July 31, 2006

More about the Herald Sun story

The thing that is really misleading, however, about the Herald Sun story (two posts below) is that bit about how the anti-aircraft gun's crew are "dressed in civilian clothing so that they can quickly disappear."

I'm sorry, but what possible difference can the lack of a uniform have for an anti-aircraft gun's crew 100 km behind the front? Their combatant status is pretty much guaranteed by the presence of the gun. Or does anyone think that an Israeli jet pilot that spotted that gun from 16,000 feet up is going to notice or care what shirt its crew are wearing before launching a weapon to kill it? The target is the gun, itself... the crew can disappear all they want but the gun will still be just as destroyed.

Precision weapons come at you out of the blue, as well. There's no time for anyone to run and hide. The only escape for this gun once the Israelis spotted it and had the ammunition to spare for what is a fairly marginal weapon would be to camouflage the gun, or drive it away. This crew could be wearing comic opera uniforms from the HMS Pinafore and it wouldn't make the slightest bit of difference to either their survival chances or operational effectiveness.

So why are they wearing civilian clothes? Could it be because they're guerrillas and that's what guerrillas do? Do we really believe we must now demonize anyone, anywhere, who takes up arms without a uniform, as being an automatic war criminal solely for that reason alone?

"Hiding behind the population" allegations are tricky, especially when dealing with divided populations like Lebanon. Apparently Hezbollah's leadership can sit in the Lebanese Parliament. However, if they keep an office or even an apartment in Beirut, that's a war crime. I'm really not convinced that's either a valuable or particularly sustainable line of critique.

The U.S. president, like the leader of many countries, is the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, making his house and office legitimate military targets, but I don't see any cries to close the White House and move him and his family into Colorado Mountain, even though apparently all they're doing in Washington is endangering the local populace with their presence. If comparing Mr. Bush's continued possession of a D.C. address with the act of a bank robber holding a baby up as a shield seems unseemly -- a bona fide human shield case -- it's hard to see why it should be a hard and fast rule in Lebanon's case, either. But this is one of the mental hoops one must jump through to support the increasingly untenable fiction that this is a war by Israel against Hezbollah, not Lebanon itself.

You can easily make a case against Hezbollah -- that they've repeatedly defied the UN, and occasionally attacked their representatives, that they're Palestinian rejectionists, that their leadership has committed or supported acts of terrorism, that their raid in mid-July that killed eight Israelis and captured two was a groundless, reckless, and entirely immoral act, that they've never been held to account for their suspected involvement in the 1983 terror attacks on American and French peacekeepers -- without the uniform-wearing thing, which seems by comparison to be by far the most venial of their sins.

In any case, the fact the uniform thing is being brought up at all seems more an excuse for recent Israeli misbehaviour than any serious attempt to castigate all guerrillas and insurgents everywhere as war criminals.

Posted by BruceR at 09:43 PM

We get mail

From Hilton W., on Flit's post on the UNTSO bombing:

"I'm confused by your assessment of the outpost bombing as "probably just bad luck and/or a Kandahar-bombing style pilot 'error.' " It doesn't look anything like an error to me. I don't see how, after UN forces asked them repeatedly for hours to stop, the IDF would manage to score its first four direct hits on the outpost at 1830 if they didn't intend to hit the building. That would be amazingly bad luck, since they'd never hit the building before. But the building didn't collapse. An hour later the outpost was 'accidentally' hit with at least one precision-guided missile and destroyed. Since the pilot wasn't launching the mortars that hit the building, it is very hard to see how this could be recklessness on the part of a single pilot. The UN rescue crew was fired upon. That's a lot of accidents.

"We know the intensity of fire around the outpost hadn't been that high in the days previous and there were no reports of Hezbollah in the area on that day. Here's a theory: suppose the IDF read the major's email and his line about the unintentional shots landing within metres and the tactical necessity of firing shots that landed close. Suppose they saw this as a ready-made excuse for levelling the place. Someone drafts an OPORD. On the day of the operation, starting in the morning, they hit the area with a large number of firings close hoping the repeated shocks could cause structural failure. When that didn't work, and when the pressure was increasing from the UN, they went to plan B, direct hits with artillery. When that failed, they called in their last resort, the least-plausible accident they could have, a precision-guided missile. If they'd wanted to, they could have coordinated a window of opportunity for the observers to evacuate, but they didn't. They kept saying they'd stop, but they never did. If the IDF couldn't fall back and were firing in self-defence, that's the only conceivable defence for continuous firing on that outpost, but they never claimed self-defense. They said they were softening up the area for an up-coming advance. I'd really like to hear a knowledgeable alternative explanation. Sorry for the long, unsolicited email. I haven't been able to stop thinking about this and the stuff I've been reading hasn't been well-informed."

Posted by BruceR at 02:37 PM

The Hezbollah AA gun, and rockets

I'm sorry, but I'm not sure what the pictures at this link prove.

Of the three photos in the Herald Sun slide show, two are of the same twin-barrelled 23 mm ZU-23 AA gun, mounted on a truck, and the other one is of nothing much at all. The gun has a max range of about 2.5 km, and so is of no practical threat whatsoever to Israel, or Israeli pilots for that matter. The picture was supposedly taken in a location about 100 km from the Israeli border. There are no actual photos of any Hezbollah rockets that I could see.

The story alleges, despite that lack of supporting photographic evidence, that Hezbollah fired one or more rockets from this Beirut Christian neighborhood, Wadi Chehrour. That's a long way from Israel... only a very few of the most powerful Hezbollah surface-to-surface rockets could have reached anything at all from that location.

Hezbollah's 10,000-plus unguided rocket arsenal is known to consist of the following armaments:

* 107mm BM-12 (range 8 km)
* 122mm BM-21 (Katyushas; range 20 km)
* 220mm BM-27 (range 30-40km)
* 240 mm Fajr-3 (range 40km)
* 333 mm Fajr-5 (AKA Khaibar-1; range 72km)
* 610 mm Zelzal-2 (range 210 km)

In quantities, those 10-13,000 rockets Hezbollah had at the start of this are generally accepted to be almost entirely the first two types, with perhaps several hundred of the longer-range ones. The Zelzal-2s can be counted in perhaps the dozens.

The depth of the strikes that have surprised western media has actually been predicted by Israeli intelligence for several years, and comes as no surprise to anyone who had previously taken a look at Hezbollah's capabilities. However, the longest-range hits so far are assumed to have been the second most powerful type, Fajr-5s, fired from just inside the Lebanese border. Israel has not claimed to have been hit by any Zelzal-2s to date, which both leave a considerably larger crater than the other rockets, and would be undoubtedly aimed at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for maximum effect. Hezbollah has not made any statement that would indicate they've fired one of those yet, either.

ZelZalThe Zelzal-2 is a HUGE freaking rocket, requiring its own TEL vehicle (transporter erector-launcher). They are, by definition, Hezbollah's most powerful artillery asset. They have undoubtedly been one of the highest-value targets for Israeli pilots, in part because they are also the most likely carrier for any chemical warheads Hezbollah might happen to acquire someday. (The upside is that they, unlike the other rockets, probably fly high and long enough for Israeli Patriot SAM batteries to have a chance at intercepting them.) They are generally believed to be in well-camouflaged, well-guarded improvised static positions in the Bekaa Valley.

So, to buy the Herald Sun's story, you have to accept that Hezbollah wheeled its most powerful weapons of all into Wadi Chehrour a couple weeks back, and may have fired them off, at some target other than either of Israel's major cities, without claiming responsibility for those impacts, without Israel telling the world and their own population they were now under attack by the practical equivalent of Scud missiles, and without any photographic evidence of any of this. Or you can believe that the witness, apparently an Australian civilian trying to get the hell out of the country at the time, was a little confused... for instance, mistaking a shoulder-launched SAM fired from the vicinity at some Israeli aircraft for a Katyusha. (Actually, note that the Australian eyewitness never says the Hezbollah fighters, if that's what they were, actually *fired* their rocket(s) before being attacked and destroyed from the air, meaning there's a second possibility... that whatever rockets the witness did see were being driven through the Christian neighborhood to another destination, possibly farther south.)

Which, when you think about it, is the real message of these pictures. Hezbollah, or whomever these people are (they're not flying any flags, and there's lots of 23mm guns lying around Lebanon) is shown driving an anti-aircraft gun into or through a Christian Beirut neighborhood. They may even have been firing it from that location. Which, frankly, helps explain why Christian Lebanese may be rapidly becoming pro-Hezbollah in their sympathies. The message in the act is, "we'll protect you." Personally, if I was under air attack, I'd also be at least a little favourably disposed to someone who drove into the neighborhood with a weapon like this and started firing back... however ineffectual it might be, and so long as they didn't do it from my own back yard. If Hezbollah wanted to win Lebanese Christian sympathies, providing those neighborhoods even symbolic anti-aircraft cover right now would be a really good way for them to start, and these photos possible evidence that they're doing just that.

What this is definitely *not* is, pace Andrew Sullivan, *any* kind of evidence by itself for the claim that Hezbollah has been firing rockets "from civilian areas in order to provoke Israeli counter-strikes whose civilian deaths can then be deployed through the mass media to intensify the psychological warfare on Israel." They may well be doing this, too, of course, but if solid evidence is ever presented of this it will more likely come in photos taken from Tyre or Marji'yun, launch points from where rockets Hezbollah wouldn't mind losing quite so much could actually reach Israel -- certainly not a Beirut suburb. Someone's been had on this one.

PS: Did you know that the official Israeli name for this operation was Operation Change of Direction?

Posted by BruceR at 02:15 PM

July 28, 2006

What, will these hands ne'er be clean?

The Samarra bridge pushing incident, which has been written about extensively here, is a major item in Thomas Ricks' bill of indictment against the 4th Infantry Division, I see.

What I didn't learn until today was that the soldier from the same company who shot an Iraqi and then planted a gun on him later that same night was also acquitted on all charges in the end. Remarkable. Nate Sassaman's boys really could do no wrong, it seems.

Posted by BruceR at 01:35 PM

Precision weapons

It's about at this point that you unfortunately have to stop describing any military response as "measured."

Posted by BruceR at 01:14 PM

Mr. Spock is NOT a TOY!

No comment. Just liked the headline.

Posted by BruceR at 01:04 PM

UNTSO, part 3

I'm sorry, but I really have to try one more time to explain this.

The whole Pearson/UNEF/Nobel Peace Prize concept of peacekeeping is pretty simple to grasp. The international community puts a thin blue line between warring parties. They are standing in the way if one party starts shooting. Probably, some of the blue helmets are killed. The world condemns those deaths as an attack by one country on the will of the world. It is the threat of this coming condemnation for peacekeeper deaths that is meant to deter aggression, because it so clearly identifies the reckless aggressor.

(In the old days, such as in Sinai in 1967, it was expected for the country about to go to war to give the UN a clear indication that it would in advance, so that there was time to get the blue helmets out of the line of fire... at that point the aggressor country had fulfilled its obligation, and whatever other crimes it committed, couldn't be held responsible for those deaths. Obviously, in the 2006 Lebanon case, Israel gave no such warning.)

Now, you can think this is a pretty pointless concept in the current context, but it has worked in a few places, and probably doesn't deserve to be discarded entirely. But when national leaders who have lost personnel on UN service react by saying they don't understand why those personnel were there in the first place, what they're really saying is they place no value in old-style peacekeeping, or the deterrent effects it can produce, in the current situation or anywhere else. Denigrating the value of the kind of UN-based moral shaming that UNIFIL represented in Lebanon only reduces the likelihood it can be used in another locale in future. That's a great shame.

That said, the UN is doing the right thing today in pulling the UNTSO military observers in South Lebanon back within UNIFIL lines. They're only supposed to be deployed as close to the fighting as is safe, and clearly that wasn't the case where they were.

Posted by BruceR at 10:45 AM

The anti-UNTSO backlash continues

Claudia Rosett, in the National Review:

"And when operations of the U.N. itself have come under the spotlight in recent years, in some cases for behavior as egregious as pedophiliac rape by peacekeepers, or complicity in the kickback rackets of Saddam Hussein, Kofi Annan, and his entourage have rushed to impose the omerta in-house, while urging the rest of us to wait upon due process, refrain from rash comments, consider the larger picture — and preferably just shut up and forget about it."

Yeah. Supporters of good militaries don't ever insist upon waiting for due process or considering the larger picture. Never.


It's still a highly debatable question whether UNIFIL has done any good since the Israeli pullout from South Lebanon in 2000. A skim through their situation reports from this period, collected here, is worth the effort. A couple quotes:

July-Oct 2000:

"However, near the Blue Line the [Lebanese] authorities have, in effect, left control to Hizbollah... The Government of Lebanon took the position that, so long as there was no comprehensive peace with Israel, the army would not act as a border guard for Israel and would not be deployed to the border... UNIFIL has not been able to persuade the Lebanese authorities to assume their full responsibilities along the Blue Line."

...the Secretary-General stressed the need for the Lebanese Government to take effective control of the whole area and assume full responsibilities there, including putting an end to continuing provocations on the Blue Line. Pointing to a clear sequence of steps spelled out in the underlying 1978 Security Council resolution 425 on Lebanon, he noted that after the restoration of the effective authority by Lebanon, both the Lebanese and Israeli Governments are to be fully responsible, in accordance with their international obligations, for preventing any hostile acts from their respective territory against that of their neighbour. "I believe that the time has come to establish the state of affairs envisaged in the resolution," the Secretary-General wrote in reference to resolution 425. Underscoring the need for the Government of Lebanon to assert its authority over the entire area from which Israel had withdrawn, the Secretary-General warned that otherwise "there is a danger that Lebanon may once again be an arena, albeit not necessarily the only one, of conflict between others."

January 2001-January 2002:

...the Government of Lebanon continued to maintain the position that, as long as there is no comprehensive peace with Israel, the Lebanese armed forces would not be deployed along the Blue Line.

January 2002-January 2003:

The Government of Lebanon, however, continued to maintain the position that, as long as there was no comprehensive peace with Israel, the Lebanese armed forces would not be deployed along the Blue Line...

July 2004-January 2005:

The continually asserted position of the Government of Lebanon that the Blue Line was not valid in the Shab'a farms area was not compatible with Security Council resolutions. The Council has recognized the Blue Line as valid for purposes of confirming Israel 's withdrawal pursuant to resolution 425 (1978). The Government of Lebanon should heed the Council's repeated calls for the parties to respect the Blue Line in its entirety...

UPDATE: So what's my point here? It's that according to UNIFIL's own roadmap, they were specifically *not* there to disarm Hezbollah after 2000. They were to affirm to the world the Israelis pulled out in 2000, then assist the Lebanese government in restoring its own military control of the area. But the Syrian-run, Hezbollah-leaning Lebanese government said that the Israelis had not pulled out, because of the Shebaa Farms canard, and so the point of the roadmap where they were supposed to reassert control over Hezbollah had not been reached, regardless of what UNIFIL and the UN Security Council said.

UNIFIL's job was to fill the *legitimacy* vacuum at the border until the Lebanese army showed up. The Lebanese army never did.

You can argue whether the Security Council should have reconstructed UNIFIL as a force with a more forceful mandate, but they never did, either. The troops on the ground were doing what they'd been instructed to do. It would have been reckless and pointless for them to challenge Hezbollah against the expressed wishes of the government in Beirut and without a redefinition of their mandate by New York.

The point is that, unlike on some of their other borders, in Lebanon Israel has been certified by UNIFIL as being almost entirely in compliance with all the relevant Security Council resolutions. They're the ones that have been playing ball. The Lebanese government (aka Syria and Hezbollah) is in steadfast defiance of the UN's will here. This did not change with the "Cedar Revolution," either. Their current PM, Siniora, is on record earlier this year saying he will never personally sign a peace treaty with Israel.

Now you can say this is all moot, because for Lebanon to live up to the terms of the agreement would have led to an overthrow of the government and possibly a civil war. And it might have. But that's not UNIFIL's fault: at some point in 2000 Lebanon (really Syria) gave an undertaking that they would rein in Hezbollah and they didn't.

We have to believe in the power of positive reinforcement, for countries as well as people. If we want countries to respect the will of the international community, that means we don't treat the side playing ball and the side defying us equally. Israel, up until a couple weeks ago, was the one playing ball with the Security Council's will in this locale. Lebanon was not. Actions (or the lack thereof) should be expected to have consequences.

Posted by BruceR at 02:35 AM

July 27, 2006

The Galbraith plan? Where have I read that before?

From the NY Times:

From Kurdistan, the American military could readily move back into any Sunni Arab area where Al Qaeda or its allies established a presence. The Kurdish peshmerga, Iraq’s only reliable indigenous military force, would gladly assist their American allies with intelligence and in combat. And by shifting troops to what is still nominally Iraqi territory, the Bush administration would be able to claim it had not "cut and run" and would also avoid the political complications — in United States and in Iraq — that would arise if it were to withdraw totally and then have to send American troops back into Iraq.

Flit, March 26, 2002:

"As that recent New Yorker piece everyone’s talking about amply demonstrates, Iraqi Kurdistan is the closest thing to a pro-American Muslim state that exists in the region. Yet Wilsonian determinism dictates it must forever be under the thumb of whoever rules in Baghdad. This is clearly unacceptable. The biggest destabilizing act the U.S. could create right now (and easily defendable at home and abroad) is not this silly pretext of UN inspectors vis-a-vis Iraq, but the recognition of Kurdistan as its own country, backed by American occupying force."

Flit, January 30, 2003

"Imagine a different set of circumstances. Imagine, for instance, if the United States had started boldly, instead of weaselling into a confrontation. If they had said that, as the guardian of democracy for the world, they could not, would not, allow the No-Fly Zone-Republic of Kurdistan to revert to Iraqi sovereignty, ever. If assistance, peaceful and otherwise, had poured into that new nation, to build it up, democratize it (they are already soooo close) and defend it against the inevitable Muslim backlash... this time against their fellow Muslims."

Flit, Aug. 19, 2005:

"The most likely development at this point involves the current constitution drafting proving unacceptable to the north, and under the Bremer provisions the Kurds voting to secede, as they already did overwhelmingly during the last Iraqi "elections." The best American course, now that they're in it, would be to hem and haw as this inevitably happens, and then sit down to negotiate the "interim" border and other arrangements in tripartite talks. The alternative at that point would be to promote some kind of strongmanism, and use American forces to repress one side, or the other, or both. That decision point has not come for them yet, and likely won't until early 2006."


Glad to see people are finally seeing the wisdom of it. On the other hand, it's evidently not too late to screw this up, too.

Posted by BruceR at 09:29 PM

About those Australians

The Globe and Mail-run AP story this morning was entirely wrong, as it turns out. The 12 Australian personnel attached to UNTSO are staying put.

What Australia actually announced is that *another* dozen unarmed Australian soldiers sent into South Lebanon to help evacuate their nationals last week have now been pulled back to Beirut... partly because they've no one left to evacuate.

Posted by BruceR at 08:39 PM

Here's a story I haven't seen in the Canadian Press yet

A week ago, the U.S. announced the expedited sale of 24 Blackhawk helicopters and 724 LAV armoured vehicles, along with a couple tonnes of other military equipment, to Saudi Arabia. The total deal is worth over $6 billion US.

The LAVs, of course, are built at General Dynamics's Canadian plant in London, Ont. I'm not sure yet that this is the largest single sale of Canadian-made arms in history by any measure, but I suspect it's going to be close. (Of course, GDC has provided thousands of LAV-variants to the U.S., Canadian, and other armies, so this is neither surprising nor, probably, a huge deal for them at this stage.)

Still, isn't it interesting that a sale of Canadian-built weapons to the Middle East right now is subject to U.S. Congressional ratification but has not been debated and cannot be obstructed in any way by the Canadian government, which presumably might still have an MP or two with an opinion on the matter? That's globalization for you, I guess.

UPDATE: It has been suggested in other places that the sale to Saudi Arabia was part of the American purchase price for recent anti-Hezbollah statements by the Saudi government. (We also know the Saudi national guard that they are going to is the regime's primary instrument for internal repression: those LAVs are much more likely to be used against rebellious Saudis than another country such as Israel.) If it appears that our government has no problem with Canadian-made weapons being sold in huge quantities to the Saudi regime to help them suppress their own populace, as well as to pay off the Saudi rulers for their acquiescence in Israel's actions, I suspect there may be certain people in the Middle East who will draw the obvious conclusions a lot faster than our own press or politicians have thus far.

Posted by BruceR at 05:10 PM

The world before blogging

This is really a beautiful example of pre-blogging era discourse (1986). May I always be as calm, focussed, and possessed of the facts as Frank Zappa was able to be for those 25 minutes. (The other fellow is a hobgoblin, who will hopefully only ever be remembered for clearly losing to Zappa in an open debate.)

Posted by BruceR at 03:24 PM

A brief primer on UN military personnel in Lebanon

Just to avoid confusion, it should be noted there are actually three UN missions ongoing in the area of the current fighting.

UNDOF (the UN Disengagement Observer Force) numbers 1,033 troops. It supervises the disengagement line between Israel and Syria on the Golan Heights. This was the force that Canada withdrew its support from last year, due to troop shortages. It has in large measure been successful, in that Israel and Syria have not fought over the occupied Golan since its creation in 1974. Its primary forces at the moment are an Austrian/Slovakian infantry battalion and a Polish infantry battalion, with logistical support provided by India and Japan.

UNIFIL (the UN Interim Force in Lebanon) numbers 1,990 troops. It was created in 1978 to confirm the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the area and assist the Lebanese government in restoring control over South Lebanon. It currently occupies more or less the same 10km deep zone up to the Litani River that is Hezbollah's primary territory, and the object of Israel's current attention. It consists primarily of an infantry battalion each from Ghana and India, and an engineering battalion from China, with a Polish logistical battalion in support. A good map is here. Unless renewed, the current UNIFIL mandate is due to expire on July 31.

UNIFIL was created in 1978, back when Israel first seized the South Lebanon buffer zone (it would go on in 1982 to strike into Lebanon as far as Beirut). Until recently, it was seen as fairly successful in its own mission of dampening (if not preventing) Hezbollah-Israeli hostilities along the border.

UNTSO (the UN Truce Supervision Organization) deploys roughly 150 personnel as unarmed military observers to the area. These are not regular soldiers (almost all are officer-ranked), but specialists with expertise in detecting and understanding military movements, detecting and reporting back truce-line and ceasefire violations, and the like. Currently about 50 each are in the UNDOF and UNIFIL areas of operation, with the rest either with the UNTSO observer group in the Sinai or working in their headquarters in Beirut or Damascus. UNTSO has been in the Israeli area more or less constantly since the creation of the country in 1948. Technically, they're UN "military observers," not "peacekeepers," although they do work in conjunction with any UN peacekeeping forces in their local areas.

Military observer service is different from standard peacekeeping service in many ways: in the Canadian military it's normally a one-year deployment, instead of six months, for instance. There's no question that, as the UN military organization's "eyes on the ground," that UNTSO had the responsibility to stay in the area of the current fighting as best they could, and report back.

(It's questionable, however, whether UNIFIL forces are now doing much good other than guarding their own facilities and equipment in case a future UN-authorized force might need them -- not a useless military function, mind you... any future UN or NATO force put into that area will want to occupy the same hilltops and other positions, and a hasty evacuation under fire now would only surrender a lot of equipment and facilities to Hezbollah or looters.)

The Canadian military observer missing and presumed dead this week, Major Paeta Derek Hess-von Kruedener, was killed along with three other UNTSO officers. His last email home is an interesting read.

Israel has been accused in the past of targetting UNIFIL/UNTSO activities in this area. In 1996, during Operation Grapes of Wrath, Israel shelled a UN Fijian battalion position at Qana, injuring 4 UN soldiers and killing over 100 Lebanese who had taken shelter with them. Repeated investigations --by the UN, Amnesty, and HRW -- all failed to fully absolve the Israeli army of having intentionally shelled Qana, although there was no doubt that Hezbollah forces were also in close proximity to the base at the time. A lawsuit by victim's families is pending in a U.S. court.

UPDATE: Today's press release from UNIFIL indicates the troops still in position are doing what they can to help civilians and evacuees, exactly what one expects of UN soldiers.

SECOND UPDATE: I'm a little ticked at the uninformed commentary by the usual suspects on this one. UNTSO has had UNMOs (UN military observers) on the Israeli borders since 1948, through four hot wars and all kinds of border incidents. It'd have been negligent for them to leave now when the UN desperately needs independent confirmation of what's going on. Whether *UNIFIL* should pull out now is an open question, but even if they had, UNTSO would have undoubtedly stayed on, getting as close to the action as was safe. Their "base" is one bunker, with only the four guys in it, marked with UN flags and logos, and any support from UNIFIL some distance away: it would have been strong enough to resist anything but a direct hit, which unfortunately is what they got. If Hezbollah or the IDF had parked on that particular hill, they had no authority to boot them off, just to smile and wave, then count the tanks, rockets, etc. and provide detailed intelligence to the UN military organization. With UNMOs, near-tragic accidents like this happen all the time... this one was probably just bad luck and/or a Kandahar-bombing style pilot "error." It's dangerous work, and those who take it on know they are assuming a higher measure of risk in doing so.

The other comment worth making re the wisdom of UNIFIL's (not UNTSO's) continued presence is that if they *had* evacuated their fully loaded field hospital and 2,000 soldiers in APCs right now, when the local Lebanese most desperately need them to get to safety, the same usual suspects would be laughing at the UN for cutting and running, no? Even if the mission is lost, it's still a soldier's responsibility to minimize the scope of that defeat, and that seems to be what they're doing, to their eternal credit.

Another update here.

Posted by BruceR at 11:24 AM

July 24, 2006

What does Lee Siegel have a blog, exactly?

While other bloggers have been picking on the unapologetic ignorance of cartoonist Chris ("What a Maroon") Muir lately, I've been enjoying the ongoing car-wreck of the Lee Siegel blog at TNR.

Based on his writings, Siegel, like Muir, appears to be fiercely, unapologetically unintelligent when it comes to history and politics. Example A would be his observation that we should retire the term "Muslim street" because there's never been an Arab popular uprising in modern times. I could almost let that go, because you do have to footnote a lot of the obvious counter-examples. For instance, the Turks in 1919 were, of course, not Arabs. The Algerians in the late 1950s were rebelling against a foreign power rather than just their own government, as were, to a lesser extent, the two Palestinian intifadas. But I think you still have to consider the rise of Nasser, Algeria's FIS-led revolt in 1991, and the Kurdish revolts against Hussein in Iraq, among others, as obvious contradictions of Siegel's claim.

But his dismissing of another obvious counter-example is where Siegel's ignorance just shines: "Even the non-Arab, Iranian 'revolution' was a coup on a large scale."

Say what you want about the Khomeinists, but the Iranian Revolution was as much a "coup on a large scale" as the similar-events of 1789 or 1917 were. It's a baffling way to describe the act of a country violently turning itself inside out, in a way that still is shaping world events over 25 years later. I really can't explain how obtuse this would be as a point of view, except to say that, if Iran wasn't a revolution in the traditional political sense, there's never been a revolution.

All this dumbness in defense of an indefensible thesis: that Middle Eastern countries are not at least as frequently riven by internal turmoil and violence as other developing nations. Of course they are. To argue otherwise is just stupid.

Posted by BruceR at 05:38 PM

We get mail

Feedback on the Flit post on Cpl Boneca, below, from reader Ross W.:

"I wanted to give Kudos for your opinion on this matter. I feel exactly the same, although I would place more blame on Mr Decorte himself. I am in the Forces and I was in Afghanistan.

"I guess the sentence about not being able to libel the dead rings true. But for that jackass to dishonour Cpl Boneca like that just to get on National TV was a disgrace to all soldiers who have perished. I have been on 3 tours. Yeah there are times when it sucks being over there and you joke about doing anything to get home, but you suck it up and carry on.

"Cpl Boneca died valiantly in close quarters battle, face to face with the enemy. I guarantee he wasnt thinking about any of that crap Decorte was spewing when he kicked down that door. He had a job do do and he did it willingly.

"I wish YOUR site got the coverage that the big papers get. More people need to see this."

Posted by BruceR at 02:48 PM

July 21, 2006

Adventures in idiocy

Rick Santorum:

These messianic Shi’ites see this as an opportunity to accomplish this long desired mission for radical Islam. Remember, Islamic extremists fought the West over the course of a thousand years to their high-water mark outside the gates of Vienna.

The siege of Vienna lasted until September 1683 – September 11, 1683 – the next day the united West triumphed.

Well, that's definitely in the running for the worst historical allusion ever.

For those who don't get how stupid a statement the above is, a re-read of the history of the Persian Safavid dynasty might be in order. The brief recap: the Shi'ite Safavids were in many ways the greatest foe of the Ottoman empire, engaging them in a century-and-a-half long conflict (c. 1501-1639) over, ironically Iraq, all through the period where the Sunni Ottomans were trying to extend their rule into Southeast Europe. It was a true holy war, too, with both sides convinced the other's version of Islam was heretical. It's fair to say that if the Ottoman Sultans hadn't faced near-continual warfare on their Eastern borders in this period, they'd have done a lot better against the Christian European forces that were just as desperate to hold them in check in the West.

To make a hopefully not quite as strained a historical comparison of my own, talking about Iran and the Siege of Vienna in the same breath this way would be kind of like saying a couple decades back:

"Those Socialists in the Soviet Union could overrun Europe at any time. They never give up. Remember how the Western Allies between Dunkirk and VE-Day had to fight on alone to prevent German Socialists -- National Socialists -- from doing the same thing fifty years ago. Same exact thing."

Side note: the Safavids' glory days only came after they re-equipped their medieval style army in the early 1600s with muskets and cannon, thanks to a couple mercenary English military advisors; their empire would ultimately collapse in 1722 thanks to an invading horde of... wait for it... Afghans. Middle East history's kinda complex that way: too complex for anyone as dense as this Santorum fellow.

Posted by BruceR at 04:57 PM

July 20, 2006

Why the Lebanese army may not be the best honest broker around at the moment

The Star, yesterday:

Hezbollah has a headquarters compound in Bourj al-Barajneh that is off limits to the Lebanese police and army, so security officials could not confirm the strike.


Across southern Lebanon, the Israeli air force kept up its strikes yesterday, hitting a military base at Kfar Chima as soldiers rushed to their bomb shelters, the Lebanese military said.

At least 11 soldiers were killed in an engineering unit and 35 were wounded, the Lebanese said. The base is adjacent to Hezbollah strongholds.

Lebanese Defence Minister Elias Murr denounced that attack as a "massacre," saying the regiment's main job was to help rebuild infrastructure. The Lebanese army has largely stayed out of the fighting, confining itself to firing at Israeli planes.

The commander of the Lebanese armed forces, in an interview with the Chicago Tribune three months ago:

“We need them,” Gen. Michel Sleiman said of Hezbollah’s fighters during an interview at the military command in Yarzeh, east of Beirut. “Israel is our enemy… and [Hezbollah] provides specific operations and abilities that, in general, [are] not provided by anyone in the army.

“We are not talking about Hezbollah as a strange foreign entity here,” Sleiman added. “We are talking about Lebanese people who provide a resistance… We have in Hezbollah brothers and relatives of those who serve in the army.”

The prime minister of Lebanon, Fouad Siniora, this last January:

"Lebanon will not sign any peace agreement with Israel even after the liberation of the Shebaa Farms from Israeli occupation and the release of our prisoners in Israel."

Posted by BruceR at 12:09 PM

July 18, 2006

About that Hezbollah cruise missile

A correspondent who regrettably no longer blogs pointed me to the dialogue here which refers to the possibility of Lebanon Armed Forces radars being used to direct the attack on the INS Hanit missile boat by a Hezbollah cruise missile on the weekend. A couple off-the-cuff observations.

The C802 missile, built by China and sold to Iran (and used to take out an American-built missile ship in Israeli service, since we're at it), which Israel says was used in the attack on the Hanit, is believed to use the same method of most anti-ship missiles, combining inertial guidance, and active radar homing* onto a target. In lay-speak, that means the missile initially flies to a given set of co-ordinates, then turns on its own terminal radar guidance, acquires its target for itself, and flies into it. This is standard in anti-shipping missiles because of their very long range, which tends to limit their ability to home in on a radar signal from another source, such as a launching ship. Ship radar systems supporting these missiles are generally only used to detect targets to plot the intercept courses for the missiles, but the missile is not wholly dependent on those radars to function. This is the method used to fire the Exocet and Harpoon missiles, as well as the C802.

What this means is that, in theory, one can just fire such a missile at just about any set of coordinates, and, if it finds anything in its path after it arrives there and turns on on its radar beam, it will likely attack it, without the firer ever knowing what the target was.

The ocean's a pretty big place of course, so that would normally be a waste of a missile. Generally you want to fire the missile at a place where it is highly probable it can acquire something you want to kill, which for long distance kills means you need radar or sonar or some other indication that a target is present at that spot.

For short range, close-to-shore kills, that may not even be necessary. The IDF boat was said to be 10 nautical miles off shore, at the edge of visual detection. In theory, Hezbollah could have fired the missile in question on an intercept course at that range without using shore-based radar at all. Evidence that a second missile fired at the same time that hit a tanker nearby would tend to support that, either because it was the result of an incorrect visual ID, or it was sent to slightly different coordinates, missing the intended target and hitting the next ship in its path (which these missiles tend to do). But there is no evidence so far that a shore radar was required to execute this attack (and good evidence that there wasn't... it's highly unlikely the IDF ship would have cruised with its anti-missile systems off if it knew it was actively acquired by an active shore radar system, which its own electronic countermeasure systems would have been able to detect.)

A very similar attack (a missile launched off a trailer on shore probably on the basis of a visual ID) wrecked the HMS Glamorgan in the Falklands War in 1982. The Glamorgan was also about the same distance offshore as the Hanit when the trailer-based Argentinian Navy Exocet was fired in its general direction, killing 13 British sailors upon impact.

*typo corrected, thanks to correspondent John D.

Posted by BruceR at 01:07 PM

July 14, 2006

Of pirates and terrorists

Kathy Shaidle:

"Now, just to show what a dork I am: I really don't like pirate stuff and cringe when I see kids dressed as pirates, because in real life, pirates were evil rapists and thieves. I mean, are kids gonna dress up in "terrorist" outfits for Halloween in a hundred years?"

Yes, they will, starting the day that terrorists are seen as as much of a real threat to the average citizen as cutlass-era piracy is today. And I, for one, am looking forward to that day.

While I'm on Pirates (the movie), Johanne Schneller has a whiny column in the Globe today about how critics don't mind that their panning of the film had no visible effect whatsoever on the movie's box office. It goes without saying that no one wants to feel like their job is effectively a waste of time. What I find surprising is that Schneller doesn't once even consider the possibility that in this case, the critical consensus might simply have been out of touch and, well, wrong. I'm not saying it's true, but certainly it's not out of the realm of possibility.

Take for instance Dana Stevens of Slate and her spoiler special podcast on the topic today, where she argues in effect that the movie is a collection of set pieces and forgettable subplots "strung together like pearls," tied together solely to justify the special effects. She cites the Star Wars movies as more coherent and unified in that regard.

I don't know: I've seen both Star Wars trilogies, and the Lord of the Rings, and the Matrix, and I didn't see them as any more coherent or unforgettable than the first two parts of this Pirates saga. Indeed, if LoTR hadn't had a book behind it, it would have been if anything even more incoherent than the Pirates movies.

Criticizing the final scene of the movie as merely a trailer for part three, as Stevens does, also seems really sort of completely missing the point, if you ask me. At that point, the Kiera Knightley and Orlando Bloom characters' romance is deeply imperilled by several layers of deceit and self-deceit surrounding their relations with Jack Sparrow, and Knightley, for her part, actually pulls that complexity off, acting-wise. It's a far better triangle, at least to that point in the trilogy, than Leia-Han-Luke ever was. I really think to some degree the critics wrote this off as a Disney park-ride confection a year ago and have so much emotional investment in that preconception that they have completely overlooked some of the honestly good work that's gone into it, and that audiences are responding to it despite them now.

I don't think it's a matter of the public ignoring critics wholesale... it's just they've concluded, on the basis of the obvious discrepancy between reviews of the first movie and its obvious positive crowd-pleasing qualities, that critics need not be trusted any great deal when it comes to its sequels, either. If they'd been right about the first one (or in Stevens' case, even seen it) we'd have listened to what they had to say now. Next big franchise that comes along, they'll get another chance.

By the way, I'm pleased to see that one reliable critical instrument that's truly worth the time invested in it, the Monday Morning Quarterback feature at Box Office Prophets, is finally back on the front page again. They really should keep it in a more prominent page location: it's always worth reading.

Posted by BruceR at 11:03 AM


Alan Colmes is "agnostic" about who was behind the Sept. 11 attacks?

The reason American Republicans do so well, in politics as in the commentariat, seems less and less to do with their brilliance and more to do with the idiocy of their opposition. Hard as it might be to believe, some days, Sean Hannity really is the lesser of two evils, it seems.

Posted by BruceR at 10:33 AM

July 12, 2006

This is why I left daily journalism

UPDATE, July 18: I've decided to remove the earlier entry that was in this spot. Someone whose opinion I trust in these matters said it was unusually emotional and unflattering to me, and they're probably right. I was angry at the Toronto Star after reading this article and I wrote things I now am uncomfortable seeing on a screen.

In the course of that response, I made one specific allegation that unfairly impugned the reputation of Toronto Star reporter Jim Rankin, whose byline is on the story. I'm sorry for that. Although I've received no specific legal threat from Mr. Rankin to date, I understand he was unsatisfied with my first attempt to clarify this posting with an earlier update, which was too long and rambling in any case, leading me to remove it as well.

Let me try again. The Star article is poor form, a cruel and distasteful piece of work for several reasons, all or most of which would have been mitigated by waiting a few days to fully tell the "other side" of Cpl. Anthony Boneca's story.

1. It interfered overly with a grieving family. After hearing from Cpl. Boneca's girlfriend's father that the young man was unhappy with his job and considering pretending to be suicidal to get out of it, Rankin and the Star did not obtain further comment from the man's family about those controversial statements prior to running the piece. Because the story the Star told was so different from the comments that the family had given to other reporters on the story that day, the family had to take what must have seemed excessive time in the midst of the worst day of their lives to react to the Star story, rather than focussing on remembering and mourning their son. You can say that's the fault of the person who talked to the Star, but it was the Star's decision that gave that person standing.

2. It permanently poisoned a young man's memory in the public's mind. The Star's editors had to know that the editorial and public responses to the "unhappy soldier" story were going to entirely obscure any other information anyone will ever remember about Cpl. Boneca when they were run, so they might have waited until the poor fellow was at least interred first. The same issues about the Afghan mission of interest to the public could still have been raised a day or two later. This has nothing to do with Afghanistan or the Canadian Forces, it would be the same with anyone who died in the line of duty at their jobs: cop, firefighter, hydro worker. The striking thing about the Star's initial article is how poorly Cpl. Boneca is portrayed. Not only was he an unwilling and mopey soldier, but he was also not too bright and poor at high school sports, at least according to the Star. Imagine if you can how the story might have read if Cpl. Boneca had not died in Afghanistan, but of some sudden circumstance back at home in Thunder Bay. Mr. Rankin's story has only the one other revealing anecdote from the football coach. In the absence of a military angle, would he really have led with, "A young Thunder Bay man killed yesterday had trouble with simple instructions on the football field and rarely managed to score, his highschool coach said?" Of course not. So why was it okay to say what was actually said in the lead paragraph in Cpl. Boneca's case, again?

3. It told only one side of the story. A defender of the article might say that the public interest trumps the kinds of niceties I've talked about above. But then wouldn't the public interest have been better served with a fuller initial account? Mr. Rankin was not only unable to receive any response from the man's family to the "unhappy soldier" angle before going to press; the story did not include any other response from anyone else to the girlfriend's father's statements. (There are details in the initial Star story that could have benefitted from first being confirmed: some questions have already been raised about Cpl. Boneca's claim about having been denied medical treatment for a broken ankle, for instance.) In any event, another day or two could have given the Star comment from the guy's buddies, his padre, his CO, in addition to the family. On the page, the initial report unfortunately looked like nothing more than single-sourced hearsay, which only served to heighten public emotion on all sides; the rushed aspect of this, although commonplace in daily journalism, shows an undue deference to deadlines over anyone else's best interests that does the Star no credit here.

In any case, my advice to people who are one step removed from those in mourning (high school coaches, girlfriend's fathers, etc.) is still the same. Daily news reporters on a tight deadline do not generally have your best interests at heart. Try and remember that they work within a law that says, among other things, that you cannot libel the dead. If they're calling you, as opposed to direct friends or family members, it's also highly probable it's because they've been unable to get sufficient copy from those closest to the person who died: there's probably a good reason for that. You really are better off hanging up. The reporters can wait.

Posted by BruceR at 05:41 PM

July 07, 2006

Got to draw the line somewhere

I have a new personal policy. I won't stand in a convenience store behind people queued up to buy lotto tickets. Twice in the last day and a half, I've put my purchases down, and walked out and over to the next store. Not that it's a very far walk in Toronto.

I'm sorry, but lotteries are a deeply stupid pastime. I'm not going to say or do anything to the idiots themselves, but I have no reason to subsidize the pastime with my time, or the stores that prey upon these morons with my business, either. There is absolutely nothing available for purchase in a convenience store that warrants it.

Posted by BruceR at 02:20 PM

What to do with Zidane

If I were the French foreign minister right now, right after the World Cup I'd be thinking of finding a way to send Zinedine (originally, "Zin ad-Din") Zidane, right now pretty much the most famous member of the country's Algerian immigrant community, on a good will trip to French forces overseas (and by extension, to the local Muslim populations in the same areas) in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, the Chad-Sudan border, Lebanon and the Sinai. Let Al-Jazeera run extended coverage of some streetball session in Kandahar with the guy. He's retired as of Sunday, so it's not like he doesn't have some time on his hands.

It has been documented of course, that jihadists frown on football and other sports. There's really no better military "info op" than one that helps place your foe in the position of opposing something the public happens to like, without being able to coherently explain why. This would qualify.

UPDATE: Oh, I suppose I should say something about the head-butt. I was stunned when I watched it live. Incredibly bad sportsmanship, but it doesn't necessarily hurt the idea expressed above of deploying a retired Zizou as a French goodwill ambassador to Islam. If anything it probably frees him up from some sponsorship responsibilities he could have expected otherwise, so he'll have some more time on his hands. Plus, he's contrite, so maybe he'll see more value in doing something for his country now. That said, you'd have to make sure you could exercise a little more message discipline on the guy than his coach could. A more difficult info op task than I'd originally thought, but far from impossible.

Posted by BruceR at 10:14 AM

July 06, 2006

Learning from computer games

It's been dismissed by some as children's fluff, but I have to say the current version of Sid Meier's Pirates is a better historical Caribbean simulator than I would have thought.

I was initially turned off when I purchased this product, because two of the five campaigns were manifestly unrealistic (the game gives a choice of starting as a pirate in 1600, 1620, 1640, 1660, or 1680... the first two have a significant non-Spanish resident population in the Caribbean, but France, Britain and Holland didn't really establish permanent colonies there until the 1630s). It was very entertaining, but I didn't really think there was any learning value there.

Still, I gave it another try this week, and found I relearned something about the Caribbean (and sail-age naval strategy in general) I'd never really internalized until now: the tremendous power of prevailing wind patterns in this era to shape strategic-level events.

Obviously I knew wind advantage had tactical force, with the gaining of the "weather-gauge" a key part of all pre-battle maneuvering, but I don't think until now I'd appreciated the effect that the consistent southeasterly winds of the Caribbean had on privateering and colonization patterns.

You can't really excel at Sid Meier's Pirates until you grasp a simple fact... most of the time, you can't sail south-east. What this means in practice is that for a pirate, either the outbound or inbound leg of any given raid is consumed with laborious tacking maneuvers, as the crew grows ever more restless and food runs steadily out. Large parts of the game in these runs are spent intently watching the wind direction: when you're headed southeast, as soon as the wind shifts to the northeast, you have to immediately tack to the southeast to get the maximum advantage from that brief period where the wind is not blowing directly at you, before tacking back to the northeast the moment it shifts back again. Ultimately half the time you end up missing your destination to the north before turning around and being able to take advantage of the winds for the end run into port.

Navigation under these circumstances, even with a good map, would have been astonishingly difficult at times, obviously. Worst case is getting caught to the southwest of a large landmass like Haiti or Cuba or Florida; a few days of unfavourable winds and you're pinned up against the lee shore with weeks to go until you can get back into some sea room. This alone explains why the north side and east end of Cuba were the first to get permanent settlement, for instance.

Most trips in this period would have ended up being triangular, as travelling from a southeast to a northeast point directly is extremely inefficient on the return leg. The most efficient triangles have their longest side oriented roughly diagonally, northeast to southwest (or vice versa), as this leg can be traversed relatively rapidly in either direction (going perpendicular to the prevailing winds like this is not the fastest single leg, of course, which is still going due north or west, but going in the other direction is so extremely time-consuming that it's not viable (real life travel times in this era were roughly tripled when the direction was reversed). The game accurately reflects all this... you also start to appreciate why voyages, particularly those against the wind direction, could often end up making land at what seems like wildly divergent locations, or with completely unpredictable arrival times: even assuming your navigation is good, once you need to tack repeatedly, both become almost semi-random variables.

When you think about this for a minute, you begin to see why non-Spanish colonial settlement in the Caribbean fanned outwards to the north and west from Barbados (you can get anywhere fast from Barbados), and why the British seizure of Jamaica after 1655 would have been so devastating to Spanish interests in Central and South America (it basically opened up Panama-Porto Bello, and all the gold and silver being shipped through there from Peru and the Pacific, to permanent raiding and blockade, whenever the English desired it, thereafter).

So there you go: I learned (or at least re-learned) something from a computer game. I know I'll never look at another sail-era maritime problem without a prevailing wind map again, at any rate.

In other colonial history yabbering news, good thread at Jim's place.

Posted by BruceR at 12:29 PM