Saturday, April 30, 2011


Easter in NZ was a good chance to get away for a bit.  Lectures are all lined up for next week and I'm back to the grind.  Thoroughly sick of the media hype about weddings though, and I agree wholeheartedly with Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon who says that:
The royals are a bunch of leeches, and the people who are enthusiastic about them have barely-concealed anti-democratic imperialist fantasies underpinning it.  The whole thing is disgusting.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Juan Cole nicely summarises the current US situation, comparing governments to corporations:

Government is not bad. It builds your roads, funds your hospitals, pays your social security (the elderly were the poorest group in American in the 1920s, now they generally not so badly off, because of a government program), and could help solve global warming by building high speed rail and promoting green energy. Corporations don’t do anything of that sort for you. Some of them are well-run and make things that improve lives. But many of them (as with industrial fishing) are destroying the species-wealth of the planet, or strip-mining it, or pumping enormous amounts of poisonous carbon into its atmosphere. Or they are ponzi schemes or modern-day slavers who get people deeply in debt and charge them usurious interest rates, turning them into serfs-for-the-lender.

Read it all by following the link above.

Women in Combat

A strange mix coming out of the ADF these days.  We have horribly dated expressions of disinterest in the wellbeing of female cadets a couple days ago, and now some pretty clear support for gender equality in service:

Major General Molan, who served as chief of operations to the Iraq multinational force in 2004-05, said he supported the opening up of all roles in the military to women if that was what society wanted.
“If society makes the decision to put women in combat, then we in the military will manage that and we'll do it,” he said.
Good stuff! Of course, it hasn't happened, but it is on the table.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Colour me unconcerned

I find it difficult to care about those who will be disadvantaged by restrictions on tobacco sales. 

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Not a good time to be a PR flack for the Australian Defence Forces

Concerns about misogyny in the ADF are making news again (Canberra Times), as a female cadet is secretly recorded having sex, while the camera broadcasts this to a group of other cadets in a separate room.  To compound matters, the ADF initially claims that there was no criminal activity involved in this non-consensual recording, and then goes on to show a complete lack of tact (not to mention a complete lack of common decency) by just so happening to mention that the victim here (for the female cadet is clearly a victim) may herself be liable to disciplinary action for fraternisation.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Obnoxious political blathering in Australia, Part far too many

Federal Labour isn't content to let the Coalition have all the fun of badmouthing Julia Gillard.  Former members of the party itself want in on this!  Latham (abc) has decided that Gillard is 'wooden' and lacks empathy, because... she doesn't have kids!  Weclome back to the 1960s, Australia, where a woman belongs in the kitchen.

Seriously, who are these people and why do they open their mouths in public.  This kind of gender essentialism is so far from appropriate in even a minimally decent modern society.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Isn't the Australian political situation bad enough?

...without Julia Gillard insulting the only reason we aren't still being run by the Coalition?  Really, if the Coalition are constantly criticising labour for acting too closely with the Greens, the problem is the Coalition, and the solution is to start being honest about the value of Green Party policies and the fact that on a number of issues where the Coalition is most vocal in opposition, the Greens have a much stronger hand than does Labour.

Labour had been doing so well recently with regards to Climate Change policy, as well.

Things that are too good to pass up:

With thanks and shameless promotion for 'Alas, A Blog', we should all know that the Florida republican party thinks that 'uterus' is such a scary word that it should not be mentioned on the floor of the house of representatives.  Context?  A democratic representative suggesting that Republicans would care more about deregulation if his wife had had her uterus incorporated.  Good times.

Issues with 'hearts and minds'

(Some ideas from a paper I am working on.  I intend to run numbers on this, assigning values and probabilities to the various conditions, as I think it will probably end up fitting quite well into a pseudo-game-theoretical framework, but numbers minimal to non-existent in this version, wait for the paper itself)

Part of the approach to modern warfare involves an emphasis on winning over the 'hearts and minds' of the population in whichever country you are warring in.  The goal of doing so is, of course, to create or increase popular support for your mission, and to decrease the opportunities your opponents have to blend into the civilian population and engage in traditional insurgency defences.

I am concerned that the hearts and minds game (in the game-theory sense of game) is un-winnable.  There are a number of reasons to think this might be the case.  Firstly, we can look at the relative availability of praiseworthy and blameworthy actions to the participants in the game.  Doing this leads, I think, to the conclusion that praise is more difficult to achieve than blame.  Secondly, we can analyse the effect of particular praise or blame worthy acts.  Doing this, I believe, we will find that individual blameworthy acts resonate far more than do individual praiseworthy acts.  This is going to be particularly problematic in conjunction with the first point.  Thirdly, I suggest that the very idea of a program to win hearts and minds introduces cognitive dissonance in the minds of the population of the country in which this action is undertaken, when the hearts and minds program is undertaken by the same forces who are engaged in military conflict in that country.

Relative Availability
This point arises as follows.  The most prominent ways in which a state can succeed in winning hearts and minds are by having the military forces engage with the civilian population on civil terms.  To do this, the occupying (is occupying any better a term than invading? Is there an available non-value laden term that would be more appropriate?) forces have to treat the civilian population as relevantly equal and deserving of respect and assistance.  The problem is that this is simply the basic level of treatment that we expect anyone to give any other person at any time.  So soldiers in a conflict zone who treat the civilian population in that zone kindly and with dignity and respect, are doing much more than soldiers are expected to do, but not to any meaningful degree any more than people are expected to do in more general cases.  Accordingly, the degree to which soldiers will be praised for acting excellently qua soldier towards the civilian population is minimal.  An excellently behaving solider is acting just as a minimally decent stranger or neighbour.

By contrast, soldiers doing normal soldierly things will elicit blame from the civilian population of the area in which they are operating.  The presence of the soldiers disrupts civilian life.  Any hostile action undertaken by the soldiers causes property damage and runs the risk of civilian casualties.  These problems arise even if the soldiers otherwise act in exemplary ways.  If even some portion of them do not act in exemplary ways, further problems swiftly arise.  Examples are easy to find.  Consider the village flattened in Afghanistan because the US commander was sick of Taliban forces using it, or the small group of rogue soldiers who murdered a number of Afghani civilians and pretended they had been insurgents.  Or the recent furore over racial and ethnic slurs on Australian Defence force facebook pages, originating from those serving in Afghanistan.

Differential Resonance
The examples above give us opportunity to consider the second point of concern.  Winning over the hearts and minds of the civilian population requires a concerted effort by all involved over a long period of time.  Losing those same hearts and minds can be achieved very quickly through the actions of a small group of people acting independently.  When the 'kill team' (seriously, what is the world coming to when Rolling Stone is the source of things like this?) of US troops in Afghanistan plot to murder civilians and disguise it as legitimate conflict action, they destroy in days or weeks the goodwill that has been built up over years in a carefully orchestrated campaign to show the civilian population that the US forces are a better alternative to the Taliban, and that they should be assisted, and can be trusted.  Similarly, although not quite so immediately, even something like racist facebook postings (9 news) serves quickly to undermine goodwill.  Afghani immigrants to Australia learn that the ADF thinks these things, and they send messages to their relatives in Afghanistan telling them not to trust the Australians, because they might treat you well, but they secretly claim you are "sand niggaz", "dune coons", "ragheads" and "smelly locals".  (I feel somewhat sick having repeated those...)  Quite quickly, the mood in the villages where Australian troops have been present could change.  Do these troops really want to help us?  Or is it just a cover?  Goodwill.... gone, by the actions of an unrepresentative few.

Cognitive Dissonance
This issue arising because of what it is soldiers do.  In Iraq, where the hearts and minds doctrine has most recently been prominent, or in Afghanistan, where it is ongoing, the soldiers are there to kill 'bad guys', and they frequently do just that, often within earshot, and even within sight of the same people whose hearts and minds they are trying to win over.  This situation is clearly going to be problematic for the hearts and minds doctrine, as those whose hearts and minds are to be won know that these people with guns are willing and able to use them, and have done so, perhaps against people they know.  Even where a particular Iraqi village despises Saddam Hussein and has suffered as a result of his rule, it is not at all far fetched to imagine them having sympathy or even respect for some of those who fight for Saddam, and who, accordingly, are the target of these foreign troops.  Similarly, even if particular villagers in Afghanistan oppose the Taliban, they may well know and like some individual Taliban members, who they will not want  to give up to the soldiers, and whose death or injury would cause them to think poorly of the soldiers.

Where to from here?
None of this means that a hearts and minds doctrine is a bad idea.  It might well be that even where the chances of successfully implementing this are slim, due to the kinds of factors outlined above, the potential benefits from being seen to try make it worthwhile.  Further, if we move beyond explicitly military operations such as Iraq and Afghanistan, and toward policing and armed humanitarian interventions, then the third point in particular becomes less problematic, as fewer actual conflicts occur.  Similarly, in these situations, the risk of the first two points diminishes.