Octavo Dia

Friday, May 26, 2006

Divide and Conquer

I have been thinking about how the military should be reorganized. It all began while reading a book about the Vietnam War, in which they discussed the overlapping fields of responsibility, and how interservice rivalries kept branches of the military from using the tools most appropriate to the job and led to great confusion in missions. While I was thinking about it, I realized that there are two branches of the military whose roles overlap and complement each other so greatly that they should be combined. The Marines and... the Coast Guard.

First, we must break away from the paradigm of the Coast Guard as a defensive, domestic, security apparatus, which patrols America's coasts, lakes, and rivers, and consider it as a brown-water navy, which takes as its purvey all of the lakes, rivers, and coasts of the world. The Navy can then be focused as a blue-water navy whose job is to fight enemy ships--in essence, to keep the seas clear so the brown-water navy can do its work.

Second, in the last few wars, the Marines have been used primarily as light infantry, because their speciality, amphibious landings, are not often needed by the United States (between helicopters and hovercraft, amphibious landings have become rather routine). However, the Coast Guard could definitely use some Marines. Boarding ships, the pre-ironclad purpose of the Marines, is only practiced by the Coast Guard (plus, they could continue their anti-piracy history "to the shores of Tripoli"). Riverine war, furthermore, requires the ability to project force onto the banks of the river. Such small scale amphibious landings (a squad, or at most, a platoon at a time) would fit very well with the Marines' structure and professionalism, since it would rely very heavily on junior officers and non-coms.

River crossing, the most hazardous manuever in a ground war, would also be a Marine responsibility. The Marines and the Army have different tactics. The Army tends to husband its troops carefully, since a soldier you don't lose now is one you have for a later battle. The Marines, by contrast, are willing to accept high casualties to achieve their objective, because if they don't get off the beach, they're all going to die. Crossing a river fits the tactical nature of the Marines far better than it does the Army.

There are three environments that we deal with: land, which the Army handles, water, which the Navy handles, and the land/water mix of coasts, lakes, and rivers, which both the Coast Guard and the Marines handle. The Coast Guard is mostly water, the Marines are mostly land, but together, they would be able to dominate that environment more effectively than either could alone.


This is just too good. As of July 31st, we're ending a tax which was instituted to help pay for The Spanish-American War.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006


After reading yet another article about how terrible it is to send troops to the border, I just have to say, do this people realize what borders are like just about everywhere else in the world? Everyone who is not in the European Union guards ALL their borders, and the E.U. only gets away with it by becoming one big happy family in which crossing the border doesn't really matter.

Saturday, May 13, 2006


I ran across a great quotation yesterday: "News is what someone, somewhere wants suppressed; everything else is just advertising."

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Greenhouse gases

Carbon sequestration, the natural way--build log cabins. It seems to be a much easier solution than depositing carbon black in the bottom of some oceanic trench. Plant the trees, cut down the trees, and build houses out of them. If the log cabin lasts fifty years, you've just taken a house's worth of carbon out of the environment.

Friday, May 05, 2006


I had an idea yesterday, while I was trying to get to sleep but was too busy coughing (curse this confounded cold), about a possible solution to the abortion issue. Here is my chain of thought:

Premise: There are infinite variations, with the most subtle of distinctions, between individual persons.

Premise: We do not know what it means to be a person.

Premise: Ending the life of a person is wrong.

Conclusion: Since we cannot describe personhood precisely enough to distinguish between persons and non-persons, any action taken that ends the life of a human who might be a person is a reckless disregard for possible personhood, and is therefore unethical.

Premise: Abortion is a necessary medical practice. Failure to save the life of the mother--a person--is wrong.

Premise: Life is not cut and dried. An exception made for the life of the mother is slippery. What if there was a 99% chance that the mother would die, would it be right to perform an abortion for a 99% chance? What about 98%? What about 97%? What if there was a 1% chance that the mother would die? Or even half a percent? What if it was 0.017%--the rate of maternal death in the United States?

Corollary from previous premise: Fetal life is also probable. What if fetal survival were 100% and maternal survival only 1%? What if those numbers were reversed?

Conclusion: The decision to abort requires a precise weighing of probabilities and circumstances.

Premise: All laws draw the line between two competing ideals: precision and flexibility. A law written to cover all possible circumstances (the perfectly flexible law), is so vague as to be meaningless. A law written so that there is no question concerning its application (the perfectly precise law) is useful in only one circumstance.

Therefore, to surmount this challenge, the law is drafted to be somewhat precise and somewhat flexible. The actual application to a particular situation is the rationale for judges, juries, and lawyers, because they can weigh the extenuating circumstances in a particular instance.

Therefore, abortion law should follow the example set by other branches of law in which extenuating circumstances are taken into account. In other words, there should be a malpractice trial whenever an abortion takes place, because the doctor's actions caused the death of a patient. The jury would then decide to what extent the doctor had shown good judgment--for example, a fetus with a 50% chance of survival being aborted to save a mother with a 50% chance of survival would be morally neutral. If the fetus was much less likely, and the mother much more likely to survive, it would be malpractice to risk the mother's life. If the numbers were reversed, it would be malpractice to end a vibrant fetal life which was at little risk to the mother. The difficulty with the abortion debate is that one side is demanding a perfectly flexible law, while the other is demanding a perfectly precise one. Having every circumstance weighed individually would avoid both problems.

To respond to an argument which I am certain will come up, I don't believe this will have an undue hushing effect on abortion providers. Society is sufficiently split on this issue that finding a jury which is entirely pro-choice or entirely pro-life would be as rare as an all-male or all-female jury is today.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The Legend of Zorro

I just finished watching the above movie, and do you know what I want? I want there to be a family adverture drama in which there are mischevious kids, and the kids end up getting everybody killed. There are so many movies in which the kids save the day, Spy Kids, The Mummy Returns, etc. You know what would have been much more realistic? If the kid did something stupid ("Stay here!" "But!" "Stay HERE!" ::kid sneaks out window::), the parents tried to save them, and ended up getting brutally murdered. Of course, Zorro did far too much swashbuckling and not nearly enough running people through, so the parents are apparently none to bright anyway--how many times did he fight the dude with the brand? Six? KILL HIM! And don't say VARLET either!

Foreign Aid

An insightful piece by an Ugandan about why Foreign Aid, in its usual form, is counter-productive. What makes this piece different is that those who normally argue against foreign aid are on the giving, not the receiving end. Well worth the two minutes to read.

The Battle For God: The End

Page 337: Once again Armstrong reiterates her point about the separation of mythos and logos. Reading the dust jacket, she was a nun for seven years, yet somehow she managed to avoid reading about the division of the law. In Christian theology, the law is divided into three branches, ceremonial, civil, and moral. The ceremonial law was the rules of worship given to the Jews. Christ fulfilled the ceremonial law, which is why Christians don't sacrifice animals at their worship services. The Civil law was given for the rule of the theocratic state of Israel prior to the kings, and is no longer valid, as it refers solely to that historical moment. Only the moral law remains intact throughout history. I believe that much of the problem arises from her belief that fundamentalists demand that the Bible be interpreted literally. This is not entirely true. Fundamentalists demand that the Bible be interpreted as it is written. Thus poetry as poetry, history as history, prophecy as prophecy, etc. The "literal interpretation" is a straw man used to attack fundamentalist interpretations.

Page 354: This is a telling quotation: "For secularists and liberals such Enlightenment values as the autonomy of the individual and intellectual liberty, are inviolable and holy. They cannot compromise or make concessions on such issues. These principles are so central to the liberal or secular identity thaty if they are threatened, people feel that their very existence is in jeopardy." Fear of annihilation is Armstrong's motive force for Fundamentalism, and secularism bears the same burden.

Page 365: "However hard we try to embrace conventional religion, we have a natural tendency to see truth as factual, historical and empirical." This statement is oddly behind the times. She is arguing from a modern viewpoint against post-modern views of truth. Secularism is as threatened by the denial of absolute truth as is religion. If truth is socially-constructed, then "science" really has no more claim to its veracity than mythology.

Page 368-9: "We have seen the nihilism that can inform the fundamentalist program. It is impossible to reason such fear away or attempt to eradicate it by coercive measures. A more imaginative response would be to try to appreciate the depth of this neurosis, even if a liberal or a secularist cannot share this dread-ridden perspective." I remember reading that the Soviets defined religious belief as just such a neurosis, and then used it as an excuse for marginalizing those with religious beliefs, removing children from religious homes, and sending religious people to psychiatric institutions. Describing a belief as a neurosis seems terribly dangerous to me, a justifiable first step in the persecution of religious belief. Armstrong calls fear the motivation--fear which cannot be reasoned away. A justifiable fear, however, is one which is not likely to be reasoned away. As Kissinger said, "Even paranoids have enemies." If she wanted to make religious people feel persecuted and afraid, such statements are the way to do it.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Seven Pillars of Wisdom

I just finished T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom, all 605 pages, in just three days of being ill. The most interesting part of it for me was that the Arab revolt was a truly all-volunteer force. There were no medals for bravery, nor were there punishments (other than social) for cowardice. No one had to go farther than he willed, no one had to take any order. They did not have to fear reprisals, since the Turks did not have the mobility to control the desert. This had several odd effects on the Arab Revolt:

Victory was nearly as dangerous for them as defeat. When they won a victory, and everyone had loaded as much loot as their camel could carry, they dispersed back to their homes. After every victory followed a period of rebuilding the force--waiting for the army to squander its new wealth and return to the ranks.

Casualties were a very serious concern. Throughout the book, Lawrence was weighting the achievement of this or that objective in its price in men, and deciding that it wasn't worth it. There was one instance in which he took the opportunity to destroy a Turkish battalion of about a thousand men, at the cost of only a few dozen killed, and regretted it because that one battalion, far from its supply lines in hostile territory with no transport (after the first raid), would have dissolved on its own.

Most of his time was spent, as he termed it, "preaching". Only through persuasion could they keep the army together. Every shiek, every person with any sort of power, had to be persuaded, as well as all of the men under them.

I wonder how such a truly all-volunteer force would work today. I suppose the cost of easy-come, easy-go recruits was minimal, as the army was, for the most part, self-arming and self-trained. It would, at the very least, restrict the kinds and manner of wars in which a nation could get involved. What if, prior to an invasion, the commander had to get volunteer troops, with the knowledge that those troops could quit at any time if they didn't like it? Perhaps the only way to create such an all-volunteer force would be to artificially construct the warlike society of Bedouin Arabia, by sending all males through bootcamp--so everyone was prepared for war--and then allowing them to participate if they chose. At least I know that it has worked once in history, I wonder if it could work again.


I was reading another vitriolic piece on the opinion page, this time about the vigilantes (oh, now there's a slanted word for you) patrolling the Mexican border. About three lines in the term "racist" was used, and it suddenly clicked that there were words which, when used, never led to a productive argument. I started searching my brain for these words, and came up with a partial list: homophobe, abortionist, racist, Islamofascist, sexist, hate (in various forms). I then began wondering, why do people continue to use words which are almost guaranteed discussion stoppers? It's not because they want to persuade their opponents, because they have a clear, immediate, and opposite effect, yet the terms do not qualify as run of the mill insults, because specific words are strongly linked to specific sides of the political arena.

I believe that these words are triggers, used to stop discussion. Trigger words seem to be a signal to the members of a group to stop listening to what the other side is saying. When the opinion makers want to stop a discussion from continuing, branding the other side with a trigger word effectively tells the opinion-takers that continued discussion is pointless.

Why should this be? In my experience, more of these words appear on the left-wing side of the debate. Much of that influence could be from my own right-wing tendencies, so I am blind to the vitriol of my side, however, trigger words could be the result of Engel's doctrine of false consciousness still permeating the left of the political spectrum. False consciousness, for a short summary, means that people can be so permeated by their ideology that they can no longer see that it is an ideology and reason intelligently. Thus the right, which has no doctrine declaring the perpetual irrationality of its opponents, cannot so easily close discussion.

Whether my theory of the origins of trigger words is accurate or not, watch the opinion pages and letters to the editor for trigger words. You'll find them everywhere.