February 28, 2005

In other blogs

Couple notes:

Victor Davis Hanson can go off the rails a little in column-length newspaper articles, sometimes to the point of self-parody, but he's still on his game on the long-essay form. There is much to agree with in this piece, which I would add to any soldiers' must-read list.

A useful companion (this isn't a must-read, unless you're in my occasional line of work of helping army officers simulate a hypothetical enemy) is this more technical piece on likely tactics of a future near-parity enemy.

Yes, I DO use this blog to avoid the need for bookmarking. Why do you ask?

I also find myself agreeing with Mark Steyn recently. And I agree with many other blogs that the recent developments in Egypt are promising, and to the credit of post-election U.S. diplomacy.

Re Henley's recent writing on torture shows, he obviously missed its other recent appearance, on Mythbusters (in reruns this Wednesday night in Canada on the Discovery Channel) where an attractive member of the crew becomes a torture-test subject briefly. The experiment goes somewhat pear-shaped, but the 'Busters air the results regardless, which is fairly unblinking of them... given they they were clearly going for a little titillation, and instead got some real misery. (The narrator chides them at the end for poor experiment planning, to seal the point.) There was no significant, Bybee-memo-level pain, mostly just coercion, on a willing volunteer yet, but that was still enough, and too much. Not their best show, but still instructive. Unlike the staged torture dramas of 24 and BSG, the viewer is left feeling a co-conspirator to making a real-life woman shed tears to no valid purpose: that either bothers you or it doesn't, I guess. It confirmed to my mind I'd be a lousy interrogator, anyway: the best argument about torture has always been, not that doing your worst to the worst of your enemies was wrong, but that exerting even mild coercion on 100 innocents, in hopes of getting the one guilty one in their ranks who might actually deserve it, is the inevitable and soul-destroying aspect to the practice that I for one would rather just avoid.

The blog bash on Friday was pleasant, but memorable to my mind mostly for a great discussion with David Janes... he said the insurgency in Iraq will be mostly spent in a month or two, and I disagreed. He made a very persuasive debaters' case... and regardless of my contrary position, I do hope against hope that his predictive powers will prove more accurate. Janes, as always, is on the cusp of some new invention that will reshape blogging as we know it: I look forward to hearing more.

UPDATE: Note that the Hanson piece above implicitly concedes the two points I and others have made about the Iraqi occupation... that as militarily brilliant as the initial campaign was, the failure to restore order rapidly on conquest has proven disastrous, and that the United States has not yet satisfied Hanson's own four conditions for a successful end to this rebellion: the issue, in other words, is still in the balance. This seems absolutely correct. If we could all agree to those as the initial starting points of the debate on what was done, and what should be done now, things would be a lot less vituperative.

Posted by BruceR at 12:14 PM

February 25, 2005


In case anyone's wondering, no I'm not shocked into silence by the federal budget or the missile decision... just busy.

The budget is less than it seems, of course... no significant new spending above a cost-of-living increase (which will be all eaten up in payraises) until 2007 is nothing to get too excited about, yet... there's plenty of opportunities to recant (starting with, as the most likely, a Liberal re-election between now and then that gives an improved NDP the balance of power). I note that the military leadership is now saying they didn't want any money for a couple years anyway, so they have time to figure out how to spend it when it comes... whereas all the Liberal environment and daycare initiatives kick in right away. Either that means we're hopelessly naive as a military, or we're putting a good face on a set-back in last-minute budgetary horsetrading (note how the immediate cash infusion dropped in the pre-budget stories from $1 billion a month ago, to $750 million just before the budget, to $500 million in the actual budget). You pick.

Only two things are keeping the military in the budget arena at all, neither directly to do with national defence... it's an easy wedge issue to placate the Conservatives (and so keep the minority government), and hopefully also to placate the Americans for ditching "missile defense."

In other news, work permitting I am seriously considering crashing the bloggers' meeting in Toronto, tonight, so if you're there I might see you.

Other updates: the RAF C-130 investigation appears to have discarded hostile action and is now looking at catastrophic wing failure as the most likely reason for the Balad air crash. There's video of the 2002 wing failure of a civilian C-130 here. The C-130 in question, a British-ized C-130E, was built in 1967. Last week the USAF grounded many of its older C-130Es, due to problems with wing cracks found on a recent inspection. There is no word yet from the Canadian Air Force, which has 19 of the older E-model Hercs, along with 13 newer C-130H's. (but see below)

Also, there will likely not be a court-martial in the Fallujah marine shooting, discussed here. previously. As with the Schmidt trial, covered here ad nauseam, I doubt this is due to the lack of a prima facie case. I suspect the real reason here is that, given all the extenuating circumstances (the soldiers' own wounding, his loss of a friend, etc.), a conviction would be impossible, and any acquittal would significantly impact future court martial cases concerning unauthorized shooting. The U.S. JAG's probably thinking it's better not to put this one to the test, and have the loss amount to any kind of open season for future prisoner-killings. They may be right.

UPDATE: As a taxpayer, I should say I'm happy with any budget that a)does cut taxes, if only marginally; b) keeps the budget balanced; c) doesn't cut military (or higher education) spending still further (I like making money, so I'm biased on those two issues). Martin's three for three on this one, as far as I'm concerned. Still wouldn't vote for him, though.

Also, final point on the Canadian C-130E's... in 2003, the Canadian Air Force reduced flying time on its entire Herc fleet by 25%, to 16,000 hours per year for the fleet as a whole, also due to evidence on inspection of wing cracks: it's possible we dodged a bullet here. As well, the three worst-shape C-130Es are now being rebuilt, as H models... more here.

Posted by BruceR at 10:38 AM

February 15, 2005

Smallpox mail

From Hank M, on my smallpox post a few entries down:

The claim for the Army spreading small pox at Fort Clark in the Dakotas did not sound right. As I remembered my military history the in the 1830's the Army did not have any permanent forts of the Mississippi river except Fr Leavenworth in Kansas., and several on the west bank of the river itself, i.e Jefferson Barracks and Ft Snelling.) The Army only ran very rare exploratory expeditions into the Dakotas during that period.

Ft Clark was a private trading post. In 1837 a river boat docked with smallpox on board. The sources did not say if any one deliberately gave an Indian something infected, the post depended on good relations with the Indians so it would have been stupid to do so. Given the nature of those small trading posts, once the infection was there, it would have been impossible to stop the spread to the Indians.

More here. I suppose it's possible that Ward Churchill, American historian, got confused about the U.S. Army being involved because he didn't know the difference between an army fort and a trading fort... but I doubt it.

Posted by BruceR at 02:46 PM

Important leak from MND's office

I'm told this story was practically a plant right from the highest levels:

The [major defence review] document was peppered with references to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, said the officials.

"The theory was: "If you throw in 18 references to 9-11, people will think it's an innovative defence policy."

"It was a train wreck waiting to happen."

(UPDATE: Broken link. Thanks to Jay for noticing it.)

Posted by BruceR at 02:45 PM

Books With Wings

This is a commendable initiative. Not sure where the "Army of Ontario" tagline for Land Force Central Area originated: "The Army in Ontario" would seem to be a better phrase.

Posted by BruceR at 12:54 PM

February 10, 2005

C-130 update

Nearly everyone is convinced at this point that the RAF C-130 brought down on Iraqi election day outside Balad was not brought down by any light surface-to-air missile. But there are still two competing theories.

*A senior American air force general believes the cause was small arms fire or a "lucky RPG."

*The British Sun newspaper is sticking with the bomb theory, having apparently established that the plane's entire wing came off in flight.

Like the Tarnak Farms fratricide incident, this open question would seem to be forensically solvable. If the plane was at a standard cruising altitude of 15,000 feet, an attack with small arms would be physically impossible... bringing us back to the bomb explanation as most likely. If the altitude at the time of the explosion was under 5,000, maybe, maybe you'd have a possibility of small arms fire (I'd bet on a 23 mm cannon, not an RPG, but we're talking the least remote of a large number of remote possibilities at that point) being the cause. One thing is sure: the British investigators in this case have the radar data, and probably on-board flight recorder data by this point, too. They know which option is more plausible already.

The American general is apparently basing his conclusion on the lack of an observed missile plume, and the near-instantaneous destruction of a four-prop plane in midflight.: two things that contra-indicate a shoulder-carried SAM.

Posted by BruceR at 09:15 AM

February 09, 2005

Ward Churchill's claims

On a tangent to a tangent, Ward Churchill's 2001 remarks about Sept. 11 have brought to light his earlier accusations of American military intentional depopulation of the Dakota Territory with smallpox-infected blankets, which he specifically identifies as intentionally distributed at Fort Clark by the army in 1837. Churchill claims, "The result was a pandemic among the Plains Indian nations which claimed at least 125,000 lives, and may have reached a toll several times that number."

The evidence for any intentional distribution of smallpox at that time and place is extremely sketchy, and Churchill hasn't come anywhere near making his case. Part of the proof is reminding people of the documented distribution of blankets at Fort Pitt (now Pittsburgh) by the fort commander, Capt. Simon Ecuyer, during the 1764 Pontiac Rebellion, and the after-the-fact authorization by British North American commander-in-chief Jeffrey Amherst. We discussed that incident on Flit a couple years back.

Some important things to note about the "Amherst incident" are:

1) There were lots of vectors other than blankets that could have been responsible for smallpox transmission in both 1764 and 1837, with smallpox hospitalizations already prevalent in the local white population... otherwise they'd have had no hospital blankets to give, obviously. The unmodified variola virus only remains infectious when outside the body for 48 hours, less if exposed to sunlight... while it can certainly be spread by blankets, in all cases the person that infected that blanket likely wasn't that far away at the time.

2) In the Pittsburgh incident, it's likely Ecuyer's intent was assassination/incapacitation of local Indian leaders and/or their close families (he only gave two blankets, to two specific Indians), rather than sparking an epidemic. Also, the epidemic that did start likely did not do so quickly enough to have a material impact (in terms of incapacitating large numbers of Indians) to aid in the relief of Fort Pitt.

3) While Amherst had, far from Ecuyer's location, authorized the spreading of smallpox among the Indians he was fighting, it has not been established how word of that order could have reached Ecuyer (trapped in a besieged fort) before he had acted, also indicating this may have been an independent decision by Ecuyer. There is also no evidence that Amherst's order (which showed up with the relief force) actually led to any further blanket-spreading after the siege was lifted.

The analogy might be to a mob boss leaving a message on the phone machine of one of his hit men to whack a rival group of gangsters, an order which the hit man received only AFTER he'd already killed one of the guys for reasons of his own, without knowing the mob boss' wishes. If he doesn't go on to kill anyone else, would the post facto approval make the mob boss responsible for the first murder?

4) Ecuyer, a Swiss mercenary who was already dealing with the disease inside the besieged fort, may have only been following standard military practice, going back to medieval times of spreading disease to his besiegers. Sieges for centuries had been frequently won or lost depending on the variable effects of disease (which inevitably showed up in some form) on either side of a fort wall... the blanket subterfuge is novel, but in a military sense was just an evolutionary development from the earlier practice of whatever side was sicklier using catapults to throw dead carcasses over the walls to try and try and accelerate incapacitation amongst the other side's troops. This is a significantly different act from Churchill's accusation, of intentionally spreading diseased trade goods among a native population then on their home territory and at peace.

5) It's hard to defend Amherst, who frequently made negative racial characterizations of Indians in his writings. So did most American and British men in this time period, but Amherst will always to some extent stand condemned by his own choice of words. But whether he was a bad man or a prisoner of his times, it's inconceivable he would have done what we might see today as the right thing and start a program of variolation for Indians, tribes he was then at war with, to save their lives (Variolation was a primitive and not particularly effective precursor to vaccination then known in Europe: Jenner's first mass smallpox inoculation campaign in Britain would not be for another 40 years). But the American government surely deserves some comparable measure of credit for its commitment to the smallpox inoculation of Indians, beginning with the passage of an Act of Congress to that effect in 1832, five years before Churchill's alleged intentional act of genocide.

That inoculation campaign may have been underfunded, ineffective, even a cause of disease itself (inoculation was still very much in its infancy, and all methods in use at the time did lead to some deaths among the inoculated; a British epidemic in 1839 among a by-then largely inoculated population still killed 22,000) but Churchill and his supporters surely have to at least try to explain the logic of why the government was devoting funds to an inoculation campaign while it was simultaneously allegedly spreading the same disease.

6) There is absolutely no doubt that many North American Indian tribal areas were deeply depopulated by smallpox and other diseases, and that this materially helped the American (and Canadian) conquest of their territories. Trading contacts (possibly involving trade goods bearing the smallpox infection although the face-to-face contacts, cohabitation, intermarriages, etc. would probably have been sufficient) are the most likely vector into the Northwest and Plains Indian populations that were decimated by this disease starting in the 1830s. But as I said in a Crooked Timber thread, that cannot and should not be the end of historical inquiry into the subject. Many questions of intentionality, mechanism, and effect are still open, and saying it's somehow unscholarly to demand at least some accuracy in the details is to leave the field open to untruthful and unsupportable work like Churchill's.

UPDATE: Inside Higher Ed writes: "Brown's article [criticizing Churchill] also notes that at other times, U.S. and English military leaders did use biowarfare against Indian groups in genocidal ways." What Brown actually said: "Few historians would dispute that during the Plains Indian wars, selected U.S. military forces did perpetuate massacres that can easily be construed as genocidal in intent. Furthermore, it is well-established that the British general Lord Amherst at least considered distributing smallpox-infected goods to Indians in 1763—with explicitly genocidal intent—and that his plan was carried out independently by his subordinates." Note the differences:

a) Brown ascribes genocidal massacres to American soldiers on the American plains, not "biowarfare."
b) Brown tags only the British Amherst, not anyone from the U.S., with "genocidal biowarfare."
c) As stated above, even Brown may go too far when he says Amherst's plan of genocide was actually carried out by subordinates. What we can firmly establish is that a single British commander in a besieged fort gave two diseased blankets to two specific Indians among the besiegers, without orders or Amherst's prior knowledge, and that this act may possibly have led or contributed to a localized outbreak of smallpox among local natives in the following year. Amherst's declared intent to subsequently use wide-scale smallpox infection against his enemies in the Pontiac War may never have been acted on outside this single incident.

Note how these known facts morph into a firm allegation of an executed act of genocidal intent by one British commander in Brown, and then into multiple acts of "biowarfare" by both British and Americans in the synopsis of Brown. Churchill's outlandish claim is born of the same error, just taken to the next step along.

Final aside: Amherst was no infectious disease expert. While it was known in 1764 that smallpox could be spread by blankets, he had no way of knowing that the viral life outside the body was measured in hours, not days. How exactly he would have conducted his proposed widescale blanket infection campaign, and whether it would even have had an impact over and above the baseline infection rate due to increasing white-native contact, seems somewhat unclear.

Posted by BruceR at 01:18 PM

February 01, 2005

The Herc crash

About the Al-Jazeera tape of a British C-130 crash claimed by the terrorists... on the odd chance anyone seeks this site's opinion, based on our previous SAM stories, it should go without saying that there's no shoulder-launched missile in existence that could take down a C-130 Hercules instantaneously in midflight, and there's zero reason to believe the insurgents have anything big enough (like a telephone pole-sized SAM-2 or Patriot). (The separate Ansar al-Islam claim that an anti-tank weapon was used can also be dismissed out of hand.) The footage of the push-button control mechanism for the "missile" is not for any known surface-to-air system I've ever seen or heard of, and seems as bogus in this context as the footage of the missile itself... I agree with the experts that that part of the video looks at first glance like a Katyusha artillery rocket on a ground-to-ground trajectory (lots of footage of those around).

The CNN-quoted expert is right... the missile in the footage is large, and fast, with no evident yaw... those would be indications of radar guidance in a ground-to air system, and no one believes the insurgents have radar (at best, they have heat-seeking or possibly laser-guided missiles). It is, however, also consistent with a surface-to-surface missile at the start of a ballistic trajectory, which is why I'm betting the footage is of an artillery rocket. No footage of either launch or impact is another indication of its fraudulence.

I can see only two realistic possibilities for why this plane crashed: mechanical failure unrelated to terrorists (something big, too, like a centerline gasoline tank explosion) is still a possibility, although unlikely in such a normally reliable aircraft. More likely, though, is a bomb... and the Al Jazeera footage is meant in part to disguise how that was done (misleading people into thinking it might be a missile extends the threat across the entire country, and may leave open the possibility of a repeat.) Alternatively the footage was done up long ago, and was being kept in the can until some act of fatal chance could be found to pin it on... unlikely, but still possible.

Here's a typical Katyusha launch pic. Note the similarities to the image in the Sun story. Here's a typical SAM missile in boost... note the significant control surfaces (fins) required for maneuvering in-flight, that are not necessary in artillery rockets.

UPDATE: The British papers are now saying the plane was ferrying explosives, increasing the possibility of this not being related to terrorists. However, the actual Al Jazeera footage of the crash site obtained from the terrorists is now believed to be genuine, meaning their cameraman was at the crash site long before any rescue party... the only two ways that could happen would be some really fortuitous amateur videoography by a terrorist sympathizer, or the terrorists had a reasonable expectation a plane was going down in that area that day. Most experts now agree with the conclusion above, that the actual missile footage was tacked on for dramatic effect and does not indicate anything about the actual weapon used. (With one interesting exception... see continuation.)

There's actually a connection here between the Herc crash, and the killing of four Canadians by an American F-16 in Kandahar back in 2002. Prewar Iraq did occasionally, it is now confirmed, set up or at least planned to set up surface-to-surface rockets (107 and 122mm), with modified warheads, as ersatz surface-to-air weapons... basically trying to take down American planes in the no-fly zones or in the coming war by shooting a whole lot of the unguided weapons straight up. There's no evidence if this was done very often, or even at all, and there's no indication it was ever remotely effective.

However, in 2002 this was classified information, known only to US and allied airmen who needed to know... presumably they didn't want the Iraqis to know that they knew (possibly from a defector, or satellite/aerial imagery that needed its source protected).

"Psycho" Schmidt, the American pilot who killed the Canadians outside Kandahar, was part of an air unit that was also patrolling in the Iraqi no-fly zone at the time. He claimed, minutes after the fatal attack, that he thought he'd seen a rocket launcher firing from where the Canadians were, and that was what gave him justification to fire back. No one who's looked into it believes this to be any more than post-facto justification on his part... for one thing, there was no indication anyone in Afghanistan was using surface-to-surface rockets this way, only Iraq, so he had the wrong country for starters. But that was his initial story and he was sticking to it... this led to some interesting redactions from the early cockpit transcripts, that led to some confusion about Schmidt's exact thought process.

Some people trying to figure out why the Iraqi resistance tacked artillery rocket footage onto their shoot-down tape have suggested that maybe the insurgents are trying this supposed shoot-down trick now. It's hard to credit... the only way it would have worked in prewar Iraq was to shoot an awful lot of the things at once, and even then, accurate timing to hit a target on an unknown flight path at 15,000 feet far from an airfield, without at least some kind of radar early-warning, would be EXTREMELY lucky. Like, lightning-strike lucky. If the Iraqi rebels today had the dozens of artillery rockets required, there'd be LOTS of other better targets for those in the Baghdad area, too. Plus the footage pretty clearly shows the rockets being fired horizontally... not up, so even if by some chance this was a missile or rocket attack, it still wasn't the rockets on this videotape.

Posted by BruceR at 01:58 PM