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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Review: Ice Brothers by Sloan Wilson

A very interesting novel about a little known part of WW II, that of the Greenland Ice Patrol. Comprised mostly of trawlers, they were commanded by either old-time ice fishermen or wet-nosed and inexperienced peacetime yachtsmen. The novel is based on Wilson's experience around Greenland. The fictional Wilson (Paul) was appointed as executive officer to a very experienced Mowrey, an old-timer with a terrible drinking problem, but one who could read ice conditions like no one else. The radio officer had no sea-experience at all but he had a loathing for Germans after his Jewish wife and child had disappeared somewhere in Germany. He happened to be an electronics genius, however, a skill that was to be more than valuable later on.

A sister trawler has disappeared off the east-coast of Greenland with only a lifeboat filled with machine-gunned sailors remaining. His commanding officer having been taken off the boat for alcoholism problems, Paul and Nathan, his now executive officer, are sent east to fight the Germans and dismantle whatever weather station equipment they had established. Knowing weather conditions over Greenland was crucial for air operations in Europe so both sides wanted the advantage. Greenland, part of Denmark, which had quickly surrendered to the Germans, declared a sort of independence from Denmark and was claimed by both the Axis and Allies. It was an icy wasteland inhabited (barely) by Eskimos. Wilson spends a lot of time describing the Eskimo culture and their total lack of understanding for the animosity between the two sides. His descriptions of the ice and their culture I found quite interesting, especially their attitude toward sex, totally uninhibited and devoid of any monogamous impulses, the children considered children of everyone and cared for by everyone, their emphasis being on survival and laughter -- not a bad way to get through life except for the frigging cold.

Lots of ruminations on war, hatred, why people fight and love. I enjoyed the book very much.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Moments of Silence are Bullshit

I'm getting really tired of moments of silence. Ostensibly engaged in to honor the dead or pray or whatever, to me they just represent the illusion of having done something. Clearly praying isn't accomplishing anything, and chances are those indulging in the moment (notice it's only a "moment" of silence and not an hour or week) are probably just praying for a victory of their fantasy football team, anyway. 

Let's use legislature's moment of silence for gun victims (feel free to substitute your favorite tragedy) as an example. The coercion to engage in the moment of silence is overwhelming, so everyone feels obligated to sit there for a moment and DOES NOTHING. Nothing is accomplished with regard to discussing or fixing a problem. But it gets everyone off the hook. Members can narcissistically delude themselves into feeling self-satisfied, but they have done nothing.

 So next time someone calls for a moment of silence, stand up and shout, "Bullshit! Let's discuss what we can do for victims and their families, or how could we prevent another tragedy. Let's do something." After all, god helps those who help themselves and s/he's had very little to do in the way of helping anyone lately. 

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Political Realignments

There have been several major realignments in American politics since the Revolution: 1860 changed the Whigs, Democrats and Republicans; 1968 with the southern strategy that pushed the Republicans under Nixon into Wallace territory and alignment, and now perhaps 2018.

1968 was truly a momentous year (aside from our marriage): cities were burning, there were multiple assassinations of political figures; and young men were walking around with draft (death) cards in their wallets that meant they had a truly personal stake in the election's outcome. It was also the first time an American president colluded with a foreign power to influence the outcome of an election. The evidence is overwhelming that Nixon had made back-channel communications with the South Vietnamese, persuading them that they would get a better deal from him than the Democrats and they should therefore not do what they had promised the Johnson administration they would do, i.e., start negotiating at the Paris table. McCarthy was the wild card, running as an anti-establishment, anti-war candidate, it had profound implications for Johnson's decision not to run. (The Secret Service had forfidden Johnson from appearing at college campuses and the Democratic National Convention saying they could not guarantee he would not be assassinated.) Bobby Kennedy had been approached to run, but he didn't think Johnson was beatable. After he saw how well McCarthy was doing, he decided to run. All of that pushed Johnson's decision to withdraw from the race. Then came Robert Kennedy's assassination.

Ironically, terrorism (but not immigration) played prominent roles in those realignments. Terrorism has always been with us: the IRA bombings in Britain, the Red Brigade in Germany (not to mention Kristallnacht in 1938), the Wall Street bombing by Italien anachists and the Oklahoma Federal Building bombing by Timothy McVeigh in 1995 (not to mention Sam Adams and John Brown provoking mob violence, and a host of others in the last 300 years.) [The reaction to Sirhan Sirhan's (a Palestinian immigrant upset with Robert Kennedy's position on Palestine) was very different from the country's treaction to recent NY attacks.]

Those of us (I was was just finishing college in 1968) who lived through 1968 were surrounded by portents of gloom and doom. It was to be the end of the United States as cities burst into flames with riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Vietnam continued its killing fields, and faith in government disappeared.

Gill v Whitford: On Gerrymandering

In recent Wisconsin elections Democrats won 53% of the votes but got only 39% of the seats in the legislature. How that was accomplished is the subject of recent oral arguments in the case of Gill v Whitworth. SCOTUS has always been more than reluctant to tinker with political gerrymandering. (If you live in Massachusetts, it’s pronounced garrymandering after the Massachusetts governor who gave the process its name in 1812 when he created a salamander-like district to benefit his party.)

Gerrymandering is the process of redistricting so that one party or group is favored over another. The 4th district in Illinois, for example, is drawn in such a way so as to bring together predominately Hispanic voters, thus giving them a representative and a voice. (Justice Stevens, bemoaning the practice, once said that gerrymandering permitted legislators to pick their voters rather than the other way around.) Gerrymandering for the purpose of achieving racial parity is perfectly legal under current jurisprudence. In a perfect world everyone would live in square districts and square states with the same number of people in each and perfectly balanced politically. Not gonna happen. (For really nice descriptions of the different kinds of gerrymandering and how it’s accomplished, see the sources below.)

It was the Vieth case that led us to the current situation. In Davis v Bandemer in 1986, the court had ruled that partisan gerrymandering could be unconstitutional, but had struggled with finding a standard. They could not. In Vieth, they again decided not to decide, Scalia proposing that it was an unsolvable problem and therefore the court should not even try. Justice Kennedy, however, ever the middle-of-the-roader, wrote a narrow decision suggesting that some kind of standard might be within reach.

Enter some social scientists (derided by Roberts in oral arguments as providing “gobbledygook” – I don’t know if he has measured legal gobbledygook against social science gobbledygook.) They have developed something called the efficiency gap. It measures the ratio of wasted votes to determine whether the redistricting was done with partisan intent or not. The court may now have to rule on whether districts need to be fairly balanced from a partisan standpoint.

Whether we really want the courts to be deciding districts remains to be seen, but the principle of one-man-one-vote and not wasting votes is an important one. It would seem the only way out of the mess might be some move toward proportional representation, or, better yet, a trend away from political party adherence and more independents.





Saturday, October 28, 2017

Review:Neptune's Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal by James D. Hornfischer

Inferno doesn't begin to describe it. Guadalcanal represented the first major invasion by U.S. forces in the 20th century and many hard lessons had to be learned. The oft-repeated charge that the Marines were abandoned there by the Navy is belied by the statistic that for every Marine who was killed on land, five sailors died at sea in the horrific battles there. “The puzzle of victory was learned on the fly and on the cheap.”

Hornfischer brilliantly, succinctly (and often horrifically as he describes the dreadful injuries suffered by the sailors) sets the stage discussing the personal and political challenges and conflicts that affected and drove the allocation of resources: the Army v the Navy (McArthur v Nimitz and King) in the Pacific; Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin in the Atlantic, with George Marshall stuck in the middle. The importance of Midway in boosting moral and altering the overall strategy cannot be overstated.

Here’s an interesting little detail. Admiral Kinkaid was a day late getting to the staging area because his charts showed the International Date Line in the wrong place. Personally, the thing always confuses me, but his staff were careful not to let the higher brass learn of the error.

Things got off to a bad start right from the beginning. Admiral Fletcher, (supported by Nimitz) in charge of the carriers, and Admiral Turner(supported by King), commanding the landing, hated each other. At the planning meeting at Saratoga, Fletcher worried about the risk to his carriers and refused to provide air support for more than 3 days. Turner, knowing the supply ships had not been combat loaded (so the most important supplies could be off-loaded first) knew that he could not afford to have the Marines abandoned after three days. This became infamous as the “Navy Bug-Out.” Whether Fletcher was correct in arguing that the risk to the carriers was far more strategically important is a debate that continues to this day. Hornfischer explains the rationale from both perspectives without coming down on either side.

The Japanese were already suffering from “victors’” disease and tended to dismiss the landings as inconsequential and but a diversion aimed at slowing down the Japanese advance on Port Moresby. The Japanese had their own army-navy slugfest of distrust. The Army, in fact, had not told the Navy that the U.S. had broken their operational code. There was no central intelligence gathering unit and army commanders had to rely as much on their instincts as hard intelligence that was virtually non-existent.

But the US Navy had a lot of hard lessons to learn. The Battle of Savo Island (otherwise known as the Battle of Five Sitting Ducks) revealed that the three minutes it took to get everyone in place after calling for general quarters was way too long. Especially as it meant having everyone run around changing places from where they had been. Leaving float planes on the decks of cruisers during action meant having aviation-fueled bombs on the rear deck. And captains ignoring the warnings of some of those being supervised could be deadly, not to mention poor communications and reluctance to trust new radar. Admiral Turner summed it up nicely: "The Navy was still obsessed with a strong feeling of technical and mental superiority over the enemy. In spite of ample evidence as to enemy capabilities, most of our officers and men despised the enemy and felt themselves sure victors in all encounters under any circumstances. The net result of all this was a fatal lethargy of mind which induced a confidence without readiness, and a routine acceptance of outworn peacetime standards of conduct. I believe that this psychological factor, as a cause of our defeat, was even more important than the element of surprise".

There were lots of lessons to be learned and many heads to roll. Communications was a big problem as frequencies differed between services and even between planes and ships. One little tidbit was that southern boys, of which there were many, had to be kept off the radios since their heavy regional accents often made them incomprehensible to those on the other end of the wireless. Another was the importance of communications and knowing the difference vetween friend and foe. Many casualties occurred and ships sunk because the combatants couldn't tell the difference at night.

Guadalcanal became the trial run for many of the islands that were to follow.