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Missives from Mars

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I figure I’ve read J.R.R. Tolkiens’ Hobbit and Lord of the Rings about forty times since I was a teen. Twice each year (usually in the Spring and Fall) on long road trips, and during every deployment I made.  And each year, but more importantly, each deployment, my reading experience altered.

I was a “callow yout” of nineteen and it was the sunset of the Age of Aquarius, but still the Age of the Stoners, when the first reading happened. The books were bedraggled, late-sixties paperback editions discovered in a used bookstore in Seattle.  They had a preface written by someone (whose name I’ve mercifully forgotten) that closed with the usual dreck of the era, blathering about “murderers carrying crosses” and praising the “colonisers of dreams”.  I read them in the evenings during that first too-long and mildly boring seven months off Iran (interspersed with much-more-bedraggled copies of Penthouse,) reveling in the imagery of a greedy dragon, dwarves and elves, swords and horses, mountain passages filled with goblins, and pipe-smoking wizards.

The second deployment, some six years later and located a little farther north of the first one,  was much shorter and certainly not boring. I’d picked up new, U.K. printed editions of the books complete with gloriously illustrated covers during a stop in Singapore.  Reading them was a return to a familiar place, but with a slight dissonance.  Perhaps it was because I was reading them not as a fable, but as an author’s work.  During those six years in-between, I’d gone to college for an engineering degree on the Navy’s dime.  I wrote a mid-term paper on the books for English class, and like the rest of my freshman year, it was not exactly a success. The professor (bless his British heart) suggested I do a little research on the author and his works and submit it again for re-grading.  I did well the second time around and continued over the following years reading up on Mr. Tolkien’S body of work.

The reading during that second deployment came to an abrupt end for a while one day. Fortunately someone had been thoughtful enough to pack them in my seabag when they medevaced my broken body to Germany. I read them again while I healed, only now the stories seemed much darker. The idea of “what was back then” clashed with “what is now”. I recall reading a critic’s remarks that science fiction belong to the liberal and the progressive because it “looked forward”, while fantasy was conservative because it “looked back”. It was easy to see where the snobby bastard had placed himself on the spectrum.

The third time reading the books started out almost like the first time but with a pronounced difference. We sailed for three months around Asia, visiting ports, doing exercises and goodwill visits with foreign navies, and looking forward to one final series of port visits around Australia before heading home. That was not to be. We headed for the Gulf for months of escorting carriers and stopping merchant ships.

Then, when the shooting started, it was farther north as a “special platform”, to wear ruts into the waters off Kuwait. It was an almost surreal time, filled with boredom, standing watches and smoking too much, dodging mines (while thanking our lucky stars we weren’t one of the ships that hit them), getting shot at with a Scud that was shot down by the Royal Navy in what was their “last hurrah”, and babysitting the Free Kuwaiti Navy and Amateur Canoe Club. And reading the books off-watch, especially The Return of the King, became especially poignant.

frodo-and-sam-in-mordor-6014 “Do you remember the Shire,  Mr. Frodo? It’ll be spring soon, and the orchards will be in blossom. And the birds will be nesting in the hazel thicket. And they’ll be sowing the summer barley in the lower fields. And they’ll be eating the first of the strawberries with cream. Do you remember the taste of strawberries?”

Sorry Sam, I couldn’t. We became inured to the sometime-sight of debris and body parts drifting down from the Bubyan channel. At night, with all our lights out, one could stand outside and see the glow and thunder of bombing over the horizon, like sitting on the back porch watching a distant summer storm . Our world compressed to a routine of watches and sleep, of overflying jets and occasional panic, in an unremarkable patch of the Gulf filled with drifting mines and corpses. There was just the glow on the horizon at night that sometimes illuminated the hulking outline of another ship. There was the strong smell of crude oil and the very faint but constant smell of death. Aside from the intermittent delivery of mail and the AFRTS news-feed, and the blurred outlines of the few other ships around us, we were cut off from the world. After a while one stopped watching the news-feeds. The mail that came might have as well have been missives from Mars.

What it came down to in the end, like Frodo, was The Duty. Reading those books, I saw that one “looks back” because that’s where the lessons are and where one’s foundations are based upon. In the Lord of the Rings, it was the lineage of the Kings, Princes and Princesses of Men that gave them their strength and warned them of their weaknesses. I had my oath and traditions. I had the three classmates I’d lost on the Stark and the Chief from the Sammy Roberts at the hospital, the one with the broken back and nightmares of drowning. I had the memories of the Kuwait refugees who’d been lucky to make it to Muscat, as they tried to explain to relay their own stories, showing the photos of the dead and ruins they’d left behind.

frodo-and-sam-in-mordor-609And like Frodo, we came back to the unreality of a world run by Sarumans with their Wormtongues and Millers’ sons. We returned to California and a new squadron, none of whom had Been There. They didn’t understand our grim demeanor and unwillingness to do skits about the war. We returned to a new leadership who had earned their medals in the Beltway wars. We returned to an all-too-sudden and a bit too eager beating of swords into plowshares and the spurning of a possibly good story in Iraq by political expediency. And like re-reading the series, we saw another war take place in the same region a bit less than a decade later after an attack by a new set of Witch Kings of Angmar.

I haven’t read the series for almost twenty years now, what with the movies and the marketing and souvenir swords and commemorative Rings and the hordes of fans that simply adore the ‘LoTR saga’, then give you a blank stare if you ask them if they’ve really read the books.

Last week, while cleaning the garage, I found the original set of books buried among some uniforms in a battered seabag. I nearly put them back and let them get hauled off to storage with the rest of the junk. But I carefully placed them in a pile going to the new place next month.

This winter, if all goes well, I’ll burrow into a chair for a few days and read them again. I don’t know what will happen. Then again, neither did Tolkien as he wrote them.


Written by PappyBro

August 13, 2013 at 20:41


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Yes, I know what day it is. There’s little I can say that would add or (in the cases of Paul Krugman and Dick Cavett) subtract from it.

So you get this.

Written by PappyBro

September 11, 2011 at 11:16

Posted in Media, Music, Musings, Politix, WoT

A Prelude to Winter

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Some assistant professor of history at Rutgers University writes in the Atlantic that the US Fifth Fleet should disband. “We did just fine” before it was around, it’s a political liability, we can rush assets to the Gulf from outside the region, it costs too much money, it’s giving license to the Saudis and Bahrain monarchies to avoid the ‘Arab Spring’, etc.

When I was taught how to write position papers, it was beaten into me to “put what you really want to say or want towards the end”:

Just as we have acknowledged that the status quo must end in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, it may be time to match up American values to interests in the Persian Gulf. And that means and engaging with the people of the region, rather than the tyrants who terrorize them. The Fifth Fleet serves only to empower — and increase our reliance on — the latter.

Funny how “American values” seem to have been conveniently forgotten when it comes to things like the U.S. economy.

The only time the associate-professor mentions Iran as a threat is in the context of controlling oil resources, a threat which he immediately discounts. No mention of any other particular form of threat – nothing about Iran’s stirring up of Shiite populations in the region, its Al Quds Force, its nuclear ambitions, its support of the nuclear and political ambitions of other despotic regimes like Syria and North Korea.

The idea that “it may be time for the U.S. to reconsider its largest commitment to the Bahraini monarchy” sort of brings back the heady-for-the-Left days of the 70s when the same was said for the regimes in Southeast Asia. Wonder if the dear assistant professor of history remembers that aftermath. We won’t even touch on the so-called “Arab Spring”, which hasn’t yet proven itself to be a liberation for its population or a “force for moderation”. It may just as likely turn out to be an Indian Summer, with a long and killing winter to follow.

Between this flup* and editor Meghan McCardles’ near-religious devotion to Rep. Weiner, the D.C.-based Atlantic is really going off the deep end. A sad, sorry route from when it was a Boston based literary rag for the left-leaning New Englander.

* Ringworld reference

Written by PappyBro

June 12, 2011 at 16:53

Posted in Media, Musings, Politix, WoT

The Perfect War

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The Cold War was perhaps the Perfect War.

What was there not to like? It spawned new jobs and whole new industries. There was plenty of cash available for the universities, for the think tanks, the ‘correct’ government agencies and departments, and industry. There was a nice Golden Square, where one could roll from a job in one area to a ‘vital’ job in another, to yet another job, and so on.

For the Beltway, it didn’t hurt that the money made it through the economy via the political system. There was plenty of political power to distribute, too.

It was a managed-war, where there were semi-implicit ground rules about trading spies and limitations on what level of armed force could be used. It was a time of démarche and detente; negotiated cease fires and withdrawals, diplomatic jousts and tete a tete. There was a sort-of political stability, at least the kind preferred by politicians, diplomats and journalists.

It was also a war of “acceptable losses”; where the dead, although numerous, weren’t American or. if they were, were relatively few in number. There was an ‘understanding’. The dead were generally the spy, the occasional soldier or minor State Department employer. No one of consequence and certainly no one who was or might be useful. Attacks and revolutions could be blamed on culturally and politically marginalized groups (leaving out who was providing the support). With a few exceptions, much of the violence was within real and metaphorical back-alleys.

The Cold War was a popular war: it lasted nearly fifty years.

I think there’s a push to bring back a Cold War, this time with radical Islam. The fatal mistake is assuming that the enemy will be as ‘rational’ as the Soviets were.

Written by PappyBro

July 19, 2010 at 16:20

Posted in National, Politix, WoT

An Arms Race Timeline

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For your perusal, an arms-race time line. Left out for the most part here is the Iranian nuclear program, and the defection, kidnapping, or assassination of  Iranian officials and scientists.

Players: North Korea, South Korea, Thailand, China, New Zealand, Myanmar, India, Pakistan, Germany, Russia, Italy, Syria, Israel, Fatah, Hamas, Egypt, Ukraine, Dubai. Iran, Libya, Jordan, Saudi Arabia (possible), United Kingdom (possible).

2006-2007: Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan admits supplying nuclear technology to North Korea, Iran, and Libya through black market. North Korea government denies press reports that the country is working with Iran to better their respective nuclear programs.

September 2007: Attack on Syria’s al-Kibar ‘research’ facility by IAF. Press reports suggest that characteristics of the Syrian facility were similar to North Korea’s reactor in Yongbyon. Subsequent investigation reveals key materials for al-Kibar were smuggled from China and possibly Europe into Syria by Namchongang Trading, a North Korean firm. Video from inside the Syrian facility shows North Korean personnel inside the site.

February 2008: Bomb in a car Damascus kills Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniya. Syrian security forces quickly seal off the area and remove the destroyed car. Israel denies Hezbollah accusations that they were responsibile for the assassination

March 2008:  Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout arrested in a Bangkok hotel, allegedly attempting to buy weapons for FARC.

August 2008: Brigadier General Mohammed Suleiman shot to death at his seaside villa by sniper from a yacht. The Syrian general was a top overseer of his country’s weapons shipments to Hezbollah.

September 2008: Somali pirates reported to suffer skin burns, lost hair and fallen gravely ill “within days” of boarding MV Iran Deyanat. Reports are also stating that several have died. Pirates had examined containers. According to ship’s manifest, it had set said from sail from Nanjing, China, at end of July and was heading for Rotterdam where it was to unload 42500 tons of iron ore and “industrial products” purchased by a German client. Supposedly US and/or Israel examine cargo.

September 2008: Ukrainian-flagged ship MV Faina seized by pirates off the coast of Somalia. Ship reportedly carrying 33 tanks and other munitions: “Ukrainian defense minister confirmed”.

January 2009: Unidentified aircraft attack a 23-truck convoy of suspected arms smugglers as it drives through Sudan toward Egypt. Aircraft later ID’d as IAF. Iran was reported to be sending “a major delivery” of 120 tons of arms and explosives to Gaza. Hamas, says it numbered only 15 trucks and carrying less tonnage.

April 2009: MV Ryu Gyong, a North Korean-flagged bulk carrier attacked east of Mukalla, Yemen.  NATO reports the Ryu Gyong had been threatened four times off the east coast of Somalia between March 20 and 24; it was approached twice and was attacked twice.

June 2009: North Korean freighter, identified as Kang Nam and possibly heading toward Myanmar, is tracked by USN and shadowed. Unidentified intelligence said freighter possibly carrying “missile components”. Ship eventually returns to North Korea.

June 2009:
US begins diplomatic “charm offensive” with Syria.

July 2009:
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hints North Korea attempted to provide Myanmar with nuclear weapons production capabilities, including weapons-grade nuclear material, and that arms trade between the two socialist nations “could be devastating”. Mayanmar has been an arms-conduit to Indian Maoists and other groups since 1990s.

September 2009: Russian timber-cargo ship Arctic Sea ostensibly bound for Algeria hijacked. Moscow sources suggest Mossad may have played a part in the alleged hijacking, carrying it out using a criminal gang, who were unlikely to have known anything about a secret cargo, supposedly missiles sold by Russian military officials with organized-crime ties. Russia took quick control of the vessel isolated both the crew and the hijackers.

November 2009: Two-day visit by U.S. high-ranking delegation to Myanmar, first in 14 years.

December 2009: Thailand seizes a cargo plane (registered in Georgia) while it is refueling in Bangkok and arrests crew. Aircraft reportedly carrying weapons from North Korea to an “unknown destination”. Aircraft leased by shell company incorporated in New Zealand.

December 2009: Egypt begins constructing metal wall along its border with the Gaza Strip to cut smuggling. Wall reportedly was manufactured in US and US Army Corps of Engineers rumored to be assisting .

January 2010: Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu announces plans for construction of 70 miles of fence along Israel’s border with Egypt.

February 2010: Somali pirates hijack the MV Rim in the Gulf of Aden. Ship is owned by White Sea Shipping of Libya under the North Korean flag, carrying unknown cargo. Ship was sailing far outside recommended transit corridor.

February 2010: Egypt seals dozens of tunnels used to smuggle goods and weapons from the Sinai to the Strip.

February 2010: Iran announced it has enriched uranium to 20%.

February 2010: US appoints a career diplomat as ambassador to Syria.

2008 – Present. IAF attacks Gaza smuggling tunnels. Attacks increase in late 2009.

February 2010: Gaza smuggling tunnels reportedly suffering from ‘economic impact’.

February 2010: South Korea tells UN Security Council that, acting on information, it seized North Korean chemical-safety suits that may have been destined for Syria’s military. South Korea receives unsolicited letter from Syria denying any involvement.

February 2010: Senior Hamas official Mahmoud Mabhouh assassinated in Dubai. Mabhouh was said to be a liaison for smuggling weapons from Iran to Gaza. Dubai authorities rapidly produce video of 11 suspects traveling apparently on European passports with real names and authentic data, but possibly altered photos. Dubai police report two Palestinians in custody, arrested in Jordan shortly after the killing, then sent back to Dubai. Hamas and Fatah exchange accusations. Hamas claims they are Fatah members; Fatah-affiliated Palestinian Authority said the two men are former members of Fatah who later joined Hamas security forces in Gaza. Interpol gets involved. Press reports state Britain’s MI6 supposedly informed of operation by Mossad.

Observation: In less than three years, there has been an increase in multi-national intelligence, operations, and carrot-and-stick diplomatic maneuvers to counter both weapons smuggling to the Middle East, specifically Gaza but also Iran and to a lesser extent, other nations such as Myanmar. Within the past six months, there has been a significant multinational increase in activity with regard to stopping arms traffic to Gaza.

Observation: Dubai is a known ‘gray area’. Dubai traders have helped import goods into Iran, sidestepping US economic sanctions. Dubai is also known as an arms-trafficking and an “informal cash transfer” point.

Observation: Dubai authorities were extraordinarily quick to produce passports and video of the assassination team. Jordan was very quick in arresting Palestinian suspects and returning them to Dubai.

Observation: The assassination squad appeared to be aware that they were being observed; the Dubai authorities acted with alacrity only after Mabhouh was assassinated.

Observation: Russian agents have operated in nearby Qatar. Two agents were arrested by Qatar in 2004 for assassinating former Chechen leader Zelimkhan Yanderbiyev with a car bomb.

Wild-ass guess (WAG)#1 : Something large and potentially catastrophic was coming down involving Gaza and Israel. If I had to do a wild-WAG (WWAG), I’d go with some sort of WMD being smuggled into Gaza. There appears to be a lot of ‘cooperation’ where one wouldn’t normally expect it from certain nations and groups.

WAG #2: The ‘hit’ in Dubai may not have been done by Mossad, but by another nation, either using its own assets or contracting out the killing.

Written by PappyBro

February 21, 2010 at 19:19

Posted in Politix, WoT

Mines, Hormuz and the Gulf

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One of the more… experienced… posters at Rantburg‘s Wheelus O-Club (“The Fliteline Lounge’) asked me a question about Mine Countermeasures (MCM) and then followed up with this:

I was thinking more along the lines of the Iranians using fishing boats to mine the harbors near the oil terminals with timer-activated mines, and as you mentioned, letting mines drift — they are reckless enough to do that on purpose, and stupid enough to do it accidentally

When one doesn’t have the forces to take on the navies of the West directly, asymmetric warfare is the next option. The question is: where does it get applied?

Without going into a lot of boring detail, I have a little experience with mines, oil fields, Iranians, and the Gulf. The idea that the Iranians could mine the Strait of Hormuz itself seems sound strategically, but falls apart a bit when it runs up against hydrology and oceanographic conditions. This isn’t to say that Iran couldn’t close off the strait, but minelaying it would be more of a terror-weapon reminiscent of the Iran-Iraq war.

Mine warfare is often considered a sort of ‘equalizer’ between nations without real naval capability and nations with large naval assets. Significant assets and lives have been expended both for mining and mine countermeasures during conflicts in the 20th century. The Chinese have long advocated use of mines as part of a conflict; as an offenseive weapon, part of an anti-submarine warfare campaign, as well as a blockade device. Iran has also developed or procured a significant mine warfare capability:

Mines, however, are one area in which Iran had made advances. It can produce non-magnetic, free-floating, and remote-controlled mines. It may have taken delivery of pressure, acoustic, and magnetic mines from Russia.  Also, Iran was negotiating with China for rocket-propelled rising mines.

I’d also toss North Korea into the mix as a vendor.

The use of rocket-propelled mines means the Iranians could mine the waters outside the gulf as an anti-submarine warfare tactic:

Today, China reportedly offers two types of rising mines for export. Rising mine systems are moored, but have as their floating payload a torpedo or explosive-tipped rocket that is released when the mine system detects a suitable passing vessel. The torpedo or rocket rises from deep depth to home in on and destroy its intended target, typically a submarine. As one source notes, “The so-called ‘directional rocket rising sea mine’ is a type of high technology sea mine with accurate control and guidance and initiative
attack capacity.… Attack speed [e.g., against a target submarine] can reach approximately 80 meters per second.” China’s EM52, a guided rocket propelled destructive charge, reportedly has an operating depth of at least 200 meters. Russian rising torpedo mines such as the PMK-2 are said to be capable of being laid in waters as deep as 2,000 meters.
[ CRS Report: China Naval Modernization: Implications for
U.S. Navy Capabilities — Background and Issues for Congress, Appendix B, page 106

What could also cause real problems with less effort and more economy would be mining the waters near Iran’s neighbors: oil terminals, harbors, and shallow transit areas. The objective would be to deny non-Iranian naval assets access to support facilities, disrupt economies, and attempt to remove whatever support the Gulf states are giving Western forces.  In fact, Iran would likely use the Gulf States’ support of the Fifth Fleet as justification.

Speaking of the Fifth Fleet there are approximately a half dozen MCM vessels within the Gulf, both from the US and UK navies. Other MCM assets (air or surface) would either have to be brought in from outside

As for the Gulf States, the Saudi Navy has a small MCM force of British design. None of the other nations have any MCM assets of significance.

Written by PappyBro

August 6, 2008 at 19:23

Posted in WoT

Time for the Holy 9-Iron…

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A jury convicted Parviz Khan on Friday of aiding fighters in Pakistan and Afghanistan as an accomplice to a man who admitted plotting to kidnap and behead a Muslim soldier from the British army.  A jury on Friday found a fifth member of the group, Zahoor Iqbal, guilty of helping terrorists abroad. Prosecutor Nigel Rumfitt said the shipments included sophisticated electronic and other equipment like computer hard drives, range finders, night vision gear and surveillance detectors. Some of the material was sent out under the guise of earthquake relief to Pakistan. The prosecution said Iqbal helped Khan source the equipment from retailers in central England.

On one trip they visited a golf shop to look at a gadget golfers use to tell them how far they are from the hole. “It can also be used to tell you how far the head of a British soldier is from the end of your rifle,” Rumfitt said.

Written by PappyBro

February 18, 2008 at 10:23

Posted in Golf, WoT