Saturday, 21 May 2022

A new book

Could it be about a family of cats?

This one has been a long time in the making. 

I started it over 10 years ago, as a TV show pitch. At the time, I was experimenting with screenwriting and comedy skits, taking classes in both, along with improv. I had a writing partner in Berlin, and we pitched our shows both here and in Europe, to places like Disney and Sony.

Nothing got anywhere, not really. 

I had some options, and got called in to pitch a few times. 

One screenplay morphed into a prose novel. 

This one, I'd written a pitch doc, backed up with a pilot episode I'd written a few spec episodes (even submitted one!) for already existing shows, but this was my first go at a pilot. 

Writing for TV is akin to poetry. Every. Single. Word. Counts. 

Everything is connected.

For me, that was part of the problem. 

When you get notes on a finished script, if your craft isn't up to snuff, they can be extremely hard to implement successfully. Often changes will introduce a slew of logic holes.

TV shows, believe it or not, are generally very tightly written. If you change one thing, it's like pulling on a sweater thread which unravels the entire garment. One change impacts everything else, causing a cascade which launches an avalanche of revisions. 

At the outline or treatment stage, I can handle that well enough. But with a 'finished' script? I struggled with that. 

So I wasn't entirely happy with the pilot. I'd rejigged it on the advice of professionals, but I wasn't able to implement the changes smoothly. Where the script was smooth before, it was now bumpy. 

My craft needed work. 

I went back to this idea because I'd invested so much in it. And it stuck in my head. After letting it lie dormant for a few years, I finally decided to resurrect it as a graphic novel. 

I'd burnt out on comics around 2014, and I had little interest in illustrating this book myself. It needed a down to earth style I wasn't sure would be my thing. But there was no one else.

I spent some time dabbling with different looks, trying to find something that might suit the script. That took awhile. Nothing quite fit perfectly. I got too picky. Eventually, I just started, and let the style evolve as I went. Otherwise, it'd sit in limbo forever while I tweaked and fiddled.

A significant overhaul brought the script back to life. I changed the characters, expanded the script into a full, self-contained story, fleshed out the world and added more humour. 

Finishing this book has become a creative quest. It's been derailed and restarted several times. A family crisis caused a break in January and I'm only now getting going on it again. I'm half way through. Hopefully I can finish it by the end of the year. Fingers crossed!

Whatever happens, it will be good to finally get it out of my head. I hate when things get stuck in there.

More to come...

Thursday, 19 May 2022

Office worker monster, with coffee

I love the reflection tool in ProCreate far too much, as Monster Office Worker with Reports and Coffees demonstrates. It's so fun! 

Makes me feel twice as productive...

Friday, 29 April 2022

Russians foil terrorist plot to play The Sims 3

Note the wig and copies of The Sims 3 among material confiscated from terrorists

Mediaite reports that Russian intelligence has foiled a 'terrorist plot', arresting 6 men and confiscating weapons, Nazi memorabilia, and... The Sims 3 videogame. 

Apparently terrorists are now targeting virtual reality. 

Is nowhere safe from these madmen?!?

Pundits are speculating that someone in charge if the false flag operation asked for SIM cards and some wonderful, genius underling got The Sims instead.

Even better, a letter they confiscated apparently is actually signed 'Signature Illegible'. And the spies literally wrote in Signature Illegible for the signature:

Signature Illegible for the signature...? I don't read Russian, I  guess I'll just have to trust the internets.

Comedy gold from the FSB. 

Thank you, sir. Thank you!

Also check out the article from The New York Post. 

Sunday, 24 April 2022

The Great Delusion and Ukraine

NATO expansion meeting?

Mearsheimer's The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities depicts the 2014 Ukraine conflict as an outgrowth of the policies of Liberal Hegemony, which ignored geopolitical realities and doomed Ukraine to war.

It all goes back to the collapse of the Soviet Union:

"When the Cold War was ending, the Soviet Union made it clear that it favoured keeping the US military in Europe and maintaining NATO. The Soviet leaders understood that this arrangement had kept Germany pacified since World War II and would continue doing so after the country unified and became much more powerful. But Moscow was deeply opposed to NATO enlargement." 

Multiple sources say that the US made verbal promises to the Soviets that no such expansion would occur. Clinton went ahead anyway. The first tranche was in 1999, and brought in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

The second tranche occurred in 2004, and added Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. 

None of this was forced. The new members applied of their own accord; none were pressured. It is likely many felt compelled to do so out of fear of their former occupier: Russia. 

It's also worth mentioning that all of the NATO countries enthusiastically supporting Ukraine are Eastern European, with the exception of the United Kingdom and the US. France and Germany are sending little aid, likely because they are heavily dependent of Russian oil and gas. If that is cut off, Germany will descend into a recession. 

"The real trouble began at the NATO summit in Bucharest in April 2008, when Ukraine's and Georgia's membership came up for discussion... Putin maintained that admitting those two countries would represent a 'direct threat' to Russia. One Russian newspaper reported that Putin, speaking directly to Bush, 'very transparently hinted that if Ukraine was accepted into NATO, it would cease to exist.'"

That's more than a little alarming. 

Russia didn't wait to act. It invaded Georgia in August, 2008, after Georgian President Saakashvili ordered his military to reassert control over two pro-Russian breakaway republics (you can't join NATO if you have disputed territory). That was used to justify a full scale Russian invasion (sorry I mean 'humanitarian intervention'). 

By occupying Crimea and the Donbas, Putin blocks Ukraine joining NATO, as it introduces that niggling territorial dispute. He also warned that he'd invade if Ukraine cracked down on the rebels, and cut off Ukraine's gas supply a few times. 

"(Putin) preferred to keep Georgia weak and divided and decided to humiliate Saakashvili... and gained control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The West did little in response, leaving Saakashvili in the lurch."

The US packaged NATO enlargement, EU expansion and democracy promotion into a policy bundle that Mearsheimer argues "turned Moscow into an enemy, leading directly to the Ukraine crisis."

Ukrainian President Yanukovych's government collapsed in January 2014, and the new regime was:

"thoroughly pro-Western and anti-Russian. Moreover, it contained four members who could legitimately be labled neofascists. Most importantly, the US government backed the coup, although the full extent of its involvement is unknown... It is hardly surprising that Russians of all persuasions think Western provocateurs, especially the CIA, helped overthrow Yanukovych." 

I get the impression that a critical mass of Ukrainians were in favour of that as well, but that doesn't mean the US didn't help, either.

The United States reserves the right to block foreign interference anywhere in the Americas. It's a very Realpolitik position, and one which Russia feels it can apply to former Soviet Republics and Warsaw Pact members. 

"Most realists opposed expansion because they thought a declining power with an aging population and a one-dimensional economy did not need to be contained, and they feared that the enlargement would strongly motivate Moscow to cause trouble."

Measheimer quotes George Kennan, who had this to say about NATO expansion:

"I think the Russian will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anyone else."

So fear of invasion leads to wanting to join NATO which leads to actual invasion, which wouldn't have happened if they hadn't feared invasion. 

It's a mad, mad, mad, mad world.

Saturday, 23 April 2022

Suicide prevention for Russian oligarchs?

My impression of Russian oligarchs is maybe a little dated...

There's been a rash of murder/suicides recently by Russian oligarchs.

Two died within a day of each other: Sergey Protosenya (hanged himself after stabbing his wife and daughter to death) and Vladislav Avaev (shot his family, then himself). 

Four others have taken their own lives (Vasily Melnikov, Mikhail Watford, Alexander Tyulyakov and Leonid Shulman), and in some cases also murdered the rest of their families, since February 28th. 

Forbes considers 68 Rusisan billionaires to be oligarchs. That would mean 8% of Russian oligarchs have committed suicide since the invasion of Ukraine. 

Russian billionaires are now the highest risk group for suicide, significantly ahead of drug addicts and those suffering from chronic depression.

Police are also investigating the possibility that these may have just been staged to look like suicides. 

Ya think?

Reminds me of that time Trotsky repeatedly fell on an ice pick...

Tuesday, 19 April 2022

Head of the Fifth Service arrested in wake of Ukraine invasion

Colonel-General Beseda of the FSB surrounded by his Pro-Russian Ukrainian agents

Colonel-General Sergei Beseda, Russia's head of the Fifth Service of the FSB (which is responsible for intelligence operations in former Soviet republics), has been arrested.

The scuttlebutt is that Russian Fifth Service agents were pocketing for themselves all the money that was being distributed to supposed Pro-Russian allies in Ukraine. 

Putin thought Ukraine was eager to throw off the yoke of their democratically elected oppressors and were yearning to be free under Putin's dictatorship, with the assistance of hordes of supporters.

Hordes of both expensive and imaginary Ukrainian agents.

If true, simultaneously mind-blowing and entirely unsurprising. 

Friday, 15 April 2022

A Very Special Military Operation

In this Very Special Episode of Putin, he explains why Ukraine is not a country and invades with 180,000 troops

There are interesting parallels (and differences) between Vietnam and Putin's ‘Very Special Military Operation’ in Ukraine. 

In both cases, the occupying / invading army consisted largely of poorly motivated conscripts, experienced discipline problems, relied on overwhelming, indiscriminate firepower (artillery or bombing) and had an unrealistic assessment of the situation (and of both their own and enemy capabilities). 

By contrast, the invaded countries (Ukraine and Vietnam) were highly motivated while being numerically inferior; both were also backed by a super power (the United States and the USSR/China). 

I've been doing some reading and this is what I've come up with. I'm putting it down mostly for my own sake, to make sense out of what's happening, and try and understand where it may be headed.

The end of a Roland Emmerich movie or Ukraine? You decide


Ukraine had one hell of a tumultuous 20th century. Towards the end of World War I, Ukraine made a pact with the Central Powers to provide grain in exchange for driving the Bolsheviks out. Cossack General Skoropadsky established a Ukrainian Hetmanate in April, 1918, but fled with the German surrender in November. 

A French military expedition to Odessa and Crimea followed, but quickly withdrew ahead of a Soviet invasion. That was rolled back by a Polish-Ukrainian alliance, which collapsed when Poland made peace with the USSR. Ukraine officially became a Soviet in 1922.

The Holodomor followed in the 1930s, during which 3 to 5 million Ukrainians are estimated to have died during an engineered famine. 

World War II killed almost 7 million Ukrainians (1.5 million of them Jewish, often killed with the help of their neighbours), roughly 16% of the entire population. The UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army) assisted the Germans. Some 80,000 Ukrainians joined the Waffen SS, while others served as concentration camp guards. Anti-semitism ran deep across Eastern Europe. This is where the Nazi slur against Ukraine comes from. A total of around 250,000 Ukrianians assisted the Axis (although arguably some were fighting more for Ukrainian independence and amorally using whatever ally was convenient).

World war II casualties broken down by nation: Russia gets almost half the pie

To put it in perspective, 4.5 million Ukrainians fought for the Soviet Union. And to be fair, hundreds of thousands of Russians fought for the Axis (600,000 Hiwi under arms in 1944 alone), including the Russian General Vlasov. A quarter of the troops in the German Sixth Army were former Soviet subjects. Given the barbarity of the German occupation, that's astonishing. 

The German General Plan for the East called for a reduced population employed as slaves, with the majority being killed off through starvation (grain would instead be shipped back to feed Germany). Nothing but the most rudimentary education (reading sign posts, for example) was to be provided for the population moving forward. The Nazis were taking a page from the Spartans, who kept uneducated Helots to do the hard work. By 1944, the Nazis had been driven out of Ukraine, although Ukrainian nationalists continued fighting an insurgency in Western Ukraine against Soviet domination until as late as 1954. Timothy Snyder, no relation to Zach, dubbed the region between Berlin and Moscow ‘The Bloodlands’, because armies kept running over it, then backing up and running over it again and again. It inspired George Orwell’s depiction of conflict between the superstates Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia in 1984. I wrote about that here.

Shoot that guy: inspirational Soviet propaganda poster

In 1991, Ukraine became an independent nation again. It retained Crimea, assigned to it by Nikita, and a large nuclear arsenal. Clinton persuaded them to give the nukes up in 1994 in exchange for pieces of paper guaranteeing Ukrainian security. 

The piece of paper that guaranteed Ukrainian security, in exchange for surrendering their nuke arsenal

In 2014, 'Little Green Men' occupied Crimea and pro-Russian insurgents seized part of the Donbas (The NVA infiltrated South Vietnam all while also denying they were there). Russia also began funding gangs to rabble rouse across Eastern Ukraine. 

The rest is current events: Russia has attacked on at least four fronts (North, South, Northeast and East) against a numerically comparable enemy, without unified command. The have failed to establish air superiority, adequate logistical support or even discipline amongst their troops.

Like Ukraine, Vietnam spent decades subsumed in a foreign political unit, as part of the French colony of Indochina. Ho Chi Minh initially approached the Americans for support for Vietnamese independence, as there had been an anti-colonialist streak in American foreign policy before the Second World War, but that died the minute the Cold War began. 

Japanese occupation broke any mystique the French had, and when France attempted to reassert control over Indochina, Minh declared independence. Despite the Americans footing the bill, by 1954 the French were ready to call it quits. Indochina split into three new nations: Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Vietnam was divided into a communist North and an ostensibly democratic, but in truth deeply corrupt and autocratic, South. 

During the Advisor Period that followed, with up to 16,000 American military consultants backed by airpower. Viet Cong attacks on American airfields dragged in American ground troops, ushering in Johnson's War. Tet finished Johnson politically and shattered American morale, even while annihilating the VC, who never again fielded troops at battalion level. NVA command had expected their attack to inspire an uprising against the Americans across South Vietnam (rather akin to how Bin Laden expected an uprising after 9/11); they were out of touch and projected on to the South their own values and beliefs. No mass pro-communist uprising occurred. On the other hand, the result they got was almost as good. It's one of those rare occasions where a military won the war by losing the battle(s). 

Nixon was up to bat next, but even as he bombed the crap out of Cambodia and the North, he was looking for a way out. By 1973, US troops had vacated the arena. In 1975, North Vietnam plowed into the power vacuum and South Vietnam imploded. In less than two months, NVA tanks rolled into Saigon, just like Russian tanks didn't in Ukraine. 

American troops visit a Vietnamese village

The 'Imperial' Armies

The Russian army has a history of stumbling out of the gate. The Russo-Japanese war of 1905 resulted in total humiliation, which was followed by a disastrous performance in World War One. That resulted in mutinies, revolution, defeat at the hands of Poland in 1920, and stunning failure in the 1939-40 Winter War with Finland. 

Stalin gutted the officer corps in 1937. Some argue this purge was to replace old cavalry officers with more forward thinking ones. This doesn’t explain why Tukachevsky, an innovative thinker, military theorist, and advocate of tank warfare and deep penetration operations, was arrested and shot, along with thousands of others. He was rehabilitated and absolved of all charges in 1957. Their replacements were more noteworthy for political reliability than forward thinking tactics, and their lack of ability was on full display during both the Winter War and the Nazi invasion of the ussr in 1941. Over the next two years, large numbers were retired and replaced with the battle proven.

Russian troops relaxing in the Winter War

That’s the Russian Army’s general pattern: get a bloody nose, or beaten within an inch of it’s life, then reform and regroup (already underway in Ukraine), and attack again. It’s an iterative approach that grinds through Russian soldiers, but Russia has always been willing to suffer high casualty rates. Their system is designed that way.

Putin cannot afford to lose. He's a strongman, and he maintains his position by being the toughest mofo in the neighbourhood. If his war fails and he's turfed, it won’t be to a cozy retirement at his billion dollar dacha. More like a mud pit with a bullet at the back of his skull. Apparently Putin has been obsessed with watching videos of Gaddafi's demise.

As such, it would be folly to count the Russian army out. Russia suffered 11 million casualties in World War Two, and still went on to crush the highly trained Nazi war machine, like some kind of gestalt zombie Rocky Balboa. 

Ukraine, however, is not the Great Patriotic War; it’s an unprovoked 'very special operation' of choice against a fellow Slavic nation. Russian troops are not fighting a genocidal force bent on extermination of the majority and enslavement of the remaining, the Azov Battalion notwithstanding. Some policy wonks say Lukashenko refrained from entering Belorussia into the fray because he knew he’d be overthrown if he did. They Belorussian Army just isn't into it.

Russian conscripts have understandably low motivation, and a few units have refused to fight in Ukraine, against their fellow Slavs. 

The United States military in the early Seventies had numerous problems (including low motivation) but logistics wasn't one of them. To meet the troop requirements for Vietnam, however, they needed conscription. That wasn't popular with affluent American kids, who objected to being shipped off to fight in far away, deadly jungles against an unseen enemy. 

George Lucas famously based The Emperor on Richard 'Tricky Dicky' Nixon, and cast the Viet Cong as Ewoks in Return of the Jedi. 

A kinder, cuddlier Viet Cong: The Ewok

For Lucas, The United States was The Evil Empire. 

While the US Marines experimented with pairing units and villages, then funneling in cash to build infrastructure to benefit the locals (a strategy later adopted in Iraq and Afghanistan), Westmoreland thought this path was folly, and preferred mass sweeps through jungle. Against the agile VC, this was both futile and time and resource consuming.

Russian forces in Ukraine have been filmed handing out a few meal kits, but there are no reports of extensive support or community outreach in occupied territories. It is also unclear what efforts, if any, have been made to restore electricity or water supply to damaged neighbourhoods. The Russian army is having difficulty feeding its own troops, much less tens of thousands of civilians and refugees, and they may not even want to: famine has been a weapon of war for the Soviets in the past.

This has the makings of a large scale humanitarian disaster. 

Get yer billion dollar APCs here!

Superpowered support

The United States backed South Vietnam to the tune of $18 billion. Eventually Congress cut off the war juice and the AVRN collapsed in 1975. The war scarred the American people as well as Congress, and numerous amendments were passed to ensure such a disaster didn’t happen again. The Nixon Doctrine called for supplying arms to regimes important to American security in the hope of avoiding the commitment of American combat troops later. Restrictions were put in place to weed out human rights abusers. 

We all know how that's worked out.

In 1968, the United States had 549,000 troops in South Vietnam; China had 320,000 troops in the north; they were supplying guns, ammunition, artillery and food, as well as manning the anti-aircraft guns. That dropped off as the Sino-Soviet rift developed, with the USSR picking up the slack. The USSR (Vietnam's preferred supplier) contributed 300 million rubles worth in 1965, including planes, tanks, artillery, ammo and anti-aircraft guns. They also shipped hundreds of factories to north Vietnam. Ultimately, little war production was actually done in Vietnam, so the American bombing campaigns may have accomplished little. Most equipment was shipped in by sea by the USSR or rail by China, and the US refrained from bombing those routes or mining the ports for fear of sparking a larger war. 

The US and European Union are currently pouring hundreds of millions of dollars worth of weaponry into Ukraine through Poland. Without these weapons, Ukrainian resistance would be severely hobbled. 

Political leaders of North Vietnam wanted a quick victory, but Giap felt the only way to win was through a longer guerilla war which China supported. Vietnamese leadership were highly suspicious that China wanted to fight to the last Vietnamese citizen. The same accusations are now being levelled by many (including John Mearsheimer) against the United States in regards to Ukraine. 

Ukraine has a lot of military age males, and there doesn't seem to be any cap on the funding of the Ukrainian war effort by NATO. Russia, on the other hand, is under heavy sanctions and will have difficulty replacing smart bombs and high tech vehicles (Amarta tanks and fighter planes) as time goes on.

Soviet forces roll into Afghanistan

Moh motivation

Hi chi Minh famously said, you can kill ten of us to your one and we will still win.

A famous anecdote has an American officer observing: “They are fighting against helicopter gunships with pointed sticks. How can they expect to win?” To which another replies, “If they’re willing to do that, how can we hope to defeat them?” It's an interesting point. Against that kind of determined resistance the only victory is a Roman one: kill (or enslave, the Romans were big on enslaving) everyone and sow the earth with salt. 

Of course weapons (and terrain) still make a difference. The Soviets were gaining the upper hand (using attack helicopters) in Afghanistan when stinger missiles, supplied by the Americans, helped turn the tide. But as Napoleon apparently said, "The moral is to the physical as three is to one."  

We've heard of cases where Russian troops have 'fragged' their own officers. There were cases in Vietnam where American conscripts did same. Neither war was existential to the invader, and troops resented being sent in for less than compelling reasons. 

Ukraine, on the other hand, is fighting for its very right to exist, which is a much more powerful motivator.

Civilian casualties and dumb bombs

The MCAV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) required body counts from units in the field: that was established as the measure for success in Vietnam. Not the smartest decision the US military has ever made.

According to Gunter Lewy (and Wikipedia) 1/3 of enemy KIA were civilians, for a total of 220,000 civilian deaths over the course of the war. That's not including bombing casualties in Laos, Cambodia or North Vietnam.

Soldiers were encouraged to make up kill counts if they didn't know the actual numbers. Accuracy wasn't the paramount concern: the military bureaucracy had a box to check, and everyone going up the chain of command needed a number. But who's going to comb through dangerous jungle, or tunnels, for bodies? The numbers were often pulled out of thin air.

American troops used helicopters to bypass jungle and ambushes

Free Fire Zones were established in which anyone who was unidentified or out after curfew could be shot on sight. Given the incentive system, civilian casualties seem inevitable. 

According to Vietnam: 50 Years Remembered, American infantry averaged 240 days of combat per year in Vietnam, but only 10 days in WWII. An incredible statistic which, if true, suggests enormous psychological stress on the GIs in Vietnam, contributing to poor decision making.

In Ukraine, Russia has deliberately shelled residential neighbourhoods, causing mass casualties. Body count may not be a success measure, but terror seems to be part of their modus operandi. Russian troops have also (reportedly) engaged in extensive rape, looting, torture and murder. 

To be fair, that's pretty common in war. US troops committed atrocities in Vietnam (My Lai was just the most publicized example) and there were unintended strikes against civilians in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Even so, the modern American military exhibits both a significantly higher level of professionalism, and avoidance of civilian casualties, than the RF. 

The Russians are deliberately targeting civilian neighbourhoods with artillery. Mariupol has been flattened, with an estimated 5,000 civilian casualties. Mass graves have also been uncovered in areas evacuated by Russian troops north of Kyiv.

Troop levels

At it's peak, the United States had 543,000 personnel in Vietnam, supported by roughly 700,000 ARVN troops. The population of South Vietnam was 16 million. North Vietnam had a slightly larger population of 18 million. And yet, even with over 1.2 million men at their disposal (six times the number of Russian troops in Ukraine, a country almost three times the population of South Vietnam), supported by air power and artillery, the US and South Vietnam could not solidify their control. 

The NVA and VC had some 100,000 troops in South Vietnam, virtually all of whom were replaced annually due to extremely high casualties. Giap said that by 1969 the North had already suffered 500,000 casualties, but that wasn't going to stop them: "The life or death of a hundred, a thousand, tens of thousands of human beings, even our compatriots, means little."

Iraq has a population of 40 million; US troop levels ranged between 130,000 to 187,000 between 2004 and 2009, not including private contractors or Iraqi security forces. Prior to the invasion, General Shinseki estimated that 260,000 troops would be required to successfully occupy Iraq. They never came close, and until local militias were co-opted, the country was notoriously unstable.

The Russian army entered Ukraine, a country of 44 million, with roughly 180,000 troops and 2,840 tanks. That's comparable to the troop levels the Americans deployed in Iraq, but there's a marked difference in capabilities and professionalism. America's all volunteer army has higher morale and greater dedication, along with the support of NCOs and contractors.

Deployed against the Russians are (were?) 215,000 active Ukrainian military personnel supported by 2,550 tanks. 

So far, Russian forces have suffered the verified loss of at least 450 tanks and over 800 supply trucks. Ukrainians have ambushed Russian columns (the Russians aren't screening their tanks with infantry) as they advanced, which is the same strategy the VC used against the French in Vietnam. They attempted it against the Americans too, but the US moved troops via helicopter and leapfrogged over the ambush sites. 

Livemap of war in Ukraine

Russian casualty figures range from 8,000 to 20,000 for the first month. By comparison, 6,990 Americans were killed in Vietnam in the first nine months of 1967. It took ten years for the USSR to suffer comparable casualty figures in Afghanistan. 

Are these fair comparisons? Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan were all counter-insurgency wars, with great force disparities, so lower casualty figures for the dominant side would be expected. And of course casualty figures should be taken with a massive grain of salt. Both sides are trying to spin the stats.

Compared to American troop levels in Vietnam and Iraq, it's difficult to believe Russia will be able to successfully occupy Ukraine given the forces it has deployed (if that even is the intent, which it probably isn't). 

B-52 bombers drop freedom

Interdiction of supplies

The connection to NATO through Poland is crucial to the survival of Ukrainian resistance. Ukraine would not have managed to rearm and retrain so effectively since 2014 without American (and NATO) support. 

So far, Russia has refrained from firing missiles at rail cars crossing into Ukraine, but that may change if the war continues to go poorly for Russia.

The Ho Chi Minh trail was the lifeblood of the Viet Cong, pumping in weapons and supplies, although American Intelligence estimated only 10 to 15 tons was necessary to sustain the VC daily (Ukraine needs far more). Nixon ordered a bombing campaign in Cambodia, Operation Freedom Deal (no, seriously), to cut it off. Over 250,000 tons of freedom bombs, more than everything dropped on Japan in World War II, was pasted across southern Cambodia. 

This was before America entered the era of smart bombs, which Russia has only dipped it’s toe in. Russian stockpiles of smart weapons are extremely limited. Having failed to obtain air superiority in Ukraine, Russia is relying on their much vaunted artillery forces, which cause a lot of collateral damage (in many Russian wars, that's part of the point and policy). 

Nixon believed in the Mad Man theory (no, not advertising), and sought to intimidate his opponents with irrational and crazy escalations, like flattening Cambodia behind the back of Congress. Putin’s taken a page from Nixon’s play book with his pointed threats of nuclear retaliation if anyone even thinks of looking at him sideways. Does it work? It didn't for Nixon.

The USAF claimed their bombs killed 16,000 Khmer Rouge troops besieging Cambodian capital Pnom Penh in 1973, saving Cambodia from falling to the communists… that year. Others say the bombing galvanized Cambodians to fight and led directly to Pol Pot's victory. Civilian casualty estimates range from 30,000 to 300,000; it’s very difficult to know for certain because there were so many other active efforts to kill people going on at the time. 

Interdiction efforts failed in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. In every case the invader eventually withdrew, but only after a great expenditure of money, equipment and human lives.

While American withdrawal from Vietnam may have been a kick in the nuts, Russian withdrawal from Ukraine will be unbearable. NATO supplies are empowering Ukraine and blocking Russian victory. Sooner or later the RF are going to try and cut Ukraine's war juice off, risking a wider war.

Bang! You just shot your propaganda war in the head.

The media war

The Tet offensive in 1968 was covered extensively by American media. Every night Americans in the comfort of their living rooms watched gut churning footage of fighting in Vietnam, culminating in an AVRN officer shooting a captive Viet Cong soldier in the head, on video tape. It was a truly shocking moment. Walter Cronkite, the most trusted man in America, turned against the war, and doubt about the narrative peddled by politicians and the military grew much more intense. Protests at home reached a height with Kent state and the national guard gunning down American citizens. 

Strictly speaking, Tet was a military failure: the Viet Cong suffered casualties at a rate of 20 to 1, devastating their strength in south Vietnam. And yet it was a massive success on the ideological and media fronts. It broke already flagging American support for the war and finished LBJ politically; a few weeks later he declared he wouldn’t run for re-election. 

It bears mentioning that when US and AVRN forces retook the city of Hue, which had been occupied for a month after Tet by the VC and NVA, they found mass graves of officials and dissidents. But the AVRN officer brutally executing a prisoner is what was caught on camera.

Nixon escalated while looking for ways out ‘with honor’ to save his political hide and American pride. It’s very important to provide a fig leaf to embarrassed world powers when they get caught with their military pants down. American strategy from then on was heavily influenced by media perceptions, and this problem led to reforms and a much more curated media involvement in Iraq. Many lessons of Vietnam were forgotten, but that was okay so long as it wasn't caught on camera. 

Putin is in no danger of the media turning on him, because he literally owns it. Russians will have to glean what is going on by what is not said. Opposition to the war will likely build slowly, as it becomes increasingly difficult to justify the lack of progress or cover up the extent of Russian losses.

Since Putin cannot afford to lose, if his military forces continue to be stymied, he may feel compelled to escalate, without limit, for the sake of both victory and his own self-preservation. 

That would bode very badly for Ukraine, Russia and quite possibly the rest of the planet.

Look! Lyndon Johnson's Daisy Girl is back!

Final thoughts

I see the war going on for some time, and eventually escalating. If Putin were to pass away of natural causes, it might provide the fig leaf Russia needs to withdraw, but then again, national interests (and pride) may make that an unacceptable option. Mearsheimer insists that Russia would want to crush Ukraine, with or without Putin. A disturbing thought.

Russia will solidify the land corridor between Crimea and the Donbas, and possibly seize the Eastern half of Ukraine, where there is a Russian majority, and less likelihood of an insurgency. The war would then grind on until both sides are exhausted and the Ukrainian economy is completely wreaked. 

Eventually Ukraine will be forced to ask for terms.

No one will be happy, not even Putin.

War is like gambling: not just who has the better hand, but who is willing to sacrifice the most lives without folding. Can a democratic country match a dictator's disregard for his own people?

I get Mearsheimer's realpolitik arguments, and justifiable Russian paranoia around border security and buffer zones, yet I can't help but think this war is a massive and completely unnecessary waste, that NATO does not present an existential threat, and the ongoing fighting will ruin millions of lives. 

Honestly, is this how one should treat brothers and sisters? 

Sunday, 10 April 2022

Delusions leading to disaster

Vladimir Putin explaining how Ukraine is not a country

Delusion has played a large role in military misadventure, including Putin's invasion of Ukraine. 

Which just makes me wonder: do leaders make decisions subconsciously, using their gut, and then apply reason's fig leaves? Or is the pre-war uncertainty fog is so great leaders (and intelligence analysts) can't make accurate assessments of possible outcomes?

The world infamously barrelled into World War One thinking it would be a jolly Fall romp, over in a few months. People enlisting were worried it would all be over by the time they reached the front. So not what they needed to worry about.

The Japanese Empire attacked the United States in 1941 and rampaged across South East Asia without an exit strategy. Their foremost military thinker, Yamamato, told them they'd be able to run amok for six months and then get rolled back. Japan could not match the industrial capacity, manpower, or resources (especially oil) of the United States. Well, screw the facts, the leadership went ahead anyway, confident the Americans were weak willed and would meekly accept Japan's fait accompli. 

Not a great plan, as Iron Man might say. 

Nazi General Paulus war gamed the invasion of Russia and declared it unwinnable. Hitler disagreed and insisted that all you had to do 'was kick in the door and the whole rotten structure would fall down.’ He didn’t allow troops to be provided with winter uniforms (for an invasion of Russia. Russia!!!): he was that confident the war would be over in a few months. 

Paulus’ last message from his frozen bunker in Stalingrad was, ‘ Ich habe es dir doch gesagt, du Idiot!' (I told you so, you imbecile!) followed by a series of expletives. 

Okay, probably not, but he should have.

The Gulf of Tonkin incident

Robert McNamara admitted that the second Gulf of Tonkin attack, for which retaliation (and the subsequent massive escalation) was authorized, never happened. It was as real as those 1999 apartment bombings in Moscow. McNamara even met with Gi├íp personally in 1995, and confirmed it was based on bad intel and misinterpretation. Boy, I bet he felt like a dunce that day. On a personal level, that’s so relatable and easy to do. I’ve rushed to judgement many a time, but man, never with such a horribly high price. 

As John Kerry said, who wants to be the last man to die for a mistake?

With Iraq, the United States was flat out delusional about how things would go. The invasion was also sold with a house of cards, pitched by Secretary of State Colin Powell. According to Thomas Rick’s book Fiasco:

‘The official bipartisan conclusion of the senate select committee on intelligence’s review of the prewar handling of intelligence was, “much of the information provided or cleared by the CIA for inclusion in secretary Powell’s speech was overstated, misleading, or incorrect.” 

Powell sold his reputation away with that speech. Intelligence officers who believed the intel was weak accepted it because Powell said it, and they assumed there was higher level intel they were not privy to.

Putin’s speech on the eve of invasion of Ukraine was even more fantastical, alleging that it was more akin to Narnia than a real nation.

In all the above cases, leadership was living in a fantasy projection. Neo-conservatives believed the fall of Hussein would usher in a new era of peace and prosperity, while Putin believed his armies would be met with cheering crowds. The Americans massively underestimated the 'primitive' Viet Cong in Vietnam. Hitler flat out ignored the professional advice he got and went with his gut. Imperial Japan's end game was Wishful Thinking. 


Colin Powell (left) with proof of WMDs in Iraq

Realistic evaluation of what you’re getting into is the most important thing for military planners. Unfortunately, senior leadership lives in an ideological fog, impervious to reality, and the result is millions of ordinary people die. The intense mental constructs needed to rise to power within a country may also contribute to faulty evaluations of the external geopolitical scene.

Maybe they should have bought a copy of The Secret.

To avoid calamity, open and intense criticism is absolutely necessary. And it’s most necessary with people who are immune to it.

Author David Brin has put forward his own acronym, CITOKATE: criticism is the only know antidote to error. When it comes to contemplating invasions, they could do worse than operating on that principle. This must be self evident to military planners. Whatever processes have been implemented to avoid disaster haven’t been refined enough to eliminate huge miscalculations and probably never will be. 

We may be dealing with systems so complex they cannot be accurately assessed, or individuals so deep in their own subjective reality they're immune to feedback from the objective one.

Sunday, 6 March 2022

Boba vs. Peacemaker smackdown

I recently watched both Disney's The Book of Boba Fett and HBO's Peacemaker. Both shows are escapist fantasy: one a Space Western, the other a... uh... dysfunctional superhero investigation / alien invasion show.

The bonkers opening sequence for Peacemaker is not to be missed. It's definitely different and it epitomizes the unrestrained creativity of the showrunner.

The Showrunners

Jon Favreau
I like Favreau. He directed the first Iron Man movie, which was a ton of fun. He's also been involved in pushing forward effects technology in Hollywood, after growing frustrated with green screen while shooting The Jungle Book. The result is The Volume, a stage surrounded by a solid, seamless wall of video screens upon which anything you like can be projected. They use the Unreal 3D engine to project environments and creatures. Incredibly, they are high fidelity enough to be used on film as moving backgrounds. This allows the actors to respond in real time to events on the screens, and gives them a much better sense of place than they'd get with traditional green screen. It also allows reflections to be captured on things like The Mandalorian's shiny armour.

From barren worlds...

When I first saw The Mandalorian, I thought the light was especially good in it. It didn't look shot on a sound stage. The characters were bathed in the light of the environment they appeared in, so I thought it had to be shot on location. How else could they do that? That's one of the best things about The Volume: it simulates the light of a real environment. Some clean up work is need around things like the break between the wall and the ceiling, but that's about it. 

This makes shooting an effects intensive show like The Mandalorian feasible on a tight TV schedule. I'd say a tight budget, too, but The Mandalorian still costs an arm and a leg to produce. Without The Volume, though, it'd be prohibitively expensive. 

To forest planets, The Volume can do it all!

Favreau wrote, along with Dave Filoni, a good deal of the first two seasons of The Mandalorian. It's a fun, diverting show with lots of atmosphere that evokes samurai films and old westerns. It gave us Baby Yoda, the cute but blatant merchandising opportunity. 

While I enjoyed The Mandalorian, the show nevertheless felt kind of slight narratively. I suspect some of the scripts are more about exploring technical capabilities than character ones. 

James Gunn
I've been keeping an eye on James Gunn for a long while now, since his Dawn of the Dead film with director Zach Snyder. He has an edgy sense of humour, and while sometimes his sensibilities don't mesh with mine, I still think he's one of the funniest, smartest writers in the pop culture film space. The Guardians of the Galaxy Marvel films are my favourites in the MCU (along with Watiti's Thor: Ragnarok). They are the perfect blend of comedy, adventure and heart. Gunn almost always injects a soul into his onscreen avatars, giving even archetypes dimension and character. Of all the big, bloated super hero films out there, for my money, his have the strongest characterization. 

How would you describe DCEU heroes? Usually, it's by their powers. I find Superman bland. I can't say anything about who Green Lantern is. He's the guy with a green power ring. The one exception is Batman, who's brooding and plagued by person demons and his dead parents. But wow, do they live into 'My parents are dead!' a lot with him. Every 3 movies his parents get gunned down again.

Peter Quinn though? I have a sense of him as a person, same as Rocket and Groot and Drax. They may be based on archetypes, but Gunn fleshes them out, and damn he mines their characters for situational, contextual humour. 

That's one thing I really enjoy with Gunn: he doesn't abandon the adventure angle by making everything a joke. Instead, he brings flawed characters to extreme situations and lets the humour roll out of that. This keeps the action on track and people invested in the adventure, while at the same time providing comedic release. 

It's great stuff.

The Shows:

The Book of Boba Fett
A spinoff from The Mandalorian, it centres on the eponymous, helmeted bounty hunter from the original Star Wars trilogy. A man of few words who was ignominiously dropped into a giant maw in the middle of a desert, he accrued a reputation as a bad ass over the years thanks to The Extended Universe. I can't say he's ever been a big favourite of mine; there was never much there to begin with. The Mandalorian, in many ways, has already supplanted Boba, being essentially Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name in Spaaaace. 

Another bad ass meeting

Well he's back anyway. He survived the Sarlaac pit, got enslaved by Sand People, won his freedom and became part of their cute ROOOIK! ROOOIK! shrieking family (hey they wear helmets, too), then decided to take over Jabba's crime empire for reasons. Because. 

This show has paradigm shifting special effects.

Not content to leave Peacemaker dead at the end of Suicide Squad, Gunn felt he had enough storytelling potential to bring him back for a series. The show follows an egotistical, self-righteous vigilante crusader who's dead set on bringing about peace for everyone, no matter how many people he has to kill to do it. I can immediately see the appeal of the character to Gunn. He throws in a racist father, a disturbing childhood, and a rogues' gallery of supporting characters for him to bounce off of. Then they're off to stop an alien invasion by blue butterflies. 

This show is pure fun.

The Characters:

The Book of Boba Fett has no characters. It has plot devices and empty shells, but no characters. 

Okay, there is one exception that proves the rule: The Mayor's Major Domo. He's unctuous and obsequious, but also conniving and duplicitous. Yet he's completely peripheral, a secondary or even tertiary villain.

I came away with no greater understanding of who anyone was after watching Boba' Book, which is a tremendous shame. 

You could argue that Fett learns the importance of family by being enslaved by the Sand People, but even that effort at an arc didn't work for me. 

Fennec Shand's flat as cardboard, seemingly there only to explain plot points and kill people. She acts stern and ostensibly bad ass, but it's entirely superficial. 

There's nothing underneath. No motivation. No heart. Nothing but marketing and merchandise. 

The other 'characters' (I use the term loosely here) are even worse: the gumdrop bike gang are as rounded as your typical stormtrooper. They are not explored in any way, at all. Fett's ship has more personality than they do. 

The rancour is set up, but little is done to explore Fett's relationship with the beast. 

Don't even mention to me the comedian comic. She gives it her all, admittedly, but she doesn't have much to work with and gets no support. 

Peacemaker, on the other hand, is overflowing with characters, motivations, and arcs. There's emotion, genuine motivated conflict, and growth. Not just growth for the main character, but for almost all the characters. 

It is such a shock to go from the bland Book of Boba to Peacemaker, as it makes it so strikingly clear what's wrong with Boba: the writing. 

Worse, for two episodes Boba turns into Season 2.5 of The Mandalorian! He's already been a lame second fiddle in his own show, then he's completely sidelined by another TV program! Bold move, in a way, I don't think I've ever seen that happen before. And Fett just sucks it up.  

Fett's not decisive, he waffles and sits in meetings while others speak for him. He hovers over the Sarlaac pit and seems paralazyed when they're attack, incapable of taking decisive action. 

I think Fett would benefit from being more proactive, bad ass, and letting mystery remain around many aspects of who he is, letting his actions define him. 

Fett wants to be a benevolent, moral crime lord (moving on up into management... why?), as only Disney can do kindly crime lords. He's not so bad! He wants the best for the people of Mos Eisley (or whichever it is), whom he's never met, never interacted with, and has no real connection to. Why? Because shut up and buy something. 

Peacemaker, on the other hand, gets greatly fleshed out over the course of his TV show. We learn about why he's so messed up (a holy hell of a childhood dominated by a psychopathic, racist father and accidentally killing his brother). I felt like I got a better understanding of who he is, and from that, what he'll do. 

His supporting characters are all given time to shine, snappy dialogue and a distinctive voice. You get a sense of who and what they are, even Eagly, a bird. 

For God's sake, even the bird on Peacemaker has more personality than anyone in the Book of Boba Fett.

To be fair, Boba's Book looks absolutely stunning, and is pushing ahead visual effects by a couple decades. It is truly a stunning artistic achievement, and every element around the production is first rate to the point of mind blowing. 

Unfortunately, it just underlines how essential writing is. I have been to sci-fi conferences where there were Lucas Film employees on panels. I remember one, a very prominent and talented guy who does concept art, deriding screenplay writing as so simple that essentially any idiot can do it, and saying we could, working with the audience, come up with a mega block buster concept in five minutes and then plot it out. He was tongue in cheek (or at least, I hope he was; given some recent Disney fair •cough• Rise of Skywalker •cough• I cannot be sure...).

Just my subjective opinion, of course. Mileage varies.

The Verdict:

Watch Boba for the visuals, then watch Peacemaker for a fun story with outrageous characters and (a twisted) heart. Plus, it's very funny.