General

Auftragstaktik – Mission Tactics

I love layman level discussion of military strategy and tactics. This is a fascinating example.

But as a layman I have no idea whether he is talking cobblers :)

I have done, and still do a bit of wargaming in my time. More recently I have moved to the big live action stuff. Last summer I had to direct a challenging combined assault of 60 vs 40 using untried, undisciplined amateurs. But I can see where Moltke was coming from with Auftragstaktik. It’s far easier, and you are more likely to have success, with well trained people who will act on their own initiative to deliver the results you want, than to sit down and try and micro manage them with a complex and cumbersome set of orders.

Three books

A Mexican politician is in trouble after flunking a question on “three books that have left a mark on your life”. It is not actually as straight forward a question as it seems. How many people feel that particular books have made a mark on their lives? And can you narrow things down to 3?

I had a quick think and picking the first 2 was easy. Coming up with a 3rd took me a few more minutes. It’s a good thing I wasn’t put on the spot in a live interview. Anyway, my three are:

  • The History of the WorldJ.M. Roberts – I read this one around 1990. As well as being a fascinating tour of where we came from, it really opened my eyes to how the world works. And in its social history elements probably did more than anything else to make me an atheist. I am re-reading the most recent version (5th edition, published last June) on my Kindle at the moment, and discovering new things in it all the time. That isn’t surprising of course when a book covers so much ground.
  • Guns, Germs and Steel – Jared Diamond. I picked this book up in Dallas airport on the way to Chile in 2001. If the History of the World talks about how European civilization went out to conquer the world, GG&S is why it happened that way and why Africans or Americans didn’t come to subdue the “Old World”. More people really should read this book, if just to see how small thing, like pigs, wheat, and chickens made the world the way it is.
  • Demon Haunted World – Carl Sagan. This one was the last of the three I decided on. I am not 100% sure where or when I picked up this one originally. I think I was working in Nenagh and got it in Limerick around 1997/1998. I had always been of a curious but skeptical nature (my mother can tell you stories). But this book opened my eyes to the simplicity and beauty of the scientific method. I got to see how it isn’t as much a tool for finding answers, as for checking which ones are good, and which ones are bad. The book also helps explain why so many people believe in nonsense – often it’s because they know no better. It introduced me to the joy of being a skeptic – of being able to look at the world with unclouded eyes, appreciating the real beauty rather than some made up nonsense, usually being peddled by someone with an agenda to push, or a product to sell.

Now not all of these are readily re-readable, and they may not be the best for covering their subject matter. But each one profoundly change my mindset and opened my eyes. And if they didn’t change my mind directly they have led me to other books that have made me who I am today.

Aren’t books great that way?

Austrian construction sites

This is a photo of the construction site across the road from my office in Vienna. Some of my colleagues who look out at this view were telling me about the goings on there in the last fortnight.

Vienna construction site.

Vienna Construction site (in the 2nd district). Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S, SK.

Apparently last week a worked fell off the platform that runs along the bottom. Its about 5m to the ground form there and I am told he looked pretty bad when the Ambulance came for him. After that there was a push to put railings around all the rest of the scaffolding on site. But a few days ago one of the tower cranes dropped a container on the scaffolding at the back. You can see the damage marked with the other red ring. The load went right through the planking like a bullet through butter until it hit the ground.

Damage to the scaffolding.

Damage to the scaffolding. Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S, SK.

The funny thing is, that this being Austria the site remains open and as you can see (the red ring at the bottom) the rest of the staff continue to work without PPE! For all our whining, you wouldn’t see that in Ireland. The site would probably be shut by not for a full health and safety assessment after 2 big accidents in as many weeks.

The Gun – the story of the AK-47

I just finished reading C.J. Chivers’ The Gun – The story of the AK-47. The Gun - CJ Chivers. The book is history, not a gun primer. Chivers spends little time discussion the variants of the AK, how it works (some diagrams would have been helpful) or comparisons with other guns apart from the US M16. Instead he charts a history of where the AK came from, and how it became the symbol it is today. It’s well researched, and despite occasionally jumping around topics is well written.

He starts with Gatling’s first manually operated gun which was followed by Hiram Maxim’s fully automatic one, the first real “machine gun”. Maxim happily sold guns, plans and manufacturing rights to all the powers before 1914. Unfortunately most of them didn’t realise what they had, and they hadn’t much updated tactics which dated from the Napoleonic era.

It’s not like they wouldn’t have known any better. There had been several battles, in colonial Africa and the Russo-Japanese war which had shown how effective machine guns could be. Huge formations of natives were cut down when taking on western Armies in pitched battles in the open. The similarity between a spear waving Zulu and a bayonet wielding Tommy seems to have evaded many first world war Generals.

The middle of the book focuses on the development of the AK-47 and it’s famous inventor, Mikhail Kalashnikov. Chivers admits a combination of Soviet secrecy, Kalashnikov’s unreliability (he has told different versions of the story in at least 4 different biographies) and the passage of time means the full story of the world’s most common small arm will never really be known. He is pretty clear the legend of the sole genius overlooks the contributions of many others.

Chivers does take a chapter to look at how the US responded to the AK47 with their M16. He is scathing about how a rushed process, greed, lies from salesmen and a cover-up created a gun that wasn’t ready when it was given to soldiers fighting in Vietnam. And as a result a lot of them died when it failed in action.

The final third of the book describes how the AK47 became the icon that it is. A central plank of Soviet military standardisation, it was shipped all around the world. Simple and reliable, some of the ones being used in Afghanistan today came from the original production runs in the early 1950′s! The fact that the gun was supplied to insurgents like the Viet Cong, who then went up against ill-equipped US troops meant that in 100 years there was a flip. Now the peasants and hicks were the ones equipped with equal or greater fire power than the western nation. That made the AK a leveller.

The huge numbers produced and handed out means that it has ended up in the hands of criminals, terrorists, and dubious “liberation” movements. A problem became a catastrophe when the Soviet union collapsed. Vast stocks of guns held for a war in Europe ended up sold across the globe, stoking conflict throughout the developing world. An average cost in an arms bazaar today is about $200. The UN estimates small arms (of which the AK is the most common with over 100m of the 600m in existence) killed most of the people in 46 of the 49 wars fought since 1990. There have been over 4m dead, and 90% of those were civilians.

To bring it down to human terms Chivers tells the story of one man, Karzan Mahmoud, a Kurdish body guard maimed and nearly killed by an AK. Mahmoud asked how can Kalashnikov live with himself knowing what he has created, and the horrors it has lead to. In his book Chivers answers that question, and tells that Kalashnikov himself says:

“The constructor is not the owner of the weapon-it is the state… they spread the weapon not because I wanted them to… I made it to protect the Motherland, then it… began to walk on its own in directions that I did not want”

Kalashnikov says he sleeps soundly.

P.S. I wanted to add links to to videos from The Lord of War. But YouTube or the film makers won’t allow them to be embedded. So instead:

Not what I had planned

Well my great plans to post daily didn’t really pan. Out there are a load of reasons. I won’t go into them here. Lets just call them “lame excuses”. I will try and get a bit more stuff out the door though.

The other question is what am I doing for the next 30 days, or remaining 20 of August. Hard to say, as the whole family is back to Ireland at the weekend. Ditching sugar or biscuits, or alcohol occurred to me, but I think I will save them for later in year (certainly I can’t forgo alcohol until my holidays are out of the way!) .

I am tempted to ditch the internet though. How about, restricting my use to email, and this blog. All the rest, RSS feeds, discussion boards, social media sites, I could give them the door. That would be a challenge. Let me sleep on it though. A move like that could be a bit drastic!

Survivalism – ready for what?

Maybe it was hearing about Zombie walk yesterday in Dublin, or maybe it was worrying about the consequences of the US’ upcoming self inflicted economic meltdown, but I found myself reading about Survivalism on Wikipedia. This is the whole idea of being prepared for the worst if/when civilization takes a tumble. As a movement I guess the extreme is a paranoid stockpiling several years of food in his bunkers beside the gun collections as he waits for the end of civilization from one of various means (Y2K, nuclear war, peak oil, economic collapse, zombies, etc).

There is a more rational side to survivalism though. In a lot of places around the world people are advised to have temporary stockpiles for the worst. The standard seems to be to have a Bug Out Bag (BOB) good for you and your family for 72 hours. You would fill it with food, basic medicine, and nick-nacks like radio, flash light, batteries and so on.

Personally I have 2 questions about a BOB. What would I need one for, and then what should go in it? Living in Ireland we are pretty spoiled when it comes to the risks of the natural world. We don’t have to worry about earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunami, governmental instability or invasion. Our storms rarely cause much significant disruption and people tend to get good notice to be prepared. Can you remember the last time you had difficulty getting bread or milk after an Atlantic blow? It’s probably only snow that we need to worry about. It’s rare enough an event that if we get a big dump the country can go to pieces. And remembering the big snow of 1982 I can see how having 3 days of food stockpiled would remove one thing to worry about.

The next thing then is what to hold. I’d start by putting all my camping gear into one or two boxes, for quick transport to the car if I did need to do a runner. Then there is the question of food. You can get lists and so on talking about the general items – radios, batteries, food, drink etc. But the practicalities of it intrigue me. Take water – 3 litres per person per day for drinking, and 2 for washing. Family of 4 for 3 days – 60 litres. But can you really leave it there for 6 months without it spoiling? Then there is food. What would you pick that will feed you for 3 days, is not too bulky, is relatively easy to prepare, and will keep for about 12 months? The militaries of the world have done plenty of work there, and you can get MREs with enough food for one for a day or so for about €10, cheaper if you buy by the box. Except while I am not fussy I don’t think the ladies of my house would be too keen on eating that sort of food for 3 days. I can see my BOB containing pasta, cereals, tins, and dried fruit. Better make sure there is a good can opener, and plenty of loo roll in there too then so.

Getting back on track

It will hardly have escaped your attention if you are an occasional visitor here that the number of posts has dropped pretty dramatically. There are a few reasons. Work is one, the wonderful time sucking daughter is another, and I’ll be honest and say Twitter isn’t helping either.

I do want to change things though. I enjoy writing here. So I really should make the time for it. And to be frank there are a load of ideas or nonsense I have which Twitter’s 140 character limit make impossible to share.

So what to do? Well taking an idea from Matt Cutts I have been trying to achieve some personal task every month or so. Last month it was get to bed before midnight every night. It was a miserable failure. But sometimes I manage it. Killing two birds with the one stone, this month, I will endeavour to write an average of 250 words per day on this site. Don’t expect a post every day, but I will get something up every few days.

Not of course that there may be anyone left reading this site to pay attention. That being the case I suppose I should put up something provocative and see do I get a reaction :)

Sod, 207 words and I am struggling already. See, I blame Twitter…

I suppose I can add a few words on Rosemary. She is coming up on 14 months now. And she has been and is as wonderful a baby as you could wish for. As of last weekend she had given up crawling and now walks full time, or at least tries to. This is her enjoying a break at a cafe in a palace near our apartment here in Vienna.
Palace girl

Rosemary the palace girl. Canon EOS300D, SK.

I tell you this, it is far from Habsburg palaces her parents were raised!

New Quote

“Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing.”

- Thomas Huxley

History for slow learners

On the tram to work today I saw a poster for some Marxist group. They were calling for revolution and were using the Paris uprising of 1871 as their model. It always amuses me how people on the far left seem to draw the wrong conclusions from the lessons of history.

If I was looking for something inspirational to rouse the masses I am not sure a 2 month long experiment in local government, that arose out a humiliating military defeat, and was then brutally and bloodily crushed is the best model.

Interestingly I see that the longest and most bitter legacy of the Paris Commune is the fight between various shades of anarchist and Marxist over why the whole thing collapsed. You nearly would think Marx had been an Irish man, the way most of his followers devote so much energy to fighting each other rather than the bourgeoisie oppressors of the proletariat.

Election over, you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.

Thank fuck the election is over. Now people can stop commenting on my site about Richard Boyd Barrett.

BTW, if you want an interesting take on the failure of Labour (and frankly most of the left to make decent gains) in the election take a look at Jason O Mahony’s post.

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