Category Archives: War and Peace

And now, we have China threatening ‘a large-scale war’

China's one and only aircraft carrier, which they bought used./U.S. Navy

China’s one and only aircraft carrier, which they bought used./U.S. Navy

Or rather, we have state-controlled media doing so, which is a signal I think we have to take seriously:

The US risks a “large-scale war” with China if it attempts to blockade islands in the South China Sea, Chinese state media has said, adding that if recent statements become policy when Donald Trump takes over as president “the two sides had better prepare for a military clash”.

China has controversially built fortifications and artificial islands across the South China Sea. Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, said China’s “access to those islands … is not going to be allowed”.

China claims nearly the entire area, with rival claims by five south-east Asian neighbours and Taiwan.

Tillerson did not specify how the US would block access but experts agreed it could only be done by a significant show of military force. Tillerson likened China’s island building to “Russia’s taking of Crimea”.

“Tillerson had better bone up on nuclear power strategies if he wants to force a big nuclear power to withdraw from its own territories,” said an editorial in the Global Times, a Communist-party controlled newspaper….

I’m not disagreeing with anything Tillerson said, mind you — and it’s not all that different from the policy followed by the Obama administration — but the current situation is fraught.

On a previous post about Nikki Haley, Phillip Bush said:

That’s going to be a tough job, representing the views of the United States to the United Nations and the world when your own Administration is going to be one squabbling, Tweeting, contradictory, capricious, incoherent mess, especially on foreign policy. Her greatest challenge will come not from fellow delegates at the UN or on the Security Council, but trying to sort out and gracefully convey the day-to-day contradictions emanating from the government she is appointed to represent….

Yep.

One of the main narratives of this week has been that Trump’s nominees are not toeing the Trump line, particularly on foreign policy. Which in one way is encouraging (the nominees’ take is usually far wiser and better-informed), but in another way can lead to chaotic, incoherent policy, an unstable situation in which an unstable personality (hint, hint) can trigger an international crisis, perhaps even war, with a phone call — or a Tweet.

I have little doubt that Nikki Haley will conduct herself “gracefully,” but I do worry quite a bit about a diplomatic novice representing us on the Security Council without expert supervision and direction. That said, in a crisis, Nikki would be the least of my worries. And of course, the new POTUS would be my greatest.

What if, sometime after next Friday, Chinese state media issues a blustering threat like that, and includes some less-than-flattering reflections on Trump himself? How do you suppose he’ll react? And who will be able to contain him? And will they be in time?

German attack in the Ardennes started 72 years ago today

on-the-way-to-the-bulge-12-2016

Bryan sent me the above photo a couple of days ago, with the comment, “Check out the heavy fog. It’s pea soup. It looks pretty darn cold, too.”

Yep, it was extremely cold in that time and place. According to Wikipedia, this is what the photo shows: “American M36 tank destroyers of the 703rd TD, attached to the 82nd Airborne Division, move forward during heavy fog to stem German spearhead near Werbomont, Belgium, 20 December 1944.”

A Nazi soldier, heavily armed, carries ammunition boxes forward with companion in territory taken by their counter-offensive in this scene from captured German film. Belgium, December 1944.

A Nazi soldier, heavily armed, carries ammunition boxes forward with companion in territory taken by their counter-offensive in this scene from captured German film. Belgium, December 1944.

Four days earlier, the Germans had attacked the center of the American line with 20 divisions we didn’t know they had, much less that they were in that area. What followed would be the largest and bloodiest battle fought by the United States in the Second World War, popularly called the Battle of the Bulge.  (Those 20 German divisions — 13 infantry, 7 armored — attacked a mere 8 Allied divisions, mostly American. By the end of the battle, the Germans would have 24 divisions in the fight, to our 30. Back then, a division usually included between 10,000 and 20,000 men. So, more than a million men were involved.)

The center, in the Ardennes forest in Belgium, was a quiet area. The American line there was manned by green American troops. It was a place to put them where they could get used to being in a combat area, living in foxholes under rough weather conditions, without being tested by heavy fighting of the sort that was going on to the north and south.

My father-in-law, Walter Joseph Phelan Jr., was one of those green troops. He had been thrown into the new 106 Infantry Division at the last minute before being sent up on the line.

The 106th was occupying the position where the very tip of the German spear struck on Dec. 16, and rolled right over the Americans. My father-in-law, plus novelist Kurt Vonnegut and thousands of other soldiers of the 106th, were captured and spent the rest of the war freezing and starving in German Stalags. Like the guys in the photo taken by the Germans, below.

This is how the war ended for thousands of Americans. The photo above shows the beginning of the American counterattack, which led to victory over the next month, and the breaking of the Siegfried Line.

When I get home tonight I’m going to hunt for his written account of Mr. Phelan’s experience, and scan it and post it…

ADN-ZB/Archiv, II.Weltkrieg 1939-45 Die Ardennenoffensive der faschistischen deutschen Wehrmacht beginnt am 16. Dezember 1944 gegen die alliierten Truppen in Westeuropa. Nach anfänglichen Erfolgen müssen sich die deutschen Truppen bis Ende Januar 1945 auf ihre Ausgangsstellungen zurückziehen. Eine Kolonne gefangengenommener amerikanischer Soldaten. (Büschel) 125-45

Pearl Harbor coverage, as it would have looked had there been iPad apps in 1941

ipad-page

I enjoyed this thing that The Wall Street Journal did this morning.

They did a mock home page for their app consisting of actual stories that ran in the paper on Dec. 8, 1941.

Here are links to a couple of the stories:

War With Japan: Washington Sees Fight on 2 Oceans and 3 Continents

All Consumption Curbs Due To Be Stiffened; Scarcity List Will Grow

I’m struck by how matter-of-factly these developments were accepted at the time. The stock market opened as usual the next morning? And can you imagine what a conniption the Journal would have today (on the editorial page, at least) over “consumption curbs?” The government, interfering with the holy marketplace? Good God, Lemon!

Below is an image of the actual front page from that date.

I thought that was pretty cool. But then I’m both a journalist, and a history geek…

original-page

A post in which you can talk about Gen. Mattis

gen_james_n_mattis

Bryan Caskey complains via email, “We gonna talk foreign policy and military stuff on your blog about Mattis, or what?”

Alright, alright, already! Here’s a post about that. And here’s a story about Mattis.

Frankly, I don’t have a strong opinion on this nomination, but here are some thoughts:

  • With a complete ignoramus as commander in chief, it’s more important than ever that there be competent Cabinet members, who can keep the ship of state on some kind of rational course, at least when the White House leaves them alone to do so. This is particularly true on the national security team. And Trump’s decision to make Gen. Michael “Lock Her Up!” Flynn his national security adviser already has us in the hole on that score.
  • Mattis would seem to fit that bill. He’s a guy whose resume demonstrates that he would fully understand the missions of the Defense Department and act accordingly.
  • Then there’s the problem that Congress would have to grant an exemption that it has not granted until it did so for George C. Marshall. The law they’d have to waive arises from concerns about maintaining civilian control of the military. As y’all know, I’m not one of these post-Vietnam liberals who hyperventilate at the sight of a military uniform, fearing a real-life “Seven Days in May.” The Constitution sets the president as commander in chief, and that would seem sufficient. Well, it would under normal circumstances. Having a SecDef who is a recent general and is able to think rings around the president on military matters and foreign affairs could be a cause of concern on the fussy point of civilian control — but I personally would sleep better if I knew Mattis was calling the shots rather than the president-elect.
  • Mattis is far less trusting of Iran than President Obama. I think that is probably a healthy thing, but as Bryan would say, and this post is after all for Bryan, your mileage may vary.
  • I think it’s a very good thing that he has differed in the past from Trump on the idea of our allies getting a “free ride” on the back of U.S. power. He argued with a similar comment from President Obama once.
  • My guys John McCain and Lindsey Graham are on board, which makes me like him better. Graham finds him “an outstanding choice,” and McCain says “He is without a doubt of one of finest military officers of his generation and an extraordinary leader who inspires a rare and special admiration of his troops.”

Your thoughts?

Meanwhile, Iranian-backed rebels fire on U.S. warship

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USS Mason, which was fired upon by Houthi rebels.

While the rest of us are busy listening to a tacky, self-absorbed huckster conjugating the verb “to f___,” there are real things going on out in the real world.

Leave it to our own Lindsey Graham to notice:

cubwy_bxeaegvfu

Here’s a news story on the subject.

Meanwhile, in Aleppo, a child sits — silent, staring and bloody

Yesterday, I Tweeted out the headline of an editorial in The Washington Post: “As Aleppo is destroyed, Mr. Obama stands by.”

Today, the above video went viral around the world. It shows a tiny boy, covered in dust and blood after being pulled from rubble, sitting in an ambulance seat that’s far too big. He’s quiet. He seems stunned. He wipes his face, sees the blood, tries to wipe it off his hand onto the seat, then goes back to staring ahead.

This, my friends, is what “as Aleppo is destroyed” looks like. The boy is Omran Daqneesh. He’s 5 years old.

And here’s a Tweet that puts things into perspective:

When I Tweeted that editorial headline yesterday, someone responded on Facebook, “What would you suggest he do, Brad?”

Now? I suppose it’s more a question of what he should have done the last few years (such as some of the things Hillary Clinton urged him to do when she was Secretary of State). I don’t know enough about the details of the current situation even to know what is still possible.

I know what he should NOT have done. He should not have spoken of red lines. He should not have said we would have the Syrian people’s backs in this horrible time. Not if he didn’t mean it…

But I guess my short answer is, SOMETHING. Not that any answers are easy…

All I know is that I look at that child, and see my grandson…

Obama, groping through the moral twilight of drone warfare

OK, so it's really a picture of the president touring Carlsbad Caverns with his family last month, but it seemed to go with my headline.

OK, so it’s really a picture of the president touring Carlsbad Caverns with his family last month, but it seemed to go with my headline.

Today, the Obama administration owned up to a number of bystanders killed a collateral damage in drone strikes:

The United States has inadvertently killed between 64 and 116 noncombatant civilians in drone and other lethal attacks against terrorism suspects in places not considered active war zones, the Obama administration said Friday.

The unintentional deaths came in a total of 473 CIA and military counterterrorism strikes up to the end of 2015 that the administration said have taken between 2,372 and 2,581 militants permanently off the battlefield in countries where the United States is not at war, which would include Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya.

The release was accompanied by an executive order, signed by President Obama, designed to give added weight to existing administration standards and procedures governing the use of lethal force and for limiting civilian casualties….

So. 473 drone strikes. At least 2,372 people regarded as enemies of the United States killed. And the tradeoff is as many as 116 folks who were minding their own business, snuffed out without warning by hellfire from the sky.

What do we think about that? Are the attacks justified? Is the tradeoff morally defensible? Can we rationalize killing an innocent person for every 20 terrorists?

The administration released this information in connection with the president’s promise to be more transparent about his “I’ve got a list” program of drone warfare.

By disclosing, he’s pulling us in, sharing the burden. Now that we know, it’s more on us. We, too, are walking about in a moral twilight. How do feel about that?

Excuse this digression….

Are you familiar with the naval battle that occurred outside Boston Harbor between HMS Shannon and USS Chesapeake on 1 June 1813? Up to that point in the War of 1812, there had been several one-on-one battles between British and American ships, and the infant U.S. Navy had won all of them — which had really shaken up the Royal Navy. They were used to fighting the French, and always winning.

Philip Broke, commander of HMS Shannon, had been blockading Boston Harbor for months. He was low on water and other provisions and couldn’t stay on station much longer. But he didn’t want to leave without having had a chance to reclaim the Royal Navy’s honor against the Americans. So he sent a note into the harbor to Capt. James Lawrence of the Chesapeake, challenging him to come out and fight.

Lawrence did so that very day (although coincidentally, on his own initiative, not because of the note). And after a furiously intense 15 minutes of fighting in which 252 men were killed or wounded, Shannon had won. Lawrence, who was mortally wounded in the battle, famously said “Don’t give up the ship!” as he was taken below — but moments later, his men were forced to do just that. He died of his wounds three days later, as his captured ship was being taken to Halifax.

Broke, too, was gravely wounded. He survived, and was made a baronet for his victory, but his injuries ended his active service for good.

This story is told in vivid detail in one of Patrick O’Brian’s novels, The Fortune of War. As you know, I’m always trying to get everyone I know to read these books about Captain Jack Aubrey and his particular friend, surgeon Stephen Maturin, and I recently persuaded my wife to read this one.

To her, Broke’s note challenging Lawrence made no sense.

And yes, it does seem a bit irrational, like two boys meeting on a playground and saying simultaneously, “I can beat you!” and going at it. Boys who’ve heard too many stories about jousting knights in shining armor.

But there was a time when behavior such as Broke’s was universally lauded, held up as an ideal. And I confess I’m atavistic enough to feel admiration for him, while at the same time seeing that whole war as an absurd waste. (I contain multitudes.)

And I have to wonder: Was there not honor in inviting the enemy out to a fair fight, one in which the challenger’s life was on the line as much as anyone’s? A fight in which many were killed, but all were legitimate combatants? Are we better, more rational, more enlightened, more admirable now that we fight wars like this instead?

Kamp_mellem_den_engelske_fregat_Shannon_og_den_amerikanske_fregat_Chesapeak

The initial exchange of gunfire between Chesapeake and Shannon.

HOW many guys are passing the new Marine fitness test?

'The fitness test? You can't HANDLE the fitness test!'

‘The fitness test? You can’t HANDLE the fitness test!’

I don’t intend to get into the underlying issue of women in the infantry — I’ve intended to ever since that mandate came down from civilian leadership, but I just haven’t felt up to the huge and predictable argument that would lead to — but in reading this I felt motivated to make some remarks on general fitness in the Marines:

New physical standards established so women can compete for combat posts in the Marine Corps have weeded out many of the female hopefuls. But they’re also disqualifying some men, according to data obtained by The Associated Press.

In the last five months, 6 out of 7 female recruits – and 40 out of about 1,500 male recruits – failed to pass the new regimen of pull-ups, ammunition-can lifts, a 3-mile run and combat maneuvers required to move on in training for combat jobs, according to the data.USMC-logo2

The tests, taken about 45 days into basic training, force recruits who fail into other, less physically demanding Marine jobs. And that, the Marine commandant says, is making the Corps stronger.

The high failure rate for women, however, raises questions about how well integration can work, including in Marine infantry units where troops routinely slog for miles carrying packs weighed down with artillery shells and ammunition, and at any moment must be able to scale walls, dig in and fight in close combat.

The new standards are a product of the Pentagon’s decision to allow women to compete for frontline jobs, including infantry, artillery and other combat posts. But Marine leaders say they are having a broader impact by screening out less physically powerful Marines – both men and women.

“I think that’s made everybody better,” Marine Commandant Gen. Robert Neller told the AP in his first in-depth interview on the subject. “We’re trying to raise everybody’s bar a little bit and we’re trying to figure out how to get closer together, because at the end of the day we’re all going to be on the battlefield and we all have to be able to do our job.”…

I have a series of reactions to this:

  • These new standards are only eliminating 40 out of 1,500 male recruits? That doesn’t sound like the Marines to me. They’re supposed to be the few, not the 1,460 out of 1,500. Were the ratios always like this? If so, that sort of tarnishes the image I have in my head of the Marines as an elite force. Even the Army, at the very height of WWII, was rejecting a third of draftees. I really that’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, but still — wouldn’t you think more Marine recruits than that would wash out, if standards were what they should be?
  • Assuming for a moment that we’re all in agreement that women should be in foxholes, I don’t think we have any reason to look at 6 out of 7 women washing out of an elite light infantry unit as bad news. Seems to me that the best argument always advanced for letting women in is that we should treat people like individuals — that we shouldn’t say, just because most women lack, say, the upper body strength to keep up with male Marines, that all women should categorically be barred. Shouldn’t we make exceptions for, say, the Lady Briennes of Tarth among us? That always seemed a good argument to me. (I,for one, would not want to be the officer deputed to tell Lady Brienne she was out, especially since Ser Jaime let her keep that Valyrian steel sword). Besides, if six women don’t make it, the more honor to the seventh.
  • What happened to the notion of “every Marine a rifleman?” Should Marines keep the feathermerchants who can’t pass a test that 97 percent of male recruits can pass? What’s this about “other, less physically demanding Marine jobs?” When did the Marines start offering such jobs? I’ve always known the Army had places for the less fit — or at least they did in the days of the draft, when things like food service weren’t outsourced to civilian contractors and you could always put a sad sack to work peeling spuds or policing the area for butts — but since when is that an aspect of the Marines? They’re the point of the spear, are they not? Let the swabbies do the paperwork, right? Every marine is a rifleman.

I should probably stop there before I offend the Air Force, too.

But when I hear that almost all male recruits can pass the new physical requirements, it makes me think that even I, at my age, might have a shot. And I really like to think of the Marines as having higher standards than that…

Guadalcanal: A U.S. Marine patrol crosses the Matanikau River in September 1942.

Guadalcanal: A U.S. Marine patrol crosses the Matanikau River in September 1942.

Just to take note of what happened on this date in 1944

Approaching Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944.

Approaching Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944.

I don’t have anything new to say about it at the moment, but I thought I’d take note of the date.

Today was the day that the United States, Great Britain, Canada and our other allies put 175,000 men onto a hostile shore. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had done everything he could to keep them off of it, and to ensure that if they did land, they would die.

But we managed it anyway. Or rather, our forebears did.

Who were these guys we sent to do this thing? One of the most interesting paragraphs in Stephen Ambrose’s book about the invasion is this one:

GI

Look at this one sentence again: “He was twenty-six years old, five feet eight inches tall, weighed 144 pounds, had a thirty-three-and-a-half-inch chest, and a thirty-one-inch waist.”

These were little guys! Even after they’d bulked up, their chests were 34.5 inches! Today they’d have to go to the boys’ department to buy a sport coat.

But they got the job done.

Allied_Invasion_Force

Memorial Day music: Dire Straits’ ‘Brothers in Arms’

Heard this on the radio this morning, and as usual it shifted me into a different state of consciousness.

It’s not the words or anything obvious like that. It’s just the otherworldly mood that the song creates.

Anyway, it occurred to me after I heard it that maybe it was being played in honor of Memorial Day.

In that spirit, I share it.

I find myself reminded of this other little-known James Taylor song — a song fragment, really — from his “Mud Slide Slim” album, which I’ve always thought had its own mildly hypnotic effect. I was always struck by the sudden shift in tone — from the battle-weary soldiers “with eleven sad stories to tell” to the narrator and his very different reality — after which the song abruptly ends. It was like suddenly awaking from a dream — or, to invoke an obscure reference, like the effect when Don Juan suddenly slapped Carlos Castaneda on the back, sending him into a state of heightened awareness.

It may seem an odd way to mark Memorial Day — these lyrical expressions from pop musicians who never heard a shot fired in anger. But that’s what I have for you today.

Here’s why we have to stay in NATO, Donald

Germany quiz

OK, there are a lot of reasons, but here’s a dumbed-down, grunt-grunt macho one he might actually understand:

We need to make sure Germany stays on our side.

Somehow I missed this news last week, until it turned up on the Slate News Quiz today:

Six NATO countries squared off last week in the Strong Europe Tank Challenge, a two-day competition that pitted some of the alliance’s best tank crews against each another in a series of events centered on armored warfare.

The challenge, which concluded Thursday and was held in Grafenwoehr, Germany, was the first of its kind there since 1991. The competition was designed to foster “military partnership” while showcasing the ability of NATO countries to work together, according to a U.S. Army statement.

Germany took top honors in the competition, followed by Denmark and Poland in second place and third place respectively.

The challenge, co-hosted by U.S. Army Europe and the German Bundeswehr, is a nod to the Cold War era and a tacit acknowledgment that NATO will need well-trained conventional forces if it ever has to go to war with a newly-emboldened Russia….

Back the last time we weren’t on the same team as ze Germans, they had the best tanks (and the Leopard 2A6s they won with this time look, to my untrained eye, creepily like Tigers). But we won by showing up with way MORE of them than they could produce. We tried that this time, too — every other country sent a single tank platoon to the competition, but we sent two. To no avail, as it turned out. They beat us anyway.

Good thing they’re on our side now. We need to keep it that way, despite what Donald Trump says….

German Leopard 2A6M with turret reversed

German Leopard 2A6M with turret reversed

Putinism on the high seas: Su-24s buzz U.S. destroyer

close

Somehow I missed this yesterday, so I thought I’d share the picture and video in case you did, too.

This is Putinist machismo taken to the edge and beyond.

Remember in “Top Gun” when the captain of the U.S. aircraft career refused to tolerate Russian fighters getting within 250 miles of his vessel? Apparently, we’ve gotten a LOT more tolerant of Russian aggression since the Cold War (or, you know, “Top Gun” was B.S.). In fact, you can’t get any more tolerant without them losing a plane and us perhaps losing a ship.

The chief of naval operations gave the captain and crew of USS Donald Cook a big “Bravo Zulu” for “their initiative and toughness in how they handled themselves during this incident.”

There’s no excuse for Cruz calling for ‘carpet’ bombing

Walls of houses of Wesel still stand, as do the churches, but a great part of the town was destroyed when the German commander forced the Allied troops to fight their way street by street through the ruins. Germany, 1945. Army. (OWI) Exact Date Shot Unknown NARA FILE #: 208-N-39903 WAR & CONFLICT BOOK #: 1336

Wesel was 97% destroyed before it was finally taken by Allied troops in 1945. See that carpet of craters? Wikipedia doesn’t SAY those are bomb craters, but what else might they be?

I tend to agree pretty frequently with Charles Krauthammer on national security issues, but I was disappointed in him over the weekend.

Did you see his column assessing the foreign policy approaches of Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, which he termed, respectively, “passivist,” “internationalist,” “unilateralist” and “mercantilist.”

There was much of value in the column, and some things to enjoy — such as his observation that Trump’s worldview comes closest to that of King Philip II of Spain (1556-1598).

Of course, I was disappointed that he left out Kasich — I reject the notion that we have no options left but these four. But to his credit, he promised that “If Kasich pulls off a miracle, he’ll get his own column.” Which he would, of course, unquestionably deserve at that point.

Most of his observations are sound, and he is scrupulously careful to acknowledge that Hillary Clinton would likely be less reluctant to take effective action in the world than her erstwhile boss, President Obama. He says her nearest historical analog is her husband’s approach in the 1990s — which isn’t as good as, say, Tony Blair in that decade, but it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

What gets me is the way he bends over backwards to make Cruz’ approach palatable:

The most aggressive of the three contenders thus far. Wants post-Cold War U.S. leadership restored. Is prepared to take risks and act alone when necessary. Pledges to tear up the Iran deal, cement the U.S.-Israel alliance and carpet bomb the Islamic State.

Overdoes it with “carpet” — it implies Dresden — although it was likely just an attempt at rhetorical emphasis….

Really?!?!?!? “Overdoes it?” The fact that Cruz uses that word utterly disqualifies him from consideration as POTUS. Whether he really wants to do that, or merely does not understand what the word means, he is beyond the pale.

Here’s what “carpet bombing” means:

Carpet bombing, also known as saturation bombing, is a large aerial bombing done in a progressive manner to inflict damage in every part of a selected area of land.[1][2][3][4] The phrase evokes the image of explosions completely covering an area, in the same way that a carpet covers a floor. Carpet bombing is usually achieved by dropping many unguided bombs.

And yes, when we think of “carpet bombing” we do think of Dresden, and Tokyo, and Cologne, and all those other places that we sent thousands of planes over in an effort to destroy everything below — including all those civilians.

I’m not going to get into the ethics of our having done that in the course of total war, in a time in which we lacked the technical precision of modern munitions. I’m just going to say that that is what is clearly, unquestionably meant when one says “carpet bombing” — that you’re dropping a carpet of bombs to destroy everything and everyone in the covered area, and let God sort them out.

There is no room in the 21st century, when we have so many other options, for a suggestion like that. The term is primitive, atavistic, barbaric — which is no doubt why Cruz said it, in an attempt to appeal to Trumpist sensibilities.

Yet Krauthammer is completely blasé about it, with that forgiving “overdoes.”

But that’s just the setup to the really bad thing: His assertion that Cruz’ closest historical analog is… Ronald Reagan.

So it’s come to this: That folks on the right are working so hard to talk themselves into settling for Cruz that Charles Krauthammer can equate the Cruz worldview with that of the one guy Republicans believe could do no wrong.

That’s just inexcusable.

I’m sorry, but this photo does not inspire confidence

25986848835_b1c501ec4d_o

The White House was probably trying to assure us that, even though he’s very busy doing photo ops in Cuba, he’s really staying on top of the Brussels situation.

So we have this official photo showing POTUS in a (presumably, going by the riveted door and sound-absorbing panels) secure room at the residence of the U.S. chief of mission, with this cutline:

President Barack Obama and National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice talk on the phone with Homeland Security Advisor Lisa Monaco to receive an update on a terrorist attack in Brussels, Belgium. The President made the call from the residence of the U.S. Chief of Mission in Havana, Cuba, March 22, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

But ya know, I’m not much assured. Not because the president’s looking all tense and worried, but because of the person sitting at his right hand.

I still get a little chill down my spine whenever I’m reminded that Susan Rice is the president’s national security advisor. That’s because I learned way more than I wanted to know about her back when she was floated as possible secretary of state. And almost everything I learned worried me.

Not just because her misspeaking got the ball rolling on the GOP’s Benghazi fixation, but because incident after incident in her history showed a lack of judgment and reliability — in Rwanda, and other places. Such as Sierra Leone.

Ours is a vast and resource-rich nation. We have loads and loads of really smart people, in academia, in government, at think tanks, in multinational corporations — people with great track records in dealing with a complicated world. Is Susan Rice, who has so many questionable items in her record, from the deadly serious to the trivial, really the best person in the nation to be at the president’s right hand in a crisis?

That seems doubtful to me…

Wow, even John Kerry is more hawkish than POTUS

THIS guy's more hawkish than the president?

THIS guy’s more hawkish than the president?

I’m not sure I go along fully with the premise of David Brooks’ most recent column (“Dogs, Cats and Leadership,” March 11), but I was very impressed by the anecdote with which it began:

When he was in the middle of his Syrian peace deal negotiations, Secretary of State John Kerry would go to President Obama with a request: Could the U.S. quietly send a few cruise missiles to hit Assad regime targets, just to send a message and maybe move the Syrian president toward a deal.

“Kerry’s looking like a chump with the Russians, because he has no leverage,” a senior administration official told Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic.

Obama continually said no, and eventually grew impatient. Goldberg asked Kerry if he thought he has more of a bias toward action than Obama. “I do probably,” Kerry responded. “I’d say that I think we’ve had a very symbiotic, synergistic, whatever you call it, relationship which works very effectively. Because I’ll come in with a bias toward ‘Let’s try to do this, let’s try to do that, let’s get this done.’”…

Wow. I mean, I knew President Obama was the most reluctant to act militarily within his administration — as Brooks notes later, “His senior advisers were shocked when he announced” that he would not back up his “red line” in Syria.

But to be so markedly dovish in comparison to John Kerry, whose personal legend is so wrapped up in his antiwar activism?

That’s fascinating. Particularly when you consider the president’s willingness to use drones far more than his predecessor, and to send the SEALs in to get bin Laden (the riskiest of the options, which included simply bombing the compound).

Perhaps this POTUS is a bit of a cat — the deadliest of pets, yet inscrutable…

Donald Trump embraces the left’s ‘Bush lied’ lie. How is this going to play here in South Carolina?

My last post arose from Marco Rubio’s response to what Donald Trump said over the weekend, at that debate I had to stop watching.

Basically, Trump repeated the left’s “Bush lied” lie:

“You call it whatever you want. I wanna tell you. They lied…They said there were weapons of mass destruction. There were none. And they knew there were none. There were no weapons of mass destruction.”

It’s fascinating how starkly that belief continues to divide us, in terms of our perceptions of reality. The Post‘s Richard Cohen wrote:

Of all the surprises, of all the unexpected ironies, of all the unanticipated turns in the Republican presidential race, it’s possible that Donald Trump has been hurt by telling the truth. Trump himself must be reeling from such a development and has probably by now vowed to return to lying and bluster seasoned with personal insult — “You’re a loser” — but the fact remains that when he called the war in Iraq “a big, fat mistake,” he was exactly right. Jeb Bush, the very good brother of a very bad president, has now turned legitimate criticism of George W. Bush into an attack on his family. His family survived the war. Countless others did not.

Hey, at least he called Jeb a “very good brother,” right?

But it fell to The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial board to state what really happened, and what did not. As to Trump’s “They lied” assertion:

Despite years of investigation and countless memoirs, there is no evidence for this claim. None. The CIA director at the time, George Tenet, famously called evidence of WMD in Iraq a “slam dunk.” Other intelligence services, including the British, also believed Saddam Hussein had such programs. After the first Gulf War in 1991 the CIA had been surprised to learn that Saddam had far more WMD capability than it had thought. So it wasn’t crazy to suspect that Saddam would attempt to rebuild it after he had expelled United Nations arms inspectors in the late 1990s.

President Bush empowered a commission, led by former Democratic Sen. Chuck Robb and federal Judge Laurence Silberman, to dig into the WMD question with access to intelligence and officials across the government. The panel included Patricia Wald, a former chief judge of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals appointed by Jimmy Carter, and Richard Levin, president of Yale University at the time.

Their report of more than 600 pages concludes that it was the CIA’s “own independent judgments—flawed though they were—that led them to conclude Iraq had active WMD programs.” The report adds that “the Commission found no evidence of political pressure” to alter intelligence findings: “Analysts universally asserted that in no instance did political pressure cause them to skew or alter their analytical judgments.”…

The Journal‘s headline for that editorial was “Donald Trump’s MoveOn.org Moment.” Indeed. Once again, the extremes meet.

The big question this week is, as W. comes to South Carolina — which has been solid Bush country since 1988 (although not so much in 1980) — to help his brother out, how is Trump’s rant going to play here on Saturday?

Everyone’s asking that question.

In a rational world, it would sink Trump’s chances completely. But when in the past year have you seen the phenomenon of Trump fandom respond to anything resembling reason? Actual Republicans would likely react to this latest by saying Trump’s gone too far. But do you think “Trump supporters” and “Republicans” are the same set of people?

Add to that the fact that the GOP electorate in South Carolina hasn’t entirely been itself since it caught the Tea Party fever in 2010, and the effect of this particular rant may turn out to be a wash. Things are so messed up this year, I’m not going to try to make a prediction…

The candidates as the cast of a WWII B movie

battleground

How did I get on this subject? Well, Bryan had said something about liking Scott Walker before he dropped out, and I said he failed to stand out and distinguish himself. All the other candidates have a shorthand character people can describe, for good or ill. For instance, Lindsey Graham, who did no better in the polls than Walker, was known as the hawkish guy with the wisecracks.

So I got to thinking about how we all think we know the candidates, even though we don’t really know them any deeper than we do the characters in a cliche-ridden B movie — as a group of familiar types.

So let’s treat them like old-style contract players and cast them in an imaginary flick about World War II, since most of us are familiar with the genre. The title of the film? I dunno. “Hell is for Sad Sacks,” or something like that.

Here we go:

LuzLindsey Graham‘s the wise-cracking guy who nevertheless can give a pretty good speech about why we fight, and though he’s obviously no John Wayne, he’ll likely be a passable soldier when the shooting starts. Think L.Q. Jones — the character, not the actor who played him and adopted the name (even though he was poorly cast) — in “Battle Cry.” Think the book version. Only Leon Uris fans will get that, so never mind. Instead, think George Luz in “Band of Brothers.”

HallScott Walker is the replacement who gets killed at the start of the first battle, and no one in the unit can remember his name. Or maybe he was a member of another company entirely who ended up fighting alongside the main characters because the drop zones were all messed up. Think Private Hall in “Band of Brothers,” the guy who is the first character killed on D-Day. Or, to switch genres, anyone in a red shirt on “Star Trek.”

FrankoTed Cruz is the blowhard who talks big about how many Krauts he’s gonna kill, and the first time he’s within hearing of the guns he’s found cowering, quivering, in his foxhole. Everybody hates him — he’s always figuring an angle for getting ahead, at the expense of the other guys in the platoon — so they’re inclined to leave him there in the hole, but someone calls the medic. In “The Dirty Dozen,” he’d be Victor Franko.

RicklesDonald Trump is the utterly corrupt quartermaster who runs the black market operations in the area. A real weasel, although a tremendous businessman (ya gotta give him that) he’s all about insulting the other guys in the battalion. He’s even trading with the enemy; anything for the deal. He gets along great with Starshina Putin, his counterpart in the Red Army unit just over the hill. Think Don Rickles in “Kelly’s Heroes.” (He’s not smooth enough to be Milo Minderbinder.)

earnest young officerJeb Bush is the well-meaning but largely ineffectual officer who lives under a huge shadow. His father was a general and even his ne’er-do-well big brother made a name for himself earlier in the war. He got great grades at West Point but thus far hasn’t distinguished himself. He’s not a bad guy, but he’s not the kind of guy the men are all that eager to follow into battle. Picture Tom Hanks’ kid in “Band of Brothers.” (I’m not going to be cruel and call him Lt. Dike.)

PopsBernie Sanders is “Pops,” the impossibly old guy who somehow got drafted anyway. The young guys all think he’s great and look out for him, even politely listening to his crackpot ideas about politics, the Army, etc. He likes to freak out the recruits by popping his teeth out without warning. For some reason I’m picturing James Whitmore in “Battleground,” but I’m not sure that’s quite right. Can anyone think of somebody better?

Savalas 2Chris Christie is the crusty sergeant who’s been there and done that and rides the younger guys pretty hard, calling them “craphead” and “boy in the bubble” and such. Maybe Telly Savalas, in either “Battle of the Bulge” or “Kelly’s Heroes;” take your pick. But not in “The Dirty Dozen” — totally different character. Was James Gandolfini ever in this kind of movie? That would be perfect, but I don’t think he ever was.

WebsterMarco Rubio is “College,” the guy who earned half a degree before deciding he’d better join up. He’s a slick talker and will probably get into politics when he gets back home. The guys respect him for his ability to talk his way out of KP and such, but he hasn’t proven himself to them yet, and some wonder how he’ll measure up in combat. Think of David Kenyon Webster, the Ivy Leaguer in “Band of Brothers.”

StrayerJohn Kasich is the battalion executive officer, like Major Strayer in “Band of Brothers.” (Yeah, I keep citing “Band of Brothers,” which doesn’t fit the mold of the stereotype-ridden B movie. But there were just so many characters to choose from.) He’s regular Army and he knows his way around and the guys pretty much respect him and accept him in the No. 2 role, but people just aren’t sure how he’ll lead if the Old Man gets hit. This guy doesn’t usually have a lot of lines in the movie.

rooseveltI don’t know who Hillary Clinton is. It’s tough, since the Pentagon hadn’t yet rubber-stamped an OK on women in combat. I’m still working on it… She’s not a nurse (unless we’re talking Nurse Ratched, and that’s the wrong genre), and I don’t see her as the dame back home who wrote you a Dear John letter and broke your heart. Maybe she’s the long-suffering wife of the good-time company commander who chases all the nurses — Deborah Kerr in “From Here to Eternity.” But I don’t see her with Burt Lancaster. Maybe I’ll just say she’s Eleanor Roosevelt. She should like that…

Will the U.S. never disentangle itself from WWII?

Here are the two top stories in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs:

  • The Bundeswehr Backs Away From the Brink — Since the end of the Cold War, NATO members’ defense expenditures, which include arms as well as personnel and facilities, have dropped dramatically. Now, Germany plans to increase its military spending, in large part to repair and maintain the Bundeswehr’s deteriorating equipment.
  • The Battle for Okinawa — Growing discontent in Okinawa has the potential to reverberate beyond Japan’s borders. If Washington and Tokyo wish to maintain the bases there, they must be prepared to address the historical and political issues that have led Okinawans to reject them.

By modern standards, we should all be wringing our hands that we are still not rid of the challenges arising from that mess we got involved in back in 1941.

At the moment, I’m reading a fairly new book about the battle in the Ardennes in December 1944 (a.k.a., Battle of the Bulge), and I’m reminded of how Hitler hoped it might give him a chance to fight to a stalemate in the West, so he could concentrate on his main enemy, Russia.

If some modern American leaders had been in charge back then, he might have succeeded. The nation would be in political shock from the disasters of Market Garden and the Hurtgen Forest, that a modern president might have seized upon the Ardennes as an excuse to quit and seek a negotiated settlement.

Then, he could have bragged about having “ended the war in Europe.” Of course, that would have been totally bogus, but not by our standards today…

Iranians take two U.S. Navy vessels; U.S. sailors in custody

U.S. Navy Small Unit Riverine Craft (SURC)

U.S. Navy Small Unit Riverine Craft (SURC)

This is not a promising situation:

Two small U.S. Navy vessels appear to be in Iranian custody but their crews will be released promptly, the Pentagon confirmed Tuesday.

Two U.S. naval craft were en route from Kuwait to Bahrain when they disappeared from the Navy’s scopes. The incident marks the latest run-in between Iranian and U.S. crews. In late December, Iranian gunboats fired unguided missiles almost a 1,000 yards away from the aircraft carrier the U.S.S. Harry S. Truman.

A U.S. official said that the boats were small riverine variants and may have ran out of gas or had mechanical issues and were believed to have been within 12 nautical miles of Iran when they broke down….

This prompts a number of questions, such as:

  • Two boats broke down at the same time in the same place? Or did Iran do something to cause them to “break down?” Or did one break down and the other was rendering aid? What happened?
  • What kind of boats were these? What’s a “small riverine variant”? Are they like P.B.R.s? Swift boats? P.T. boats? How are they configured and crewed? What are they designed to do? What’s the mission? (UPDATE: Apparently, these were Small Unit Riverine Craft. A picture is posted above.)
  • If our sailors are not released promptly, then what?
  • I missed the news about the Truman incident. What was our response? That is, what did we do after we sank the gunboats? (No, I know we didn’t, or I would have heard about it.)

 

WWII: The experience that everyone shared (and yeah, I know that’s a huge cliche)

Everyone, that is, except me, people around my age and of course, those much younger.

And yeah, I know the ubiquity of the war experience is pretty much a cliche, but I keep getting reminded of it in ways that make the notion seem fresh.

My history classes in school never got around to the war, even when it was right there, near the end of the textbook. I always sort of figured it was a low priority for my teachers because in their minds, well, “we all lived through it, right?” So I had to read about the events that most immediately shaped the world I grew up in on my own.

In typing my mother’s childhood memoirs, I’m reminded yet again of how the war shaped the lives even of those who never went overseas.

So I know all that, and have known it since childhood, but every time I run across by-the-way mentions of the war experiences of various famous people, I’m reminded that, unlike Vietnam and definitely unlike the War on Terror, pretty much everyone who was eligible did go.

61t3in9FBcL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Last night, I started reading one of the books I received for Christmas, Ardennes 1944: The Battle of the Bulge, by Anthony Beevor. (It was sort of an ironic experience, opening that present and seeing on the cover the beleaguered soldier in the snow — on a Christmas Day in the 70s.)

On the second page, I had another of those “Wow, everybody was in this” experiences. The author was explaining how, in August 1944, things were still unsettled in newly liberated Paris, which is why Eisenhower was pretty much ignoring FDR’s wishes and showing support for de Gaulle, who he believed could stabilize things in his rear while his troops moved on to Germany.

Within that context, I read this, in the middle of a paragraph:

…Together with a comrade, the writer J.D. Salinger, a Counter Intelligence Corps staff sergeant with the 4th Infantry Division, had arrested a suspect in an action close to the Hôtel de Ville, only for the crowd to drag him away and beat him to death in front of their eyes….

I mean, think about it: This guy was a famous recluse my whole life. We all knew two things about Salinger: He wrote The Catcher in the Rye, and he was a recluse. You didn’t see him anywhere. And yet here he is popping up in the middle of things in Paris during the war.

Ex-Sgt. Salinger

Ex-Sgt. Salinger

Months later, in the battle that this book is about, Kurt Vonnegut would be captured, along with my father-in-law — both soldiers in the ill-fated 106th Infantry Division, that new unit of green troops who had been placed at the center of the line, where things were supposed to be quiet.

I’m not a student of Salinger — if I were, I’d be well aware of his extensive experience in the war — but it immediately occurred to me that maybe experiences such as that one in Paris help explain why he turned into such a hermit. And sure enough, I see that he was hospitalized for a few weeks with “combat stress reaction” — although he waited until the Germans were defeated to have his breakdown.

Anyway, it’s just a small thing, a footnote, but such things interest me….