Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Specter of Military Defeat

I’ve come to think that the single greatest obstacle that stands in the way of a clear understanding of the predicament of our age is the insistence that the past has nothing to teach the present.  You might think that after the recent crescendo of speculative bubbles, the phrase "it’s different this time" would have gotten a well-earned rest, having been worked nearly to death by the promoters of the dot-com and real estate bubbles.

No such luck; those of my readers who follow the comments on these essays will have noted how often that same claim gets used by those who insist the future must obey the fantasies that modern industrial culture demands of it. Progress and apocalypse, business as usual forever or overnight collapse, are the Tweedledee and Tweedledoom of the modern imagination, and the mere fact that history doesn’t work that way is easy enough to brush aside by claiming that modern industrial society is so much more—fill in your preferred adjective here—than any past society, and therefore it’s perfectly justifiable to dismiss history and insert the warmed-over religious myth of your choice in its place. The fact that the identical argument gets used to bolster arguments for both alternatives simply adds to the irony.

I mention this here because the topic we’ll be exploring over the next few weeks tends to draw the insistence that "it’s different this time" the way a dead rat draws flies. I intend to talk about the role of the US military in the downfall of American empire, and the suggestion I propose to offer is that one of the most likely triggers for an American imperial collapse is the experience of dramatic military defeat. I’m not suggesting, furthermore, that such an experience will happen in spite of the immense power of today’s US military machine; I’m suggesting that it will almost certainly happen because of that vast preponderance of force.

I’ve commented before that nothing seems so permanent as an empire on the verge of its final collapse, or as invulnerable as an army on the eve of total defeat. That’s a good general rule, but it’s even more crucial to keep in mind in thinking about military affairs.  The history of war is full of cases in which the stronger side—the side with the largest forces, the strongest alliances, the most advanced military technology—was crushed by a technically weaker rival.  That unexpected outcome can take place in many different ways, but all of them are a function of one simple and rarely remembered fact: military power is never a single uncomplicated variable.

Any number of examples could be cited, but the one I’d like to bring up here was usefully anatomized in Robert Drews’ 1993 book the End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe of c. 1200 B.C.  I trust my readers will forgive a somewhat lengthy excursus into what, for most people these days, is an unfamiliar corner of the past. Those who know little and care less about the late Bronze Age should follow along anyway; once we get past the exotic details, the story may begin to seem oddly familiar.

The eastern Mediterranean in the 13th century BCE was at or near the cutting edge of technological complexity at that time, and that inevitably expressed itself on the field of war.  Earlier, battles used to be fought by lines of massed infantry using spears, but the rise of a new suite of technologies—the horse-drawn chariot, and new and powerful composite bows—revolutionized warfare, allowing relatively small armies of highly mobile and mechanized troops to run rings around old-fashioned infantry armies and cut them down from a distance with lethal firepower. If you want to call the resulting mode of warfare "blitzkrieg," you won’t be too far off.

Chariots, by the standards of the time, were a complex and expensive technology, and they required the highly trained personnel on the front lines and the large and expensive organizational systems behind the lines that complex and expensive military technologies always do.  The superpowers of the day, Egypt, Assyria, and the Hittite Empire, put quite a bit of their annual budgets into chariot procurement and related costs, fielding anything up to several thousand chariots for major battles; smaller nations, most of them client states of one of the big three, had their own more modest chariot armies. Since a relatively small chariot army could defeat a much bigger force of spearmen, most kingdoms didn’t  bother to have any more infantry than they needed to man the walls of fortresses and add a few extra pompous circumstances to the royal court.

It was a stable, rich, technologically advanced society—and then, over a few decades to either side of 1200 BCE, it crashed into ruin. The Hittite capital was sacked, its empire collapsed, and the Hittites as an independent people vanished from history forever. City-states from Mycenean Greece straight down the eastern Mediterranean littoral to the borders of Egypt were sacked, burned, and abandoned. Surviving documents refer to unknown ships appearing suddenly off the coast, and record frantic pleas to allies for military aid. Finally, in 1179 BCE, the raiders come into the full light of history as the Sea Peoples—that’s the name the Egyptians used for them—launched an all-out assault on Egypt itself.

What made the raiders all but unstoppable, Drews showed, was that they had come up with a suite of military technologies and tactics that efficiently crippled chariot armies. Their key weapon was the javelin. Chariot armies depended on mobility and the ability to maneuver in close formation; swarming attacks by light infantry, who could get in among the chariots and use javelins to injure, kill, and panic the chariot horses, shattered the maneuverability that made chariot armies otherwise invincible. Combine that with fast ships that allowed the raiders to come out of nowhere, annihilate armies sent to stop them, pillage and burn every town within sight, and vanish again, and you have the recipe for a shattering military revolution.

And Egypt?  Egypt survived and triumphed, in a thoroughly Egyptian way.  It was the oldest of the superpowers of its era, and the most conservative; it had a modern chariot army, but it also still had the knowledge base and infrastructure necessary to organize and use an old-fashioned army of massed infantry armed with spears and shields. That’s what Ramses III and his generals did, scrapping their chariots and returning to an older and more resilient way of warfare, and so the Sea Peoples crashed headlong into an enemy that had none of the weaknesses on which their tactics depended. The resulting battles were the kind of straightforward slugging match where sheer numbers count most, and Egypt had them; the Sea Peoples got the stuffing pounded out of them, and the survivors scattered to the far corners of the Mediterranean world.

There were many other factors that fed into the long and bitter dark age that followed the invasions of the Sea Peoples, but let’s concentrate on the military dimension for the time being. Egypt and the Hittite Empire were pretty much equal in military terms; the great battle between them at Kadesh in 1275 BCE ended in an Egyptian retreat, but the forces pitted against one another were of equivalent size and effectiveness.  The loose coalition of barbarian chiefdoms that the Egyptians called the Sea Peoples was immeasurably inferior to either one in conventional military terms—that is to say, they had no chariots, no chariot horses, no composite bows, and military budgets that were a tiny fraction of those of the superpowers of the day. Furthermore, the weapons systems used by the Sea Peoples were radically simpler than those of the superpowers, almost embarrassingly primitive compared to the complex technology of chariot warfare. That didn’t keep them from bringing the Hittite Empire down in flames and posing a threat to Egypt that only a stroke of military genius nullified in time.

The central lesson to be learned from this bit of ancient history is that military power is always contextual.  What counts as overwhelming power in one context can be lethal weakness in another, and the shift from one context to another can take place without warning. Thus it’s never safe to say that because one nation has a bigger military budget, or more of whatever the currently fashionable military technology happens to be, than another, the first nation has more military power than the other. In fact, if the first nation has enough of an advantage, and the second nation has the brains the gods gave geese, the first nation is very possibly cruising for a bruising.

Let’s look at another example, one that I’ve cited here more than once already: the British Empire on the eve of its dismemberment. In 1900, it was official policy that the British military was to be able to take on the next two largest powers in the world at any moment, and beat them both. That commitment drove a hugely expensive naval building program, backed by research and development so rapid that the world’s most powerful battleship in 1906, the then-newly commissioned HMS Dreadnought, was hopelessly obsolete by the time war broke out in 1914.  That and millions of pounds spent elsewhere made Britain, by every conventional measure, the strongest military power in the world at that time.

The problem, as mentioned earlier, was that most of that gargantuan expenditure went into projects that didn’t amount to a hill of beans when war finally came. Britain’s vast naval fleet spent most of the war tied up to the quays, waiting for the inferior German fleet to come out and fight; when the latter finally did so, the result was the inconclusive Battle of Jutland, after which both fleets sat out the rest of the war in port.  A fraction of that money put into developing antisubmarine warfare, say, or jolting the British Army out of its 19th century notions of strategy and tactics, might have had a significant impact on the war, but battleships were central to the British notion of how wars were supposed to be fought, and so battleships were where the money went.

What’s more, after the First World War ended and the Second loomed, the British military remained fixated on the same kind of thinking. While rising powers such as Japan and the United States flung their resources into aircraft carriers and laid the foundations for the future of naval warfare, Britain dabbled in naval aviation and entrusted its defense to battleships. Only a near-total failure of strategic imagination in the Kriegsmarine, Germany’s naval arm, kept that from being fatal; if Nazi Germany had paid attention to its Japanese ally, built half a dozen aircraft carriers before the war, and used those to carry out a Pearl Harbor-style strike on the British Navy in the spring of 1940, Britain would have been left wide open to an invasion across the Channel once France fell. As it was, most British naval forces in the Pacific were efficiently targeted and destroyed by Japanese planes early in the war.

Chariots and battleships are simply two examples of a common theme in military history:  any military technology that becomes central to a nation’s way of war attracts a constituency—a group that includes officers who have made their careers commanding that technology, commercial interests who have made their money building and servicing that technology, and anyone else who has an economic or personal stake in the technology—and that constituency will defend their preferred technology against the competition until and unless repeated military defeat makes its abandonment inescapable. One weapon such constituencies routinely wield is the military scenario that assumes that the enemy must always make war in whatever way will bring out their preferred technology’s strengths, and never exploit its weaknesses. 

As far as I know, whatever literature ancient Egyptian chariot officers, horse breeders, and bow manufacturers may have churned out to glorify chariot warfare to the Egyptian reading public has not survived, but there’s an ample supply of books and articles from British presses between 1875 or so and the Second World War, praising the Royal Navy’s invincible battleships as the inevitable linchpin of British victory.  All this literature was produced to bolster the case for building and maintaining plenty of battleships, which was to the great advantage of naval officers, marine architects, and everyone else whose careers depended on plenty of battleships.  The fact that all this investment in battleships was a spectacular waste of money that might actually have done some good elsewhere did not register until it was too late to save the British Empire.

If my readers have any doubt that the same sort of literature is currently being churned out by the constituencies of today’s popular Pentagon weapons systems, I encourage them to visit the nearest public library and check out a copy of Tom Clancy’s 1999 puff piece Carrier: A Guided Tour of an Aircraft Carrier.  It’s a 348-page sales brochure for the most elaborate piece of military technology ever built, a modern nuclear aircraft carrier, which currently fills the same role in the US military that the battleship filled in that of imperial Britain. You needn’t expect to find substantive analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of this hugely expensive technology, or of the global military strategy or the suite of tactics that give it its context; again, this is a sales brochure, and it’s meant to sell carriers—or, more precisely, continued funding for carriers—to that fraction of the American people that concerns itself sufficiently with military affairs to write the occasional letter to its congresscritters.

The inevitable military scenario comes in the last chapter, where Clancy demonstrates conclusively that if a hopelessly outgunned and outclassed Third World nation were ever to launch a conventional naval attack against a US carrier group, the carrier group will probably be able to figure out some way to win. It would be a masterpiece of unintended comedy, if it weren’t for the looming shadow of all those other books before it, singing the praises of past military technologies whose many advantages didn’t turn out to include any part in winning or even surviving the next war.  Nor are carriers the only currently popular weapons system that benefits from this sort of uncritical praise; the US military is riddled with them, and thus with a series of potentially fatal vulnerabilities that rest partly on the unmentioned weaknesses of those technologies, and partly on a series of impending changes to the context of military action that follow from points we’ve discussed here many times already.

To sum up in advance the points I hope to make in the next few weeks, the US military faces at least three existential threats in the decades immediately ahead.  The first is that rising powers will devise ways to monkeywrench the baroque complexity of the US military machine, leaving that machine as crippled and vulnerable as Hittite chariots were before the javelins of the Sea Peoples. The second is that an ongoing revolution in military affairs will leave the entire massive arsenal of the US military as beside the point as all those British battleships were once the Second World War rolled around.  The third is that the decline in fossil fuel supplies will make it impossible for the United States to maintain a way of war that, reduced to its simplest terms, consists of burning more petroleum than the other guy.  We’ll talk about the first of these possibilities next week.

End of the World of the Week #35

One of the more overhyped bestsellers of 1997, Michael Drosnin’s The Bible Code got its fifteen minutes of fame by claiming that the Hebrew text of the Old Testament contains concealed letter sequences that predicted such then-recent events in Jewish history as the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. What was more, these same codes predicted that the end of the world would occur via a nuclear holocaust in 2006.

The sequences are there, too. The way the Bible Code works is simple: you take the entire Hebrew text of the Old Testament and program a computer to skip through it, taking every second letter, every third letter, every fourth letter, and so on, until you find the sequence you’re looking for.  If this suggests to you, dear reader, that you can find anything you’re looking for, you’re quite correct; according to an online Bible Code calculator I consulted, the phrase "Elvis shot JFK" can be found no less than three times in the Bible using Drosnin’s method.

A believer might take that as proof that Elvis, hidden in a sniper’s perch on the grassy knoll, fired three shots at JFK’s limousine. Those of us less convinced in the accuracy of such prophetic methods are welcome to find other interpretations—and, of course, the hard fact remains that the nuclear holocaust in 2006 didn’t happen.

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


Glenn said...

There's a rather obnoxious (poor manners, foul language) fellow who blogs as the war nerd, but he's also pretty sharp. He mentions modern, very accurate ballistic missiles, with or without nuclear warheads as a highly effective way to sink aircraft carriers. There is basically no defense against the tactic. Seems that China has perfected these, and at this point, no carrier is safe within 600 miles of China.

At any rate, carriers are a way of projecting power, which is to say, they are offensive rather than defensive. Definitely a weapon of Empire. Real fuel hogs too, though most of the American ones are nuke powered these days. But all their auxiliary and support vessels burn diesel or bunker and the airplanes burn jet fuel, so petroleum shortages can be a problem.

Marrowstone Island

Thijs Goverde said...

Well, mashed white elephants! Imma read that book! Here I am, spending roughly 33 years of my life thinking that the Trojan War was the ultimate story on c.1200 warfare, and now you caually point out that that was just a chariot-driven stalemate.
I'm gonna go out on a limb and guess that Homer's style may still beat that of mr. Drews, but still...

More to the point: we've got elections coming up (again; these days, governments generally last for two years around these parts instead of the traditional four... Couldn't be a sign that things are somehow crumbling, that the centre is experiencing some difficulty holding, could it? Naaah..) and one of the contested points will once again be the JSF fighter plane: will the proud renege, and step out of that project?
It would be nice if all Dutch politicians could somehow be made to read today's excellent post...

thevermontpatriot said...

What about scale? Could that not be the thing that is so different, the sheer loss of human life due to starvation and violence from wars and environmental degradation? As we look at the wars throughout history, we can see an ever-growing death toll peaking with WW2. I don't necessarily believe that it is inevitable, but don't we hold the potential for a much, much worse destruction beyond any known in history? While the Egyptian Empire survived, could not the Hittite experience be described as "apocalyptic"? Did the Hittite collapse happen quickly or relatively slowly? Does it really inform our current situation or can we read whatever we want in the stories of our past?

Thanks for bringing history into the conversation. I always look forward to your weekly post.

Silenus said...

That's an excellent book about the Bronze Age Collapse. I used to own it but later sold it.

Also, continuing the theme of all weapons systems and battle tactics are effective in relation to context, here's a nifty article, "There is No Best Sword."

John Michael Greer said...

Glenn, I read the War Nerd from time to time; annoying, sure, but he knows his stuff.

Thijs, Homer's certainly the better writer, and well worth studying for military as well as literary purposes -- Drews cites him, not least because Homer was writing well after the age of chariot combat was over, and the Homeric notion of chariots as a kind of taxi to get heroes to battle is very much the kind of thing you'd expect to see of a technology that had lost its tactical function but not its prestige. I hope your government has the brains to scrap its commitment to the JSF!

Patriot, sit down and ask yourself this: why must the present be different from the past? Why must there be something that makes our experience so different? Consider that closely, and you'll begin to see the huge distorting effect that the myth of progress has on all thinking in the present age.

Silenus, thanks for the link -- a comment from Hank is always worth posting.

zedinhisbigflyinghead said...

Mounted knight v Pike square

The war nerd has covered the considerable weaknesses of aircraft carriers in the past. From memory his criticism closely mirrors your "vested interest" criticism (with added swearing of course). In terms of the physical vulnerabilities his argument boils down to using many small "disposable" investments (pike-men?) to neutralize the "big investment" :

Aircraft carrier v missiles ( or drones ) or even speedboats packed with high explosive

But here is my favorite tale of folly. A dichotomy which brings its own poetry to bear on the today's simpleminded understandings of what "conflict" "really is".

insurgency verses counterinsurgency

Perhaps the most interesting part of the Adam Curtis blog with regards to your discussion here is the section describing the many false flag attacks and five assassination attempts made on the life of President De Gaulle which were actually masterminded by members of the French armed forces.

And before you read any further past that point, see if you can then guess which young American Senator became fascinated with using this notion to fight communism in a new and revolutionary way.

Sure makes me glad I aint president of nothin'

Leo said...

The military is always a good sign of a country or civilisations state, can't really bluff i guess.

this came out here recently,think you'd be interested.
dick smiths an Australian entrepeneur.

DeAnander said...

I have thought for quite some time now that the first cabal of bright teenagers to hack the US military drones' command frequencies and code will be able to cause lots and lots of dismay...

etmuosba said...

Well, I believe that the real weak point is communication. It is already possible for a truck driver to cheat on GPS tracking, what if communication with a drone could be disturbed ? It shouldn't be too difficult, the aim is not to control it, but to make sure the opposite side looses the control, just like killing the horse in front of a chariot.

Ruben said...

In a great modern example:

"In that war game, the Blue Team navy, representing the United States, lost 16 major warships — an aircraft carrier, cruisers and amphibious vessels — when they were sunk to the bottom of the Persian Gulf in an attack that included swarming tactics by enemy speedboats."

The Navy's response was to raise the dead and force the Red Team to play by the rules so they would lose.

faoladh said...

I think that the US military is aware of this problem, though there are aspects that they can't completely control, such as the procurement process. They do seem to be interested in theories of future warfare, such as the "global guerrillas" theory of John Robb (though he gets a little breathless at times, he does seem to have a good theoretical model for future warfare), and of course the now-mildly-famous "First Earth Battalion". This could put them into the situation of the Egyptians rather than the Hittites.

Christos T. said...

I like your political and economic essays but military history isn't your strong suit.

The Germans would have wasted their resources on carriers (or more heavy ships than the ones they built historically).
They made the right choice with U-boats and the cost to the Allies was unbelievable.
Simply convoying reduced transport capacity by a third.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Don't get a big ego, but you really have your finger on the pulse of current events!

Synchronicity is a strange thing really, because I was just reading the other day that in addition to China building an aircraft carrier to extend its sovereignty over a couple of rocks in the South China Sea (and possibly also Taiwan), India is also proposing to build an aircraft carrier:

India to launch nuclear submarine

A cynic may say that both China and India are playing a game of bluff in that they are forcing the US to pour resources into maintaining or extending their own naval resources. Hemorrhaging an opponent is also a valid strategy and I have a mental image of the barbarians sitting outside the castle walls starving out the opponents on the inside.

You know, there has also been talk about establishing a US naval base in Perth, Western Australia. It was a big deal here because the Australian government wasn't consulted and nuclear powered vessels and weapons aren't allowed within the Australian exclusion zone.

US eyes Perth naval base

Perhaps the idea was a bluff too?

I'm waiting for someone to mention nuclear weapons in the comments under the, "this time it's different meme". People forget that whilst these machines are incredibly destructive and potent, they are also hideously complex machines and must be maintained, upgraded and replaced to remain operable. Difficult to do with budget cuts and who really knows the operable status of these things?

Interesting stuff.



Mean Mr Mustard said...

Ahoy JMG,

Regarding aircraft carriers, the Falklands War is instructive. In the early stages of the conflict, the ARA Veinticinco de Mayo was at sea and close to attacking the RN Task Force, only to be thwarted by bad weather. Then the cruiser ARA General Belgrano was sunk by the submarine HMS Conqueror, so Veinticinco de Mayo was withdrawn to port and played no further part - her aircraft deployed to operate from shore bases during the remainder of the conflict. Indeed, HMS Spartan, another submarine, was looking to find and sink that carrier. ARA Veinticinco de Mayo remained in service until 1997, and was not replaced.

Although the British military prevailed in 1982, it was described by a senior officer as a ‘close run thing’. Many surprising lessons had to be relearned, such as firefighting and damage control aboard ships. Had the Argentines fielded more than just five air-launched Exocet anti-ship missiles in their inventory, the fate of HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible may well have been sealed.

As things stand thirty years on, the UK has decided it can’t afford either Harriers, or carriers for now. HMS Ark Royal – sister ship to HMS Invincible, since scrapped - has been decommissioned. Nor do we have any Nimrods to patrol above our seas. But while these ‘capability gaps’ are upon us, we fear not, for we have two huge carriers being built. Hurrah! Though the second one is apparently some kind of contractual obligation signed in error, as we actually now only want the one in occasional service, in between refits. Perhaps the other could be converted to a prison hulk. Regarding the carrier procurement, all sorts of other mistaken planning assumptions appear to have been made. For example, that there will be affordable bunker fuel for the next thirty years, paid for with the economic growth that hasn’t appeared like it used to. It’ll have a handful of some sort of F-35 for the air complement – hovering or arrestor hook variety, well, we vacillated on that too. And we can be assured that all this vast expense won’t hollow out the rest of the RN fleet even more.

Of course, their Lordships at the Admiralty will be the next generation on from those that understood that both the hunter-killer submarine and sea-skimming anti- ship missile render carriers particularly vulnerable. Instead, it’s grandstanding, splendid isolation, and gunboat diplomacy - operating independent of ‘host nation support’ in an uncertain world, against tin-pot Third World entities. For their Lordships, I daresay there are lucrative second careers and consultancies to be had in the shipbuilding industry, too.

Admiral of the Fleet John Arbuthnot "Jacky" Fisher, 1st Baron Fisher of Kilverstone, would be spinning in his grave.


Siani said...

Low intensity warfare is one way around the technological advantage a nation may hold. It ought to be increasingly obvious to anyone paying attention that it can easily cancel out a lot of technological superiority.

There are ways to maneuver fleets to avoid RORSAT detection, and ways to draw off air cover that cannot stay on station long, and a variety of ways to defeat detection methods.

The best weapon is still a grunt with a spear/rifle/knife/sword. It always will be.

In my opinion, of course.

Jason said...

Love this idea of the lobby for the weapon-du-jour -- it's also clear that the more expensive the weapon, the more powerful the lobby. In fact the pattern seems to be "over-technologisation loses to gutsy simplicity."

In all the time I was taught history at school, no-one ever talked about learning lessons from it or even seeing the patterns in it. I really think the "end of history" was subconsciouly believed in in the 80s, well before Fukuyama actually articulated it. I found sf more educational...

JMG: nothing seems so permanent as an empire on the verge of its final collapse


The appearance of strength is all about you. It would seem to last forever. However, Mr. Advocate, the rotten tree-trunk, until the very moment when the storm-blast breaks it in two, has all the appearance of might it ever had.

-- Asimov, Foundation

PS I know the war nerd is a bit much sometimes but he's always worth a look.

Phil Knight said...

There's a very good overview of pre-WWI British military thinking here, for anyone who's interested:

Jennifer D Riley said...

Thanks, I have a copy of Carrier. I'll have to take another look at it. As for your final paragraph, just during the past month, one of the business magazines stated your point, the US military uses way too much fossil fuel, and the US military will be the first to go the alternate or green fuels--can't remember the details.

Cam from Oz said...

Hello John, I am really looking forward to this series of posts. For Australia, it is very timely as well given that our Government has recently announced that a new Defence White Paper will be developed next year and the impact of defence budget cuts being topical in the media. My view on the dangerous assumptions (being economic growth, the USA as a superpower and reliance on high technology) that currently form the basis of Australian (and many other nations) defence policy has recently been published in the Australian Defence Force Journal. The link is here (from p. 11):

Cam from Oz

Norman P said...

Armies have only two means of support: they must either be carried by their host nation, or loot the nations they overrun. This why armies always bankrupt their homelands, because eventually they run out of resources in conquered territories, and look to the ‘home’ nation for support. We Brits were convinced we could afford a European army in 1914, and bankrupted ourselves , then compounded it in 1939. America in the modern context is a little different, in that initially they bought their loot (oil) until the arabs wised up to the fact they were being robbed anyway and quadrupled the price. Now the US military is committed to protecting that oilflow or face certain total societal and economic collapse. So now political/industrial/military systems have become intermingled, and politicians try to have their particular defence factory supported by the taxpayer ad infinitum. Once established, they must justify their existence, demanding bigger and better wartoys, and more tiers of rank and hierarchy against outside threats, whether real or imagined. Communities never accept that their particular factory is unaffordable, they want to keep their jobs.
To add to the insanity, Governments insist that military production is part of GDP, even though it’s paid for out of taxation, money extracted from taxpayers from previous GDP output.
It is all ultimately futile of course, but nobody is allowed to point out that taxpayers are paying for their gas at the pumps, then paying three times that much to pay the army that protects it, and that the entire edifice is a Ponzi scheme anyway.
The community is no longer prosperous, but it struggles to pay to secure oil supplies to keep the world economy ticking over for a few more years.
Since WW2, America has poured out treasure to this end, to maintain the illusion of a world superpower, and as a result is also bankrupt. The military complex must collapse, and as it does so we are facing a very different future.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Sorry to repeat myself, but this is a matter dear to my heart and I'd appreciate any advice you could give.

Thanks for the nice words about the article. I've only just recently realised how uncommon the system is. It is funny, but nature is quite a hard worker if people take the time to listen to the message, observe, learn and then work with her.

Technically, I could rebuild this system with basic materials for very little cost, but the legal troubles that would result from this action would be way too much drama for me. Yet, at the same time, the system would work very well. What to do with this information is a conundrum. Oh well.

Oops! I can see my previous comment the other day was not quite clear. It was never intended as a comment on your writing in The Earth Path but rather an observation about how difficult it is to impart wisdom and ideas to other people. (Ironic, hehe?)



Liquid Paradigm said...

Good food for thought today. By the end of the piece, I was already thinking about all the videos I've seen in which the current US military shows off its technological innovations. Satellite-guided targeting and all sorts of goodies that would make Q retire in despair of ever matching it.

And, as a thoroughly uninvolved armchair analyst, I wondered what would happen if one buggered all the electronics. Or if the fuel on which this giant, unwieldy machine is dependent were somehow, I dunno, finite...

Then I wondered how much more someone committed to the enterprise of war would be capable of finding "solutions" to these technological advantages.

Interesting times.

xhmko said...

By containing the rare earth metals, I think China is also cutting out easy future access to one of the greatest tools of warfare: communication. American military dominance is kept so hegemonic by its information overload. And it high tech communication devices require bucketloads of the stuff (and I'm not talking paint buckets!)

If the activists over here In Australia were successful in shutting down Pine Gap, then a huge gap would open up in the information flow, and therefore in their defenses. Some say that's a major reason that Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was ousted. He was trying to force the USA to at the very least have a little transparency in their action on Asutralian soil. When conflict breaks out, and I fear it will soon enough, these sources of communication will be targeted early on I'm guessing.

And, I know you haven't stated the obvious as far having the most humungous military and still not winning, but I will . There are still statues of Ho Chi Min in Vietnam despite the world's largest mobilisation of chemicals, machinery and petroleum this side of a modern American farm.

Yuri Kuzyk said...

"The third is that the decline in fossil fuel supplies will make it impossible for the United States to maintain a way of war that, reduced to its simplest terms, consists of burning more petroleum than the other guy."

No doubt that the modern military is an extremely complex and intricate machine. I think there is one significant difference to times past that does need to be discussed: the fact that on the down-slope of Hubbert curve there will come a point where the "use it or lose it" doctrine will be explored and possibly utilized.

ICBM's, whether ground, air or sub launched, rely very heavily on all aspects of this version of industrialized civilization. Knowing you might need to scrap such an arsenal because you can no longer afford to keep it serviced it will be mighty tempting to launch a couple (say, an EMP attack) to make sure both you and your enemies all enter the next phase of warfare on similar terms...

This decision point and the subsequent actions will rely heavily on who exactly is giving the orders and the moral(e/s) of those manning the launch stations.

Unknown said...

And it's not as if any of this is unknown. The American military discover in their exercises the vulnerability of their carrier they change the terms of the exercises:

(Apologies if this has appeared here before but the level of stupidity evinced by this is so staggering that even if this is a rerun, it is perhaps a rerun worth watching again.)

Eric said...

Mr. Greer - I want to apologize outright that this comment is not directly related to the specific content of your most recent post, but I wanted to take a moment to say that you may potentially have interest in the writing of Steve McIntosh, author of Integral Consciousness. He approaches integral philosophy and memetic development in a non-flamboyant manner, and because you have said in the past (in comments) that you have had issue with Wilber, I thought that McIntosh's even-handed tone may appeal to you - part 1 of his book provides a succinct and cogent synopsis of development as he sees it. No one besides yourself has had a more positive impact on my understanding than Steve, hence the recommendation. Thank you for everything. My apologies again for being off subject.

Richard Larson said...

Quite the twist from what I had imagined the direction this military topic would be.

Very interesting. Most would refuse to consider such a notion.

Sea Peoples!

I suspect once the vuneralbility has been exposed and tested, most of the world will pile on and totally end the hated US empire.

Nano said...

I don't think it would be too far fetch to think that we are already seeing some tactical moves from China on this "crippling tactic".

Just last year the whole "rare earth" minerals supply line, essential to our military weaponry/technology, was more or less held hostage by the Chinese government. Prompting a small but dedicated push to find those minerals on our side and start DIGGING!

To me, a crippling blow to our consumption infrastructure, seems to make the most sense as a "military tactic" of destabilization and show of power.

The Japanese earth quake should have also been more than enough for anyone to truly see how interconnected we are, from an economic/supply line of products, point of view.

Twilight said...

I've thought for a while that the US military's almost total dependance on technology from top to bottom is a major vulnerability. It's a mirror of US society in general in fact. This technology is often poorly understood by those who use it and those who procure it, and it is so deeply embedded that I doubt there is good understanding of the possible failure modes, let alone effective back up plans.

The technology becomes almost invisible to those who've been totally immersed in it for a span of generations now, just as the fossil fuel energy we're awash in has. That makes it very difficult for most to envision the impacts of not having it, so when it fails it will leave people quite disoriented. Sort of a problem in a crisis.

marku said...

You might be interested in a war game situated in the Persian gulf some years ago. General Van Riper, commanding the "Iranians", sank quite a number of US ships, including a carrier, using unconventional tactics. He swarm attacked using small boats. He evaded electronic eavesdropping by using motorcycle couriers. In short, he countered all of the US advantages using "primitive" technology.

The judges were horrified. All the US ships were "refloated" and the game reset until the US "won"

Stu from Rutherford said...

Very good intro. The history lesson was fascinating.

I think you're correct to not spend time talking about morale: it's too slippery. I've seen it affect outcomes (VietNam, for instance) but it's too easy for readers to reject the notion that our army would not fight as hard as it could.

Besides, you don't need it. Your three points are technical and easy to understand.
To add to what Glenn said, China has other defensive resources which would stymie any attack on them. (Rumor had it a few years ago that they were using corrugated rubber surfaces on their subs to make them invisible to sonar.)

Some of the defensive measures worked on by Russia and China in the last 15 years is that they're incredibly inexpensive compared to the weapons that they're neutralizing. But the vested interests just keep yapping. (Thanks for pointing that out, because it's behind so much of US security spending.)

Keystonekabes said...

I respectfully disagree with the premise that had the kriegsmarine ought to have developed aircraft carriers for WW2. Due to the Versailles Treaty Germany only began rearming in 1934-35. I have a hard time believing that even Nazi Germany could have built, equipped, and (most importantly) trained crews for several carrier task forces in such a short time frame. It took the Japanese and Americans more than 10 years to develop and integrate carriers into their fleets. Doing this while simultaneously rebuilding every other branch of your military seems impossible to me.

I would argue that the Kriegsmarine ought to have focused its resources on submarines early on instead of those few battleships and heavy cruisers they built. If the Kriegsmarine had 120 ocean going subs in 1939 as opposed to the 35 they did have then the blockade ,that drove food supplies in Britain to six weeks at times in 1940, just may have forced Britain to sue for peace.

I really enjoy your historical analysis that seems to be a feature of your blog. Thanks


Richard Clyde said...

This is the military instance of catabolic collapse, yes? Military superiority is analogous to capital and follows capital's logic: more and more must be accrued, until eventually-- at the point of supreme apparent value-- the costs of servicing it begin to exceed its actual value. In this case the service costs are not merely financial but must be understood to represent increments of military advantage (as in JMG's example of ingenuity increasingly harnessed to the prestigious technology).

This is a basic weakness of strength: it generates a firm logic (it never looks good to become weaker or abandon the master technology!) that propels it towards disaster.

Side note: some official types are becoming worried about people taking 2012 a bit too seriously.

gaias daughter said...

One weakness of the American military is the conditional support of the folks back home. In the 1990’s, American troops were withdrawn from Somalia, their mission abandoned, after photos of a dead soldier’s body being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu swayed American resolve. Osama Bin Laden made note of the incident saying, “one American was dragged in the streets of Mogadishu -- you left; the extent of your impotence and weaknesses became very clear.”

But he was not the only one to take notes. There were other hot spots on the globe. An international effort was underway to depose usurper and tyrant, Duvalier, and to restore democratically elected Aristide to power in Haiti. Supporters of dictator Duvalier were watching: “Haitian leaders watched in fascination as U.S. Congressmen debated the deployment of American soldiers on Sunday news programs. They could not fail to notice that many representatives opposed sending any troops at all. The message was unmistakable, and so were its implications: The United States was weak and irresolute. If the Americans could be persuaded that Haiti was "another Somalia," the Clinton administration would be forced to back down. . . . The climax of the drama came on October 11, when the U.S.S. Harlan County was prevented from docking by an angry mob. The subsequent decision to withdraw the ship from Haitian waters was taken without consultation with or even notification of the United Nations, President Aristide or Prime Minister Maval. It left the impression that the United States had cut and run; worse, that it had been frightened away by a few hundred unruly thugs.”

I remember the incident, which has now become so buried that it took some time to unearth any reference. The Somalis dragged one dead soldier through the streets and it was enough to defeat 'the world’s greatest military.’ All the Haitians had to do was throw rocks and smash car windows and America backed down. The troops finally did land and Aristide was restored to power, but the lesson lingers.

I am not weighing in on the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of any of the above. I am only making an observation on what appears to be at least one Achilles’ heel of the American military machine, all classical references fully intended.

GHung said...

"I’ve come to think that the single greatest obstacle that stands in the way of a clear understanding of the predicament of our age is the insistence that the past has nothing to teach the present. You might think that after the recent crescendo of speculative bubbles, the phrase "it’s different this time" would have gotten a well-earned rest,,,"

It's beginning to look like this conversation has taken on an aspect of absolutes, and does a disservice to those of us who don't insist that "this time is (absolutely) different", but understand that it could be. The idea of "the more things change, the more they stay the same" is equally frustrating.

In an era which holds the possibility of push-button extermination of entire nations, and much of planetary life as it is, is undeniably different, militarily, than any previous reality. The power of the Ark Of The Covenant no longer exists only in the minds of those who carry it. Any delusions of invincibility those in the past may have had now are backed by the full weight and force of vast nuclear stockpiles and far less selective biological options. How would the conflicts of the past which you cite have been different had such options been available, on such a scale?

A growing awareness that our species is backing itself into a corner, leaving itself few options, may not be so different from the awareness societies of the past have had when faced with a dramatically superior force and elimination from the scheme of things, but the options for acting upon this ultimate desperation have advanced immensely. At what point does deterrence morph into determination? Sociopaths have convenient ways of giving themselves permission without seeking permission, elaborate justifications for the horror they impose. The past also tells us this.

I don't waste much energy contemplating any "Final Solution" that may occur, nor do I think it's particularly useful to dwell upon how "this time is different", and I expect that's your point in all of this. As I've said, my response, my path, will be the same. I believe that there's a 'groove' that each one of us must find, and devote most our energy to; one that involves resilience, respect for one's environment and fellow creatures, and especially the future, seems like a win/win, and requires a bit of faith. The 'serenity prayer', whatever form it may take in one's psyche, is an important tool, however things play out. Change the things you can... and preserve those things worthy of preservation.

“We’re not on our journey to save the world but to save ourselves. But in doing that you save the world. The influence of a vital person vitalizes.” - Joseph Campbell

Nathan said...

Well, my consultation of the Bible Code Consultation suggests that 'Jesus shot JFK', given that there are *70* matches to that phrase. Everyone knows that divinity is like a rowdy parliament and absolute truth is, actually, quite relative depending on its day-to-day mood.

JP said...

The modern world is quite different from the past.

Specifically because it has a massive supply of nuclear weapons that are quite useful for massive destruction on a global scale.

And, when a loaded gun is just sitting there and you are a government facing an existential crisis...well...

Jason Heppenstall said...

Nice to hear a mention of Homer! I've just spent the last few weeks in Greece reacquainting myself with him.

Could it be that the mysterious Sea People were the Phoenicians? The characters in the Odyssey tend to speak of them only in contemptuous tones.

John D. Wheeler said...

I loved the history lesson. I have no doubt that aircraft carriers and jet fighters will be of little use in the next major war. I do seriously wonder if the drone isn't the modern equivalent of the javelin, however, especially if they succeed in installing AI with facial recognition software to turn them into autonomous hunter-killers. If there is an effective defense against them, short of a nuclear EMP, I would love to hear it.

I also think the American military does understand the weaknesses of aircraft carriers and fighter planes. Going back to Pearl Harbor, it was the more obsolete ships that were stationed there when it got bombed. They make a major show of the fighters and carriers today, but they are definitely researching alternative means of war.

I also think they understand their weakness of depending on oil, that's why we have such a large presence in the Middle East.

While a decisive military defeat would be a crushing blow to the American Empire, I'm not convinced yet we can count on any such thing happening in the near future, at least until a failing economy forces military cutbacks.

DaShui said...

Hey Arch!

This time you are a little behind:

mallow said...

JMG, how do you know whether a state is a client state of the American empire or not? And what happens to client states as the empire collapses? I'm guessing that the UK and Ireland are client states. Ireland's economy certainly is dependent on US multinationals. We have no military worth speaking of so I suppose we're dependent in that sense too. Will there be a nasty power vacuum in Europe in general as the US empire ends? I'd imagine it would then be filled by a country which has sufficient fossil fuels to prosper under scarcity industrialism - like Russia maybe?

Lauren said...

My question is how much of the United States' new earphones systems are hardened against electro-magnetic pulse attack? EMP seems the most likely scenario if Iran or some other state wanted to render our military ineffective quickly.

MawKernewek said...

American military reach would be hampered if they, for financial or political reasons were no longer able to have a significant network of military bases on foreign soil and keep them resupplied. Without those bases they would have trouble resupplying carrier groups and would have difficult supporting an invasion of anywhere.

russell1200 said...

In fairness to the British, they would have been annihilated if the German Army had been able to cross the Channel. In addition, as the German army was the more effective of the two, the effort they spent (they started the race) cost them more than it did the British.

The carriers politically play the role of the battleship, but they have always been vulnerable. The British did loose a carrier to gunfire from a Battle Cruiser in the Norwegian campaign. American carriers are an accident waiting to happen.

The Germans were building a navy. And what little they got built before the war got started was a complete waste of effort except for maybe the submarines. Again, with the world's best army, the Germans should have stuck to what they did best - and not invade their allie of the time the Soviet Union until Britain got tired and sued for peace.

Drews is very very thin tea on which to base an analysis. He doesn't seem to go far toward explaining the concurrent collapse in the Empires trading through the Indian ocean and not bordering the Med.

Other scenarios, particularly a temporary climate shift, fit just as well. If the warm belt where food crops shifts southward, a lot of hungry people are going to pick up and move in your direction.

Most great empires win most of their wars. If they didn't they wouldn't be great empires. Obviously they are always going to loose the last one if it is the one that does them in. Gradual military collapses (Byzantium, Venice) are fairly common.

The carp who jumped Hukou Falls said...

As far as military defeat leading to revolution goes, I imagine you'll be discussing the Battle of Tsushima next week?

However, much of the discussion that I've read so far about the US vs China facedown hasn't been thought through, I suspect; the US has, in all probability, already been defeated in that conflict. Supersonic/ballistic carrier-killer missiles would just be for the mopping up, if they're needed at all.

The reason I say that is that I've been a student of Sun Zi Bing Fa in my time, and the Chinese generals are going to be experts in that field, it goes without saying! The PLA is heavily influenced by both Sun Zi and the guerrilla tactics of the Red Army/8th Route Army against the Guomindang and Japanese, respectively. In other words, battles are to be won before direct confrontation begins.

The comments about rare earth metals are inching towards the point, but the fact is: China wins because it controls the supply chain. There have been a lot of stories about fake components in US military purchaseskmntJem 40, but I would be astonished if the genuine ones haven't brought a payload of software surprises. Plus, the antiquated US infrastructure control systems (power stations, railways, water supply, etc etc) are bound to be 0wn3d by Chinese hax0rs to a significant degree...

Why fight, when you can just shut your opponent down?

Myriad said...

The long-term outcome of warfare is unpredictable. It's not just chaotic; it's computationally irreducible. Meaning, among other things, that any omitted or mis-estimated variable can change the entire outcome, in the same way that one wrong digit in a long multiplication problem can quickly change every digit of the result. The law of computational irreducibility (which would definitely be one of the Seven Laws of Computational Hermetics, if any such list existed) states that for any system surpassing a certain minimum level of complexity, the only way to learn the outcome is to run the system.

Of course the U.S. military has weaknesses. One likely one, typical of small expensive highly capable forces, is being overwhelmed by a much larger lower-tech force. (Every war gamer trying out a new game will at least consider the strategy of fielding the maximum number of the cheapest available unit, because it so often works.) However, that didn't prove a problem in Desert Storm when many people predicted it would be. (The "peace" that followed has been a different story, of course.)

What spins the system into unpredictability is, in essence, that counter-forces designed to exploit a weakness have weaknesses of their own.

I don't know yet whether JMG's range of predictions encompass invasions of the U.S. mainland. It's likely that whatever exploit succeeds in defeating the U.S. abroad would not serve very well on the continent. Under the conditions where such an invasion might occur, the country could become WWII Russia or a giant Somalia, with no possibility of pacifying the population. To have any change of breaking even resource-wise, an invader might be forced to attempt all-out extermination, which would motivate all-out resistance. Outcome: computationally unpredictable, and a nightmare scenario for any military planner.

(An invasion occurring once collapse is well along might be a different matter, for instance if the land is depopulated or the populace already starving. But in that case, the invasion would be too late to be a major cause of the collapse.)


JMG, you may or may not be aware of the current TV advertising campaign for the U.S. Navy (heavily run during the Olympic broadcasts among other venues). The slogan: "America's Navy. A global force for good." I'm sure you need no help sorting through the layers on that one. I hope it's not too spiritually compromising to be impressed by the craftsmanship.

artinnature said...

JMG: "Progress and apocalypse, business as usual forever or overnight collapse, are the Tweedledee and Tweedledoom of the modern imagination"

Or maybe TweedleGLEE and Tweedledoom?

This discussion of military strategy working well...and then suddenly not working, reminds me of JMG's writings about how all things, including human constructs will evolve organically. I guess that includes military cant "plan" or "design" the next war.

I regret to recall that I was entirely enthralled by the military technology displayed and televised during the first gulf war (cruise missiles, smart bombs). But every time after that, when these videos were shown on TV all I could think about was how expensive and unsustainable it all is, and how badly it will all end (for the US military) some day.

If the US intelligentsia ever shuts you down JMG, they would be well advised to hire you as a military consultant! Mam Gaia help any nation going up against a military directed by you!

Joel said...

GPS spoofing has been demonstrated to bring down US drones. The equipment to do so costs about $1k.

The interesting thing is that, because the drones are relying on outside signals to know their location, simply adjusting their perceived location by an equal amount, in an opposite direction, gives the desired change in their actual location. It's like sliding the chessboard around as your opponent is moving his piece.

Frank Hemming said...

Excuse this being off topic this week, but this quote from “The Politics of Social Ecology” by Janet Biehl puts the case against consensus decision-making well.

“Consensus decision-making has its strong points and it may be appropriate for small groups of people who are very familiar with one another. But when larger heterogeneous groups try to make decisions by consensus, serious problems often arise. By prioritising the will of the individual, the process allows small minorities, even a minority of one to thwart decisions that the majority of the community supports. And individuals will dissent, for not every community member will agree with every given decision; nor should they do so. Conflict is endemic to politics, a sine qua non, indeed a circumstance of its existence, and dissenters are (fortunately) ever-present. Some individuals will always feel that a particular decision is not beneficial, either to their own interests or to the public good.

But communities that govern themselves by a consensus process often reach consensus by manipulating dissidents into going along with the majority position, or even coercing them sub rosa, using psychological pressure or making discreet threats. This type of coercion may not happen in public view – it could, and often does, happen outside the scrutiny of assembly. But it would be no less coercive for that, and it would be more pernicious.

When the issue in question comes up for a vote, the coerced or manipulated dissenters tend to let themselves go on public record in favour of the measure, perhaps to avoid offending the majority – despite their strong opposition to it. |n that case their very real dissent is no longer a matter of public record, a respected if failed effort. Indeed their dissent would be erased as if it had never existed, much to the detriment of the group's political development.

Alternatively, if dissenters cannot be pressured to change their vote, they may be successfully pressured into declining to vote at all. That is, they may “choose” to withdraw from the decision-making process on that issue – to “stand aside,” in the jargon of the consensus procedure. But this choice, in effect, nullifies the dissenter as a political being. It resolves the problem of dissent essentially by removing the dissenter from the political sphere and eliminating the dissenting view from the forum of ideas.

By insisting on unanimous agreement, consensus either intensifies conflict to the point of fracturing the community, or else it silences dissent altogether. Rather than respect minorities it mutes them. A far more honourable and morally healthy way of handling dissent is to allow dissidents to vote openly, with high visibility, in accordance with their beliefs, with the prospect of altering the decision in the future and potentially fostering the political development of the community...”

Ozark Chinquapin said...

I still see things as different now in one way, that the stakes are so high because of the world's nuclear stockpile. Cherokee is right that the infrastructure needed to maintain them is dependent on fossil fuels, so they will eventually become unusable. However, the time when we have declined that far is still a ways off, which leaves time when there's still a possibility of nuclear war. I doubt there will be a full-scale nuclear war, but the threat of one certainly changes things, as it has since 1945. I suspect much of the "this time is different" meme when speaking of millitary and politics comes from the nuclear threat. I don't hear anyone claiming that it's different now because of aircraft carriers or because of the newest fighter planes, it's always the nukes. I don't think the US or any nuclear power would use them on an overseas war, as the consequences would be too severe, but if there was a direct invasion of their homeland, they could take drastic measures.

I guess it's possible that there could be developments that counter the nuclear missiles so well as to make them beside the point, I just have trouble seeing that happening in a world of declining energy considering that nothing has been developed that would do that in the over sixty years of cheap energy that have passed since nuclear weapons arrived on the scene. So, I expect the threat will be there until all the nuclear powers collapse far enough that the infrastructure maintaining them falls apart.

I don't see the "this time is different" idea as totally unsupported by history. To name one example, consider the European conquest of the Americas. The native peoples had their share of conflict and hard times before 1491, but the scale of destruction and upheaval that occurred from the Europeans and the diseases they brought was unprecedented in their history. If a native had said when the first white men landed, "This time is different, this is way more than just another war with the Iroquois" they would have been right. I look at nuclear weapons and see the potential to bring to us a scenario as dramatic as what the Europeans brought to the Americas.

I very much hope there is no major nuclear war in our future, and I don't base my life around such scenarios. I agree with you that many people use fast crash scenarios as an excuse for inaction, and that's a major problem in our culture. I just don't see that as the whole picture. There are many out there such as myself who don' desire such a scenario and don't even think it's all that likely, but just think it's one of the many possibilities that has a potential for happening.

Odin's Raven said...

The fancy technology is only useful in conflicts with other highly developed states.

The real destruction comes through invasion by savages, encouraged by internal traitors.

flyingcardealer said...

great post. as someone who has served in two branches of the u.s. military, including three overseas tours, this is one that hits close to home with me. the more i read your posts, the more i wish you had a wider audience.

this is definitely a topic that deserves a serious discussion, yet here it is, election time, and i'm caught off guard any time a cable news talking head mentions afghanistan, let alone the aftereffects of iraq. but i don't want to get off on a tangent.

what you say about the military budget is so true. my navy rate (job) was combat systems related and i'll never forget a part i had to order for the equipment i was working on. when it came in two weeks later, and i opened the way too big manila pouch it arrived in, i thought they forgot to pack it. but then i saw it. a tiny cylindrical little piece of teflon. it cost us over fifty bucks. crazy. then again, stapled to the envelope was a 1/4" thick pile of invoices--a lot of middle men getting paid to get that cheesy little thing to my ship. that was over ten years ago and i can't imagine much has changed.

today, i read about the f-35 raptor and how much its budget has overrun, and how we still send all pilots to UPT(undergraduate pilot training) which includes no small amount of flight time and its related costs, even though a solid majority of the pilots go on to fly drones.

i also think about the military of the future. i read where it was a common saying among the men of the cavalry during the final horsecharging days of the u.s cavalry circa 1916/pancho villa that "what general sheridan started, general motors will finish."

it's anyone' guess when the saying will be reversed with whatever general's leading the horsecharging taking the place of "motors". but onething's for sure, it'll happen.

thanks again for the thoughtful paying of attention to the details. always a pleasure to get my weekly fill of the archdruid report.

take it easy.

Bruce The Druid said...

The reference to ICBM's being used to target carrier task forces is rather interesting. My father, towards the end of his engineering career at TRW, spent quite a bit of time having missiles set up with GPS antennas. They would then track the missiles flight path toward Kwajalein island in the Marshall Islands. I always wondered why they were so interested in the exact flight path. Accuracy with a 20 megaton nuclear payload never seemed an issue before.

Odin's Raven said...

Here's a plug for my favorite political candidate:

which has more.

damnthematrix said...

Iran could so easily demonstrate how obsolete a modern navy is... they have some 200 Russian made supersonic cruise missiles (mach 2.9) which can fly 6 feet above the water. Designed specifically for destroying aircraft carriers, they take evasive action seconds from their target to avoid being shot down, all at supersonic speed!

I certainly wouldn't want to be part of the personnel aboard the fifth fleet in the Persian Gulf....

jim burke said...

JMG, I'm shocked and gladdened that you presented Drew's book on the collapse of the Bronze Age. I only wish that historians of ancient history had some knowledge of the military, but such things are almost never taught in top universities.

I kind of think this "argument" about the word apocalypse should be addressed by, first, defining what one means by the word. (by the way, I loved your book "apocalypse NOT".)

One can see apocalypse as something regional or local, rather than universal. For instance, the Caananite society was very rapidly crushed by the Sea Peoples, and most likely the great majority of them died, or became servants/slaves in other lands. In what way was this an apocalypse for them?

Perhaps some discussion on different meanings of the term might help dispel a good deal of otherwise pointless bickering.

Ricardo Rolo said...

Oh, pre-modern military history ... that is something that I know a thing or two ( I know quite well the owner of one of the biggest private collections of pre-Modern weapons of the world, so I ended knowing a thing or two about the topic ). The story of warfare is pretty much made of "invicible" weapons that end being defeated by brains and not necessarily hi-tech counters ( my favourite is a Spanish tercio in the time of Philip II being beaten by some proposedely enraged bulls pitted against them ). And I guess that with so many people resurfacing the USN resurfacing of their carriers ( ;) ) only shows that a lot of people recognize that the carrier nowadays is pretty much a status weapon ( I'm from the opinion that both the tank and and the carrier as fighting weapons are obsolete since 1944 ... and the shiny painting of the jet fighter/ attack helicopter pilot in knightly colors by the official bards also does not pass the sniff test ). I can recall that when I seen last time a USN carrier entering Lisbon harbour ( for you americans, the Lisbon harbour is so much alike San Francisco in geographical and climateric terms that we actually hired the guys that made the Golden gate brigde to make a equal for Lisbon ) a year or so ago and I simply thinked that even a XVIII century howlitzer could sink it easily with them exposing themselves like that...

Anyway, I just wanted to point 2 things ...

The first is that IMHO the biggest weakness of the American strategy is what is normally refered to as empire of bases. It is not the first time that a country tries to do that ( I live in one that tried, so I recognize it quite well ) and it always ended the same way so far: the system as a whole becomes a bunch of highly immobile fortress garrisons spread around whose only propose is to show face to the "natives" and a highly mobile elite group that ends going around putting fires out. Then the growing ressentement of the "natives" added to the ever decreasing utility of that extra fortress that is always needed to protect that extra area ends making sure that there will be a time when there will be simply too much fires to take down for the elite team ... and then either the system collapses fast or it limps out losing base after base , depending of the average resilience of the garrisons and the fight that the ruling elite still has in it regarding keeping the empire, no matter what. I do not see the Americans breaking that streak, especially given the heavy logisitcs the average American soldier has behind, that puts a level of stress in top of the whole system completely unheard off in the previous interactions.

Ricardo Rolo said...

( cont. )

The second ( better said seconds ) is a group of clarifications/ corrections to your post. First , on the Egyptian war chariots ... it is extremely hard to breed horses below the 33º N paralell in real life ( not the Dubai current version ) , especially the agile and strong horses needed for war chariots. So the Egyptian army had to pretty much import the bulk of their war chariot horses from greener pastures ... that probably explains why they were able to forget about trying to use them : most likely they didn't even had enough horses to push more than the bigwigs chariots by the time the Sea peoples got in top of them, due to the disruption of the trade networks north of them. Second is about the Kriegsmarine remark ... like someone already posted, it takes a while to make and man up a carrier ( another vulnerability ) and in fact the Germans were planning to do so ( their first carrier , the Graf Zeppelin, was planned to get out of the forge in 1940 ). The big issue was that Hitler had prommised to the KM planners that Gemany would avoid a world class conflict up to 1946, and thus they planned the builds with that date in mind, starting by the cheap raiders ( the U-boats ) and the dedicated anti RN-battleship battleships ( the Bismarck class ... you can see easily what a pack of Bismarck could had done to the RN by the fact that Bismarck alone forced the RN to use basically all the avaliable ships between London and Iceland to catch it and even then the Germans won handily in terms of metric damage to the enemy ) ... but, as we know, the war came a litle earlier than that and the KM was pretty much caught red handed.

jim burke said...

by the way, one of the closest analogies to the javelin is the shoulder fired anti tank missile. When Israel tangled with Hezbollah several years ago, Hezbollah "manpads" wiped out a LOT of IDF armor, and slowed down the advance to a crawl. Israel responded by bombing the s--- out of Lebanon, to force the rest of the country to rein in Hezbollah.

There were some excellent analyses of the reality of the battle, which I've since lost; but it appeared to me to be a harbinger of future warfare.

It must have been closely noted by the US (along with the effectiveness of IED's against armor) because my understanding is that the US Army will soon discontinue purchasing of tanks.

Oh, and close relatives of the manpad can be very effective against attack helicopters. Soon the modern mechanized army will be reduced to not much more than heavy infantry (with body armor), especially in urban areas, even if oil was to remain cheap. All armored vehicles, ground or air, are becoming extremely vulnerable to VERY cheap and increasingly sophisticated missiles.

Javelins are cheap, chariots are expensive. Once a javelin can take out a chariot, the chariot is dead except as a showy vehicle for heros. Works with longbow vs horse mounted armor, and manpads vs modern armor.

As always, looking forward to next week's essay!

Betsys_Backyard said...

Yeah, a few hundred deaths are nothing in the realm of such an empire.. a queen fire ant lays 2000 eggs a day!... someone decided to watch the behavior of the the fly and Fire ant foragers. Here is what they discovered ( and I was graced to observe personally) what goes on when a single fly approaches a hive:
The single little female fly scouts over the hives mound methodically, searching for just the right little foraging ant to “zombify”. What the astute observer realizes is that the above ground ant members somehow sense the winged attacker, they go into a panic mode.. running “ Helter-skelter back to the hive- ( in a most un antlike, uncoordinated manner). This brief intrusion by a single little fly , trying to lay her couple of hundred eggs, sets the ant empire into – essentially- a siege situation.. Foraging ants will not scout and retrieve food effectively, panic sets in, supply lines are distrupted… and this is enough… under a regular simple attack by a few flies… to affect reproduction.. enough to keep the empire from not only expanding, but creating a kind of ant “Catabolic collapse” of the colonly.. No, the empire is not exterminated, but lack of resources leads to reduced growth. …. Hmmm…. Sounds familiar? When I explained this to a retired military person, they immediately got the implications of such a small “guerrilla” force before I even got to the cool Zombie ant part!
So, here we have.. a few specialized beings able to keep the Borg-like empire from expanding and.. in the case of their USA success.. a very possible means to shrink the expansion of a very, very successful “empire” by siege disruption of supplies- by only a few hundred, ( or less) dedicated beings.
Well, there you are, nature is as amazing as any fiction I have ever read.

John Michael Greer said...

Zed -- kudos for the Zardoz reference, btw -- it was very much of a piece with the technocratic hubris of the time that the colonial (e.g., France) and neocolonial (e.g., USA) powers would adopt so very pseudo-intellectual an excuse for torture and murder. Very reminiscent of the neoconservatives -- a bunch of overaged adolescent geeks trying to play macho he-man.

Leo, fascinating to see the limits to growth being discussed so openly!

DeAnander, that cabal was in Iran -- you must have heard the news story about the spy drone that was forced down there.

Etmuosba, good -- but it's a mistake to look for one weakness. Look for the whole range of them, and imagine a multipronged attack on them. More on this next week.

Ruben, yes, I saw that. Mordantly funny; it won't be anything like so amusing when it's being played for real.

Faloadh, to my mind they're headed in exactly the wrong direction -- though I'll be talking about fourth generation warfare in a bit.

Christos, I was studying military history long before I started work on the politics and economics. That being said, you're entitled to your opinion -- as am I.

Cherokee, three or four people have done so. I'll be addressing the nuclear issue down the road a few more posts.

Mustard, okay, any unprompted reference to Jacky Fisher gets an automatic gold star. I recall the comment of one of his subordinates: "The deck shook beneath his tread, and all hands shook with it."

Siani, no argument there: in the end, it comes down to boots on the ground.

Kieran O'Neill said...

damnthematrix raises a very important point by mentioning Iran's arsenal of sea-skimming missiles. As Gwynne Dyer has been saying for about six years, if the US were to ever actually attack Iran,

"it could get tough and close down all oil-tanker traffic that comes within range of those missiles — which would mean little or no oil from Iraq, Saudi Arabia or the smaller Gulf states either. That would mean global oil rationing, industrial shut-downs, and the end of the present economic era.

Can those missiles do all that? Yes, they can. The latest generation of sea-skimming missiles have mobile, easily concealed launchers, and they would come in very fast and low from anywhere along almost 2,000 kilometres (well over 1,000 miles) of Iran’s Gulf coast. Sink the first half-dozen tankers, and insurance rates for voyages to the Gulf become prohibitive, even if you can find owners willing to risk their tankers."

(From a 2007 article.)

Certainly a scenario worth pondering...

sgage said...

Myriad said...

"One likely one, typical of small expensive highly capable forces, is being overwhelmed by a much larger lower-tech force."

When it was pointed out to Joseph Stalin that, although he had more tanks than the Germans, the German tanks were of much higher quality, he famously (apocryphally?) quipped "sometimes quantity has a quality all its own".

John Michael Greer said...

Jason, of course not! Learning lessons from history is a dangerous habit; it's one of the main gateway drugs to independent thinking.

Phil, thanks for the link.

Jennifer, the Navy's already doing a lot with biofuels, but they have to think a lot further ahead than that.

Cam, good to hear from you! Many thanks for the link; some of your earlier work is going to be woven into the upcoming posts, btw.

Norman, the habit of treating military spending as part of the productive economy is part and parcel of the confusion between money and wealty I discussed in my book The Wealth of Nature -- might be worth a look.

Cherokee, hmm. I'd encourage you to get the information out into circulation, but to keep a system that will keep you out of trouble with the law, for as long as that's still an issue.

Paradigm, good. Now remember that between China, Russia, and Iran, to name just the obvious actors, there have got to be several million highly educated and highly motivated people spending every working hour figuring out new ways to monkeywrench the US military. More on this next week.

Xhmko, I don't know if Pine Gap or any of the Australian bases will be a direct target in a US-Chinese confrontation; my guess is that any such confrontation will take the form of a Third World proxy war that, like the Spanish Civil War, ends up with major powers supplying air power, munitions, and technical advisors. More on this down the road.

Yuri, I'll be discussing the calculus of nuclear deterrence in an age of decline in some detail later on. As I read it, it's a little subtler than it looks...

Unknown, it deserves to be repeated. Thanks for the link!

Guilherme de Baskerville said...

Can't say I'm entirely convinced by your argument. It is true that there's a general tendency in warfare for sucessful warring states to keep stuck "figthing the last war", both WWI and WWII being very good examples of that.

WWI was fought based on the napoleonic experience, when decisive action and bold attacks broke the stalemate, siege-prone XVII mode of warfare, and it promptly failed in the face of the machine gun, barbed wire and the railroad. The french, having won WWI, tried to fight it again on WWII, with predictable disastrous results.

Having said that, most empires don't get military defeated by innovative low-tech upstarts. They usually over-extend themselves and an up and coming power (usually as advanced as the superpower, if on a smaller scale) then tips the point.

That's what happened to the Spanish Empire which is, incidentally, in my own opnion, the best "historical match" for the USA. They got over-extended, specially in the Low-contries, and the second-best power of the time (France) encouraged the various groups opposing Spain all the time, until such a time as a new form of warfare (equally high-tech) began to emerge in Flandres and the german battlefields, culminating in the defeat of the spanish tercios at Rocroi by the french.

Incidentally, while the way the US maintain it's empire, with the Carrier Groups, foreign air bases, GPS, surveilance sattelites, etc, etc, is eminently prone to be "jammed" and otherwise interfered with by means that other people already wrote about (notably, the carrier groups are very vulnerable), the US itself is more like Egypt in your tale. It is far too big, far too geographically isolated, far too populous and far too well-armed (with the old-fashioned kind of weaponry that would do very well, i.e, the massive ammount of private firearms) to be seriously threatened. It's a bit kind of like Russia. Sure, from time to time they lose their ability to project power (the latest being the fall of the USSR, which they are still recovering from), but it is damn near imposible for anyone else to actually "conquer" russia. You can harass the Bear into retreating into it's cave, but you can't poke it too closely. Same with you guys, I would warrant.

Over-extension and the loss of ability of project force overseas and loss of Empire as consequence? Sure. Being overrun like the Hitites and, yes, even the romans? Not likely.

Unknown said...

Much of the discussion here presumes that the wars will or are still be based on countries, or empires, fighting against other countries. That's old school. We have seen that smaller organizations (Al-Qaida for instance) can wage a war without being encumbered by belonging to a country. The response of blaming a country for hosting them and taking military action against that country might slow the activity down, won't necessarily stop it, but also underscores our lack of readiness to get beyond the old-school response so we pick a country and beat it up. Invading and occupying all the countries in the world won't stop it. I picture countryless little mice slashing at the Achilles' heels of empire elephants. Barb

Robert Mathiesen said...

I've mentioned my father here before. He was an engineer who spent his entire working life within the military-industrial complex. He was a moderate, thoughtful man, and he had a rather high-level security clearance.

Early in the 1960s we had a discussion in which I asked him why the US needed to have so many troops (and so many "spooks") on the ground overseas. His answer was that all our complex weaponry since WWII has depended on guaranteed access to certain rare metals that are not found in sufficient quantities within our own national boundaries. Since our access to them ultimately runs against the self-interest of most of the countries in which they are found, our only recourse, alas, is to rely on force and corruption. Cut off our supply of these metals entirely, and our advanced weapon systems will become junk within a decade at the most.

Justin said...

I know I'm stealing comments here but some responses...
here have got to be several million highly educated and highly motivated people spending every working hour figuring out new ways to monkeywrench the US military.
Yeah, but do you really think they'll be a match for military intelligence?

sit down and ask yourself this: why must the present be different from the past? Why must there be something that makes our experience so different? Consider that closely, and you'll begin to see the huge distorting effect that the myth of progress has on all thinking in the present age.

I had a through the looking glass moment on this exact set of thoughts some time back. Very hard to describe what clicked, but everything looked completely different all at once.

Having said that, the only thing that may be different this time is the scale of what's going on now with respect to the environment. Our material and metaphysical economies are built atop a withering natural economy and this is true the globe over, whereas in the past civilizational collapse borne of environmental collapse was more localized. Then again, it may not be that big of a factor or I am missing something, just pointing it out.

Also, I don't subscribe to either the slow or fast collapse scenario, a lot of people are talking about collapse, few are bothering to spell out what they mean in precise terms, nor are they spelling out what it means to put the radar gun to the meaning.

Seems like collapse is one of those concepts that can be all things to all people.

John Michael Greer said...

Eric, I'll check it out, but my problem is not with Wilber -- it's with the entire structure of a philosophy that's founded on the common confusion between evolution and progress. If McIntosh has gotten past that, on the other hand, I'll be interested.

Richard, that's just one of the likely consequences of a serious military defeat.

Nano, possibly -- economic warfare is a powerful force. At the moment, though, I'm exploring the possibility of something a little more overtly military.

Twilight, good. You're getting the picture.

Marku, good! That's three of you that remembered that event.

Stu, your last point is the most important detail: if the missiles needed to sink a carrier cost a small fraction of what the carrier does, the carrier stops being a viable technology.

Keystone, that's an interesting question -- and you're certainly right that a mass program of U-boat construction would have had a huge impact. Instead, they wasted their funds on conventional surface ships, which had no impact on the war.

Richard, exactly. Thanks for the heads up on the 2012 hysteria -- I'm increasingly thinking that this one is going to be one for the record books.

Daughter, it's a good point.

Ghung, I disagree with you; you disagree with me. I'm familiar with your arguments, and I'm sure you're familiar with mine; they clearly aren't going to change anybody's mind. That being the case, if you still find this blog useful, good; if not, there are plenty of others. 'Nuf said.

Nathan, excellent! I don't normally give two gold stars in a day, but that earns one. So Jesus was up there on the triple overpass with an AK-47, squeezing off bursts at the presidential limousine, while Elvis fired from the grassy knoll. Got it.

Ruben said...

@ Frank Hemming

I don't know why you are talking about consensus, but I will bite. Not that I would like to see consensus used everywhere, but I think it could be profitably used a lot more than it is.

In addition to being inspiring and increasingly relevant to our current bankrupt times, the movie The Take shows some amazing large-scale (250+ persons) consensus processes.

I have been part of consensus decisons based on a system of coloured cards, which speeds the conversation considerably. Green means "I am happy", yellow means "I can live with it", and red means "I can't live with it, and I am willing to do the work to create a solution that works for everyone".

The enormous caveat of not being able to block unless you are willing to do the work pretty much eliminates power plays.

John Michael Greer said...

JP, as I mentioned earlier, I'll be talking about the calculus of nuclear deterrence in an age of decline down the road a bit. I think you'll find you're quite wrong -- but we'll get to that.

Jason, that's one of the hypotheses. It's a lively field of ancient history, well worth following.

John, the effective defense against drones is computer hacking. That's how the Iranians got one of our surveillance drones to land on one of their airstrips a little while back. You can spoof their GPS readings, too. Faced with a technologically astute opponent, drones are overrated.

DaShui, what I'm discussing has been talked about elsewhere for some years; it's not much discussed in the peak oil scene, though. As for the article, it's making some huge assumptions; more on this later.

Mallow, the best measure is whether or not you've got US military bases on your territory. Britain certainly does; I don't happen to know about Ireland -- though Ireland these days is basically a client state of Germany via the EU, so it may be a client of a client.

Lauren, I'm not an expert, but my reading suggests that EMP is a lot harder to use effectively than the media makes it look. There are many other vulnerabilities that would be a lot easier to target.

MawKernewek, yes, that's among the many vulnerabilities.

Russell, the US has won most of its wars, too, or wiggled out of them before suffering a clear defeat. I suspect that very few people have adequately gauged the depth to which the fantasy of invincibility pervades the American imagination, and thus the impact on the country's collective psychology of a really solid and unanswerable military defeat.

Carp, always a possibility. I tend to assume -- and, again, I've read Sun Tsu -- that the Chinese have quite a few different angles in mind for monkeywrenching, and will not show all of them at once even if it comes to a shooting war.

Myriad, good. No, I don't envisage an invasion of the American continent -- that would be a ghastly challenge to any prospective invader. The US, like any other country, can lose a war without being conquered; it simply has to be forced into a position where settling for a peace treaty is preferable to continuing to fight at a disadvantage.

John Michael Greer said...

Artinnature, thank you! I'd be more interested in figuring out how a country could make itself look so unappetizing to potential invaders that nobody would bother -- Switzerland is a good model here.

Joel, I read about that. I hope the Pentagon is taking detailed notes.

Frank, thank you! I'll have to find Biehl's book.

Ozark, nukes are America's phallic talisman of omnipotence -- that's why so many people were babbling idiotically about using a nuke on the Deepwater Horizon when it was fountaining oil into the Gulf of Mexico. I'll be addressing them, as previously mentioned, in a later post.

Raven, that's only one model. History has others.

Dealer, I figure we're about 50 years from horse cavalry -- less than that if we get a domestic insurgency in the West, and fuel supplies start running short.

Bruce, exactly. Current talk involves using a high altitude drone positioned over the target to guide the missile in. Current Chinese antiship ballistic missiles are estimated to be able to hit their targets from straight above at Mach 10; given decent targeting, that wouldn't even need an explosive charge.

Raven, funny! Reminds me of the comment of a heathen friend of mine about why he worships the gods he does: "Jesus promised to get rid of sin and death. Thor promised to get rid of frost giants. Seen any frost giants lately?"

Matrix, 200 might well be enough to swamp the fleet's antimissile defenses and get through. 200 missiles and, say, twice as many decoys -- at that point we're into assured-kill territory, and the chance that the Iranians haven't thought of that is so close to zero I'm not worried about it.

Jim, I've discussed the meaning of apocalypse many times here. It doesn't just mean "something bad happens." (That happens all the time.) It means that history ends -- that what happens afterward has no relation to what happened beforehand. Those Canaanites got stomped by history, but their more fortunate compatriots picked up the pieces and went on with their lives.

nuku said...

Dear JMG Thanks for this very timely post. On the subject of the latest boom “junk bonds” see this article:

John Michael Greer said...

Ricardo, the Egyptian army fielded a very large chariot army at Kadesh; they may have gotten their horses from Palestine (where they had an extensive empire of client states) but they had no shortage. As for the empire of bases, true enough.

Jim, I have that very much in mind.

Betsy, a very nice model for certain kinds of warfare! Thanks for passing it on.

Kieran, true enough. The Iranians would be foolish to waste their missiles on tankers at first, though, unless they wanted to lure a US carrier group into range. That's the real target.

Sgage, nice. Mind you, the T-34 was by no means an inferior tank -- it wasn't an elegant piece of machinery, but it was hard to kill and very effective in battle, and of course it didn't hurt that the Russians turned them out by the thousands.

Guilherme, nah, I don't expect an invasion of the continental US any time in this century. Major defeat in an overseas war, followed by political collapse along the lines of what happened to the USSR? Much more likely.

Unknown Barb, while there's much of value in the whole 4th Gen warfare hype, it's based on the unstated assumption that states can't or won't use military force against each other any more. I'd argue that this is a mistake, and quite possibly a lethal one. More on this down the road a bit.

Robert, that makes complete sense.

Justin, oh, we're in a world-class mess, no question; the resource base that allowed the industrial bubble to happen was bigger than any past equivalent, and so the consequences of the fall will be worldwide and very harsh. My argument, though, is that we are already collapsing; if you want to know how it's going to come down, look around, because that question's already been answered. It's coming down this way.

John Michael Greer said...

Ruben, Frank's talking about consensus because I've critiqued consensus systems here at some length, having seen them used over and over again to allow a minority with an agenda to control the majority.

Nuku, thanks for the link.

Mean Mr Mustard said...

Offtopic for a moment - do Archdruids wear purple robes?

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

I look forward to your post on such nuclear matters.

Also, thanks for the advice. I wasn't trying to put you on the spot, but am really troubled by this. I may just write about how to make the ultimate worm farm / compost bin that just also happens to be really cheap and easy to build at the same time. I must cogitate on the matter further as here it will walk a fine line. Perhaps substituting animal manure for humanure may be the trick? (I don’t expect a reply to this part of the comment).

A couple of weeks back you mentioned that time is one of the most valuable things that you have. Life passes so quickly that I have to agree.

Today, it snowed up on the main ridge of the mountain range. So up I went (it's about 300 metres in elevation higher than where I am located, but not very far) and mucked around. Probably common place for you lot, but an absolute fun park for me. Snowmen, snowballs, snow-fights etc. The newspaper has some photos.

Snow on Mt Macedon

You know, at my elevation (700m above sea level), it hasn't snowed in the past four years now, when previously it snowed at least once per year.

It has all melted on the main ridge now, but if I hadn't had the freedom to mosey on up and check it out I would have missed it all. Life passes so quickly.

PS: I harvested the first of the citrus tree “Lemonade” today and can quite honestly say that it is amongst one of the finest citrus fruits around.

Hi Ozark,

You know, NASA has the physical data tapes from the Viking mission to Mars but at the same time can’t read them because they destroyed the tape readers. Our technology base isn’t designed to have such a long life, why would the weapons be any different?

PS: I hope the drought isn't too bad out your way. We get them here too and it's just a bad year all round on so many fronts. I sympathise.



Leo said...

I was surprised to see it to, and having it come with every paper is a good way to get the ideas out their (just expensive). i assume the main reason he can do this is that hes already made his money and dosen;t have to be mainstream.

From following up on Dick Smith and other research into goverment stuff (researching Australia's energy for a post of mine) i think there are quite a few politicans / bureaucrats here in Australia that understand peak oil and are doing there best to prepare us.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Christos,

Err, mate. U Boats were eventually neutered. My wife’s dad was in the Czech republic during WWII as a teenager and he told me that the Germans were recruiting teenagers to man the U Boats. He also told me that he had no intention of joining up because they were a lost cause and it was obvious even then, but that the Germans pursued the strategy way beyond their usefulness.

As a side note, after the war, he was conscripted into the Czech army and whilst patrolling the border, escaped into Germany and was eventually resettled as a refugee. Hard times compared to the soft life we lead now.



Odin's Raven said...

I missed last week's article because somehow I became unsubscribed, but I wonder whether there are any portions of America which the plutocrats might want to hang unto, as it collapses or falls apart?

If the food producing areas are drying up, the industries have moved to China, and the big cities are inhabited mainly by bureaucrats, welfare dependents and financial fraudsters, and the whole culture is in advanced degeneracy, is there any region that could sustain itself beyond a rather low level?

Is there likely to be anywhere in America that the Masters of the Universe would want to control and inhabit?

phil harris said...

I was not going to comment this week - though perhaps the following is why, and deserves its own confession.

I skimmed Adam Curtis BBC blog offered by Zed. Glad to have the history on record. But, in my British way, I am ashamed to have lived through the entire period of insurgencies Curtis describes. I well remember personal confessionary stories from men that bit older than me; often they were the drivers when I was hitch-hiking. Why me ashamed? Well, I am guilty of ongoing wishful thinking many times through the lifetime, and there is neither absolution from that particular sin, nor any ready consolation.

Thanks to Cam for the Australian link. What China and the PLA will do with all that knowledge and education, I cannot guess. If your JMG's 'rule' is reliable, they "will become what they contemplate"? To the extent that the USA provides a highly dubious model, China will suffer the same cul-de-sac of unintended consequences.

I have recently been re-reading Roger Penrose on non-computable mathematics. Hmm… Military algorithms? My algorithm will take out yours? More likely the non-computable stuff is what matters, in my view. Not that we can stop the ongoing programmed thinking.


Ricardo Rolo said...

JMG, on the Egyptian war chariots, I guess that my point did not passed as good as I wanted. True, in regular situations, the Egyptians would not have any dificulty in finding horses for their war chariots via commerce/tribute. But when the trade/tribute could not follow ( and notice that the sea people invasions coincide with the colapse of the Hittite empire and the arrival of the Philistines to Palestine, so , not much of oportunities for any of those options ), the Egyptians could not simply replenish their horse stock as easily as that. And note that between Kadesh and the events despicted in Medinet Habu it passed as much time as between Queen Victoria Jubilee and the Cod Wars ( really, losing naval confrontations against a country without a war navy ... ) ... Anyway, my point was that the war chariot was always a foreign weapon for the Egyptians due to the fact that horses were not native there, a weapon that was used because the others used it and only kept in suficient numbers. So it would had been "easier" for them to ditch it than in other places ( Romans faced war chariots when of the invasion of Britain ... ).

On other note , it is funny that the US Army bigwigs aparently do not notice that their enemies are basically reverse engineering what they did in WW II and preparing to use it against them. The Chinese balistic missile is a complete copy cat of how the USN dive bombers trounced the core of the japanese carrier fleet on Midway ( ok, that was largely by acident, but why not copy the core idea ? ;) ) and the drone "takedown" is the reverse of the American and English decription feats vs the Axis military ciphers ( according to what I read , the iranians said off the record that the drone was not taken down, but that, due to the work of them and a unnamed third country, they were able to decript the military grade GPS signal and they simply overrode locally the american sign and convinced the drone that it was getting back home when it going to land in a iranian strip. Not sure if that is true, but it is definitely plausible ... and the only way of countering that would changing completely the GPS cipher system, that would probably cost the americans more than any war at this point ... ). War history is definitely filled with irony and sarcasm ;)

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi xhmko,

Yeah, there hasn't been much press about the rare earth mines in Mongolia which are now closed to export. I think I may have read something recently about a rare earth mine being prospected and possibly opened up in the Kimberley in Western Australia? Mind you, it is small biccies compared to China’s holdings.

Yeah, the Whitlam government was deposed by the governor general (ie. the Queens representative) back in 1975, perhaps because of a brutal opposition, but also perhaps because they were the accidental government (3 treasurers in 3 years, the Khelani loans affair etc.)? By the way, how different is Malcolm Fraser these days?

Khemlani loans affair

The museums in Vietnam about the war were sad to visit and yet evidence that history is also written by the victor. There were lots of references to Australia as the imperial running dogs...



Lance Michael Foster said...

It wasn't the Sea Peoples who brought the Hittites down, it was civil war and intrigue. Inscriptions found at Hattusha revealed the truth of the situation, as can be seen in "The Dark Lords of Hattusha".

sv koho said...

Well done essay JMG on a subject long dear to my heart. I speak BTW as a former military officer. When I was a plebe at West Point in 1964, I recall heated discussions in our military tactics classes arguing the pros and cons of that new conflict in SE Asia. Some of my classmates argued that guerrilla tactics then being employed could in time defeat the US Military. "No Way!" shouted the other cadets. I recall a certain instructor named Major Kristoferson allowing the discussion to proceed. In the end we lost the war as the then cadet minority feared. It should also be noted that we have either had stale mate or have lost and are losing every"war" we have started since WW2. Your comment about carriers is especially poignant because of the sheer cost of the new carriers(on the order of $10 billion not including the squadrons of expensive aircraft housed within their shells. The latest Russian developed and Chinese built successors to the Exocet anti ship missiles(the supersonic Sunburn, the Sizzler etc) almost certainly could severely damage or destroy our carriers and the other thin skinned vessels in the Persian Gulf especially in the choke point of Hormuz and most especially if deployed in swarms and launched from multiple platforms. Military people fear these weapons but you see little to no coverage in the popular media. I would contend that our carriers are modern day chariot equivalents. One other point is that our modern standing armies are primarily mercenary(aka "volunteer") forces who are well equipped and technologically superior to most other insurgent armies but no insurgent commander would throw his forces against ours in an open field. Hence the use of non conventional tactics like IED's detonated by cell phones and other guerrilla and quasi- guerrilla tactics. Also never underestimate the courage and ruthlessness of a soldier defending his homeland against foreign invaders. In the end I think the sheer unaffordable cost of the military budget is what will defeat us first. That is unless the Israeli military launches a preemptive strike against Iran in which case all bets are off. We live in dangerous times.

JP said...

With respect to the uses of horses in a military context, it helps to remember that horses were being used by *Germany* during *WWII*.

So, there are people still living that were involved in a major Great Power war that made extensive use of horses.

I don't think that we return to calvary in 50 years, but I think we return to horse as military tool.

I think there are some developments in military force that make horse cavalry permanently obsolete as a standard-issue offensive tool.

From Wikipedia:

"Horses in World War II were used by the belligerent nations for transportation of troops, artillery, materiel, and, to a lesser extent, in mobile cavalry troops. The role of horses for each nation depended on its military strategy and state of economy and was most pronounced in German and Soviet ground forces. Over the course of the war Germany and the Soviet Union employed more than six million horses."

John Michael Greer said...

Mustard, no, and most of us are at least fair at math!

Cherokee, glad you had the chance to enjoy the snow! We had next to none here last winter. As for the worm farm/compost bin, get it on paper (or the electronic equivalent) and get it into people's hands -- the Green Wizards forum might be one place to post the details.

Leo, I hope that's true. You're going to have to deal with a lot in the coming decades.

Raven, they're not the masters of the universe, they're just the masters of a system that is well past its Tainter point (that is, the point at which the returns on increasing complexity go negative) and is ripe for dramatic simplification. I think the question is less where they might want to go, and more where they and their families might be able to find refuge.

Phil, understood. Thanks for the perspective.

Ricardo, the chariot arrived in Egypt with the Hyksos, a good many centuries before the time we're discussing; it may not have been strictly native, but I'd want to do a lot more research into what we know about Egyptian horse management before agreeing with your suggestion. As for reverse engineering WWII, though, that's a very apt way of thinking about it -- and I'm quite sure that the Iranians did hack the drone; the photos circulated in the world media showed no sign of damage from a crash.

Lance, I'll take my historical pointers from scholarly research rather than media documentaries, thank you. If you'd like to suggest some primary sources or good solid research, contact me offlist.

Koho, I hope there are people still in the US military who are thinking in the same terms you are. It might save a lot of lives.

Ruben said...


I know you have seen consensus abused, but I didn't see a reference in this post, so I was wondering where the conversation came from.

As I said, I can't imagine how consensus could be used in some situations, but simple agreements on the system can remove many of the opportunities for abuse, as I described.

The Quakers use a kind of consensus, and for three hundred years they have been fiercely proud of "tipping their hat to no man". I think of the Quakers as Scientists of Group Process.

sometulip said...

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” - Mahatma Gandhi
If you have any Lawyers JMG I'd set them onto http:// It looks like someone in has read your book/blog and perverted it's message to counteract your own. It's interesting to see that the final resource part is the smallest and the least well researched part and basically rehashes all the old arguments of horizontal drilling being new, that limits to Growth had us all dead by now. You must be getting under the Singularitists skin if they frontpage one of their magazines with a parody of your work. Keep up the good work. I particularly liked your recent posts on US history as a European I found them very enlightening as you don't really get much US history here and I've gone looking.

Kurt Cagle said...


It's easy and tempting to see the US military effort as a nationalistic phenomenon, but if you assume that most military campaigns tend to be driven by consortia of corporations seeking commercial competitive advantages in external markets (either by capturing exploitable resources or at a minimum denying those resources to a global competitor, or by simple wartime profiteering) how does that change as the reach of such corporations diminish, which I think is a given in a post-peak environment? At what point in the process do the Blackwaters of the world become corporate militaries against dying national entities?

As usual, you raise intriguing issues.

GHung said...

JMG: "That being the case, if you still find this blog useful, good; if not, there are plenty of others. 'Nuf said."

While I'll continue to visit, I'll try to limit my contributions to the Green Wizard's Forum. Hopefully I'm better at that sort of thing. Best wishes the owner won't disapprove...

John Michael Greer said...

JP, Gene Wolfe has an interesting essay about the possibilities for cavalry in the future. My thought, though, was that cavalry will likely fill the same roles it did in the Civil War and other 19th century conflicts -- scouting, irregular warfare, and the like -- rather than being a battlefield arm.

Ruben, it's been an ongoing theme in many past posts, which is why I put it through. You're right that certain agreements, if they can be enforced, can keep consensus more or less on track; the problem is that enforcing those agreements against a minority with an agenda, and a willingness to manipulate the process for its own ends, is effectively impossible in a consensus system. Thus you're left with a system that only works when everyone involved is honest -- and in such a situation, you usually don't need a formal system at all.

Sometulip, that's Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist (sic). He's one of Bjorn Lomborg's epigones, into the same trick of cherrypicking data to make a nice warm fuzzy portrait of a happy world we don't happen to inhabit. It's a lucrative gig -- much more so than pointing out the trouble we're in -- and deeply committed to the Tweedledee and Tweedledoom dichotomy: if sudden apocalyptic collapse hasn't happened yet, why, that proves that everything's going to be wonderful for the imaginable future.

Kurt, I don't accept that assumption, for the simple reason that wars happened at least as often before the rise of the modern corporation. There will doubtless be plenty of wars after the word "corporation" is a term of abuse found only in ancient theological works, too.

Ghung, you're also welcome to contribute here; just don't expect me to agree with you!

monsta said...

A good article and I would agree with much of what you say. When I talk with others about resource depletion and the possible decline of the US empire an argument that often crops up is that the US hegemony can be maintained through military force. I have always had trouble with this sort of argument because for a start since WW II the record of the US army has been far from invincible despite claims to the contrary. It would seem however that people have short memories.

Once the decline really begins in earnest then I do think the rules of engagement will change and the weaknesses of the US military will be exposed even more. History proves time and time again for this to be true, I do not see how the US is any different to previous empires in this regard.

I also tend to side with your argument that nuclear warfare is unlikely to feature a significant role as we begin the decline phase of industrial civilation in earnest. The main reason I would say this is because the losses of such actions are too great relative to the gains. It is like you said, to avoid being conquered one need not be stronger than the invading army, they simply need to be strong enough that a victory would be too heavy for the victorious army to bear. It is primarily this reason why I cannot see how nuclear warfare would be used.

Saying just because the US won't use its nuclear arsenal that does not mean other nations will not use it. For example if Israel faced an existential threat by its surrounding Arab neighbours it might use its nuclear weapons as a final desperate act. Improbable granted, but more feasible than a US strike on the Middle-East/China etc.

GreenEngineer said...

You seem to be saying that the US is vulnerable to military defeat because we are making a historical error in overinvesting in a single kind of technology or a single kind of warfare.
To this, I would point out two things:

- There seems to have been a fairly rapid adaptation of tactics and equipment towards the irregular warfare we've been engaged in for the last decade. Not fast enough for the troops on the ground, I'm sure, but not 19th-century-British-Empire-slow either.

- The US military strategy is not overinvestment in a single technology, but overinvestment in a wide variety of technologies. This means that we have many points of vulnerability, but probably none of them are overwhelming. This leads me to expect that the relevant scenario is the third one you describe: we find ourselves metabolically unable to maintain our military machine, and as it falls apart, the vulnerabilities become more severe and start to overlap to the point where we are truly vulnerable.

Yuri Kuzyk said...

"Lauren, I'm not an expert, but my reading suggests that EMP is a lot harder to use effectively than the media makes it look. There are many other vulnerabilities that would be a lot easier to target."

I suggest a bit more study in this area. I've spent a lot of time trying to make gear immune to these types of effects and it is very difficult. Same conclusion was reached by a commission (report here:
and a nice summary by Rawles here (

You need one warhead and an ICBM to take out a national grid...China and Russia have both produced warheads specific to the task and I suspect USA has a few as well.

On another note, the trends for the George River Herd of caribou might predict other population trends. They have gone from 500,000 to 27,000 and the main culprit is looking like accelerating climate change effects on vegetation. Considering the vast geographic range and minimal humans in the area this is quite unfortunate since the herd could have supported survivors in an area that might avoid drought conditions as climate evolves.

Which raises an interesting question regarding military on the downslope: how well can a military based on the doctrine of projecting power be turned into one that can protect vital areas where survivors might be located for the future?

Yuri Kuzyk said...

Interestingly, the EMP attack has been mentioned as a good strategy for Israel's first move on Iran:

"What would an EMP attack look like?

If Israel chooses one of its Jericho III missiles to detonate a single EMP warhead at high altitude over north central Iran, there will be with no blast or radiation effects on the ground.

Coupled with cyber-attacks, Iranians would not know it happened except for a massive shutdown of the electric power grid, oil refineries and a transportation gridlock. Food supply would be exhausted and communication would be largely impossible, leading to economic collapse. Similarly, the uranium enrichment centrifuges in Fordo, Natanz and widely scattered elsewhere, would freeze for decades."

Abihu said...

JMG, thanks as always for a wonderful and thought-provoking essay, an for raising the bar for reasoned and courteous argument in the blogophere.

As I was reading a couple of thoughts came to mind: if you've run across Bryan Ward-Perkins' book _The Fall of Rome_, I'd be curious to hear your reaction. For those who haven't read it--the author takes issue with the current consensus belief among historians that Rome collapsed slowly; Ward-Perkins makes a pretty decent case for its fast collapse. Your description of the Hittite empire's demise sounded like a fast collapse, as well. Not that our empire will necessarily follow the Roman or Hittite empires' trajectories, but if you accept the premise that some empires collapse rather quickly and some take centuries to do so, I'm curious about what you feel are the criteria, in general, for a fast collapse versus a slow one.


Bruce The Druid said...

just my 91/2 cents,

Speaking of EMP bombs, again I will have to quote my engineer father: basically all explosives when they detonate will send out an electromagnectic pulse. From conventional explosives to nuclear, they all are, in a sense, EMP bombs. What an EMP bomb is, essentially, is a conventional bomb whose formula has been tweaked to produce the strongest EM pulse. To deploy such a bomb you would have your usual choice of plane dropped or missile delivery, the criteria being it had to be detonated over your target area at altitude.

From what I remember, there was suspicion such a bomb was deployed in Belgrade during the Serbian-Kosovo war. The target, not military hardware, but the hardware controlling the cities water and sanitation systems. No flowing water, no sewage treatment, no flushing toilets equals diseases such as cholera and TB.

So essentially, when an EMP bomb goes off, it will seem to be like any other ordinary bomb, except it will be at some altitude, and it will fry your electronic hardware. Vacuum tubes, on the other hand, are supposed to be immune (unless the blast itself shatters the glass!).

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Thanks. Yeah, the lack of snow has been worrying me here. There always used to be at least one major snow dump per year down to elevations as low as 500m above sea level in the central highlands here. But for the past four years, there has been nothing below about 850m - 900m.

Mind you, the amount of fog and mist has increased. Here, I reckon about 10% of the year has these conditions and it looks to me to be on the increase. The reason I notice this is because of the solar power as it is pretty sad on these days. I'm going to add a wind turbine in the next 9 months (ie. Before next winter) to help manage these days. As an interesting side note, some wealthy types from within the shire that I live have managed to outlaw (through enacting specific state legislation) wind turbines within the shire. Honestly, it all gets down to visual amenity. Knuckle heads...

It’s interesting that you haven't had much snow in the previous season at your place. It will be interesting to see whether this is a short term trend or a new long term trend. As another interesting side note, drought years here tend to be cold years. Is this your experience?

On a positive note, if the conditions persist you may be able to plant avocadoes and citrus?

I'll knock something up in the next month or two for the Green Wizards forum.



SLClaire said...

Others have mentioned the fact that the US military's record since WWII has been a losing one overall. Korea and Vietnam are both obvious enough. The first Gulf War was won only because GHW Bush had enough sense not to attempt to enter Baghdad. Despite all the thaumaturgy unleashed on us in 2003 (GW Bush in his flight uniform announcing victory, no less!), we lost Iraq and we are losing/have lost Afghanistan. Not to mention other smaller conflicts that have already been brought up.

Anyone who has seen a little TV or any sort of print or Internet advertisement knows the huge amount of thaumaturgy being directed toward convincing the US public that our military is a force for good and is invincible. It can only be thaumaturgy that can do that, because anyone looking at what has been actually happening since Korea can see at a glance that neither premise has panned out in reality. But most of the US public is thoroughly under the spell. What happens when a sufficiently large defeat, or chain of them in a short enough time, breaks that spell completely, shattering the myth of invincibility? Couple that with the shattering of the myth of economic progress, already ongoing but not yet big enough on its own to break down a large collective entity, and I can see where this could lead to unendurable stress both on individuals and on larger collective entities such as the US. If we lose faith in the US (and I mean faith in its religious sense), breakup becomes thinkable and once thinkable, doable.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Liked your mention of Switzerland. Their currency was being overvalued recently as traders sought a safe haven. So, they made themselves an unappealing target by... printing currency.

Smart people.

On the other hand, over here we're under the same attack and the rising AU$ is shutting down the local manufacturing industries (or what remains of them). The issue of printing money has been raised here, but dogma about government debt (and an inability to change course when the carrier fleet hits a shallow rocky shoal) is holding the politicians and the reserve bank back.

I'd really love to see a frost giant (at a respectable and safe distance of course!).



Joe Dupere said...

George Will has a column in the Washington Post which you might find amusing, actually probably disheartening The really interesting part was the WashPo website headlined it "Apocolypse Not".

John Michael Greer said...

Monsta, I'd be very surprised if no nuclear weapons get used anywhere in the next century. My discussion of nuclear deterrence will focus on the risk of all-out nuclear war; a few tactical nukes or terrorist dirty bombs here and there, ghastly though they'll be for those affected, will not define the long-term fate of industrial civilization.

Engineer, no, that's not what I'm saying at all. The next three posts should make that a bit clearer.

Yuri, well, I'll look into it, but I have a tendency to doubt that any media panic fomented by the government is quite as serious as it's made to look.

Abihu, I have indeed, and if you use Ward-Perkins's name as a search string on this blog's search function you'll find a post based largely on his ideas. As I read him, though, he's not talking about fast collapse vs. slow collapse; he's talking actual collapse vs. the then-current notion that the fall of Rome wasn't really that big a deal.

Bruce, everything I've read says that vacuum tubes are immune to EMP -- it's purely a problem for the much more sensitive solid state devices. Ham radio operators take note: those "boatanchor" rigs are worth keeping in working order. ;-)

Cherokee, here drought years are hot years, but we're a long way from avocados and citrus -- okra is a little more likely in my lifetime. As it is, we're having to try new varieties of some crops to handle the hot spells.

SLClaire, exactly. Down the road a bit, I'll be presenting a fictionalized scenario about how the thing could happen -- not as a prediction, of course, but as an exploration of some of the sharp vulnerabilities of imperial America in its final days.

Cherokee, I'll pass on the frost giant!

Joe, thanks for the link. Poor George Will; he just hasn't been the same since he did a column insisting in ringing tones that the Berlin Wall wasn't going to fall, and it was down within the week.

sgage said...

@ SLClaire

"What happens when a sufficiently large defeat, or chain of them in a short enough time, breaks that spell completely, shattering the myth of invincibility?"

Why, they'll blame on the peaceniks, and not giving the Generals what they wanted, and Gays in the military, and welfare cheats and environmentalists and OWS and... you get the picture.

William McCracken said...

The United States has been experiencing a fate similar to the UK's experience post British Empire. The homeland is protected by a "moat" so it resists outright invasion. However, each country gradually fills with refugee nationals from commonwealth natioNs after each military defeat. Both homeworlds have become "melting pot" nations. Currency use and trade agreements are the new markers of empire. Reserve currency sounds an awful lot like "a pound is a pound the world around...". Moving away from petrodollars can cripple US influence as much as sinking a carrier battle fleet. Easier on the environment too!

Jim R said...

EMP ...
Interesting topic. There is a nice Wikipedia page, but you need a little background in the sciences to understand it:

And thanks for the survivalblog summary, Yuri, it was excellent.

An EMP attack would be done with a nuclear bomb, but to get the effect it is detonated in space. There is no be a blast or radiation. You would never hear it. If it happens at night or if you are looking up at the sky, it would be like a flashbulb going off. There isn't even any appreciable fallout.

Microelectronics, like the chips that go into computers or cellphones, are designed to survive small static discharges and would typically be undamaged. But metal objects will pick up electrical energy proportional to their length. Electrical grids would be knocked out as every transformer in every substation gets hit with an enormous surge. Most of our phone system and internet is now based on optical fiber -- such fibers do not conduct electricity and are immune to nearby lightning strikes. The fibers themselves would not be damaged by an EMP. Of course the equipment in the little buildings at the fiber's ends would be vulnerable, more or less, as it can only run for a short while without grid power. Cellphone towers would likely be knocked offline.

Whether your solar array survives or not depends on how close you are to the epicenter of the pulse, I expect. Its wires are much shorter than those of the grid, but the electronics cannot take as much of a surge. Lots of variables in that calculation.

And it was interesting to read that only 10% of cars would be knocked out -- the car's body acts as a Faraday cage which protects its electronics. If 85% of our cars were killed off, the EMP would be doing us a favor. Oh, well.

On nuclear pollution:
One interesting factoid that has emerged in the wake of last year's Japanese nuclear accident is this: by the end of this century, 99+% of the radioactive pollution on the planet will have come from events like TMI, Chernobyl, Fukushima, and a number of less-publicized releases, and releases yet-to-come. This is "peaceful" nuclear material. Even a dirty bomb is no match for a fire in a spent fuel pool, one that has been accumulating nuke waste from the slow burn of a generating plant over a period of three or four or five decades.

And it is becoming increasingly clear that, in the hollowed-out economy of the far side of Hubbert's Peak, it will be extremely difficult to marshall the resources necessary for proper decomissioning of these monuments to the profligacy of scale.

latheChuck said...

Re: Nuclear Electromagnetic Pulse damage to ham radio equipment, I'd rather have a spare solid-state transceiver protected in a steel desk drawer than a vacuum-tube "boat-anchor" radio. It's hard to assess exactly how NEMP would affect either radio, especially if it's disconnected from its antenna and power supply. On the other hand, it's easy to assess how much harder it would be to generate enough electrical power to heat up a vacuum-tube rig (but we've gone over that calculation before).

On the other hand, I'm going to be a lot more careful to stow unused gear inside that steel desk, and disconnect antennas when done operating! (Time to put another switch on the shopping list.)

Jim R said...

Nuclear, cont'd:
We will probably see a re-definition of 'safe' and 'decomission', in much the same way Tepco has re-defined 'cold shutdown'.

Perhaps we could introduce a standard unit for nuclear waste release, the 'Tepco'. It would be a large unit like the Sievert or the Farad. One Tepco = 10 metric tons of high level fission products, released into the air and water.

GHung said...

As they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery:

Apocalypse Not: Here’s Why You Shouldn’t Worry About End Times - By Matt Ridley

Jim R said...

EMP, cont'd:
There's another variable, more or less unique to electromagnetic radiation, and that is direction / polarization of the pulse. If the EM pulse arrives at such an angle that it is pushing electrons across the long wire, then the effect would be minimal. So the amount of damage is very sensitive to the relative geometry of the nuclear device, the upper atmosphere, earth's magnetic field, and your electrical device.

The upshot of this is that an EMP attack would have very random and unpredictable results. Some things would catch a lot of the energy and damage while others would be much less affected, and in a chaotic and unpredictable pattern.

Puzzler said...

Cover story on the new (Sept) issue of Wired magazine:


Climate collapse.
Mass starvation.
Deadly pandemics.

Get a grip.

Why the world won't end in 2012 ... or anytime soon."

Leo said...

On the topic of nuclear war, this is a copy of three essays:

It looms to me that nukes are a political weapon far more than they are a military weapon. For use I imagine that countries will have to fragment a bit more, or insurgents get there hands on useful ones.

Conventional forces, especially infantry, will play a far bigger part and define the military/political landscape more than nukes.

Godfrey Blackwood said...

I'd love to hear your thoughts on drones. They seem to be the 'next big thing.' Chariots in the sky.

Also; I humbly beg you to indulge in going back into ancient history; perhaps I'm the lone wolf in the flock who loves history, but I have strong feelings about history and it's relevance to the present/future.

guamanian said...

A quick note on drones, which seem to be the US empire's last chance Hail Mary weapon system, based on the belief that they are a cheap and effective 'body-bag-free' way to retain global dominance.

From within the logic of empire, AI drones acting on pervasive surveillance data are considered a clear winning strategy... which indicates to me that the empire no longer is even attempting to win long-term.

Drones are gigantic blowback machines. To the millions who live in the currently targeted regions, drone warfare epitomizes the moral cowardice and brittle weakness of a failing empire. Intended to instil fear and uncertainty, drones actually are fuelling immense disdain and rage directed at the US and local client elites.

Short of the President donning a Darth Vader mask and building a Death Star, there is
probably no clearer way than embracing drone warfare to demonstrate that the old empire is no longer attempting to rule hearts and minds, but instead merely killing to maintain momentary control

Jason Heppenstall said...

Speaking of the Hittites ... I once visited one of their hidden 'cities' in Turkey. Think of a giant 3D labyrinth of interconnected caves like an immense underground Swiss cheese. They could evacuate the whole city down into these hidey holes - dogs, chickens and horses too - and pull a giant boulder to when the last one was in. In this way they could hide out for months and their enemies simply didn't know where they had gone. They even had a smoke dispersal system, so could have fires down there too. Ingenious!

@Cherokee - regarding the Swiss - the Danes are under the same monetary pressure. Last week I saw a sign at Copenhagen airport asking travellers with more than 10,000 euros in their hand luggage to register at customs! They're giving zero yields on their bonds, and zero interest rates means the banks are able to leverage big profits on their loans - thus protecting them from bankruptcy (for now). It's endlessly fascinating to watch the continuous blooming of the fractal of economic upheaval.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

Okra seems like a very interesting crop with many uses. I've seen it for sale in our local markets, but it doesn't get any special "health food" mention. It looks like it has been cultivated south of you for a long time. You never know... I’d try it, although space is not at a premium here.

As to coffee substitutes, which okra also falls into, I've taken up the tea camellia (camellia sinensis) and chicory challenge. As a bit of feedback, the chicory seems to be far more frost hardy than the camellia. Other camellia's here soldier on and flower well over winter, but not this one. As bad luck would have it, I've had two frosts now this year (-0.4 degrees Celsius) and the tea camellia was frost burnt. It is obviously at the extreme end of its range, however the chicory did not skip a beat and looks set to become a major weed here. I love edible weeds. They should be celebrated!

I may be wrong, but I reckon the root stock for fruit trees is the key to them surviving extremes of weather. I experiment with all sorts of rootstock here, although trying to track down non dwarfing rootstock is a real pain and growers aren’t setup for this. Always the key is diversity.

Mind you, it takes about four years for a citrus tree to harden to outdoor living even here. Before that over winter they look a bit wan, but they do get through. The benefit too is that once they do get established, they aren’t subject to all of the pests that they suffer from in warmer climates. In Melbourne, every citrus tree that I’ve seen is infested with citrus gall wasp, no matter how well they are growing.

Interestingly too, I’ve learnt that with the herbs, both culinary and medicinal about 80% have lost their potency over winter, which I didn’t expect. They obviously must use the energy from the sun to produce their sugars, alkaloids etc. I always used to enjoy a cup of lemon (or lime) balm tea in the evening, but it is pretty weak stuff over the depths of winter. I’m still learning though.

Back on topic though. Isn't the military a reflection of the society that funds it? If you live in a risk averse, hands off society dependent on excessive energy use and technology, well, you get drones.



Ozark Chinquapin said...

Cherokee, the drought has been quite bad around here, every month from April through July had much below normal rainfall along with above average temperatures, causing enough trees to go dormant early that is smelled like fall in late July. The intense heat from the middle of June through the beginning of August sucked the moisture out of the soil rapidly. However we've gotten some relief this month, with over 4 inches of rain so far, which is above normal for the month of August here. The grasses are growing again. We could still use a lot more rain, however.

Last winter was a very mild winter here too, with only one significant snow which melted the next day. On the positive side, my figs didn't die back at all (the year before they died back to the ground), and we're getting a great crop of fresh figs.

John Michael Greer said...

William, sure, but the sinking of the carriers generally happens in there somewhere. You'll notice that, despite the economic and political shifts that made the end of the British Empire inevitable, there was a bit of violence (cough, cough, two world wars, cough, cough) involved in the process as well.

Jim, as I've suggested more than once, far into the future there are going to be large tracts of land surrounded by cow skulls on sticks, or some such markers, where according to the local shamans a terrible curse from ancient times lies on the land and the water. If you go there, you sicken and die.

Chuck, by all means use the steel desk! Grounding it to a water pipe might not be a bad idea, either.

Ghung, I saw that -- funny! I suppose it's good to know that Bjorn Lomborg has some competition in the cotton candy future field, too.

Puzzler, I think that's called "whistling past the graveyard." You'll notice the overfamiliar logic: if the world isn't going to be overwhelmed by sudden cataclysm next week, we can count on progress uber alles forever. Uh-huh.

Leo, thank you for posting those! A very helpful breath of fresh air on a subject most people refuse to think about.

Godfrey, drones are the latest Pentagon wonder toy. Like most wonder toys, they look much more useful than they are. In particular, they can be hacked -- and you'd better bet that every industrial nation that has reason to dislike the US is very quietly getting good at hacking them. As for ancient history, many thanks and I will!

Guamanian, good. Very good.

Jason, fascinating!

Cherokee, true -- and then you get efficient counter-drone technology, followed shortly by an empire that isn't there any more.

Draco TB said...

The inevitable military scenario comes in the last chapter, where Clancy demonstrates conclusively that if a hopelessly outgunned and outclassed Third World nation were ever to launch a conventional naval attack against a US carrier group, the carrier group will probably be able to figure out some way to win.

The problem, of course, is that it's already known how to absolutely trash a US carrier battle group:

You Sank My Carrier
This Is How Carriers Will Die

Both by Garry Brecher

John Michael Greer said...

Draco, thanks for those -- two classic War Nerd posts. He's quite correct, too.

maureenlycaon said...

Over the past year, I've developed quite an interest in the end-Bronze Age collapse. It popped up in a few doomer blogs in 2009, including The Breaking Time and The Doomer Report. Some facts and speculations that might be food for thought today:

The entire Bronze Age technology was, of course, dependent on a steady supply of copper and tin. Tin is a scarce metal, and there's evidence it was being mined and shipped to the Near East from as far away as Britain. Only with a far-flung and *stable* international trade network could armies keep supplied with it. This was a massive Achilles' heel of Bronze-Age civilization, as much as the exotic components needed for making chariots and compound bows.

Trevor Bryce points out in The Kingdom of the Hittites that the Hittite empire became very dependent on grain shipped in from abroad -- and in the later years of the thirteenth century, it had more and more trouble with rebellious tributaries, which could have made it harder to import that food. Combine that with a megadrought, which the whole Near East and Anatolia are prone to, and you have an empire falling apart even before the barbarians arrived. Interestingly, he suggests the capital, Hattusas, was actually abandoned by the elites at least six months before the end -- in fact, most Hittite cities were just abandoned, not razed and burned. Bryce states:

"The overall, though still far from complete, picture we have of the centuries immediately following the collapse of the Hittite kingdom is not one of widespread destruction and massacre, but of large-scale movements of peoples -- abandoning their homelands, grouping and regrouping with other peoples on the move, then finally dispersing, sometimes to lands far from their places of origin."

For the Mycenaeans: Oliver Brown suggests in The Aegean from Bronze Age to Iron Age suggests that many Mycenaean cities destroyed each other in internecine warfare for what water and food supplies remained -- or in some cases even fell to civil war from within, as the elites fell apart into warring factions.

At one point during the collapse, according to Bryce, some of Ugarit's own ships changed sides to join the raiders. The chief administrator of Alasiya wrote him to inform him: "It was the people from your own country and your own ships who did this! And it was the people from your country who committed these transgressions."

Renaissance Man said...

You are describing the rock-paper-scissors problem that has been a constant throughout history. Any military that omits any unit type or mis-applies any type of technology is going to get the snot knocked out of them.
History is replete with examples: Agincourt, Bannockburn, Isandlwana, Teutoberg Forest, &c.
But history is also replete with militaries that correctly applied all the varied components in combined arms operations and achieved crushing victories.
General Van Riper. Thanks for that name. I had no idea how to go about looking him up, and it bugged me, because I used his example in arguments prior to the attack on Iraq as to what would happen. Asymetric Warfare. I wish I wasn't right, but I saw it coming.
About 25 years ago, I postulated that World War III would be fought by sabotage and subterfuge, not massive armies, main battle tanks, planes, and warships, and so on, because they have become far too expensive to maintain and lose. Wars would become wars of insurgency against occupying forces, or by disruption of critical infrastructure and civil disorder.
I believe we are already fighting World War III right now, across the globe, but not the imagined nuclear holocaust or WWII redux with tanks. Instead it is a political-ideological war for the hearts and minds of people, and the imperial U.S., as imperial England before, as other empires in history, is not at all good at it, primarily because, like all empires, we hold the people we would rule over in such contempt. We know we can smear the tar out of any enemy opposed to us on the conventional battlefield, so that's how we percieve how legitimate warfare to be like. Yet 10 years in Afghanistan and we are no closer to achieving any vague, undefined victory or even pacification. Iraq is still in turmoil. The insurgents are still killing U.S. and NATO troops. They cannot afford tanks and guns, so they use cell phones and
Now, I find it highly ironic that in popular American culture, in movies (e.g. Star Wars), in TV shows, and in popular images of historical heros such as Francis Marion, and Samuel Adams, and Paul Revere, the 'good guys' are the insurgents, the rebels, the minutemen: civilians who surreptitiously struggle against the oppressive military machine, who fight using exactly the same Asymetric Warfare principles that we officially despise as cowardly and despicable ‘terrorism’ when used against us.
Oh, and just to pick at a nit: 'ballistic' missiles act like a bullet, so once aimed and fired, they stay on that trajectory. If the path can change in flight, it's a 'guided' missile.

Mean Mr Mustard said...


In the interests of balance, the opposing view on the vulnerability of the UK's future part time carrier / totemic status symbol.

Britannia Waives the Rules!

rabtter said...

Had a look (concerning EMP) at No mention at all of a simple Faraday Cage.

Okra does have many uses, its quite tasty. As for chicory, the feral type is quite rugged, it just shrugs off 20 deg F nights. Don't know how suitable the wild type is for a coffee substitute. The greens are bitter, unless they grew in the cold in which case they can be tasty.

jollyreaper said...

A few thoughts.

1. I generally agree with the idea that human nature is a result of our brains and therefore will not change until the brains do. Evolution has changed it in the past, genetic engineering could tamper with it in the future. Barring direct tinkering, evolution moves on a time scale too large for us to experience.

2. Culture and civilization can change. Culture can mediate human nature. This is why we no longer see human heads spiked on London Bridge. The NFL, while violent, is far less bloody than gladiatorial combat. Of course, simulated violence is quite common and available in media.

3. We do have a cognitive bias of thinking we live in unprecedented times, just like every teenager discovering sex for the first time is sure the adults don't know a thing about it and have never truly experienced life.

4. All that being said, we do live in an exceptional time. Our politics is as dismal as ever, our public institutions as corrupt as ever, but the consequences are so much greater. Climate change is real. Energy depletion is real. We are overbuilt, overextended, and overpopulated in a dramatic fashion.

The ultimate source of these problems is not new, is not any different from the problems of the past. (Greed, pride, vanity, an inability to appreciate one's own limits, etc.) But when gangs used to settling fights with fists and boots are given guns, the next fight will start for the same old reasons but the consequences will be unlike anything they've experienced.

jollyreaper said...

The defense against GPS hacking is inertial navigation systems, aka INS. INS uses accelerometers to track motion and predict position. GPS/INS systems are in use in many places, using GPS to calibrate the INS broadly and INS for up to the microsecond measurements.

I have a feeling that GPS hacking is an obvious security hole left by engineers who didn't have the budget or time to do everything the right way. Consider the Taliban viewing unscrambled video from the drones. That's right, drone video is sent in the clear! The control systems telemetry was encrypted.

In general, the less autonomous the drone, the more vulnerable they will be to jamming of the control signals. However, active jamming also points out where the jammer is. Cold War smart weapons could home on an enemy's radar emitter or home on the jamming signal. When surface-to-air missiles threatened to make the manned combat aircraft too vulnerable to fly, specialized Wild Weasel teams took the fight right back to the SAM's.

Also, the smarter our AI gets, the more we'll be willing to trust drones to operate autonomously.

In Frank Herbert's Dune all interstellar transport was monopolized by a Spacing Guild and thus shipping costs were enormous. Given a proscription against the use of atomic weapons and artificial minds being held in anathema, the fighting man became the dominant weapon of the day. Control of a planet could turn on the outcome of a fight between the retinues of warring nobles. Wars of Assassins.

When we can't afford carriers and armored divisions, we might still see the aims of wars carried out with robotic assassins. I've seen some estimates that the 9-11 attack had an operational budget of under a half-million dollars.

ganv said...

I'll add to the 'this time is different' discussion. There are always similarities and differences. You are pointing on the weakness of 'this time growth will continue forever' or 'this time the world will really end' extremes. But that can easily hide the ways that our situation is indeed different than anything recorded in history. We are a global society that has filled up its planet. We have nuclear weapons capable of destroying much of the biosphere. We understand the basic laws that govern how the universe works to a pretty good approximation. None of these have happened before this century. On the other hand, human nature hasn't changed much over recorded history. So we can expect to repeat many of the blindnesses and blunders of the past. We also have many more options for responses. This makes the future even more unpredictable, but it seems clear that whatever happens it will occur on a scale that is quantitatively unprecedented and hence qualitatively different.

MawKernewek said...

Are you going to blame the Cornish for the Bronze Age collapse??

Seriously, there was a program on BBC, taking about Bronze Age axe hoards in Britain, that is small axes found in hoards of hundreds, that didn't appear to have ever been used as axes. It was said that it represented some kind of money, and that there was some kind of financial bubble in bronze that burst around 800BC. It was never really explained why. That is however much later than the near-East collapse.

Do watch that documentary linked to about the Hittites, there's a lot of interesting points. Hattusha had every defence against military invasion, but its Achille's heel was the food supply.

Jim R said...

In an elevator exchange with a co-worker, I was using terms like "rustbucket" and "white elephant" to describe the carrier fleet. The co-worker was convinced of the invincibility of the carriers' defenses, I'm not sure what he was talking about. From my point of view, it looks like no amount of radar-absorbing gray paint will make them any smaller as targets.

Of course, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say. Sadly, we may have a chance to see it play out.

As for things like that "heat ray" crowd control device, or the unmanned "robot" aircraft as implements of control, my belief is that they will lose some of their cachet when an angry mob pulls the operator out of the trailer controlling one, and makes them eat it ... one irregular metal part at a time.

Johan said...

On the Internet, everyone's an armchair general! Perhaps none more so than those of us who grew up reading SF, with all sorts of exotic battles... Here's my take:

I see there's a lot of focus on specific technologies here - super/hypersonic missiles, drones, MANPADS etc.

To me, the lesson of the Hittites and the Sea Peoples isn't that the javelin was such a great piece of technology. Instead, the javelin allowed the Sea Peoples to negate the central assumption behind chariot warfare - that you could stay away and on the move and never engage the enemy on its own terms. Since everything - from tactics to strategy - was based on this, everything fell apart when the Hittites couldn't adapt. The Egyptians, on the other hand, could adapt and so threw the Sea Peoples into the sea.

Is there any similar assumption behind US tactics and strategy? You may claim that the carriers are such an assumption, but carriers aren't fighting ships - the aircraft do the fighting. The carriers are floating bases, and as JMG has noted, the US has plenty of bases around the world, including air fields. With inflight refueling, US air forces can reach far even without carriers.

This, in my view, points to the central assumption. Drones, as well as refueling aircraft, rely on air superiority to be useful. The US has relied on total air superiority for the last few decades, which means tactical behavior will have adapted, even if manuals and training theoretically still takes air attack into account.

Negate this advantage - force the US military to operate without assured air superiority - and I suspect you'll see a military setback that rocks the world and triggers political chaos in the US. It could well be an old-fashioned bloodbath.

It would require a "suite of technology and tactics", and I don't think shoulder-launched missiles alone would cut it. A mix of distributed sensors (with some innovative radioing to negate the stealth advantage) fusing their view together with a mix of shoulder-launched and high-altitude anti-aircraft-missiles, perhaps.

Not easy to do, but a hypersonic half guided, half ballistic missile doesn't sound "easy" either, with the targeting, tracking & guidance and launcher infrastructure it would need. Plenty of vulnerabilities there.

Of course, the loss of a few carriers wouldn't exactly improve the situation, but I'd spare a thought for old-fashioned submarines (such as the Swedish diesel-electric HMS Gotland) - ASW is tricky, and for a carrier group with its attention aimed upwards doubly so.

Fittingly, air power is rather like chariot power - stand off, move fast, never meet the enemy face to face. Plus ça change...

GHung said...

@ ganv : Thanks. It's getting lonely out here. It's nice, though disconcerting that others realize that, while human systems and options haven't changed much, their toys have, as have their numbers, collective consumption, and the velocity of their processes. It's a question of scale...

Me, having to prove I'm not a robot should tell us something.

David Creelman said...

"US lost eight jets in worst air loss in one day since Vietnam war" was the headline in That certainly raises the specter of defeat.

The event was largely overlooked in the US. Why?