Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Military Intelligence Blunders and Climate Change Denial: Lessons to Learn


1. "Well, don't worry about it."
The Failure of Imagination.


Early in the morning of the 7th September 1941 a technician monitoring a radar on the northern tip of Hawaii noticed some unexplained blips. As a good soldier he reported it to the Duty Officer, Lieutenant Kermit Tyler. "Well, don't worry about it," the officer replied. Forty minutes later bombs were raining down on Pearl Harbour, most of the US Pacific Fleet was on fire or underwater and over 2000 people dead.

The attack has become synonymous for the failure of military intelligence. Famously an oxymoron, intelligence failures are generally responsible for worst disasters in military history, from Lord Chelmsford going off to chase phantom Zulus and leaving his camp at Isandhlwana poorly defended, to the USA blundering into Vietnam thinking they were only facing a few foreign infiltrators.

But if failure to spot the warning signs in war can lead to the deaths of thousands, being ambushed by Climate Change could lead to the deaths of millions, and we are being bigger Muppets than the unfortunate Lieutenant Kermit.

Military intelligence failures don't just happen because someone is being dense, they happen because one bunch of people has outsmarted another, and this is a lesson that those of us who want to do something about Climate Change, especially scientists, often forget.

Figuring out relativity was easy by comparison, as there was no Cavorite industry hacking Einstein's emails and claiming it was all down to Ether. Darwin met a bit of resistance on Evolution, but it took the Creationist nearly a hundred years come up with Intelligent Design, by which time the science was settled.

But back to 1941. Tyler wasn't to blame, he was on his second day in the job and nobody had told him anything, but the authorities in Honolulu most definitely were. Tensions were rising and intercepted radio messages told the Americans an attack was coming. The response though was just to bunch the aeroplanes more closely together on the tarmac.

This may sound daft, but it meant they could be more easily guarded by sentries. This was because the only attack the commanders could imagine was a sabotage by secret agents. That the entire Japanese Fleet would silently steam half way across the Pacific to bomb them was something they just couldn't envisage. It didn't matter that the Royal Navy had pulled a similar trick on the Italians the year before, in their world this sort of thing was unimaginable.

And that I suspect is where most people are with Climate Change. It is too big to imagine. The blips on the radar screen are getting bigger, but we'd rather not worry about it.


2. "I'm not worried because he's not worried"
The Denial Loop


Egypt's surprise attack across the Suez Canal in October 1973 was one of the great coup's of all time. The Egyptians crossed the canal by surprise, dug in, and fought off counter-attacks by the hitherto invincible Israeli Army. Only an intemperate advance brought on by the collapse of their Syrian allies prevented the first Arab victory in war over Israel.

Egypt had been planning the operation for six years, and had ran exercise after exercise, sometimes mobilising of thousands of civilians as well as tens of thousands of soldiers. The result was that when the actual assault came, even the Egyptian soldiers involved were taken by surprise, not believing it was the real thing until they were actually ordered to put their boats into the water.

But it still shouldn't have worked. Against them was the combined intelligence might of MOSSAD and the CIA. Israel had the agents on the ground and the Americans had the spy planes and satellites. Together they should have seen it coming.

What went wrong instead was that each agency looked at the other and, seeing no reaction, assumed they knew something they didn't. MOSSAD didn't panic because the CIA didn't panic, and the CIA didn't panic because MOSSAD didn't panic, and so on.

Campaigners trying to convince a sceptical public know the problem only too well. If Climate Change was a real threat the government would do something about it, says Joe Public. Whilst in the corridors of power the green lobbyists are told that the government would love to do something to limited our fossil fuel consumption, only the public won't allow them to you see......


3. "I'm not lying, he is"
Bluff and counter bluff.


If you want to point to where it all went wrong for America in Vietnam most historians will point you to the Tet Offensive in February 1968. For three years Westmoreland and the military had been telling the public that the war was as good as won. Then suddenly there were thousands of guys in black pyjamas running around South Vietnam's major cities and blowing things up. No matter that by the end of the week most of them were dead, the damage had been done.

The shock the American public felt after Tet was similar to that felt by scientists and activists after Climategate. Despite the well documented funding of dubious Climate Change denying lobby groups by the fossil fuel industry, and not withstanding the rather obvious fact that lots of rich people are going to loose a lot of money if we give up on fossil fuels, when a few stolen emails are quoted out of context a surprisingly large number of otherwise sensible people choose to believe that there really is a scientific conspiracy. Why? Are people really that stupid?

The CIA aren't stupid, and although they get a lot of the blame for Vietnam, mostly they did a good job. The agency base in Saigon had been telling Washington for years that this was a full blown insurgency and not just a bit of cross border raiding, but the top brass at Langley hadn't believed them, and by the start of 1968 they were signally back to America that something big was in the pipeline.

Something big was indeed brewing; a major offensive involving attacks in every major southern city. Insurgencies by their very nature are secret, but the Vietnamese knew they couldn't keep something this size secret, so instead they went for an elaborate bluff.

The spot they chose was Khe Sanh, a US marine base on the border. It was no threat to the Viet Cong, who could easily bypass it, but at the end of 1967 the Vietnamese started moving large forces up to Khe Sanh. At the same time they planted documents which said the plans for a national offensive were just a bluff and that Khe Sanh was the real objective.

The trick worked better than they could have expected. France had quit Vietnam fifteen years earlier when their outpost at Dien Bien Phu fell, and President Johnson was terrified of a similar debacle. Ignoring the numerous intelligence reports which suggested Khe Sanh was the bluff, he ordered a model of the base constructed in the White House basement. So whilst he was busy watching a struggle for a few square metres of worthless jungle, the Viet Cong overran huge chunks of South Vietnam.

Poor old Johnson. He wasn't a bad bloke, and the chants of "Hey, Hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" really hurt him. But in the end the demonstrators were right and he was wrong. The Americans were taken by surprise, lots of people died, and it was all pointless from then on.

But the world of bluff and double bluff can be confusing, and in the end, like Johnson, we can just end up seeing what we're most afraid of and not what's really out there.

Why did so many people fall for Climategate? Maybe they don't like clever clogs, maybe they like idea that a lot of self-righteous beardy people have got it wrong, or maybe they just like their cars and foreign holidays. Either way the deniers found that the easiest way to protect an extremely plausible conspiracy is to suggest an utterly implausible one.


4. "None so blind as those who don't wish to see."
When all else fails, ignore the inconvenient facts.


General Montgomery had a brilliant plan, one that would definitely end the war by Christmas. It involved a desperate race to reach a bridge captured by paratroopers before they were overrun by the Germans. True, the relief force would be advancing down a single road where one German with a panzerfaust could hold up the entire army, and true, to date the only race Monty had looked likely to win was onto a pedestal, but it might just work.

The Dutch resistance weren't so sure and brought back worrying reports of German tanks refitting in the woods. They were ignored. Major Urquhart, the intelligence officer, wasn't too impressed either and kept producing aeriel photographs of said panzers in the woods. He was sent on sick leave. Nothing was to stop the master plan.

The result was heroic, but pointless.

But it was a really good plan, and that's the problem. If only our climate wasn't so sensitive to pesky carbon molecules, then we could build paradise. Whether it's Social Democracy 2.0, the cutthroat world of the Neoliberals or even a Marxist workers paradise, it all depends on using cheap energy with no consequences.

There are no easy answer to stupidity, and the only solution to bad intelligence is better intelligence.

Perhaps though we could take heart from the biggest military intelligence disaster of this decade; the Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction. We couldn't stop the war, but at least most of us saw through the deceit. You can fool all of the military all of the time, but you can only fool all of the people some of the time.

Monday, 8 November 2010

My Ten Favourite English Villages

The English village, a place that exists more in myth than reality today, where paternalistic squires guide the simple folks in their charming rustic ways, and Mr Darcy baths in the pond once a year. Formerly the home of wise yeomen and stout women, today the village is more likely to be the home of the simple stockbroker and his greedy wife.

Whilst many English villages are no doubt lovely places to live, provided you don't mind driving ten miles just to buy a pint of milk, they mostly have very little to detain the visitor.

This, extremely subjective, list is of places I, someone who can't afford to live properly in the country, like to visit.

10. Lacock, Wiltshire


A village owned by the National Trust has to go into any top ten of English villages, but Lacock is real thing and not just a tourist honeypot. The village is mostly eighteenth century but the church, a pub and the magnificent tithe barn are Medieval. Merrie England at its best, you can even incarcerate yourself in the lock up. It was also apparently the inspiration for Godrics Hollow, the home of James and Lily Potter and the place has appeared so often in BBC Costume Dramas it deserves its own Equity card.

9. Mobberley, Cheshire


Mobberley barely counts as a village, being a small town now or even a suburb of Wilmslow.

In legend it was the home of the farmer who sold his white stallion to a mysterious wizard and this story starts Alan Garner's The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.

Surprisingly, considering it is set in one of the flattest parts of the country, it was also home to one of our most famous mountaineers, George Mallory, who when he wasn't streaking through Swiss Hotel lobbies or hiking in the nip was a pioneering 'Everester',climbing the mountain "Because it was there". He disappeared 8 June 1924 near the summit and his body was found on 1 May 1999. Whether in between he had been to the top is unknown, although a photo he had planned to leave there was not on him.

My connection with Mobberley was in 1997 when, after three months camped out of the site of the new runway at Manchetser airport I was rudely evicted and so shifted my tent to a paddock in the village. There I discovered the advantages of squatting a posh post code and started to rub shoulders with the rich and famous. I met Terry Waite, was interviewed by Davina McCall, bumped into Neil and Christina Hamilton at a Vicar's tea party and got myself invited to Westminster by Martin Bell.

Rather more interesting though, Mobberley is adjacent to Lindow Moss, the place where nearly 2000 years ago the unfortunate Pete Marsh (as he's know) died a triple death. The Moss is now just soggy fields, but when the mist comes down (as it likes to do) you can still feel yourself between the worlds. It's a pity about the jumbo jets though.

8. Hurst Green, Lancashire

What can you say about a village that boast the magnificent Jacobean pile of Stoneyhurst College and Tolkien's favourite pub?

JRR was a frequent visitor to the village and some people have traced the entire geography of the Shire in the local area, from the Brandywine Bridge (pictured) to the Barrow Downs. The village can also claim that the weather station at the college has been in continuous use for longer than any other, and has been charting our warming climate since 1846.

7. Little Salkeld, Cumbria


Little the place certainly is, but it has two big attractions; the Long Meg stone circle, and the Organic Watermill.

The former is one of the biggest and best circles in the country, and also one of the least known. Wordsworth may have eulogised it, but when it's standing room only at nearby Castlerigg, you can often have the place to yourself.

The Organic Watermill not only produces some of the best organic flour in the country (and definitely the best porridge oats) but also has an excellent cafe. Although it has fairly stiff competition in the form of the nearby Organic Bakery at Melmerby, it wins by a wafer thin slice of rye bread.

6. Edensor, Derbyshire


Edensor is an estate village of Chatsworth, so this is really a proxy award for the Devonshire's little pad in the country.

However the place has it's own charms, from a magnificent Weeping Willow on the green to a modest teashop. The church has the graves of Sir Joseph Paxton, the genius behind the Crystal Palace, and Lord Frederick Cavendish who was assassinated by Irish Nationalist in 1882 (by accident - they were going for the chap he was standing next to).

The most famous current resident is the Dowager Duchess herself, last survivor, and most normal, of Mitford sisters and one of the few people left alive to have taken tea with Hitler. If you walk up the hill towards Bakewell at the right time of the year you get a chance to scrump some of her blackberries.

5. Ribchester, Lancashire


"It is written upon a wall in Rome; Ribchester was as rich as any town in Christendom".

Actually it isn't, but Ribchester is interesting for being a two street village sat on top of one of the most important Roman towns in the north of England. The remains of the Bath House are easily visible next to the river, and a small museum has some of the items found on the site, including replicas of the magnificent parade helmet and cavalryman relief.

Other bits of the old fort are scattered through the village, like the two pillars in front of the White Bull pub (pictured) and once a year the Romans return for the annual festival.

Ribchester also has a double, if rather tenuous on both counts, King Arthur connection.

As principle northern cavalry barracks Ribchester is the most likely base for the Sarmatian Cataphracts sent to Britain in 175AD. The Sarmatians would have brought with them their dragon banners and stories of swords in stones and may for a while have been commanded by one Lucius Artorius Castus. Then, after the Romans left, Ribchester may have become the southern capital of Rheged, whose leader was Urien, another Arthur candidate, and chief bard was Taliesin.

4. Cropredy, Oxfordshire


Cropredy is a pleasant enough place in its own right, with the river Churwell, the bridge that was the scene of a Civil War battle and a brace of decent pubs. However for one long weekend a year it turns into the Cropredy Festival.

Cropredy Festival is an institution in itself. Originally the annual reunion of the band Fairport Convention whose members have included singer-songwriting legend Richard Thompson and the immortal Sandy Denny, the success of the festival led to the band reforming. The music takes place in the field across which the King's cavalry charged to victory in 1644 and has now been the scene of more released live recordings than the Royal Albert Hall.

The village itself has adopted the festival as its own. Whilst the residents of Pilton man the barricades during Glastonbury, Cropredy village becomes an extension of the festival, a mixture of bazaar, outdoor kitchen, chill out zone and festival fringe. Indeed, before the festival became a four day event I, like many people, used to turn up a day early to spend the Thursday night in either the Brassnose or the Red Lion.

With the village full of aging folk fans high on Wadsworth 6X it is perhaps a scene rather more Hoggarth than Constable, but Cropredy has always been the friendly festival and whilst there you are always aware that you are still in a English village, whereas Glastonbury these days reminds me rather more of the Trafford Centre.

3. Asford-in-the-Water


Ashford sneaks in at number three as it's currently our favourite picnic spot. Ashford is practical as well as pretty as I can sit myself down on one of the park benches in Hall Orchard Playing Fields, under a pair of magnificent English elm trees, whilst my boys play football with real goalposts.

A short walk away is also the best shop in Derbyshire; Ibbotson's, where you can buy the best home made chutney in Derbyshire, cakes and fresh coffee. The village also has one of the most scenic cricket grounds in the country, where my father-in-law played his last match for the illustrious Midland Bank Sheffield Branch team, and is of course home to the annual Derbyshire ritual of well dressings. Nearby are Monsal and Miller's Dales and also Fin Cop - the sight of one of the Iron Age forts that guarded the valleys that led into the Peak.

The area is a regular drive out for car clubs and it's not unusual to see a dozen or so identical vehicles heading in convoy through the village. Last time I was there it was the turn of the Aston Martin owners. Unfortunately one of the elderly would-be James Bond's missed the right turn in the centre of the village and threw the party into chaos. For the next hour it was like the last scene in The Pink Panther as Aston Martin's of various vintages arrived from random directions, circled a few times, and then disappeared a different way to search for their mates.

2. Avebury, Wiltshire

I could have done a Top Ten of villages with stone circles attached, but instead I'll limit myself to Avebury, the stone circle with a village attached.If you arrive in mid summer it seems that Avebury is more of a National Trust exhibit than a village, but a village indeed it is. This Lammas the local cricket team could be seen bravely trying to finish their game amidst the throngs of Druids and New Agers, and rumour has it that the place can even be quite quiet in the middle of winter.

It would be nice to say the village and the circle exist in perfect harmony, but that wouldn't be true. In conserving the latter Alexander Keiller not only knocked down a fair proportion of the former, but he also shut off the villagers supply of cheap stone.

Avebury though isn't just a village and a stone circle, it is the center of a ritual landscape that can only be fully appreciated on foot. When you walk over a rise and suddenly find yourself staring at the might of Silbury Hill, or discover a hawthorn tree bedecked with ribbons, you learn a little of how this spiritual landscape has been lived in for 4000 years.

And then afterwards you can retire to the Red Lion, drinking in which is a necessary, but not sufficient, requirement to call yourself a Druid.

1. Bamburgh, Northumberland


The picture almost says it all, but when you discover that on the far side of castle is one of Northumberland's finest beaches you realise why Bamburgh gets my Number One.

The castle has stood there since the time of the Gododdin. Mallory besieged the place and it may have been the inspiration for Lancelot's Joyous Garde. In Anglo-Saxon times it was the court of one of the most civilised kingdoms in Europe, and it may even have been here that the poem Beowolf was first recited. Just across the water is Lindisfarne and viewing the holy island from the castle you realise just how daring the Vikings were in 793 to sack the monastery right under the noses of the warriors in the fortress.

Add in the Crastor kippers served up for breakfast in the local B&Bs and you have the perfect destination for a weekend away. Anyone planning a bit of romance though (which doesn't go terribly well with kippers - or so my wife says) may wish to consider the story of King Oswiu and Queen Eanfled, whose failure to co-ordinate their love-making at the castle led to the demise of the Celtic Church.

Friday, 5 November 2010

By the Rocket's Red Glare

The Bombardment of Fort McHenry

Britain has given America some great gifts: democracy, the English language and Catherine Zeta Jones come immediately to mind. All three may have been well and truly ****ed by the Yanks since, but at least they acknowledge where they came from.

However I feel we never really get the credit we deserve for giving them the most famous line in their national anthem.

The rocket's being referred to are not those that are currently illuminating the night sky here, but those being fired at Fort McHenry by the Royal Navy at the Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812. Britain's military was at that time in the middle of a love affair with rockets that had started with a bang 34 years previously in India, and was to eventually fizzle out over South Africa 79 years later.

Gunpowder appears to have reached India from China in the Fourteenth century, although references in Vedic literature to "weapons of fire" may indicate the previous use of some other type of fiery missile. They had first been fired at the British in 1755, but had been dismissed as a fairly useless gimmick.

The Battle of Pollilur
That view was hastily revised in 1780 when the army of the East India Company fought the Kingdom of Mysore at the Battle of Pollilur. A barrage of rockets blew up the ammunition wagons and John Company's army, which included elite Scottish Highlanders, surrendered. The battle was the first British defeat suffered on the sub-continent.

Thanks to the rockets the reverse was not seen as being the result of Indian, or Moslem, pluck, but fiendish oriental ingenuity. It helped that Tipu Sultan, who ascended to the throne of Mysore two years after Pollilur, was a bit of a gadget-man. A mechanical tiger of his, powered by bellows and depicted savaging a East India Company soldier, who moans realistically, is on display in the V&A museum. His reputation carried on past his eventual defeat into the nineteenth century, and Jules Verne even made him the uncle of that ultimate gadget-man, Captain Nemo.

Rocket practise
Meanwhile the army's greatest brains were set to work on rocketry, and the result was the Congreve War Rockets that Francis Key Scott saw being fired in 1814. (Yes I know I said this was 'The War of 1812', but that was just it's name. It actually lasted until 1815.) The rocket was lighter and longer ranged than conventional artillery and was employed smiting the King's enemies around the world. 25,000 of them were fired at the peaceful Danes in 1807 and a rocket battery was the sole British unit present at the 'Battle of the Nations' that defeated Napoleon for the first time in 1813. The rocket as a weapon had just one drawback, one that will be familiar to anyone who has had to flee from an errant firework - they were so inaccurate it was almost impossible to hit anything with them.

This didn't put the military off and indeed they clung to their Congreve rockets even after a (slightly) improved version, the Hale's spin-stabilised War Rocket, was invented. Mr Hale was unable to sell them to his own country and it was actually the Americans who debuted the new missile, against the Mexicans in 1847.

The Assault on Magdala
The Russian, Italian and Austrian armies all adopted it, to little effect. The German army was meanwhile busy showing the world that breech loading rifles and artillery were the future and that fireworks had no place on the modern battlefield. Never-the-less the British Army and Royal Navy eventually bought Hale's toy and carried it with them on various colonial wars from Ethiopia to Afghanistan.

In 1879 an unfortunate Major Russell found himself in charge of a rocket battery at the Battle of Isandhlwana. As a Zulu Impi descended on him he managed to fire off just one rocket - which missed, before having to resort to his sword. This just about summed up the performance of the war rocket. Two years later when a battery of Navy rockets went off to fight the Boers where they were similarly ineffective.

That was pretty much it for the gunpowder war rocket. They remained on the official inventory until 1919, before finally being pensioned off along with the cavalry lance and other relics of the previous century.

It was not the end for rockets. Twenty five years later chemical fueled V2s were falling on London. This time though nobody felt like turning the result into poetry.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Dressed to Kill


The famed 'flag march', where Indian and Pakistani soldiers engage in a competitive display of high-camp macho posturing, is to be toned down, tragic collateral damage from improving relations between the two nuclear armed states.

This is bad news for tourists, who loved the spectacle, but somewhat indifferent news for military pundits, for whom a rule of thumb is that the more a nation postures in peacetime, the less effective it is in time of war.

To be fair to the Indian and Pakistani armies, the guys doing the high kicking with fans on their heads are only border guards: had things kicked off on the sub-continent the real fighting would have been carried out by scruffier soldiers.

The stereotype of the army that is all trouser and no mouth, so to speak, is that of the African 'banana republic'. These soldiers, with their paratrooper berets, starched camouflage gear and shades, used to be a feature of the evening news when I was growing up - every dictator worth his salt had division or so. You knew just by looking at them that the only operation they could carry out even semi-competently was the Military Coup. By contrast the soldiers that did the real fighting: the Viet Cong, the SAS, the Taliban, always looked like sh*t by comparison.

Historically the supreme prize for show over substance goes though to the Romanian army of the
First World War. The Romanians, at that time, has a reputation of being 'the Neapolitans of Eastern Europe' and under the leadership of General Ion Emanuel Florescu their army's drab Khaki became a work of art. Uniforms were enlivened with commemorative plaques and emblems, and special get-up was designed for engineers, brewers, baggage handlers and every other hanger-on in the army. The General's Orders of the Day usually included a dress code as well. So fastidious was the Romanian grunt about his appearance that a rule had be enacted that banned the use of make up to all except commissioned officers.

Whatever amorous thoughts the suited-and-booted Romanian soldier inspired in the ladies, it certainly wasn't matched by a lust for combat. When Romania entered the war on the Allies side in 1916, their army put on rather a poor show. Indeed stories abound of whole Romania units mistaking their frustrated Russian allies for their Austro-Hungarian enemies and trying to surrender to them.

All of which suggests that if we want peace, rather than toning down their flag ceremony, India and Pakistan should be spicing it up a bit, perhaps even letting the rest of the world take part.

So perhaps we should dream of a world where combat troops have been replaced by combat troupes and where we can all sleep safer in our beds?