Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Monkeywrench Wars

Among science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke’s many gifts was a mordant sense of humor, and a prime example of that gift in action was his 1951 short story Superiority. It’s the story of a space war told by the commanding general of the losing side; he is explaining to some interstellar equivalent of the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal how his forces managed to lose. 

The question is of some interest, as the space fleets and resources of the losing side were far superior to those of the victors. So, however, was their technology.  "However" is the operative word, for each brilliantly innovative wonder weapon fielded by their scientists turned out to have disastrous downsides when put into service, while the winning side simply kept on churning out unimaginative space battleships using old but proven technology.  By the time the losing side realized that it should have done the same thing, it was so far behind that only a new round of wonder weapons seemed to offer any hope of victory—and a little more of that same logic finished them off.

It’s been suggested by more than one wit that life imitates art far more often than art imitates life. The United States military these days seems intent on becoming a poster child for that proposal. Industrial design classes at MIT used to hand out copies of "Superiority" as required reading; unfortunately that useful habit has not been copied by the Pentagon, and as a result, the US armed forces are bristling with brilliantly innovative wonder weapons that don’t do what they’re supposed to do.

The much-ballyhooed Predator drone is one good example among many.  For those who don’t follow military technology, it’s a remote-controlled plane designed to fly at rooftop level, equipped with a TV camera and missiles.  The operator, sitting in an air-conditioned office building in Nevada, can control it anywhere on Earth via satellite uplink, seek out suspected terrorists, and vaporize them.  Does it work?  Well, it’s vaporized quite a few people; the Obama administration is even more drone-happy than its feckless predecessor, and has been sending swarms of drones around various corners of the Middle East to fire missiles at a great many suspected terrorists.

You’ll notice that this has done little to stabilize the puppet governments we’ve got in the Middle East these days, and even less to decrease the rate at which American soldiers are getting shot and blown up in Afghanistan.  There’s a reason for that.  The targets for drone attacks have to be selected by ordinary intelligence methods—terrorists don’t go around with little homing beacons on them, you know—and ordinary intelligence methods have a relatively low signal-to-noise ratio.  As a result, a lot of wedding parties and ordinary households get vaporized on the suspicion that there might be a terrorist hiding in there somewhere.  Since tribal custom in large parts of the Middle East makes blood vengeance on the murderers of one’s family members an imperative duty, and there are all these American soldiers conveniently stationed in Afghanistan—well, you can do the math for yourself.

Thus the Predator drone isn’t a war-fighting technology, it’s a war-losing technology, pursued with ever-increasing desperation by a military and political establishment that has no idea what to do but can’t bear the thought of doing nothing.  The same logic drove the policy of torture so disingenuously defended by the Bush administration.  (Yes, waterboarding is torture. Anyone who wishes to disagree is welcome to undergo the procedure themselves and then offer an informed opinion.) Beyond the moral issues, there’s a practical point that’s far from minor:  torture doesn’t work.  It’s not an effective way of extracting accurate information from prisoners; it’s an effective way of making prisoners say what the torturer wants to hear—I recall the comment of the elderly Knight Templar, after his session on the rack, that in order to get his torturers to stop he would readily have confessed to murdering God. 

Thus torture is another war-losing technology.  Technically speaking, it’s a good way to maximize confirmation bias, which is what cognitive psychologists call the habit of looking for evidence that supports your presuppositions rather than testing those presuppositions against the real world.  It appeals powerfully to the sort of squeaky-voiced machismo that played so large a role in the Bush administration’s foreign policy, but wars are not won by imposing one’s own delusions on a global battlefield; they’re won by figuring out what’s out there in the world, and responding to it.

They’re also won by remembering that what’s out there in the world is also responding to you.  To grasp how this works, it’s going to be necessary to talk about systems again—specifically, about the three ways a system can mess you over.

There may be official names for these somewhere, but I’ve taken the liberty of borrowing terminology from Discordianism, and calling them chaos, discord, and confusion. For a timely example of chaos, it’s hard to do better than Tropical Storm Isaac, which is churning its way into the eastern Caribbean as I write this. As systems go, a tropical storm is a fairly simple one—basically, a heat engine in which all the moving parts are made of air and water, with a few feedback loops linking it to its environment.  Those loops are what make it chaotic; a tropical storm’s behavior is determined by its environment, but its environment is constantly being reshaped by the tropical storm, so that perturbations too small to track or anticipate can spin out of control and drive major shifts in size, speed and direction.

Thus you can never know exactly where a tropical storm is going to go, or how hard it’s going to hit. The most you can know is where, on average, storms like the one you’re watching have tended to go, and what they’ve done when they got there.  That’s chaos:  unpredictability because the other system’s interactions with its environment are too complex to be accurately anticipated.

If we shift attention from Tropical Storm Isaac to the latest recall of bacteria-tainted produce, we move from chaos to discord.  Individually, bacteria are nearly as dumb as storms, but a species of bacteria taken as a whole has a curious analogue to intelligence.  All living systems are value-oriented—that is, they value some states (such as staying alive) more than other states (such as becoming dead) and take actions to bring about the states they value.  That makes them considerably more challenging to deal with than storms, because they take active steps to counter any change that threatens their survival.

That’s the factor that drives the evolution of antibiotic resistance in bacteria, for example. Successful microbe species maintain a constant pressure on their ecological boundaries via genetic variation.  The DNA dice are constantly rolling, and it doesn’t matter if the odds against the combination of genes they need to survive in an antibiotic-rich environment  are in the millions-to-one range; as long as they aren’t driven to extinction, they’ll roll boxcars sooner or later.  That’s discord:  unpredictability because the other system is constantly modifying its own behavior to pursue values that conflict with yours.

Compare bacterial evolution to the behavior of a tropical storm and the difference between chaos and discord is easy to grasp.  Tropical storms aren’t value-oriented; they simply respond in complicated ways to subtle changes in environmental conditions they themselves play a part in causing.  Imagine, though, a tropical storm that started seeking out patches of warm water and moving away from wind shear, so it could prolong its own existence and increase in strength.  That’s what all living things do, from bacteria to readers of The Archdruid Report.  Tropical storms don’t, which is a good thing; there would be a lot more cataclysmic hurricanes if they did.

To go to the next level, let’s imagine an ecosystem of living tropical storms: seeking out the warm water that feeds them, dodging the wind shear that can kill them, and competing against other storms.  That’s all in the realm of discord.  Imagine, though, that a storm that achieves hurricane status becomes conscious and capable of abstract thought.  It can think about the future and make plans.  It becomes aware of other hurricanes, and realizes that those other hurricanes can frustrate its plans if they can figure out the plans in time to do something about them. The result is confusion:  uncertainty because the other system is deliberately trying to fool you.

It’s crucial to grasp that what I’ve called chaos, discord, and confusion are fundamentally different kinds of uncertainty, and the tricks that will help you deal with one will blow up in your face if you apply them to the others. Statistical analysis, for instance, can give you a handle on a chaotic system:  meteorologists trying to predict the movements of a storm can study the trajectories of past storms and get a good idea of where the storm is most likely to go. Apply that to bacteria, and you’ll be blindsided sooner or later, because the bacteria are constantly generating genetic novelty and thus shifting the baseline on which the statistics rely.  Apply it to an enemy in war, and you’ve made a lethal mistake; once your enemy figures out what you’re expecting, they’ll play along to lull you into a sense of false security, and then come out of the blue and stomp you.

This bit of systems theory is relevant here because American culture has a very hard time dealing with any kind of uncertainty at all. That’s partly the legacy of Newtonian science, which saw itself—or at least liked to portray itself in public—as the quest for absolutely invariant laws of nature.  If X occurs, then Y must occur:  that sort of statement is the paradigmatic form of knowledge in industrial societies.  One of the great scientific achievements of the 20th century was the expansion of science into fields that can only be known statistically—quantum mechanics, meteorology, ecology, and more. Even there, though, the lure of the supposedly invariant has been a constant source of trouble, while those fields that routinely throw discord and confusion at the researcher are by and large the fields that have remained stubbornly resistant to scientific inquiry and technological control.

It also explains a good bit of why the United States has stumbled from one failed counterinsurgency after another since the Second World War.  There’s more to it than that—I’ll explain next week why the American way of war guarantees that any country invaded and occupied by the United States is sure to pup an insurgency in short order—but the American military fixation on certainty and control, part and parcel of the broader American obsession with these notions, has gone a long way to guarantee the litany of failures. You can’t treat a hostile country like a passive object that will respond predictably to your actions.  You can’t even treat it as a chaotic system that can more or less be known statistically. At the very least, you have to recognize that it will behave as a discordant system, and react to your actions in ways that support its values, not yours: for example, by shooting or blowing up randomly chosen American soldiers to avenge family members killed by a Predator drone.

Still, it’s crucial to be aware of the possibility of the third level of uncertainty, the one that I’ve called confusion. Any hypothesis you come up with, if it becomes known or even suspected by the enemy, becomes a tool he can use to clobber you.  The highly political and thus embarrassingly public nature of American military doctrine and strategy pretty much guarantees that this will happen—does anyone really believe, for example, that the Taliban weren’t reading online news stories about the upcoming American "surge" for months before it happened, and combining that with information from a global network of intelligence sources to get a very clear picture of what was coming and how to deal with it?

So far, the consequences of confusion have been limited, because the United States has been careful to pick on nations that couldn’t fight back.  We could pound the rubble in Vietnam and Iraq, invade Panama and Grenada, and stage revolutions in Libya and a bunch of post-Communist nations, because we knew perfectly well that the worst they could do in response was kill a bunch of American soldiers. Several trends, though, suggest that this period of relative safety may be coming to an end. 

The spread of digital technology is part of it—the ease with which Iraqi insurgents figured out how to use cell phones to trigger roadside bombs is only the first foreshock of a likely tectonic shift in warfare, as DIY electronics meets DIY weapons engineering to produce cheap, homemade equivalents of smart bombs and Predator drones.  The United States’ increasing dependence on the rest of the world is another part—the number of soft targets that, if destroyed, would deal a punishing blow to America’s economy has soared in recent years, and a great many of those targets are scattered around the world, readily accessible to those with a grudge and a van full of fertilizer. Still, there’s a third factor, and it’s a function of the increasingly integrated and highly technological American military machine.

As the most gizmocentric culture in recorded history, America was probably destined from the start to end up with a military system in which most uniformed personnel operate machinery, and every detail of making war involves a galaxy of high-tech devices.  The machines and devices have been so completely integrated into military operations that they are necessities, not conveniences; I’ve been quietly informed by several people in the militaries of the US and its allies that a failure of the GPS satellite system, for example, would cripple the ability of a US military force to do much of anything. It’s far from the only such vulnerability.  Today’s US military is tightly integrated with a global technological infrastructure of fantastic complexity.  That structure is immensely powerful and efficient...but longtime readers of this blog will recall that efficiency is the opposite of resilience.

That’s why I discussed the abrupt termination of Bronze Age chariot warfare by javelin-throwing raiders in last week’s post.  If you have to fight an enemy armed with an extremely efficient military technology, one of the most likely ways to win is to find and target some previously unexploited weakness in the technology itself.  Complex as they were by the standards of the time, chariots had a very modest number of vulnerabilities, one of which the Sea Peoples attacked and exploited. By contrast, the hypercomplex American military machine is riddled with potential vulnerabilities—weak points that a hostile force might be able to monkeywrench in some unexpected way.

Surely, you may be thinking by this point, the Pentagon is thinking about this as well. No doubt they are, but the famous military penchant for endlessly refighting the last really successful war and the tendency for weapons systems to develop political constituencies that keep them in service long after they’re obsolete militate against a meaningful response.  US military planners in recent decades have followed the lead of the sciences to embrace the form of uncertainty I’ve called chaos, and so you get plenty of scenarios of future war that extrapolate current trends out fifteen or fifty years, with a few new bits of gosh-wow technology and a large role reserved for weapons systems such as carriers with constituencies that have enough clout.  The thought that hostile forces may be evolving resistance to our military equivalent of antibiotics rarely gets a look in, and the thought that at least some of those hostile forces may be reading those same scenarios and brainstorming ways to toss a monkeywrench into the machinery—well, let’s just say that making such suggestions will be about as helpful for the career of a military officer today as the same habit was for Col. Billy Mitchell back in the day.

This is one reason why I have come to believe that of the shocks that could cause the US empire to collapse, one of the most likely is a disastrous and unexpected military defeat.  At this point, very nearly the only thing that maintains US power, and the disproportionate share of the world’s wealth that is the payoff of that power, is our eagerness to pound the bejesus out of Third World nations at the drop of a hat.  If we lose that capacity, we could end up neck deep in kim chee very quickly indeed.


End of the World of the Week #36

There’s a tendency to assume that people who buy into end-of-the-world prophecies are, shall we say, a couple of horsemen short of an apocalypse. History, though, shows that it’s entirely possible to be very bright and still buy into the apocalypse meme. Among the leading examples is the redoubtable John Napier (1550-1617), who combined a fascination with apocalyptic prophecy with a well-earned reputation as one of the great mathematicians of all time.

Does that latter description sound exaggerated?  It isn’t.  This is the man who invented the decimal point. Oh, and logarithms. Not to mention one of the first practical mechanical calculating devices, the once-famous Napier’s Bones. We won’t even get into his remarkable innovations in spherical trigonometry. The point that matters for this discussion is his very careful, elegant, mathematically exact calculations of the end of the world.

Like nearly everyone in 16th-century Scotland, he took the Book of Revelations seriously, and turned the same penetrating intellect on its mysteries that he used with better results on the properties of numbers. After years of careful calculation, he determined that the Second Coming of Christ would occur either in 1688 or in 1700.  Fortunately, Napier’s reputation rests on more durable grounds, for both years passed without the faintest sound of Gabriel’s trumpet.

—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not


Puzzler said...

Deep in kim chee, indeed, but will it be North Korean kim chee or South Korean kim chee?

Thijs Goverde said...

Hail Eris and all that!
Thank you for another very informative post. I've no knowledge of military theory and/or history at all, other than dipping into Sun Tzu in the hopes of improving my Go game and shouting swearwords at newspaper editorials that argue torture against terrorists may be 'justified'. I mean... Justified? How can something ineffective be justified? And even I know torture is innefective, at least from an intelligence-gathering viewpoint (I'm fully aware that it otherwise effects many things, most of them highly undesireable from the torturers viewpoint, not to mention the torturees)

Robert Mathiesen said...

About ten years ago my wife and I saw a small news item that the US Navy had stopped training its personnel in celestial navigation, of all things! No need, they reasoned, to teach those difficult and elegant old methods.

First of all, the Navy now had GPS technology to rely on. And second, celestial navigation required a level of mathematical precision and general painstaking that even the best of the Navy's new recruits no longer displayed.

We looked at one another and both said, this is a very troubling waymark on the road to military disaster.

Bruce The Druid said...

I remember before the ground war started in Iraq, a news item that the Iraqis were acquiring a simple Russian made device to frustrate the GPS "smart" bombs the military advisers kept crowing about on CNN et al. It was essentially a small jamming device that would overload the bombs GPS receiver, thus causing it to become a "dumb" bomb. If I remember, it cost about $50 dollars and could easily fit into a soldiers backpack. From what I heard, the Pentagon was in an absolute panic over it. In addition, Russian contractors were laying fiber optic cables to network all of Iraq's radar facilities with their SAM sites. That effectively forced the Pentagons hand in bombing and invading earlier rather than later. The rest is history. Both were relatively easy and cheap tech solutions to counter the US military advantage.

Roy Smith said...

Back when I was on active duty in the Navy, some of my shipmates and I would have discussions of how we would take on the U.S. military if we were some other country that wanted to cause a scuffle, and the first thing to do invariably was to take out the GPS system. Unfortunately for the U.S., it would not be that difficult from a technical perspective (well within the reach of a number of countries, not all of them very wealthy), and given the state of technology and training in the U.S. military, it would very greatly impair the military's ability to do much of anything.

John Michael Greer said...

Puzzler, good question! One way or another, though, it won't be comfortable...

This, Kallisti! The ethical bankruptcy of today's America was never so nakedly on display as when the punditry trotted out their feebleminded excuses for torture. If the neocons had come right out and said, "Look, of course it doesn't work, but as contemporary American intellectual males we're really insecure about our masculinity, and ordering defenseless prisoners to be beaten and waterboarded is the closest we'll ever get to being genuinely tough," I would have had some respect for them; at least they'd have been honest.

Robert, I heard about that, and of course you're right; whether as a symptom or as something more direct, it's a flashing red light warning of trouble.

Bruce, both good examples. Now imagine that sort of thinking in the hands of a country with some serious technological chops and the wealth to put it to work.

John Michael Greer said...

Roy, that's fascinating to hear. I have to assume that the same conversation has been had many times in Beijing, Moscow, Tehran, and any number of other places.

J9 said...

The more bluster and swagger the more someone will want to deflate the overblown facacde ... putting randomly murdered realtives to one side, that is.
There's 7 billion people in the world and the 6 and 4 fifths who aren't in the G7 are really ready for a different way for things to be organised.

Karim said...

Greetings all

So JMG and his readers have identified 2 potential and fatal weaknesses of the US military (1)reliance on navy carriers to project power and (2) reliance on GPS technology. Any thoughts about other fatal weaknesses? Could very long supply lines be one of them?

How about some thoughts on where and when such a defeat might be happening? Or how will the US react to stunning military defeat? Will it have the effect believed? After all, many empires were dealt massive defeats and still managed to stay on top.

The Ottoman empire for once after the Lepanto defeat during the 16th century is an example.

In short I am not too sure that a stunning military defeat is enough to cause the collapse of the US empire. Possibly a string of causes are necessary for that to happen, amongst which are military defeats.

phil harris said...

All bets are off, of course … but …
How would a big military defeat, and/or a ‘Pharaoic’ scale of successive crop failures for the US disrupt the rest of the world: perhaps not as much as we might think?
4/5ths of the world still feeds itself but several trends go in contradictory directions. We are talking about industrial civilisation and its consequences here. I can imagine the USA undue consumption of world industrial resources and product being perforce severely cut-back, but there are several quid pro quos going on here. Who said anybody had to be reasonable, of course?

Mean Mr Mustard said...


The Third Reich suffered from superior technology.

Initially, German technology looked promising. U-boats - which nearly starved the UK. Tank designs which remained superior throughout the war – but severe weather and fuel shortages did it for them. They flew a small jet aircraft just before the outbreak of war and the technology was sufficiently developed to produce the impressive Me 262 fighter, but the performance margin it enjoyed was overwhelmed by delays in entering service, such that the sheer numbers of Allied fighter pilots ranging over German skies quickly found its weak spot – picking them off as they landed. Incidentally, the 262’s engine life was only 24 hours, but that was academic as the pilot’s life expectancy was considerably less than that.

Other impressive technology such as the V1 ‘doodlebug’ drone and especially the V2 ballistic missile represented massive leaps of capability, but had no strategic impact to show for all the effort invested.

As the war became more desperate for Hitler, the appliance of technology to produce wonder weapons verged on the ridiculous. Examples being the highly dangerous rocket powered Me 163 Komet glider, the vertically launched Baachem Natter, designed to break in two once the pilot had launched his salvo of rockets against the B-17 formation, and the Heinkel Salamander, a wooden-winged jet interceptor intended for eager Hitler Youth pilots after a few hours qualifying on gliders.

What actually prevailed were tons of USAAF and RAF bombs falling on their cities and installations, and a vast, expendable peasant army equipped with crude but effective machinery such as the T-34 tank, Katyusha ‘Stalin’s Organ’ truck-mounted rocket launchers and primitive Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik close-support attack aircraft, the most produced aircraft of all time (42330 were built).

Another sometimes overlooked but decisive factor in the defeat of Germany were the ‘Ultra’ intercepts of the Enigma coding machines. Technology so advanced that the Germans remained supremely confident that their codes could never be cracked.

And then, the victors decisively ended the war in the Pacific with an astonishing technological breakthrough – unaware that the flashes of their Atomic Bombs had also blinded them with science.


Cam from Oz said...

Hello John, another very insightful essay. As you know I think a lot about this stuff and the processes you describe in this essay have got me thinking about Buzz Hollings panarchy theory and how as a system reaches its climax phase it has become so optimised with so many connections and so little resilience that it becomes brittle and hence collapses when the environment changes. I can't help but think that technologically advanced militaries are in the same position. They are so optimised for a certain environment (funding, stable supply chains etc) not to mention a certain type of threat environment that as that environment changes (as it is now), there is the very real chance that some sort of capability collapse will be triggered.

Siani said...

Technology is not so hard to defeat once the 'wonder' that is based on fear is dealt with. I've made this point often enough in discussions revolving around defeating satellites, sensors, and other things if it ever came to it. Marines talk about such things pretty often.

Always have maintained we are too reliant on gadgets. Far too reliant.

Evan said...

Excellent and thought-provoking. Again and again JMG, you have me paying attention to parts of the narrative of industrial collapse I have not given any mind to. Many thanks!

If I may challenge the notion that genetic mutations occur from a process on par with a "dice roll," it seems that there is good evidence now that genetic variation is not a mere random mutation, roll of the dice, brute-force numbers game, but rather that the genetic code will leap and exchange information via viruses (and other means).

I would point to the little known work of Dorothy Kurth Boberg who published the book "Evolution and Reason -- Beyond Darwin" (which is now available used online for under $10) who proposes this notion. Her work may be a little dated now (1993), but her explanation of the fossil record throws a wrench into any statistical model of evolution...

Odin's Raven said...

It may be worse than honest error or stupidity. The fancy and fantastically expensive systems may not even be meant to work well, just to make a lot of money.

Some years ago there was a story that an American spy plane full of elaborate electronic equipment had been forced down by the Chinese and handed over to them intact, so that they got the results of very expensive and ingenious research, which put them on a level with the Americans. It was rumoured that this had been organised by corporate interests (and their government servants) as they wanted to pressure the American government into spending even more with them to develop even fancier technology, stoked by an arms race panic about the Chinese.

Also, in previous decades, there used to be exposes of very bad purchasing decisions by the Pentagon, by relatively junior officers who realised that they and their friends and the men they commanded would be put at risk by these decisions, which would enable senior officers to get lucrative jobs in defence industries. We don't hear so much about this any more, so the bosses have obviously learned to protect themselves better.

Often in big organisations there's a discrepancy between their nominal and real functions. The nominal function is left to the lower and middle ranking staff. The bosses make their self-advancement the real purpose of the organisation.

This kind of moral perversion is more dangerous than the over-elaboration of technology.
"Follow the Money."

Nano said...

So, the Chinese by way of N-Korea in the bedroom with the candle stick.
23 SKIDOO!!!

Yuri Kuzyk said...

Hi John Michael,

The technology itself is a major issue for modern military - for example the infamous 'friendly fire' incident that was due to a serious design flaw in the 'precision lightweight GPS receiver'. Most human factors experts agree that this device is not properly usable by anyone unless in a calm lab environment. Certainly most consumer-grade GPS devices have far superior user interfaces. Pity the poor soldier trying to use it effectively in battle conditions. Quite a lot of their high-tech gear is similar, from the choking F-22 to the piece-o-crap Bowman.

More interestingly is how the military, for all the bleeding-edge technology, is now lagging in so many areas. There was a great talk by a Google guy discussing some of this problem

ID has another interesting article regarding cyberwarfare (attacks on Google) and its role in future conflicts ( The Israeli hack of Syrian air defence systems is another example where military technology is being leap-frogged. Same for Stuxnet and Flame attacks on Iran.

The point being that military effectiveness comes back to personnel effectiveness and the problems for the USA are only just starting to become evident. Even the most basic aspects, such as the toll of the extreme missions (the navy rotations are a good example) is going to one of the main root causes for lost battles.

It is not an issue of "if" but "when". If a soldier is spending time playing around or even just trying to operate gear then he/she is not focused on real time. Not a good situation.

Jeffrey said...

Not only the military. The whole global economy, communication, distribution logistics, etc. etc. is equally vulnerable in its dependence on digital networked devices. As are members reading this post.

This raises another angle of distortion mentioned. The more networked we are the more we are collectively interdependent. This certainly creates vulnerability as pointed out here but paradoxically it does also promote a resilience similar to the ways slime molds go from individualism to collectivism depending on the environmental conditions.

Digital technology has created both realities; one of incredible vulnerability but as a counter argument also an increase in resilience to disruption in the sense that mutual dependency makes it increasingly clear that military adventures and even economic warfare (think China) have to be tempered with keeping the host you attempt to parasitize healthy enough to continue to buy your junk.

3310471c-ed2e-11e1-86ce-000bcdcb8a73 said...

Back when I was in the Air Force we used to laugh at how a handful of nickles tossed down the intake of a running jet engine would put that aircraft out of commission for at least a day.

A few years later someone got a serious case of pissed off-itis at the USAF for whatever reason and started taping stacks of nickels to the backside of the 1st stage turbine blades on the F-16's on the ramp. This shut down flight operations on the entire base for nearly a week. Hundreds of millions of dollars of high tech warfighting capability rendered useless by two dollars and change in nickels.

John in Cape Charles Va said...

As a young Navy officer in the South Pacific in the 70's Celestial Navigation was a required part of the "Surface Warfare Officer" qualification process. I fondly remember those middle of the night star shoots, hitting the celestial almanacs with my sightings and manually deriving a fix. We did celestial every day and every night. Not easy to get a great three point fix, but a neat thing to be able to do. And those amazing Pacific nights!

Best regards to Spica, to Betelgeuse, Sirius and Altair!

In those days the war at sea was against the USSR's submarine fleet, a much feared and highly "efficient" killing platform. Finding/tracking them to help protect our Aircraft Carrier was pretty much what we in Submarine Warfare Destroyer's did all day. Interesting that the Soviet navy was really never seriously able to sustain itself, and it collapsed into disrepair many years before the Soviet Union exited the scene.

jollyreaper said...

Pertaining to drones: I think the analogy is with airplanes, circa 1914. And like the airplane, they are good for some things and terrible at others.

In WWII, air power was everything. The Japanese Navy was broken from the air. An entire SS panzer division was annihilated by P-47's. Air power negates an enemy's ability to project power.

Then again, WWII was about pushing invaders out of territory they'd invaded. We, the enemy of the local's enemy, were friends.

What air power couldn't do was finish the war. Airplanes don't occupy ground, men with guns do. German production was greater at the end of the war than the beginning but they weren't at full war production then. Albert Speer said that attacks on petroleum production were effective. Breaking morale from the air did not work, typically just making the bombed out citizens more angry and determined to fight back.

If we look at both Gulf wars, air power and modern, mechanized warfare is highly effective at fighting a high-tech opponent. The Iraqis were swept from the desert much as the Japanese were from the seas. Of course, the desert and ocean are both similar in that there's little cover. Once on islands or in cities, air power is neutralized and you're stuck clearing things out with close-in fighting.

The other thing air power can't do is win people over to your side, especially when you're in the wrong. No amount of bombing could convince the Vietnamese we were the good guys and their fellow countrymen from the north were the bad guys.

We couldn't win over the Iraqis because we had trouble convincing them that we weren't taking over their country and stealing their oil because we are greedy, not nice people; this was probably because we did invade their country to steal their oil and killed quite a lot of them in the process.

If our goal was to commit wholesale genocide, i.e. How the West Was Won, then high-tech military force could probably work. Dalek Doctrine, EXTERMINATE! EXTERMINATE! Barring that, we'll just waste tons of money occupying a country whose people don't want us to be there, sending bodies home by fives and tens, and running up an unimaginable debt. Forget talking about airplanes and drones and wonder weapons, even guns and knives aren't getting the job done because it's an awful idea put in place by awful people and carried out in an awful fashion.

Don Plummer said...

This discussion constantly provides me with reminders of fictional and fantasy literature. Thinking of the remote-control drones always reminds me of "Ender's Game," though the results of their use, as noted here, have been less than decisive.

Tackling a high technology military force by exploiting its weak points reminds me of the third film in the original Star Wars series ("The Return of the Jedi"), in which the Ewok inhabitants of a Redwood-forested satellite allied themselves with the rag-tag rebels to defeat a high-tech empire with primitive weapons like rock-throwing catapults.

And today's discussion of confusion, especially how a warring party constantly re-evaluates its position and options in light of the enemy's actions, reminds me of "The Lord of the Rings," in which, for example, Aragorn uses the Palantir to reveal himself to Sauron and thus encourage the latter to strike too hastily, while Gandalf constantly counsels to keep Sauron's focus off his own country because he is certain that Sauron has not even considered the possibility that his enemy might seek to destroy the Ring instead of using it as a weapon.

Jason said...

JMG, you may not be aware that much of the policy surrounding US treatment of prisoners was inspired by TV. This is relevant:

Torture is illegal – and it never works

I don't remember who made the remark that the US have now lost their status as "good people to surrender to", in terms of the treatment expected, but it's pretty true too. Just another way in which your country has stacked the odds against itself.

Liquid Paradigm said...

From some of the subdued hand-wringing I'm seeing from scientists and engineers of late, it might not even take a small, intrepid band of heroes/terrorists full of moxie and know-how to thwart the GPS systems on which our current military is so dependent. A well-timed and sufficiently strong hiccough from our local star could do the job.

The likelihood and severity of such a thing is well beyond my ability to predict, and too much of what I hear is tinged with the apocalyptic certainty and panic I have come to associate less with actual science and more with an underlying psychological need to make a spectacular escape from life circumstances with little to no effort. Nonetheless, it is not utterly beyond the realm of possibility and serves, at least in my mind, to underscore a fatal vulnerability. It all seems rather obvious, but apparently it isn't.

Johan said...


I'd quibble with a few details - I don't agree with your classification of torture as a "technology", for example - but that doesn't affect your main points.

I do agree that torture is a stupid idea for a whole number of reasons, including the fact that US use of such tactics hasn't just alienated Afghans and Pakistanis, but has resulted in a lot of ill will towards the US even in close allies.

I also think you're broadly correct in your assessment of how successful resistance to the US military machine could come about, but I'll await your fictional account of US imperial breakup with interest for some more context. What sort of conflict might this be?

Regarding context and carriers, I found this article from the US Naval War College: The Future of Aircraft Carriers. (I thought I saw it mentioned in last week's comments, but now I can't find it; apologies if I'm posting something twice.) There's some interesting discussion on "doctrinal roles" for aircraft carriers. There's a clear awareness that they will have to be used differently, but note the careful language regarding numbers.

Glenn said...

Shortly before I retired from the U.S. Coast Guard, they combined the rates of Boatswain's Mate (ship and boat handlers, in charge of deck evolutions, rigging work and painting) with the Quartermasters (Navigation, shiphandling, and in the Coast Guard, signalling). At the time Quartermasters were trained in Celestial Navigation. For the new, combined rate, the Service decided that Celestial Navigation would be given as secondary training only to those assigned to Polar Icebreakers and High Endurance Cutters. As far as I know, the Commissioned Officers are still taught Celestial at the Academy. As I recall, at the time (2003) GPS coverage was still a bit spotty near the poles.

On the cheap weapons subject, I once had a notion that a large model plane powered by a lawn mower engine and guided by a LORAN receiver could deliver a gallon of paint to a Nuclear Power Plant cooling tower or containment building as a protest. Update to Differential GPS and a stolen Cessna or Lear Jet full of ANFO and you'd have quite a lethal package.

Marrowstone Island

Mike said...

Thanks for the excellent taxonomy of the types of uncertainty. I was immediately recalled to a comment from my old game theory professor about the well-known application of GT in Vietnam: the generals thought they they were playing a game against nature when they were actually playing against an opponent.

Ack. Perils of first-time posting. Apologies if this is a double.

Michael said...

JMG You'll love this...

I used to get a regular taxi to work for health reasons (we have support for disabled people in the UK). The taxi driver was an Iraqi man with his own business, hard working, reasonably ambitious, a Londoner. He'd been back in Baghdad seeing his old mother, and was driving home along a dual carriageway, when someone threw a grenade into the sophisticated American armoured truck going in the opposite direction.

The truck screeched to a halt and all the soldiers jumped out, before it blew up. He stopped, and shouted across to them to get in his car, and with no other viable options, they did. He asked them where they wanted to go, they replied the American base, but they didn't have a clue how to get there, as they didn't have access to their vehicle's GPS! Needless to say Baghdad had changed a lot(!) since my friend had lived there, so he phoned his mother on his mobile, and she directed them to the American base!

His reward for saving the lives of helpless and vulnerable US servicemen, and returning them to the safety of their base (in what was, at the time, still effectively a war zone)? To be hauled out of his car at gunpoint, roughly handled, and aggressively questioned! Still, it's nice to see a granny and her taxi-driver son keeping the streets safe in Baghdad.

Apparently, British servicemen are much better thought of than American servicemen in Iraq, the thought being that Brits actually know “foreigners”, probably live next door to them, whereas Americans just don't know people from other countries and cultures (I'd guess rank and file soldiers know precious few people from outside their own state?), and therefore have no skills or knowledge about how to deal with them. Even the US ruling elite who travel, don't really know “foreigners”, they just know other rich people, with slightly different accents, who went to Oxford, Cambridge or the Sorbonne, instead of MIT or Brown. A huge disadvantage to understanding the world, and how to respond to it.

ganv said...

Your description of chaos, discord, and confusion is very enlightening. As you say, the terminology is not the point...we really need a way to communicate more accurately about the kinds of uncertainties we face. I was recently talking with an economics student who studies the ways countries manage their exchange rates, and he was fully aware of the kind of uncertainty you call 'confusion.' In that case, publishing his statistical analysis of the de facto exchange rate targets could lead to changes in the behavior of the central banks to avoid being too predictable to speculators. What you are calling 'confusion' seems to be a fundamental reason why economics will always be a set of rules of thumb that describe past economic arrangements rather than a predictive science.

dylan said...

Nice post John, While this makes sense I also can't help but thin that in the case of a military defeat that the "top brass" would turn to nuclear in a fit of pique, that's where it gets a bit scary in my mind.

sometulip said...

How about an even simpler option? It may be possible to fire a load of ballistic missiles against the Navy fleet and sink it. But if they are really obsolete then this is inevitable. Maybe the Navy know this are just waiting to see who figures this out and that until then it’ll be impossible to circumvent all the Navy-Industrial vested interests in Washington to take the Navy in a direction.
It may be possible to knock out their GPS and that of the drones but the real power of the US is its total domination of the skies. It now has planes that can fly from Diego Garcia and rain debt from above with old school bombs and return home unharmed. The only thing that can touch them is the surface to air missiles and as was seen during the Iraq war there are ways to knock them out.
I can’t help but think that if you want to fight the US you’re best off not doing it in on the battlefield in your own Country, I reckon even if you knock out the Carrier fleet and the Drone fleet you will still lose.
Any US enemy will need to do to the US what the US does to it. It will need to bomb its vital infrastructure, and kill it’s important people. It’s useless killing Soldiers. Armies, Politicians and to a lesser degree Civilians are inured to them. A US enemy in a fight to the death with it will have to fight a terrorist campaign on the US homeland.
It’s a lot less technically difficult to set up a number of terrorist cells in US cities have them gather intelligence on important infrastructure and people and leave them there lying in wait until the time comes.
If they can avoid large Civilian casualties but still hit US infrastructure and Establishment then it may be able to convince the same Establishment that this war may not be for it. I’d imagine it wouldn’t be too hard to fine targets.
I think the US has been lucky that they’ve been fighting very low-tech Islamic terrorists with limited imagination, but if they take on one of their present well prepared enemies it may be a different story.

Odin's Raven said...

I saw your pal Orlov on today's Keiser Report. He is not expecting a major catastrophe for a decade or so. Keiser predicts one by next April. Will you go on to counsel patience? Max doesn't seem to have much patience.

Tracy G said...

Robert Mathiesen wrote: "About ten years ago my wife and I saw a small news item that the US Navy had stopped training its personnel in celestial navigation, of all things!"

Cripes. I hadn't heard that and had no idea it was that bad.

I think I'll dust off the sextant and refamiliarize myself with it. My husband and I took it to the Caribbean a few years back and had fun determining the ship's coordinates. I'd need to acquire or make an artificial horizon to use it here, but it's not that difficult. This guy is teaching it to middle school students. I supported his Kickstarter project earlier this summer.

modler said...

I'm afraid you are dead on regarding the military's future. General Van Riper, acting as opposing force commander in a 2002 US Military war game used unconventional low tech tacticts to defeat the US Fleet. The military declared his tactics unfair, and started the wargame over (see link below) with new rules requiring the opposition force use conventional tactics.

The seeds for catastrophic military failure have been planted and fertilized with the finest hubris manure the military/ industrial complex can squeeze out.

Umber Stoneson said...

One thing that is never considered in this sort of attempt at systems analysis is the role of weapons of mass destruction, to use the media-friendly name. Does anyone honestly believe that any nation pushed to the edge will not lash-out, perhaps randomly? Given that it is an assumption, largely backed by evidence, that US politicians are willing to endorse the most vile tactics if they sell well how can anyone doubt that there would not be massive retaliation?

Now, if you are positing that there will be some miracle science that invalidates the NBCR response, ok, that's a possibility. I will remain skeptical.

Much the same for conventional technology. Is it possible to jam GPS signals? Sure, the receiver isn't anything special and if you flood that frequency it will not function. Can you do that without a large transmitter and power source? Not really. Far better to send up sandcasters and try to destroy the satellites. Of course, you've just declared war on the rest of the world, but that's a minor issue.

There is a strange resilience of most imperial states. The empire already lost in Vietnam, and is well on the way to losing in Afghanistan. The first really didn't do much to break things and the second isn't heading in that direction either. Not really a surprise. Look at the loses suffered by any empire in history. England lost most of North America. Rome sent legions into the mists of the German forests, then lost the entire west of the empire. Until the structure becomes brittle enough to collapse on itself or, more likely, a stronger state emerges to take control the imperial state persists.

If you want to consider the next likely ground for asymmetric warfare, look at the computer in front of you. Not only do you have to deal with state actors and political organizations (terrorists to their enemies) you have the independent agents motivated by greed or perhaps just a belief in anarchy.

Last thought - the drone is a positive technology sacrificed on the alter of strategic air. Use it as a tactical system and it's valuable. Use it to achieve policy from the air and it is no more valuable than a fleet of B-17s winging toward Dresden or Tokyo.

Robert Mathiesen said...

Karim asks:

"So JMG and his readers have identified 2 potential and fatal weaknesses of the US military (1)reliance on navy carriers to project power and (2) reliance on GPS technology. Any thoughts about other fatal weaknesses?"

The US government publicly pointed one such weakness out during the First Iraq War, when they warned Iraq not to contaminate the Middle East oil fields with lethally radioactive materials. I don't suppose it would be too difficult to create a technology to do this, if the political and military blow-back were not thought to matter. Such contamination would probably be much harder to overcome than using a nuclear explosion to seal the Strait of Hormuz.

ando said...

Indeed, and it is probably significant of something in this failing empire that our most brilliant historian and ecologist is a "cult" author and leader of a "fringe" religious group. Well done, JMG.

Hidden Author said...

You assume that the neocons err due to a malevolent need to assert their masculinity. But there may be another reason...

After September 11th, it was not feasible to grant terrorists immunity just because they were subject to the criminal law of a foreign jurisdiction as proposed by the antiwar folks. But previous attempts to restrain terrorists were ineffective. The Taliban were not willing to extradite Bin Laden and Clinton's pathetic bombing of an Al-Qaeda tent did nothing. So even a philosopher king would at that point be pushed towards war.

Then in fighting the war, the insurgent tactics of fighting among civilian crowds (they've been known to launch missile from schools) made errors inevitable. And since the terrorists were completely immune to standard interrogation techniques due to their vicious fanaticism, even a philosopher king would be tempted to use creative means to get answers.

Now I'm not saying the neocons were right; only that the antiwar cliches were equally wrong.

John Michael Greer said...

Karim, I've mentioned two specifically but I've also sketched out the principle -- look for any technology essential to the US way of warfighting, and figure out a way to cripple it at least temporarily. Yes, long supply lines are a huge issue. As for causes -- er, we've been talking about the other reasons why the US empire will collapse for months now. A military defeat is just a likely trigger; there are plenty of other causes in place, as previously discussed.

Phil, the collapse of the US would bring major benefits to most of the other nations in the world -- just to start with, the 25% of world energy supply we currently use would be up for grabs. I'm sure there are plenty of people in capitals around the world who are aware of that math.

Mustard, good. I'm pretty sure Clarke had Germany in mind when he wrote his story.

Cam, that's a useful way of conceptualizing it -- too much specialization on a specific environment and a specific set of functions is pretty much a guarantee of failure in a changing world.

Siani, no argument there.

Evan, I'll check it out. Still, I simply meant the dice-roll image as a convenient metaphor, not as an accurate description of genetic processes!

Raven, if you don't hear about such things any more I'm not sure you're listening closely enough. Check out the brouhaha about the Joint Strike Fighter aka F-35 Lightning II sometime -- brilliantly suited to its tactical mission of extracting the largest possible amount of money from defense budgets all over NATO; too bad it doesn't cope well with any other tactical mission.

Nano, good, but I have a slightly different scenario in mind.

Yuri, thanks for the links! One of the many problems is precisely that the really lavish big-ticket items are being paid for by cuts in other, less glamorous things that actually matter, like having enough soldiers, equipping them adequately, and rotating them out of combat zones for reasonable periods. Not to mention the dozens of relatively cheap, unglamorous bits of current tech that could be brought in to make the military more effective and even more resilient.

Jeffrey, don't push the argument from mutual dependence too far. Exactly the same argument was used before 1914 to insist that the nations of Europe couldn't possibly go to war with one another, since they were so economically dependent on each other.

Steve said...

@Umber Stoneson:

"One thing that is never considered in this sort of attempt at systems analysis is the role of weapons of mass destruction, to use the media-friendly name. Does anyone honestly believe that any nation pushed to the edge will not lash-out, perhaps randomly? Given that it is an assumption, largely backed by evidence, that US politicians are willing to endorse the most vile tactics if they sell well how can anyone doubt that there would not be massive retaliation?"

Well, consider the military defeat of the USSR in Afghanistan. They knew that the US was arming insurgents there, yet there was no unleashing of the type of weapons you're so worried about the US using, and their leadership was no more exceptionally moral or ethical than ours.

The fate of nuclear warheads and other such weapons is of course a question of concern in the coming political, economic, and social breakup of the US, but so far (aside from action movies and Tom Clancy novels) there hasn't been a "loose nuke" that ended up being used in a terrorist attack or to escalate a conventional conflict as a result of the political, economic, and social breakup of the USSR.

I don't know what to expect of the US government in its deepest crisis, but I don't think anyone with enough drive to get their hands on the reins of the US military would want to take such a big risk with no possible payoff, given that they'd already be in charge of the most coherent power structure in what would still be a relatively wealthy (in the real sense) country.

John Michael Greer said...

a73, fascinating. I wonder if there's an effective way to get lots of nickel-sized slugs up in the air ahead of a ground-attack jet.

John, brush up that knowledge. You may be teaching it someday.

Reaper, true enough. One of the many things on my mind is whether anybody's going to come up with a really effective defense against aircraft before declining petroleum supplies make the whole issue moot.

Don, true enough -- though that Star Wars movie was to my mind the rock bottom of the franchise, an overpriced kiddie flick complete with extraterrestrial Care Bears. I was cheering for the storm troopers all through that scene.

Jason, I hadn't heard that. Par for the course, though, that crucial US policy issues are now being settled by reference to TV programs. Gah.

Paradigm, sure, but that's an example of chaos -- not even the most determined enemy can tell the sun what to do, or arrange for a solar flare to coincide with an attack. I'm more concerned right now with what human beings could do.

Johan, oh, granted, I was stretching the term a bit for convenience. Thanks for the link -- an interesting essay, rather reminiscent of 1920s forward-thinking pieces about what battleships might do in the next war. ("Sink" was not an option much discussed.)

Glenn, that's one of several iterations of the poor man's cruise missile. I expect we'll see something of the sort in upcoming conflicts.

Mike, your prof was right on the money. I wonder if he published that comment anywhere...

Michael, that's a fascinating story -- and very typical, yes. You're right about Americans, too -- it's a very isolated and clueless country.

Thomas Daulton said...

I haven't read the full column yet, but "squeaky-voiced machismo"... instant classic turn of phrase! Nearly ruined my keyboard there.

Alex said...

sigh I think if we put half the effort and energy we put into military weapons and strategy into building peace, and the justice needed to sustain peace, things would be very very different :(

John Michael Greer said...

Ganv, fascinating. I suspect that the economic sphere is full of chaos, discord and confusion -- in the mock-technical senses I've given the words as well as their ordinary senses!

Dylan, I've already worked that into my scenario. I'll explain in the upcoming post on nuclear deterrence in an age of decline why, even in such a situation, lots of mushroom clouds are an unlikely outcome.

Sometulip, I'm far from sure that a US invasion force elsewhere couldn't be beaten -- and losing control of the air is one way that could happen. Nothing guarantees the US a perpetual monopoly on air power, especially when other nations are already fielding fighters better than ours. As for an assault on the US by terrorist means, that's a dubiously effective warfighting method -- it might just as easily harden the resolve of millions of Americans to make the other side pay in blood. As I'll discuss next week, the ultimate target in any war is the enemy's willingness to keep fighting, and terrorism has a poor record in that regard.

Raven, the major catastrophe is already happening. It's just happening slowly enough that people who are entranced by the thought of sudden collapse can't see it. I'm not counseling patience; I'm counseling people to get off their butts and take action, now, because this is what collapse looks like and we are already collapsing.

Tracy, excellent! There's a fascinating theory, btw, that the old British long barrows were artificial horizons, set high enough that observers could avoid the distorting effects of low atmospheric angles.

Modler, it's a very typical story. I wonder how many of the naval brass who ruled Van Riper's tactics unfair realize that at least a dozen hostile nations will have been taking copious notes.

Umber, actually, that's been considered at length. As I mentioned in last week's post, I'll be discussing the calculus of deterrence in an age of decline in a future post. There are very good reasons why politicians and military leaders in the real world -- as opposed to those in fiction -- are vanishingly unlikely to launch bombs at random. As for jamming GPS, who said it's going to be done the simple and stupid way? The more complex the technology, the more weaknesses it has that can be exploited.

Ando, thank you, but there are historians and ecologists who are quite a bit better at their trades than I am. Those are the people I read and study, as a basis for the stuff I post here!

John Michael Greer said...

Hidden, well, you're welcome to spin scenarios like that if you like. It doesn't take a philosopher king to realize, first, that since torture doesn't work, resorting to it is an admission of imbecility; second, that the Geneva Convention is there to protect our troops as well as the other guy's, and so our decision to ignore it and torture hostile guerrillas was a profoundly stupid move; third, going to war when you can be mathematically certain that the result will be a guerrilla conflict you can't win is not too bright either -- but all three of these are intensely appealing to a bunch of academics from universities and think tanks who desperately wanted to look macho for the camera. Go back and read the neoconservative chest-thumping from Dubya's first term and tell me with a straight face that these guys weren't simply trying to prove their manliness.

Thomas, thank you!

Alex, well, that's also been tried, and it normally means that whoever opts out first and turns to war has a huge advantage. You might research the melancholy history of the Kellogg-Briand Pact one of these days.

Martin Larner said...

Of course what has to be acknowledged about the torture policy in Iraq and elsewhere, is that it was never intended to get accurate information, but rather to do the things that everyone - including the advocates of the practice - knows what torture does which is to:

a) create enemies
b) extract 'confessions' with loaded questions

The former, supports the Military Industrial Complex desire for perpetual war, which is after all extremely lucrative, particularly with the plethora of privatisation of war in recent years.

The latter of course supports predetermined policies, such as the stated reasons for invading Iraq in the first place, all of which those of us who understood how these things work and were paying attention at the time, knew to be utter nonsense.

A similar rationale can be ascribed to the practice of Predator Drones to some degree. It certainly is lucrative to the corporations who produce and run them. I'm sure it's no secret to those in the Pentagon who are at the decision making end of this policy that they are mostly torching civilians, and that even most of those who could be considered 'guilty' are themselves part of the required cycle of vengeance for a dead relative somewhere along the line.

But again, this deliberate prodding of the hornets nest has precisely the intended effect of keeping the cycle of violence alive, so that policy makers can say "we can't leave - there's still this massive insurgency". Meanwhile, the Military bases continue to be built along the intended Trans-Afghan Pipeline route and the Heroin money continues to flow into the banking system.

Phil Knight said...

Battleships did actually perform a useful (if not decisive) role in WWII - as offshore artillery during amphibious operations. They were much better for immediate fire response than aircraft. I think the U.S. Navy even re-comissioned some obsolete battleships for this task in the Pacific theatre. It was a common complaint of the Marines that the Navy moved its supporting heavy firepower away too early (the USN task forces liked to keep on the move rather than support individual operations).

My old neighbour (no longer with us sadly) was on HMS Warspite when it was hit by a glider bomb at Salerno - the ship survived, as it survived every attempt to sink it.

It may be that aircraft carriers perform a useful if lesser role in future wars, though I confess I can't think what they may be at the moment.

Jennifer D Riley said...

For the people I know who yell "socialism," I always ask is the US military part of socialism? the funding comes from the government and from tax revenue.

Jim R said...

The V22 Osprey.

There. After that little nod to Tainter, let's turn back to aircraft carriers.

I'm inclined to think the biggest weakness when an empire gets to this stage, is a lack of money. Everything was based on never-ending exponential increases, and that deluxe navy is no exception. When they run out of money, the flow of everything from jet fuel to spare parts to cannon fodder will be interrupted.

The victims of all this imperial expansion shall, at some point in the not-too-distant future, simply stand there and watch them rust.

... as has been predicted by Orlov, The Archdruid Report, The Automatic Earth, et. al.

John Michael Greer said...

Martin, yes, that's one speculation -- and of course it is a speculation, since neither you nor anyone else outside a very narrow circle of people know what those inside that circle are thinking...

Phil, oh, it's possible -- you could probably anchor one of them in a captured port and use it as a temporary airfield, for example. Or a really good staging area for hauling supplies by helicopter.

Jennifer, most of the people who use the word "socialism" have no idea what the word means. It's simply an expletive for them -- a meaningless snarl, like "Marxism." A recent letter to the editor in our local paper here in Cumberland insisted that the Democratic Party was, ahem, "neo-Marxist.' I'm far from a fan of Marxism, but trying to insist that a party that supports essentially the same things the GOP supported in 1980 is any kind of Marxist -- neo or otherwise -- is a pretty fair demonstration of cluelessness.

Jim, it's a fascinating question whether the hardware will rust before it gets blown up, or vice versa. I suspect the latter, but that's largely because the US is so enthusiastic about using it.

Kurt Cagle said...

Very enjoyable essay this week - and I found the discussion of different forms of complex systems intriguing.

Several years ago I was at a technology conference where one of the speakers was a contractor for the Navy developing submarine systems. While there were some very impressive shots of test missiles firing and the like, one of the most intriguing things he had to say was about the adoption of technology in submarines.

It goes very slowly. Their computer systems were built custom using five to seven year old chips that had proved their reliability, and the software was also something that was heavily tested for years before being used. The reason for this was simple - if you are two miles down, a computer malfunction could turn your ship into a radioactive coffin. As such, they tended not to be anywhere near as attractive to the beltway bandits as the surface navy purchasing new jets, carriers and the like.

My suspicion is that a hot war naval scenario would burn off the surface craft within the first week, but after that, it would become a submarine war of attrition. However, what taking out the surface ships does, even more than eliminating the supporting jets, is that it destroys the ability to build supply lines for transporting troops, equipment and supplies. This to me would imply that any naval war would very quickly degenerate into a stalemate - the subs can threaten any advances, but cannot be used to deploy troops in numbers.

Keep the series up - it's very thought provoking.

LewisLucanBooks said...

"...American culture has a very hard time dealing with uncertainty at all." Oh, yes. Often seen on this very blog. "Exactly when is collapse gong to affect me." "Which areas should I avoid because of radioactive fall out and when is it going to happen. Do I have time to pull the laundry off the line?" Not to say I'm immune from such impulses, myself.

Back when I worked in bookstores and libraries, there was always the customer who wants to know when his special order or on reserve book is going to arrive. You always get the feeling they want you to say something like "Thursday, at three in the afternoon." All you can do is predict (sometimes at your peril) a general window given data available.

One thing I read that stuck with me was in reference to WWII when the Jews were running in every direction trying to save themselves. On man stated "It was all so uncertain. If you turned left, you died. If you turned right, you survived.

We cannot prepare for every eventuality. You take each day as it comes and prepare as best you can. Seeing a clutch of jars lined up, filled with canned fruit or vegetables gives me a warm feeling of accomplishment and a small sense of preparedness.

John Michael Greer said...

Kurt, thank you! I'd heard much the same thing about submarines -- and I expect them to remain viable well after the aircraft carrier goes the way of Old Ironsides, not least because much harder to spot them from a satellite or a drone and punch a supersonic cruise missile through the hull ten minutes later. Your point about troop transport and logistics is crucial, though -- effective antiship weapons in hostile hands plus a loss of air superiority and the US loses essentially all its force projection capacity.

Lewis, I get the same feeling from the cans in our basement pantry and the thriving garden where a grass lawn in back used to be!

John Michael Greer said...

Sgage (offlist), thanks for the heads up. It's a sign of the times, I think, that so many people can't tolerate the idea that other people might honestly disagree with them -- and it doesn't surprise me a moment that the fast-collapse business has become infested with such people.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Thanks for the explanations of the words: chaos, discord, and confusion.

Also, I had to look up the definition of the word "militate". Nicely used, in correct context too. One of my pet hates is when people write, “myriad of”, when it should simply read “myriad”. Oh well, I'm banging on again.

Yeah, not to jump the gun (pun intended) on your upcoming essay on nuclear weapons, but over here only 1 federal politician has seen active military service. It may be different in the US?

It seems to me that if politicians won't risk themselves in active on the ground military roles, why would they then risk their children in a possible retaliatory nuclear confrontation? It gets back to what you were saying a few weeks back about the aristocracy. Fear is a potent driver of behaviour, especially in relation to self-interest.

Manliness is a funny thing too. It is one thing to speak and theorise about necking the rooster, but another thing all together to have to go and do it. Yes, those types that you speak of are probably frustrated and looking for an outlet, I sometimes wonder whether this is at the core of a lot of computer gaming addiction (returns with no risk)?

Sorry, I'm jumping around this week, please indulge me!

Years ago, I used to live next door to a commercial pilot. As an interesting side note he was a very affable dude and had a procession of air hostesses coming and going. It was always difficult because you'd never greet the hostesses by name as this could potentially lead to difficult times with the neighbour... Anyway back to the issue at hand, he told me once (and this was his opinion only) that prior to the collapse of the Ansett airline carrier in Australia, to stay flying just prior to the collapse, they abandoned maintenance to save costs.

Now, over here our newspapers make no bones about 2 issues regarding the US and its future:
a) The US empire is in decline; and
b) The US infrastructure is collapsing.

Some may differ, but I think the analogy with the airline collapse is quite apt.

Cherokee Organics said...


Onto another topic! I have an active dislike for GPS. You know, I think it has changed the way people view spatial contexts. I've never conducted a survey, but when I speak with people about locations, they tell me how to get to a place and not where that place is located. I'm like, "just tell me the address".

On the other hand, I have to then tell people how to get to a location, rather than just give them an address and leave it up to them. Then, they ring me up half way going, "I'm at an intersection, there's this large tree". Grrrrr.... hehe! Oh well.

A funny story too. A mate of mine despite having a PhD in science thought I was playing jokes on him because his GPS was telling him that he could get to my address without using unmade roads. What, how’s that possible?

On a road trip a while back, with another mate, who despite having never travelled through the Central Highlands here, was insisting that I should take this dodgy back road because the GPS was advising him that it was a short cut, when I knew full well how bad that road was. The other strange thing about that trip was that he was obsessed with the GPS on the smart phone rather than appreciating the spectacular scenery. I've often wondered whether people are a bit frightened or detached from nature and that holding onto such devices gives them a connection back to the world they know?

I may be repeating myself, but the limitations of the military with fighting the last battle doesn't gel with observing and learning from an ecological system which is constantly changing and challenging. On the farm, I am in a constant state of the unknown about what the weather will bring. One year is radically different from the next and I suspect that this may be an Australian environment thing. As such, you have to learn to adapt your infrastructure to become resilient to extremes and this is by no means an efficient way to go.

I worry about your drought, because over here a drought can go on for years and given the US status as an agricultural export country, well... There is no quicker way to make enemies than to remove the feed trough.

PS: Don’t blame me, someone else brought up movies! I had a couple of hours to burn the other day so off I went to see the new Batman film. Man, that film is dark and full of cultural symbolism. It doesn’t say nice things about US culture or the perceived ability of the authorities to respond to crisis.

PPS: I thought that the Empire Strikes Back was the pinnacle of the Star Wars story. Cute teddy bears don’t take out Empires…



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John and everyone,

This is another in a long series of truly shameless plugs, for my latest article on hugelkultur. It is interesting stuff because it involves using tree logs as a fertiliser source. Plus it has some video and you can truly appreciate just how big the trees get here! They're big.

Adventures in Hugelkutur in Australia

Hope you enjoy it and please leave a comment if you can.



Diane said...

I think that one of the reasons for the increase use of technology was that after the 1st and 2nd WW there was a believe that soldiers would mutiny. Sri Aurobindo in his letters made the following comment
"But I don't know about the soldiers—the hideous trench war with all its ghastly circumstances and surroundings was, I imagine, far more difficult to bear than the open air marching and fighting of the Napoleonic times."

The horror of those wars has been airbrushed out of history, but I don't think the military is too keen to test it,anyway. I don't believe they want to win the current spate of wars, just hang onto the territory, which is from what I can see, a large part of what war is all about.

I have contemplated the whole torture business over the years, and I think it has a strong sadomasocchistic element,which is why they use methods thousands of years old. Surely they have much more technologically superior, and non violent ways of obtaining information, No?

Dan said...

Our military is putting things before people whitch is thier biggest problem. It really needs to be people, ideals, and things in that order. The right people will make even bad policies work; though I doubt there is anything that could make our thoughtless ME strategy work. Fear is a lousy motivator of men.

Also, the biggest problem with torture is that it is evil. So, it is seen by our enemies, allies, and our own men as evil. Our enemies get to raise funds, recruit, open new fronts and expand existing ones while we are constantly dealing with rifts in our alliances because our allies don't want to be associated with evil. Furthermore the men we need to serve are repulsed by it while the men we don't want are drawn to it like moths to a flame. Bad Intel is the least of the problems with the policy. The moral trumps the physical or kenetec.


P.s. The National Weather Service has algos that are extremely accurate out to five days. The problem is it takes the best supercomputers about seven days to crunch through them. To speed things they have to go off on a tangent (straight line approximation) and intentionally introduce error to the models. Any increases in computing speed will quickly lead to more accurate forecasts. However increased computing speed is currently limited by the wavelength of the light used to make the chips, and ultimately by a confluence of the size of the atom and the speed of light. The low hanging fruit has already been plucked.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Forgot to mention it, but a lowly Australian Collins class diesel submarine took out several US ships in war games and even came within attacking range of the Abraham Lincoln. Oops!

HMAS Waller

Bet, they're still patting themselves on the back...



goedeck said...

To build on what Mustard said:
I have read that the Soviet T-34 tank had among its strengths simplicity of design. The reliable Kalashnikov rifle is in every corner of the globe.

Ivan Lukic said...

One should add to the equation the profile of people that shall be decision makers in future American wars. A few months ago I heard that Gen. Wesley Clark, who commanded Operation Allied Forces during Kosovo War, is interested in buying coal mines in Kosovo (there are huge deposits). And few days ago I heard that Madeleine Albright is interested in buying Kosovo Post and Telecom.

modler said...

Don't forget, the USS Constitution is still and active Duty US Navy ship, docked intact in Boston Harbor.
I think Old Ironsides will be viable long after both carriers and submarines have been docked due to lack od funds. We have alot to re-learn that she can teach;

She is a vessel capable of sailing the world, constructed and powered entirely by renewable materials using only windpower, manpower and hand tools with very little small scale manufacturing required for support. Her hemp rigging and lines were made from a fast growing renewable weed (hemp) that doesn't require synthetic fertilizers and also recharges the soil instead of depleting it. At the time she was built, military vessels were not very different from menchantmen (heavier built and more crew being tne main difference), and she remains an intact example from just before the pinnacle of sail powered vessels.
Products shipped by sail must have been very dear, valuable and rare. Items that were kept and used for generations, heirlooms worth repairing and handing down, and revered, not the disposable junk we are drowning in today. I predict wooden ships (likely small crewed junk-rigged coasters) will be making a big comeback as we step into a steady state economy.

Rant Done!

Karim said...

Although this post has pointed out the numerous and potentially fatal weaknesses of the US military, how bad and disastrous a defeat ought to be that it could cause the US empire to collapse?

To give an example, the loss of 2 or 3 navy carriers in the Persian Gulf would be a disastrous and an unexpected military defeat, but surely it cannot be enough to destabilise the US empire! After all the US possesses some 15 navy carriers worldwide!

In my limited understanding of things only a military defeat large enough to expel the US for years from the Persian Gulf for instance could possibly cause the collapse of the US empire. However I am unable to think how such a defeat could come about.

In short, in spite of the weaknesses of the US military, I fail to see how a military defeat can cause the decline of the US empire. It seems to me that there is need for a whole string of defeats together with crippling economic conditions together with internal troubles all combined to cause the collapse of the US empire. In short I am arguing that there could be more resilience in the US imperial system than we are crediting it with.

On this matter I respectfully disagree with JMG, although I still do think that this post has been very good and thought provoking.

On a side note, someone mentioned the US military base on Diego Garcia, some readers may be surprised to learn that Diego Garcia is part of the Chagos Archipelago right in the middle of the Indian Ocean. It was illegally detached from Mauritius(my home country) by the UK to make way for the base prior to our Independence (1968)from the UK.

The native population of those islands were, manu militari, deported to Mauritius and the Seychelles! A great tragedy for those people but a minor side note of US/UK imperial history.

Unknown said...

Tactics for destroying an aircraft carrier group using cheap assets have been developed and widely publicized. We can safely assume that the militaries of any future enemies will have studied them.

Nathan said...

'The major catastrophe is happening' - I think this is true most evidently in the health care system in America. It's broken, and getting continually worse.

But, if you widen your gaze, almost all the large, important systems are being hollowed out in our country. The rot has set it and it is obviously terminal. The 'major catastrophe' is that all these rotting interlocking systems are resistant to any substantial change by now.

Paul Chefurka said...

One recent example of this was the US Navy's Millennium Challenge 2002 exercise, in which a Marine general playing Red defeated the US Navy (Blue) in a Straits of Hormuz simulation .

From Wikipedia:

Red, commanded by retired Marine Corps Lt. General Paul K. Van Riper, used old methods to evade Blue's sophisticated electronic surveillance network. Van Riper used motorcycle messengers to transmit orders to front-line troops and World War II light signals to launch airplanes without radio communications.

Red received an ultimatum from Blue, essentially a surrender document, demanding a response within 24 hours. Thus warned of Blue's approach, Red used a fleet of small boats to determine the position of Blue's fleet by the second day of the exercise. In a preemptive strike, Red launched a massive salvo of cruise missiles that overwhelmed the Blue forces' electronic sensors and destroyed sixteen warships. This included one aircraft carrier, ten cruisers and five of six amphibious ships. An equivalent success in a real conflict would have resulted in the deaths of over 20,000 service personnel. Soon after the cruise missile offensive, another significant portion of Blue's navy was "sunk" by an armada of small Red boats, which carried out both conventional and suicide attacks that capitalized on Blue's inability to detect them as well as expected.

I don't think one could ask for a clearer demonstration of the kinds of issues JMG has been discussing in the last couple of blogs.

Martin Larner said...


What I don't believe to be speculation is that what you wrote about torture is universally understood, particularly by the hawks in the Pentagon and elsewhere who advocate it, since these people are extremely well informed and briefed by their subordinates who include field agents and intel analysts. They could not fail to be aware of the extensive studies on these matters.

Of course what they can never do is acknowledge that they know torture does not serve the purpose they claim it does, because that would mean admitting what they really use it for which is to get fabricated intel to support their pre-emptive and ongoing policy, hence the loudly screaming insistence that it is legal, necessary and justified in the face of all the evidence.

To me, it's the same mentality that has guys like Daniel Yergin constantly declaring cornucopia when he knows as well as anyone that the marginal oils he is hyping are just that.

Steve W. said...

JMG --

Your article this week reminds me of the Patriot missiles in the first Gulf War. The politicians, the Pentagon, and the MSM were all cheering over this new "wonder weapon." Turned out that, after the war ended, we were told that these missiles actually failed in their objectives over half the time!

Chris Nicholas said...

A very interesting post this week. I think you are correct in distinguishing between chaos, discord, and confusion and the predictable result of the diminishing return on US imperialism. However what I found even more interesting was applying your same three point analysis to your "End of the World this Week/Apocalypse Not" line of reasoning. Clearly you are assuming that the end of the world is a mythic thing that historically has been proven wrong time and time again with the implicit assumption that it isn't a “living thing” that can adapt to circumstance (like the metaphor of the hurricane and what if it could adapt). However what if the Apocalypse isn’t just myth, and there is a real Evil One, as in the devil, then the third option of confusion would be his greatest asset and his logical course of action. For the record I should disclose that I do believe that the Judeo-Christian scriptures are true and that there is an Evil One (and I know that a lot of people will ignore everything from this point on which is fine) but I also reject the analysis that modern western Christianity tries to use in these things and agree that it can often be over-simplified and plain wrong. The ancient Christians never dwelt on the end times per se, nor did the church fathers write very much about it. In fact it is virtually irrelevant to how you should live other than you should always be prepared to meet God. Anyway my main point is that you simply can’t use an a posteriori statistical analysis where all past behaviour of end-times predictions proved false and then leap to a cause and effect statement that since it never happened before it will never happen. I don’t think you have to even believe in a God or Devil to understand that climate change, the economic collapse of one global system, peak oil or any combination thereof is quantitatively and qualitatively different than any past experience in human history. In fact I can offer two clear examples that the apocalypse can be very real without any help from God or the Devil. Example one – if we have a global nuclear war the science clearly shows the survivors, if any, will be living in an apocalypse. Example two – the collapse of the closed Easter Island economy lead to the complete ending of all human life there and we now have an almost closed global economy/system. Your trivialization of the apocalypse meme seems to me to be pretty close to the cornucopian meme of faith that human resources are infinite so economic growth can be infinite. Anyway great post as always and I really enjoy reading your thoughts on things.

Chris Nicholas

jollyreaper said...

What I've never seen explained is how they operated the mechanics of that wargame. I'm assuming it was done as an elaborate pencil and paper sort of affair. Whoever was the game master would have to interpret the rules on the fly. How do they account for the unconventional? Motorcycle messengers, ok. How was that simulated? Did they just put a delay timer on the enacting of orders? "It takes x minutes per mile to relay this order, that site is 20 miles away, thus 20x delay in the order." I'm guessing that both sides were able to look at the specs for everything in the order of battle and agree on figures. How granular did they go with the simulation? Did they just say any suicide boat that gets within range of a ship has a 20% chance of making a hit? Did they simulate it down to .50 cal fire from sailors on deck?

You can lie to yourself so bad in these games depending on the assumptions you run with. It can be about as bad as proving a philosophy by having it work in a novel. You didn't prove a thing.

Ric said...

I don't want to get into a diversion on a hot-button issue, but I think my 2 cents is worth it here, as I seldom or never see this point made in other discussions.

You invite anyone claiming waterboarding is not torture to back it up by volunteering for it. IIRC, some of the tougher training exercises in the US military have included such procedures, by way of preparation for possible POW mistreatment. This might seem to provide a genuine riposte to your challenge.

But the equivalence is false. First, we may doubt that each individual administration is as severe during training. More fundamentally, to claim you have been subjected to the same as our prisoners, you would have to go through it dozens, even hundreds of times. Over a long period, interspersed with other rigors I need not detail here. While in the utterly complete control of your mortal enemies, with no hope of escape, with every moment of your existence dedicated to proving their permanent mastery over you.

These conditions cannot be reproduced in training or exercises, unless perhaps the subject is completely unaware of the context. Such circumstances might occur within the pages of Dune, but not in the US special forces. Riposte thus fails.

Ric said...

September 11, 2001, is an illuminating precedent for a systematic reaction to a shock. Not a military defeat in any conventional sense, of course, but the reaction reminds of nothing so much as those times when the immune system reaction goes far beyond the original attack from outside, to the point of imperiling the whole organism, yet fails to really address the cause of the initial damage.

John Michael Greer said...

Cherokee, your newspapers have a clue. I wish I could say the same thing about ours. Glad to see that the hugelkultur project is progressing!

Diane, that's an interesting speculation. It's probably not an accident that this happened just as sadomasochism was beginning to creep out of the whip closet to become one of America's hot new fashion trends -- the runaway success of Fifty Shades of Grey, which is for sale at grocery stores here in Cumberland, is an interesting sign of the times.

Dan, oh, granted, but you can't argue morality with most people -- there's such a kneejerk reaction against it. That's why I stress the practical reality that it doesn't work.

Cherokee, current diesel-electric submarines are remarkably silent and difficult to track. Another example of older technology that's just as effective as the hot (in the radioactive sense) new stuff.

Goedeck, the T-34 was in its own way an awesome piece of machinery: take a rugged vehicle with a good sturdy engine, armor it to a fare-thee-well, arm it with the biggest and nastiest cannon you've got, and then turn it out by the thousands. As the Wehrmacht found out even before Kursk, the result was hard to beat.

Ivan, war profiteers go back a long way, though it's embarrassing to see the US contributing so many to the list these days.

Modler, true enough. I expect that steel-hulled ships will be the first new wave of sailing craft, though -- the windjammers of the late 19th century were in their own way a triumph of maritime technology. Wooden ships will have to wait until salvaged steel becomes scarce enough, and trees common enough, that the economics work.

Karim, it doesn't necessarily take a catastrophic defeat to bring down a modern empire -- neither the British nor the Spanish empires, for example, collapsed that way. What it takes is a shock at the right time, when the empire is already crumbling from within -- as ours is -- to set off a sequence of internal breakdowns that the empire doesn't survive. I'll be sketching out an example in the fictional scenario I've got in the works.

Unknown and Paul, er, you're respectively the fourth and fifth people (unless I lost count) to bring up that same story. It sometimes helps to glance down through the comments...

Nathan, I'd say rather that the fossilization of our major systems is the necessary condition for the major catastrophe. As those systems start grinding to a halt, you'll see something a good deal more dramatic.

John Michael Greer said...

Martin, there I think you're wrong. It's crucial to realize that people who are wrong can believe, honestly and passionately, that they are right, and dismiss evidence that they're wrong in the same spirit with which you would dismiss the latest Pentagon press release. Access to accurate information means very little in the face of strong convictions; that's one of the massive challenges we face in trying to warn the world that the future of endless technological progress they think they've been promised isn't going to happen: no matter how strong the evidence may be, belief in what amounts to a secular religion of progress trumps it.

Steve, significantly more than half -- most of the Iranian missiles that crashed did so because they were poorly built, not because any of our missiles hit them.

Chris, if you want to be one of the people standing up there on the hilltops on December 21, 2012, waiting for the end of the world, don't let me stop you. For that matter, if you believe in the imminent arrival of the Great Pumpkin predicted by the prophet Linus, that's also your right. I won't be joining you -- and I also see no need to keep rehashing this same debate, which I've addressed many times here in the past. With apocalypses, as with speculative bubbles, it's always different this time -- but the differences somehow never seem to change the final result.

Reaper, as I understand it, it included both computer simulations and actual out-in-the-field exercises. Yes, the assumptions are always the issue -- which is why they abruptly changed the assumptions halfway through, because the Red team was cleaning our clocks.

Ric, I'd be interested to hear from anybody in the US military who has actually been waterboarded. The people I know who have defended the procedure certainly haven't mentioned any personal experience of the procedure!

Mart said...

Hi John,

Just wondering if you rejected my comment where I mentioned I'm not American so I don't know if it touches any nerves and would really like to know your thoughts on it (offline or online).



John Michael Greer said...

Martin, no -- it seems to have gotten lost in the Blogger queue. Try resubmitting the comment and we'll see if second time's the charm.

Hidden Author said...

6Did my comment also get lost in the blogger queue?

Mart said...

Hi John,

Ok, posting again, the article was Fisking the War on Terror. I found it years ago in a search to understand what was really behind the news stories at the time. That blog is what eventually led me here, via

I'm curious as to your take on the situation. Is it accurate? Is invading countries ultimately a losing strategy for example? Has America simply run its course or has it done a better job of making enemies than previous empires?

John Michael Greer said...

Hidden, no, it was off topic and belligerent. There are plenty of places on line where that sort of thing is welcome, but this isn't one of them.

Mart, as far as I know, it's a fairly accurate survey. As for your question about invading countries, it can be done, but not with the tools and techniques the US uses -- more on this next week.

wiseman said...

I am usually a lurker here but I'd like to jump in on this one and point out that although I agree with the overall premise of your article. I disagree with your assessment of drone technology.

Anyone who has studied modern warfare will tell you that the greatest assets of an Air Force are not it's planes but it's pilots. You can put an industry on hyperdrive and churn out one plane a minute but it's impossible to prepare good pilots in seconds. Drones are an answer to that, it makes sure that you never lose pilots and to add to that drones are actually far less complex than conventional jet fighters and they beat pilot driven aircraft on every count be it the ability to withstand G forces or flying round the clock. Their application may be wrong but this is the future, currently Air Forces around the world are resisting the temptation to replace their fighter crafts with fighter drones for obvious reasons(the pilots will be out of job) but sooner or later it's bound to happen. The future of air warfare is not Top Gun but XBox.

I am a fan of low tech but I don't believe in the meme blindly.

I think your argument holds good for Aircraft Carriers which are like giant nuclear powered sitting ducks in the age of hypersonic missiles but it doesn't apply to drones.

Jason said...

JMG: Ric, I'd be interested to hear from anybody in the US military who has actually been waterboarded. The people I know who have defended the procedure certainly haven't mentioned any personal experience of the procedure!

That doesn't surprise me. Here's a guy who submitted to it:

Watch Christopher Hitchens Get Waterboarded

... of course not a tough guy but he reckoned even a small amount of it had a traumatic ns effect and I can believe it.

phil harris said...

JMG and all
I loathe war with scared intensity.
I have not had much personal experience of plague - unless I count the polio epidemic when I was a child and seeing the TB Sanatoria on the English south coast; thankfully empty by then. And I still carry the smallpox vaccination mark on my arm. But I did experience war close up and personal when a child. (To begin to get imaginative grasp, think of dozens of diffuse 9/11s happening in all your big cities.) A decade ago I was working in Croatia and saw again the gut-turning marks of war. TV really does not convey the reality.

I am reading the excellent book by Bryan Ward-Perkins as recommended here recently. The Fall of Rome and the end of civilization. This is not about even a hundred thousand boys being repatriated in bags and boxes. Such latter day images hardly begin to introduce the horrors: a lot at stake folks!

JMG understated it well in an earlier reply. It doesn't take a philosopher king to realize, first, that since torture doesn't work, resorting to it is an admission of imbecility; second, that the Geneva Convention is there to protect our troops as well as the other guy's, and so our decision to ignore it and torture hostile guerrillas was a profoundly stupid move; third, going to war when you can be mathematically certain that the result will be a guerrilla conflict you can't win is not too bright either

Actually you do not have to be brought up as a 'warrior' to be militarily effective in defense. (I part company with Bryan Ward-Perkins a little on this one.) A previous Archbishop of Canterbury had been a tank captain in N Africa and in the Normandy landings. These guys knew what they were doing amid chaos. I was impressed that they had infiltrated their own logistics and command structures in order that they were not handed idiot instructions with poor backup. Effective citizen armies know they are fighting their own idiots as well as the guys out front who are every bit as clued up as they as are.
The most worrying indicative thing I saw in the USA recently was the response to Katrina. Contrast that with the 1909 SF earthquake & fire in order to judge your military and its command structure!


Richard Larson said...

The Superiority story has a certian familiar ring to it. Drives home your point.

The military has been a failure for some time - very noticable in the financial burden. However, the results of the military high expense is more of a long slow descent, not noticable to those who refuse to consider the possibilities, failure then evident when the wealth creators have nothing left to pay. In contrast to the sudden total complexity failure - as the idea in your blog.

Of course, me being amongst your readers, now know a normal progression of Empire.

Since I am having a hard time envisioning the hoards of the enemy pouring over the walls and killing all of our military personel, what in heavens name will these people killer-trained USMilitary men going to do once their pensions and/or support systems ceases (to function)?

Jim R said...

Perhaps not exactly on topic, but while we are discussing the fate of this gigantic military organization, another thought has occurred to me.

We've discussed arms-vs-armor.
And I brought up the now-underway economic collapse.
What about autolysis?

About five or six years ago, there was a story of a B52 with a live, nuclear cruise missile on its wing making a flight across the US from Minot ND to a base in Louisiana. I don't believe the whole story was ever made public.

And now and then, we read a story of 'Dominionist' officers within the ranks. You know, the ones who most sincerely believe in the fast apocalypse.

The political-economic-financial world is caught in a credibility trap, but there are apparently some folks who are not caught in a "credulosity trap", and who are aware of the issues we've been discussing, and are eager to do something.

Oh, and Mart, thanks for the Informed Comment link, as I had not seen that blog.

Ramaraj said...

Dear John,
Obsession with enemies and war can destroy a country from within. Pakistan is a good example. In its existential history of 65 years, it has been ruled for half the time by generals, who gutted every other sector of economy to feed the military machine. Indians and Pakistanis shared the same culture,language and customs till the countries were split. In the last six decades, the military establishment has destroyed all the elements of traditional culture, to the point that the Pakistanis are alienated from their true identities.

If an American military defeat happens in the future, such kind of reaction might happen,where Xenophobia and Racism will rule over all other emotions.

I have no expertise in military technology. But based on my experience in manufacturing machinery, here are a couple of monkeywrenches that may fall into the US military machine:

1. The military industrial complex could cut corners in the manufacturing of weapons, in everything from raw material quality to cheap components, just to make some more profit. Globalization only increases the opportunities to do this.

2. The software and technology industry popularized the trick of deliberately introducing flaws in the product to make more money in the form of upgrades and improvements. It is possible that the same trick is being played in the weapons industry.

3. Random, freak causes such as this mixup by NASA in its Mars Climate Orbiter can happen in any manufactured item.

John Michael Greer said...

Wiseman, when your pilots are thousands of miles away from your planes, the opportunities to put a monkey wrench somewhere in the link between them are just too many. (As the recent forcing down of the US drone over Iran showed, just for starters.) Like so many pieces of modern technology, drones are long as nothing goes wrong.

Jason, I was not one of Hitchens' fans, but the man certainly had the courage of his convictions.

Phil, the US used to respond quickly and efficiently to catastrophes far more severe than Katrina -- we have more weather disasters than any other country on earth, so we had plenty of practice. Katrina was a bellwether, and I suspect the next major hurricane to hit a US city will get an even more ineffectual and self-defeating response.

Richard, I'm sorry to say that's usually what civil war or domestic insurgency are for.

Jim, autolysis is always a possibility. I'm not as concerned with Dominionists as some -- my read is that the current wave of Christian fundamentalism has peaked, and will be replaced in the next decade by very different modes of Christian activism -- but there are plenty of other forces that could, under the right circumstances, push America into a self-feeding breakdown.

Ramaraj, that's very plausible -- well, more than plausible, since your first mode of breakdown is already a major issue in the US military.

Kurt Cagle said...

I'd like to add one more wee beastie to your chaos zoo - ossification, something you allude to in one of your comments. I see it a lot in code systems: most complex systems start out with fairly simplistic requirements that establish structure but also create constraints.

Over time, as the system faces external impulses that were not accounted for in previous designs, features are added on, typically in an ad hoc fashion, dealing less with the initial problem and more with the constraints.

Eventually, the constraints become so limited that the ability of the system to facilitate the original requirements gets lost.

Put another way, a great deal of software (and no small amount of hardware) is written by people writing patches. Indeed, the Apache Web Server, one of the most widely used web servers in use today, received its name after one of the originally developers noted that the software was a patchy affair.

If you're a student of fractal curves, one curve set I've always found fascinating are Peano Curves. These are space filling curves that partition a space into ever finer divisions. I believe that constraints can be modeled via such curves, with the interesting consequence of this being that the stability of a system can be determined by the degree of space filling.

A good example of this came for me several years ago when I had just left a coffeeshop and looked at the asphalt parking lot outside of it. The lot was weathered, and there were a number of major cracks that had in turn spawned minor cracks. In certain portions of the lot, the cracks had become so space filling that these areas were little more than loose gravel and were dangerous to park on. Inflexibility in the system was bringing about collapse. I see this happening at the macro-level now.

Kieran O'Neill said...

On the topic of waterboarding, back in 2008 I was staying with a friend in South Africa who didn't keep too up to date with global politics. When I explained to her that there was a serious and equally divided political debate raging in the US over whether or not waterboarding was an acceptable practice, she had difficulty believing it. After I had convinced her that this was the case, her response was "But that's like a banana republic."

In some ways, it's even worse than a "banana republic", as in those situations generally it's an autocrat of some sort ordering the torture, against the (cautiously quiet) disapproval of the populace. A situation where a significant fraction of the voters in a modern Western democracy actually advocate torture is pretty rare, at least in the past hundred years.

But I think American society can have a bit of a nasty streak to it at times. Some examples would be the popularity of eugenics pre-WWII (which took the uncovering of the horrors of the Nazis to stamp out), or the conditions in prisons in parts of the country (most notably the deep South). I wonder how this might factor into future post-imperial scenarios...

Hidden Author said...

Forgive me for taking the thread off into a tangent though to be fair, my post was related to the topic of whether the neocons were motivated by an insecure masculinity. But I still went off into a tangent and for that I apologize.

On the other hand, since this blog talks about branding sayings onto people with an iron and publicly executing bankers, I wonder what you mean by belligerent.

I'm sorry if I'm bugging you; it's just that I am not clear on the rules here.

Mean Mr Mustard said...

"The orbiters are silent now, waiting for the last awkward journey that will take them to the museums that will warehouse the grandest of our civilization’s failed dreams. There will be no countdown, no pillar of flame to punch them through the atmosphere and send them whipping around the planet at orbital speeds. All of that is over.

In Houston, the same silence creeps through rooms where technicians once huddled over computer screens as voices from space crackled over loudspeakers. The screens are black now, the mission control rooms empty, and most of the staff have already gotten their pink slips. On the Florida coast, where rusting gantries creak in the wind and bats flutter in cavernous buildings raised for the sake of a very different kind of flight, another set of lauch pads sinks slowly into their new career as postindustrial ruins."

RIP, Neil Armstrong.

Justin said...

A general comment in response to the consensus assumption that Americans are too racist/blind/ignorant/religious/etc. and will therefore be duped/reactionary/violent as the apparatus of empire falls apart.

I can't speak for all of them, but I've lived just about everywhere in the country except for the midwest, worked in a bunch of places, could have been classified socioeconomically as in poverty, upper middle class, middle class, and now working class. Two things have always remains constant.
1. Everyone thinks they are intelligent, thoughtful, and see through the BS.
2. Everyone thinks that its everyone else who's an ignoramus.

I know all the people can't be all right all of the time, but I do think all the people can be alright some of the time. And while its also true that you'll never go broke underestimating stupidity, you can worry yourself sick overestimating the consequences of their stupidity.

As it is now, we have a remarkable number of suicide bombers in our system that have been driven to a breaking point, the latest being the shooter at the Empire State building. As things slow down enough so that people can have a chance to catch their breath, take stock, and reassess, they'll be fine.

The frightening thing to consider is the interim, as fossil fuel energy becomes scarcer and the economy is still pushed toward perpetual expansion and effeciency, that energy gap is going to be filled by human labor. Call it the John Henry effect of de-industrialization.

Just my thought on the matter.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Thanks for the nice words about the hugelkultur experiment. It's nice to have the time and space to learn and experiment with different methods of food production. So much knowledge has been lost and most books I come across seem to have been written with commercial yields in mind.

Thanks for taking the time to write about the Moon Path too. I'm getting a lot personally out of it. It is interesting reading a different perspective on concentration too, because my work background has taught me to concentrate for hours on end.

I'm not entirely sure that being able to achieve such long spans of concentration is a good thing either as I'm finding that having a lot more distance from this practice in my life has resulted in an increase in creativity.

Your explanation of the meditation technique is one of the best that I have read. Sometimes I really appreciate having my hand held through a difficult and new process.

On an interesting and also related note, there is a recurring meme in society that people are busy. I'd postulate that workplaces would be far more productive and creative if people were allowed a small amount of time to be able to reflect and cogitate on the issues at hand. Too often, business owners, economists and executives are fixated on labour productivity over quality. Also creative problem solving can not happen if people are fixated on output.

On reflection, I think that the short term cycles and applications / solutions within our society are speeding up. However, I don't know whether this is a factor of ageing or experience?

PS: Spring has sprung here! The daffodils are out in flower and my first blossoms on a fruit tree turned up in the last day or so (a plumcot which is an Apricot / Plum hybrid). Plus, I'm drowning in eggs and lemons! How a dozen chooks produce so many eggs is way beyond me...



LewisLucanBooks said...

There's an interesting article over on, today. About Pentagon spending. It asks questions about how many golf courses the army needs or how necessary is Nascar sponsorships.

It put me in mind of one of the (many) reasons the Nazis didn't pull off a victory. Some of their rolling stock of trains was being used for non-military purposes. Trains were commandeered to shuttle looted art. The trains rolled to the concentration camps, right up to the end of the war.

Jennifer D Riley said...

"socialism" and "neo-marxism" as expletives. Thanks. I rarely read any of my own town news; but this week, my town council has finally voted to allow backyard chickens w/in the city limits. Only took a year, and a year ago, some wise person added an ancient chicken coop in the middle of town to the National Register of Historic Places. Of course, my tiny credit union is on the list of underwater via real estate bust, so backyard chickens might be a timely concession.

tristan said...


You said: I'm not as concerned with Dominionists as some -- my read is that the current wave of Christian fundamentalism has peaked, and will be replaced in the next decade by very different modes of Christian activism

As someone who did their Masters on the Christian Right is there a possibility you might cover your thoughts on this in a future post? Or has it been covered in the past and I missed it?


John Michael Greer said...

Kurt, that's also part of the zoo, no question. I tend to call it the Law of Receding Horizons: first you focus on the goal, then on the means to the goal, then on the means to the means to the goal, and so on; rinse and repeat, and the goal becomes completely misplaced.

Kieran, America is a banana republic for all practical purposes -- and yes, there's a mean streak in our national character. It's got competition, but it's definitely there.

Author, it's pretty simple -- don't hammer on points that you've already made and don't get belligerent at your fellow commenters.

Mustard, yeah, that hit home. It's dizzying to realize that I may well be alive at a time when no living person has touched the surface of the Moon.

Justin, agreed -- it's very easy to assume that those who disagree with the official intelligentsia (or whatever other label you want to apply to the chattering classes) are simply stupid. As a resident of flyover country, I'd suggest that it's nothing like so simple -- or so comforting to the collective ego of said chattering classes.

Cherokee, may it be a lovely spring! Glad you find the meditation material in The Druidry Handbook useful, too.

Lewis, and of course that's a good point as well.

Jennifer, congrats, and long live the glorious revolutionary chicken-tariat!

Tristan, I haven't covered it here yet -- it's part of a series of reflections on the c. 30 year life cycle of American popular religion, and the way that American popular Christianity in particular seems to swing back and forth between liberal (late 19th century social gospel, 1930s to 1960s Christian liberalism) and reactionary (both historical waves of fundamentalism, 1900-1930 and 1980-now) modes. My guess is that we're due for a swing back to the left pretty soon now.

Albatross said...

Hi there Archdruid.

I just saw an article in NewScientist, 23 Aug 2012, that discusses the mathemathical underpinnings on the rise and fall of empires: Calculated violence: Numbers that predict revolutions. (

From the article:

"Turchin [Peter Turchin] has not always been a bull in the china shop of history. A professor at the University of Connecticut, he is a respected mathematical ecologist with a lengthy list of influential papers on animal movements and populations behind him. "It was a midlife crisis," he recalls. "I turned 40, and I had achieved tenure and some notoriety in population dynamics. At some point I thought, 'Where is the challenge?'" So he started looking for a new field where he could put his formidable mathematical chops to work. "It turns out that the only science that didn't have that already was history. The field was wide open." So Turchin rolled up his sleeves and began the familiar process of forming hypotheses and testing them."

"Reasoning that the fate of an empire rests ultimately on social cohesion, he has used historical records to track the prevalence of what he calls collective violence - deaths due to political assassinations, riots and civil wars, but not international wars or ordinary crimes - in three major civilisations, the Roman Republic, medieval Europe and Tsarist Russia. Applying mathematical tools borrowed from population biology, he has found that in each case deaths from collective violence follow two superimposed cycles, one spanning two to three centuries and the other about 50 years (Secular Cycles, Princeton University Press, 2009). What's more, he thinks his data provide enough leverage to understand what drives the longer cycle."

I thought this might be of interest to Arcdruid and readership (to read the whole article registration at NewScientist is neccessary, but that's free). I have been following this very enlightening blog since I happenstance happened upon it just as you were starting up the theme on 'Empire' abouts half a year ago.

All the best,

Johan said...


I know -- it's just that there's such massive confusion about "technology" all over the Internet that I felt compelled to register a protest!

My reading of the NWC article I linked is very similar to your answer to Phil Knight: there are and will be militarily useful roles for carriers. I doubt that will matter much, though, since the No. 1 role in the minds of voters and politician is probably that of symbol of US might, and we all know the US is invincible...

And now for something completely different: can you recommend any good work on analysis and modelling of systems consisting of humans? It seems to me that there are certain differences between a "mechanical" system and one with human components. It need not be introductory-level work.

@Cherokee Organics,

Thanks for the story of HMAS Waller! I didn't know that. The Australian Collins submarines are related to the Swedish Gotland class submarines, which have also accomplished similar feats. See HMS Gotland.

Tyler August said...

Everyone who is insisting that it is different now because of WMDs should probably look at the little-known history of Sarin Gas. The fact that it was invented in Nazi Germany; the fact that, after the war, the Allies and were faced with stockpiles consisting of tonnes of nerve agents that they had no knowledge of, experience with, nor antidote for.

It is a little-known history because these agents were never used. The Germans had the capacity to kill thousands of Untermensch in the east and (possibly) turn the tide of war, but did not; they feared retaliation in kind. To the last days of the war, cowering beneath bombed-out Berlin, Hitler never ordered the use of his WMDs.

Now, in visions of military collapse, I doubt that anyone envisions conditions in Washington resembling anything remotely like the Siege of Berlin. If the Nazis could resist the temptation of unleashing Armageddon under such conditions, I am hopeful that Americans can remain at least as sanguine in response to foreign defeats and domestic fuel shortages.

Perhaps I am presaging the Archdruid's next post; if so, I apologize.

Allison said...

An article in The Guardian is openly discussing US defeat in Afghanistan now:

Unfortunately, it seems to suggest that we can't leave, even though we probably should. As you say, JMG, this is what collapse looks like - an utter dearth of workable options to prop up the status quo, followed by various catastrophes.

Mark Angelini said...

Very intriguing ride you've been taking us on. I'm finding it most useful.

There's an incredible amount of fear and hype around these new gizmocentric military strategies, as you've described them. I've been hearing lots of conspiracy theory "on the streets" recently about militarized police forces and drone warfare—people are getting paranoid. Maybe there's something growing in the collective unconscious about the reality of America's fate...

Anyways, I'm already knee deep in kim chee and sauerkraut! :)

PS I just recently picked up the book The Integral Urban House by the Farallones Institute. What a gem! Thank you for putting out the call to recover these 70's era publications.

Jennifer D Riley said...

Chick-tariat is right. Although the ordinance has passed, the protective covenants of home owners associations still rule. Plus there's a wacky calculation that the limit (5 hens max, no rooster) have to be housed within 15 feet of the homeowners house and no closer than 25 feet from a neighbor's house, so no putting the coop at the back of your lot. Plus a $50 application fee which to me just sounds like someone raised taxes.

Diane said...

totally off topic but I just have to ask, is that little message about no guest blogs on the Archdruid Report new or has it always been there? Reason I ask as I am notorious for suddenly noticing stuff that has been there all the time. When I was a young woman I sat at a desk opposite an older man and noticed he had a mustache, I thought it was new, he told me he had it for over 3 years :-)

Sooper said...

One question I have that (that I
am only asking for a guess-answer to)
is "When can we expect that
nukes will start being cannibalized
as (peaceful) nuclear fuel?
Never? And who will start doing so?

John Michael Greer said...

Albatross, about once a decade somebody announces that they've come up with a numerical formula for history. I'm open to the possibility that one of them is right, but I'd like to see an experimental test. What I have in mind is this: twenty detailed predictions about twenty different countries -- and then we wait and see what percentage of them are accurate. So far, I don't know of any such formula that has passed such a test -- and quite a few that have failed.

Johan, systems modeling of human beings is hugely scale-dependent. The larger the number of human beings making decisions in your system, the more closely it approximates a biological or even a mechanical system. For small groups, I don't know of anything that's really worthwhile; for large groups, any textbook of systems analysis for business -- and there are dozens of these -- will give you as much detail as you want.

Tyler, it's an excellent point! That won't be the theme of my next post, but yes, it's precisely relevant to the upcoming post on nuclear deterrence in an age of decline.

Allison, nicely phrased. The thing is, we will leave, whether we "can" or not.

Mark, a lot of that is what Jung called projection of the shadow -- a lot of people in the US these days are using the government as an inkblot on which to load their own unacknowledged craving for power.

Jennifer, I have no idea why anyone would buy a house in a neighborhood with restrictive covenants. When my wife and I went house shopping here in Cumberland three years ago, one of the first things we said to the realtor was that we didn't want anything of the kind, and he had no trouble finding us a place without nonsense of that kind.

Diane, no, it's new. I've been bombarded of late by spammers who want me to let them put up guest posts whoring various products and services to this blog's audience.

Sooper, I don't expect that ever to happen, for reasons I'll be discussing at length in an upcoming post.

Unknown said...

"A couple of horsemen short of an apocalypse..." brilliant.

RainbowShadow said...

Regarding the "flyover country" comment, here are my thoughts:

I've recently gotten into country music, and have been studying some of the history and politics.

Let me make a comparison between the Dixie Chicks and Ted Nugent and Hank Williams Jr.

When the Dixie Chicks criticized George W. Bush, the country music fans screamed that the Dixie Chicks were un-American and needed to "shut up" and be silent.

But now Hank Williams Jr. and Ted Nugent have publicly denounced Obama as a Muslim, a Communist, and an America-hater (which are all charges that are simply not accurate), and they're paying no political price among country music lovers like the Dixie Chicks did.

So, I must admit I do have a somewhat low opinion of people in flyover country, because if this is typical behavior (and I don't know if it is or not, I don't live where you do), then I can only conclude that people in flyover country stand for "personal responsibility", unless you're ONE OF THEIR OWN, in which case you are above all criticism.

I could be wrong, though. Do country music fans practice the double standard I just mentioned where you live, JMG?

Phil Knight said...

IIRC the reason the Nazis didn't use their Sarin gas reserves is because they knew that the US had DDT, which was the chemical near equivalent.

The Nazis rationalised, wrongly, that if America had managed to chemically formulate that particular pesticide, there was no way they could have overlooked the nerve gas equivalent.

This suggests that a particularly clever power could develop nuclear facilities for purely peaceful means, without weaponising them, and let their enemies spook themselves into fearing them.

As for the numerical formula for human behaviour, I recall that Arthur Conan Doyle put the principle in the mouth of none other than Sherlock Holmes - that though he could tell what a hundred men would do in any given situation, he was clueless to predict the behaviour of any individual in the same predicament.

(Can't remember the exact short story, alas, but the idea did stay with me)

Jennifer D Riley said...

@JMG yep, agree, if I were going to fork out moolah for a mortgage, it certainly would not be for a "protected covenant" piece of property. In a small, small, town I know, the cul-de-sac denizens will inquire as to why you're carrying out a few fresh food scraps, salad trimmings, burying it in the ground where it's invisible to all except the earthworms, tulips bulbs, and maybe the sentinel birdbath. They'll offer to relocate your intended to the end of the street or some such.

Ricardo Rolo said...

I remember quite well of the first time I read Superiority and it really struck a nerve on me at the time ( I'm a recovering technoaddict ;) ). The idea of inevitable progress is so much ingrained in the western Europen philo from a couple of centuries up to now that the mere concept that a unsophisticated and weaker enemy can win a war is a hard pill to swallow .

Anyway, as i got late to the party ( you most likely are writing the next instalement at this point ), but just let me say the scenery that me and some of my friends ended getting for the crisis that will mark the decline of the United states ( our group is a bunch of guys that know since high school and that specialized in various parts of knowledge, from biology to history and we ended on this topic in one of those Sunday afternoons ... ).

Basically, at this point the only thing that is still keeping the US empire running is fear and a perception ( misguided or not ) that the US military has no real match since 1990. Any sense of affinity with the US based on values was pretty much eroded to dust in the last two decades except in countries that are suffering a similar evolution to autoritarism, so even the symphatetic feelings generated due to the 9/11 are long lost.

The issue is that both fear and the sense of impotence against the US can be lost by a simple thing: a lost war where the token Pride weapons ( the ones that the Empire in question uses to scare the "natives" ) are beaten. ANd to be honest, we could definitely see a war in the Persian gulf and with the US putting a task force or two inside it as it did in both Iraquian conflicts ending it with those task forces sunk, the 5th command abandoned or destroyed and with the US licking wounds.

OFC this is not enough to put the US Empire out ( note, we were talking of the US Empire, not the USA or the Americans ). But a cabal and solid defeat will only serve to show the negative side of a Empire of basis: the fact that, unlike what Sun Tzu preconized, someone that goes that path is outnumbered and weak everywhere ... and if someone beat the pride weapons, why can't "we" beat that ragtag bunch in that bunker up there ?...

Besides that the fact that the US would not be in control of the Hormuz strait would force inevitably a shift of alliances, especially in a context of scarcity of cheap oil ( that war would even exarcebate things ). We might not even think much of that, but the unspoken assumption that someone is keeping the Hormuz strait open to international navigation ( the strait after all is all national waters of Iran and Oman and only their bayonet forced "goodwill" allows the oil to get out without problems or uber taxing ) is a powerful tool in the hands of whoever has the navy to control it. And if the US Navy , doesn't, someone will ... and after that the main wealth pump of the Empire dries out.

Not saying that the US Empire will crumble to nothingness rapidly even if that happens: History is filled of cases of Empires that dwindled slowly for centuries after their heyday or even flourished after a serious and aparently unrecoverable defeat ( Rome, for example ). But, to be honest, i don't see internal conditions inside the USA to power up another global empire initiative for quite a while ...

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

With respect to Sooper's question about cannibalizing nuclear weapons for fuel, I am under the impression that that has been going on for years as part of U.S. and international non-proliferation efforts. Countries that have nuclear weapons on their soil and don't want them anymore turn the bombs over to the U.S., which extracts the fissionable material, blends it with less enriched uranium until it isn't weapons grade any more, and then returns the uranium to the source country for free or a cut rate, to use in their reactors.

Some of the countries that have participated in this swords-to-ploughshares arrangement are former Soviet satellites. Others are developing nations that briefly got into the nukes game for status reasons, and were offered economic and political incentives to get out again. As a result, despite India and Pakistan getting the bomb, the number of countries known or suspected of having nuclear weapons is lower than it was fifteen or so years ago.

I remember seeing a segment on the Rachael Maddow show (she's a liberal cable news host) within the past year about a country that agreed to have all its nuclear weapons rounded up and shipped away on the Q. T. Unfortunately, I don't remember which country it was.

. josé . said...


You might be amused at the coincidence of this week's Time magazine cover. It's a picture of Xi Jinping, and includes the tagline "...the new president who really matters."

Renaissance Man said...

Shusaku's Ear-reddening move!
With J. Weed seeing his nation breaking up around him, there really isn't a 'United' States to defend any longer, so using missiles in defence of a nation that no longer exists would be pointless, even to the most megalomaniacal fanatic. If the troops at the keyboards even took orders any longer.
The break-up scenario is pretty much that described 30+ years ago by the soviet analyst (whose name I can neither remember nor find) whose conclusions were greeted by the rentier class with the same sort of derision as the Club of Rome report "Limits to Growth". Except Limits to Growth is coming true and I found the breakup hypothesis plausible back then and I believe it remains plausible, given the geographic size of the United States (and Canada).
Just my own observation (I haven`t studied this or anything) but it seems to me that whenever people inhabit an area, they tend to create their own local cultures, even within the context of a wider source-culture. In my own experience, I can see the differences between people in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, people in BC, people in Northern Ontario, people in Southern Ontario, all of whom come from the same root stock, at about the same time, and from the same culture, under the same government under Queen Victoria. The differences are shaped by the land: in BC it`s primarily extractive primary economy of mining and logging and maritime trade, across the prairies the prime economy is agricultural and energy supply, in northern Ontario, it`s extractive again, and in Southern Ontario it`s manufacturing and industry and finance. Each area seems to create a different mindset, the way different trades do: a plumber does not look at a building quite the same way a stonemason does.
Now I have not enough first-hand experience of the U.S. to say confidently, but from what I have heard, read, and the little I do know, I see the same regional tendencies existing there, so, given enough motivation, and increasing loss of faith in central authority, I`d say another break-up is more likely than not, but this time without a rising central power to counter the devolution.
It`s a natural course across history: nations come together, then break up into smaller nations, then reunite. History shows us this happened in Germany, France, Central Europe, Russia/USSR, China, and India over the course of millennia. I see no reason why not continental North America, too.

G-fan said...

I'm no fan of Luttwak's politics, but his points about the logic, or rather the illogic of strategy, fit right in with the points you've made.

This is a very old taping, 1978. If anyone makes the investment to listen to near the end, they can hear a lucid argument about America's mixed up view on violence, and a discussion of US police then vs. European/Japanese police. Things have been turned upside down in the intervening years, US police have become institutions of thuggery against the undesirables, while statistically violence in the USA has seen a huge decline, driven by the criminalization of every crime the poor commit (while legalizing every crime of the rich).