Saturday, November 26, 2005

Oooooh, Barracuda!

This is a very odd story. So odd, frankly, that I'm inclined to dismiss it. It broke several days ago of course, so you all know about it already.

It's no secret that al-J drives many Americans to the end of their rag, often pretty understandably. But I somehow can't see them deliberately blowing the guys up. In Qatar of all places.

On the specifics of whether or not the Jazeera wallahs are an irritant, even a dangerous irritant, or not I have a lot of sympathy with those who feel antagonistic. What I've seen of their coverage doesn't fill me with confidence and frankly I don't really think the fact that they allegedly purvey an alternative but somehow equally legitimate and hitherto suppressed "truth" gets them off the hook. On the other hand, if you want Arab democracy and Arab media liberalisation, al Jazeera is what you get. You can't have it both ways.

Piss off, Grasshopper


Wax on, whack off...

Although actually the Karate Kid was rubbish.

No, it was, it was rubbish.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Brimming with Eastern Promise

Bill Lind has a look at the latest effort by H. John Poole.

I've delved into Poole's books and, although I'm perhaps not the best person to judge, they seem to me to be interesting, useful and, broadly speaking, selling the right message.

That said, there is a bit of a problem. Lind sort of hints at it in noting that he disagrees with Poole when Poole argues that ancient Chinese strategic works are a key plank of the insurgents' collective mindset. But he doesn't address the 600-pound gorilla, which is this: There is no single "Eastern" way of warfare any more than there is a really identifiable and historically consistent "Western" way of warfare.

It's good to talk...

I've long taken the view that decoupling the two strands of insurgency taking place in Iraq would be an important step towards eventual Coalition success and that pacifying the domestic insurgency is almost certainly a prerequisite to dealing with the ongoing threat posed by foreign fighters. Therefore this story is fairly interesting, though there have been rumblings in this direction for some time now - probably with the encouragement of the Americans.

The question, of course, is whether this is a sign of strength or of weakness on the part of the Iraqi government. I imagine that much of the commentariat will go with the latter. This is certainly plausible, but I don't know.

Honey, you got real ugly...

This is pretty appalling.

Not that this Murtha bloke's right. He isn't. He's horribly, horribly wrong. Bestiality wrong. But that's not the point. He doesn't have more right to a view on this issue due to his military service than somebody who hasn't served, but he does, it seems to me, rather deserve not to be the butt of the sort of comments this gobby shrew-woman has made. Mizz Schmidt is a prime example of why whenever I hear well-fed, well-heeled GOP functionaries declaring that this, that or the other issue is "a question of character" I gag on my Marmite toast.

But Murtha is very wrong. And if the Democrats think (as some BBC journos seem to reckon) that they can win elections adopting that sort of line I think they're painfully mistaken.

Bang bang, you're dead

Interesting story in the Telegraph - should come as no surprise to anybody. More please.

"When she opened her lips, cheese fell out..."

Well, well. David Irving has been nabbed for telling porky pies about the Holocaust.

There's not doubt whatsoever that Irving is a cheesy bell-end of the very highest order, but I'm not sure I really approve of arresting him for it. That said, I don't live in Austria and they've got some "past issues" to deal with so what do I know?

Anyway, it keeps him off the street.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Hersh-y Bar (urrrgh)

Michael Totten notes Seymour Hersh's scepticism towards the notion that the Syrians might quite probably have grubby fingers.

Hersh has done some (note: SOME) very good work. That said, I've seen him being interviewed twice on British TV and each time I've seen him I've come away with the strong impression that he's completely and utterly barmy and that it's well nigh impossible to claim with any degree of seriousness that he's not a man with an axe to grind the size of which we haven't seen since Charles I got the chop.

You heard it elsewhere first...

I am informed that during the course of Prime Minister's Questions today, Patrick Mercer MP (Tory) asked the Prime Minister a question regarding British troops numbers in Iraq in the course of which the claim was made that the British commanders on the ground have requested additional manpower in order to run interdiction against manpower and materiel coming into their sector across the Iranian border and that this request had been refused. The Prime Minister replied that he was "not aware" of any such request.

However, Patrick Mercer is a retired army officer (and rather a good military historian too, actually) who is known to maintain good contacts within the forces and there seems to be a whif that something is afoot. If indeed it turns out to be true that British commanders have requested more men, expect this to be a story with legs, especially if requests for reinforcements have been rejected by Whitehall.

Keep those beady little eyes of yours skinned and an ear to the ground, gentlemen...

Disco Inferno

Well the phosphorous story seems to be getting a lot of play, at least in the various British news media. The Beeb seems to be running hard with it, Sky seems to think it's all a bit of a storm in a teacup.

I'm not sure exactly what the situation is, to be honest. First and foremost it's worthwhile pointing out what all the non-hysterical commentators are already pointing out - phosphorous is not by any accepted definition a chemical weapon. The employment of it by the United States is not in any way illegal.

That said, I'd be interested to know some more details about the circumstances in which it was used - and I'd be very interested to hear from any military chaps on either side of the Atlantic who can give me some context on this. There seem to be two narratives emerging here - the first is that the Americans employed phosphorous shells against enemy positions in a built-up area, the second is that the shells were used only against relatively exposed trench positions to weed insurgents out of bunkers that were not being penetrated by ordinary munitions. I don't know which is true but it seems to me the latter is preferable to the former. I don't want to sound like a world class armchair general but it seems to me that the offensive employment of phosphorous in a city environment with a civilian population - especially in a COIN situation - is probably not ideal (though there may be a case that it was necessary - email me and make the argument if you like, I'm open minded).

Certainly when the USA sold phosphorous shells to the Israelis in the early 1980s they came with the explicit caveat that they were not to be used for shelling in any areas featuring a civilian population - an agreement that the Israelis promptly ignored, employing phosphorous shells to bombard Palestinian residential areas and tower blocks in Beirut. As Fred Willard says in A Mighty Wind - "Wha' happened?" Certainly something seems to have changed 'twixt then and now (though I don't believe for an instant that the Americans have been as indiscriminate at the Israelis were at that point - and claims of massacre are not backed up by reliable eyewitness reports from the BBC and Sky News).

On the other hand it ought to be pointed out that it certainly appears that the Italian documentary that excited much of the interest in this topic is, for want of a better word, bollocks.


Good treatment of the subject at Intel Dump. In fairness to the BBC (sort of) the BBC's own correspondent on the ground was on Newsnight last night and made it abundantly clear that as far as he was concerned there was no evidence whatsoever of US forces deliberately targeting civilians. That said, the BBC editorial staff do seem rather more eager to run with this some other news outlets.

I think the question is - and as I've noted I don't really know the answer to it - one of proportionality and prudence. It may be that military necessity demands, or at least mandates, the employment of phosphorous for purposes other than illumination. However, first of all I believe that many counterinsurgency specialists would raise at least one eyebrow at the employment of phosphorous offensively in something like an Iraqi urban situation (again, as I've noted we don't actually know at this point precisely what the circumstances were, accounts differ) and second of all it does have to be noted that when not employed in a very distinct battlefield phosphorous is one of the less discriminate tools in the military arsenal of the United States (or indeed the UK) and therefore whether or not it is the most appropriate piece of kit for the environment the coalition is currently operating in is at least open to question. I don't know precisely what the circumstances are or which side of the argument has the best of it but it seems to me that the debate needs to be framed around the above considerations. I do agree, however, that if sections of the press try to put the worst possible spin on this (and, yes, there is evidence that sections of certain editorial staffs are taking this line - though so far the expert talking heads and their own correspondents on the ground have largely refused to play their game) then it's pretty unworthy.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Quotation of the Day

"This week, a Channel Four season on 'The Lost Generation'...Now, there is much evidence around the construction of this season of the great steps that have been taken by some of those working on the First World War. The director of the programme on the Somme gives a very lucid interview in which he discusses the tensions he had to overcome to create a fresh and involving piece of programming. It looks like it might be good.But the Channel 4 publicity department has obviously gone to town over the season's website. There's a great game of WWI bingo to be played here, as we cross off the times we read the words 'mud', 'horror', 'slaughter', 'futility'... full house!What is remarkable is the effort that the site puts into making the First World War 'relevant'. You can enter a competition for the best 'last message home' - by text - and read some fictional blogs composed by soldiers on every side.I recognise the difficulties that this is trying to overcome - how do you interest people in a war which can seem long ago and far away?

This effort, however, is surely utterly misguided. I am not sure to whom it is more patronising. To those who went and fought to prevent the takeover of the European mainland by a militaristic hegemon, who certainly didn't think their efforts were 'futile'? To those who wrote back from the frontline in the belief that they were going to die and who now have their efforts reduced to a txt cmptn? Or to today's youf, who it is presumed cannot empathise with the past unless it is presented in terms of contemporary technology?What 'The Lost Generation' season is doing online is not an imaginative use of technology - far from it. It is turning the past into the eternal present, teaching people to apply an ahistoric set of standards to understanding what happened before they were born. And it is, if anything, a rejection of the real possibilities that electronic resources offer to viewers of television documentaries. Why not digitise a genuine set of soldiers' letters from the Somme? I refuse to believe that modern audiences would not be moved by reading the original documents - indeed, I regularly experience the wonder of schoolchildren and university students when they see 'the real thing' in archives."

- Dan Todman

At the Coleface

Mark Grimsley has a link to streaming video of Juan Cole at Ohio State University.

Also circulating the internet right now is this highly critical piece on Cole by Alexander Joffe at the Middle East Forum. I offer it up as an alternative viewpoint. It attempts to refute claims made by Cole on a point by point basis, with mixed success in my view. I have to say that a year or so ago I emailed Juan Cole asking for information on a at least two occasions and he was invariably helpful and forthcoming in spite of the fact that I was fairly self-evidently something of an ideological opponent. I also have to say that I find Joffe's "Campus Watch" setup fairly dubious and unfortunate and I speak as somebody of broadly pro-Israeli sympathies who has been more than happy to speak in support of Israeli accademics and an Israeli presence on British university campuses. I tend to feel that the way Campus Watch operates, however, tends to generate more heat than light and has from time to time been excessively broad-brush in its approach. Way back in the day Jacob Levy came up with an excellent critique of the way it worked on the Volokh Conspiracy but I can't find it now.

Yes. But...

John Derbyshire discusses the remembrance of the Great War over at the Corner:

Why does WWI maintain such a grip on the imagination of the English? Open
any regimental history of the war at pretty much any page. I just did the
internet equivalent. "The Newfoundland battalion, for example, attacked 750
strong. 40 odd unwounded returned in the course of the day and the remaining 710
were casualties." Note that that particular battalion was part of the third
wave, and when they went "over the top" already knew that the first two waves
had been annihilated by enemy machinegun fire. "At the going down of the sun and
in the morning We will remember them."

The emotional reaction is entirely understandable. However, his quotation doesn't really answer the main tilt of his question, with its specific focus on the "English" (or, rather, British [and Commonwealth]). The appalling situation facing many British soldiers in the Great War is not in any way in question. What I do think is interesting (and of course I'm hardly original in this) is the fact that the war arguably has a far greater grip on the imagination of the British than on the collective imaginations of many other nations, in spite of the fact that in both absolute and relative terms we got of substantially more lightly than pretty much everybody but the Americans. In terms of proportions of the population and ratios of men enlisted to men killed and wounded we suffered notably less than the French, Germans and Russians, all of whom lost more on almost any measure you care to employ. And yet it seems to grip the British popular imagination more than it does those of our continental neighbours, who by any reckoning suffered substantially greater privations. There have been various critical inquiries into this, of course, perhaps most notably (and stridently) by Correlli Barnett, but it's still not a very widely recognised fact. Not that this in any way lessens the recognition due to our veterans and the validity of the memorial process.

Steers and Queers

Right, I've enabled some sort of a verification thingy for the comments boxes because I'm buggered if I'm going to plough through a load of comment box spam. Hope it works ok. I think it just involves having to do a word verification thingamajig so it shouldn't be too onerous. That said, it might not work. In which case I'm going to go completely postal and shoot up the town.

Wormwood Scubs Blues

The recent defeat of the government over proposed plans to detain terror suspects for up to 90 days has me in two minds.

For the record, I ought to state right away that my instincts were entirely against the legislation. However, I think a few points need to be made that don't really seem to have filtered through into the overall debate.

First of all, I think the government made a right old pig's ear of things. They banged on and on about the fact that a) we should listen to the police and security services and do what they recommend and b) that the public was overwhelmingly in favour of the measure, an argument that falls flat on its face when one considers that we live in a representative democracy where parliamentarians should, in theory, make up their own minds on issues and neither be slaves to professional advice, nor adopt an attitude towards their constituents that sets them in the position of a mere cypher or delegate and that is made doubly unappetising by the fact that the government regularly chooses to ignore expert advice and a vast swathe of issues from education to pub opening hours.

The government then proceeded to muddy the waters by claiming that the legislation would merely "bring us into line" with countries on the continent, who have already adopted similar legislation and award their security services powers that our own people are denied, thus leaving them compelled to fight with one arm tied behind their back. This later turned out to be complete codswallop (had it been true it would merely have been a crap argument, rather than actively pernicious) and in reality had the legislation been passed the British security authorities would have had powers of detention unrivalled in any liberal democracy.

The most shocking aspect of the whole situation however, in my view, is simply the fact that the government had to be prodded and poked kicking and squealing in order to grudgingly include two safeguards in the legislation that should never, ever, have been in question in any legislation of this type in a modern democracy - independent judicial oversight and a sunset clause.

On the other hand, I think we can be too hasty to dismiss the notion that the government, slippery and authoritarian and un-British though it may be, is not struggling to deal with a very real problem. There is evidence that the system is not working and, frankly, some of the civil libertarian pressure groups - while right to raise vigorous concerns - are coming dangerously close to crying wolf (is there a single aspect of the counter-terrorism effort that Liberty and co. have not announced will be likely to act as a "recruiting sergeant" for terrorism?).

I don't know the figures offhand but of the suspects arrested since 9/11, an alarmingly high proportion (I believe upwards of 95 per cent) have been released without charge. The common left-wing explanation for this is that the security services are a bung of buffoons who are going on endless fishing trips and plucking perfectly innocent Muslims chaps off the sreet with gay abandon, only to find they've done nothing wrong. There may be some truth to this. However, I don't think it's the full story. The reality is that there seem to be very real problems in terms of the police being able to get the cases to court. There are a number of factors underpinning this. First is the fact that the Security Service is not empowered with the same powers of arrest as the police and, more importantly, few of its officers have any real experience within or knowledge of the legal system; once the security services have swooped everything passes out of their hands and starts a slow grind along the police/Crown Prosecution Service conveyor belt. As a result it seems likely (and I don't KNOW, obviously, but I've read and heard enough to put the pieces together with what I reckon has a certain whif of truth about it) that the Security Service and the police/CPA are not reading from the same hymn sheet and the Security Service is building cases on evidence that ultimately turns out either to be insufficient to lead to prosecution or simply inadmissable in court.

On top of this there is the ongoing debate over standards of evidence in terrorism prosecution. The claim that the Security Service often cannot proceed with prosecutions in open court for fear of compromising sources and methods should not be dismissed out of hand (for an accessible look at this, Michael Smith's "The Spying Game" [not to be uncritically relied upon with regard to its coverage of the conflict in Ulster] provides a basic popular account of some of the issues). Additionally, the breezy claims of opponents of change that "We coped ok with the IRA without any of this nonsense" don't really stand up to scrutiny. Apart from the fact that a number of extraordinary measures were introduced to deal with the Irish threat, a number of the cases in which Republican suspects were convicted in British courts on charges that were later thrown out on the grounds of the security forces fixing up the evidence may well have occured not due to a desire on the part of the powers that be to just lock up any random Paddy they could pin something on but due to the fact that they believe they knew suspects were guilty without being able to prove it under the system then in existence (this doesn't necessarily excuse the actions of the security services, it's just an attempt to illustrate that the notion of everything being peachy and workable during the Troubles doesn't entirely stand up - though the flip side is that it also lends weight to the argument that the security forces can't be trusted to keep their own house in order).

So I think it's a blurry picture and I do wonder to what extent the attempt to push for 90 day detention was a trade-off against keeping current evidentiary (is that a word?) standards unsullied. What surprises me is the extent to which it doesn't really seem to have surfaced in the popular debate, with the government's side accusing opponents of being soft on terrorism and motivated by rank opportunism and the government's opponents accusing the government of introducing an "apartheid" system that will, hoover-like, suck massed ranks of Muslim youth into the dustbag of Islamikaze wackiness.

Anyway, I'm buggered if I know and frankly I think the recent debate has generated far more heat than light. I do know that if the 90 day mechanism had gone through and the current arrest:prosecution ratio endured we would be looking at an unmitigated disaster. I also know that we'd be crossing a painful threshold, whether the Man In The Pub recognises it or not. Had I been an MP I would have voted against. But I think there may well be a case to be made that the system as it stands doesn't work and for all the ranting that has gone on over the past few weeks I feel that we aren't really any closer to real clarity and joined-up thinking on the issue, at least not in the public forum.


Robert Citino has a new book out. I personally rate his two-part work on the development of operational warfare highly and I look forward to seeing what interpretations he comes up with. Any attempt to espy a consistent "way in warfare" from the 18th century to the fall of Berlin runs the risk of running into generalisation and selectivity, but on the evidence of his previous work I suspect that Citino will give a balanced, if not uncontroversial, account of German military merits and flaws. Might well be worth checking out - and if you're American it's so bloody cheap!

Also, Robert Doughty's latest book is out. Any serious treatment of the French part in the Great War in the English language is very welcome indeed and I look forward to reading it. For a long time my pat contribution to any conversation or debate regarding gaps in the historiography of the war was that we needed a decent English language treatment of the French role - Anthony Clayton's "Paths of Glory" eventually emerged to fill the gap to a good degree; I suspect that Doughty's work is likely to take things somewhat further.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Mother of Pearl

I've got 42 comments in my last post and I'm not even going to begin to commence to look. Even the lure of the possibility of endless links to free pictures of young ladies in various states of undress will not motivate me to do so.

So I was at an awards do tonight and one of the members of staff comes up to me.

"Hey-a Anthony," he said, "Why-a you-a no write-a on da blog-a no more?"

Not really. He's not Italian. Or a Disney animation. But considering pretty much every fortnight for the past two months I've found myself thinking, "gosh," (note to American readers: that means "gee") "I really ought to do some writing on the old website", I figured I may as well apply grubby finger to sticky keyboard and churn something out.

That and the fact that the Amateur Gourmet has a book deal and there is no motivation in this world as powerful as burning, psychotic, staring-eyed jealousy.

So... what's in the news today.

Well as some of you will no doubt be aware, the Red Chinese have been in town and I've had to put up the sight of their grotty flags dangling off every public building between Pimlico and the Strand. Plus, apparently in order to impress Mr Poo, or whatever his name is, various artistic landmarks were bathed in red light as a form of tribute over the weekend.

Now, I'm all for harmonious relations with non-democratic, student-killing, monkeybrain-eating police state mentalists (they make such damnably good t-shirts), but it seems to me that this was gilding the lily somewhat. Overegging the pudding, if you will. It's almost as bad as when Jiang Zemin went to France and the French acted like the bloody French.

In other news, Paul McCartney has broadcast a live performance to the international space station. A splendid performance that almost succeeded in distracting my attention from the highly suspect rich chestnut brown colour his hair has taken on over the past couple of years.