Blowing stuff up

A while ago, I had a multi-topic post covering some things I hoped to expand on. One of them was this

Blowing things and people up is seen as a demonstration of clarity and resolve, unless someone is doing it to us, in which case it’s correctly recognised as cowardly and evil. The most striking recent example (on “our” side) was the instant and near-universal approval of Trump’s bombing of an airfield in Syria, which had no effect at all on events there.

We’ve now had another round of bombing from Trump, and yet more instant applause. As I reread the para above, and looked at evidence on the general ineffectiveness of airstrikes, it struck me that there is a big asymmetry. The satisfaction we get when our side blows something or someone up is trivial in comparison to the hatred generated when we are on the receiving end. In most cases, the people and resources mobilised against the bomber far outweigh the physical destruction the bomber can inflict. Here’s a study (paywalled, but the abstract is clear) making that point about Vietnam; it seems to be entirely general.

I’ve talked here about large-scale aerial bombing, but all of these points apply with equal force to bombing campaigns undertaken on the ground by non-state actors, going back to the “propaganda of the deed” in the 19th century. Experience has shown that deeds like bombings and assassinations make great propaganda, but not for the side that carries them out.

30 thoughts on “Blowing stuff up

  1. I have long attributed Fidel Castro’s longevity as Prime Minister and then President of Cuba to American to overthrow the Cuban Gov’t and attempts to assassinate him. Nothing like having a hostile nation about 150 or so kilometres, sponsoring terrorist attacks, and loudly proclaiming that it would destroy the Cuban Gov’t to rally the population round. This is especially true when the hostile nation had,before Castro, been dominating and exploiting Cuba for roughly 55 or 60 years.

    To a considerable extent this applies to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Lots of Iranians would probably like some social changes or even a secular republic but in the face of totally credible threats and sanctions from the USA, they seem willing to stick with an Iranian Gov’t than whatever the USA would do. Iraq serves as an excellent object lesson.

    The US/UK/France attack on Syria, totally ineffective as it was militarily, probably just bought Bashar al-Assad some extra public support.

  2. The Western alliance used to be a force for good, but I increasingly wonder if it is time to wrap up the alliance. Whatever advantages the alliance continues to bring must be weighed against the inability to critically scrutinise the actions of fellow allies.

    I remember Kevin Rudd addressing students in Beijing, arguing that “true friends” (zhengyou) can be critical. Has Australia ever been a “true friend” to the US by that standard?

    No wonder China’s leaders were unimpressed by Kevin Rudd.

  3. The opportunity cost of the West doing nothing in regards to Syrian chemical attacks is that every rogue state would be licensed to develop and deploy chemical weapons. It is illustrative that because the North Korean nuclear threat was not nipped in the bud at a cost of maybe a few hundred thousand lives, we now have a rogue state that can embark on a military enterprise that will certainly cost many millions of lives.

    The North Korean state will also continue killing hundreds of thousands of its own citizens through famine and violence with impunity even if it doesn’t launch a nuclear strike, which by itself means that it would’ve better to have terminated it long ago.

    We already know what happens when a “less is more” approach is employed; it is a war like World War Two. But if Professor Quiggin was around circa 1935 and Britain and France and the US had nipped Germany and Japan in the bud, at a cost of maybe one or two million lives, he would almost certainly have denounced it as a crime and dismissed the notion that fluffing about would have cost 50 million lives as right wing paranoia. Because the opportunity cost of doing nothing would have been a matter of speculation, much of polite opinion would have concurred.

    We now see the Chinese dictator building up his military, consolidating his power, interfering in other countries politics, rallying Chinese immigrants to the cause of the CCP (read Clive Hamilton’s book) and claiming a vast area of the South China Sea. My view is that the West should launch a nuclear strike on that country that sends it back to the Stone Age. Time will tell if the opportunity cost of not doing so is, as I predict, World War Three and a few billion deaths.

  4. The opportunity cost of the West doing nothing in regards to Syrian chemical attacks

    The problem is that there seems to be no evidence that the Syrian Gov’t was or was not involved in the chemical attack. Basically we have a bunch of people screaming, “Assad did it! Assad did it!” The proof? None. We don’t even know if there was chemical attack.

    Why would he? He did not need to. The Syrian Government, with the help of its allies, has won. It is all over but the mopping up. Why give a pretext to the USA to take action?

    We have two embattled leaders (Trump & May) needing diversions and conveniently they stage an attack on Syria just a few hours before the investigators from the OPCW were due to be in the field. God only knows what Macron thought he was doing.

    Chinese dictator
    There was a coup and I missed it?

  5. More interesting for me is the quantifiable response to this especially in the US. Interestingly this bombing doesnt seem to have changed people’s attitudes one way or another and there is more to any ‘approval’ than meets the eye and it relates to Trump boosting his ratings.

    My touchstone here is the metapolling of 538

    This indicates nothing much has changed for 4 months and that while voters may approve its no value to Trump at all! This is noteworthy when attitudes to politics more generally in the US seem to be much more normally volatile week to week.

    The good news seems to be this hasnt actually improved Trump’s rating and the US is solidifying into a very large majority opposed to the orange one.

    The down side is that his suggests a solidify in positions for and against him reflecting an increasing unwillingness to compromise in politics, the former bedrock of the US system. That this should occur over such a divisive figure as Trump is unsurprising but worrying. The US has had one civil war already. The last thing the world needs is another.

    Hyperbolic as the latter is it does beg the question of how will people are in practice to compromise politically now as they seem to be losing the skill set? And what are the implications of the loss of such willingness and rise of ‘winner takes all’ based confrontation?

  6. The human capacity for approving and enjoying horrific violence should never be underestimated; all it takes is belief that the victims a “bad” and therefore deserve it for such violence to be deemed “good”. Where they are believed bad enough then even the collateral deaths and injuries of less than surgical violence will be approved.

    Yet this shift from horrified and appalled to gleefully approving depends entirely upon beliefs and preconceptions that require no careful collection and weighing of evidence; just being told they are “bad” is good enough. Just being told they share a nationality or allegiance that is deemed “bad” – or belong to a particular ethnicity or religion – will be good enough.

    The West has been interfering in the internal affairs of nations like Syria for a century or more, arming and training “good” militants and assisting in toppling some regimes and propping others (but rarely on the basis of qualities like “goodness”), all promoted on the basis of good violence versus bad violence, with rhetoric straight out the NRA’s phrasebook – good guys with guns that are locked and loaded indeed.

    It is not the application of “good” violence that ends these conflicts, it is the application of legal principles by institutions that attempt to make their decisions based on the facts and seek, even if inadequately, for some form of just or even just workable solutions. Strengthening those institutions – the ones like UN or World Court that are more often the subject of sustained criticism in the battle for popularity – is how lasting solutions are more reliably made.

  7. @jrkrideau
    “Chinese dictator
    There was a coup and I missed it?”

    Even the Guardian, the New York Times and Wash Po gets it. Wash Po 4 March 2018:

    “Forty-two years after the death of China’s last despot, Mao Zedong, President Xi Jinping is set to unveil a new era of dictatorial rule.

    On Feb. 25, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party announced the impending removal of term limits for the Chinese president, a move that would allow Xi to stay in power indefinitely.”

    Hint to lefties: stop sourcing news from Russia Today and alt-left chem trail conspiracy websites. Come back to Earth; we miss you.

  8. @Mark Jonas

    I refer to your phrase “Because the opportunity cost of doing nothing would have been a matter of speculation…”

    This is the crux of the matter. The long term opportunity cost of doing nothing and the long term opportunity cost of doing something are both speculations. It is not possible to raise an argument via speculations on unknowns. Yet, you attempt to do so. We see where your sort of unreasoning leads when you advocate nuking China back to the stone age, presumably in a pre-emptive strike. The USA would need to use a significant part of its nuclear arsenal to achieve this, perhaps 400 nukes (including ones targeted in attempts to prevent retaliation). Even if Russia did not join the nuclear exchange (highly unlikely), China would send all of its surviving nukes back at the USA, perhaps 100 nukes.

    It’s reliably reported that if India and Pakistan had a full nuclear exchange (about 250 nuclear weapons in total) this alone would induce a nuclear winter over the planet and probably lead within a decade or so to about 6 billion deaths. So, what you are proposing, a 500 warheads exchange, would very likely lead to the end of the human race. That’s the opportunity cost we are talking about there and it’s not a matter of speculation but of nuclear winter modelling.

    “In 2014, Michael J. Mills (at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research, NCAR) et al. published “Multi-decadal global cooling and unprecedented ozone loss following a regional nuclear conflict” in the journal Earth’s Future.[155] The authors used computational models developed by NCAR to simulate the climatic effects of a regional nuclear war in which 100 “small” (15 Kt) weapons are detonated over cities. They concluded that:

    global ozone losses of 20–50% over populated areas, levels unprecedented in human history, would accompany the coldest average surface temperatures in the last 1000 years. We calculate summer enhancements in UV indices of 30–80% over Mid-Latitudes, suggesting widespread damage to human health, agriculture, and terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Killing frosts would reduce growing seasons by 10–40 days per year for 5 years. Surface temperatures would be reduced for more than 25 years, due to thermal inertia and albedo effects in the ocean and expanded sea ice. The combined cooling and enhanced UV would put significant pressures on global food supplies and could trigger a global nuclear famine.” – Wikipedia.

    Note, this is for 100 small weapons not 500 in a mix of small and large weapons. In summary, the cost of this action is certain, with the death of 95% to 100% of the human race. The cost of holding off is uncertain in the long term but the benefit is certain each day while the armed peace lasts; a new day of reasonable hopes each day for 7 billion people (except for those in regional conflict zones mostly stirred up by the West).

  9. the Guardian, the New York Times and Wash Po gets it

    Oh, the NYT and the WP. Of course!

    Sound and critical sources of vital information on WMD in Iraq; therefore I believe their analysis re China? They often make the USSR period journals, Pravda and Izvestia, look good as foreign affairs critics and that is hard to do.

    They do not seem to have missed supporting any US Gov’t international lie in years. I tend to think their internal US reporting is usually not bad and, at times, may be very good; the moment we shift to international issues they become the eager tools of whatever the current US admin happens to be. Remember “WMD” or “yellow cake”? Hell, Gulf of Tonkin?

    I do not discount their reportage but I remember their record.

    Not sure about the Guardian in this matter. I was not following it then.

    I admit Xi Jing ping is making a power grab but there is no real evidence of “dictatorship”, at least yet, but yes it is worrying. Still, at the moment, he seems primus inter pares with an emphass on primus.

    Hint to lefties: stop sourcing news from Russia Today

    Afraid of a dissenting view? Even when the managing editor of RT says RT is a Russian media that is, unabashedly, going to present a Russian view of issues even if she deplores the problem? That by the way, does not seem to mean being a government propaganda machine but it seems to imply that RT will not be as critical of Russia as it might be. Gee, sounds like a mild form of the NYT fanclub.

    BTY do you ever read/listen/watch any foreign media? ABC (Australia) perhaps or Radio France or even something as mundane as Crime Russia
    Le Figaro can be interesting and even CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) can supply some interesting views from time to time. Duh, have you ever even read an RT article?

    If you are basing your politictal decisions solely on the the Guardian, the New York Times and Wash Po then you have fallen for a lot of sometimes poor, uncritical, and, in the case of the NYT and WP, probably journalistically unethical reporting.

  10. @jrkrideau

    “I admit Xi Jing ping is making a power grab but there is no real evidence of “dictatorship”, at least yet, but yes it is worrying. ”

    Don’t be naive. No one dares challenge Xi Jinping and he has changed the rules so that he can be dictator for life. This has all coincided with a massive crackdown on dissent within civil society.

    We desperately need our schools to teach kids critical thinking skills. It is frightening to think that so many people, like you, think it is groovy to unquestioningly believe what they read on alt news websites and authoritarian state propaganda sites. It is bizarre that you think “RT will not be as critical of Russia as it might be” but is otherwise fine. No it isn’t. Putin ruthlessly crushes dissent. Independent journalists get murdered or jailed on trumped up charges. What you read on RT should be taken with a grain of salt.

    None of this means the mainstream media is perfect )or even close to perfect) but at least they are free to criticise the government without being killed or jailed. That makes a big difference.

  11. @Mark Jonas
    ‘Hint to lefties: stop sourcing news from Russia Today and alt-left chem trail conspiracy websites.’
    Get real! Where has John Quiggin or any commenter in this posting referenced such sources? Stop making things up.

  12. @jrkrideau

    God only knows what Macron thought he was doing.

    1. Push back against Putin.
    2. Get Trump out of isolationist mode and into internationalist mode.

  13. Shorter John: When you bomb people they blame the bomber, not the bombee.

    Which is not rocket science. Doing it “to send a signal” is always dumb because you will not send the signal you think you are sending. Doing it in search of “a peace process” is even dumber – it ensures your opponent will be mightily p***ed off and NOT behave as you want. Nope, if you bomb then you must bomb to annihilate.

  14. Ninety-three years of bombing the Arabs
    By GAVIN GATENBY 20 August 2004

    The 1920s British air bombing campaign in Iraq
    By Marek Pruszewicz BBC News 7 October 2014

    ‘..An armed rebellion in Iraq. Debate at Westminster on how to counter the insurgency. The deployment of RAF bombers to defeat the uprising.

    With British planes once again in the skies over Iraq, it sounds like a story from the last few days. But Britain first tried to exercise control over Iraq from the air in the 1920s. (…)

    Prof Priya Satia, associate professor of Modern British History at Stanford University in California, has written extensively about the history of aerial campaigns in the region.

    “Aerial strategy was developed by the British in the Middle East between World War One and World War Two. A bit of what the Americans do now is borrowed from that experience,” she says.

    “This reflexive recourse to an aerial strategy still in the Middle East is not a coincidence. It comes out of this long history that this part of the world can take it.” (…)

    Satia is dismissive of the argument that today’s aerial attacks are different because they are precise.

    “There’s always collateral damage, no matter how precise it is. Reports show that the designation ‘militant’ has been used much too freely. Secrecy surrounding strikes fuels suspicions of high casualties. The strategy creates anger and new recruits.”‘

    Syria intervention plan fueled by oil interests, not chemical weapon concern

    “So what was this unfolding strategy to undermine Syria and Iran all about? According to retired NATO Secretary General Wesley Clark, a memo from the Office of the US Secretary of Defense just a few weeks after 9/11 revealed plans to “attack and destroy the governments in 7 countries in five years”, starting with Iraq and moving on to “Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Iran.” In a subsequent interview, Clark argues that this strategy is fundamentally about control of the region’s vast oil and gas resources….

    These strategic concerns, motivated by fear of expanding Iranian influence, impacted Syria primarily in relation to pipeline geopolitics. In 2009 – the same year former French foreign minister Dumas alleges the British began planning operations in Syria – Assad refused to sign a proposed agreement with Qatar that would run a pipeline from the latter’s North field, contiguous with Iran’s South Pars field, through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and on to Turkey, with a view to supply European markets – albeit crucially bypassing Russia. An Agence France-Presse report claimed Assad’s rationale was “to protect the interests of [his] Russian ally, which is Europe’s top supplier of natural gas”.

    Andrew Marshall (Yoda) Acolytes / Jedi Knights

    The RMA Debate
    A gateway to full-text online resources about the Revolution in Military Affairs, information war, and asymmetrical warfare.
    Air Power

    What’s displacing Air Sea Battle in US military planning? 1 October 2015
    ‘In a slow moving transition underway since late 2014, there are strong signs that the often-criticised US Air Sea Battle operational concept is being quietly — albeit not officially — sidelined as a focus of US military strategy. The likelihood is that a new program, the so-called Third Offset Strategy, is displacing it. This suggests that since the unsettling return of 19th century-style territorial annexation to 21st century Europe, Russia is looming as a serious threat in the minds of US defence planners — possibly even more than China.’

    The Pentagon’s ‘Long War’
    by Pepe Escobar May 1, 2015

    Has Yoda left the building?
    Named director of the Office of Net Assessment (the Pentagon’s internal think tank) by Richard M. Nixon and reappointed by every president since (at least until Obama) the DOD’s most elusive official has become one of its most influential. In addittion to US RMA doctrine, and implementation, the US doctrine of, and plans for, Long War were begun under Marshal and certainly continue today in evident practise.

  15. Smith :@jrkrideau
    God only knows what Macron thought he was doing.
    1. Push back against Putin.2. Get Trump out of isolationist mode and into internationalist mode.

    0. Get the US Long War agenda item of a gas pipeline passing through Syria to break Russia’s near monopoly on gas supply into the EU – French nuclear power is in financial meltdown. France has nowhere near the trade with Russia that Germany has, hence no action from that quarter.

  16. @Mark Jonas
    Don’t be naive. No one dares challenge Xi Jinping and he has changed the rules so that he can be dictator for life.
    It is very worrying, I agree. I am just not sure that anyone outside of the CPC senior cadre understands the mechanisms and intrigues that hold there. So far I don’t see that Xi is a dictator; this could change at any moment but the CPC seems to have built in some protection. It may fail just as we see that the US constitutional safeguards have.

    The Chinese Communist Party has a tremendously rigorous meritocracy program that seems to ensure that those who reach senior cadre levels are very competent ( though not necessarily not corrupt unfortunately). That means that the Chinese leadership has 30 or so years of government experience, including international experience.

    Oh, BTW, did you know that Xi’s daughter is a Harvard grad? Not something I’d wish on anyone but apparently impressive in the USA.

    It is frightening to think that so many people, like you, think it is groovy to unquestioningly believe what they read on alt news websites and authoritarian state propaganda sites

    Gee, thanks.

    What you read on RT should be taken with a grain of salt.
    Well it is.

    Apparently your problem is that I take a grain ( kg?) of salt when I read the NYT or the WP, or other so called “Western” sources just as I do with something like RT.

    Independent journalists get murdered or jailed on trumped up charges.

    Sources and please balance them against journalists in Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other countries that may occur to you. You might want to discuss Mexico.

    None of this means the mainstream media is perfect )or even close to perfect) but at least they are free to criticise the government without being killed or jailed. That makes a big difference.

    You totally fail to understand my point. I may not have been clear.

    I am talking about a group mindset.

    They may (subject to severe sanctions by their corporate masters) be free to say what they want, The problem is that they all read from the same hymn sheet. The Syrian government is a duly elected government (though we may doubt the legitimacy of it just as we did with Shrub Bush’s win [1]) but when was the last time did you hear someone saying the “Syrian Government” as opposed to the more pejorative “Syrian regime” or “Assad regime” ?

    Or someone who says, ” The Trump Regime”?

    There is a built-in assumption in the language used even if there is no factual evidence to support it. I rather like the “Trump Regime” but I am not sure it is accurate. I’ll probably use it.

    1. GWB was the son of the former head of the CIA who was later the President of the United States of America and he won on a disputed vote count in a state where his brother was Governor. Not a problem.

  17. @MartinK
    I am perfectly willing to quote from RT if it makes sense. RT seems just as “honest” as most Western news sources. “Honest” being loosely defined of course in both cases.

  18. @jrkrideau

    “The Syrian government is a duly elected government … ”

    Good lord, how could anyone believe that? The man is a vicious dictator who has fake elections and who oppresses minorities, such as the Kurds.

    “RT seems just as “honest” as most Western news sources.”

    Actually Russia Today journalists who work there keep quitting and spilling the beans:

    “But some of the channel’s reporters have complained of interference and bias. In 2014, RT America newsreader Liz Wahl resigned on air over the channel’s coverage of the Crimea crisis. Later that year, correspondent Sara Firth also quit after tweeting: “We do work for Putin. We are asked on a daily basis, if not to totally ignore, then to obscure the truth.”

    I really do not understand today’s Left ( I exclude the centre left from my analysis). You guys cuddle up to every anti-Western dictator, no matter how barbaric, and completely ignore the movements that past generations of Lefties would’ve warmed to. We have Kurdish groups in the Middle East that are truly egalitarian and feminist and fighting for their lives but they get ignored because Lefties today want to give Mr Assad a kiss and cuddle.


  19. It has been estimated that the U S has killed more than 20 million people in 37 countries since the end of WW2 . I suppose those with bad lifelong injuries would be about 5 times that ,and those left homeless many multiples of that. They are a superpower in decline who will have the most powerful army for another 20 years , a wounded bully. It is interesting to hear criticism of China buying influence with infrastructure loans ,a long proven U S practice .We in the West had an opportunity to set a good example but we didnt. We just ruthlessly funneled resources our way. Selfishness is not a virtue ,now we cant expect others to treat us any better. People are turning to tough man leaders .They think ‘he is a ba$tard ,but he is our ba$tard’.

  20. As I recall, after WW2, a team of economists (including one JK Galbraith) working for US SAC carried out an extensive survey of the effect of the bombing campaign on German production of military goods … and concluded that it delayed it a little, but not much. They also came away with considerable respect for the planners and engineers who adapted and modified and kept producing.

  21. Gotta use up the old stock of cruise missiles, Congress has given the Department of Defence 574 billion dollars this year to play with……….

  22. @Mark Jonas
    I seem to recall that a certain Singaporean PM was pretty much in the seat for life and then chose a successor. I agree, he was a dictator.

  23. @jrkrideau

    I couldn’t resist to commend on your comment about the Western mainstream media play of words when it comes to international news reporting. As an Australian from a Chinese heritage who have lived here for more than half of my life, 9 out of 10 times (probably an underestimate) I would cringed at the our media’s use of words when it comes to reporting news from China and/or translation of interviews in Chinese.

    For example I remembered, though not exactly word for word, when ABC reported on its interviews of Chinese people’s reaction to Trump declaring of trade war. One interviewee said:

    ABC’s translation: “I hope there won’t be significant impacts on our local economy and businesses”.

    Correct translation: “I don’t think there will be significant impact on our local economy and businesses”.

    Now I don’t speak perfect English but I believe there is a difference between the two translations and this is only one minor issue compared to other reporting problems such as over the top exaggerations. Not to my surprise but I haven’t came across any colleague of mine from different heritage, whether Turkish, Bangladeshi or Indian etc. liked our local reporting of international news relating to their heritage country.

  24. @Mark Jonas

    You sound unhinged but maybe we’d better understand you, since it’s a crowded world with many nuclear powers, and I suppose any of them might hatch a similar scheme of “kill the enemy before they kill us”.

    Why do you believe that the rise of China will lead to massively destructive nuclear war?

  25. Israel has massacred at least 34 Palestinian protesters lately.

    Murdered them in cold blood. Not self-defence. The Israelis were hiding behind a fortified barrier with full combat/military equipment and the Palestinians were protesting on the other side.

    Most shot by snipers. Although at least one was a farmer shot by a missile from a tank.

    Surely Mr Jonas isn’t suggesting that the only way we can stop this slaughter is by killing Israelis?

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