Monday, September 14, 2020

The face of revolution


This is Maria Kolesnikova, one of the brave Belarusians protesting against the dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko, who for nearly the whole time their country has been free of the Soviet Union has bribed and bullied and faked elections to maintain his grip on office. Russia helps him along, because the Russian-speaking Belarus is one of its few ex-dominions that are still willing to play along with Moscow. Unlike Ukraine and and rest of Eastern Europe, it still values its ties with its former masters.

The Christian Science Monitor has an interesting commentary on Ms Kolesnikova, arguing that the issue in a good revolution is dignity. Lukashenko (and Putin and Xi and Maduro and and and ...) strips  people of their dignity, while Ms Kolesnikova embodies it. I like that notion. Recently she was kidnapped, driven to the Ukrainian border, and told to step across the line. Instead, she tore up her passport so the Ukrainians would refuse her entry. She jumped out of the kidnap vehicle's window and walked back to Belarusian territory with her head held high. This wouldn't have worked in the old Soviet Union, and it may not continue to work in Belarus, but she got away with it for now.

When I came back from Europe long ago, I rented a room in the South End of Boston for a dollar a night and set out to be a free-lance writer. Every afternoon I'd walk down to the Mom & Pop store at the corner and pay a dime for a bag of peanuts and a copy of the Monitor. (I also wrote for it from time to time.) I'd come back, sit on the stoop, eat the peanuts, and catch up on world news. It was my favorite newspaper then, but like so many newspapers it is no longer for sale every afternoon. But I recently subscribed to the online edition ($11 a month!). You can read three articles a month without subscribing, and the Covid 19 coverage is always free. I like the Monitor. Like Ms Lolesnikova, it has a different slant on things, and that's to be valued in this time when the American media seems to exist in an echo chamber.

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

A Fourth of July cruise on the Saigon River


I'm reading a book about DARPA, the defense agency responsible for so many military (and ultimately civilian) innovations, including the internet that makes it possible for me to post these pages and you to read them. The book prompted me to suss out the remarkable little machine gun that I encountered on a Fourth of July cruise down the Saigon River in 1964. The holiday was organized by three US Navy officers who liked to get out and about, so they commandeered a Junk Fleet riverboat and who invited me to come along. Another straphanger also turned up, a US Army one-star general who was in-country to test out some innovative field rations and a light assault machine gun that I now realize was a Stoner 63. It didn't work awfully well -- it kept jamming, apparently because the cartridges were too dry -- but the Junk Fleet sailors loved it. Here the Trung Si (sergeant) fires the weapon from a kneeling position, though dang if I can see where his right leg has got to!

Eugene Stoner came up with the weapon after the ArmaLight company sold his AR-15 design to Colt's. The model 63 variant was chambered for the same 5.56 mm cartridge as the AR-15. It was manufactured by Cadillac Gage in Costa Mesa, California, from February 1963 to September 1964, to a total of 234 examples. DARPA bought 25 of that batch, with wooden stocks, and this may well have been one of them, though about 2,000 more Stoner 63s were manufactured in the next few years. I confess I don't remember whether the weapon we fired along the Saigon River had a wooden stock or a plastic one. The Marines were more interested than the Army, but in the end the Stoner 63 was deemed to be "unacceptable for service use."

For more, go to -- Dan Ford


Tuesday, August 25, 2020

The quiet (so far) rebellion in Belarus


For all the damage that social media and cell-phone cameras have done to civil life, there's no doubt that they have empowered the people. Where once Lenin gave us a dictatorship over the proletariat, now the dictators have a harder time of it. Witness these brave paratroopers in Minsk, capital of Europe's longest-serving strongman-- 26 years and counting. Their sign (in Russian, which must put Vladimir Putin's teeth on edge) reads: "Airborne forces with the people!" Unlike Ukraine, which tossed out its own Kremlin toady in 2014, there's apparently little desire in Belarus to replace dependence on Moscow with fealty to the West. They just want to be rid of Alexander Lukashenko and his corrupt elections. 

Tuesday, June 02, 2020

A salute to Elon Musk

The greatest unmentioned fact about Saturday's docking of the Dragon Crew capsule with the International Space Station is that it was the work of an immigrant.

Elon Musk was born and reared in Pretoria, South Africa, but left at 17 to study at Queens University in Ontario, then at the University of Pennsylvania, graduating in 1997 with a double degree -- BA in economics, BS in physics. He was then nearly 26, but he'd spent the extra time well, interning at Silicon Valley, starting and dropping a PhD program at Stanford, and setting  up his first company, which in 1999 was acquired by Compaq, giving Mr Musk a payout of $22 million. He used this money to start a new company that morphed into PayPal, from which he walked away with $165 million in 2002. That money went to establish SpaceX, which on Friday became the world's first privately owned company to launch astronauts into earth orbit.

And in his spare time, of course, Mr Musk upended the US and indeed the world's car industry with a little company called Tesla. According to Wikipedia, he was worth $36.5 billion in May, and I suspect it's a bit more today. But what Elon Musk has brought to America -- in pride, progress, and taxes paid -- is incalculable.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Grocery shopping in the time of the Wuhan Virus

Among the changes the pandemic has brought to our lives, the greatest for me is that I have become the family grocery shopper. I do it online, of course, and I try to grab the 7 a.m. slot at the nearest Walmart, a twelve-mile drive. I've become a huge fan of Mr Walton's store, and indeed it's rivaling Amazon in my affections. I drive up, park in a Reserved slot beneath an orange pavilion, pop the truck, and listen to music until Ms Walton appears with a cart and a blue box of groceries (and wine, as you can see). We greet one another through our masks and the Subaru's window glass; she checks my driver's license; she loads the trunk. Usually I am out of there in ten or twelve minutes.

 Here I am with yesterday's haul, arriving home at 7:45 a.m. I see a lot more cars on the road than I did a month ago, and a lot more customers in the Walmart parking lot. (Most of them, alas, not wearing masks. There is something about New Hampshire residence that makes people flout rules. Perhaps it's our license plates, which boast "Live Free Or Die" -- words, however, that were originally spoken in a somewhat different context.)

Sunday, May 03, 2020

We are all home-schoolers now

With exquisitely bad timing, the May issue of Harvard Magazine features an ill-tempered screed against home schooling. It arrived in mailboxes toward the end of April, just as virtually every American youngster, and most of those around the world, was being schooled at home.

When our daughter was a Harvard undergraduate, the alumni magazine was one of the best periodicals in the country. But the then-editor has long since retired, and his successors have turned it into yet another politically correct soapbox. In this case, the author's argument hinged on the possibility that some home-schoolers aren't actually being schooled at all. This is certainly true: we know a mother who took her daughter out of high school and, as far as we could tell, that was the end of the girl's education. But how many thousands -- millions! -- of young American get their high-school diplomas without effectively being able to read and write?

Now that virtually every young person is a home-schooler, I have a bit of good news for their parents. Our daughter graduated in 1990 and went to sea. In time she married, had two daughters, and for three years she and her husband fitted out a sailboat in our back yard. They sailed away on Christmas Day 2004, when the little girls were four and three years old. The kids were home-schooled (boat-schooled?) from then till high school graduation. The older girl was a Presidential Scholar and got early admission to the Dartmouth Class of 2023. The younger spent the spring of her senior year deciding between Oxford and Yale.

So relax, home-school parents, and pay no attention to Harvard Magazine. The kids might do better than you did. To help them on their way, you could do worse than buy a copy of Kate Laird's Home School Teacher.

Friday, May 01, 2020

How the snakes and dragons got the better of us

Most Americans, and indeed most people in the world today, have spent their lives under threat of a Third World War, triggered by accident or malign intent. For much of that time, the threat seemed to be a nuclear first strike by the Soviet Union (or, if you lived in the USSR, by the United States). In time, that faded into a more generalized dread of an electronic pulse that could blitz a nation's economy without physical damage -- and perhaps without knowing who launched the strike. Then, in the past quarter-century, we've learned that a third-rate nation, or even a cult with no national presence, could attack the American homeland as no one has done since the War of 1812. Even more sobering, our weapons have proved almost useless in defense, as we discovered to our cost in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.

I first encountered David Kilcullen's writings in an online course at King's College London, tailored to mid-career officers in the British Army. (About half the class came from other militaries or civilian life.) A veteran of the Australian Army, he was an adviser to General Petraeus in Iraq and Condolezza Rice in Washington, contributed to the US military's  Counterinsurgency Field Manual, and published the must-read The Accidental Guerrilla. Today he's what we used to call a "public intellectual," still concentrating on what we're doing wrong in our 20-year War on Terror. In The Dragons and the Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West, he plays off a notion by former CIA Director James Woolsley after the Soviet Union imploded: "we have slain a large dragon, but we live now in a jungle filled with a bewildering variety of poisonous snakes." And the snakes, says Kilkullen, have learned to fight us on their terms. Worse, there are now four dragons out there -- Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea -- at least four! -- and they too have learned from our swift though temporary victories over Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, and the Taliban: Only a fool meets the US military in frontal warfare, so the wise opponent goes behind its back.

The day is probably not far off when China decides it's an exception to this rule of 21st century warfare, but in the meantime it too will attack us in ways that defy retaliation, the way Russia does by sending its "little green men" into neighboring countries to annex them or mire them in a low-grade war of defense; by messing with the democracies' elections and social media; and by dirty tricks like sending a horde of Syrian refugees across the Norwegian frontier, no doubt accompanied by Russian agents. The extent of Russia's cyberwar and hybrid warfare, as Kilkullen demonstrates in chapter after chapter, is astonishing. This is essential and unsettling reading, now that Vladimir Putin has set himself up as Russia's dictator-for-life.

And Russia is a pygmy compared to China, which has proved even more successful in declaring ownership of neighboring territory, occupying and fortifying its conquests, and all without meaningful punishment. Xi Jingping meanwhile has something better than Mr Putin's lifetime lock on the presidency: he has the potentially immortal Chinese Communist Party. Xi likewise has made himself leader-for-life and, unlike Putin, can easily be followed by someone out of the same mold. Thirteen years ago, as a student at King's College London, I wrote a paper called O Brave New Hegemon, predicting that China's growing dominance of Asia and the world must end fairly soon. I was of course wrong: China today is closer than ever to replacing the US as the world's dominant power. (China even has a target date for the takeover: 2049, the centenary of the Red Army's victory in the Chinese Civil war, and the Nationalist Government's exile to Taiwan.)

In Has China Won?: The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy, the Singapore diplomat Kishore Mahbubani does a masterful job of showing how the democracies -- meaning the United States, primarily, since potential great powers like Germany and Japan have been happy to let the US act as the world's policeman -- have handed over their economies to China. (He's less convincing when he writes of China's accomplishment, basically parroting Beijing's propaganda.) What this means for the future was thrown in our faces this year, as a virus that had its origin in the triple city of Wuhan, supposedly in the "wet market" where wild animals are sold for food, but possibly in one of the city's two virus labs, tipped much of the world into an economic contraction on a scale not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Nor was this unavoidable. Beijing's obsessive secrecy and manipulation of statistics enabled it to lie about the danger long after the democratic island of Taiwan had warned us what was coming. Instead of being grateful, the World Health Organization parroted Beijing's line until it was too late to head off an economic collapse in Italy and other nations heavily dependent upon China, including the United States. Long after Wuhan was blockaded from the rest of China, its airports remained open for travel to the West, carrying the Wuhan virus around the world.

Some 40 percent of the world's "personal protective gear" comes from China -- or anyhow came from China, because in mid-April their export was shut down, supposedly to ensure quality but more likely to keep them available locally. In the 1970s, when the Organizaton of Oil Exporting Countries boycotted the United States, the US established a Strategic Oil Reserve to supply fuel in time of shortage, and into the bargain helped transform the country from an energy importer into one that has flooded the world market with oil. Time now for a guaranteed reserve of face masks, ventilators, and pharmaceuticals before the next epidemic comes out of China, as most epidemics have done for more than a century. Time to take back the World Health Organization, or to replace it with one not beholden to Beijing. Time to broaden the supply chain, and to bring essential parts of it back to Western shores.

"Time is short," wrote Edward Lucas in The Times on April 13. "Look at the way the Chinese leadership treats its own people. Then imagine how they would like to treat us."