Footnotes in Iraq

“A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.”

– The opening paragraph from Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow

Essentially Annihilated

Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Southeast Asia : A recently declassified 1966 study performed for the Defense Department which evaluated, and rejected, the hypothetical use of tactical nuclear weapons in Vietnam. The linked page contains a copy of the actual report, as well as related analyses concerning present day implications (for terrorism, among other things). Some choice quotes:

“The use of TNW [tactical nuclear weapons] in Southeast Asia would be highly damaging to the U.S. whether or not the use remains unilateral.” (7)

“The overall result of our study is to confirm the generally held opinion that the use of TNW in Southeast Asia would offer the U.S. no decisive military advantage if the use remained unilateral, and it would have strongly adverse effects if the enemy were able to use TNW in reply.” (7)

“Insurgent groups everywhere in the world would take note and would try by all available means to acquire TNWs for themselves.” (46)

“In sum, the political effects of U.S. first use of TNW in Vietnam would be uniformly bad and could be catastrophic.” (51)

The implications of this report are arguable, but most of the analysis appears to lean towards the idea that the report is just as valid today as it was in 1966. In any case, its certainly not a bad idea to regularly revisit the issue, as the Bush administration has apparently done (against great criticism by those who don’t understand or don’t want to admit that military planning for unpleasant (to put it lightly) scenarios is necessary and does not constitute actual military action).

Way of the Gun

Two stories of the pistol by Roninspoon : Utterly compelling stories about the Entry Control Point (more commonly known as a gate) of a patriot missile site in Saudi Arabia. Oddly enough, the conficts described here are not of attacking forces, but rather, internal ones. You see, its a general rule that the gate guard has absolute authority that exceeds the rank of anyone entering his area of responsibility. As usual, there are those who believe that the rules don’t apply to them… (it made me laugh when I saw someone referred to as Tallman). Mr. Spoon has also written a few other military stories (Army stories, Sir! Now with %5 more fiction.), none of which are quite as gripping as his pistol stories, but worthy of a read nonetheless.

Along similar lines is an article critiquing the portrayal of naval operations in Star Trek: The Next Generation. The article is an interesting read, as ST:TNG was way off base on a number of issues, but the portion of the essay that deals with the distinction between line officers and staff officers is fascinating (as most people don’t even know that the distinction exists). In the US Army, Line is infantry, armor, artillery, engineers, and helicopter pilots. Staff is medical, chaplains, quartermaster, transport, intelligence, etc…

If a Second Lieutenant of the infantry (a line officer) gives an order to a surgeon whose rank is full colonel (but nonetheless a staff officer), military courtesy demands that it be phrased as a “request”, but military law firmly establishes that it has the force of an order, and if the surgeon refuses to carry it out, he risks court martial.

This concept is fascinating, and I suppose it applies to Roninspoon’s stories above as well. If, for example, an Army engineer is clearing a minefield, I would assume he has rank over anyone on the field (excluding higher ranking engineers, etc.), just as ‘Spoon had authority over anyone in the dead zone. Of course, ST:TNG got this completely wrong, having Counselor Troi and Dr. Crusher sometimes take command of the ship, when, in fact, any line officer, even an ensign, should be in charge.

Oh, and yeah, sorry about that whole not-updating-for-almost-a-month thing. I think I’ve got some cool stuff on the horizon, so I’ll try and keep on top of it.

Blackhawk Down

Blackhawk Down by Mark Bowden : An amazingly detailed, 29 part series concerning the Battle of Mogadishu. On Sunday, Oct. 3, 1993, attack helicopters dropped about 120 elite American soldiers into a busy neighborhood in the heart of Mogadishu, Somalia. Their mission was to abduct several top lieutenants of Somalian warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid and return to base. A variety of logistic and intelligence miscalculations turned the operation into a military fiasco, as two Blackhawk attack helicopters were shot down, and 3 more were immobilized, stranding the soldiers in the middle of a hostile city for several hours. When they emerged the following morning, 18 Americans were dead and 73 were wounded. The Somalis faired much worse, with 500 dead and over 1000 wounded, many of them civilians (of course, the numbers presented here are estimates). It was the biggest single firefight involving American soldiers since the Vietnam War. Helicopter pilot Michael Durant had been carried off by an angry mob and dragged around the streets. He was still alive, held captive somewhere in the city. In strictly military terms, Mogadishu was a success. The targets of that day’s raid, two obscure clan leaders, were apprehended. But the awful price of those arrests came as a shock to the American people, and in the years since that humanitarian mission dissolved into combat, Somalia has had a profound cautionary influence on American foreign policy.

Bowden interviewed many of the participating soldiers, and even some of the Somalis they fought against, to create a detailed picture of the firefight. The result is a gripping story, told minute by minute, of an elite fighting force that was stranded in a city where literally everyone in the city was trying to kill them. Their strict egagement orders (not to fire unless fired upon) were quickly thrown out the window as soldiers fought for their lives, oftentimes just firing into a crowd of civilians and Somalian soldiers. There are a few drawbacks to the series, most notably the lack of context about why the battle was fought, but overall, it is excellently done. It makes me wonder how this current war on terrorism will play out. If we are serious about the war, firefights like this one are bound to happen routinely…

The Book of Five Rings

Miyamoto Musashi is an interesting fellow. A ronin (masterless samurai), he roamed feudal Japan in the early 17th century regularly fighting scores of men alone, and winning. Late in life, he dictated the secrets he had learned throughout his travels, calling it The Book of Five Rings. Each of the first four rings (Earth, Water, Fire, Wind) deals with a different aspect of overcoming adversity, while the last ring reveals what he saw as the innermost tenet of his philosophy. I was introduced to this subject by a rather elegant 5k entry. Vote here.