Sunday, December 25, 2016

Merry Christmas

I'm not going to post a full-length blog post today. It's Christmas Day, after all, and I am going to be spending it with my family. But I didn't like the idea of breaking my once-a-week rule for this blog, so let me just say that I hope you have a lovely holiday and take time to reflect on the deeper meanings of what Christmas is all about.

I'll simply leave you with a quote from Charles Dickens:

Time was, with most of us, when Christmas Day encircling all our limited world like a magic ring, left nothing out for us to miss or seek; bound together all our home enjoyments, affections, and hopes; grouped everything and everyone around the Christmas fire; and made the little picture in our bright young eyes, complete.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

What I Want For Christmas

It being the holiday season, I thought I would share my Christmas wish list with anyone who happens to read my blog. If any of you feel inclined to actually give me any of these presents, I would be very happy, indeed.

First on my list is for Donald Trump to prove me wrong and govern this nation with restraint and good sense, serving the good of the American people rather than his own self-aggrandizement. I would like him to seek advice, work by consensus, pursue concrete solutions to real problems rather than make flashy pronouncements that make himself look good. For starters, I would like to see him put all his financial interests in a blind trust and delete his Twitter account. This is the present I put at the top of my list, underlined several times and with stars drawn on each end. Sadly, it is the present I expect least to actually get.

I would like the federal government to balance its budget. It sickens me that Congress borrows such an obscene amount of money every year, largely spent on unnecessary things, knowing full well that our children, grandchildren, and probably several successive generations are going to have to pay the money back on day. In the meantime, the ever increasing amount of interest which has to be paid on the already existing debt is eating away at the hard-earned money of the taxpayers, making it more and more difficult to allocate funds to deserving purposes.

I'd also like to see serious action, rather than simply grand pronouncements, on the issue of climate change. While I am not one of the extreme alarmists who asserts that climate change is going to wipe out human civilization, but there is no doubt that it is going to result in massive upheaval in many parts of the world, which will in turn affect the rest of it. The United States and Europe will not remain immune to it. My two daughters are going to grow up in a world transformed by climate change and it is far past time for our nation's leaders to start taking real steps to address the issue. As an added bonus, I would like more attention given to other critical problems that are too often ignored, like the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria or the terrifying "die off" of the bees who pollinate plants on which we depend.

I would like to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolved. Ditto the dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. I would love to see North Korea's dictatorship overthrown and the entire Korean peninsula peacefully reunified under the auspices of the Republic of Korea. I would love to see the status of Taiwan settled according to the democratically expressed wishes of the people who live there. I would love to see all nondemocratic regimes in the world, from the Communist Party in China to the tin-pot dictators who rule much of Africa, step down and be replaced with governments that embrace true and genuine democracies. I would love to ISIS destroyed as thoroughly as Carthage was destroyed by Rome and the remnants of Al Qaeda finished off for good. I would love to see the scourge of puritanical Wahhabism cleansed from the Muslim world.

As readers of my blog know well, I consider ninety percent of elected officials in the United States to be either corrupt crooks or incompetent nonentities. If it's not too much trouble, a nice Christmas gift would be a comprehensive package of election reforms that would help level the playing field for good and decent citizens who want to run for office. I'd like to see gerrymandering abolished, term limits implemented for the House of Representatives and all state legislatures, genuine campaign finance reform, and ranked choice voting for elections on all levels.

What else? Oh, I'd like a much more active space program, with more robotic missions to the other worlds in the solar system, more space telescopes and observatories to study the deep cosmos, and a real plan to send a human expedition to Mars. And while you're at it, it would be nice to see sufficient funding being allocated to the National Park System, too. Since, assuming I get the gift mentioned in the paragraph just above, there won't be huge amounts of money flowing to the clients of special interest lobbyists, there should be more than enough dollars to take care of these two items. Reducing the American nuclear arsenal to a level similar to that of France or Britain would be nice, too, along with a legally mandated "no first use" policy by the United States.

I'm a teacher, so it won't surprise you that many of my gifts have to do with education. I think teachers should be paid decent salaries, for one thing. I think that the insane level of paperwork and micromanagement should be reduced, so that teachers might be allowed you actually teach stuff to kids. I would love it if you somehow arrange for Latin to be taught to all American students, for classical history to be a central part of the social studies curriculum, and for civics education to be revitalized as well.

I wish people would pay less attention to silly issues such as whether the President says "Islamic" or "Islamist" when describing certain terrorists, whether confectionery shops should be legally required to prepare cakes for gay weddings, or or whether people who burn the flag should be jailed and stripped of their citizenship (which would be clear violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments, by the way). I wish college students would quit whining of about "safe spaces" and "trigger warnings" and "microaggressions" and instead focus on things like economics, law, science, history, engineering, and so forth. We have very serious problems to address in the America of the early 21st Century and I wish people would use a little common sense in formulating their priorities.

Wait, my list isn't done. I would love to receive the gift of living in a society where politeness is valued. I would love for people to refrain from talking during the movie, to return their shopping carts to the cart return stall rather than leaving them in the parking space, to slow down when someone is trying to change lanes, and to tip waiters and waitresses a decent amount. I wish people would refrain from loudly talking on their cell phones in otherwise quiet coffee shops and, for that matter, in pretty much every other place as well. I'm sure there are a million other examples of rudeness I wish would could exterminate from society, but I only have so much time to type out this list.

Another item on my list is for people to try to live lives of deeper authenticity. I would like for everybody, but especially young people, to put their smart phones down and read a book instead. I would like for people to take food more seriously, cooking meals at home using local and organic ingredients rather than running through the drive-through at McDonald's or ordering the chicken fingers at Chili's. I wish people would spend more time going to see live music and take in plays put on by community theaters. I would like people to get there news from serious newspapers rather than partisan websites or cable news networks. I wish people spent more time with their friends and families and less time indulging in digital entertainment.

Finally, I'd like Chelsea Football Club win the Premier League and the Dallas Cowboys to win the Super Bowl. And I wouldn't mind a winning lotto ticket, either.

That will do for this year. Next year I may want more.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Declarations of War

Last Wednesday was the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The following day, logically enough, was the 75th anniversary of the American declaration of war against Japan, which was approved unanimously in the Senate and with only a single dissenting vote in the House of Representatives (cast by Congresswoman Jeanette Rankin, a strict pacifist). The vote came after one of the most recognizable moments in American history: the "day of infamy" speech of President Franklin Roosevelt. Within the space of twenty-four hours, a previously isolationist United States had been forced by history onto the global stage, from which it has never since withdrawn.

Roosevelt was faced with a problem, for he clearly saw that Nazi Germany, and not Imperial Japan, was the greater threat to the United States and to the world in general, yet Germany had not attacked the United States. Hitler solved this problem for Roosevelt in one of the more stupid moves made by a world leader in history when he declared war on the United States, despite not being required to do so by his treaty with Japan. The United States, logically enough, declared war on Germany (and Italy, which made the same mistake) on December 11. Just to make it all a nice packaged deal, the United States declared war on the smaller Axis nations of Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania on June 5, 1942. We never bothered to declare war on Finland, which was sort of a special case.

The American declarations of war during 1941-42 were the most recent occasions that the United States formally declared war on any other nation. It comes as something of a surprise to learn that this took place only four other times in American history: against Britain in 1812, against Mexico in 1846, against Spain in 1898, and against Germany and Austria-Hungary in 1917 (we never bothered to declare war against the other members of the Central Powers, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire, during the First World War). During the American Civil War, the Confederate government formally declared war on the United States, but the reverse never happened as it would have required the Union to recognize the Confederacy as a legitimate government.

A very important point needs to be made about all of these declarations: they were issued by Congress and not by the President. Article One, Section Eight, of the Constitution specifically states that the power to declare war is held by Congress and not the President. Since 1945, America has fought several major military conflicts, including Korea (1950-1953), Vietnam (1964-1973), the Persian Gulf War (1991), the Afghanistan War (2001-present) and the Iraq War (2003-2011). None of these involved a formal declaration of war, yet only a fool would describe them as anything other than a war. In all cases, Congress passed resolutions giving the President permission to engage in military action, although under dubious circumstances in the cases of both the Vietnam War and the Iraq War. What I find troubling is that Congress essentially legislated so as to give to the President the power to decide whether or not to go to war, which certainly violates the spirit, and probably violates the letter, of the Constitution.

Then you have the countless smaller military actions, that might not reach the level of an out-and-out war but which cannot be described as insignificant. The first memory I have of a news event was the destruction of the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983, during Reagan's ill-fated intervention there. Since then, we have the invasion of Grenada in 1983, the invasion of Panama in 1989, the various interventions in the Balkans in the 1990s, and the intervention in Libya in 2011. Some of these actions were approved by Congress, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, while some were not.

The Founding Fathers lived in an age when kings and emperors still ruled most of the world. Such men were natural seekers of glory and generally cared little for whatever suffering might be inflicted on others as a result. Only a few decades before their time, Louis XIV of France had sought to immortalize his reign through martial achievements and during their lives Frederick the Great of Prussia had done the same. Moreover, being products of an education largely centered on classical history, the Founders could look to the past and see examples such as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. It was a concession to common sense, therefore, that the delegates to the Constitutional Convention gave the power to declare war to Congress rather than the President. To place such a momentous decision in the hands of a single individual was simply too dangerous.

Indeed, an argument can be made that the delegates to the Constitutional Convention wanted to prevent a permanent standing army from ever being created. Article One, Section Eight, specifies that the Congress has the power to "raise and support armies" and to "provide and maintain a navy". Why this wording? Why didn't the delegates say "provide and maintain an army and navy"? It seems pretty clear to me that the Founders intended the navy to be a permanent force, but only expected armies to be raised in time of war. During peacetime, the state militias were expected to provide whatever military force would be necessary. After all, having a powerful standing army would not only be expensive, but might provide the President with an irresistible temptation to foreign military involvement either for the sake of personal glory or to distract the people from domestic political problems.

The question of whether Congress or the President should have the final say on questions of peace or war has been on my mind lately and not just because of the anniversary of our entry into the Second World War. President-Elect Donald Trump will take office next month and he is a man famous for shooting from the hip and making decisions based on gut instinct rather than long consideration. He has also expressed support for military actions that are clearly illegal, such as torturing prisoners and killing the innocent family members of terrorists. Some have suggested that the military would refuse to follow such orders if President Trump were to give them, which would make for quite the dilemma for a military officer. Frankly, the very fact that we have to ask the question at all is deeply troubling. Upon entering office, will President Trump respect the constitutional fact that Congress, and not the President, is the part of government which has the power to declare war? Based on his past statements, I would have to assume he won't.

This question is about far more than President Trump, however. It's about the presidency in general, no matter which individual happens to be sitting in the Oval Office. Since the Second World War, our country has quietly allowed the presidency to assert far greater authority in the sphere of war and peace than was envisioned by the Founding Fathers. In 1973, after the disaster of the Vietnam War, Congress attempted to reassert its war declaration authority with the War Powers Resolution. Unfortunately, this simply made an already bad problem even worse. It specified that the President must obtain congressional authorization for any military action that lasts for more than sixty days. This implies, obviously, that the President does not need congressional authorization for a military operation of a shorter duration. An airstrike lasts a matter of minutes, so does the President have the constitutional right to order an airstrike against any country he wants, for whatever reason he wants? Can he order a Tomahawk missile strike against a restaurant in Paris if he didn't like their soup?

This becomes all the more frightening when we consider the possible use of nuclear weapons. If Congress has abdicated its war declaration responsibility to the President so completely, what constitutional barriers are in place to prevent the President from ordering a nuclear strike on his own volition? If the President has a gut feeling, absent any real evidence, that China is about to launch a nuclear attack on us, can he unilaterally order a preemptive nuclear strike? Under operational procedures, the Secretary of Defense must confirm any launch order from the President, but this is only to confirm the validity of the order and does not technically give the Secretary of Defense the power to block the order itself.

In 1973, an Air Force major named Harold Hering, who was attached to one of the units operating Minuteman ICBMs with nuclear warheads, asked his superiors whether he would have to follow orders to launch his missiles if he suspected that the President was "deranged, disordered or. . . damagingly intoxicated" or showed some other sign of not being in possession of his faculties. For the simple act of asking this question, Major Hering was discharged from the Air Force.

The Founding Fathers were quite right to invest Congress rather than the President with the power to declare war, for they well understood the danger of granting such authority to a single person. They would be both astonished and horrified to see how the executive branch has gradually accumulated that power to itself over the past few decades, under multiple presidents of both parties. To me, it is terrifying enough to have the lives of hundreds of thousands of American soldiers potentially placed at risk due to the whims of a single person. In an age of nuclear weapons, it's not too much to say that the stakes are raised to the level of the survival of the human race.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

The "What Ifs" of Pearl Harbor

Wednesday will mark the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, one of the seminal events in American history. It stands with the fighting at Lexington and Concord, the firing on Fort Sumter, and the 9/11 attacks as an event that marked a sharp dividing line in the course of our nation's story.

The event is so well-documented and so burned into the American psyche that it scarcely needs to be retold here. The Japanese government, dominated by its military, had decided to make a play for imperial domination of East Asia and the Pacific. They had been launched a war of conquest against China a decade earlier, had occupied French Indochina, and were flexing the muscles of their naval power over the American, British, and Dutch possessions to the south. The United States had imposed economic sanctions against Japan, cutting them off from vital imports of oil and various raw materials necessary to continue prosecuting their war in China. Deciding that the direct approach was the best, Japan elected to launch a wide-ranging offensive throughout the Western Pacific, starting with a preemptive strike against the United States Pacific Fleet based at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

Across the distance of time, even a patriotic American like me can acknowledge that the attack was a masterful military operation. It was extremely well-planned and executed, with the two waves of attacking aircraft arriving over their designated targets almost exactly on time. The logistics involved with fueling and provisioning such a large fleet so far from Japanese bases was a considerable achievement. And the fact that the Japanese achieved complete tactical surprise testifies to their ability to maintain operational secrecy.

Flying from six aircraft carriers, roughly three hundred and fifty Japanese aircraft blew the Pacific Fleet to pieces in a matter of hours. Eight battleships were destroyed or rendered inoperable, along with a number of cruisers and destroyers. Nearly two hundred American aircraft were destroyed. More than 2,400 American personnel were killed. From a military standpoint, it was one of the greatest defeats ever suffered by the United States of America.

President Franklin Roosevelt was correct when he called December 7 "a date which will live in infamy." After all, at the moment that the first Japanese bombs and torpedoes were dropped at Pearl Harbor, the United States and Japan were at peace. The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor was a cowardly, dishonorable act and it has rightly been remembered as such by history.

The United States, of course, took its revenge. Despite the success of its attack and several months of whirlwind victories across the western Pacific Ocean, Japan could never hope to prevail in a war with the United States, whose industrial power utterly outmatched that of the Japanese. Within six months, the Japanese advance had been halted and the Americans, aided by their allies, began to drive their enemies back. The ended with an unconditional Japanese surrender in the summer of 1945, with its cities reduced to smoking ruins by relentless Allied bombings, including the only two instances in which nuclear weapons have been used in warfare.

There has been much discussion of how the events surrounded the attack on Pearl Harbor might have gone differently. Let's a look at some of these scenarios.

1. What if the Pacific Fleet had not been caught by surprise?
As with the attacks of September 11, 2001, the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor generated intensive self-examination on the part of the Americans to comprehend how such a failure of intelligence had been possible. It was subsequently revealed that there had been many chances to have discovered the coming Japanese attack. American radar picked up in the incoming swarms of Japanese bombers, but it was dismissed by inexperienced and poorly trained operators as friendly aircraft. A Japanese midget submarine was sunk by an American destroyer near Pearl Harbor an hour before the attack, but the base was not put on alert.

These warning signs should have been quickly passed up the chain of command, so that fighters could have been scrambled to intercept the incoming attackers and anti-aircraft defenses of Pearl Harbor could have been manned and ready. Had this happened, the damage inflicted by the Japanese attack would have been considerably lessened and the number of Japanese aircraft shot down would have been substantially greater than was the case historically.

This would have been very good news for the United States, which spent the first few months of the Pacific War reeling from the loss of its battleships. If, say, the USS Arizona or the USS California had not been destroyed, they could have served as the main capital ships of a much more powerful Pacific Fleet, which could conceivably have sortied towards the Philippines to rescue their beleaguered comrades. In any case, considering the enormous time and cost required to drive the Japanese from the territory they gained in the opening months of the war, any improvement in the American situation vis-a-vis the historical reality would mean that Japan would be defeated earlier and at a lower cost in American lives.

On the other hand, if the Americans had obtained knowledge of the attack several days in advance, rather than a few hours, the situation oddly could have turned out worse for them then it historically did. For the Pacific Fleet would clearly have sortied to meet the Japanese on the open sea. The Japanese would have had a numerical advantage and events would prove that, in late 1941, they were simply more skilled and experienced in naval fighting than their American counterparts. It could therefore be expected that the Americans would have the worst of any such encounter.

What would make this situation more dire that the actual attack on Pearl Harbor is the fact that any ship sunk on the high seas would plunge to the bottom of the ocean, rather than the shallow waters of the naval base. Of the eight battleships put out of action in the attack on December 7, six were eventually raised and put back into service. Had the battle been fought on the high seas, any American battleship sunk would be gone for good.

2. What the American aircraft carriers had been present at Pearl Harbor on December 7?
While the death and destruction wrecked by the Japanese in their attack was terrible and costly, in truth it could have been much worse. The primary targets of the Japanese attack were the three aircraft carriers of the Pacific Fleet: the USS Enterprise, the USS Lexington, and the USS Saratoga. Had they been in port, they surely would have been blasted to pieces, as aircraft carriers made easier targets than battleships.

As chance would have it, however, none of three carriers were in Pearl Harbor on the day of the attack. The Enterprise and Lexington were ferrying aircraft to American bases farther west, while the Saratoga was near San Diego. All were so far away that they never were in any danger from the Japanese attack. In the months following the attack on Pearl Harbor, these three carriers would be the only effective force contesting control of the Pacific with the Japanese. They played crucial roles in the Battle of the Coral Sea in May (in which the Lexington was severely damaged and had to be scuttled) and the epic Battle of Midway in June, turning the tide of the war in the Pacific.

Had the carriers been in dock at Pearl Harbor, they would have been destroyed and the American war effort in the Pacific over the next few months would have been much less effective than it was historically. It would have allowed the Japanese to solidify their positions in the Pacific and perhaps extend their conquests (although suggestions that they might have invaded Australia seem too far-fetched to be taken seriously). Historically, the American counter-offensive began at Guadalcanal in August of 1942 with the landings on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. Had the American carriers been lost at Pearl Harbor, any American attempt to drive back the Japanese probably would not have been able to begin until sometime in 1943 and would have much more ground the retake.

3. What if the Japanese third wave had been launched?
The attack on Pearl Harbor consisted of two waves of attacking aircraft, both of which had targeted the warships of the Pacific Fleet. It was proposed that a third wave be launched, focusing its attack on the facilities of the Pearl Harbor base itself. These vital machine shops, drydocks, and fuel storage sites later proved crucial not only to repairing the warships that had been damaged in the attack, but maintaining the Pacific Fleet when it fought the Battle of Midway and organized the great counter offensive against the Japanese.

Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, in overall command of the Japanese task force, elected not to launch a third wave. There were several logical reasons for this decision. He did not want to risk having his returning airmen land on the carriers during darkness, something in which the Japanese were not well-practiced. He did not know the location of the American carriers and was afraid that they might be nearby and able to launch a counter strike. Finally, his fuel situation was becoming critical. For all these reasons, Nagumo decided to play it safe and head home without launching a third wave.

Many people on both sides of the conflict, including Admiral Chester Nimitz, later stated that the failure of the Japanese to launch a third wave targeting the port facilities was a crucial mistake. Had the dock facilities been destroyed or several damaged, it might have been a more crushing blow to American operations in the Pacific even than the loss of the warships themselves. At the very least, the later counter offensives would have had to be launched much later, with similar historical results as the hypothetical loss of the carriers.

Conclusion
One thing has to be remembered above all. No matter what changes one could envision in the events surrounding the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, they would not have affected the ultimate outcome of the war. There was no conceivable way in which Japan would have emerged the victor over the United States in the Pacific War, for the industrial power of America  The oft-repeated statement (which is probably apocryphal) of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto that all Japan had achieved at Pearl Harbor was to awaken a sleeping giant was all too true.

The United States had an economy seventeen times larger than that of Japan and its level of industrial production was perhaps seventy or eighty times as large. There was no conceivable way to defeat such odds in the age of industrial warfare. To give an idea of the disparity, consider this. Between 1941 and 1945, the United States produced ten battleships, forty-eight cruisers, and thirty hundred and forty-nine destroyers. Japan, by contrast, produced only two battleships, nine cruisers, and sixty-three destroyers. Counting small escort carriers as well as large fleet carriers, the United States put out one hundred and forty-one carriers of all types, while Japan built only seventeen. Between 1939 and 1945, the United States build more than 324,000 aircraft, while Japan built only 76,000. In the same time frame, the United States built nearly thirty-four million tons of merchant shipping, while Japan achieved a paltry four million.

How on Earth did Japan's war planners expect to have a chance against such long odds? Granted, a large proportion of America's war production was geared towards the defeat of Germany in Europe, but there was more than enough left over to crush Japan into rubble sooner or later.

If the Americans had been alerted to the incoming Japan attack a few hours ahead of time and taken immediate action, the damage to the Pacific Fleet would have been greatly reduced. We could then expect the defeat of Japan to occur considerably earlier than it did historically, perhaps in 1944 or even 1943. This raises a fascinating if troubling question, for the atomic bomb would not have been ready for use by that date. Would the end of the war have seen an invasion of the Japanese Home Islands themselves? If so, the war might have turned out to be both more successful for the Americans, yet also more costly and horrific.

Had the American carriers been in base and destroyed, or had the third wave destroyed the port facilities so vital to the war effort, the Japanese would have enjoyed a much more successful 1942 than they historically did. In such a case, we might expect them to conquer all of New Guinea and more of the islands west of it, and perhaps Midway Island as well. The defensive perimeter envisioned by the Japanese war planners would have been complete and made as strong as possible. The overall war plan of Japan was to create such a strong barrier to an American counter offensive that the United States would have sought some sort of peace agreement rather than endure the cost in lives and treasure required to break it.

By underestimating the political will of the United States and the social cohesion of the American people, the Japanese committed one of the great miscalculations in world history. Even had the attack on Pearl Harbor been more successful than it was historically, the United States still would have built an unstoppable navy and then they would have gone on to win the war. Even if Pearl Harbor had been utterly destroyed and the Americans had had to start from the coast of California, they would have done so and there was nothing Japan could have done about it. The war would have been far longer and far bloodier, but the end result would have been the same.

The moment that the first Japanese plane dropped the first bomb on Pearl Harbor, the fate of Japan was completely and utterly sealed.