Top 5 by Venus in Arms – week 63

Greece: we never really talked about it. Maybe there will be a chance, also depending on if and how Russia’s promises of support will eventually materialize. For the time being, we sponsor the best travel guide on Greece. Not a conventional one, more on politics and less on dream islands.

With many issues on the agenda, from the Iran nuclear talks to the ever-present ISIS, the US still found time and resources to devote to Somalia. Foreign Policy’s Ty McCormick provides a narrative of the “shadowy presence” of the American military in the Horn of Africa.

Daniel Fiot looks at the consequences of the recently released US National Military Strategy on Europe. A summary? Time goes on, and gaps within NATO widen rather than narrowing.

An Italian cybersecurity company in the news (mostly international, by the way). Hacking Team, providing specialized cyber services, has been the victim of a cyber attack itself. Among the information released, how much it costs to crack email accounts.

A novel for the holidays? P.W. Singer co-authored Ghost Fleet, on how the future war will play out. His essays are great reads, let’s give him a chance.

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Top 5 by Venus in Arms – week 61

ISIS, again. Kobane was a great success in the reconquista that followed ISIS’ earlier pushes in Northern Syria. It seems that it has been just taken back by the armies of the Caliphate.

ISIS is also elsewhere, and it seems that it suffered a defeat in Libya in the last weeks. Foreign Policy reports on the battle in Derna, where ISIS was expelled by a (very) heterogeneous coalition including DMSC (Mujahideen Shura Council, linked to al-Qaeda) and the Libyan National Army.

In the meanwhile, in Europe, tensions are building up on the Eastern border. The US has been strengthening its NATO allies with increasing military support, by support meaning weapons. The last shipment involved about 250 tanks under a new plan devised by the Pentagon (or for) with allies.

Tensions in the real world, tensions in the virtual one. China is allegedly behind hacking the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) in the US, with a wealth of data on government employees. But attribution, when it comes to China, becomes a delicate diplomatic issue and no final culprit is yet revealed.

Finally, we keep suggesting military vehicles that you might be desire to get to solve traffic problems, loading requirements, and so on. This comes directly from Star Wars.


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Top 5 by Venus in Arms – week 57

ISIS always makes headlines. And it still seems to surprise several observers, some of whom foresee its rapid demise every week it does not make important territorial gains. Well, ISIS recently reached the historical city of Palmyra, in Syria, worrying strategists and archeologists alike. The human cost of war in the area is staggering as well.

And ISIS did not stop there, but is trying to cause havoc in the Kingdom (of Saudi Arabia) as well. A recent mosque attack might signal more to come, also due to the radicalization of (a part of) Saudi youth.

So, why are teenagers joining ISIS? The New Yorkers’ Ben Taub tries to provide some answers.

Not many good news for US policy-makers, then. The good ones seem recently to come often from technological advances. Even manpower-intense activities such as Special Operations should greatly benefit, for instance, from increased speed of DNA reader in conducting terrorists’ searches.

Obituary: John Nash died in a car accident on Sunday. He reached popular fame after the movie A Beautiful Mind portrayed both his genius and his mental illnesses. He was, among other things, one of the fathers of game theory, one of the branches of mathematics that affected the most strategic theory, especially during the Cold War. His legacy is rich, and often non-penetrable to laymen. But RAND Corporation, where Nash was a consultant for several years in that period, still maintains a section on game theory and its several applications for social sciences and policy.

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Top 5 by Venus in Arms – week 53

A US Edition this week. It’s time for the 2016 budget in the US, and defense budget enters the 2016 fray with a lot of issues on the agenda. DefenseOne has a very complete page to stay updated on how things will evolve, while key facts/numbers are provided by the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute.

The US Navy clearly has an important stake in this process. If the direction of change is still unclear, there are few doubts that new challenges –and namely Chinese missile capabilities – have been interpreted as requiring a larger surface fleet than previously planned.  Financial sustainability of such plans is the key issue.

The DoD’s Cyber Strategy was also released. Duck of Minerva  features a post on the topic that provides quite a skeptical viewon the ability of the Pentagon to actually face the threat.

In the meanwhile, some voices have been urging President Obama to keep the US away from (too) troubled waters. The deterioration of the situation in Yemen, with risks of total chaos favoring US (and Saudi Arabia) foes, might seem to call for bold action. Fred Kaplan advises against getting into the Yemeni trap.

National Guard was used in the attempt to quell the riots in Baltimore, Maryland, that followed another case of alleged police violence against an African-American. The Atlantic’s Conor Feiersdorf argues that both the police and the violent rioters should held accountable for the situation.

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Organized crime and “political” violence: A report from MPSA 2015 and a focus on Italian mafias

Midwest Political Science Annual Conference last week in Chicago. Good place to keep updated – and try to contribute on – recent advancements in the discipline. Few strands of literature have been enjoying a blossoming in the past years as conflict studies did. Evolving political realities – lot of attention was devoted to “Afghanistan and Iraq-like wars” – and progresses in research design and methods – with a strong push coming from quantitative studies blended in making the field so rich. Within this growing body of studies, a relevant place has been occupied by research looking at forms of violence and agents, such as organized crime, which have often escaped classical analyses of “political” violence.  Or at least those following Schmitt’s classical distinction between political and criminal aims contained in the famous Theory of the Partisan.

Thus, the panel on “Political Violence and Crime” at MPSA constituted an interesting opportunity to discuss current research on the theme (I think the late Charles Tilly, who was always keen in relating organized crime and political phenomena, would have been happy about it). Five very interesting pieces of work were presented. Harvard’s Bradley Holland presented a paper on ethnic violence linked to drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs) in Southern California. Guillermo Trejo and Sandra Ley (Notre Dame) showed the link between the structures of political arenas and DTOs’ killings of politicians in Mexico. University of Wisconsin’s Nicholas Barnes presented his extensive fieldwork on gang governance in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, and Wolfgang Muno (University of Mainz) laid out an interpretative framework to analyse “bad informal institutions”.

And then (highly likely that it is not the best piece, but for sure the dearest to Venus), Francesco (Moro) and Salvatore Sberna had a piece on violence in non-traditional areas – that is in the regions were mafia consortia did not have their roots – in Italy. The problem is a central one, given that organized crime and mafias are increasingly mobile and that violence perpetrated by these groups has been making the news on both sides of the Atlantic. Across the Ocean, there has been a lot of discussion over the effect of Mexican drug cartels’ presence in large US cities. Italian mafias as well sparked debate, both in Italy – where presence in the Northern regions of the country has been expanding for decades – and abroad – where violence erupted in “surprising” locations (such as Duisburg in Germany, where a massacre took place in 2007).

The paper addressed, both theoretically and empirically, two major puzzles. First, notwithstanding expansion in Northern regions, the number of mafia homicides in these areas is overall much lower than in Southern regions where mafias have their strongholds. Second, although limited, violence (measured by mafia homicides) in Northern regions present notable diversities: some provinces in some years are clearly more violent than others. How, then, can this diversity be explained?

Three main findings emerge:

  • Violence in non-traditional areas is more limited as groups do not find the same environmental conditions of territories of origin. First, the balance of forces versus law enforcement is penalizing. Second, business in new markets is less confined to the provision of “private protection” and more based on the attempt to penetrate legal markets, where resort to violence is less needed. Becoming legitimate, by way, has been the attempt of most criminals in pop-culture, from Michael Corleone to Lemond Bishop (a reference for the Chicagoans). This has always Third, and as a consequence, mafia groups in new areas often choose to “outsource” the use of violent means to other agents (often, coming from parent groups in areas of origin).
  • When violence happens in new territories, it is often the result of “transfers” (spillovers) from mafia violence in the old ones. That is, if a conflict erupts in a Sicilian province, it will likely affect violence in a Northern province where the Sicilian groups involved in the conflict previously migrated.
  • Violence transfers are affected by local conditions as well. Spillovers, in other words, happen in the provinces where the mafia groups’ presence has been more consolidated (over time) and where they actually have more capabilities/resources (which is signalled by the absence of other mafia consortia in the same area).

Work is under way in these directions. Stay tuned for details!

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Top 5 by Venus in Arms – week 51

A week between technology and culture – as in a still relevant book by Thomas Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree.

While ISIS keeps claiming that the re-establishment of a Caliphate that reaches out to once Arab Europe is one of its goals, there has been a debate in Spain over Google Maps renaming the Mosque in Cordoba.

In the meanwhile, the Pentagon is thinking about (or is dreaming about) a machine that can make use of big data to predict events. It kind of reminds of Spielberg’s Minority Report.

Tel Aviv is hosting the Annual CyberTech Fair. The head of the famous Iron Dome program, which shields Israeli citizens from rockets, stated that he is working towards a “similar” program defending from cyber-threats (the CyberDome?)

Vice News embedded a video journalist in the Nigerian Army fighting Boko Haram. Here you can find the first of a three-part report that sheds light on of the world’s hottest spots.

NBA Playoffs start on April 18th. Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix responds to some key questions over the most exciting part of the season. Take some time off and enjoy the games!

Ps: This week Venus will be at the Annual Conference of the Midwest Political Science Association. A lot of interesting stuff, check here for further info.


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Top 5 by Venus in Arms – week 49

Technology and culture this week.

Technology: from large to small, in a conservative fashion. While the famous reform of article 9 of the Japanese Constitution is in the air, Japan commissions the largest ship since WWII (the JS Izumo). It looks very much as an aircraft carrier, but it formally only carries helicopters, of course.

Hunting submarines becomes increasingly important when the value of surface ships increases. Patrolling comes thorugh different tools, most recently aerial drones. This is the Navy’s most recent one, and looks like a duck.

Drones are becoming more capable and widespread. Next steps of innovation also come through so-called bio-mimickry, the imitation of biological systems. Please meet the “fish drone called Wanda”.

Culture and conflict: The Vietnam War is often heralded as a shifting point in the relation between media and conflict. The Atlantic features a photo essay in three parts about the war: take a look at the first part on the years 1962-1967.

ISIS is increasingly present in North Africa. The Guardian reports that the town of Tataouine is becoming an ISIS base. The village inspired George Lucas for Star Wars (Tatooine it is the home planet of Luke Skywalker), which was partly filmed in Tunisia.

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Top 5 by Venus in Arms – week 47

Changing ideas is a sign of intelligence, a necessary element of academic research. It is also a key for organizational adaptation and learning. It’s hard, though, and also for individuals, to admit they’re wrong.  That’s why the list of past “wrongs” by Steven Walt, a dean of American IR scholars, is a must read.

Photos often describe conflict better than many words. The Atlantic features a series of impressive photos of Reuters’ photo reporters in Northern Iraq, where battle is raging.

Sticking with ISIS (is there anything else, nowadays?), DefenceOne presents the case for drones: air strikes are doing the job in Iraq and Syria.

Well, perhaps something else matters. Where is Vladimir Putin? BBC responds with humor (we know now he is still among us..)

Finally, elections in Israel.  Follow the live blog of the Jerusalem Post. As they say, “Israel has no foreign policy, just domestic politics”.

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Top 5 by Venus in Arms – week 45

While fighting continues in Libya, Syria, and Iraq (and elsewhere), much attention has been devoted to leaders and leadership this week.

Russia possibly tops the list. Putin’s assertiveness abroad and at home is the hot topic, also following the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. Possibly, you already read everything about it in the past few days. So we suggest you also watch the 3rd season of TV series House of Cards and look if you agree with how Russia is portrayed there.

President Obama is building is legacy. Still a lot of clouds linger over his presidency with reference to foreign policy, possibly not to break up until he’s long away from office. One message is trying to send, anyway, is “Be Not Afraid” (from March issue of The Atlantic).

Third, Benjamin Netanyahu went to Congress for a highly controversial speech. Debate rages on pretty much everything concerning the Israeli leader. This is his speech, no comments attached.

Power politics has been long back in Asia. So military analysts have been starting to look at military planning, with Japan and China being the most scrutinized subjects. Navies, in particular, enjoyed a great deal of attention (Venus featured a piece on the theme a while ago), and this how Japan might be facing China’s growing military prowess.

Last, a very different piece on music, culture and Malcolm X. Addressed issue, among else: is the African American leader shot in 1965 a hero for Muslim radicals in Europe?

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Of legends and snipers. Clint Eastwood’s war movies for Social Scientists

Guest post by Marco Di Giulio*

American sniper (2014) is just the last of several movies Clint Eastwood dedicated to the Military and its connections with American and western society. This post recalls the main landmarks of Eastwood’s recherche in this field, offering a sort of retrospective for social scientists. My perspective is in fact that of a (modest) scholar in Politics and Administration, certainly not that of a professional movie critic. As such, the only thing I can do to celebrate the career of this extraordinary director is to highlight how he has been insightful in grasping some of the more sophisticated problems concerning the functioning of institutions, and in particular those characterizing the U.S. Military.

Many directors, of course, have dealt with similar issues. Although sometimes celebratory – think about John Ford’s The long grey line (1955) – war movies have been mostly iconoclast and de-costructivist, as in the case of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpieces, Paths of Glory (1957). However, no one else a part from Clint Eastwood has experimented with the juxtaposition of both registers. What makes Eastwood different is indeed the effort to de-construct and re-construct the Military at the same time.

Eastwood is well known and celebrated for his demystification of American myths, as the Academy Awards won by the western heroes depicted in The Unforgiven (1992) show. Less well known and acclaimed is however his effort to scrutinize human feelings to find the very origins of institutions, which is what makes him the ideal successor of John Ford. As sociologist James Coleman put it, institutions are the cement of society and can be properly scrutinized only by paying attention to micro-behaviours of every-day life. In the following paragraphs I will point out three lines of institutional analysis which can be found in Eastwood’s war movies and which have in addressing some of the main dilemmas of complex organizations.

Decisions under ambiguity: improvisation and its limits

There is a widespread consensus among many prominent organizational theorists such as Herbert Simon, James Thompson and James March that, under the conditions of environmental uncertainty or ambiguity, organizations are likely to take decisions which are far from being rational, in the simplest meaning of this notion. They do not calculate costs and benefits, nor are they capable of coherently aligning their operational skills with their goals. They simply do not know what to do. Nonetheless, they ought to decide, and they normally do so by recurring to repertories of standardized routines which – more or less consciously – they adapt to the new situation. Sometimes they simply improvise, moved by what Thompson called inspiration.

A similar a theme emerges in Eastwood’s portrayal of the Military. The problem mainly emerges in two of his movies: Heartbreak Ridge (1986) and American sniper (2014). The former tells the story of sergeant Tom Highway (Clint Eastwood), a grouchy, misogynist and alcohol-addicted Corea’s decorated veteran, who after years past in army logistics is allowed to go back to serve as a platoon instructor. Once in office, Gunny – this was his battle-name during the war – realizes that the American army is no longer what it used to be when he left it many years before. The New American Army, as major Powers – a West-Point under-experienced cadet – used to call it, is now an efficient organization, inspired by New Public Management principles, which in those years were rapidly spreading in western countries. Nowadays, all that officials have to do is to implement standardized training protocols, which have no connection with real field operations’ needs. Thus, of course, the movie revolves around the conflict between Gunny and the new generation of officials.

All in all, Gunny succeeds in revitalizing a platoon of demotivated and socially marginal fellows. He does so by forging them with his own educational methodology, well described by the motto improvise, adapt, overcome, to mean that – in the field – no fixed rule can apply and each soldier as well as the platoon as a whole should develop an attitude characterized by unconventionally under uncertainty. A real military operation somewhere in south-America finally comes up to test such an approach towards strategic decision making, which clearly emerges as the true added-value of any efficient organization.

Improvising may be, thus, unavoidable; it may even be successful or, at least, the best decisional shortcut one can adopt in extreme situations, but it remains a highly-risky pattern of action. In this sense, American sniper contributes to critically revise one of Eastwood’s most solid milestones: the unconditioned faith in self-organizing celebrated in Heartbreak Ridge and present in other non-war movies. Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) grew up in Texas, with precise ideas about good and evil, the perceived necessity to protect the weak from the bullies, and a failed career as rodeo-cow-boy. After 9/11, he reversed his sense of protection toward the entire nation and joined the Army, where he successfully passed the Navy Seal training. Kyle was initiated to war in Iraq, where he has been selected as a sniper, covering platoons in counter-insurgency operations. In settings such as this, a sniper plays a crucial role since, thanks to his position on the top of a building, it can more easily discover an enemy behind a woman or a child, and hunt out rival snipers in roofs kilometres away from him. Chris Kyle is strongly convinced that improvisation and adaptation are the only viable tactics to dismantle enemies. Hence, he personally contributed to modify field tactics, for instance when he supported the creation of Navy Seal’s task forces to support platoons on the ground and personally led a number of operations. Progressively, Kyle discovered dilemmas related to impulsive decision making. A sniper is in fact prepared to his own mistake about the nature of the killed: it is up to him to decide, and if a civilian, he alone bears the responsibility. Conversely, things are different when dealing with complex operations that involve more units. What if a decision is correct, but the timing is not? Twice, during the movie, severe American losses occur due to Kyle’s wrong timing in triggering an action without waiting for external support. With American Sniper Eastwood masterly criticizes his own military doctrine, making us aware of how dramatic improvisation can be.

On (the need for) legends

Do legends, heroes, exist in real life? The short answer is: no, they don’t, or, at least, they do not exist without a public that perceives them as such. The men and women we think about as heroes usually live ordinary lives, characterized by the same desires and fears as anyone else. Nonetheless, the institutions and organizations we live and operate within – and the army surely constitute an endless supply of examples in this sense – constantly produce legends and heroes, creating narratives about extraordinary persons, capable of embodying organizational goals. Throughout the XX Century, social scientists progressively uncovered how the opposition individual-organization is ultimately a false dichotomy. Organizations are neither something different from individuals who act within them; nor are superiors to individuals in any way, as XIX thinkers used to think. Needless to say, the good functioning of any given organization depends only to some extent upon formal rules. Much more depends on the existence of trust among people involved. The alignment of their private motives and organizational goals is far from being contractual deal. On the contrary, it involves emotional commitment and sense of belonging and, in turn, trust incentivise loyal behaviours of individuals among each other and toward organization. For this reason the creation of heroes is crucial and functional to establish a trustful environment in organizations which expose their members to a considerable risk (ultimately death).

In his career as a director, Eastwood has cyclically come back to these issues, each time with a new variation. In Heartbreak Ridge, Corea’s decoration represented for Gunny Highway a sort of stigma. The New American Army was in no need for legends. Efficiency and effectiveness would have been reached by rational and formalized protocols. Nor was Gunny’s platoon initially scared by his decaying myth. Sergeant Highway eventually gains the respect of the platoon one day at a time, as he progressively manages to instil in that collection of demotivated losers a sense of self-respect. American sniper addresses the same topic from a different angle. Chris Kyle has, as a matter of fact, way more reasons to be treated as a hero. The legend – as his comrades in Iraq used to call him – counts more than 160 recorded kills. His fellow soldiers created and boosted his halo and this, in turn, contributed to forge their sense of protection: a sniper such as Kyle becomes little short of a guardian angel in risky counter-insurgency operations. If the legend of Gunny highway played a pedagogical role, a sort of military bildung characterized by an intergenerational transfer of organizational values, Chris Kyle personifies a certain ideal-type of military leadership, based on a mix of individual braveness and protectiveness of his own group. In a certain sense, American sniper logically precedes Heartbreak Ridge. Similarly to Chris Kyle, Gunny Highway becomes a myth for having saved tens of soldiers from an otherwise certain death in Korea. And just as Gunny Highway, Chris Kyle would have surely encountered hurdles in integrating back into civil life, had a mentally disturbed veteran he was helping not decided to kill him.

Flags of Ours Fathers (2006) is probably the movie that focuses the most on the ‘production’ of heroes. It explores both causes and consequences of such a phenomenon, cleverly alternating individual and collective implications. The movie tells the backstage story of the epic Joe Rosenthal’s picture, Raising the flag of Iwo Jima, where six marines belonging to the 25th Regiment are caught in the very moment in which the U.S. flag was being hoisted atop the Suribachi mountain. The picture became immediately famous at home, as it vividly transmitted a longed for sense of victory to a nation that was getting tired of war. Policy makers and newspapers boosted the myth and the six soldiers were called back home, celebrated as heroes and told/obliged to tour the whole country to advocate war-bond raising to finance the final military effort.

In reality, however, they were not heroes, for one simple reason: Rosenthal’s picture has not caught the very moment of the flag being hoisted. That had happened the day before, but a second flag was hoisted and only then did Rosenthal capture the moment. The sudden and undeserved fame of those marines made them realize the profound hypocrisy of how war is described at home. War is not about heroes or, at least, it is not about extraordinary, fearless men. What is more, the closeness of the final victory they were representing was far from conveying the moment they were actually experiencing. The frontline reshaped the meaning of victory, where it lost most of its mythological aura. The propaganda machine went on fostering the cognitive dissonance of marines, many of whom experienced disaffection and depression.

Patriotism and nationhood

Today, the idea of national mobilization could not be more distant from our culture. However, only a century ago thousands of soldiers erected trenches all over Europe. Outside the boundaries of western civilization, people still organize themselves and are willing to die under the justification of ideologies, which are not far from those we have progressively softened or neglected.

Eastwood’s Flags of Ours Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) describes the war in the Pacific area, retracing the Iwo Jima battles from both the American and the Japanese perspective. Both movies are about patriotism. In other words, they try to answer the (social science) question: Why do rational agents go to war? Of course, most of them have historically been coerced to enroll, especially in field operations. There are however many others who behaved as ‘ordinary heroes’, facing bullets in order to save the dead body of a fellow soldier. The Japanese went above and beyond, with many cases of suicide, not only as a last resort instrument to hurt the enemies, but also – and more interestingly – in order not to have to surrender and be captured by them. Sometimes such an extreme choice was made in explicit noncompliance with officials’ orders, but with a spirit of loyalty to a superior collective belonging.

What Eastwood suggests with his movies is that the motives to such actions are not to be found in national interest, the defence of one’s Country’s liberty, or the ‘liberation’ of the enemy. Eastwood’s reconstruction leads us to the very experience of those soldiers: he shows us the collective sharing of hopes, fears, and jokes on behalf of a group, but also tells the stories of individuals with their own private life, memories and projects to deal with. This sense solidarity is not only based on frontline camaraderie. The existence of a normal life back at home, with families and friends, is an essential element to the discourse on nationhood.

The feeling of belonging to a collective body called nation underpins the highly problematic nexus between army and society. The idea of nation is crucial in forging military discipline and organizational culture, but it constantly produces effects on the whole society. The difficulties of veterans of dealing with civil life is a topos. Once back home, soldiers hardly find the same vivid sense of human cohesion they experienced in the frontline. Eastwood’s Gunny Highway and Chris Kyle do not bring any innovation to this discourse. In this respect, only Gran Torino (2008) – which paradoxically is not a war movie – has been path breaking. In this movie, Walt Kowalsky is a Polish-American Korean war veteran who lives in a neighbourhood populated by Asian immigrants. The death of his wife and the turbulent relations with his son fuel his sense of alienation and decadence of American values. Despite his moody nature, Kowalsky gradually starts spending time with a Thao (Bee Vang), a Hmong living in closeby. Kowalsky introduces Thao to the “true values” of American life, the importance of having an honest job, of taking care of one’s private property (house, work tools and, of course, cars), of having good friends and a good wife. By doing so, and eventually sacrificing his life to help Thao dealing with a gang, the reluctant and grouchy Kowalsky discovers that American values can be transmitted and regenerated far beyond the boundaries of ethnicity and cultural divides. A magnificent story of redemption in which a veteran ultimately – even if tragically – makes a contribution to his society.

* I would like to thank Tina for always being willing to read my stuff and talk about Clint Eastwood.

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