Archive for the ‘history’ Category

Hitler’s biggest mistake?

Thursday, December 18th, 2008

Watching the preview for Valkryie has got me diving back into my WWII library: am (re)reading Bevin Alexander’s How Hitler Could Have Won World War II (I love titles that get straight to the point). The core of the argument is essentially a rehash of the advice that Raeder gave Hitler in 1940: delay a reckoning with Russia and turn south instead by taking Gibraltar and turning the Mediterranean into an Axis lake. By dedicating a fraction of the forces earmarked for Barbarossa, Germany could have driven into Egypt and onward into the MidEast oil fields. At that point, Russia could have been attacked from both the west AND south, and Britain might have thrown in the towel anyway.

And with 20/20 hindsight, that’s kinda hard to argue with. (Though I should note I tried wargaming this approach in Third Reich a few years back, and it was a complete disaster. Then again, most of these “strategy” games are designed to make it very difficult to stray from the actual way events unfolded.) Still, I gotta admit I’ve always thought that Germany’s decision to go east in 1941 wasn’t anywhere near as mad as the results would seem to indicate. Most of the people saying it was an Incredibly Dumb Idea miss some all-too-basic points, but I’ll save those for a later post. . .

Pix from the forgotten war

Friday, December 5th, 2008

At least, that’s what they called the war in Afghanistan up until this year, when it started to become brutally apparent that the situation has turned to shit while we were focused on Iraq.

At any rate, here’s two incredible sets of photos. One is of U.S. soldiers in the Korengal Valley, right up alongside the Pakistani border.  Looking at the terrain (which is so hostile, supplies get flown in), you can see why empires throughout history have found Afghanistan to be a graveyard.

And speaking of . . . here’s photos of Soviet soldiers during their attempt to tame the place. Makes me think of the ending to The Living Daylights, when Timothy Dalton teamed up with the mujahideen to kick some Red Army ass. Now *there’s* a movie that failed to age gracefully. . .

Stalin the mass-murdering rationalist

Tuesday, September 9th, 2008

As the New Russia continues to take shape, the Old Russia’s getting a makeover. Case in point: the latest Russian school textbooks go a long way toward exonerating Stalin for all that pesky mass-murder stuff, emphasizing the work he did to save the Soviet state, and instructing teachers to emphasize that all Stalin’s actions were “entirely rational.” What makes this all the more fascinating is that Prosveshenije, the textbook company that’s released this magnum opus, is the same one that for years had a monopoly on Soviet textbooks: i.e., they’ve got a lot of practice in making the past whatever it is that the present needs it to be.

Putting Russia in perspective

Tuesday, August 19th, 2008

A second cold war? Russia regains its great power status? There’s a lot of SF fans who said my geopolitical ideas were crazy. But turn on the TV, and Russian tanks are steamrolling over Georgia. And now I’m getting emails from *other* SF fans who are asking me whether I’m going to use this to claim vindication.

Well, no, I’m not.

For one thing, gloating ain’t attractive. But more importantly, despite the media’s hysterical claims of a new cold war, this isn’t the one I had in mind. What’s presented in THE MIRRORED HEAVENS is a Russia capable of projecting force on a global basis. But the Russian Federation of today is a long way still from anything that approaches the all-encompassing global reach of the Soviet Union.

And that’s something the U.S. ought to bear in mind as it weighs its options in the aftermath of the Georgia fait accompli.  A lot of people who should know better are calling for Bush II to get tough on the Evil Russian Bear.  But what they’re forgetting (or ignoring) is that we already HAVE been getting tough.  We promised that NATO would never expand into the former Soviet Union, but then NATO did.  Not only that, but we withdrew unilaterally from the ABM pact and started building missile defense infrastructure in the Czech Republic and Poland.  And while we were at it we intervened in Ukrainian politics.

But although the Russia we’re dealing with now may not be anywhere near as powerful as the Soviets, it’s still a damn sight stronger than the broken reed we trampled over in the 1990s.  And although American domestic politics has reached such a lamentable state of affairs that both candidates feel they have to immediately jump on the anti-Russia bandwagon (any rhetoric besides the mindless assertion of American power being deemed unpatriotic these days), hopefully something at either the State Department or the Pentagon is weighing the facts:

Item #1:  the bulk of our military forces will be engulfed in the Mideast quagmire for some time to come
Item #2:  the question of whether America intervenes in the former Soviet Union means a lot more to the Russians than it does to the Americans
Item #3:  we need Russia’s help with Iran whether we like it or not.
Item #4:  Putin ain’t Hitler. (This doesn’t mean that Putin’s a saint.  It just means that he isn’t the leader of a state hell-bent on conquering all of Eurasia and killing entire ethnic groups while he does so.)
Item #5:  While Putin may not be Hitler, he really has the potential to fuck with the price of oil.

Bottom line, regardless of what Russia does next, we’re idiots if we go to the mat with them right now over territory inside what was once the Soviet Union. And we’d be unwise to forget that for-too-long discredited concept in international relations called spheres of influence.  And I’m more than a little concerned that over the next few years (regardless of who wins the election) we’re going to start to see just how flimsy some of the assumptions that guide American foreign policy have become.

Cyberwar, Russian-style

Wednesday, August 13th, 2008

With the invasion of Georgia, Russia has signaled that reports of her demise are greatly exaggerated, and more than a little premature. Thanks in part to the U.S. being mired in an endless Middle Eastern war, Russia is in a position to define a sphere of influence, and operate within it with impunity. Many are focusing on the legalisms involved: in particularly, how the secession of Kosovo from Serbia opened up the door for Russia to play the same game in South Ossetia/Georgia. But the truth of the matter is that U.S. moves in eastern Europe (in particular the prospect of U.S. missile defense facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic) meant that Russia has been backed into a corner. Now we see her response.

And we’re also getting a glimpse of the new face of warfare. Even as the tanks started to roll, it became evident that Georgia was under massive cyberattack; now the New York Times has reported that this online incursion (or rehearsals for it) commenced last month. The NYT calls this the “first time that a known cyberattack has coincided with a shooting war”, which I find strange, as there’s more than a little evidence that the U.S. did the same thing in its assault on Iraq in 2003 (and if they didn’t, then they were fools not to).  At any rate, it won’t be the last.

But the exact contours of this new type of war will take some while to play out.  As with space warfare, the topography of cyberwarfare remains relatively undefined.  A fascinating article in Wired pointed out how some countries are cyberlocked:  just as a landlocked country has no access to the sea, cyberlocked countries rely to too great an extent on nearby countries for their access to the net.  (In this case, Georgia is dependent to an alarming degree on Russia infrastructure.)  The road from here to THE MIRRORED HEAVENS (in which the World Wide Net actually sunders along geopolitical lines) remains a long one, but I think we’re starting to see the first signs of it.

And meanwhile Georgia had better pray the cease-fire holds.  Vladimir Putin may not use computers, but he’s pretty good at employing people who do.

Inside NORAD

Friday, August 8th, 2008

Thanks to both the awesome Jeff Carlson and the Slush God, I found myself part of a group of SF writers touring NORAD today. NORAD, of course, is North American Aerospace Defense Command, and boy was it a trip. Some of the day’s recollections:

The front-door: That holy shit moment when (having passed through checkpoints and gotten on a military bus) we saw THE tunnel . . . the one I’ve seen so many times in movies and never once for real, leading into the depths of Cheyenne Mountain. . .

The blast-doors: At the bottom of the tunnel are the blast-doors. There are two, turned perpendicular so as to allow a blast to sideswipe them; behind them are caves within which are  . . .

Rooms on springs:  If your bunker doesn’t have springs, then you don’t have a bunker.  The most secure area of NORAD is a series of rooms/shells mounted on springs in order to ride out shock-waves.

Without power, they’re just caves:  The bulk of NORAD is infrastructure built to ensure that the complex continues to run even if everything’s anarchy outside and zombies are combing the countryside looking for meat.  And yet, given the base’s current resources, it would apparently need resupply within a month.  A fellow member of the tour suggested that this was disinformation; I would be inclined to think that it’s the honest truth, particularly given that . . . .

Without the Soviets, it’s all just window-dressing:    Because as impressive as the place is, it belongs to a different era.  The main hemisphere-scanning functions are now carried out by nearby Peterson Air Base, and NORAD has been relegated to redundancy and standby.  Officially the Pentagon has done this because the U.S. is no longer threatened by massive nuclear attack; unofficially one might also note that the precision targeting of the latest nuclear weapons would turn the mountain into a smoking crater.  Our tour’s directors were pretty frank with us about NORAD’s current standby situation, but were legitimately proud of the base’s history.  The image that will remain with me for a long time were the sealed-up doorways that were far smaller than a blast-door but far larger than a normal door.  Decades ago, mainframe computers were hauled through those openings and commissioned as the core of yesteryear’s NORAD.  Now those machines have vanished, along with the enemy they once stood watch for.

A duck that will never quack:  Yeah, you read that right.  Look, here’s the thing:  in the depths of NORAD is a reservoir, contained behind a small dam and leading into underwater caves.  But floating on the water is what looks for all the world like a duck.  Or rather, a fake duck/hunter’s decoy:  one that NORAD maintenance divers placed on the surface to allow them to tell which way is up and thereby escape disorientation.  They may have succeeded, but any newcomer to the world beneath the mountain won’t.

Happy Hiroshima Day

Wednesday, August 6th, 2008

It seems kinda fitting that today is also the first day of Worldcon. I’m in Denver right now, after a few days in the British Columbia wilderness. More to come later.

The clash of civilizations

Friday, July 18th, 2008

Just got done reading a great book: Roger Crowley’s EMPIRES OF THE SEA, a fascinating account of the battle for control of the Mediterranean during the sixteenth century between the Ottoman Empire and the Hapsburgs of Spain/Austria. Crowley’s first book, 1453, came out in 2006: it was a well-executed account of the fall of Constantinople, but I’ve read a bunch of those before. EMPIRES OF THE SEA breaks new ground, however, documenting the relentless expansion of the Ottoman Turks westward after Constantinople’s fall.

Initially, the main thrust was on land—but after the Ottomans were turned back from Vienna (!) in 1529, the sea war took on new life. Everything came to a head at the siege of Malta in 1565; following the Ottoman failure there, the Holy League (an alliance of the Hapsburgs, the Papacy, Venice and Genoa) outfitted a gigantic fleet and defeated the Turks at Lepanto, an absolutely colossal contest of which Cervantes (who was wounded there) was to write, “The greatest event witnessed by ages past, present, and to come.”

And maybe he was right.  God knows history has seen plenty of epic stuff since then.  But Lepanto was the last serious challenge that Europe would face in its rise to global domination.  Prior to that point, Islam and Christiandom had been at each others’ throats for almost a thousand years—but with the decline of the Ottomans, Islamic expansion was effectively over.  But historical verdicts are always subject to appeal, and it’s worth bearing in mind that, as much as 9-11 seemed like the inauguration of a whole new era of history to so many of us, those who unleashed it saw it merely as the continuation of a much deeper, older struggle.