Thursday, April 24, 2014

Things Even America Can't Do

In an episode of one of those super-soldier shows that aired in the wake of 9-11, one character asked about a particularly daunting mission: "Can we do that?" To which his boss said "Hell, this is America. We can do any damn thing we want." Well, it turns out we can't do any damn thing we want, and here are a couple of things the last half century have shown we can't do.

We Can't Win Against Insurgencies

Sure, we can defeat insurgencies. I'm not counting the Indian Wars, which was not even close. We did it in the Philippines in the early 1900's, and we didn't do too badly in the Banana Wars of a couple of decades later. But there were several reasons for this:
  • War was a lot cheaper. No tanks, helicopters, drones, missiles or air supremacy needed.
  • The forces involved were small and all volunteer.
  • Probably most important: the press was an unabashed cheerleading squad for American imperialism. Since the wars were low key, they didn't get a huge amount of coverage, and what they did get would be resoundingly pro-U.S. (Even so, rough tactics, like an early version of waterboarding in the Philippines, got serious negative coverage.)
The political will to win against insurgencies just doesn't exist in the U.S. The press got excited about the Gulf War in 1991 and has spent more than twenty-five years trying to live down its embarrassment. There's a large permanent population convinced the U.S. is in the wrong in any conflict. Any mishap that costs American or foreign innocent lives will be headline news, and the more precisely targeted weapons become, the more bitterly some people oppose them. Americans want quick victories like the 1991 Gulf War, and then bring the troops home. The insurgents are home, and defeating them means either killing so many that the remnant is too demoralized to fight, or converting them to our point of view.

This mind-set will someday come back to bite us big-time. We can write off Afghanistan and let it revert to a medieval tribal society. It's on the far side of the world and if we really need to do something there we can ring our installations with impregnable security, or just buy off the opposition. But sooner or later there will be an insurgency we simply cannot allow to win, for example a neo-Nazi campaign of assassination in the U.S. or Europe. In that event we will either have to give in to their demands, or spend the blood, time and treasure it takes to defeat them.

We Can't Conjure up Democracy

We're proud, and justly so, of the nation-building we accomplished after World War II, where we treated former enemies benignly and enabled them to become stable democracies. So why can't we do that everywhere?

Because we forget that both Germany and Japan had already been democratic in the 1920's, and both had been overthrown by fascist coups. In both countries there was a significant native population supportive of democracy, and once the fascist grip was broken, the pro-democratic forces could govern again. After the fall of the Soviet Union, some former Communist countries like Poland, then-Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, made an easy transition to democracy. Others, like former Yugoslavia, Romania and Bulgaria, were far less successful. Among the former Soviet republics, only the Baltic States: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, became functioning democracies. In some cases, nations can make the transition to democracy without having much of a democratic tradition, like Spain and Portugal after the deaths of their fascist dictators.

Maybe the first thing we need to do is ask what exactly we want from a democracy. We have no problem accepting Western Europe as democratic, even though its parliamentary systems are quite different from our own. So democracy doesn't necessarily mean all the trappings of the American system. Here are a few things that seem essential. Oh, by the way, there is no perfect democracy anywhere, so don't even waste your time on that point.
  • The Rule of Law: An organized system of rules and institutions that provides reasonably predictable results. If you write a contract or a will, you can be reasonably sure they will be enforced. If you're charged with a crime, there's a good faith effort to see if you actually did commit the crime, and the punishment is reasonably predictable and proportionate. You won't get life in prison for vandalizing a mailbox. 
  • Respect for Human Rights: Mostly these are protected by the rule of law, but not necessarily. Lots of countries have legal systems, which are principally used to violate human rights more efficiently. Respect for human rights includes freedom from arbitrary arrest, freedom of conscience, freedom of speech and information, respect for private property and due process. 
  • Self-Correction There are mechanisms in place to report and fix problems and respond to popular discontent. 
  • Public Participation There are mechanisms for soliciting popular input and for permitting people who are so inclined to participate in government. The most common manifestation of this process is election of representatives in competitive elections.
History affords plenty of cases where wise but autocratic rulers achieved those goals. The problem with autocracy is you may have a Marcus Aurelius succeeded by a Commodus. Like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates, you don't know what you're going to get. Of course, the Germans who democratically elected Hitler didn't know what they were going to get, either. But if Germany had remained democratic, he could have been ousted or at least neutralized.

But it took centuries for Europe to fumble its way to democracy. The Greeks had it for at most a few generations, and for only a small minority of the population. Rome had a heavily slanted version designed to preserve the privileges of the upper classes, before it finally collapsed into dictatorship. We know lots of ways for democracies to fail, but really don't know how to start them where they don't exist.

The Economist Democracy Index lists the U.S., Canada, much of Europe, Australia, and New Zealand as full democracies. The only non-European or European-descended countries on the list are Japan and South Korea. It appears that developing a democracy requires a long tradition of the rule of law and recognition of the rights of others. There probably is no reason China could not achieve full democracy if the Communist ruling elite could bring themselves to permit it. India is listed as a "flawed democracy," not very far behind Italy, and a substantial accomplishment for a nation of a billion people and a dozen official languages. But parts of the world ruled by tribalism, clan loyalties and "honor" culture will probably have to evolve their own approaches to democracy. That will take time and may lead to forms we might find very unfamiliar.

Regime Change

Creating democracy where none existed before is impossible, and even replacing a bad government can prove extremely tricky. The U.S. has been involved many times at various levels in "regime change," ranging from supplying actual military support to funding to mere encouragement and advice. The myriad coups in Latin America and elsewhere have often been "successful" in that the objectionable regime was ousted and a new one put in place without the country collapsing into anarchy or civil war or economic disaster. It is unfortunate, perhaps, that the coup in Iran that ousted Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 worked so well, because it gave a false impression of how easy the process was. But the coup "worked" because there was already a faction willing and capable of assuming power. Generally speaking, "successful" coups occur in countries where there is a technically competent faction capable of replacing the ousted government. 

When there isn't a viable alternative to the existing government, regime change merely results in chaos and generally makes things worse. In some cases the incoming government is more interested in self-enrichment than governing, like the revolving door coups in South Vietnam in the 1960's. In many cases, the incoming government is more interested in conferring privilege and power on some particular faction or ethnic group, or is incapable of preventing rival groups from attacking each other. In the worst case scenarios, typical of the aftermath of the "Arab spring" of 2011, the only factions capable of replacing the existing government are extremist movements seeking to impose dictatorships of their own.

As of mid-2016, Venezuela seems poised for violent overthrow. The doctrinaire Marxist government is unwilling to institute reforms that might undermine its power, the economy is in shambles, and enemies of the regime are legion. A classic Latin American coup seems imminent, and such coups generally replace one government with another one with enough ability to rule effectively, if not necessarily well. If anyone had told me in 1980 that there would come a day when Colombia was safer and more stable than Venezuela, I'd have said they were crazy.

In Zimbabwe, the decrepit regime of Robert Mugabe has created world record inflation. Zimbabwean hundred-trillion dollar notes are worth more as collectors' items than as currency. Nevertheless, the nonagenarian Mugabe has stated he will not step down to spite his enemies who are hoping for regime change. Biology will soon take care of that problem, and had Mugabe's foreign enemies really wanted to oust him, he would be long gone already. But after Mugabe goes, then what? He may be replaced by followers who seek to perpetuate his policies. But he may also leave a vacuum with claimants scrambling for power, and his rule has lasted long enough that there may no longer be any faction in Zimbabwe capable of running the country effectively. 

The problem is vastly worse in North Korea, ruled by a lunatic with nuclear weapons, where any possible rivals have long since fled or been exterminated. The very best anyone can hope for in North Korea is a coup where a somewhat more rational dictatorship is installed. If anyone is capable of engineering a regime change in North Korea, it would be China, and maybe if the North Korean government does something to endanger China, they might feel the need to do it.

One thing that U.S. experience in the Middle East since 2001 has made all too clear is that even regime change, let alone creation of a democracy, is bound to fail unless there is someone waiting in the wings to provide a stable government capable of keeping rival groups placated and confident of their rights being protected.

Something Else War is Good For

Ian Morris has written a book that will be provocative for sure and definitely infuriating to many. The book is War! What Is It Good For?,(Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and an excerpt was published in The Atlantic (April 14, 2014) entitled War, What Is It Good for For? These Four Things, Actually.

Morris quotes lyrics from Edwin Starr’s Motown classic “War”

    Huh, good God.
    What is it good for?
    Absolutely nothing….

And then proceeds to list four things war accomplishes
  1. The first is that by fighting wars, people have created larger, more organized societies that have reduced the risk that their members will die violently. 
  2. My second claim is that while war is the worst imaginable way to create larger, more peaceful societies, it is pretty much the only way humans have found. “Lord knows, there’s got to be a better way,” Edwin Starr sang, but apparently there isn't. 
  3. My third conclusion is that as well as making people safer, the larger societies created by war have also—again, over the long run—made us richer. Peace created the conditions for economic growth and rising living standards. 
  4. War, then, has been good for something—so good, in fact, that my fourth argument is that war is now putting itself out of business. For millennia, war has created peace, and destruction has created wealth, but in our own age humanity has gotten so good at fighting—our weapons so destructive, our organizations so efficient—that war is beginning to make further war of this kind impossible.  
Current trends suggest that robots will begin taking over our fighting in the 2040s—just around the time, the trends also suggest, that the United States, the world’s globocop, will be losing control of the international order. In the 1910s, the combination of a weakening globocop (Britain) and revolutionary new fighting machines (dreadnoughts, machine guns, aircraft, quick-firing artillery, internal combustion engines) ended a century of smaller, less bloody wars and set off a storm of steel. The 2040s promise a similar combination. The next 40 years could be the most dangerous in history. 
And yet, long-term history also gives us cause for optimism. We have not managed to wish war out of existence, but that is because it cannot be done. We have, however, been extremely good at responding to changing incentives in the game of death. For most of our time on earth, we have been aggressive, violent animals, because aggression and violence have paid off. But in the 10,000 years since we invented productive war, we have evolved culturally to become less violent—because that pays off even better. And since nuclear weapons came into the world in 1945, the incentives in the game have changed faster than ever before, and our reactions have accelerated along with them. As a result, the average person is now roughly 20 times less likely to die violently than the average person was in the Stone Age. 
As the returns to violence have declined, we have found ways to solve our problems without bringing on Armageddon.
Pretty much all of Morris' arguments boil down to war as a deterrent to trivial group violence. When I was in Bosnia in 1996, we were required to travel in four-vehicle convoys. It wasn't until late in my deployment that I saw the briefing document that explained why. The purpose was to avoid hostage situations and, even worse, small unit defeats. If anybody was going to pick a fight with peacekeeping forces, it was going to be a big fight, big enough to require serious second thoughts before starting something. A single vehicle, on the other hand, might easily be overpowered by a couple of angry hotheads or even a lone sniper. And if the occupants successfully fought off the attack, then you'd have people angry over local civilians being killed. It didn't stop the four-vehicle rule from being a royal pain, but at least it became clear it wasn't simply a capricious military regulation.

Lewis F. Richardson, in "The Statistics of Deadly Quarrels," plotted the casualties of conflicts versus frequency and found a power law distribution. At the lower end of the scale, the rate of conflict, extrapolated down to one or two casualties, merged roughly with the crime rate. This prompted the observation that war is simply crime on a large scale, or crime is just war on a small scale. But the deterrent effects noted by Morris suggest that war may be law enforcement on a large scale. Or maybe that violence in general marks the point where deterrence breaks down and the advantages of violence outweigh the risks of challenging deterrence.

I'd add a fifth "benefit." War is often the only way, or the most effective way, to sweep aside obsolete, corrupt and moribund social institutions. Perhaps the pre-eminent example in Western history was the Thirty Years' War. In the classic 1980 version of Cosmos, two episodes re-enact vignettes from the 17th century. The first, in "Harmony of the Worlds," depicts the life and times of Johannes Kepler early in the century as bleak and superstitious. (Sagan quite overdoes it; by this time America had been known for over 100 years, the printing press had been around for 150, and William Shakespeare was alive. It was hardly medieval.) The other episode, "Travelers' Tales," depicts the world of Christian Huygens late in the century. Although a single long lifetime could have encompassed both, the atmosphere of the two is utterly different. The Holland of Huygens is affluent, enlightened, liberated and inquisitive. With due allowance for the change in locale from Germany to Holland and dramatic license, it was a different world. And the intervening years were dominated by the mega-conflict of the day, the Thirty Years War.

The war has fascinating parallels to World War I. It began absurdly, just as World War I did. The ruler of Bohemia began packing his royal council with Catholics. A Protestant mob cornered two of them and threw them out an upper story window. Miraculously, they survived, either by Divine protection (Catholic version) or landing on a dungheap (Protestant version - even though I'm a Catholic, I favor the Protestant version.) Protestants then revolted, prompting the ruler to call for assistance from other Catholic rulers, in turn motivating nearby Protestant rulers to send in troops to prevent a massacre. Like World War I, a minor local squabble sucked one major power after another into the vortex as each tried to keep the balance of power from tipping. How far the war spread can be seen by looking at the four major phases of the conflict: the Bohemian, Danish, Swedish and French phases. Note there was no German phase; it was an away game for everyone and Germany was the playing field. When the war was over, the population of Germany had decreased by a third, Germany was fragmented into over a hundred tiny statelets that wouldn't be unified until 1871. And German historians still refer to this war as "the Great War."

And it was also the last major religious war in Europe. When the war gasped to a final "peace of exhaustion," the peace agreements settled on the formula "cuius regio, cuius religio" - "whose region, his religion." This had been the formula for the armed truce after the religious wars following the Protestant Reformation a century earlier, only then, nobody really meant it. Everyone was merely biding his time, hoping for the day to come when the forces of righteousness could sweep heresy from the face of the earth (label sides to taste). This time, it stuck. The notion of national sovereignty in the modern sense came into being, and the germ of the idea of freedom of religion. Nations might have established churches, but there were guarantees for other groups as well. The Vatican, of course, was not pleased at formal recognition of the legitimacy of other sects. Pope Innocent X railed against the peace settlements and was roundly ignored. (That in itself was probably a good thing and began the political marginalization of the Papacy.) What seems to have happened is that the parties realized the practical impossibility of redrawing the religious map of Europe, plus realizing that the old fear of religious diversity leading to anarchy and civil war was unfounded, and realizing it was in their own best interests to have a general consensus that internal matters were internal. What was this war good for? It broke the back of theocracy in the West.

Did peoples' values change? No, their perception of the facts changed. As C.S. Lewis once observed, if we really still believed that there were powerful malevolent spirits and some people had sold out to them in exchange for power, we would certainly feel justified in treating them as traitors to humanity. We stopped persecuting witches because we stopped believing they had any power, not because we changed our ideas about betraying the human race. Religious wars stopped in Western Europe because rulers began to realize that religious plurality did not lead to civil strife and anarchy. 

And so that leads us to World War I, the quintessential example of a useless war, according to the overwhelming majority of commentators. Millions slaughtered trying to apply antiquated tactics to modern battlefields, a vindictive peace settlement that set the stage for a sequel, the Middle East carved into arbitrary chunks, Russia plunged into civil war and subjugation to Communism. Surely nothing useful could have come out of such a conflict. Except perhaps the dissolution of the ossified empires that were largely responsible for the war in the first place: the Austro-Hungarian, German, Russian and Ottoman Empires. And it was pretty much the last war that could produce a pompous twit like Rupert Brooke who could write "Blow out, you bugles, over the rich dead." Given the treacly stuff Brooke wrote about the war, one is left with the feeling it would be a positive tragedy for him to survive. And he didn't. He died of septicemia without ever firing a shot in anger. The karma, it stings. World War I was really the last ancient war in which people could pretend there was anything glorious about battle.

But World War I didn't really sweep away the old. Watch the dining room scenes in Titanic, and then watch The Great Gatsby, and see how similar the social milieu is. The European land empires were swept away, but the overseas empires of France and Britain still lingered, and the empire-building impetus still lingered, to be revived shortly by Germany, Italy and Japan. It took World War II to complete the process. Not only did the attempts to build new empires fail, but the groundwork was laid in India, Indonesia and Indochina for the eventual breakup of Europe's overseas empires as well. Films set in the 1930's seem quaint and remote, those set in World War II seem modern, even those made during the war itself. I am convinced that historians a few centuries hence will see World War II as one of the great watersheds in history.

What happens to people who supported the defeated social institutions? The most positive results happen when people had been forced at the point of a gun to support them, and are liberated from oppression. Nobody really felt much emotion for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, so nobody has ever tried to revive it. But if the institutions had wide support, what then? Supporters can be killed off, subjugated, marginalized, discredited, die off or persuaded. Killing them all off is impossible and while persuasion is nice, not all will be persuaded. If they are discredited sufficiently so that they eventually die off, then the cure may be permanent, but any other solution will leave a remnant of embittered losers. As time goes by and the post-war world presents its own problems, they'll romanticize their lost world and may attempt to restore it. Thus we find Russians who idealize Communism, Neo-Nazi groups in Europe and neo-Confederates in the U.S. For that matter, we have neo-geocentrists who assert the Church was right and Galileo was wrong.

One common way to clear out moribund social institutions is revolution. But it's disappointingly uncommon to have "clean" revolutions that don't degenerate into vendettas as bad as the old regime: the French and Russian Revolutions being the prime examples. The American Revolution wasn't as clean as we like to think. Portugal's conflict after the death of dictator Antonio Salazar was refreshingly restrained. 

A social system may pose a serious threat to its neighbors, but preemptive action to topple a regime that is merely crazy or morally repugnant is fairly uncommon. Almost always there are more practical motives involved. An attempt to overthrow the regimes of North Korea or Myanmar would almost certainly kill more of the oppressed victims of those regimes than the regimes themselves do, not to mention their would-be liberators. So full scale wars to overthrow morally repugnant regimes are rare, maybe nonexistent. Modern cases fall under one of two types. A regime may be targeted through a coup or through aid to insurgents. One good example is Operation Barracuda, the 1979 French-led coup that overthrew the lunatic tyrant Jean-Bedel Bokassa in the Central African Republic. The other way to attack a regime is through terrorism, which is how Islamic extremists are attacking our system, which they find repugnant.

One of the most common end states is for a dysfunctional social system to trigger a self-destructive conflict. A dysfunctional social system, pretty much by definition, doesn't think straight. The bloodthirsty dictator of Uganda, Idi Amin, met his downfall when he attempted to annex a province of Tanzania, triggering an invasion that toppled his regime. More dramatically, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan both allowed their ideologies to lead them into suicidal conflicts. The U.S. Civil War is also an example. Although moral opposition to slavery was a cause, there are a number of avenues the Confederacy could have pursued before fighting. They could have proposed legislation in Congress, or gone to the Supreme Court. They did neither. They wanted a fight. The scene in Gone With The Wind where Rhett Butler tallies the military and industrial balance and is challenged by a young hothead to a duel pretty much tells the story.

The best of all possible worlds is for a decrepit system to collapse internally without major violence, and perhaps the preeminent example in history is the collapse of the Soviet Union. Even better is for a system to evolve, as did Great Britain in the 1830's. The reason the political systems of the U.S. and Canada are so different is that our system is a reaction to a corrupt British system and Canada's reflects a reformed British system. It was during a time of high social unrest in the 1830's that Britain began passing long overdue reform acts. More recently, China and Vietnam have moved away from doctrinaire Marxism to more pragmatic policies. If Tienanmen Square doesn't strike you as "moderate," compare it to Mao's Cultural Revolution.

Sorry Neil, They're Right, You're Wrong

Neil deGrasse Tyson opened his reboot of Cosmos with a retelling of the saga of Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake in 1600 for heresy. Critics of the show complained that Bruno was not, in fact, martyred for science, which in turn prompted defenders to label their stance "revisionist."

Well, it's "revisionist" only if it's "revisionist" to say that Indians hardly ever attacked wagon trains, or the Roman navy didn't use galley slaves as shown in "Ben Hur," or that no educated person in Western history believed the earth was flat in the last 2,500 years. In other words, it's "revisionist" only if you've never read much serious history.

Bruno's impact on Western science was described in Scientific American by Lawrence S. Lerner and Edward A. Gosselin in 1986 (28 years before the Cosmos reboot). The Cosmos episode accurately points out that Bruno successfully managed to get excommunicated from three religions. but leaves out the very important fact that he was a follower of the Hermetic Mysteries. These are writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus  (Hermes the thrice-great) and purportedly dating from ancient Egypt. Modern scholars consider them of early Christian vintage, making their alleged prophetic content a bit less surprising.

In simple terms, Bruno was no more a scientist than the average Shriner is an imam, or Jenny McCarthy is an expert on autism. As Lerner and Gosselin point out in their article "Was Giordano Bruno a Scientist?"
But even when correct in their conclusions, Bruno's "scientific'' arguments do not exhibit any understanding of scientific reasoning or purpose. Rather they serve the totally unrelated function of allegorical descriptions of a metaphysical relationship between Man and God as well as Catholic and Protestant. Bruno sees Nature as the signature of God, and he believes that this signature can best be perceived through the hieroglyph of the Copernican theory. 
In contrast, Johannes Kepler, a thorough medieval mystic himself, was nevertheless engaged in serious scientific research, not just on planetary motions, but pioneering insights into crystallography and new discoveries in geometry. Kepler, like Bruno, saw nature as revealing the mind of God, but Bruno was only interested in using nature to bolster his theology, whereas Kepler used his convictions as the basis for believing that order must pervade nature.

Even a stupid squirrel occasionally finds a nut, even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and even the Religious Right can get something right once in a while. And making a mistake so egregious that even the Religious Right can spot it is something of an achievement.

The new Cosmos has some good moments, but with its insipid elevator music score and comically awful animations, its workmanship is definitely not up to the original.


Galileo and the Specter of Bruno, 1986; Lerner, Lawrence S. and Gosselin, Edward A., Scientific American, Vol. 255, Issue 5, p.126.

Was Giordano Bruno a Scientist?: A Scientist's View. Available from: [accessed Jan 6, 2016], Originally published in American Journal of Physics, 1973, v. 41, no. 1 p. 24-38.