Ukraine, and the World Outside US Borders

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a worse and more simplistic ‘debate’ than the arguments taking place in the US over aid to Ukraine. There are big quality problems with the level of argumentation…on both sides.

On the anti-funding-Ukraine side: Many commentators say we shouldn’t be funding Ukraine’s efforts to protect their own border because we are failing in protecting our own border.

But can anyone really think that the problems with the US border are primarily a matter of resources?  It should be obvious that these problems are a matter of will: the border is largely open because the Biden administration has wanted it open.  If the Biden administration had been provided with $X billion more available for border enforcement, where X is any number, the situation would have been exactly what it has been.

On the pro-funding-Ukraine side: Many commentators seem unable to imaging why anyone would object to US participation in the war (even if only in the form of aid and weapons) other than being a Putin advocate and/or being paid off by Putin–there are a lot of ad hominem arguments accusing people of being in the pay of Putin, or simply of caring about Russia more than they care about their own country.  But there are wars and injustices all over the world, and the US must carefully choose which ones it gets involved in.  Resources are finite, and almost every military intervention carries at least some risk of undesired escalation. US experience with wars in recent decades has not been terribly encouraging.

On the anti-funding-Ukraine side: Sometimes, the argument goes beyond the US border and the assertion is made that the US should not be doing things like the Ukraine involvement until our own country is fixed.  But will there ever be, has there ever been, a time when everything about the US is ‘fixed’?  I note that the US maintained a higher level of military funding (as a % of GDP) during the Cold War than we do today, and yet public infrastructure–from roads to parks to subway systems to school–generally worked better than the corresponding entities do today.

Also on the anti side, it is observed that there is a lot of corruption in Ukraine, and that it is also far from a perfect democracy. These points seem to be true.  But sometimes one needs to support certain countries despite serious differences in values…as we did in supporting the Soviet Union in WWII and in supporting certain unpleasant regimes during the Cold War. The specific situation needs to be considered and analyzed. (And, Indeed, some of the things now going on in Canada and in Western Europe–not to mention in America itself–seem quite contrary to American ideals.)

Those opposed to funding Ukraine often assert that the aid is being provided in order to support American arms manufacturers–Raytheon, especially, tends to be mentioned for some reason–really, this is reminiscent of the 1920s and 1930s denunciations of arms manufacturers as ‘merchants of death.’  But if the political goal was to keep arms manufacturers happy, there are plenty of other projects available, such as the badly-needed building of more ships for the Navy.  And when people denounce arms manufacturers, I always wonder: Are they absolute pacifists? Do they favor having all arms manufacturing done by government agencies?  What would be their plan for ensuring that our forces have what they need to win conflicts and minimize their own casualties?

On the pro-funding-Ukraine side:  It is argued that if Putin isn’t stopped in Ukraine, he will likely invade other European countries. I think this is a very legitimate fear. But it needs to be traded off against the threats from the larger and much more economically dynamic nation of China.  I note that many of the people who harp on the threat from Russia never (or very rarely) have anything to say about China. Does investing resources in Ukraine reduce the threat of, say, a Chinese invasion or blockade of Taiwan? If it points in the direction of reducing the threat for US credibility reasons, how does this trade off against the consumption of US munitions?

Someone said at Twitter that he doesn’t see how anyone who knows the history of the 1930s and 1940s can oppose supporting Ukraine.  But it’s not always 1939, sometimes it’s 1914.  Also, history didn’t stop at the end of the 1940s, and many people have observed the poor outcomes of US military interventions in our century, not to mention the Vietnam War.

The pro-Ukraine people, especially politicians, have been arguing that the money spent mostly goes to US arms manufacturers…this is kind of the flip side of the “it’s all to benefit Raytheon” argument.  If the only objective is to “create jobs” and “put money in circulation”, then that could be achieved equally well by paying people to dig ditches and then fill them up again. There has to be some other benefit.

On the anti-funding Ukraine side, there actually are some people who glorify Russia…not the majority of the anti-Ukraine people, certainly not enough to support a generalized ad hominem argument against the antis–but there are indeed some in that category. The argument that Russia under its current regime is the defender of civilization is not to my mind a very convincing one, unless one’s definition of ‘civilization’ is a pretty strange one. The main effect of these people has been to further poison the entire debate.

Above and beyond the particular issue of Ukraine: there is a world beyond US borders. We don’t get to call ‘time’ just because we have serious internal issues.  When France and Britain decided not to intervene at the time of the German Rhineland incursion in 1936, one of the arguments made by some French politicians was that it would be unwise to interfere with the economic recovery. How did that work out for them?

My own view: We do need to be supporting Ukraine, and we should be doing so a lot more effectively than the Biden administration has chosen to do.  Biden’s initial reaction to the invasion–suggesting that it might be OK if Putin didn’t take too big a bite, and then offering Zelinsky a ticket out–didn’t exactly sound a Churchillian note of defiance. Arms supply has been too little, too late, and not nearly enough has been done to increase US defense-industrial output potential, especially of consumables such as artillery shells and missiles, and to provide better supply-chain resilience against components and materials cutoffs by other countries.  My sense is that the Biden strategy is not to achieve a Ukraine victory, or to force a negotiated settlement on favorable terms, but to drag the war out with the goal of bleeding Russia while minimizing domestic political risk…a cynical and cruel strategy, in my opinion.

The main purpose of this post, though, is not to argue for or against any particular policy, but rather to express concern and disappointment…even dismay…over the extremely poor quality of the arguments being made on both sides of the issue and the generally toxic tone of the debate.

Biden, Hamas, and Israel

In this rather confused video clip (some of it in text form in this article), Biden seems to be saying that (1) he believes the “30,000 Palestinians killed” number which has been circulating, which most observers believe is bogus, (2) that Israel is violating the international rules of war, which he says “we” changed following WWII, and (3) strongly implying that Israel is conducting carpet bombing, which is false.  He also says that Hamas would like a ceasefire because they would “have a better chance to survive and rebuild.”  He is apparently just fine with this outcome.

He also says he told the Israeli war cabinet:  “Do not make the mistake America made,’… we should not have gone into the whole thing in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was not necessary. It was not necessary. It caused more problems than it cured.”

Whatever one thinks about the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, it requires a special kind of cluelessness to not notice the geographical closeness of Gaza-based Hamas to Israel, and the immediate and murderous nature of the threat that Israel faces.

Or, more likely, he does realize this, but does not consider Israeli lives to be very important when measured against Michigan electoral votes.

Worthwhile Reading

Hayek, Fascism, and the Administrative State

Privilege in Bourbon France

An interesting piece on the tradition of limited government in Spain

A Danish manager working in Russia finds that his workers are looking for a more authoritarian style of leadership

Related: Culture and combined arms warfare

Civilization versus the Pathocratic State

The Disintegrating Conscience and the Decline of Modernity

Why are semiconductor companies not more enthusiastic about taking the lavish subsidies available under the CHIPS act?


Movie Review: WarGames

I want somebody on the phone before I kill 20 million people.

This 1983 movie is about a potential nuclear war instigated by runaway information technology–a military system inadvertently triggered by a teenage hacker.  I thought it might be interesting to re-watch in the light of today’s concerns about artificial intelligence and the revived fears of nuclear war.

The film opens in an underground launch control center, where a new crew is just coming on duty…and as just as they are getting themselves settled, they receive a Launch message.  They quickly open the envelope which contains the authentication code…and the message is verified as a valid launch order, originating from proper authority.

To launch, both officers must turn their keys simultaneously. But one balks: unwilling to commit the ultimate violence based solely on a coded message, he wants to talk to a human being who can tell him what’s going on.  But no one outside the underground capsule can be reached by either landline or radio.

But there is no war: it was a drill–an assessment of personnel reliability. The results indicated that about 20% of the missile crews refused  to launch.  A proposal is made: take the men out of the loop–implement technology to provide direct launch of the missiles from headquarters, put the control at the highest level, where it belongs.  Against the advice of the relevant general, the proposal is taken to the President, and the missile crews are replaced by remote-control technology. There will be no more launches cancelled by the qualms of missile officers.

At this point, we meet the Matthew Broderick character, David Lightman.  He is a highly intelligent but not very responsible high school student, whose his first scene involves smarting off in class and getting in trouble. David is an early hacker, with an Imsai computer: he rescues his grades by logging on to the school’s computer system and changing them.  (He does the same for his not-quite-yet girlfriend, Jennifer, played by Ally Sheedy)

Searching for a pre-release bootleg copy of a computer game he wants to play, David happens on what looks like a game site: it has menu items for checkers, chess, tic-tac-toe, and something called Falken’s Maze.  Also, a game called Global Thermonuclear War.

To play that last game, David needs to know the password, and thinks he may be able to guess it if he can learn some personal data about the game’s creator, a researcher named Steven Falken.  Library research shows Falken as a man who appeals to David very much, not only because of his scholarly attainments but also his obvious deep love of his wife and child–both of whom are reported to have been killed in an auto accident.  Research also shows that Falken himself has also died.

Using a very simple clue (the name of Falken’s son), David is able to gain entry to the system, to select which side he wants to play (the Soviet Union), and to start the game.  He launches what he thinks is a simulated attack on the United States…a very large-scale attack. He has no idea that the events of the simulation are somehow bleeding over into the live warning system, and appear at the NORAD center as an actual Soviet attack.

It gets worse.  Although Falken turns out to be still alive and living under an alias…and he and David are able to convince the NORAD officers that what they are seeing on their screen is not real and to cancel any retaliatory stroke, the control computer at NORAD, a system known as WOPR, continues playing its game…and, with humans at the launch sites taken out of the loop, begins trying to initiate a strike at the Soviet Union with live nuclear missiles.

The above is just a basic summary of the action of the movie.  There’s plenty wrong with it from a timeline and a technology viewpoint…for example, WOPR in the movie can launch missiles by repetitively trying launch codes at high speed until it finds one that works–pretty sure no one would have designed such a cryptographic system in such a simplistic way, even in 1983. But the movie works very well as cinema, the characters are interesting and the acting is good–definitely worth seeing.  But how might this movie relate to the current concerns about artificial intelligence?

In discussing the movie, I mentioned that the NORAD staff originally thought that what they saw on their screen was real, even though it was really just a simulation.  Which reminds me of a real-life event that happened to the cruise ship Royal Majesty back in 1995. The crew was navigating using GPS: the screen showed a very convincing portrayal of the ship’s position with surrounding land, water depth, obstacles, and navigational aids such as buoys and markers. But the portrayal was wrong.  The GPS antenna cable had come loose, and the GPS unit had gone into Dead Reckoning mode, simply calculating the current position based on the last known GPS position carried forward based on course and speed. Which was bound to become increasingly inaccurate over time.

Asaf Degani, in his book Taming Hal, describes the scene:

As the gray sky turned black veil, the phosphorus-lit radar map with its neat lines and digital indication seemed clearer and more inviting than the dark world outside. As part of a sophisticated integrated bridge system, the radar map had everything–from a crisp radar picture, to ship position, buoy renderings, and up to the last bit of data anyone could want–until it seemed that the entire world lived and moved transparently, inside that little green screen. Using this compelling display, the second officer was piloting a phantom ship on an electronic lie, and nobody called the bluff.

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The Cuban Missile Crisis, as Viewed From a Soviet Launch Facility

This month marks the 61st anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the world dangerously close to thermonuclear war. Reflecting on this crisis seems particularly appropriate in our current era, when the threat of nuclear was has again come forward from the background to which it had been hopefully consigned.

Several years ago,  I read  Rockets and People, the totally fascinating memoir of Soviet rocket developer Boris Chertok, which I reviewed here.

Chertok’s career encompassed both military and space-exploration projects, and in late October 1962 he was focused on preparations for launching a Mars probe. On the morning of Oct 27, he was awakened by “a strange uneasiness.” After a quick breakfast, he headed for the missile assembly building, known as the MIK.

At the gatehouse, there was usually a lone soldier on duty who would give my pass a cursory glance. Now suddenly I saw a group of soldiers wielding sub-machine guns, and they thoroughly scrutinized my pass. Finally they admitted me to the facility grounds and there, to my surprise, I again saw sub-machine-gun-wielding soldiers who had climbed up the fire escape to the roof of the MIK. Other groups of soldiers in full combat gear, even wearing gas masks, were running about the periphery of the secure area. When I stopped in at the MIK, I immediately saw that the “duty” R-7A combat missile, which had always been covered and standing up against the wall, which we had always ignored, was uncovered.

Chertok was greeted by his friend Colonel Kirillov, who was in charge of this launch facility. Kirollov did not greet Chertok with his usual genial smile, but with a “somber, melancholy expression.”

Without releasing my hand that I’d extended for our handshake, he quietly said: “Boris Yevseyevich, I have something of urgent importance I must tell you”…We went into his office on the second floor. Here, visibly upset, Kirillov told me: “Last night I was summoned to headquarters to see the chief of the [Tyura-Tam] firing range. The chiefs of the directorates and commanders of the troop units were gathered there. We were told that the firing range must be brought into a state of battle readiness immediately. Due to the events in Cuba, air attacks, bombardment, and even U.S. airborne assaults are possible. All Air Defense Troops assets have already been put into combat readiness. Flights of our transport airplanes are forbidden. All facilities and launch sites have been put under heightened security. Highway transport is drastically restricted. But most important—I received the order to open an envelope that has been stored in a special safe and to act in accordance with its contents. According to the order, I must immediately prepare the duty combat missile at the engineering facility and mate the warhead located in a special depot, roll the missile out to the launch site, position it, test it, fuel it, aim it, and wait for a special launch command. All of this has already been executed at Site No. 31. I have also given all the necessary commands here at Site No. 2. Therefore, the crews have been removed from the Mars shot and shifted over to preparation of the combat missile. The nosecone and warhead will be delivered here in 2 hours

Chertok, who at this point was apparently viewing the Cuban affair as a flash in the pan that would be resolved short of war, was concerned that moving the Mars rocket would cause them to miss their October 29 launch date, and suggested that the swap of the rockets be delayed for a few hours. Kirillov told him that this was impossible, and that he should go to the “Marshal’s cottage,” where some of his associates wanted to see him. Chertok’s response:

Yes, sir! You’re in charge! But, Anatoliy Semyonovich! Just between you and me do you have the courage to give the ‘Launch!’ command, knowing full well that this means not just the death of hundreds of thousands from that specific thermonuclear warhead, but perhaps the beginning of the end for everyone? You commanded a battery at the front, and when you shouted  ‘Fire!’  that was quite another matter.


There’s no need to torment me. I am a soldier now; I carry out an order just as I did at the front. A missile officer just like me, not a Kirillov, but some Jones or other, is standing at a periscope and waiting for the order to give the ‘Launch’ command against Moscow or our firing range. Therefore, I advise you to hurry over to the cottage.

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