Rethinking World War II

 

Churchill reviewing American troops

Peter Hitchens has come out with a new book, The Phoney Victory: The World War II Illusion, that challenges much of the conventional wisdom surrounding Britain’s involvement in the unpleasant events of 1939-45. Here, he summarizes the book’s main arguments, most of which will be familiar to regular readers of Hitchens’ column and blog. For many other people, especially in Britain, I suspect some of these ideas will prove seriously unwelcome.

It seems that Hitchens is touching a third rail of politics with this book, which attempts to take an axe to some of the most cherished Anglo-American beliefs about the war. Here’s a sample:

MYTH 7: WE CAN THANK THE ‘SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP’

Hitler had well-founded suspicions that the USA, far from being a friend to this country, was hostile to and jealous of the British Empire. Indeed, the Anglo-American alliance refused to solidify as long as Britain still appeared to Americans as a selfish, mean and bullying Great Power quite capable of looking after itself. Attitudes began to change only when Britain, admitting it was running out of money, came to America’s doorstep as a penniless supplicant, offering America the chance to save the world.

The extraordinary (and all but unknown) transfer of Britain’s gold to the USA throughout 1939 and 1940 was the lasting proof that a deliberate, harsh British humiliation had to precede any real alliance. The stripping of Britain’s life savings was an enormous event.

Secret convoys of warships were hurrying across the Atlantic loaded down with Britain’s gold reserves and packed with stacks of negotiable paper securities, first to Canada and then to Fort Knox in Kentucky, where much of it still remains. It was not for safekeeping, but to pay for the war. Before Britain could become the USA’s pensioner, we had to prove we had nothing left to sell.

The ‘Lend-Lease’ system, which provided limited American material aid to Britain, was far from the act of selfless generosity Churchill proclaimed it to be. Even the Americans’ Bill had a gloating, anti-British tinge, given the number H.R. 1776 in reference to the year of the US Declaration of Independence.

The Destroyers for Bases Agreement, too, was quite grudging. It led to 50 decrepit American First World War destroyers being handed over in return for the USA obtaining bases in several British territories on the Western side of the Atlantic.

This shocking surrender of sovereignty indicates Britain was, piece by piece, handing naval and imperial supremacy to its former colony. It symbolises the true relationship between the USA and Britain in the post-Dunkirk months, as opposed to the sentimental fable still believed.

There’s much more in the linked piece. Hitchens has taken a lot of flak in the past for arguing that the British bombing of German population centers was unjustified, an issue that is revisited in the article. A lot of people find Hitchens’ viewpoint on this matter unpatriotic and disturbing because it undermines Britain’s moral standing in the war. This is of course a ridiculous non-argument, but the negative reaction is understandable. It’s very difficult for people to think objectively about events that are charged with personal or emotional significance, and this is especially true of World War II, which has loomed large in the imaginations of whole generations on both sides of the Atlantic.

This is a dirty job, but someone has to do it. By the way, I haven’t read the book yet, nor can I vouch for Hitchens’ arguments. All I can say is that Hitchens is a serious writer and thinker and I expect his treatment of the topic to be very interesting as well as controversial. History is complicated and our understanding of past events is fragmentary and distorted, full of yawning gaps and risible falsehoods. There is no reason to believe that history’s greatest conflict would be an exception to this rule.

Germany scandalously unprepared for alien invasion

Very disappointed in Germany. Apparently, the task of fighting off an alien invasion will fall on the US by default:

The German government has “no plans or protocol” should first contact with aliens occur, according to a report by German daily Bild.

The government considers such an event “extremely unlikely according to current scientific knowledge,” the Ministry of Economics said when responding to a question from Green MP Dieter Janecek.

“Concrete cases that could have been the subject of bilateral or multilateral talks with other states are not known,” the ministry’s statement continued.

United States has a plan

While Germany might not have a plan for extraterrestrial visitors, the US is more prepared. Even before the establishment of a Space Force that US President Donald Trump has recently said he plans to created as a new branch of the military, the 527th Space Aggressors Squadron is already a part of the United States Air Force. It aims to train US, joint and allied military forces for combat with “space-capable adversaries.”

The Air Force squadron regularly conducts drills designed to simulate what a space attack might look like if an otherworldly adversary attempted one.

In all seriousness, it’s hard to see what this can accomplish. Any alien invasion fleet will need to have traversed many light-years before reaching the earth, implying a level of technological sophistication that is surely far beyond that of the US military. Maybe, instead of rousing the invaders’ anger with pointless attacks, it would be better to do absolutely nothing.

From 2007-2012, the US also ran a task force that investigated sightings of unidentified flying objects with an annual budget of $22 million (€19.2 million). The UK has also run UFO sighting projects in the past.

More here about the Pentagon’s secret UFO task force. The military did admit that it was “incapable of defending itself against some of the technologies discovered” by the program, according to a New York Times report.

After analyzing past media coverage about possible findings of extraterrestrial microbial life, Varnum found most people’s reactions were positive.

In two following studies asking respondents what their hypothetical reaction would be if researchers did discover signs of life beyond Earth, or if researchers created a new life form in the lab, participants were still more positive than negative and were more excited about finding alien life than synthetically-created life.

Presumably, these people are betting that what we discover is kinder and gentler than this:

The research found that about half of Americans and Western Europeans surveyed elsewhere said they believe aliens have already visited Earth, Varnum said, and there does not seem to be any “chaos or disorder in the world” as a result.

Watch the subs

The broad outlines of the next world war are beginning to take shape:

The world’s three largest naval powers are all developing the next generation of their nuclear submarine fleets, accelerating the underwater arms race between the United States, China and Russia.

For now, at least, analysts say America remains by far the most dominant submarine force, even as its chief rivals work feverishly to overcome the U.S. advantages. Each country appears to have different strategic goals, with the U.S. bent on gaining greater cost and operating efficiencies while the Chinese and Russian are keenly focused on technological advances and achieving greater stealth.

I’m no military expert, but focusing on cost and operating efficiencies, rather than overwhelming technological dominance, seems like a sure path to losing the next war.

SSBNs, or “boomers,” hide in the ocean and can launch nuclear ballistic missiles at an enemy anywhere in the world even if the rest of a nation’s nuclear triad of air- and ground-based missiles is destroyed. They are the guarantors of mutually assured destruction in the event of nuclear war.

Some analysts say that these boomers will be increasingly crucial to the national security strategy of all three nations in the coming decade.

“There is no higher priority for the U.S. Navy than SSBN recapitalization,” said J.D. Williams, a retired Marine Corps colonel and senior defense researcher at RAND Corporation, who said SSBNs play a major role in the Navy’s big-picture decision making.

Now, why might that be? I thought the specter of global nuclear war was mostly a thing of the past.

Looks like we could be in for a fun century.

OPM: The other shoe drops

I was wondering when we would start hearing about the consequences of the massive Office of Personnel Management data breach back in 2014. Well, that particular shoe now appears to be dropping:

Some current and former federal government employees are taking a look at their credit activity after the Justice Department said this week that data stolen by suspected Chinese hackers in 2014 cyberattacks at the Office of Personnel Management may have been used to commit identity fraud.

Federal prosecutors on Monday said a Maryland couple had pleaded guilty to using information stolen in the OPM breach to set up fraudulent car-loan applications with a Newport News, Va., credit union.

Disclosure of the car-loan scheme, which took place in 2015 and 2016, has prompted new worries of potential identity theft for the more than 21 million current and former federal employees and contractors affected by the breach, which exposed Social Security numbers, addresses and other sensitive information, in addition to 5.6 million fingerprints. […]

Current and former U.S. officials familiar with the OPM breach said it wasn’t clear how the hacked files would have ended up in the hands of people in Maryland seeking to commit identity fraud. China has denied any involvement in the hack.

“This fraud case makes no sense,” said one former federal investigator who worked on the OPM investigation.

The use of stolen data to wreak havoc on individuals’ lives could become a very “disruptive” form of cross-border psychological warfare.

Sonic terror

More troubling cases of American diplomats being evacuated for medical tests after hearing weird noises — this time in China:

A crisis over a mysterious ailment sickening American diplomats and their families — which began in Cuba and recently appeared in China — has widened as the State Department evacuated at least two more Americans from China on Wednesday.

The Americans who were evacuated worked at the American Consulate in the southern city of Guangzhou, and their colleagues and family members are being tested by a State Department medical team, officials said. It is unclear how many of them are exhibiting symptoms, but a State Department spokeswoman said Wednesday evening that “a number of individuals” had been sent to the United States for further testing.

For months, American officials have been worried that their diplomats have been subjected to targeted attacks involving odd sounds, leading to symptoms similar to those “following concussion or minor traumatic brain injury,” the State Department says.

If this is a form of psychological warfare, it’s cleverly deniable while being very creepy and effective. That said, it’s not at all obvious to me what is going on here. It would not shock me to learn that that a non-state actor is responsible, or even that this is nothing more than mass hysteria.

A detail that strikes me as potentially very significant is buried in the last paragraph:

Mr. Lenzi [a security engineering officer at the consulate, who was evacuated] worked for the diplomatic security department, and he believes that his work could have made him a target. Before joining the Foreign Service in 2011, he worked with the International Republican Institute, funded by Congress, promoting democratic reforms in Ukraine and Georgia — two countries where Russia has denounced American involvement.

Russia is not the only country that has denounced American involvement in those two countries, or expressed its opposition to “color revolutions” in general. Hint, hint.

Odds of the Apocalypse: 37%

Only somewhat more likely than your house getting flooded

A hydrologist walks us through the cold mathematics of revolution and chaos:

While we don’t have any good sources of data on how often zombies take over the world, we definitely have good sources of data on when the group of people on the piece of dirt we currently call the USA attempt to overthrow the ruling government. It’s happened twice since colonization. The first one, the American Revolution, succeeded. The second one, the Civil War, failed. But they are both qualifying events. Now we can do math. […]

Stepping through this, the average year for colony establishment is 1678, which is 340 years ago. Two qualifying events in 340 years is a 0.5882% annual chance of nationwide violent revolution against the ruling government. Do the same math as we did above with the floodplains, in precisely the same way, and we see a 37% chance that any American of average life expectancy will experience at least one nationwide violent revolution.

This is a bigger chance than your floodplain-bound home flooding during your mortgage. [I.e. 26%]

It’s noticeably bigger.

And here’s a factoid that should give you pause for thought:

Since the fall of Constantinople in 1453, there have been 465 sovereign nations which no longer exist, and that doesn’t even count colonies, secessionist states, or annexed countries. Even if we presume that half of these nation-state transitions were peaceful, which is probably a vast over-estimation, that’s still an average of one violent state transition every 2.43 years.

Maybe the Silicon Valley billionaires, Hollywood celebrities and politicians who are secretly building apocalypse bunkers have rational reasons for doing so and are not completely nuts.

This is not a drill

Not Hawaii (yet)

Nothing to see here, just someone “clicking the wrong thing” and thereby causing the kind of confusion that leads to a nuclear apocalypse:

An early-morning emergency alert mistakenly warning of an incoming ballistic missile attack was dispatched to cellphones across Hawaii on Saturday, setting off widespread panic in a state that was already on edge because of escalating tensions between the United States and North Korea.

The alert, sent by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, was revoked 38 minutes after it was issued, prompting confusion over why it was released — and why it took so long to rescind. State officials and residents of a normally tranquil part of the Pacific, as well as tourists swept up in the panic, immediately expressed outrage.

The official explanation?

The mistake occurred during a shift-change drill that takes place three times a day at the emergency command post… “Someone clicked the wrong thing on the computer.”

LOL. So what is it? A case of this? Or is there some other explanation?

It’s good that the FCC is investigating. Will the person who did this be identified and held accountable? I’m not holding my breath.

Mr. Rapoza said he did not know if anyone would be disciplined for the mistake. “At this point, our major concern is to make sure we do what we need to do to reassure the public,” he said. “This is not a time for pointing fingers.”

I’m sure the public agrees with that sentiment, and will find it greatly reassuring that no heads will roll, because we all know that putting a better “process” in place is more effective than holding people personally accountable for their colossal screw-ups.

But wait! No need to worry, because it was totally an accident and the employee in question feels really, really bad about what happened. And he will be… counseled. Counseled, I tell you!

A Civil Defense employee is set to be retrained after a shocking blunder on Saturday morning, when a mistaken alert warning of an inbound ballistic missile sent thousands fleeing for shelter.

The false alarm was caused by a Hawaii Emergency Management Agency employee who ‘pushed the wrong buttons’ during an internal drill timed to coincide with a shift handover at 8.07am. The all-clear phone alert was not sent until 38 minutes later.

Incredibly, officials said the employee who made the mistake wasn’t aware of it until mobile phones in the command center began displaying the alert.

‘This guy feels bad, right. He’s not doing this on purpose – it was a mistake on his part and he feels terrible about it,’ said EMA Administrator Vern Miyagi in a press conference Saturday afternoon.

Miyagi, a retired Army major general, said the employee had been with the agency for ‘a while’ and that he would be ‘counseled and drilled so this never happens again’ – but stopped short of saying whether there would be disciplinary measures.

Honestly, it’s getting harder to distinguish between fact and fevered imagination these days. Eerie times.

What was this incident so dangerous? In short, first-strike instability:

Had the turmoil unfolded during a major crisis or period of heightened threats, North Korean leaders could have misread the Hawaiian warning as cover for an attack, much as the Soviets had done in 1983. American officials have been warning for weeks that they might attack North Korea. Though some analysts consider this a likely bluff, officials in Pyongyang have little room for error.

Bomb North Korea, says Luttwak

Busan, South Korea (Oct 2017)

A good rule of thumb is that when Edward Luttwak has something to say… you should listen. I wish he commented on current events more, because unlike most pundits, the strategist known as the “Machiavelli of Maryland” always seems to have a surprising, original and deeply informed perspective on everything he writes about. Like bombing North Korea:

One mistaken reason to avoid attacking North Korea is the fear of direct retaliation. The U.S. intelligence community has reportedly claimed that North Korea already has ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads that can reach as far as the United States. But this is almost certainly an exaggeration, or rather an anticipation of a future that could still be averted by prompt action. […]

It’s true that North Korea could retaliate for any attack by using its conventional rocket artillery against the South Korean capital of Seoul and its surroundings, where almost 20 million inhabitants live within 35 miles of the armistice line. U.S. military officers have cited the fear of a “sea of fire” to justify inaction. But this vulnerability should not paralyze U.S. policy for one simple reason: It is very largely self-inflicted. […]

When then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter decided to withdraw all U.S. Army troops from South Korea 40 years ago (ultimately a division was left behind), the defense advisors brought in to help — including myself — urged the Korean government to move its ministries and bureaucrats well away from the country’s northern border and to give strong relocation incentives to private companies. South Korea was also told to mandate proper shelters, as in Zurich for example, where every new building must have its own (under bombardment, casualties increase dramatically if people leave their homes to seek shelter). In recent years, moreover, South Korea has had the option of importing, at moderate cost, Iron Dome batteries, which are produced by both Israel and the United States, that would be capable of intercepting 95 percent of North Korean rockets headed to inhabited structures.

But over these past four decades, South Korean governments have done practically nothing along these lines. The 3,257 officially listed “shelters” in the Seoul area are nothing more than underground shopping malls, subway stations, and hotel parking lots without any stocks of food or water, medical kits or gas masks. As for importing Iron Dome batteries, the South Koreans have preferred to spend their money on developing a bomber aimed at Japan.

[Shaking my damn head]

Even now, casualties could still be drastically reduced by a crash resilience program. This should involve clearing out and hardening with jacks, props, and steel beams the basements of buildings of all sizes; promptly stocking necessities in the 3,257 official shelters and sign-posting them more visibly; and, of course, evacuating as many as possible beforehand (most of the 20 million or so at risk would be quite safe even just 20 miles further to the south). The United States, for its part, should consider adding vigorous counterbattery attacks to any airstrike on North Korea.

Fair enough, and a case could be made that, assuming a mass evacuation of the city, the destruction of a large portion of Seoul is a price worth paying to prevent Kim Jung Un from joining the nuclear ICBM club. However, I imagine most South Koreans would argue that such a price is definitely not worth paying. Unfortunately, they are not the only people with skin in this particular game, as it is also Japan’s cities, and, potentially, America’s too that hang in the balance.

Complicating matters, South Korean resistance would make an American attack on the North much harder, as George Friedman argued last September:

The US could have attacked the North without South Korea’s agreement, but it would have been substantially more difficult. The US has a large number of fighter jets and about 40,000 troops based in the South. South Korean airspace would be needed as well. If Seoul refused to cooperate, the US would be facing two hostile powers, and would possibly push the North and the South together. Washington would be blamed for the inevitable casualties in Seoul. The risk of failure would pyramid.

A dangerous game that only seems to get more dangerous, at least until this week’s encouraging news of the first intra-Korean talks in over two years.

A rearguard action

John Robb offers a proposal for an imploding United States to postpone China’s rise to absolute global dominance by throwing a wrench in China’s $8 trillion “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure project:

One solution is to mount a rearguard action — a method of delaying an advancing enemy when your forces are in retreat. An action that buys time for the US to regroup and regain cohesion. The US faced a similar situation re; the Soviet Union in ’79 after the invasion of Afghanistan. In that case, support for Afghan insurgents kept the Soviets occupied while the US recovered (Carter, inflation, Iran, etc.). In this case, the rearguard action would be the disruption of China’s plans for one belt one road. This could be done inexpensively and with very little manpower or visibility. How?

  • Create groups that operate like global guerrillas. Small groups that operate independently w/o oversight. More letters of marque than special operations.
  • In the short term, disrupt the Chinese construction effort. Double and treble construction costs by delaying timeliness and forcing increased security efforts. Drive up the costs of financing. Drive away subcontractors.
  • Next, force the Chinese to physically and logically protect the entire system, from roads to ports to trains, from disruption. As my analysis of Lawrence of Arabia shows, it’s more damaging to partially disrupt a system than to completely break it. Keep up the pressure — with the ability of systems disruption to generate a million to one return on investment, this is sustainable.

As Robb points out elsewhere: “Transportation (ports, roads, trains, etc.) is a natural monopoly. Nobody has tried to build one on a global scale until Xi.”

China's One Belt One Road

The US may conclude that it has no choice but to play the spoiler to China’s grand, shining vision of a sprawling infrastructure network linking 60 countries together under the benevolent aegis of the CPC. To get an idea of how this might work, consider that insurgent groups were able to successfully bleed the US of more than $200 billion in failed efforts to reconstruct Iraq.

As for “the ability of systems disruption to generate a million to one return on investment,” consider a classic example from Robb: A small insurgent attack on an oil pipeline in southeast Iraq, which cost roughly $2,000 to execute, inflicted $500 million of damage on the Iraqi government in lost oil exports (an ROI of 25 million percent).

Doesn’t the US risk more from disruption than China? No. The US doesn’t have a choice. If it doesn’t act while this system is being built (when it is the most vulnerable to disruption), the US will cede global dominance to China forever. China is creating the equivalent of “Standard Oil stranglehold” on the global economy and once established it will likely become too big/too entrenched to roll back through global guerrillas.