NPF: THAT TIME THE BRITISH GAVE AN ENTIRE ISLAND ANTHRAX

Posted in No Politics Friday on June 9th, 2016 by Ed

World War II brought out the insanity lurking beneath that famous British reserve. Not only did they try to blow up an entire island, but they rendered another one uninhabitable for decades – after they killed a bunch of sheep, of course.

We tend to forget how poorly WWII was going for the Western Allies before 1943. Preparing for the worst or perhaps eager to inflict the worst on Nazi Germany, the British began secretly developing an offensive biological weapons capability in early 1942. Military scientists made an aerosol out of anthrax and managed to rig a munition to disperse it. To see if the setup would work and produce lethal results, they needed somewhere very remote and very empty to test it.

Enter Gruinard Island. In Scotland, of course. Because they flipped a coin and it was either that or Ireland. Because Britain.

The island's small handful of residents was displaced by the government. More accurately they were replaced. Replaced with sheep. Eighty sheep were imported to see how they would react to being blasted with weaponized, extra-virulent anthrax. Ooh, the suspense! Are you ready for a shock? They died. Autopsies revealed that they died of anthrax. Watch some highly strange footage of the "experiments" here.

The tests proved, in case anyone was skeptical, that bombing German cities with anthrax would have lethal consequences that could linger for decades (note: anthrax is a rugged, hard to kill spore, which explains its popularity as a bioweapon). This proved remarkably prescient, as the British soon discovered that poor Gruinard Island was thoroughly, perhaps permanently, infected with literal tons of anthrax bacteria. Eventually the displaced owners and the general public started clamoring to clean up the problem in the late 1970s. A legitimate cleanup effort began in 1986, and it turned out that after an entire island gets drenched with liquid anthrax it's really hard to decontaminate it. For the next four years the tiny (0.75 square mile) island was bathed repeatedly in 300 tons of formaldehyde mixed with seawater. Some very nervous sheep were introduced in 1990 and their health was monitored closely.

They lived. The sheep lived.

The original owners were sold their island by the UK government for the 1942 purchase price of 500 pounds, and 26 years later there have been no cases of human, sheep, or any other mammal contracting anthrax on Gruinard. Hard to imagine what could grow in formaldehyde-soaked soil, but I guess nature is resilient.

The punchline? The secret project was called Operation Vegetarian. That famous British wit.

TEATS ON A BULL

Posted in Rants on June 8th, 2016 by Ed

Eleven years ago George W. Bush sounded a hopeful note on the increasingly (by mid-2005) unpopular war in Iraq, noting that the American role would decline as Iraqi institutions became capable of functioning without direct U.S. support. "As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down," he said rather famously, despite not the slightest hint two full years into that conflict that the Iraqi Army was capable of doing anything other than being infiltrated by terrorists, deserting by the thousands, and showing no particular inclination to do anything that resembled real fighting.

One could reasonably ask if two years (roughly beginning with the summer of 2003 when most of Iraq was essentially reduced to rubble) is enough for a fighting force to become effective. Perhaps some time was needed. While U.S. forces continued to complain that Iraq's military was useless, we were repeatedly urged to grant them more time. And more money – tens of billions of dollars were flushed down the toilet that was and is the Iraqi Army including literal shipping pallets full of cash (reportedly $12 billion) that simply vanished without a trace in 2007. The effectiveness of U.S. and some coalition forces brought Baghdad into some semblance of stability, which is to say that Baghdad is still insanely violent but most of the organized terrorist and militant groups have withdrawn from the city to avoid directly confronting its enemies at their point of greatest military strength.

By the time Obama brought combat forces home a few years ago we appeared willing to accept a status quo of a violent, semi-governed Baghdad (and a few other major cities in Iraq's east) with most rural areas of the country outside of the control of its central government. Once they could sort of handle Baghdad on their own, we peaced out. That worked for a while until ISIS happened, and eyes turned to the Iraqi Army to see how it would react to whole cities and territories within the borders of Iraq being put under ISIS control. As it turns out, they didn't much seem to mind. We're several years into the proliferation of ISIS as an organized fighting force and the Iraqi Army hasn't so much as farted in their general direction. Whether they are incapable of confronting ISIS or merely unwilling to do it, all doubts about their competence have been erased.

Enter the Kurds. They straddle the border of Turkey, Syria, and Iraq and as inhabitants of that largely rural area they have borne the brunt of ISIS inhumanity. But the Kurdish "state" and people – people who have been the whipping boys of that region for longer than anyone can remember – decided to fight back. Organized into a 5000-strong military force called Peshmerga and with the assistance of an allied but less organized militia force, they recently advanced on Fallujah and Mosul, major cities held by ISIS. And here's the thing – with US/Coalition air assistance, they've kind of kicked ISIS's ass. No one should mistake Peshmerga for a military juggernaut, yet they have taken the fight to ISIS and outfought them.

The point is not to laud the Kurds but to use this example to underscore just how utterly useless the Iraqi Army has been, 13 years into Bush-Cheney's grand experiment. The Kurds are certainly brave, but this is a relatively small fighting force not terribly well equipped or led. The Iraqi Army is on paper a numerically large force that has been inundated with expensive, high tech US weapons and training. It has had its hand held for more than a decade. If 5000-some Peshmerga fighters could dislodge ISIS from a major city, how is it humanly possible that an Iraqi Army with 1,800,000 enlisted men supposedly in uniform and Abrams tanks at the ready could not simply roll in Mosul with 100,000 people and sweep ISIS aside?

There are three possible answers. One is that the Army is so utterly inept that even with 100-1 numerical superiority they can't outfight ISIS. Another is that they simply have no motivation to fight for territory within borders largely defined by Western mapmakers but of no particular significance to people of the region. A third is that they are infiltrated by terrorist elements and sidelined by factional, regional, and ethnic rivalries within their own ranks to the point that they can't be considered anything like an effective fighting force.

If anyone needed a reminder of what a comprehensive and unqualified failure Iraq and the neocon plan to "liberate" it have been, this is it.

BILL OF GOODS

Posted in Rants on June 7th, 2016 by Ed

Since 1990 municipal and state governments have devoted a positively embarrassing amount of money to publicly financing sports stadiums in the United States. The first of the new wave – Comiskey / US Cellular Field in Chicago – in 1991 is now one of the oldest stadiums in Major League Baseball (only Dodgers Stadium, Fenway Park, and Wrigley Field are older). It is also a rare example of a stadium built with borrowed funds (the State of Illinois did a bond issue) that were actually – hold your breath – paid back by the team. As far as public stadium deals go, that's about as good as it's going to get. Most of them are so much worse, and the new Atlanta Braves stadium swindle is perhaps the worst yet.

Almost every publicly financed stadium is approved by local governments (and sometimes, but not always, by referendum or ballot measure) based on the twin fallacies of promises of massive economic benefits and zero tax increases for local residents. The economic benefits tend to be either short-term (the city hosts one Super Bowl, and then what?), accrued entirely to a handful of people (team owners, concessionaires, and whoever got the parking rights), or greatly exaggerated (turns out that demand to buy expensive tickets to see a mediocre or bad team is insufficient to fill a stadium). As for the zero tax impact argument, it depends on a very specific and, shockingly, deceptive definition of that concept.

Municipal budgets are close to a zero sum game. There are ways to generate new revenue but they are politically unpopular and tend to be measures of last resort for elected officials. So, in the Braves current situation, it is true that the county is not raising taxes to pay for the stadium. What they will have to do is raise taxes to pay for everything else in the budget that they can no longer afford since they devoted all of their resources to the stadium. It's like someone blowing their entire paycheck on the casino and then asking to borrow rent money; the lender isn't really paying the rent, it's paying the person's gambling habit that precludes them from paying their own rent.

No matter how many times this trick is played, local governments seem to keep falling for it because WOO SPORTS! and a dozen local real estate and construction companies stand to benefit tremendously from the arrangement. Those same business interests tend to have a loud voice in government at the state, county, and municipal level. The fact that Cobb County had to monkey with the rules to prevent the public from having any input on the stadium decision suggests that voters have begun to figure out what a boondoggle these deals are. The fact that the public was not allowed to vote or have input suggests that the people behind the deal knew, or strongly suspected, that voters would never willingly swallow the costs involved. We might learn our lessons slowly, incompletely, and at times incorrectly, but there are enough examples in the last two decades to convince even the most enthusiastic sports fan to think twice before supporting free handouts to help people who are already obscenely rich make even more money.

DOOMED TO REPEAT

Posted in Rants on June 5th, 2016 by Ed

Given the chance to read for pleasure, about every five or six books I go through ends up being at least tangentially about the Cold War. Not the military or political aspects of it necessarily, but about some aspect of society, life, and the state of the world during that time period. It's not something I do intentionally; it's just an endlessly fascinating time period to me and if something half-decent is written about it there's a better than average chance it'll end up in the queue.

One thing that strikes me every time I read about the collapse of the Cold War paradigm and the Eastern Bloc is the oddly familiar language with which the Soviet system is described in its final stages of decline. Whenever I read someone's take on the flaws that led to its ultimate demise it sounds an awful lot like someone moderately cynical describing the United States today. When someone describes the USSR as little more than a massively expensive military and a lavish pension system for the aged I can't help thinking, hmm. And the America of 2016 is different how?

Every characteristic that knowledgeable people identify as a contributor to the ultimate "victory" of free market capitalism over Soviet-style planned economies has slowly come to be a prominent characteristic of Western societies, particularly in the U.S. The public lost faith in the system and saw its leaders as increasingly inept. The economy produced what vested interests wanted, not what was actually needed. The resources of the society and the state were diverted to an unsustainable degree to wildly expensive and ill advised military adventures and martial infrastructure. Unemployment, underemployment, idleness, and laziness were epidemic in a workforce that saw little to gain from working hard and almost inevitably saw innovation punished. Constant appeals to patriotism, nationalism, and the enemy within and without produced diminishing returns as people grew tired of hearing the same propaganda lines repeatedly. The media system was consolidated into a small number of hands and did not offer the general public a full and factual accounting of issues of importance. Increasingly heavy-handed police state tactics were employed to deal with public demonstrations and protests (which grew in frequency). The list goes on.

The point is not that the United States is on the brink of collapsing into the Dustbin of History alongside Marxist-Leninist systems of the type seen in the post-War period. It's instead an interesting intellectual exercise to try to figure out what aspects of our system allow it to survive (so far) that which the USSR and its kind could not – and how far we can push it before we suffer the same fate.

POWER PLAYER

Posted in Quick Hits on June 1st, 2016 by Ed

It's fair to say that whatever clout Bill Kristol mysteriously had within the conservative movement is gone. I say "mysteriously" inasmuch as even by the standards of modern conservatism this guy is beyond inept; seriously, try to find something he has been right about. Anything. Try to find one of his protégés who has been anything other than a political Hindenburg. Remember when he touted Sarah Palin as the next star of the movement? Remember when he started rumors a few weeks ago about some absolute nobody named James Mattis running for president as an independent to save the GOP? Remember, well, basically everything he said during the George W. Bush years?

For years – decades, really – he has held his inherited position as a conservative icon despite having been wrong about everything, often to the bemusement and wonder of those of us outside the movement. It appears that his star might finally be fading, though, if the "big announcement" he teased last week is any indication.

Without further ado, let's hear the big news, Bill!

Kristol wanted a national contender, but Mitt Romney said no. He would have settled for an experienced presidential candidate, but Rick Perry said no. He turned his attention to sitting senators, but Ben Sasse said no. He looked at former senators, but Tom Coburn said no. He eventually moved past elected officials and sought out a military leader, but retired Gen. James Mattis said no.

And so, Kristol lowered his sights just a little more – and found a political blogger who appears to have said yes.

Oh. So, uh, despite already having missed the deadline for ballot access in a few key conservative states, the big anti-Trump savior is…D-list National Review blogger David French. Not even the right-wing anti-Trump media can take this seriously.

How the perplexingly mighty have fallen, Billy. From kingmaking to begging loser ex-candidates and anonymous bloggers to run kamikaze campaigns to derail the nominee you assured everyone would never win.