U.S. allowed assassination attempts for leaders like Castro

Part of the post-World War II tactics of the United States included supporting assassination attempts against foreign leaders with Fidel Castro leading the way:

In fact, Cuban intelligence estimated there were precisely 638 attempts on his life – many backed by the US.

The bearded leader is said to have survived exploding cigars, exploding seashells, a poisonous fountain pen and even a mafia-style execution…

“If surviving assassination attempts were an Olympic event, I would win the gold medal,” he would later joke.

But, Castro wasn’t the only one. The Church Committee of the mid-1970s revealed a number of attempts on foreign leaders (from Wikipedia):

Among the matters investigated were attempts to assassinate foreign leaders, including Patrice Lumumba of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, the Diem brothers of Vietnam, Gen. René Schneider of Chile and Director of Central Intelligence Allen Welsh Dulles‘s plan (approved by President Dwight D. Eisenhower) to use the Sicilian Mafia to kill Fidel Castro of Cuba.

Under recommendations and pressure by this committee, President Gerald Ford issued Executive Order 11905 (ultimately replaced in 1981 by President Reagan‘s Executive Order 12333) to ban U.S. sanctioned assassinations of foreign leaders.

Together, the Church Committee’s reports have been said to constitute the most extensive review of intelligence activities ever made available to the public. Much of the contents were classified, but over 50,000 pages were declassified under the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992.

Despite all the talk of the United States acting as the world’s policeman (and this presumes police act in the public’s best interest), the United States has a sordid past of foreign involvement. It is not just a recent thing. The drone strikes of today can be seen as descendants of these earlier activities. And the legality of it all is still questionable: we are not often officially at war with some of these other nations (at least there has not been an official declaration from Congress) though the activities are said to be against “enemy combatants.”

Sociologist asks why people of Westeros haven’t had an Industrial Revolution

Westeros is consumed by the Game of Thrones but may be missing something else: an Industrial Revolution.

For Dr Peter Antonioni, from University College London, the key puzzle posed by the return to screens this week of the phenomenally popular fantasy series is quite why the people of Westeros have not had an industrial revolution.

Alas, the rest of the story is behind a subscriber wall. Perhaps they are too often stuck in battles that drain their limited resources. Once you get past the first few books, everyone is struggling: the kingdoms can’t raise much more money for troops, the countryside isn’t providing much food, and the average people are scrounging for food. And since these major skirmishes take place every generation or two, there isn’t much time to stockpile needed goods.

What does a US Army version of a US city look like?

The Telegraph looks at a new city created by the US Army in Virgina to be used for training purposes:

The 300 acre ‘town’ includes a five story embassy, a bank, a school, an underground subway and train station, a mosque, a football stadium, and a helicopter landing zone.

Located in Virginia, the realistic subway station comes complete with subway carriages and the train station has real train carriages…

There are also bridges and several other structures which can be transformed into different scenarios.

The $96 million is designed to meticulously “replicate complex operational environments and develop solutions”.

Lots of movies portrays scenes of fighting in American streets, often facing aliens, but I assume the military has some strong ideas about what works and doesn’t work military in the average American big city. How do US cities fare in battle situations? In other words, I assume most American urban planning doesn’t think much about creating defensible positions or providing ways to best move troops and supplies. Instead, it was guided by ideas of how to create certain kinds of streetscapes, how to efficiently move cars through cities, and leaving spaces for both private and public settings.

I wonder if the Army has some advice about how better to plan cities once they start going through exercises.

Sociologist/CIA fellow describes “the paradox of the war on terror”

A recent sociology dissertation asked members of the CIA to describe their work and the “war on terror”:

Nolan, a CIA Graduate Fellow in sociology, produced the ethnography by making observations and interviewing 20 analysts in NCTC’s Directorate of Intelligence (DI) while also working full time as a counterterrorism analyst at Nation Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) from January 2010 to January 2011.

She notes that many analysts feel overwhelmed because “they often were not really sure what their jobs were, and they felt that they had very little understanding of what other people in the organization do.”…

What Anna detailed is the paradox of the War on Terror: The U.S. is fighting, but there are no clear day-to-day objectives. There is an enemy, but it is more of a network than an entity. There is an objective, but there is no clear way to win.

Last year The Washington Post, in a report on the NTCT’s disposition matrix, noted that Obama administration officials believe that U.S. global kill/capture operations “are likely to be extended at least another decade. Given the way al-Qaeda continues to metastasize, some officials said no clear end is in sight.”

I’m not quite sure this is confusing, as the article then goes on to suggest. This is a new kind of operation but the parameters are not entirely unknown. The U.S. is working against social networks, which take time to understand and track. (Think of recent efforts for academics and police to analyze the social networks of gangs.)

However, we could ask whether this new reality matches the kind of bureaucratic structure common in larger organizations. If the objectives change consistently as does the information coming in, it seems like there has to be a corresponding structure that allows smaller units to act somewhat independently and quickly respond to situations. Yet, more smaller and independent units still require coordination so they are not working at cross-odds or important information and actions fall through the cracks.

Similarly, it requires a different mentality from the public who might prefer clearly defined operations. Fighting terrorism is not that. Even when there are “successes,” it can take years to lead to them. “Winning” is not one-time event where a peace treaty is signed but rather the ongoing amount of time citizens in the United States are not threatened. (Americans have some experience with these ongoing wars. See the war on drugs and the war on poverty.)

It seems like there is a lot of room here for sociologists to investigate the war on terrorism, the military, the government, and the responses of the American public. Sociologists may have shied away from military sociology in recent decades but this is a critical component for understanding today’s world…

The “immortal” B-52

Even as technology cycles speed up for smartphones and other devices, there is one remarkable plane that is still flying and might continue to fly for decades more: the B-52.

Don’t be surprised if another generation of the family is in the cockpit before it goes into retirement. The Air Force plans improvements that will keep the plane around till 2040.It’s not quite your grandfather’s B-52. True, its onboard computers are pitifully underpowered antiques and some models still have vacuum tubes — Google that, kids. Barry Posen, director of the Security Studies Program at MIT, informs me that “there are dials in the B-52 cockpit that have not been connected to anything for years.”

But the plane has been repeatedly remodeled and upgraded to assure its utility, with new engines and electronics. Soon it will be “getting modern digital display screens, computer network servers and real-time communication uplinks,” according to the Times…

One of its virtues is relatively low cost, which presumably makes the Pentagon more willing to use it. The high price tags on the B-1 and the B-2 Stealth bomber mean the Air Force can’t buy as many of them and has to exercise more caution about putting them in harm’s way.

Another factor is that while more advanced aircraft possess capabilities that are rarely needed, the B-52 is perfectly adequate for most real-world contingencies. MIT defense scholar Owen Cote told me that since the 1990s, “we’ve been essentially continuously at war against smaller powers with weak or nonexistent air defenses, against whom the range, persistence and versatile payloads of the B-52 can be invaluable.”

I saw this story while recently thinking about the amazing aspects of modern car engines: they can be turned on and off thousands of times a year and they generally are expected to last at least 100,000 miles. Car engines are remarkably consistent considering all of the moving parts and the internal combustion taking place. Take the consistency of cars and then apply them to these larger aircraft and the idea that they can last for decades or even a century is remarkable.

Additionally, the end of the column hints that these old aircraft are perfectly fine in most modern situations – not all, but many. I know there is a whole history of bombers not being as flashy as fighter  and we would prefer to be prepared for all circumstances but it does lead me to wonder about claims that we need always need to be creating the best fighter-jets possible…is this a physical manifestation of American exceptionalism?

The fate of veteran’s memorials that lack funding

Big memorials like the a proposed Eisenhower memorial in Washington D.C. and the Ground Zero memorial in New York City are big deals, but what happens when more local memorials fall into disrepair due to lack of money and attention? Stars and Stripes looks at the tough times facing smaller memorials:

The corroding monument has challenged the community to maneuver a delicate question: How do we honor those who have served when memorials deteriorate and finances are tight?…

The National Trust for Historic Preservation waged a 2 1/2-year fight to restore the aging Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., when some people proposed replacing it. Far less disagreement surrounded a decision to update the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco after a powerful earthquake in 1989.

In Greensboro, N.C., residents have been grappling with what to do with the city’s own decaying tribute to the soldiers of World War I…

In Michigan’s upper peninsula, the Wakefield Memorial Building once stood as a grand structure overlooking a lake in Wakefield, an old mining town. The memorial, built in 1924 to commemorate the sacrifices of World War I soldiers, was expansive, including a banquet hall, meeting room and theater.

By the 1950s, the community couldn’t afford the upkeep of the building and sold it to a private owner. Over the years, there were attempts to renovate the structure. But it was deemed too expensive and by 2010, the building was demolished.

Sociologists have written some interesting pieces about the creation of memorials, like the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington D.C., but this story suggests another approach to memorials: the middle-life and end-life of memorials. What happens when the generations that built the memorials are long gone? What happens when a community decides it has other financial priorities? What is the expected lifespan of memorials or, in other words, what is the half-life of memorials? It could also raise some interesting questions about how local memorials and memorial events should be. How many individual communities commemorate these important events and are there regional, social class, and racial differences in which communities build and maintain memorials?

Editorial: to lower poverty rate in the US, we need to talk about it first

An editorial in the Philadelphia Daily News suggests there is currently a big stumbling block in dealing with record poverty levels in the United States: no one is talking about it.

One argument that has gained currency is that the poor aren’t really poor, because they have refrigerators and cell phones. Here’s another: The worst economic downturn since the Great Depression doesn’t qualify as “circumstances beyond their control.” Instead, people who lose their jobs and can’t find others just aren’t looking hard enough. And the most shocking of all: To punish their parents, it’s OK to let children go hungry and suffer the health and educational ramifications of malnutrition.

That’s how some people think of poverty – if they think about it at all…

Yet politicians of all leanings just don’t want to talk about it, almost certainly taking their cues from the populace at large. In a recent study, the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting looked at six months of national political coverage and found that poverty was the subject of less than 0.2 percent of the stories – that is, only 17 out of 10,489.

In order to do something about poverty, we have to be able to recognize it. An organization sponsored by the Center for American Progress called “Half in Ten” (www.halfinten.org) has set a goal of halving the U.S. poverty rate in 10 years by putting it back on the national agenda. First step: “updating” Americans’ understanding of poverty, beginning with the way it is calculated. The current method – used for nearly a half-century – multiplies estimated food costs by three, which doesn’t take into account increased expenses such as housing, transportation and child care – and gives a much brighter picture than the actual reality.

Half in Ten is urging Americans to “tweet” the moderators of the presidential debates using the hashtag #talkpoverty to challenge the candidates on how they would reduce poverty in their first 100 days in office.

The modern era: fighting poverty through Twitter.

I’ve noted this issue before; the major political candidates don’t talk about poverty. They may talk about hardship and economic troubles but they tend to stick to middle-class dreams and helping Americans join this aspirational group. According to the New York Times, the word “poverty” was spoken at a rate of 3 per 25,000 words by Democrats and 5 per 25,000 words by Republicans. In contrast, the phrase “middle class” was used at a rate of 47 per 25,000 words by Democrats and 7 per 25,000 words by Republicans.

At the same time, I wonder if Joel Best’s writings about the possible problems with declaring war on social problems, such as poverty, apply here. How do you keep the momentum of a fifty year war going? How do you know when the US has “won” the war on poverty? One advantage of declaring war on a social problem is that it can draw media attention because of the implications of war. Yet, it sounds like the media isn’t paying much attention either.