Stock and flow of civil wars

In 2004, James D. Fearon, a political scientist at Stanford, published a study, “Why Do Some Civil Wars Last So Much Longer Than Others?,” in which he and a colleague analyzed scores of civil wars fought between 1945 and 1999. Some of the findings were intuitive: civil wars end quickly when one side has a decisive military advantage over the other; poor countries with natural resources to export often have long internal wars, because whoever controls the resources also controls the national treasury. Other findings were novel, such as the fact that wars following coups d’état tend to be short. In another study, “Ethnicity, Insurgency, and Civil War,” Fearon and the political scientist David D. Laitin discovered that even though in nations with exceptional ethnic pluralism, like Syria and Iraq, lines of conflict may be defined by ethnic identity, pluralism itself is not a notable predictor of civil war; poverty is a much more significant factor.
Rereading these works in light of the infuriating problem of the Islamic State, two discouraging findings stand out. In 1945, many civil wars were concluded after about two years. By 1999, they lasted, on average, about sixteen years. And conflicts in which a guerrilla group could finance itself—by selling contraband drug crops, or by smuggling oil—might go on for thirty or forty years. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, has been around since 1964, sustained in no small part by American cocaine consumption.

Steve Coll looks at the history of civil wars to try and shed light on how the war with ISIS might unfold. The last point in the passage is an easy one to forget when it comes to wars. At a very basic level, wars require some stock or resources from which to fund the flow of war. We speak of burn rates in technology, but in the context of war it has a much more serious meaning.

Asymmetry works in both directions here. On one hand, the industrialized nations of the world have asymmetric military power to deploy against entities like ISIS. On the other hand, ISIS and its equivalents have an asymmetric investment in the battle in that region. No industrialized nation has the appetite to stay in that region in the long run, and that only erodes with time.

From the American intervention in Somalia, in 1992, through the French intervention in Mali, in 2013, industrialized countries have been able to deploy ground forces to take guerrilla-held territory in about sixty days or less. The problem is that if they don’t then leave, to be replaced by more locally credible yet militarily able forces, they invite frustration, and risk unsustainable casualties and political if not military defeat. This has been true even when the guerrilla forces were weak: the Taliban possesses neither planes nor significant anti-aircraft missiles, yet it has fought the United States to a stalemate, and the advantage is now shifting in its favor.
If President Obama ordered the Marines into urgent action, they could be waving flags of liberation in Raqqa by New Year’s. But, after taking the region, killing scores of ISIS commanders as well as Syrian civilians, and flushing surviving fighters and international recruits into the broken, ungoverned cities of Syria and Iraq’s Sunni heartland, then what? Without political coöperation from Bashar al-Assad, Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiite militias, Turkey, the Al Qaeda ally Al Nusra, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and others, the Marines (and the French or NATO allies that might assist them) would soon become targets for a mind-bogglingly diverse array of opponents.

Star Wars miscellany

Given the drop of the second The Force Awakens teaser this week, I've got a bit of Star Wars on the mind. Taking a tour of Star Wars related writing I've enjoyed, let's begin by revisiting the Empire's spectacular military failure at the Battle of Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back.

The defenses the Alliance constructed on Hoth could not be more favorable to Vader if the villain constructed them himself. The single Rebel base (!) is defended by a few artillery pieces on its north slope, protecting its main power generator. An ion cannon is its main anti-aircraft/spacecraft defense. Its outermost perimeter defense is an energy shield that can deflect Imperial laser bombardment. But the shield has two huge flaws: It can’t stop an Imperial landing force from entering the atmosphere, and it can only open in a discrete place for a limited time so the Rebels’ Ion Cannon can protect an evacuation. In essence, the Rebels built a shield that can’t keep an invader out and complicates their own escape.
When Vader enters the Hoth System with the Imperial Fleet, he’s holding a winning hand. What follows next is a reminder of two military truths that apply in our own time and in our own galaxy: Don’t place unaccountable religious fanatics in wartime command, and never underestimate a hegemonic power’s ability to miscalculate against an insurgency.

A fun read. Given what we learned about Anakin in Episodes I-III, maybe impulsive thinking shouldn't be that much of a surprise.

Another amusing read: John Scalzi's Guide to the Most Epic FAILs in Star Wars Design.

Yes, I know, I want one too. But I tell you what: I want one with a hand guard. Otherwise every lightsaber battle would consist of sabers clashing and then their owners sliding as quickly as possible down the shaft to lop off their opponent’s fingers. You say: Lightsabers can slice through anything but another lightsaber, so what are you going to make a hand guard out of? I say: Dude, if you have the technology to make a lightsaber, you have the technology to make a light hand guard.

I wonder if this was the inspiration for the now infamous lightsaber with handguards first seen in the initial The Force Awakens teaser. Or maybe it was a suggestion from Jony Ive, though he denied being the inspiration for the cross guards in his New Yorker profile.

When you absolutely, positively, got to kill every Jedi in the room but don't want your hands cut off...

Another amusing bit from that piece:

Stormtrooper Uniforms
They stand out like a sore thumb in every environment but snow, the helmets restrict view (“I can’t see a thing in this helmet!” — Luke Skywalker), and the armor is penetrable by single shots from blasters. Add it all up and you have to wonder why stormtroopers don’t just walk around naked, save for blinders and flip-flops.

The second teaser shows what seem to be updated designs for Stormtrooper uniforms, but it doesn't appear the design flaws noted above have been solved. They still stand out in almost any environment, and visibility is likely still a concern.

To increase merchandising revenues, the Empire has adopted these limited edition away uniforms for Stormtroopers. And is that an Apple Watch crown in the center of the Empire's new logo? Where can I order my Apple Watch Empire Edition?

Also recommended, Chris Taylor's How Star Wars Conquered the Universe. Ask any craftsman or entrepreneur and they'll tell you the first draft is just a template, that much of any great work or company comes in the iteration and editing and endless revision. Taylor's book, aside from being a great history of the making of the movie, is testament to that truth. What Star Wars began as and what it ended up as are so different it's stunning.

Lastly, one of my favorite Tyler Cowen posts: the public choice economics of Star Wars: a Straussian reading.

The core point is that the Jedi are not to be trusted:
1. The Jedi and Jedi-in-training sell out like crazy.  Even the evil Count Dooku was once a Jedi knight.  
2. What do the Jedi Council want anyway?  The Anakin critique of the Jedi Council rings somewhat true (this is from the new movie, alas I cannot say more, but the argument could be strengthened by citing the relevant detail).  Aren’t they a kind of out-of-control Supreme Court, not even requiring Senate approval (with or without filibuster), and heavily armed at that?  As I understand it, they vote each other into the office, have license to kill, and seek to control galactic affairs.  Talk about unaccountable power used toward secret and mysterious ends.
3. Obi-Wan told Luke scores of lies, including the big whopper that his dad was dead.
6. The prophecy was that Anakin (Darth) will restore order and balance to the force.  How true this turns out to be.  But none of the Jedi can begin to understand what this means.  Yes, you have to get rid of the bad guys.  But you also have to get rid of the Jedi.  The Jedi are, after all, the primary supply source and training ground for the bad guys.  Anakin/Darth manages to get rid of both, so he really is the hero of the story.  (It is also interesting which group of "Jedi" Darth kills first, but that would be telling.)
8. The core message is that power corrupts, but also that good guys have power too.  Our possible safety lies in our humanity, not in our desires to transcend it or wield strange forces to our advantage. 

One can argue the Jedi are the source of all strife in the Star Wars universe, playing the key role in Lucas's critique of fascism or religious fanaticism.

Difference between peacetime and wartime

Military operations are, arguably, especially mistake-prone, because militaries aren’t like other organizations. A normal bureaucracy has a job, and it does that job all the time. Militaries, on the other hand, tend to spend most of their time not really engaged in their main purpose: fighting wars.

Teles noted James Q. Wilson’s observation about the fundamental difference between a peacetime army and a wartime army. In peacetime, it’s easy to observe inputs but impossible to observe the output -- which is to say, how ready your troops are to go out and kick some enemy butt on the battlefield. When you get into a war, this completely reverses. In the chaos of battle, it’s very difficult to know exactly what your people are doing. On the other hand, it’s relatively easy to observe whether they killed the people they were supposed to kill and took the territory they were supposed to take.

That means that the people who advance in a peacetime army are, unfortunately, not necessarily the same people you want around when the shooting breaks out.

Megan McArdle on why armies mess up so often. I liked this quote from Steven Teles, “In wartime, you want people who would rather ask for forgiveness than permission. In the peacetime army, it’s the opposite.”

The same applies to companies. Being in wartime is very different from being in peacetime, from the CEO level on down. Ben Horowitz writes nicely about the difference for CEO's in his great book The Hard Thing About Hard Things.