking some sort of action (even if it’s maybe a few years late). If we were unaware, Russia would still be busy with disinformation efforts – maybe not expecting much to happen, but pushing just in case something did.

So, yes, let’s fight back and adopt deterrent measures and acknowledge that Russia doesn’t have our best interests at heart. But let’s also acknowledge that this is what they do. And we need to have a plan to deal with it. The indignant response from Washington these days implies we don’t.

And about that… I don’t mean to get tactical, as I can’t read the minds of Russian cyberoperatives, but I do have a hunch that they had no super-secret pre-election pollsters telling them anything we didn’t know in the U.S. It stands to reason that Russia expected exactly the same result we all did. Ergo, the targeted cyber raids and associated leaks aimed at the presumed victor were intended to weaken the domestic position of a soon-to-be-sitting President, and perhaps provide additional dirt they could leak after she was safely in office. The number crunchers’ data made the election seem like such a foregone conclusion, Russia’s interest was probably not on Nov. 8, 2016, but on Jan. 20, 2017. Using info obtained via the 2016 hack, they would gradually work to undermine the U.S. President in some yet-to-be-determined way over the following four years. I suspected they were as surprised as the rest of us when they realized they’d picked the wrong target (don’t worry – he’s next).

Bottom line: Take this as a lesson, people. Russia is Russia. What it does now, it always has done and always will do. It’s a fun place to go, but isn’t your friend. Don’t provoke it – but be ready for it.

Cyberwarfare is an unexplored world that presents new problems and requires equally new ways of thinking. Doctrines must be created or adapted, on which the indispensable Admiral Stavridis (ret.) has some thoughts. It stands to reason that the same country that helped develop maneuver warfare theory would be at the forefront of this new domain. It is time for the U.S. to catch up, if not respond in kind.

Stay tuned for Part II.

UPDATE: It appears my assessment of Russian intentions wasn’t that far off from the one in the Intelligence Community.

From page 12 of 25 of the UNCLAS report (courtesy New York Times):

“When it appeared to Moscow that Secretary Clinton was likely to win the presidency the Russian influence campaign focused more on undercutting Secretary Clinton’s legitimacy and crippling her presidency from its start, including by impugning the fairness of the elction. … Pro-Kremlin bloggers had prepared a Twitter campaign, #DemocracyRIP, on election night in anticipation of Secretary Clinton’s victory, judging from their social media activity.”

So, whoever the Russians’ preferred candidate was, they expected the same result we all did, and took actions to chip away at her future administration’s legitimacy. Of course, her opponent has enough baggage… well, I doubt many hacks were necessary to get dirt on him. (Might not have to wait long to find out…)

Two takeaways:

1.) If I may repeat from the original post, THIS IS WHAT RUSSIA DOES. Always has been, always will be.

2.) And even if every allegation is false (not likely, but still), it doesn’t matter, because in planting the seed of a doubt in the election’s legitimacy or playing up shady connections between Russia and the incoming POTUS, Russia has accomplished its goal of sowing discord and confusion. The joke’s on us either way.

Somehow 2016 just never ends…

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