Monday, August 31, 2015

1 dead and 100 injured during protests in Ukraine. USA Today.

Protesters and police clash in Kiev. USA Today/AFP.

One person has died and 100 people were injured during a nationalist protest against the Ukrainian government in Kiev. USA Today. The protests are due to the president putting forward an amendment to the constitution that would allow more autonomy for the rebellious cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. Protesters, furious over the amendment clashed with police throughout the day. One protester threw a grenade that killed a Ukrainian national guard member and wounded 10 police officers. President Victor Poroshenko condemned the nationalists as "worse then the rebels" and accused them of trying to destroy the country. Far right parties, including the infamous Right Sector, condemned the legislation as a clear capitulation to the rebels. Almost 7000 people have died in the conflict since the war began and sporadic firefights and artillery duels continue to occur. 

My Comment:
First of all I question the timing of this legislation. Why on earth did Ukraine wait until now to try and federalize? It was an obvious solution when the conflict began and could have saved many lives if it had been implemented. But it never happened, largely because of the fear that the ultra-nationalists would not like it and could rebel over it. 

It appears that is going to happen anyways, but without the possible benefit of the rebels being placated by this move. It is far too late for the rebels to accept a federal solution. For one thing they are in a very good position militarily. Yes, they have ceased offensive operations for the most part but the Ukraine government is in no position to drive them out. Simply put, the rebels are sitting pretty right now. Why would they give up? The have no reason to care about this deal because they realize that the most likely end game for this war is independence or annexation by Russia for the entire Donbass region. A few token gestures from the government in Kiev isn't going to change that. 

And even though I think the ultra-nationalists have a point here, they aren't helping things. The last thing Ukraine needs is either a second rebellion or a change of government. The country is already on the brink of collapse and either of those things could completely push them over the edge. And, obviously, throwing a grenade at the police isn't the way to get your point across. Violence won't accomplish their goals unless they really are ready to out and out rebel against the government. 

I've posted before about these far-right groups in Ukraine and I think the possibility of a second rebellion is growing more possible by the day. These were the people that started the war in the first place, with their bigoted laws against Russian speakers that sparked the rebellion after the revolution. They are upset that the government seems weak against the rebels and hate Russia with a passion. They are unlikely to accept any peace deals and are going to be very resistant to any attempts to reign in their power. 

And, of course, they are basically Nazis. I say that as someone who thinks that far-right parties get unfairly tarred with that label. Groups like the Azov Battalion are pretty openly national socialist and the Right Sector party isn't that far behind them. Their actions and beliefs go far beyond normal nationalism and get into some pretty horrifying bigotry against the Russians. Not all of the far right in Ukraine think that way and not all members of these parties are as bad as the Nazis but enough of them are to make me worried about what would happen if they would gain power. 

I also need to point out that the United States is still training militias in Ukraine. It never made any sense to me because to this day I contend that the United States had no interest whatsoever in the internal politics of Ukraine. That being said the troops are there and they could be training far right individuals. From what I understand the vetting process is pretty basic and they really don't know who they are training. This could be one of those things that end up hurting us in the long term because we didn't really think about what we were doing. 

I really hope the next president, whoever that may be, can handle Ukraine and Russia better then the current administration has. Though I think the relationship between Russia and the Untied States has declined to the point where it will be difficult to fix things, at the very least I hope we have a president that is willing to work with Putin. We may not see eye to eye on everything, but I see no reason to antagonize Putin over Ukraine. In short, Ukraine isn't the hill I want US/Russian relations to die on. 

Sunday, August 30, 2015

ISIS destroys more ruins in Palmyra, Syria. Washington Post.

The Temple of Bel. Bernard Gagnon.

ISIS has destroyed the ancient Temple of Bel, one of the most important ruins in the city of Palmyra, Syria. Washington Post. The Temple, first erected  in the 1st century, was destroyed by ISIS fighters using explosives. Last week, ISIS destroyed yet another temple, this one the Temple of Baal Shaamin. Though no western sources have been able to confirm the destruction of the Temple of Bel, they have been able to confirm, through satellite images and posts by ISIS online that the Temple of Bel Shaamin was destroyed. ISIS had originally said that they were not going to destroy the temples stating that they wanted to only destroy "blasphemous" depictions of people and not ruins. However, ISIS has changed their mind. Experts believe that destroying the ruins are a propaganda coup for the group as it shows that ISIS is capable of doing whatever it wants, despite international outcry. ISIS has destroyed many major archaeological sites in both Syria and Iraq and uses the black market to sell smaller artifacts to fund their operations. 

My Comment:
I've been covering ISIS and their attacks on history since the inception of this blog so it probably isn't necessary to go into detail about why this is a terrible thing. It's all been said before. For a time I wanted to be an archaeologist so these attacks anger me on a personal level. ISIS's attacks on history is probably their greatest crime, and given all the horrors they have unleashed in the Middle East that is really saying something. I've said all that before, though it probably does bare repeating. 

I do have to talk about some other issues this report brings up. This really is a propaganda coup for ISIS. It really does show that they will do whatever they want, whenever they want. They have proven, once and again, that they will commit any atrocity they want and so far nobody has been able to stop them. Destroying these ruins, despite the international outcry, will appeal to many potential recruits who respect strength and agree with ISIS's rules on iconoclasm. 

I also have to mention that the article brought up the fact that ISIS is using the black market to fund their activities. These attacks on major sites are really a smokescreen for what ISIS is really doing. They are selling the Middle East's history to the highest bidder and making millions of dollars in the process. Sure, ISIS makes most of its money through oil, extortion, theft and donations, but it's important to note that selling artifacts on the black market is a major way for ISIS to make money.

So what can be done about the black market? Not much. You can, of course, attack the dealers and arrest them for supporting ISIS. Treat them the same way that you would treat a person that sends a check to ISIS or tries to join them. Will that happen? No, and even if it did there is too much demand for harsh tactics to do much. There is just to much money to be made so even if the risks are extreme, the people will still take it just to get rich. And if you are thinking that there are some obvious parallels to the war on drugs, well, you would be right.

Much like the war on drugs you could try and link buying artifacts from the black market and directly supporting terrorism. It's true, but it didn't work for the war on drugs either, despite the fact that it was reasonably true back then. Just like the high demand for drugs in America fuels violence in Mexico and Columbia, the high demand for artifacts in Europe drives the violence in Syria and Iraq. This is nothing new, even during the 2nd Iraq War insurgent groups used the black market to fund their operations, but the level of violence has increased.    

As for ISIS itself, I see this also as a way to keep in the news.There haven't been all that many chances for them to win victories in Syria or Iraq since it is difficult to fight wars in summer in both countries. So instead of major operations, we are seeing terror attacks and the destruction of ruins. I am hoping that after fall hits they will go back to warfare, though I doubt they will stop these activities anyways. They are driven by their beliefs and the desire for profit so they pretty much have to keep doing what they are doing. 

Thursday, August 27, 2015

ISIS kills two Iraqi generals in Anbar province. Wall Street Journal.

The military funeral for the two Generals killed by ISIS. Wall Street Journal. 

ISIS has killed two senior generals in Anbar province with IED's. Wall Street Journal. Iraqi state television confirmed that Major General Abdul Rahmam Abu-Ragheef and Brigadier General Safeen Abdul Majeed were killed during a suicide attack by ISIS. Ragheef was the deputy operations chief for the Anbar province while Majeed was in command of a division stationed in Anbar. ISIS took credit for the attack and claimed it was in revenge for the death of one of their senior officers. Anbar province is a key theater in the war against ISIS and Iraq has been trying to take back the key city of Ramadi. However, ISIS judicious use of IEDs and car bombs have blunted the offensive.  ISIS often targets senior commanders as an effort to damage enemy morale.

My Comment:
It's always news when a general dies in combat. It doesn't happen often and when it does it usually means someone screwed up. For the most part, soldiers over the rank of captain don't die in battle, at least in modern warfare. To have not one but two generals die in one attack, well, it shows that the Iraqi military has some rather large security holes. 

ISIS should not have been able to drive up to the military headquarters like they did. Someone screwed up and screwed up bad. Were there no sentries looking out for suspicious vehicles? Or were the sentries posted just incompetent? Most disturbingly, were the sentries paid off to look the other way? Something happened here and I am guessing that heads will roll when the investigation is complete. 

Attacking senior officers is a decent strategy for ISIS to use. Killing the people in charge is usually a good thing when you are trying to win a war. If the generals were at all competent it will be hard for Iraq to replace them, especially considering how few competent generals Iraq has. Many of the old school regime holdovers went over to the other side and are actively working for ISIS. Iraq is in the process of training people and many of the lower ranking officers are gaining experience but there is little talent at the top. Every loss Iraq takes in this area is a setback.

It's not like we don't do the same thing to them though. High ranking members of ISIS have always been a priority target. We can't really complain about them trying to do the same thing to the Iraqi's that we do to them. You can complain about them using suicide attacks, but considering how effective they have been it's not surprising that ISIS is doing so. 

This will probably be a morale hit for the Iraqi troops on the ground. For one, if the generals were respected leaders there is always the worry that they will be replaced by less effective commanders. Second, it shows that anyone is vulnerable. If ISIS can get to generals, what chance does a private have? After all, ISIS has been incredibly effective at killing everyone regardless of rank. What's the point of fighting if you can't even depend on your leaders? Since Iraq already has leadership problems, these attacks will have even more of an impact. 

As for the battle in Anbar, it doesn't seem like much is happening. Iraqi forces managed to take some of the area around Ramadi, but their offensive has stalled out. That probably has as much to do with the weather then anything else. Summer is a bad time to fight in Iraq, and I fully expect the battle to heat up as the temperatures cool off. Once the battle restarts in earnest, Iraqi forces will try to retake the city, but I just don't see them doing it in a timely matter. ISIS has booby trapped the area and have been extremely effective with these car bombing tactics. Indeed, they may use the same tactics they used to take the city to break the siege and start to take territory again.  

That's another downside to losing these two generals. They were the ones in charge of this battle, and with their deaths one wonders if their replacements will be able to keep up. It's not easy to run a battle under the best of circumstances, but to be thrown into this predicament a month or two before the battle heats up again? It's not a situation I would want to be in. Add in the stress caused by the fact that by taking the position, there is a good chance that you could share the same fate as your predecessors.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Peshmerga forces are on the offensive against ISIS in Iraq. Reuters.

Kurdish fighters with an armored vehicle. Reuters. 

Kurdish Peshmerga forces are on the offensive in Northern Iraq, taking back at least 10 villages from ISIS. Reuters. The attack began near Daquq area north of Baghdad. The Kurds rarely venture out from their enclaves in the north, but in this case ISIS was using the area captured as staging zone to attack Peshmerga positions and possibly cut the road between Baghdad and Kirkuk. The Kurds report that they lost 5 fighters and captured an area equivalent to 250 square kilometers. U.S. airstrikes supported the attack. The Kurds took Kirkuk after Iraqi forces abandoned the area and have vowed to keep the city forever. ISIS and the Kurds have had several battles and the terrorist group still controls some of the more western parts of Kurdish territories. 

My Comment:
Sounds like the Kurds are moving out. It's unfortunate that they have little reason to continue the offensive. To date, the Peshmerga fighters have proven to be the most competent military in the region and have had several victories against ISIS. Whenever they fight ISIS, most of the time, they end up with a victory. But like the article said, they have little reason to expand outside of their territory and even if they did, they may face consequences if they do so. 

The Iraqi Kurds are in a fairly unique situation. The Iraqi government is basically letting them do their own thing in Northern Iraq. I am sure that the government would love to take back Kirkuk from the Kurds, but they are so weak right now that they can't do anything about it. If ISIS ever is defeated then there might be conflict between the Kurds and Iraqis over control of the city. That's far in the future though and for now it doesn't matter all that much. But sooner or latter it will come up, and I wonder how they will resolve the ownership question for the city of Kirkuk

What does matter is that the Peshmerga in Iraq are about the only Kurdish group that the Turks tolerate. Unlike the Syrian Kurds, Turkey has a working relationship with the Iraqi Peshmerga. Indeed, it was the Peshmerga that was airlifted into Kobani when ISIS threatened to overwhelm the city. I am sure Turkey hates the idea of a strong Iraqi Kurdish controlled area, but to them it is a more acceptable risk then the Kurds in Syria and Turkey itself. That means they get more support from the west and they generally don't have to worry about the threat of Turkish attacks. 

As for ISIS, it's been quiet lately in Iraq. Since they captured Ramadi, there hasn't been much in the news about them gaining or losing territory. A lot of that has to do with the environment. Iraq is incredibly hot during the summer and it is very hard to fight a war when it is 100 degrees outside. That alone means that there isn't really going to be much in the way of major offensives. My guess is that the temps are a bit lower in the north, which is why this Kurdish offensive was able to happen. Expect the battles to pick up a bit once fall hits and the temperatures drop. 

Even accounting for the summer halt though, there really hasn't been all that much news out of Iraq. ISIS seems to be consolidating their positions and preparing for new battles. My guess is that there will be a new push coming soon, but that new push will be in Syria. Why? As dysfunctional as Iraq is, Syria is in much worse shape. There are more vulnerable targets there and more chances for ISIS to take territory. 

Of course, if ISIS gains strength and territory in Syria it means that they will be able to transfer some of that power over to Iraq. If they are able to recreate the successful attacks that gained them Mosul and Ramadi, then ISIS could threaten Baghdad itself. There is very little in the way between Ramadi and Baghdad. There is Fallujah, which has been contested for most of the war, and then the outskirts of the city itself. I don't think ISIS could capture the capital, but with the way things are going, anything is possible. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The anger that Donald Trump is tapping into. Why we shouldn't dismiss him as a candidate.

Donald Trump speaking at CPAC. Gage Skidmore.

To many, the rise of Trump in this years election cycle has been baffling. After all, he is more of a celebrity then a politician. He has no government experience and has spent most of his time as a businessman. He's brash, offensive and has ideas that are far from what is expected of a presidential candidate. Many people consider him a joke. I don't. Not anymore.

Why? He's tapping into something real. There is a huge portion of the electorate that is furious with the way things are going and in Trump they have a candidate that echos what they believe. Before I say anything else, I have to say this post is more about why Trump is popular, not my on opinions of him or an agreement with his supporters. To be sure, I think he does have some decent points, but I am not a Trump supporter, and he is not someone I want to vote for. He's moved up slightly in my ratings, but he is still very far from being my first, second, or even third choice. If anyone wants to misconstrue my words as an endorsement of him, then you are wrong. You can explain an argument without supporting it fully. Read this as a "steelman" argument, where I try to give the strongest interpretation of Trumps popularity. 

Censorship in America: Political Correctness Gone Mad.
We live in interesting times. Witch hunts are the norm now, not the exception. So many people have been banished from polite society, made unemployable or had their lives destroyed just because they said or did something politically dangerous. And these days, the political left are the arbiters of what is acceptable and what isn't. They have the media, mobs of people on social media and the support of celebrities and other "important" people. There is no defense and no matter what you have done, if the left doesn't like it you are at risk of being labeled politically incorrect and thus having your life ruined in a paroxysm of political hysteria. 

George Zimmerman and Darren Wilson committed the unforgivable crime of trying to survive a violent encounter with a member of a different race. Tim Hunt said something obviously anti-sexist but was willfully misinterpreted to be sexist and lost almost everything. Brendan Eich, the worst sinner of all, supported the traditional definition of marriage and put his money where his mouth was and lost his job, got death threats and had a huge boycott movement against him.

All of these people were cast out from society for challenging the left in someway. Their cases were made to fit a narrative. Anyone who isn't a far left radical is a sexist, racist, homophobic bigot, who deserves nothing but scorn. Forget live and let live, now is the time where anyone who doesn't go along with the left should be cast out humanity forever, with no chance of forgiveness. To the current incarnation  of the left, there is nothing wrong with censoring arguments and utterly destroying the people that disagree with you. To even argue that doing so is wrong, or counterproductive, is to invite the same treatment.

That's the world we live in now. A world where one small comment can damn you forever. A world where fighting to save your life during a violent encounter is an act of racism. A world where any deviation from the left will be met with censorship. Not government censorship mind you, but private censorship. Anyone who speaks their mind these days aren't going to be sent to the gulag, but they will have twitter campaigns aimed at them, their jobs threatened and their lives ruined. At this point it's clear that the left is no longer interested in winning hearts and minds. Instead they want to punish anyone who is different then them. 

Obviously this is not a desirable state of affairs for anyone that has a disagreement with the radical left. Conservative, libertarian, or even not sufficiently liberal, all can agree that the status quo is unacceptable. You should be able criticize President Obama without being accused of hating all black people. You should also be able disagree with some concepts and arguments of feminism without being accused of hating all women. And someone who follows the John Kasich interpretation of gay marriage, against it but willing to follow the supreme court and even go to a gay wedding, should not be denounced as a homophobe. Many would even say that racist, sexist and homophobic speech should always be protected, even if it means that peoples feelings get hurt. I've gone on record saying that places like reddit should not ban speech they find offensive, and I think there is a large undercurrent of people across the political spectrum that agree that non-government censorship and social media harassment campaigns are not a good thing. 

Enter Trump. Donald Trump has always spoken his mind. He is known for making controversial statements and there is no doubt that he has been accused of being a terrible person on more then one occasion by the usual suspects. But he still stands. Anyone else, having been accused of racism, sexism or any of the other "-isms" would have been kicked out of politics, lost their income and be forced to live on the outskirts of society. Not Trump.

For whatever reason, Trump seems to be immune to leftist shamming tactics. Perhaps it is his wealth. After all, you can't go after someone's job when they are self employed and have more money then they know what to do with. It's also possible that shamming tactics don't work on people that don't have shame. Where Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley backed down and apologized for having the temerity of not supporting the "black lives matter" movement wholeheartedly, Trump has never backed down. They tried to tar him as a racist, and it didn't work. Calling him a sexist? Also a failure. Even accusing him of the ultimate sin, not supporting the veterans, did nothing. He's immune. 

That's the kind of power many of us want in a president. Not a quivering wimp that will back down whenever someone utters the "r" or "s" word. Instead we want someone who will laugh it off, call the people accusing him idiots and moving on to actual issues without missing a beat. At this point I don't think it even matters if Trump is sexist or racist, people are just sick of political correctness at an existential level. I don't know if Trump will survive all the attacks, but even if he isn't elected he is showing people the correct way to respond to leftist shaming tactics. Double down, ignore and never compromising what you believe. And most importantly of all, electing Trump could finally sap the power of the leftist outrage brigade and cause their power to fade into bad memories of a worse time.

Immigration, the Defining Issue of the 21st Century:
I've said on this blog before that the mass movement of people taking place right now will be what history remembers of the 21st century for. All across the world millions of people are desperately trying to get into wealthier countries to avoid having to stay in their poorer or unstable ones. It's a huge issue and one that deserves a debate. Right now there is no debate.

Don't like people breaking the law to enter your country being given special treatment and perks over the people that came here legally? Racist. Really, really racist. Think there is something wrong with importing another country's underclass when your own country's underclass is not being taken care of? R-A-C-I-S-T, that's spells racist and that's what you are. Think that it's not a good idea to throw the gates open to people that have cultural and political beliefs that are in conflict with your countries? You couldn't BE more racist! 

Obviously, we live in a world where being opposed to unrestricted immigration is politically dangerous. It's also, to this point, been politically impossible to argue against it in America unless you are on the fringe. Both parties are very supportive of immigration. All of them love the fact that the rich get richer and wages get lower when you import thousands of people, because both parties depend on the businesses that benefit from immigration. Big business thrives when the cost of labor is low and any idiot realizes that the stereotype of a racist redneck screaming "dey turk our jerbs!" has a point. It's better for a business to pay an illegal migrant under the table then it is to pay a legal citizen a fair wage with decent benefits. Both parties also want to court the large and important Latino vote, and both parties are deluded enough to think that immigration is the way to get more votes in the future. 

But there is a massive difference between what the party heads and big businesses want and what the actual people want. I'd go as far to say that the difference between what the parties want and what the people wants is larger here then it is on any other issue. The rich don't have to deal with the consequences of immigration, the poor do. The rich don't compete with immigrants, legal or otherwise, but the lower, middle and underclass aren't so lucky. It's common sense that bringing in migrants to undercut the costs of the American worker will result in lower wages for everyone. Sure, prices will be lower due to lower labor costs, but wages will be much lower as well. The big companies benefit, while the little guys suffer. 

I'm probably not the first person to make this analogy and I don't agree with it fully, but picture yourself on the Titanic. You are one of the lucky ones, you made it to the lifeboat. Your lifeboat is full and only has enough supplies for the people on board. Let anyone else on board and you may end up starving before you get rescued, or they could even overload to the boat causing everyone to die. A few people on board think there is enough room to let a couple of people on. You do some math in your head and agree, two more people can get on. You come across a group of five people, enough to cross the drowning threshold if you brought them all on, but if you take two you should be fine. You try to tell them that you can't take them all, but they are a family and want to stick together. You point out that you can't save them all, and that it isn't your fault that you were lucky enough to make it to the lifeboat and that you don't actually have an obligation to let in anyone if it is a threat to your life. You get outvoted, everyone gets on board and of course the boat sinks and everyone dies. That's the state of immigration today. 

There are also cultural problems as well. People tend to want to live next to people that are like them. Sure, some of that is racism, but I think even the most racist person would admit that they would have less of a problem with a member of a different race if they had similar values and spoke the same language. Immigrants today are not encouraged to assimilate to the greater culture like they once were. Today, very few people in America are racist against the Irish, Italians or even most Asians because at this point they have all assimilated to the greater culture so much that you don't think of them as anything other then Americans. So far, many Hispanic migrants have not, even after several generations. Again, this part is not my argument, I don't have a problem with Hispanic culture or Hispanic people, but many people do and it's impossible to understand the situation if you can't admit that yes people will have a problem with people that don't speak their language or share their culture. 

There is a huge sense of frustration for people that want to restrict immigration. Nobody listens to them even though they make up the base of the Republican party, a decent percent of independents and a sizable faction of the Democratic party. In their world, they know no one that wants illegals to be treated better then legal immigrants, no one that thinks that massive legal immigration doesn't hurt them and no one that wants their livelyhood threatened by a worker from another country that will accept a lower wage then they currently have. Anytime they bring it up, they get denounced by the people that they voted for as racists who just don't love people enough. Even if it means that you end up worse off, you still have to accept the status quo. After all, you don't have anyone else you can vote for.

Once again, enter Trump. He is saying exactly the opposite. He knows what the huge propitiation of people know intuitively, no matter what the media says. Illegal immigration hurts America. Even legal immigration hurts. And the way both parties are treating the issue is completely cynical. It just goes to show how deeply in the big business pocket both parties are. Trump knows that it hurts Americans and he isn't afraid to say what everyone is thinking. And it's about time someone stood up.

Even if you think that Trump's plans are impossible or stupid you have to admit that he's the only one really talking about the issue in a way that makes it clear that further immigration isn't a good idea. He's the only one saying that we should be deporting illegals. And even if he can't fulfill his promises, if he is elected there is a much better chance of some action being taken on the issue. He's shifting the Overton Window, and it's possible if he is elected that something will finally be done about immigration.

My Thoughts:
I think the people that support Trump are probably right about some of this. Clearly more then it is politically safe to admit. As for me, my personal beliefs are much closer to the first section then the second. I'm on record as saying that the left has gone insane with these politically motivated witch hunts and if Trump can help reign that it, then it's at least worth considering him. Even if I have to compromise my other beliefs. The stakes are high enough. The status quo can't continue. I certainly understand the desire to support him if it means giving the middle finger to anyone who uses accusations of racism and sexism as blunt instruments to batter anyone who disagrees with the left. Political correctness has to end and Trump may be the man to stop it. 

I'm a lot less supportive of the immigration argument. I get and agree with the economic arguments. I can't comprehend how undercutting the wages of the lower, middle and underclass by importing a bunch of people is a good thing. The fact that we are even having this conversation means that Trump should be commended for pushing this issue to the forefront. Both parties should be ashamed for ignoring the issue for so long and ignoring the huge portions of their constituency that care about the issue.

But I have always been uncomfortable with the anti-Hispanic parts of the anti-immigrant argument. It's very possible to be against immigration while not being prejudiced against Hispanics. But so many people just... aren't. That really turns me off of the movement because I actually like Hispanics. I've worked with, been friends with and generally let them into my life. I don't actually think that their culture is all that different then ours and once you get past the language barrier, they aren't all that different then us. Yes, I hate that they vote for the Democrats, but that alone shouldn't be enough to be prejudiced against them. Sure some of them are criminals, but it's not like the situation in Europe where they are letting in waves of people that have nothing in common with the people living there already.  As long as I get the feeling that Trump cares more about not letting "those people" in then not letting anyone in, regardless of where they are from, I'm going to be uncomfortable. 

Still, it's important for everyone to understand why Trump is popular. He's tapping into something real and to ignore him would be doing a major disservice to to the people of this country and the integrity of our elections. Even if you disagree with him on every point you have to admit that he is on the same wavelength as many people in this country. Ignore him at your own peril, because no matter what, he is framing the debate and giving voice to a lot of people that were previously being ignored. 

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Weekend Movie Night: American Sniper.

American Sniper movie poster. Warner Brothers. 

Welcome to yet another of my occasional movie reviews. I finally saw American Sniper. And I have to say I really should have watched it in theaters. It's the best war movie I have seen since I saw Lone Survivor, and I think there is a very strong case for the movie being the best film about the Iraq War so far. I really enjoyed this film, and I have a lot to say about it. But, as always...


First, a few criticisms. The most obvious thing about this movie was the baby. Yes, the baby. In an otherwise very high quality movie, inexplicably, there was an obviously fake baby for a scene. It was hugely distracting and stuck out like a sore thumb. The actors did their best to act around it, but even they couldn't take it seriously. The story is that they had a real baby for the scene but it got sick and the backup baby never showed up. But it really did distract from the movie. It didn't ruin the movie but it was a huge distraction. 

The other problem is that the movie isn't as historically accurate as it should be. The "Butcher" character, who is the film's big bad for the first half of the movie, never really existed. Supposedly he was based on a real person in the Iraq war that did indeed use a drill as a torture implement, but that guy was a Shia Muslim instead of a member of al-Qaeda in Iraq. The enemy sniper, Mustapha did exist, but it's unlikely Chris Kyle killed him. Of course, there was going to be a bit of artistic licence with any movie, but it's always important to point out historical inaccuracies. I haven't read the book yet, but from what I understand it was very different then the movie as well.

The rest of the movie was excellent. The combat and action was intense and well filmed. The acting, other then the scene with the baby, was pretty damn good as well. I wasn't familiar with Bradly Cooper or Sienna Miller before this movie, but they both did a very good job in this film. I think Clint Eastwood did a good job staying politically neutral as well. This isn't a pro-war or anti-war movie. It's just a war movie. And it's a very good one. 

Should it have won the Best Picture Oscar? It was nominated but it lost out to Birdman. I haven't seen Birdman yet, so I can't say for sure if it is a decent film. But from what I understand Birdman was a lot more palatable for the very liberal people in charge of the Academy Awards. American Sniper is a very "red tribe" movie and Hollywood is "blue tribe" central. Did that play a role? Probably. Birdman may have been a good movie in its own right, but there was never a real chance for American Sniper to win. If it were up to me though, I probably would have voted for it, with the caveat that I haven't seen most of the other movies that got nominated.

Speaking of the blue tribe, there were many on the left that did not like this movie. In their view, they want movies like In the Valley of Ellah, a profoundly anti-war war movie. That movie, quite frankly, sucked. Why? Because it was preachy. American Sniper is not a preachy movie. It doesn't take a strong pro or anti war tone. I would go on to say that American Sniper doesn't have a message at all, other then that war is hell.

Many critics also hated the fact that the movie seems to be a simple of case of black vs white in terms of morality. To some degree that is true, but there were a few scenes that humanized the al-Qaeda fighters. Mustapha had a brief scene where he was with his wife and kid, showing that he had a family, just like Chris Kyle did. There was also a scene where an insurgent had supper with the Navy Seals. Sure he turned out to be an insurgent, but it at least showed that he was capable of being human,

Still, critics thought it was "racist" that Chris Kyle called the enemy "Savages". Since the film focused on the fighting between the U.S. and al-Qaeda in Iraq, I would say that savages isn't a strong enough term. As you may know al-Qaeda in Iraq was the forerunner of ISIS. If you have been reading this blog at all or even slightly paid attention to the news in the past year or so, you would know that ISIS is evil incarnate. Even when they were still called al-Qaeda in Iraq, they committed many, many atrocities.

In the movie, one of the only times Kyle calls the insurgents savages is right after the Butcher kills a young child with a drill in front of the boy's father. I don't know how anyone can think that someone who murders someone with a drill isn't a savage. So often people try to make the case that criticism of a member of a larger group means that you are criticizing all members of that group. I haven't read Kyle's book, so I don't know if there is more to the accusations, but in the movie the context was very clear.

So where does this film end up on the list of war movies? I think it's the best one for the Iraq War, that I have seen at least. As I said before, In the Valley of Ellah was pretty terrible and preachy, and fairly insulting to the soldiers. Oscar winner The Hurt Locker was a lot better, and was not preachy, but was roundly criticized for not getting how the soldiers actually acted. For now, American Sniper is the quintessential Iraq War film and serves as a worth companion piece to Lone Survivor, which has the same role for the war in Afghanistan.  

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Three Americans and a British man credited for stopping a terror attack on French train. NBC News

From left to right, Americans Anthony Sadler, Alek Skartalos and Brit Chris Norman posing with medals they received for bravery. NBC/Reuters.

Three Americans and a British man are credited with stopping a terror attack on a French train. NBC News. The men tackled a 26 year old Moroccan man with connections to radcial Islam after he open fired with a fully automatic AK-47. The Americans were all friends and two of them were in the military. One of them, Spencer Stone, an airman, was seriously injured in the attack, alone with a French American. Neither of the injures are considered life threatening. Stone was injured with a boxcutter after the four men disarmed the man of his AK-47 and handgun. The men beat the terror suspect until he passed out. The four men are being hailed as hero's across the world, with the men all receiving medals for bravery. Another French person had tried to fight with the gunman, but was overpowered. 

My Comment:
Good on these guys. Though the NBC article mostly focused on the American's, I have to say the British one, Chris Norman, had a pretty bad ass attitude about the whole thing. "'OK, I'm probably going to die anyway so let's go.' I'd rather die getting active". That's the right attitude to have in these kinds of situation. 

All four of these men were incredibly brave. Especially Sadler and Norman, who, as far as I can tell, had no military training. Even the Frenchman who fought the terrorist but had to flee after being overpowered was brave. So many people wouldn't try to fight when attacked like this. But these guys did and for that they are hero's. And I have heard from other sources that the men's medical training was also the reason the French-American will survive the shooting.

These kinds of things happen more often then you would think. Many mass shootings end when unarmed people attack the gunman. To say nothing of when they fight back with guns or other weapons. But even unarmed, it may be your best chance of survival to fight back. Especially if the gunman is distracted or is in an enclosed space like this train was. Yes, doing so is dangerous, but fighting is often better then running or hiding, especially if you are fighting with a few other people like these men were. 

Of course, this could have ended a lot worse then it did. It is yet another terror attack in France, which has seen quite a few lately. All of them seem to be connected to radical Islam, either inspired by ISIS or an active operation by Al-Qaeda. France has a large and marginalized Muslim population and many of them are ripe for recruitment. These attacks seem to be popping up with more and more regularity, and I am not sure how France is going to deal with these attacks.

I have to wonder how all these terrorists in France, and other parts of Europe, manage to get fully automatic weapons. The Charlie Hebdo attackers had fully automatic rifles and even an RPG launcher, purchased from an illegal Belgian arms dealer. That's just insane to me since France has fairly strong gun control laws, but they always seem to have attacks with fully automatic military weapons on a fairly regular basis. In America attacks with fully automatic weapons are unheard of, even though our gun control laws are a lot less strict. In America, fully automatic weapons are fairly hard to come by, but in France they are completely banned. So how the hell are these terrorists getting their weapons?

There seems to be a large underground arms trade in Europe that allows these terrorists to get military rifles. It just goes to show that gun control doesn't really work all that well. The average French person has to go through hoops to try and get a gun, but a terrorist can just buy one off the black market and they try to shoot up a train. In this case, four men were able to stop the terrorist, but in other cases, like the Charlie Hebdo attack, people weren't so lucky. 

Friday, August 21, 2015

High tensions as North Korea puts its troops on a "war footing". Reuters

South Korean troops stand guard near the DMZ. Yahoo/Reuters.

Tensions are high in Korea as the North has put their military on a "war footing" in response to shelling. Reuters. Yesterday, North Korea fired four shells at propaganda speakers in the south. The South Koreans responded by firing 29 shells of their own. North Korea is demanding the speakers be removed but South Korea put them up in response to two of their troops being injured in a land mine incident which they blamed on the North. Other then the two men injured by the mine, no one was injured on either side during the skirmish. South Korean intelligence sources say the North may be preparing to fire short range missiles, but they may be fired into the sea in response to US-South Korean war games. The war games make it unlikely that the situation will escalate due to all the forces being in a ready state. 

My Comment:
Once again, North Korea is back to saber rattling. I seriously doubt that anything will come of this. We have all heard this story before and nothing ever really comes from it. The most likely worst case scenario at this point is a short artillery duel between the North and South. I just don't see it getting any worse then that. The best case, and most likely scenario, is that nothing major happens yet again. This is bluster, sound and fury signifying very little. 

Why? For one, North Korea would lose any war against the South. It would be terrible and destructive, but there is no way the regime would survive. North Korea has a huge army, but they are under armed, under trained and under fed. South Korea has a modern, well trained army with many new weapons. They also have the help of about 30,000 American troops along with naval and aviation assets. Any real war between North Korea would be a curbstomp battle that would end with the unification of Korea. 

And this is a very bad time for the North Koreans to do anything. The South Koreans and the Americans are doing their joint exercises right now, so they have even more forces ready to fight. These troops are strong enough to counter any real attack from the North. To attack now would be even stupider then a normal attack would be. 

And I doubt that there is actually any danger here. If there was going to be a major war, we would be hearing reports of massive troop movements, artillery getting readied and missiles being moved to launchpads. Sure the North is moving a few missiles around, but those will most likely be shot into the ocean. If you start to hear reports of the North Koreans actually moving troops to the front line, then you can worry. But right now there just isn't enough activity to indicate anything at all serious.

So what is really going on? My guess is that North Korea is playing the same game it always does. Rachet up the tension and when things look like they are on the brink of war, pull back in exchange for humanitarian aid. I posted awhile ago that North Korea is going through a drought right now, and I haven't heard anything about that situation improving. My guess is that they had crop failures this summer and are realizing that they aren't going to have food left to feed their people. Everyone in North Korea knows how bad it gets there when they run out of food, and it's in North Korea's best interest to make these threats to get humanitarian aid. 

Why don't they just ask for help? Well North Koreans are big on the concept of Juche, which roughly translates as self reliance. They want to maintain their independence and asking for aid would be admitting that they aren't as independent as they want to appear. In order to save face, they have to make it seem like they are obtaining the aid on their terms. So they make threats, shoot warning shots and plant mines. It's all a show just so they can save face.

Of course there is always a small chance that something could go wrong. Maybe a stray shot kills a lot more people then they intended. Maybe a local commander gets and itchy trigger finger. Maybe a couple of naval vessels get too close and one of them sinks. Any of these situations could happen and lead to an actual war. But that threat has been there for decades, and to date, both the North and South Koreans have pulled back from the brink. Here's hoping that good luck continues in the future. 

Thursday, August 20, 2015

ISIS takes responsibility for bombing a Cairo courthouse that wounded 29 people. Reuters.

A security official stands near the location of the blast. Yahoo/Reuters. 

ISIS has taken responsibility for bombing a courthouse in Cairo, Egypt. Reuters. The ISIS affiliate, Sinai Province, detonated a car bomb and wounded 29 people. The bombing was in retaliation for the execution of six militants who conducted an attack in Egypt last year. That attack in Arab Sharkas village, killed two officers in 2014. Sinai Province has been very active in Egypt and has killed hundreds of Egyptian police and soldiers since the 2013 counter-revolution. The blast was powerful enough that people throughout the city of Cairo felt and heard it. In response to the threat posed by ISIS and other militant groups Egypt has rolled out a campaign targeting them. The crackdown is the most severe in Egyptian history and has been condemned by human rights groups. 

My Comment:
First things first, it is amazing that nobody got killed in this bombing. From what I understand the bomb was powerful enough that it felt like an earthquake to the people in Cairo. Sure, 29 people got hurt, but you would think that someone would have been killed. Not that I am complaining, it's always good when a terrorist attack fails to kill anyone. It also sounds like the people that planted the bomb survived as well, which is significantly less good. It makes sense for ISIS to avoid suicide bombing when they can, and in this case there seemed to be no need for the bomber to die along with his bomb. I don't like it when ISIS does smart things and avoiding using suicide bombers when they don't necessarily have to use them is pretty smart. 

The Sinai branch of ISIS has gathered quite a few headlines lately. Their most recent atrocity was beheading a Croatian national. That murder didn't really get the press it could have gotten in the West. It's far from the only thing ISIS has done in Egypt. They have conducted several attacks on bases and checkpoints, murdered a high ranking prosecutor and conducted terror bombings. In short, ISIS is very active in Egypt. In my reckoning, only Iraq, Syria and Libya have had more ISIS activity, unless you count Boko Haram as part of ISIS instead of just an ally. 

So why is ISIS so active in Egypt? In short, it's because Egypt is so unstable. The revolution and counter-revolution left the country in chaos. Given that the first revolution ended with the Muslim Brotherhood in power it makes sense that a lot of people would be upset about the fact that they were replaced by yet another secular semi-dictator. Abdel Sisi isn't that much different then Hosni Mubarak, and his crackdown on militants isn't all that different then Mubarak's decades long state of emergency. All that leaves a lot of disillusioned young men, ripe for radicalization, and an insecure state to try and combat it. 

Of course the whole region is unstable. Egypt is right next to Libya and in the same general area as Iraq and Syria. ISIS has the ability to move their fighters from all four countries and I wouldn't be too surprised if the terrorists in Sinai get reinforced.  If they can make the kind of gains they have made in Syria and Iraq in Egypt, it would be the biggest prize they have collected so far. 

I don't think they can pull that off though. Even an unstable Egypt has a hugely powerful military with loads of modern military equipment. We have sold the Egyptians our most modern weapons for years and their military is fairly competent by regional standards. And ISIS only has 1000 to 2000 fighters in the country. In an out an out battle Egypt would destroy ISIS utterly. My guess is that ISIS will continue their current, underground, strategy. There will be more raids, more bombings and possibly more attacks on civilians or foreign targets and very few of the larger scale battles as seen in Iraq and Syria. 

I think the battle between Egypt and ISIS is going to heat up and I think ISIS will probably target western interests in the country as well. I don't know if those targets will be western tourists or western businesses or even both, but they will be hit. ISIS has already killed at least one Croatian man and I would not be surprised if they find more contractors or tourists to kidnap or kill. The worst case would be a major terror attack on any of the ancient ruins in Egypt. An attack on the Pyramids, for example, would not only have a profound psychological effect on the whole damn world, and it would completely destroy Egypt's tourist industry.

That's why it is so important for Egypt to fight ISIS. The crackdown that Egypt is currently undergoing probably does undermine or counter the goals of the revolution that toppled Mubarak, but at this point what can they do? They either crackdown or lose their country. My hope is that they succeed and destroy the Sinai Province branch. But it won't happen soon and it's going to be a bloody, terrible war. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Turkey is spiraling further into chaos. Reuters.

Turkish police at the scene of the shooting. Yahoo/Reuters.

Violence in Turkey is increasing as militants attack a palace and set off a bomb that killed 8 soldiers. Reuters. Two men armed with rifles and grenades and affiliated with the Kurdish Revolutionary People's Liberation Army-Front (DHKP-C), opened fire Dolmabache palace, home of the Prime Minster's office in Istanbul. Other Kurdish militants affiliated with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) set off a roadside bomb in Siirt province which killed 8 soldiers. Turkey sent in F-16 strikes at PKK buildings near the border of Iraq. Turkey is having political difficulty as well. They have been unable to form a government due to political opposition to the party of Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan. 

My Comment:
Looks like yet another middle eastern country is spiraling out of control. Turkey escalated  this war by their own choice and now they are paying the price. The PPK and DHKP-C weren't particularly active until Turkey led their massive raid that captured hundreds of Kurdish and Islamist militants. There was no way that doing so wasn't going to set off a war. 

And it is very clear that Turkey's so called war on ISIS was nothing but smoke and mirrors to distract from their actual goal of hitting the Kurds. Other then a few airstrikes and arrests Turkey is doing little to nothing against ISIS targets in Syria. The biggest contribution to the war against ISIS is the fact that they are letting America use an airbase to strike ISIS. Otherwise the U.S. government got played and played hard. 

But they may end up having to deal with ISIS anyways. ISIS is like a disease that pops up and kills you because another disease has hurt your immune system. And like Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, ISIS may now show up in Turkey because of the chaos between the Turks and the Kurds. There is an opening here for ISIS to exploit and given that the article said that ISIS just released a video saying that the Turks should rise up against their government, it looks like ISIS is going to try.

As for Turkey itself it sounds like they are having serious government problems. Tayyip Erdogan's party has been unable to form a government with the various minor parties. That's a huge problem during peacetime, but during war it's devastating. Erdogan has quite a bit of power on his own, but without a functioning government, he doesn't have legitimacy. He can fight the war effectively, but the people will be unhappy. And unhappy people tend to kick out leaders. This might be the beginning of the the end for Erdogan's presidency. 

As for the Kurds, I still don't feel all that sorry for them. As always, I have little respect for communists and the DHKP-C are explicit communists and the PKK aren't much better. That being said, at least they are fighting ISIS. As a matter of fact, a large reason for the current troubles is because the Turks refused to help the Kurds in Iraq and Syria fight ISIS. As much as I hate ISIS, I think Turkey was right to avoid giving the Kurds weapons given the fact that the groups were far leftist terrorist groups. Sure they Syrian and Iraqi Kurds aren't as politically extreme as the Turkish Kurds, but they are more likely to stick with their ethnic allies then anyone else. 

Like I mentioned in my post about the bombing in Thailand, these kinds of attacks have a major impact on tourism. Though Turkey isn't quite as dependent on tourism as Thailand is, this is still going to effect them. From what I understand, the palace that was attacked was a major tourist attraction in Turkey. I've often wanted to visit Istanbul (or Constantinople) myself, but I don't think I would do it now given how high the tensions are. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

ISIS has killed an antiquities scholar in Palmyra, Syria. The Guardian.

An ISIS fighter on a captured Syrian vehicle. Guardian/AP.

ISIS has executed the head antiquities scholar of Palmyra, Syria. The Guardian. Kahlid Assad, 82 years old, was decapitated and had his body hung from the main square of the ruins of the city. Palmyra is the home of ancient ruins that date as far back as the Roman era. ISIS captured the city in May, but have so far left most of the ruins alone, despite their religious objections to idolatry. Assad spent 50 years as the head antiquities scholar at Palmyra and had his work published in several archaeology journals. The Syrian government was able to evacuate some of the ancient statues from the site before ISIS took the city. 

My Comment:
An absolutely disgusting story out of Syria. And one that is a little bit personal for me. At one point I was seriously considering archaeology as a career, but I decided I didn't want continue my education past my bachelor degree. Still, my classes in archaeology were one of my favorite classes. I love learning about the past and killing Assad ensures that our understanding of the region will remain incomplete. 

I can't imagine what crime ISIS thinks this man committed. He was 82 and studied history. That was his only crime. There is no way that justifies execution and desecrating his body by hanging it from the city square. This may not be the worst thing ISIS has done, but I do think it is disgusting. 

ISIS's obsession with idolatry is probably one of the most terrible aspects to their movement. ISIS isn't the only group to outlaw depictions of humans, including Mohammad, but very few have taken it as far as they have. Idolatry is completely opposed to western ideals like freedom of speech and religious freedom. I'll always oppose idolatry in all its forms.

This isn't the first time Islamic militants have killed those that disagree with their world view. It seems like every time someone tries to criticize Muhammad or depict him in anyway, Jihadists try to kill them. It happened to Theo Van Gogh, Charlie Hebdo and would have happened in Texas as well if it wasn't for the actions of the local police department.

It's important to counter these kinds of threats with resolve. If someone kills someone over a cartoon of Muhammad, that means you should make your own cartoon, or if you lack artistic talent like me, post someone else's work.  I'm not sure how you counter ISIS killing an archaeologist, but I think an airstrike to the face for the killers of Assad would be just fine. 

As for Palmyra itself, I am somewhat surprised that ISIS hasn't destroyed the ruins there. They have destroyed a couple of tombs though, but for the most part the city has been left intact. My guess is that simple ruins aren't considered offensive to their brand of Islam. From what I understand, only actual depictions of people or objects that could be worshiped are banned by ISIS. If there had ban any statues or murals left behind, ISIS would have destroyed them, but I think for the time being the ruins of Palmyra are safe. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

UN horrified at the level of violence in Syria. AP

The aftermath of the bombing in Douma. AP

The UN is horrified at the level of violence in Syria after a major bombing by the Syrian government killed 100 people in the Damascus suburb of Douma. AP. The warning comes after violence has reached the Assad stronghold of Latakia, where dozens were killed by rebels and Jihadists. The airstrike in Douma hit a vegetable market controlled by the Islamic Army rebel group. The UN called on all parties to protect civilians and to stop using water as a weapon in the conflict. Many groups in the conflict have resorted to cutting off water supplies. The US government also condemned the airstrikes in Douma. 

My Comment:
It seems very unfair to single out the Syrian government for committing an attack on civilians since all sides are guilty of it in this civil war, with the possible exception of the Kurds. I'm not saying that this attack was a good thing, but it just seems hugely hypocritical to condemn the government while not condemning people like ISIS, al-Nusra and even the secular rebel groups. And the Islamic Army, also known as Jaysh al-Islam, which was targeted in this strike has worked with al-Nusra to commit their own war crimes. 

It's always been clear that the Syrian regime and Bashar al-Assad are generally evil. After all, even before the civil war they killed their civilians and tortured people. And their actions in the war have been nothing short of war crimes. All that being said, they are still the least objectionable group in the country. Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't mind seeing Assad share the same fate as Saddam Hussein, but not if it's going to be because one of the other factions won. 

Obviously the Islamic rebel groups are pure evil. ISIS is crucifying people and has committed more then their fair share of atrocities. Al-Nusra is almost as bad and the secular rebel groups have either been wiped out or thrown their lot in with the Jihadists. The only group to not really commit any atrocities are the Kurds, but they have their own problems as well. I have never been comfortable with how far to the left the Kurds are. Some of them are actual communists. If the choice is between a brutal dictatorship, Islamic Jihadists or communists, I'm going to pick the dictatorship. It's too bad that there isn't a decent choice here, but in the real world there often isn't a good choice. 

I will say that these airstrikes shows how weak the regime is. They must have known how these airstrikes would play in the western media. They knew they were going to get criticism but they did it anyways. They must have felt that the tactical advantage or destroying this market would have outweighed the risks involved in terms of international condemnation. Destroying a market wouldn't seem to have any tactical advantage but in fact it damage the logistics for the rebels. Destroying the market will make it harder to feed their people and put pressure on the fighters to provide more for the civilians. It's a cynical strategy, but probably the only one that the government has left. 

Is anything going to be done to prevent these attacks? Probably not. The only thing that could be done is to destroy the Syrian governments ability to conduct airstrikes. There doesn't seem to be the will to do so by any of the players in this drama. The U.S. government probably realizes that destroying Syria's airstrike capability would essentially hand the country of Syria to the Jihadists. And Syria still has strong anti-air defenses, so any strikes would be expensive and could cause casualties. For the time being, Syria is going to keep doing what they are doing. 

Bombing in Thailand kills at least 12. Reuters.

Motorcycles destroyed in the bombing. Reuters. 

A bombing in Thailand killed at least 12 people outside of a Hindu shrine. Reuters. The bomber used a motorcycle and detonated the bomb in a major Bangkok intersection. 20 people were also wounded in the attack and police are searching for more bombs. Thailand does have an Islamic insurgency, but they rarely attack outside of their southern homeland. Though nothing has been ruled out it is also possible that one of the political factions in Thailand could be responsible for the blast. Bangkok is currently under martial law due to high tensions after the military overthrew the government in 2014. The intersection was the site of mass protests back in 2010 where many people were killed. 

Other sources put the death toll at 27, including several foreign tourists. 
My Comment:
Video of the blast. 

I have to admit, I'm fairly ignorant when it comes to central Asia. I did not know that the civilian government had been overthrown in Thailand. I did know that they had an Islamic insurgency, but what country doesn't these days? Still, when you think of mass casualty bombings you don't generally think of Thailand. For me when I hear Thailand, I think of tourists and the role they played in the Vietnam War.  

So who is responsible? It's very hard to tell at this point. The obvious candidate is Islamic terrorism, but we shouldn't jump to conclusions. It's true that Thailand has an Islamic extremist element, but they are mostly far away from Bangkok. And most Islamic bombings are suicide bombings and so far nobody has called this a suicide bombing. Though a Hindu shrine does seem to be a prime target for an Islamist to attack, I don't think that is what happened here. 

A much more believable candidate is one of the various non-Islamic factions operating in Bangkok. The city is under marital law for a reason after all, and there has been a few bombings lately. Plus the site of the bombing has symbolic importance because it was where a lot of people died in anti-government protests. That's too big of a coincidence for me. This was a political statement. The question now is who it was directed at. Someone unhappy with the military? Or someone unhappy with the old government? I wish I knew more but right now all I have is speculation.

This is going to be a huge blow to Thailand's tourism industry. Tourism is a huge part of their economy, and these kinds of attacks always scare people away, even if the actual threat isn't to severe. Indeed, some are speculating that driving away tourists might have been the goal of the attack. 

People are willing to go to places where there is some danger or instability. People probably know about the various insurgencies and unrest in Thailand because, until now, they weren't the target. That doesn't seem to be the case anymore. I personally don't think I would cancel any trips if I was going there. I'd just keep aware of my surroundings, like I would do anyways. These kinds of attacks are rare, and even if they weren't, your chances of being caught up in one are rare.

Still, terrorism is a huge threat to tourism. Look what happened to Tunisia. They had two major attacks that killed dozens of people, most of them tourists. They still have people going there but not at the rate they used too. The same thing could be happening in Egypt after ISIS decapitated the Croatian Tomislav Salopek. 

It seems strange to harp on the tourism issue, but this really is going to have in impact beyond the lives lost today. Thailand is a country that is hugely dependent on tourism in order to take care of its people. To see the country descend into chaos could have a huge impact on the people living there. My hope is the bomber or bombers are brought quickly to justice so things can return to normal, or at least more normal then it is now. 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The new Army pistol may use hollow point ammunition. Washington Post.

A soldier fires a M9 pistol at a firing range. Lealan Butler/Washington Post

The newest requirement for the Army's replacement for the venerable M9 pistol is the ability to use hollow point rounds. Washington Post. The pistol, tentatively named the XM-17 will have several upgrades to the old M9 pistol including the ability to add accessories and adjust to different hand sizes. But the change to hollow point and fragmenting rounds is a major departure since in the past most military firearms have used full metal jacketed or ball rounds. Both hollow points and fragmentation rounds are considered more deadly and effective then ball ammo because they break apart on impact, which causes significantly more damage. However, the Hague convention of 1899 bans hollow point rounds in war, though the U.S. never signed it, and the Hague convention of 1907, which the U.S. did sign, bans any weapon that tends to cause undue suffering. Until now, the Untied States has abided by the 1907 convention, only using hollow point rounds in anti-terror missions. 

My Comment:
This is fairly old news, the article was from last month, but I wanted to talk about it anyways. The Army's new pistol has been on my radar for quite some time and I meant to write something up when I first saw the article... but I forgot. Oh well, better late then never.

I'm not too surprised that the Army is moving in this direction. I have heard a lot of stories out of both Afghanistan and Iraq of soldiers having to rely on their M9's for close combat and most of what I heard is not good. The problem is that the gun just does not have the stopping power needed in a combat situation. And the cause is the 9x19mm parabellum round. The ball ammo for that gun just isn't powerful enough to put someone down right away. Though 9mm is used by millions of cops and civilians for self defense, none of them use the ball rounds. They all use hollow points because if you don't you are putting yourself at a disadvantage. Add in the fact that the M9 can't add accessories and you can understand why they want to upgrade their pistols. 

Hollow points have other advantages as well. Hollow points tend to not over penetrate the way ball ammo does. That's not a huge concern with a round as small as a 9mm but even then, ball ammo can over penetrate and hit something you don't want to hit. For example, if you are in a close combat situation you can shoot through your target and hit an innocent civilian or have a bullet go through a wall. Those situations are rare and soldiers, police and civilians are trained to watch out for over penetration, but even so, it could save lives. And given how much of our engagements have been in close range combat during the Iraq war, I can see why over pentration could be a concern.

There is one huge disadvantage to using hollow points though. They are defeated by body armor the much greater extent then ball ammo is. Which is a major factor in why you don't see the military using them in rifles. For a 9mm round even a typical Kevlar vest will protect you from a hollow point while military spec plate armor will laugh off the round. Not that 9mm should be used against body armor in all but the most desperate cases, but a desperation attack with ball ammo would have a better chance of penetrating (almost zero) then hollow points would (zero). I don't know how many of our current enemies use body armor regularly but I am guessing that it is easily available. Still, the situation seems so unlikely that it probably wouldn't come up that often. 

As for the legality of the round, it seems insane to me that a round that is regularly used for self defense and police work could ever  be illegal for war. If the situation calls for hollow point or frag rounds, then that is what should be used. And if some 100 year old agreement says that it's unethical then who cares? I don't see hollow points being any more cruel then any other round. Who knows if the international community will think though.

The whole argument reminds me of the debates over weapons like cluster bombs, napalm, white phosphorous and land mines. People think all of those weapons are either cruel or cause secondary problems. But if they end the war quicker, then why not use them? It's better to kill 10,000 people in cruel ways if it ends the war and you don't have to end up killing 1,000,000 with "humane" weapons. I don't think hollow points reach quite that level of usefulness but the advantages are obvious and they could save lives. At the very least if the XM-17 does end up using hollow points then our soldiers will have a weapon with stopping power. 

Of course they could bypass the whole argument and go back to .45 like the old Colt had, but I don't see that happening due to NATO treaty regulations... 

Friday, August 14, 2015

Pro-Russian rebels are threatening the city of Maruipol... again. AFP

Rebel tanks on the way to Mariupol. Yahoo/AFP.

Ukraine is reporting heavy battles with pro-Russian rebels near the critical port city of Mariupol. AFP. On Ukrainian soldier was killed and three more were injured in fresh clashes north of the city. The battle is over the highway between Donetsk and Mariupol. Currently the government controls the road, but if the rebels were to capture it, they could use it to target the city directly. Mariupol is critical for several reasons, not the least of which is its economic importance. But it also would provide a land bridge to the recently annexed Crimean Peninsula. Heavy rocket and mortar fire started last Monday and has continued throughout the week. The battle is considered one of the largest since the signing of the cease fire last February. In total the war in Ukraine has killed 6,800 people and displaced a 1.4 million more. 

My Comment:
The war in the Donbass region of Ukraine has certainly fallen off of the radar of the media and it is rare to hear anything about it in the news. But even though there was a cease-fire, the war never really did not stop. It continued as a low intensity conflict. After the lines stabilized after the cease fire, there has been little in the way of movement. That hasn't stopped both sides from taking pot shots at each other. Artillery duels and small unit actions are common place. 

It sounds like this could be a bit more serious. Even if the shelling wasn't described as some of the most fierce of the war post cease fire, the location alone shows the potential for a major battle to break out. Mariupol was a major goal for the rebels before they signed the cease fire and made a major push that didn't quite make it to the city right before the cease fire. 

So why is Mariupol so important? Well, like the article said, it's a major economic city and the link to Crimea. The rebels improve their situation greatly if they can gain that corridor to Crimea. That would pretty much win them the war because I think Russia would be more willing to guarantee the independence of Donbass, or annex them completely, if they can secure a land route to supply Crimea. Though Russia has a long history of oddly cut off portions of their territories, Kaliningrad is a great example, they must want to get a land bridge to Crimea. 

But will a larger battle erupt? Honestly, I don't know. I don't know if the rebels want to start the war up again and risk more international condemnation. Vladimir Putin doesn't seem as concerned about the war as he once was and it just doesn't seem like the time for a major offensive to happen. On the other hand, Russia and Putin exert less influence on the rebels then most western media gives them credit for. It's possible that the rebels could go off on their own and try to finally win the war. 

There is always another x-factor that could change the conditions on the ground. My pick for that would be Ukraine's ultra-nationalist militias. I posted awhile back about how the Right Sector, a far right ultra-nationalist army/political party, was threatening the government over issues of corruption and military control. And the Right Sector is hardly the only far-right or neo-Nazi group working in Ukraine right now. 

It is very possible that a second civil war could break out. The relations between the far right groups and the government are not exactly cordial right now. The battalions have a point that they are basically the only thing standing in the way for the rebels winning independence and that the government is corrupt. But they are still essentially Nazis. That puts them at odds with everyone else in the region. The government only tolerates them because they have too. 

Any disruption or rebellion in the west of the country would greatly strengthen the rebellion in the east. And it wouldn't even have to be a civil war. These far right armies could just withdraw, leaving the Ukrainian military to fight the rebels alone. I don't see them winning if that happens. 

I still say the most likely end state for this war is for an independent Donbass. Ukraine is too poor, too corrupt and too weak militarily to take back the region by force. The rebels have a powerful ally and the Ukrainians have only received limited aid. My guess is that Donbass will be independent within five years as a vassal state of Russia or they will be annexed completely like Crimea was.

I also have to wonder what kind of impact the U.S. presidential election could have on the war. A few candidates have made noise about supplying weapons to the Ukrainians but by the time someone is elected it would probably be too late to matter. And there is no guarantee that the new president would be able to get congress to go along with it. 

Actually, my hope is for the new cold war dying as soon as Obama gets out of office. Unlike many Americans, I'd rather be allied with Russia then Ukraine. I was never comfortable with interfering with the Ukraine conflict, and I feel Obama handled the situation poorly to say the least. Hopefully, if Donbass is in Russian hands, there will be no more reason for us to risk war with Russia...