We spent nearly 60,000 lives and more than $1 trillion on the Vietnam War to stop Communism…

… yet today it seems that a larger percentage of the U.S. economy is government-run than is “Communist” Vietnam’s.

Something to think about on this, the 44th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon?

From Heritage Foundation:

The Socialist Republic of Vietnam remains a Communist dictatorship characterized by repression of dissenting political views and the absence of civil liberties. … All land is collectively owned and managed by the state.

“Communist,” right? Since 1986, about a decade after the U.S. was defeated, the Vietnamese have been running what they call a “Socialist-oriented market economy”. What does it cost?


The top personal income tax rate is 35 percent, and the top corporate tax rate is 22 percent. Other taxes include value-added and property taxes. The overall tax burden equals 18.0 percent of total domestic income. Over the past three years, government spending has amounted to 29.4 percent of the country’s output (GDP)

How about the U.S.? From the same foundation:

The top individual income tax rate is now 37 percent, and the top corporate tax rate has been cut to 21 percent. The overall tax burden equals 26.0 percent of total domestic income. Over the past three years, government spending has amounted to 37.8 percent of the country’s output (GDP)

The above numbers are understated because they don’t include state income taxes, e.g., the top tax rate for someone living in California is over 50 percent (37 percent federal plus 13.3 percent state). But even before state taxes are considered, it seems that the U.S. has a larger percentage of its economy run by the government.

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Was there a golden age of religious coexistence?

“Religious Minorities Across Asia Suffer Amid Surge in Sectarian Politics” (nytimes), first three paragraphs:

The deadly attacks in Sri Lanka on Sunday highlighted how easily religious coexistence can be ripped apart in a region where secularism is weakening amid the growing appeal of a politics based on ethnic and sectarian identity.

In India, the country’s governing right-wing Hindu party is exploiting faith for votes, pushing an us-versus-them philosophy that has left Muslims fearing they will be lynched if they walk alone.

In Myanmar, the country’s Buddhist generals have orchestrated a terrifying campaign of ethnic cleansing against the country’s Rohingya Muslims.

(the reader who did not scroll to read the entire article would infer that Muslims were the victims of the recent sad events in Sri Lanka, according to the NYT.)

This is the “news” section of the paper, not “opinion.” There is an implicit factual assertion that there were some good old days of religious coexistence. Everyone in Asia had one of those “coexist” bumper stickers:

Is this assertion true? The “two-nation theory” that led to the partition of India (millions killed and/or displaced) started in the 19th century.

Has secularism “weakened” in the region since 1947 when 14 million people were displaced on the theory that Muslims should not have to live among Hindus?

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City rebuilding costs from the Halifax explosion

Catching up on 2017 must-reads for Bostonians, I recently enjoyed The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism by John U. Bacon.

The main story is familiar, but worth retelling.

All explosives require two components: a fuel and an “oxidizer,” usually oxygen. How destructive an explosive is depends largely on how quickly those two combine. With “low explosives,” like propane, gasoline, and gunpowder, it’s necessary to add oxygen to ignite them and keep them burning. If a fire runs out of oxygen, it dies. Another factor is speed. The rate of the chemical reaction, or decomposition, of low explosives is less than the speed of sound, or 767 miles per hour. In contrast, a “high explosive” combines the fuel and the oxidant in a single molecule, making each one a self-contained bomb, with everything it needs to create the explosion. To ignite, a high explosive usually requires only extreme heat or a solid bump. Once started, the dominoes fall very quickly, ripping through the explosive material faster than the speed of sound.

“She had a devil’s brew aboard,” Raddall states of the Mont-Blanc, a perfect combination of catalysts, fuel, and firepower. The ship’s manifest included 62 tons of gun cotton, 250 tons of TNT, and 2,366 tons of picric acid, the least understood of the chemicals on board, but the most dangerous.

After the shipwrights had so carefully built the magazines, hermetically sealing each compartment, and the stevedores had packed it all systematically, the French government agent operating out of Gravesend Bay received a last-minute order from his superiors in France to pack what little space remained on Mont Blanc with urgently needed benzol, an unusually volatile fuel, the latest “super gasoline.” The stevedores followed orders, swinging 494 barrels containing 246 tons of the highly combustible accelerant into a few unused spaces belowdecks, on the foredeck, and at the stern, where they stacked the fuel three and four barrels high and lashed it with canvas straps, a somewhat slapdash approach compared to the thoroughness with which the shipwrights had built the magazines. When the crew walked past the drums on deck, they could smell the unmistakable reek of the benzol. With the final addition of the benzol, Mont Blanc now carried an impressive array of the most dangerous chemicals known to man at that time. While benzol can’t match the pure power of gun cotton, TNT, or picric acid—all high explosives—what the stevedores probably didn’t know when they stacked the barrels of benzol on deck was that the airplane fuel needed only a spark to ignite, while picric acid doesn’t explode until it reaches 572 degrees Fahrenheit, and TNT does not detonate until it reaches 1,000 degrees. But by making the last-minute decision to store most of the fuel on the deck and the TNT and picric acid below, the crew had unwittingly constructed the perfect bomb, with the easy-to-light fuse on top, and the most explosive materials trapped in the hold below.

Canada had a much larger stake in the war than did the U.S.:

Halifax sent 6,000 sons to the Great War, roughly a quarter of its male population. It seemed almost every home had sent a brother, a husband, a father, or a son. The Great War drained the town of its able-bodied young men and left behind women, boys, girls, and men too old or infirm to fight.

One question worth pondering is why more people didn’t chicken out and escape to the U.S. They knew what the trenches were going to be like:

When fresh recruits got to Halifax, they frequently made a beeline for any place that sold alcohol, where they met soldiers who had been recently discharged, were on leave, or were about to head back to the trenches. They told the recruits stories so horrifying that they might have been tempted to think they were exaggerating. The experienced soldiers knew the average infantryman lasted only three months before getting wounded or killed, so they were determined to make the most of their time on the safe side of the Atlantic. Their hard-earned fatalism fostered a devil-may-care disposition and all the elements that came with it, including scores of prostitutes from across Canada and bootleggers so fearless that they set up shop in the downtown YMCA—which was probably not what the YMCA’s benefactor, Titanic victim George Wright, had had in mind when he wrote his will. During the war years, Halifax experienced a spike in venereal disease and out-of-wedlock births. Local orphanages had to expand.

The Mont-Blanc makes it from New York to Halifax without incident, but before the sailors can go to the YMCA for a drink, there is a low-speed collision with another ship. The author describes the impact that resulted in the explosion as entirely the fault of the Imo‘s captain and pilot (see Wikipedia for a quick summary, but I highly recommend this part of the book). More than 10,000 people were killed or wounded. The book covers this staggering tragedy, but this post is about the physical destruction and the estimated cost of rebuilding:

The explosion destroyed 1,630 buildings and damaged 12,000 more, leaving some 25,000, almost half the population of Halifax-Dartmouth, without adequate housing and dangerously exposed to the elements.

After the fires had been extinguished and the wounded tended to, Colonel Robert S. Low assembled an army of carpenters, masons, plumbers, and electricians to rebuild the city, which had incurred more than $35 million in damages in 1917 U.S. dollars, or $728 million today.

It cost only $728 million to rebuild a whole section of a city. Our town will soon spend $110 million to renovate/rebuild a school that can hold only about 600 students. I talked with a guy recently who is involved in a $1.5 billion project to create 2,700 “affordable” apartments here in the Charlestown section of Boston (story). That’s $555,555 per apartment (less than 1,000 square feet on average) on land provided for free (city already has a housing project on the same footprint). Presumably these will be higher quality than whatever was built in Halifax in 1918.

[Note: poor people who are selected by the housing ministry to move into one of these apartments would actually be rich almost anywhere else in the world if they could only get their hands on the $555,555 capital cost as a direct grant instead of as an in-kind service! If they could also get their hands on the monthly operating cost and combine that with interest on the $555,555 they would be able to enjoy, without working, a middle class or better lifestyle in many of the world’s beach destinations.

How about folks who work at the median wage? That’s about $23/hour in Massachusetts (BLS) or $46,000 per year. NerdWallet says that someone earning this much in MA can afford a $258,500 house if he or she has saved $60,000 for a down payment, has a top credit score, and spends $0/month on food and other non-housing expenses. Zillow says $274,416 on a nationwide basis. So a dual-income couple in which both partners earn the median wage wouldn’t be able to afford one of these units without a taxpayer subsidy, even if landed were free and the unit were sold at zero-profit construction cost. The U.S. has apparently become a society in which Americans can’t afford to live like Americans!]

Maybe costs are lower up in Canada? Yes, but only a little:

Instead of drifting back into another long sleepwalk, Halifax has been accelerating, spending $11.5 million in 1955 to build its first bridge across the channel, another $31 million to build the second, right over the Narrows, and another $207 million in 2015 to raise the first bridge a few meters so container ships could get all the way to a dock in Bedford Basin. The city has spent $350 million to build a boardwalk along the bay and $57 million for a shiny new library downtown, an architectural centerpiece CNN judged to be the ninth most beautiful library in the world.

How about some other costs? A survivor of the explosion gets “$100 to enroll at the University of Michigan in 1919”. That’s $1,500 in today’s money, less than 1/30th of current tuition. He marries an American (same word “marriage” used, but really a different activity in those days before no-fault divorce):

Shortly after that invitation, Barss asked Helen to marry him. She said yes, but asked him to keep it between them until February, “so that if either of us wanted to get out of the deal, no one would be hurt.” Further, if Barss’s professors found out he was getting married, which med school students were forbidden to do, he could be expelled. “My father liked Joe & asked if he were a Republican or a Democrat,” Helen wrote. “He said he was a Canadian and voted for the man—Father said ‘If you ever live here and have anything or hope to have anything, you’ll be a Republican in self defense.’

Maybe it is good that this guy died before Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proposed their latest tax plans!

I found the numbers in the book sobering. If we wear down the infrastructure that we have or if perhaps it is destroyed for some reason, it doesn’t seem as though we could afford to rebuild it.

More: Read The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism

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Maybe we love war so much because we tell ourselves that we’re good at it

After reading World War II at Sea: A Global History you won’t accept media reports of military success uncritically. Some examples:

The Americans, too, inflated their achievement in the Coral Sea. Headlines in the New York Times insisted that American bombers had sunk no fewer than seventeen Japanese warships, including “the certain destruction of two aircraft carriers, one heavy cruiser, and six destroyers.” The papers were initially silent, however, about American losses, reporting only that they were “comparatively light.” In fact, American losses in the Coral Sea were heavier than those of the Japanese, and the loss of the Lexington in particular, representing as it did one-quarter of the nation’s available strike force in the Pacific, was especially worrisome. At the moment, however, the public was hungry for good news, and the Navy Department did not discourage the national celebration.

The Battle of Savo Island was a humiliating defeat for the Allies. With the exception of Pearl Harbor, it was the worst defeat in the history of the United States Navy. It was so bad that, like the Japanese authorities after Midway, the American government kept the outcome an official secret. Based on the official navy briefings, the New York Times reported on August 18: “An attempt by Japanese warships to hamper our landing operations … was thwarted. The Japanese surface force was intercepted by our warships and compelled to retreat before it could take under fire our transports and cargo vessels.” While technically accurate, it was also deliberately misleading.

When there was an actual success to report, of course, the stories were more accurate (even then, however, missteps that wasted lives tended to be omitted).

Maybe we think that we’re great at war because our government and media tell us that things are going our way even when we’re losing?

See also the Vietnam War.

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We didn’t need to re-take the Philippines during World War II

World War II at Sea: A Global History by Craig Symonds reminds us how painful it was to be a grunt in the Pacific:

The Marines went ashore on Peleliu on September 15[, 1944]. The landings were difficult and the casualties substantial. Nevertheless, the Marines advanced inland and within three days they had secured the critical airstrip. That, however, proved only the beginning. Geologically, the island of Peleliu was dominated by a series of limestone ridges honeycombed with caves and tunnels that were impervious to aerial bombing or naval gunfire. The ten thousand Japanese defenders withdrew into those caves, determined to make the Americans pay in blood for every yard of soil. Amid temperatures that occasionally exceeded 115 degrees, men of the 1st Marine Division, soon reinforced by the U.S. Army’s 81st Division, had to go into the caves and take out the defenders one at a time. It took ten weeks for the Americans to clear the island, and they did so only at a great cost to both sides. Virtually all ten thousand Japanese defenders were killed—only two hundred were taken alive. American losses, while lighter, were nevertheless painful: a thousand killed and five thousand wounded—greater than the losses at Tarawa.

In terms of being an empire with the ability to move troops and supplies from place to place, Japan was essentially beaten by the end of 1944, says the author:

In December, on his inaugural patrol as skipper of the Flasher, George Grider sank four tankers displacing 10,000 tons each. The tankers, very likely filled with volatile crude oil from Java or Borneo, “disintegrated with the explosions.” It was so spectacular a sight that Grider allowed his crewmen to come topside two at a time to watch them burn. Only a few days later, the Flasher sank three more tankers off Indochina. As a result of such attacks, oil became so scarce that the Japanese began fueling their ships with soybean oil. They confiscated the rice crops of Indochina, causing widespread starvation, in order to turn the rice into biofuel. In effect, American submarines were doing to Japan what German U-boats had failed to do to Great Britain: starve it of the essential tools of war.11 By late 1944 Japan was running out of ships altogether. In the last two months of the year, Japanese ship losses actually declined from more than 250,000 tons a month to about 100,000 tons a month, not because American submarines had become less efficient but because fewer and fewer Japanese ships put to sea at all. Lacking sufficient transports and tankers, the Japanese (like the Italians in 1943) turned to using submarines and barges—even rafts—as supply vessels. By the end of the year, American subs were literally running out of targets.

This was foreseen earlier in 1944:

The American conquest of the Marshall Islands had been so swift and one-sided that it encouraged Nimitz and the Joint Chiefs to consider bypassing Koga’s main base at Truk altogether. It seemed a bold move at the time, for Truk had been the principal Japanese base in the Central Pacific since 1942. In fact, however, it was not nearly as well fortified as the Americans thought, for the Japanese had never quite believed the Americans would get that far. Now that they had, Nimitz and Spruance concluded that the Fifth Fleet could leap past it nearly fifteen hundred miles, all the way to Saipan in the Marianas.

Having penetrated the inner defenses of the Japanese Empire, the Americans were now in a position to block Japan from the essential resources of the South Pacific. That could be accomplished by seizing either the island of Formosa or the Philippines. The American chief of naval operations, Ernie King, strongly preferred Formosa. It was, after all, a single island, albeit a large one, as opposed to the more than seven thousand islands that made up the Philippine archipelago. Then, too, from Formosa, the United States could more easily supply their Chinese allies on the mainland. Dutifully arguing the navy’s position, Nimitz suggested that the Philippines could be bypassed and cut off as Rabaul and Truk had been.

Since the Japanese couldn’t supply the islands that they’d previously conquered, the mid-level analysts in the U.S. Navy wanted to bypass most of the islands, and the horrific battles that would inevitably ensue after an invasion, in favor of taking only places that could directly help with an invasion of Japan or support of allies in China. According to the author, Roosevelt and MacArthur wanted to liberate the Philippines for personal political advancement, despite the country’s military irrelevance. The Battle of Luzon alone cost more than 215,000 lives, essentially to no purpose if we believe this book. The battle was essentially won by March 1945, less than six months before the war ended.

More: Read World War II at Sea: A Global History

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Robot kamikaze submarines shaped like blue whales render navy ships useless?

One lesson from World War II at Sea: A Global History by Craig Symonds is that a huge expensive ship might be destroyed in a few minutes by a submarine or airplane:

Displacing 71,890 tons when fully loaded, the Shinano was the largest aircraft carrier ever built, a distinction she retained until 1961 when the U.S. Navy commissioned the nuclear-powered Enterprise. … Abe dutifully took the Shinano out of Tokyo harbor one hour after sunset on November 28[, 1944] with a four-destroyer escort. Two and a half hours later, the [U.S. submarine] Archerfish picked her up on radar.

At 3:00 a.m. on November 29, Abe ordered the Shinano and her escorts to turn west, toward the coast. It was the opportunity Enright had been waiting for, and at 3:17 he fired six torpedoes. For an attack on a carrier torpedoes would ordinarily be set to run at a depth of twenty-five to thirty feet, but Enright thought if he hit the big carrier higher up on her hull, it could make her top-heavy and more likely to capsize. He ordered the torpedoes set to run at only ten feet. That decision doomed the Shinano, because the torpedoes struck just above her armored blisters. As the Archerfish submerged, Enright thought he heard six explosions, though in fact only four of his torpedoes hit. It was enough. Tons of seawater rushed into the Shinano’s hull, and almost at once she took on a fifteen-degree list to starboard. With many of the watertight doors not yet installed, the flooding spread quickly. The ship’s list increased to twenty-five degrees, then thirty. Too late, Abe steered for the coast, hoping to run the Shinano aground in shallow water, where she might be recovered and repaired. He didn’t make it, and the Shinano sank just past ten-thirty the next morning. She had been in commission only ten days, and at sea for only sixteen and a half hours.

We have lost some expensive warships to submarines, e.g., the USS Wasp aircraft carrier and the USS Indianapolis cruiser.

After nearly 75 years since we last faced a serious naval adversary, the U.S. has spent $trillions building up and running a Navy full of large and costly warships. These do seem to intimidate Somali pirates (though not so much that they abandon their career?), but might they be vulnerable to an enemy spending only 1/100th of our budget?

What if an enemy were to built a fleet of robot kamikaze submarines? They’d pick up power from the sun when near the surface, be clad in rubber to have a SONAR signature like a whale’s, and have the same size and shape as a whale.

Our advanced systems would pick up these fake whales due to their spinning propellers? It is possible to build a machine that swims like a fish: RoboTuna. Would that make it tougher for SONAR systems to distinguish between an electric fish and a real fish?

Readers: Does it make sense to spend $billions on these Navy ships that could be attacked by robots?

World War II at Sea: A Global History on a guy who was able to predict the future fairly successfully:

Yamamoto was an outlier in other ways. He had spent two tours in the United States and had been profoundly impressed by its industrial strength, reflected by Henry Ford’s automobile assembly plant in Detroit, and the fecundity of the Texas oil fields. War against such an opponent, he concluded, was foolish. Fleet Faction admirals such as Katō did not entirely discount America’s material and economic superiority, but they insisted that the spirit of yamato-damashii could overcome mere wealth and numbers. Like Confederates after Fort Sumter who boasted that one Reb could lick five Yanks, they valued a martial culture over material superiority.

Another area in which Yamamoto defied the reigning philosophy of the Fleet Faction was his skepticism about the preeminence of battleships.

Like every other Japanese naval officer of his generation, Yamamoto had read Mahan’s book at Etajima, and he had initially embraced its tenets. By 1930, however, his natural skepticism led him to reconsider. Prior to his participation in the conference at London, he had been captain of the large aircraft carrier Akagi, and afterward he commanded the First Carrier Division, composed of the smaller carriers Ryūjō and Hōshō. Based in part on that experience, he became convinced that aircraft were poised to make battleships secondary, if not quite irrelevant. In 1934, he told a class of air cadets that battleships were like the expensive artwork that wealthy Japanese families put on display in their living rooms to impress visitors: beautiful, perhaps, but of no practical utility.

Related:

  • “China’s Navy Could Soon Have a New Weapon to Kill Navy Submarines” (National Interest, August 2018)
  • “Pentagon To Retire USS Truman Early, Shrinking Carrier Fleet To 10” (Breaking Defense): “Amidst rising anxiety over whether the US Navy’s thousand-foot-long flagships could evade Chinese missiles in a future war, the Pentagon has decided to cut the aircraft carrier fleet from 11 today to 10. By retiring the Nimitz-class supercarrier USS Truman at least two decades early, rather than refueling its nuclear reactor core in 2024 as planned, the military would save tens of billions on overhaul and operations costs that it could invest in other priorities.” (the ship cost $4.5 billion when launched in 1996 (took two more years to commission))
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Veterans Day with a B-29 crew member

We went to the New England Air Museum today, home of a beautifully restored B-29, and met two former B-29 crew members. One is 92 and one is 94. Both were navigators, which meant a lot of radar work (identifying islands and cities both for navigating and bombing through clouds). Every B-29 crew member endured missions 12-15 hours in length and horrific weather encounters (see “Plowing through the weather in a B-29”).

It is a great museum in general, but it was wonderful to be there on Veterans Day and have a Huey crew chief from Vietnam show us around the Huey, two B-29 crew members show us the B-29, etc.

Sad to think that the World War II veterans will be gone soon.

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Saddam Hussein: Mr. (Reasonably) Nice Guy?

Afghanistan and Iraq are in the U.S. news these days, partly because the locals are killing each other and partly because the locals are killing occupation forces (see “G.I.’s in Iraqi City Are Stalked by Faceless Enemies at Night” from today’s New York Times).  The problems in both countries seem to center around the inability of a central government to control the population.  In Afghanistan the Kabul government governs Kabul and the rest of the country is essentially independent (my summer 2002 trip report advocates splitting the place up into regions where everyone has something in common).  In Iraq there are so many problems that, in Europe at least, people were openly saying that the average Iraqi was better off under Saddam’s government.


If you flip on European TV you find that the post-invasion Iraqis have joined the Palestinians as the officially designated “most miserable people on the planet” in the media and their plight is an ever-present top story.  The British are donating money and sending care packages to help out Iraqis who are without reliable clean water and electricity.  .


Iraqis complain on TV: their neighbors are breaking into water mains, thus wrecking the water system; their neighbors are looting; Iraqis with guns who don’t like certain other Iraqis are shooting them; Iraqis love Allah and want an Islamic state; Iraqis love Allah but in a slightly different way and want a slightly different kind of Islamic state, which will necessitate the death and/or suppression of anyone who doesn’t love Allah their way; Iraqis hate Americans and Jews and want U.S. troops out of Iraq and the Jews out of Israel; etc., etc.


The executive summary seems to be the following: (1) Iraqis hate each other, they have lots of guns, and aren’t afraid to use them; (2) the U.S. and its allies deposed Saddam because he was unsuccessful in creating a quiet Swiss or Belgian-style bourgeois democracy; (3) the U.S. and its allies so far have failed to make any headway in getting Iraqis to adopt a Western bourgeois lifestyle and political outlook; (4) Saddam was able to restrict looting and killing to a handful of friends and family; (5) under U.S. occupation every Iraqi is free to get in touch with his Inner Looter and Inner Murderer.


By the standards of wealthy Western countries Saddam’s regime was harsh.  They tortured and/or killed political opponents.  They controlled the press, the mosques, and the schools.  If a town were restive they might kill its entire population or at least many hundreds of people from that town.  This would seem like gratuitous cruelty if done by the governments of Vermont, Dijon, or Bavaria.  But in the Arab world more or less every government employs the same tactics as Saddam’s Iraq.


In fairness to the defeated dare we ask whether Saddam’s regime wasn’t employing the minimum amount of violence necessary to maintain public order in Iraq?  It seems quite possible that Saddam did not enjoy terrorizing his subjects but did it because he understood the divisions within his arbitrarily drawn borders and thought keeping his subjects in fear was necessary.


It really seems to be tough to coerce people into doing following something other than their inclinations.  Death from AIDS is pretty terrifying and yet people still have sex.  Despite massive fines, automated ticket-issuing cameras, and license revocations, I didn’t see anyone in Britain obeying the 70 mph speed limit on the Motorway (I was so happy to get my Ford Mondeo out of Wales, whose principal highways bear an uncanny resemblance to a North Carolina plastic surgeon’s driveway (narrow and lined with stone walls), that I zipped along at 77 mph and was passed every minute by someone doing 90 in the fast lane).  If you’re caught with a small amount of drugs the U.S. government can take your house and your car, and put you in jail for the rest of your life, yet people still sell, buy, and use drugs (just ask George W. Bush, former coke-head).


We haven’t figured out what level of governmental coercion will result in an Iraqi society that is both orderly and submissive to a U.S. occupation or whatever American-friendly government follows. Saddam may yet go down in history as the kindest and gentlest 21st century leader of a unified and stable Iraq.


[Given the depths of poverty and lack of industry in Wales and the Northern UK it seemed odd at first that these folks would want to help out their defeated enemies before assisting unfortunates closer to home.  Or that they wouldn’t instead prefer to help the hundreds of millions of Indians who have never in their lives had clean water or electricity.  Berlin, The Downfall 1945 describes a similar phenomenon: “[German civilians] queued at Red Army field kitchens, which began to feed them on Berzarin’s orders.  The fact that there was a famine in Soviet Central Asia at that time, with families reduced to cannibalism, did not influence the new policy of attempting to win over the German people.”]

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Brits want to know where are the Weapons of Mass Destruction

Folks in the UK are upset that no weapons of mass destruction have
been found in Iraq, calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Tony
Blair on the theory that he lied to Parliament about Iraqi
capabilities.  People have a difficult time believing that
intelligence reports could have been so wrong.  This is ironic because
Berlin, The Downfall 1945 is currently on the UK
bestseller charts, an authoritative work by the British historian
Antony Beevor.  Page 171 discusses the Soviet belief that the Germans
would use nerve gas to defend against the Red Army’s attack across the
river Oder.  Russian soldiers were ordered to drill and sleep with gas
masks on based on reports from multiple sources in multiple countries.
Top German leaders made grand claims about their Wunderwaffen (“Wonder Weapons”) and appeared unconcerned about the fact that their
forces were outnumbered by more than 10:1.  In the end it turned out
that the Germans hadn’t ever had a very large nerve gas supply and
apparently destroyed nearly all of their chemical weapons as the
Russians advanced.


[The historical analogy only goes so far.  Nobody back in Russia ever
called for Comrade Stalin’s resignation over his misestimation of the
German capabilities.  Nor were there mass protests against Russian
occupation following the victory.  At first a few Russian soldiers
were picked off by German die-hards (“partisans” then but today we’d
call them “illegal combatants”).  The Russians presumed that the
partisans could not operate without some support from local villagers
so they simply killed everyone in any village where one of their
soldiers had been shot.  The German resistance evaporated.]


Here’s a snapshot from York, England:


People in York, England angry that weapons of mass destruction were promised but not found in Iraq.

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Can we predict economic growth by looking at our enemies/competitors?

The number of science and engineering students in the United States peaked in the early 1990s.  Despite substantial population growth and a big influx of foreign students, our country is producing fewer scientists and engineers.  Why is this a problem?  Economic growth comes from technological innovation.  A lot of wealth can be skimmed off by managers, lawyers, etc. (e.g., Carly Fiorina, the CEO of HP, majored in medieval history as an undergrad) but the wealth is created to begin with by engineers and scientists.


Why don’t Americans want to study engineering and science?  Look at today’s newspaper.  Chances are that you’ll find stories about Shiite clerics, Islamic fundamentalism, illiterate warring tribes in Third World nations, government bureaucrats directing American forces in benighted corners of the globe, etc.  These might inspire young readers to study medieval history, Islam circa 680 AD (when the Shiites began hating the Sunnis and vice versa), and law or government.  But when our enemies are essentially pre-industrial it is tough to see how engineering and science could be central to American society’s needs.


It was not always so.  Consider World War II, one of the fastest periods of technological innovation.  Our enemies were the Japanese and Germans, who were sophisticated enough to, during WWII, develop novel communications codes (inspired the development of electronic computers), state-of-the-art airplanes (inspired the development of RADAR), state-of-the-art submarines (inspired the development of SONAR, the mapping of the seafloor, and the consequent discovery of mid-ocean ridges and therefore plate tectonics and continental drift), nuclear weapons, rockets, guidance systems, etc.


After the war our enemy was Russia and her enormous pool of mathematicians, scientists, and engineers.  The Russians kept us on our toes with things like their early lead in the exploration of Space.


After the Cold War we didn’t have enemies anymore (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we didn’t realize that anyone hated us).  The focus changed to economic competition against the Japanese and Europeans.  If you want to build cars that are as good as Honda’s you need to hire some pretty clever engineers.


Ever since September 11th we as a nation have been focussed on our Muslim enemies.  They don’t invent the jet engine, like the Germans did; they buy Chinese-made copies of the Russian AK-47.  They don’t build cars better than Detroit; they use Saudi oil money to buy Toyota pickup trucks.  They don’t invent new military tactics (hijacking commercial airline flights was a specialty of Yasser Arafat’s PLO 30+ years ago).


At some level it makes sense to focus on our enemies.  After all, our friends aren’t trying to kill us.  Furthermore the population trends imply that in the long run our friends are going to fade into demographic insignificance–the groups that are most enthusiastic about killing  us have among the world’s highest rates of population growth:  nearly 5 percent per year for the Palestinians, 3.27 percent for the Saudis; a friendly country such as Japan grows 0.15 percent per year.  Perhaps if we all study these folks carefully enough somehow we can predict when and where the next attack will come.


On the other hand, our military superiority is derived from economic growth.  If our economy stagnates because our heads are stuck in the 7th Century AD, so will our military power.  By contrast, if we had sufficient economic growth and technological innovation we could, for example, develop and deploy the army of robotic infantry of which a physicist friend dreams.  His robots would be shaped like centaurs with the body and four legs of a horse and a human-like head and arms.  The robot would have a Gatling gun in its chest.  Iraqis would presumably find something to do with their time other than looting if an infantry robot were standing in front of every building in Baghdad.


Putting military conflict aside, a focus on extracting oil from Arab countries takes resources away from the purely technical challenges of producing clean and renewable energy.  With sufficiently improved engineering we could run our society on wind, solar, tidal, and geothermal power.  (If we really wanted to have a go at a tough engineering problem we could try making nuclear power work.)  I.e., the only reason that our politicians have to spend so much time appeasing Muslim dictators is that our technology is insufficiently advanced.  The point of this blog entry is that there is some circularity here.  Our focus on the Muslim world, the most technologically backward portion of the globe, slows down technological development in the West and in Asia, thus forcing the modern societies to continue focusing on the Muslim world…


A new pet theory:  it is human nature that we can only “Give 110 percent” and the reference is the amount of achievement being put forth by our perceived enemies or competitors.  Until we shift our focus away from troubles in the Islamic world the U.S. economy will be stuck in the mud.


[Note that this blog entry does not presuppose that there is anything inherently superior in the Western way of life or Modernity itself.  It is quite possible that an illiterate Afghani with 10 kids is happier than a divorced childless MIT Aero/Astro PhD.]

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