As an amateur historian, I am given to musing about the flow and processing of information. People make mental models of the past, but those models are usually highly skewed. As both Napoleon and George Orwell are alleged to have observed, it is the winners who write history. Beyond that, most historians rely primarily on written sources, which further skews our perspective to the prejudices of a given time’s literati, as well as limiting our perspective by that self-same “intelligentsia’s” intellectual shortcomings. The uptake curve of any new trend is difficult to perceive at its inception. Important events often show up as important only well after the fact. Of all the news stories of today, how many human beings can predict what story will actually shape the world of 50 years from now? Even experts fail at this. And often, the true import of events is obscured until the generation who experienced those events has passed away, along with their distorted perceptions.
Take a look at the early 1960s, for example. If one is to go by the Boomer nostalgia for the period, the assassination of Kennedy is the watershed event for the period. In fact, the most likely (and I do not presume to have the final world on this) candidate for the seminal event of 1960 – 1964 is Kennedy’s commitment of troops to Vietnam. From this flowed a tremendous amount of history, and not just the further commitments of LBJ and the subsequent social upheaval in the US. If the officers I talked to in the late Soviet period are correct, the Vietnam War bankrupted the Soviet Union. The Soviets spent approximately $1 billion per year in a war it truly could not afford:
“The Soviet Union poured billions of rubles into Vietnam. . . During 1965-1975 military aid was central, and economic aid was geared entirely to the war effort. By the 1970s Soviet aid amounted to $1 billion or more annually, without which the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) could not have continued the war.”
The adventure in Vietnam and the attendant arms race crippled the economy of the USSR. It severely curtailed their foreign policy adventures. And when Reagan came along and proposed Star Wars, Gorbachev threw in the towel. Not because he thought that the American missile shield would achieve 100% coverage against missile attacks. The Russians were not stupid. And not because they thought we’d even get 75% coverage. It was because even 30% coverage was considerably better than the 0% the Soviets could muster in the near term. And because it would have sapped a couple of percent of our GDP, while even attempting to match it would have cost a significantly grater fraction of their GDP (some officers I talked to estimated as much as 50%). And the US technology would have gotten better with time and experience, which would have sapped even more Russian resources. In this respect, the events of 1989 and 1991 were a direct result of Kennedy’s decision to commit to Vietnam and Reagan’s willingness to capitalize on the advantage gained by bankrupting the USSR and sending it into the period the Russians call “The Stagnation”.
But at the time, what were the great news stories, which still to a large extent dominate the thinking of historians about the period of 1960 – 1964? The assassination. The Bay of Pigs. Camelot. Useless drivel and a distraction to the serious study of history.
It’s probably a truism that a serious futurist needs to look well beyond the headlines to get a sense of the most important trends that will influence the future of the world. The introduction to one of my favorite history books contains another rather forceful reminder of this dynamic:
“I remember well how, in the spring and summer of 1939, my curiosity was gripped by short newspaper accounts of an undeclared war that was raging between the Japanese and Soviet armies on a desolate stretch of disputed frontier lying between the client states of Manchukuo and Outer Mongolia.”
— Alvin D. Cox, Nomonhan
That battle, Nomonhan or Khalkhin Gol, depending on your perspective , was a watershed in the global conflict that rivaled its contemporary event, the invasion of Poland, in its significance:
“It is generally agreed that, despite IJA silence on the subject, the Japanese decision in 1941 to transfer strategic emphasis to the south, involving war with the United States, Britain, and the Netherlands, stemmed in part from the Kwantung Army’s failure against the Russians in 1939.”
In large part. Had the Japanese succeeded against Zhukov and joined the Nazis in a two front war against the Russians, the Second Front would have been a disaster for Stalin. Had the Japanese not moved against Pearl Harbor in 1941, war with the US would have been at least delayed, and Roosevelt would have needed some other pretext to come to beleaguered Britain’s aid in its darkest and finest hour.
Failure to understand that conflict and the lessons it taught about the IJA by people who should have taken a much more professional interest led to much needless bloodshed on the part of the British and American military in the Pacific War. The defeat of the Kwantung army by Zhukov (a name that should have been well noted by Americans and Germans alike in 1939), was the primary event that turned the Japanese on a collision course with the US.
Yet where is Nomonhan in the list of vital battles we teach our high school and college students about WWII? Pretty much nowhere. Apropos another conversation on this blog, it seems that the professional military historians outside academia take the study of this battle a little more seriously.
Much of the overemphasis on side issues is driven by contemporary press coverage. Occasionally I’ve wondered why people in the past ignored some sign of events to come that seems so obvious in hindsight. Then I look at the mass of frivolous and useless news coverage today and realize how hard it is to pick useful signals from the vast background of noise that bombards us daily.
If the media were properly doing their jobs, the OODA loop would be on the lips of anyone who has anything to say in public about the War on Terror in general, and the War in Iraq in particular. Instead even many people who think of themselves as educated (and perhaps an even greater fraction of those people who consider themselves intellectuals) have no idea who John Boyd was, or why he is an important figure. In my opinion no one who has not read his theories has any business at all opining on current foreign policy.
Probably the most important (and under-reported) historical trend in the current decade is directly related to Boyd’s theories, and can be summed up under the category of “fourth generation warfare” . I view this trend much the same way I view the Internet’s penetration into what was once the purview of Mainstream Media. Production in the past was concentrated in the hands of a few, be that access to the accoutrements of mass media such as television networks, or access to modern weapons. As the world has gotten richer, distribution networks have become more democratized, and excess capacity brought about by globalization has increased access to many types of goods, high quality video cameras, computers and weapons included.
In the past, insurgencies that we now class as fourth generation non-state actors needed a third generation patron to maintain the flow of arms and supplies that is required to damage a modern nation state. Mao and Tito had Stalin, Ho Chi Minh had Krushchev and Brezhnev, the IRA had idiotic Irish-Americans, etc. The fall of the Soviet Union has deprived a number of manufacturers of a market in the former Warsaw Pact, and this excess capacity is now aimed less at furthering the foreign policy of the Russians than it is aimed at supporting the economy of the smaller nations in the former Eastern block. This is exactly analogous to the fact that, with the excess capacity generated by business telecommunications networks, the network that formerly had the primary function of linking DARPA with its university research clients is now, on a volume basis, mostly used to support the global porn and counterfeit erectile dysfunction pharmaceuticals markets.
What does this mean for fourth-generation warfare? The guerrilla may swim in the peasantry as a fish swims in the sea, but peasants don’t supply him with Semtex and anti-tank missiles. Third generation economies do. Small arms are readily available in the third world and will keep small-scale conflict smoldering with or without international arms sales. The occasional IED or bomb on a plane may spark a small reaction, but in order to prolong a campaign and threaten governments, the guerrilla must procure sophisticated weapons or plan for years for a single strike, as with Al Q’aeda’s long campaign to bring down the WTC, from at least 1992 to 2001. While the attack on the WTC seemed like a spectacular success, when viewed though the lens of history, any campaign that required at least 9 years of planning to kill 4000 people and miss several of its major objectives would be viewed as a Pyrrhic victory at best, a total waste of resources at worst*. Such victories can never be truly prevented, but the odds of success can be further stacked against the barbarians.
However, the real goal of most fourth generation actors (e.g. FARC) is to become master of a state and play in the third generation game. This is where third generation states can score big wins, by limiting the flow of sophisticated weaponry. And this is where, until recently, the US was losing badly.
That failure should have been the top news story of the last five years, if the media reported on what was truly historically significant. Future historians will be able to point to a few good news stories and wonder why so many people missed the signals. The answer lies in the signal to noise ratio in the mainstream press, as epitomized by the low-key coverage of a crucial arrest, which is the topic of Part II of this post.
* The failure to pick up on and eliminate the threat after the first warning in 1993 is another topic for another day.
The MSM Misses the Bout: Part II
The MSM Misses the Bout: Part III
11 thoughts on “The MSM Misses the Bout: Part I”
All I can say is WOW. Excellent stuff John Jay, all three parts.
The good news SM is fast dying as we know it and then you will have no more worries about that source of misinformation, confusion, and idiocy…do you still subscribe to papers? why?
I was never a good boomer and the assassination of Kennedy was not a watershed for me, then or now. My estimate of the most important events of that period were the introduction of the pill in 1960 and Borlaug’s wheat to South Asia in 1964. But the Civil Rights acts and immigration reformof the mid ’60s would also qualify.
What that shows that what one deems important tells more about the one making the assessment and what is important to his world than the events themselves. Ultimately history is too complex and too much unknown for anyone to ever understand it fully. Therein lies much of its fascination.
“Yet where is Nomonhan in the list of vital battles we teach our high school and college students about WWII?”
Sadly, I think the assumption that we TEACH high school and college students about WWII at all is optimistic. In my (very good) public school we had about 2 pages on WWII and the teacher just let me talk else I constantly interrupted his errors.
For fun I used to ask my fellow high school students (all going on to big colleges, by the way) the following questions:
1) did we fight against the Russians in WW2?
2) did we fight with the Italians in WW2?
The answer to 1) was usually “yes” because they confused the “cold war” with WW2 and saw movies like Red Dawn. The answer to 2) was usually “no” because there wasn’t much press about the Italian role in WW2 and everyone pretty much views them as fun-loving people. The other students knew about Japan because of Pearl Harbor and the “day of infamy” speech and the fact that SOMETHING happened on December 7th every year and they of course knew about HITLER and the Nazi’s were bad guys in all those Indiana Jones movies and stuff.
I remember trying to use my old Advanced Squad Leader game to simulate the war between the Russians and the Japanese. Of course the Russian armor just blew away the Japanese equivalent, not that this was particularly realistic since individual armor duels are minor in the grand scheme, but they were telling.
Military roles today are often more about the civilian impact and there is little popular understanding about much of anything. Knowledge falls off even more drastically when you leave the states.
Great post, btw.
As far as reading newspapers, I read them all the time, pretty much everything I can get my hands on. It is important to know what OTHER people feel are important, so you can understand where they are coming from. Occasionally I learn something, mostly about trivia, and often I am angered at how they are misplacing reality.
But I sure wouldn’t bet my house on them.
Doh I meant to say that we fought with the Italians in WW2 was the common answer.
I also noted that I responded to Fred Lapedis, the troll. My bad. I confused you with an actual person trying to say something important, instead of the parasite that you are on this site.
The decision making process of the Imperial Japanese in the run up to WWII makes for a fascinating study. To many people assume that such intelligent people must be rational actors yet one sees little but continuous self-delusion. The leaders all came from Samuri backgrounds and fixed in their minds the idea that they could advance their national interest only through warfare. They then simply began looking for someone to fight.
Until the battle of Nomonhan, consensus in Japan held that the nation could only fight a defensive war against the U.S. in the Pacific. After the battle, the army began creating a rationalization for why Japan could defeat the U.S. due to U.S. cultural decadence.
I think this a pristine example of how fear for their own position in society drives leadership classes to war. The Imperial leaders simply could not step aside for the good of the country and let Japan follow a model similar to that it used post-WWII. They dragged the country into a needless war to preserve their own status. I think the vast majority of conflict originate from such internal dynamics.
Most leftist today argue from a Marxist inspired model that looks toward economics as the driver of wars. However, I think we should look at the more human drives of the leadership than the impersonal forces of economics. Shakespeare teaches us more than Marx.
“oh I meant to say that we fought with the Italians in WW2 was the common answer.”
I am reminded suddenly of Churchill’s statement to the effect of “We do not fight with the Germans. We fight either for or against them.”
Newspapers would not send a reporter with no knowledge of baseball to cover a baseball game, but the have journalists who don’t know the difference between a private and a lieutentant, between a Soldier and a Marine, to cover military affairs.
It’s also never mentioned by the MSM that press releases from the US DOD are suspect and biased, but reports from their unvetted stringers in Iraq are gospel.
US agency press releases are propaganda, tapes from Bin Laden and Zawahiri are indicators that they are still winning.
To Shannon Love: Freud as well. That is one of the explanations as to why Marx missed the mark so much–the simple fact that he wrote before Freud. Appros po of which
this is my greatest fear about the potential for the leadership of the PRC to lurch into war–their desire to prevent Capitalism from making them irrelevant.
An asstute set of long range observations.
In light of these assumptions, let me propose the next places of signficance:
Sudan, and the 1992 Cleric’s convention that operationalized the Next-Caliphate agenda, including al Qaeda, Eritrea, Somalia, and the emerging Jihdist confederation on the Sahel.
South Africa is in the fundrasing and training phases right now.
Where do you think al Qaeda Organizers go after it gets too hot in Iraq and Afghaistan?
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