July 31, 2007

Yet another Afghan graph

A lot of interest in sites I read in this graph for Iraq. I thought I'd compose the same one using coalition Afghan fatalities:

It's not something one can easily dress up as good news at this point, obviously. The most interesting question is the reason for that inflection point in the summer of 2005, after the Karzai election but months before the Canadian involvement in Southern Afghanistan got under way. Prior to that point, aircraft accidents had been more dangerous to NATO and US forces than the insurgency. History will tell whether that those three full years of insurgent dormancy (2002-2004) was a missed opportunity, or the best the West could hope for, or both.

Posted by BruceR at 02:05 PM

July 30, 2007

Hart House gun club thoughts

Well, looks like the gun club I went to in university now and again is finally getting shut down. I'm frankly surprised it lasted this long. It's never lacked for members, and has a near-flawless safety record, but it's just not politically acceptable in Canada, anymore.

For the record, I always found the membership professional, responsible, and well-mannered. I had always thought your freedom of expression ended just short of where your fist touches a nose: apparently at Canadian universities it now ends at the point where you send "a painful reminder" of something. Pity.

(One expects the day will soon come when we as a society start reclaiming some of the various bits of real estate on campuses and elsewhere dedicated to remembrance of war, etc., as well. Those, too, are "painful reminders" to some people.)

Posted by BruceR at 11:53 AM

More on "Shock Troops"

I don't say this very often, but Megan McArdle's got it pretty much right on the "Shock Troops" controversy, as well. It's one thing to say that a writer/soldier should be given more of a benefit of a doubt than some were willing to give him, which was John Cole's point, referred to in the post below. It's a whole other thing to claim, as John Quiggin does on Crooked Timber, that even if the story is false, it doesn't matter because the lie-teller is on the side of a Larger Truth. (Shorter Quiggin: "Fake but accurate.")

If the story, or any significant aspect of it, proves to fail a fair re-scrutinizing, then the New Republic should retract and apologize. Period.

To its credit, TNR appears to be engaged in this. Still, I personally don't think enough opprobrium has yet been extended to TNR on this one. Their writer, Pte. Beauchamp has, by general admission, been collecting a fee from TNR for writing anonymous dispatches from a war zone, without the knowledge of his military employer. Look, in the civilian world, it's generally accepted that bloggers (or people generally) who say bad things about their primary employers and colleagues in public are sanctioned, let alone those who are paid to do so. It would be hard for any workplace to operate without that general rule*. In the military, because lives can be on the line, the sanctions are more severe.

It obviously put Pte. Beauchamp in a horrible conflict position, too. Let's say he did witness a situation where U.S. troops were acting in contravention of regulations. Because of his second paycheque, he now has two options open to him: he can save that information, so that he can surreptitiously cash in on it later, or he can report it to his employer. He can't do both: if he reports it first, he has no story to sell. I don't see how we could long sustain a situation where soldiers serving our countries are accepting under-the-table payments from other organizations, regardless of those organizations' political views.

This whole thing was a fairly sneaky way for TNR to get around the military's press rules from the start. If it had been handled in an upfront and transparent manner, with their editor saying to the reader public, "look, one of our staffers' husbands is in Iraq right now. This is his name and his unit. We're going to print his letters home to us from time to time," none of this would have happened in the way it did. (And their writer wouldn't be facing a military investigation right now.)That's the real nexus of this episode and the previous "Rathergate" episode, that a lot of people are missing. The democratization of public discourse has reached the point where anonymous tips in brown envelopes and pseudonymous war correspondents have insufficient veracity on their face to be relied upon any longer by big media, at least when their extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. (Hopefully some day the same will apply to "highly placed administration sources.") Investigatory excesses aside (and there have been many in this instance, I grant that), in general terms, the public is holding the media to a higher standard of behaviour than in previous decades. This is A Good Thing. And media outlets that fail to recognize the new requirements of transparency in their operations will suffer for it. This is also A Good Thing.

(Some media, like TNR in this episode, would appear to have internalized a different lesson: that because many of their new critics are sophomoric buffoons, that allows them to resurrect journalistic methods best left to college weeklies covering student pub nights. One trusts they will ever be wrong in this.)

UPDATE: Mudville Gazette also gets it right, at least in this post. The actual story or its writer are no longer (never really have been) significant or interesting issues to me.

*Indeed, it is exactly this rule that TNR presumably invoked when it dismissed a part-time staffer who leaked their pseudonymous writer's identity and spousal connection to the blogs last week. Why their editorship thought standard workplace breach-of-trust assumptions they rely upon wouldn't apply to a military unit in a warzone is, to say the least, confusing.

Posted by BruceR at 11:03 AM

July 27, 2007

On "Shock Troops"

In the weeks after Sept. 11, "Band of Brothers" ran for the first time on U.S. television. In the second episode of that show, there is recounted the alleged mass shooting of unarmed German prisoners on D-Day by then-Lt. Ronald Speirs, previously referred to in the Stephen Ambrose book upon which it was based.

Speirs was still alive at the time. (He died earlier this year.) Described by colleague "Richard Winters" in his memoir as a "born killer," he received no official sanction for the alleged D-Day events, or a later situation where he allegedly shot a U.S. soldier for disobeying an order under fire. As the series progresses, he increasingly becomes an admirable, even heroic figure.

It's fair to say that those currently whining about the "Shock Troops" controversy think "BoB" to be a pretty good show. It's probably also fair to say they haven't lost a whole lot of sleep worrying about how the treatment of Speirs in a mass-produced, award-winning series has negatively impacted on the impressions the world has of American soldiers. Certainly at the time, it seemed irresponsible to me, given that the accusations, never contested by any court or investigation, would be tied to his reputation for eternity. But I didn't doubt that it might have been true.

One searches in vain for some consistent principle that would aggregate some jingopunditry reaction to the "Shock Troops" story, compared with their silence about the near-simultaneous stories casting doubt on the official government versions of the deaths of not one, but two Silver Star winners this week. Or the way they feel about "Band of Brothers", for that matter.

John Cole gets it about right. And I find it amusing that Gen. Petraeus' senior public affairs officer felt compelled to issue a statement saying that the threat of roadside IEDs (some hidden in or under apparent roadkill) argues against the dog-hunting behaviour referred to in the article... as far as I know, no one has yet put an IED in a *live* dog.

UPDATE: This one from LGF ("an excellent point" he opines) is classic: "Imagine for a moment that the Weekly Standard had run a piece called, say, “We’re Winning in Iraq,” by an anonymous military source, without revealing that the source was married to a WS staffer. Specifically, to the WS staffer who wrote the piece. Do you think TNR would cover this by saying "this only increases the source’s credibility?'"

Dude! The Weekly Standard has been doing exactly that for months, with regular Iraq reports by Kimberley Kagan, wife of the guy whose idea the surge was in the first place, without ever pointing out the potential conflict. Nearly everyone who cares knows this: LGF's commenter honestly didn't?

UPDATE #2: Just to be clear, I have no reason to believe that the article in question is 100% accurate, 100% fable or somewhere in between. Am I still skeptical about the literal truth of some of the claims attached? Sure. But in terms of intent and underlying mindset, the writers' claims of various sociopathic behaviours are not so far from the baseline established by generations of previous soldiers' behaviour to be remarkable in and of themselves, be they ultimately proven or unproven. I think the writer's editors were cavalier and sophomoric, and many of his critics are buffoons, but I'm happy to leave it to those in the coming military and internal magazine investigations to judge the veracity of the original work.

A secondary issue here is the obvious lack of military and other relevant knowledge in the TNR editorial staff, and how that contributed to this situation. Anyone who writes an article that talks about "square-ended bullets" without someone requesting clarity of phrase needs a better editor than they had. The general shape of bullets is hardly a fact outside of lay knowledge.

UPDATE #3: I praise Jane Galt in the next post above, but she's off-base here. If the editors of The New Republic says "the article was rigorously edited and fact-checked before it was published," they should be expect to be taken at their word on that. "Too good to check" is not a valid excuse.

Also, this was a fun bit of detective work on the subject. I agree that the guy Beauchamp reads like a Jones/Mailer wannabe. If he'd had the self-discipline to wait until he got home to seek an audience for his novelistic recountings the way they did, it's possible he still could have been. Now I'd say he's destined to remain a footnote in that trade, as he evidently already is in soldiering. Again, I blame his editors for apparently not caring much about the kid's long-term interests here, or anyone else's for that matter.

Posted by BruceR at 02:13 PM

July 24, 2007

Obscurity and confidence

There I was, whining about my anonymity, and then I get mentioned in a National Post editorial. It's been a while.

For the record, and since I didn't say so in the post in question, I feel compelled to clarify that the graphic in question was drawn entirely, like everything on this site, from publicly available data, in this case the database at icasualties.org. Since this site converted to a blog at the end of 2001, I have never posted, and hopefully will never post, anything about:
1) the personal lives of friends or family;
2) the work I do for any of my various current employers, or the people I work with; and
3) anything that would put me in a potential conflict of interest or breach of confidence situation with anyone.

If that makes this a boring place to hang out compared to the way it was, say 4 years ago, well, so be it.

Posted by BruceR at 04:40 PM

July 22, 2007

Just read it yourself

I simply don't have the time to refute every untruth in the Canadian media about Afghanistan these days, but the CTV's irresponsible Bob Fife piece tonight was really a new low point.

The argument, supported by Amir Attaran, Jack Layton, and the Leader of the Opposition in their soundbites, that Canada has only just now started focussing on training the Afghan army, largely in order to obtain a Conservative political advantage in Quebec, is facile.

I really do urge anyone and everyone who might still be reading this space (and I doubt there's very many) to read the actual NATO-UN-Afghan Government mandate, as laid out in the Afghanistan Compact. It's not a hard read, it's right here, and it's quite clear that 9 out of 10 Canadian talking heads who regularly pronounce on the topic have never read it. But yet that is the mission, and the Canadian military, at least as far as I can tell, has been following it to the letter in the area of operations assigned to them (Kandahar Province). You might well dispute the achievability of some of the subgoals, or the commitment of some NATO countries to seeing it through, but you can't say about Afghanistan what many have said about Iraq. This time, NATO gave itself a clear mission. NATO made sure it had a clear, benchmark-based exit strategy. Pity no one outside the militaries seems to know what they are.

As for Fife and the rest of the CTV team behind that piece, who, if they were ever pointed to this document, apparently failed to keep their lips moving past the third page, I fear they're beyond redemption. It seems almost all public disapproval of this mission in the Canadian context is an argument from ignorance, fuelled by ignorant media. There are some interesting discussions we might be having as a society about Afghanistan's future, about NATO's future, about the future of Western counter-insurgency in this context, but it's all quite moot because the baseline public awareness and understanding levels here are simply too low for that dialogue to have any public value. The primary fight at home is not against timidity; it's against ignorance.

Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings has it right. One can support the troops without supporting a war: by activism to ensure they have the tools to do the job, and to "try our hardest to be the best and most informed citizens that we can be". I think most soldiers overseas (from any country, in any era) would consider themselves supported -- and would understand the public's conclusions about the futility or utility of their missions -- if they thought the population at home took those two, and only those two, responsibilities of their citizenship seriously.

Posted by BruceR at 11:56 PM

July 20, 2007

Soccer unfairness

This doesn't surprise me a bit. Chile really lost to the referee in this one. The Argentines were diving around like little baby seals.

Posted by BruceR at 12:49 PM

July 17, 2007

Afghan stats update

A quick note on the fighting in Afghanistan last year. In October I wrote a post about the geographic distribution of NATO combat deaths. It seemed appropriate to do an update.

Here, for reference, is the distribution of NATO combat deaths by province in Afghanistan, for 2005. At the time, the only real continuing hot spot was Kunar province, where 23 of that year's 73 fatalities occurred (31%):*

Here is the same distribution for all of 2006, when fighting flared up in Kandahar and Helmand provinces as NATO's ISAF force and the Afghan central government began imposing themselves on that area. Fighting continued in Kunar as well: the two southern provinces accounted for 68 of that year's 130 combat fatalities (52%), with the Kunar fighting resulting in another 15 (11%):

Here is the distribution so far this year, with the fighting in Helmand and Kandahar continuing, but relative quiet everywhere else (the loss rate in Kunar having dropped off significantly). So far this year there have been 83 combat fatalities, with 54 of them (65%) in Kandahar and Helmand.

The conclusion one could draw from this is that the Afghan fighting remains centred on two of the country's 34 provinces. A total of 15 provinces, containing 34% of the country's population, have had no NATO fatalities at all in the period evaluated here. (By contrast Kandahar and Helmand, the real war zone, contain between them about 8% of the national population.) Efforts by insurgent groups to broaden the conflict this year seem to be have had limited success, and their northern wing, which includes the unstable Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Taliban fighters based out of the Pakistan FATA area, may even be losing ground in the east of the country this year, in terms of their ability to strike at the NATO forces.

*16 of those 23 were in a single helicopter crash, later attributed to hostile fire.

Posted by BruceR at 08:36 PM

July 06, 2007

Robson on NDP and Afghan negotiations

Good piece by John Robson on the NDP's stance on Afghanistan. As far as Canada and negotiations go, I don't think anything's changed since I wrote this on the subject.

Posted by BruceR at 02:12 PM

The problem with mercs

Say what you want, this IS a problem in Iraq.

You're seeing it in Afghanistan, too, particularly with the DynCorp-led eradication efforts, conflicting with British and Dutch efforts in Helmand and Uruzgan. Unity of command and purpose is a good idea for a reason. Right now, in Afghanistan as well as Iraq, the private armies and the state ones are increasingly pursuing divergent aims in the same battlespace. See also Jon Lee Anderson in the New Yorker.

Posted by BruceR at 10:00 AM

July 05, 2007

The alarmism spreads

The U.S. blogs pick up the irresponsible Canadian missing radioactive devices stories discussed below. Just great.

Here's a tip: if someone doesn't know the difference between a "radioactive device" and a "nuclear device," hey, they're probably too stupid for you to trust on public security issues.

So is anyone going to tell us how many similar devices (almost all small gauges, etc. with trivial amounts of radioactive material) have gone missing in the US? Would you believe 30,000? Wouldn't it have been nice if the reporters had mentioned that little statistic?

I'll try to say this one more time: if you want to make a serious dirty bomb, you need a gamma emitter in the 20 curie-plus range. Those can be found in basically three places: scientific research, medical radiological applications, oil well-drilling (with food irradiation as a potential fourth). Very few if any have gone missing in North America in the last decade. And if people in these industries are not observing comparable security precautions that they would customarily use for highly toxic compounds, biological threats, or their dynamite shed, respectively, they should be fired, or locked up. But panicking over a missing low-yield device like a moisture-density gauge is stupid, stupid, stupid.

You know what would be really cool? If either Defence R&D Canada or the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission had put anything on their own websites to clarify public understanding on these issues, sparked by their handing over information to reporters that is being taken wildly out of context. But no, they'd apparently much prefer to just go about their business and let everyone else run around in a panic. Thanks, federal government agencies, for doing your job!

Posted by BruceR at 05:45 PM

July 04, 2007

Sounds about right

The silly UK car bomb plot reminded me of one of my favourite Mythbusters exchanges, a show which, it's safe to say, the hapless brain surgeon conspirators in this plot never watched: if they had they might have known the difference between vapor fires and explosions, or that a cellphone battery has insufficient electrical power to ignite gasoline vapor. After failing to get a port-a-potty pumped full of methane to explode after several attempts, Scottie says:"Maybe it's a myth that methane is flammable." Replies Adam: "It's not a myth, we're just idiots."

Posted by BruceR at 02:30 AM

July 03, 2007

This was a fairly irresponsible article

The latest CP 'dirty bomb' scare story isn't just bad because the original study it's based on is not linked to by either the newspaper or the DRDC's own website, allowing people to make up their own minds from the source.

It's not just irresponsible because the report seems basically a rehash of the Federation of American Scientists' previous effort in this genre.

The real problem is that in covering a report that will undoubtedly have said that the disruption and injury will be the real cause of damage, it does nothing to alleviate that same panic. Journalism as a public service, my ass.

Case in point: A dirty bomb would result in "mass anxiety [despite no direct fatalities], a rush on Toronto's medical facilities [by people who don't need help] and an economic toll [for cleanup and lost work] of up to $23.5 billion.... The nightmarish scenario..." Um, hey, look, a costly cleanup and a bunch of hysterics hassling emergency staff is a bad thing, sure, but "nightmarish?"

Case in point: "Mere placement — not explosion — of a backpack containing 1,000 curies of radioactive cobalt-60 in packed B.C. Place Stadium during a four-hour sporting event would claim about 85 lives and result in economic costs of up to $8 billion."

Leave aside that a human exposed to that quantity of unshielded cobalt-60 has a 100% chance of dying immediately after 20 mins exposure, and that the shielding for a typical cobalt source of this size sufficient to carry it around weighs about 500 lb., making this really a suicide attack of a different variety. The actual calculation here is that 60,000 people fit in BC Place. Of these people, approximately 12,000 will die of cancer at some point in their lives. If the attack were carried out as described, that lifetime risk, assuming everyone was equally irradiated, would mean 12,085 eventually would: in all likelihood statistically undiscernible. Yes, it would be very bad to be sitting in the same row with the slowly dying backpack-guy, just as it would be if he had a backpack full of high explosive instead. That could have been pointed out.

The scary radioactive-green circles in the Google Earth screenshots that accompany the article are probably less scary than you'd think, too. They're gradated in "0.1, 0.01, 0.03 and 0.015," which, assuming it's similar to the previous FAS report, is probably the percentage increases in cancer deaths, lifetime. So if you're in the outer, 0.015 band, and you live there your entire life, your death from cancer risk will increase from roughly 20 percent to... 20.015 per cent. Or, put another way, if 20,000 people lived in that band, rather than 4,000 of them dying from cancer, 4,003 would... assuming their permanent residence in the circle area. (That's just an assumption: there is no actual legend on any picture of the graph I've seen yet. It could also be rems per year, which would change the numbers above, slightly. If 0.015, etc. are the measure of something else, I'll be happy to recalculate the above. The point is, in an article where the quoted experts are all saying the real risk to life is pretty overblown, the art provided is dangerously alarmist itself, and having no explanatory legend doesn't help.)

Another fact that might have been mentioned is that the sources in the study are really quite large: at 10g (1,000 Ci) of cesium-137 or 20g (1,000 Ci) of cobalt-60, you're really talking blood or food irradiation sources. For the record, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission handles about 300 missing radioactive material reports a year. However, between 1996 and 2001, those 1,000-plus reports totalled up to 11.2 Ci from all sources missing in the States. Which is also why I'm somewhat skeptical that the 2003 Red Deer theft the CP story refers to being actually of a "gauge" that contained anywhere near the 20 curies of stolen Am-241 that the DRDC study's least dangerous scenario postulates. Most of the americium/cesium sources found in industrial gauges are in the 50 millicurie range: you'd need about 400 of them to equal 20 Ci. (By comparison, your average smoke detector has about 1 microcurie of Americium, or one 50,000-th of the source in a standard moisture/density gauge, or one twenty-millionth of the curies in the DRDC's lesser-danger scenario.) A 20 Ci source would be found in something like a well-logging tool, a class of equipment which is fairly tightly monitored in North America (for sure, if stricter measures are required to secure these sorts of big sources found in mining, hospitals, and food irradiation facilities from theft, go for it, by all means, but that's not an unsolvable problem).

The threat with "dirty bombs" was always not the fatalities, but the panic combined with the long-term denial of a major cultural landmark per bomb. Per dollar or per gram, there are deadlier things for terrorists to use. Fair enough, radiation detectors, calibrated to a fairly high gain to avoid false positives, are not a bad thing to have at major tourist locations, sporting events, etc. But articles like this would really be much more responsible if they encouraged people NOT to drive out of town immediately, or flood the hospitals, and you can't say this one does that.

UPDATE: The CP team expands on their earlier article. If the Red Deer theft they refer to again was, in fact, a well-logging tool, not a "gauge" as the writers incorrectly refer to it, that could well make it the most significant theft of radioactive material in all of North America in the last decade; it's hard to think of anything else even close. How nice of the RCMP to get around to mentioning it to us four years later. Of the remaining "76 radioactive devices" mentioned in the article, it would be really interesting to know how many were gamma emitters in the 20-curie-plus range (the lower limit of usefulness for a serious dirty bomb). My guess is that at most there was just that one.

As far as leaving a "silent bomb" (unshielded gamma source) in "a park", the Chechens tried that in Russia in 1995... although in fact they never removed it from its shielding, thereby undoubtedly saving the bombers' lives. The problem is that no one will ever know it's there unless you tell them in a press release (or keel over while planting it, I suppose), as the effect of the radiation on death rates would be so minuscule and long-term. For much less effort, you can just plant nothing, send the release and still get a comparable amount of panic. There is a marginal threat of "silent bombs" against major landmarks and other enclosed high-density locales such as airports and airplanes, but our parks are pretty safe that way.

Posted by BruceR at 03:04 PM

Depends on what your definition of 'same' is

From old colleague Doug Saunders, writing for the Globe and Mail:

"Investigators say the car bombs, using cylinders of compressed propane or oxygen and large quantities of gasoline and shrapnel-producing nails, are the same as Iraqi bombs such as one that killed 87 people in Baghdad two weeks ago."

In a similar high-quality analogy, the recent English car 'bombs' were also the same as the donut I had for breakfast this morning, in that neither contained any actual explosive.

"But the apparently bumbling nature of the attacks has given little comfort to security officials. Instead, it has roused a deeper fear:"

That my neurosurgeon may, too be a bumbling moron literally too stupid to set himself on fire? No, sadly not.

Posted by BruceR at 11:26 AM