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Uniforms and Gender in JJ Abrams’ Star Trek

By Taylor Marvin

Via Kelsey D. Atherton, blog the Trekkie Has The Phone Box has an excellent post detailing the problems with women’s uniforms in JJ Abrams’ reboot of the Star Trek franchise. Unlike men’s uniforms, those worn by most women in Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness do not identify the wearers’ rank. Of course, this is problematic in paramilitary Starfleet, but it’s also emblematic of the Abrams’ reboot’s view of women as a whole: the rebooted series does not invest female characters with command responsibility in the same manner as male characters, despite their position in the chain of command, so rank insignias are unnecessary. As the piece concludes, in the franchise “women aren’t scripted as officers in the same way that their colleagues who are men are.”

Unfortunately, this isn’t even a logical hole given the rest of Abrams’ Star Trek universe. In Abrams’ Starfleet, after all, cadets on academic suspension can leapfrog an entire starship’s chain of command and receive field promotions to First Officer, catastrophic losses are accepted without comment (Star Trek spoiler: the destruction of the fleet over Vulcan), romantic relationships between bridge officers appear routine, and (Into Darkness spoiler) Kirk is surprised that flagrant disregard for protocol merits demotion. Whatever the other failings of Abrams’ vision of Starfleet, excessive focus on military efficiency is not one of them.

As the piece notes, this is particularly problematic for Lieutenant Uhura, the only reoccurring female character in the rebooted series. While Abrams’ Star Trek has made the character a gifted linguist, in and of itself a specialization with cultural feminine overtones, Uhura is depicted as capable but unprofessional, and is implied to have slept her way to her position (though of course, unprofessionalism extends to all characters in Abrams’ reboot, so it is unclear if Uhura’s portrayal is due to her gender).


Additionally, female characters in Abrams’ Starfleet most commonly wear miniskirted uniforms, echoing those of the original Star Trek series. But the cultural connotation miniskirts carry today is distinctly different from when Star Trek was first aired:

“Additionally, the cultural context of the miniskirt has changed. While it was once seen as a symbol of liberation, it is now interpreted as one of objectification. That is not to say that the miniskirt is inherently one or the other, but that a very clear message is sent within our own cultural context today when the vast majority of the women seen onscreen are wearing it.”

I think that this is an important point. The rebooted Star Trek can insist that its women wear miniskirts as homage to the original show or to maintain canonical consistency, but it is important to remember that when the original Star Trek was produced women in command position were extraordinarily rare in Western militaries. In the 1960s it was not immediately unreasonable to depict far-future female military officers wearing short skirts. But today we know what women in military uniforms look like:

US Army photo by Sgt. Kandi Huggins.

US Army photo by Sgt. Kandi Huggins.

This isn’t to say that it’s impossible that women wear miniskirts in Starfleet. But narratives can only be understood through the culture in which they are produced. In 1960s America, miniskirted officers could be understood as the product of a liberated future, or at least one as liberated as the biases of the era would allow — Deep Space Nine’s female executive officer, and former terrorist, would have to wait a few decades. But today, when what women in military uniform look like is universally understood, putting Starfleet officers in miniskirts can’t be seen as anything but regressive.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Novgorod icon of Archangel Gabriel, 12th century. Via Wikimedia.

Novgorod icon of Archangel Gabriel, 12th century. Via Wikimedia.

Apologies for the recent lack of posts. What I read this week:

James Hasik reflects on the thesis of Robert Farley’s upcoming “kill the Air Force” book: “By the raw numbers, the country seems to be getting a raw deal entrusting air defense to the Air Force.”

Reviewing the anatomy of a bad idea: COIN best practices. In other US military analysis Micah Zenko laments the state of civil-military relations, citing officers’ increasing willingness to “express their personal opinions about interventions, while civilian policymakers are increasingly willing to disregard professional military advice.”

President Obama opened the week with a speech to the UN general assembly notable for its optimism on Iran and nearly complete neglect of AsiaDavid Weigel notes that “for the third year in a row, President Obama used his address to the United Nations to sing the praises of limited military action that humbles rogue states.” Erik Voeten highlights the increasing divergence between US and world opinion at the UN.

For his part Iranian president Hassan Rouhani has had an excellent week. Patrick Clawson argues that while sanctions may have brought Rouhani to the table, “providing modest sanctions relief for the people is only a small step toward supporting democracy, but half a loaf is better than none.” Akbar Ganji examines the meaning of Supreme Leader Khamenei’s “heroic flexibility.”

Tom Nichols and John R. Schindler see Obama’s deal in Syria as “one of the worst US foreign policy defeats in decades.” Brent E. Sasley disagrees, instead seeing an overreaction to Russia’s limited diplomatic influence in the region; Nichols and Schindler respond.

The Economist leads with a cover story arguing that Brazil’s economic success, recently heralded as the first-steps of an incept superpower, has faltered.

Reflecting on over a century of the simple, logical, and doomed Esperanto.

Photographing the costumes of Europe’s pagan rituals. Just fantastic (via Put this On).

More linkage at Political Violence @ a Glance.

Rachel Grimes – Bloodroot.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin


Manuel Panselinos, ‘Saint Mercurius and Artemius of Antioch’, 1310. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

Factional infighting between Syria’s opposition fighters is increasing. Max Fisher asks if the fighting marks “a major shift for Syria’s two-year civil war, one with potentially disastrous implications for the country.”

Robert Mason calls for a new diplomatic initiative in Syria, stressing the need for a “comprehensive compact on violent Islamism that addresses Russia’s core concerns about Assad’s removal from power.” Barbara F. Walter sees Assad’s use of chemical weapons as a means of demonstrating to domestic and foreign fence-sitters that an American intervention in the war is not forthcoming. Danny Hirschel-Burns writes that the anti-war left needs better slogans.

Kenneth Anderson reviews two books on Saddam Hussein’s gassing of Iraqi Kurds.

Daniel Larison on why a “league of democracies” is a bad idea that refuses to die. Interestingly, the neoconservatives who typically endorse the idea seem to never think of such an organization’s view of Israel, which would likely be very unfavorable.

Is a window for diplomacy opening between Washington and Tehran? Laura Secor on why Obama should meet with Rouhani, and Brookings has a new report on Rouhani.

Via Josh Busby, NPR has a new series on Brazil in the lead up to the World Cup.

Erle C. Ellis on why overpopulation is not the problem: “The only limits to creating a planet that future generations will be proud of are our imaginations and our social systems.” Incidentally, overpopulation was one entry on io9’s recent list of science-fiction subgenres killed by scientific developments.

Stefan Sasse passes along an interesting take on German purists dedicated to keeping English loanwords out of their language. Aside from the effort being practically less “pro-German” and more “anti-English”, the piece raises interesting questions about loanwords themselves. If Germans refer to mobile phones as “handies” — an English word not used for phone in that language — should it be considered a loanword?

Speaking of language, lagom — the single word that sums up the Swedish psyche.

Paris thorough the lens of Nazi occupation — why vintage images showing Parisians enjoying life under German rule are controversial today.

And again, earlier in the week I collected links for Political Violence @ a Glance.

Niyaz — The Hunt.

By the way, this is my 500th blog post across this space and Prospect Journal.

Scattered Thoughts on The Lord of the Rings

By Taylor Marvin

Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate;
And through I oft have passed them by
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun

I recently finished reading JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. As I hadn’t read the books for many years, this reread allowed me to, in my mind, approach the story fresh, a process that imparted a few scattered observations. In no particular order:


Most obviously, The Lord of the Rings is incredibly short, at least by modern standards. Perhaps my perception is influenced by A Song of Ice and Fire and other extended modern fantasy series, but despite his popular reputation for long-windedness Tolkien’s work is incredibly succinct and to the point. Despite the arguably extraneous Tom Bombadil and Scouring of the Shire sequences — arguably, as they do play an important role in the narrative — Tolkien doesn’t dwell. While George RR Martin’s reputation for overblown descriptions of heraldry and feasts may be exaggerated, Tolkien’s world-building is much more economical, relaying on names and references dropped into the narrative without explanation or embellishment.

This directness also extends to the story’s pacing, which is distinctly pre-modern. Tolkien isn’t interested in the dramatic, practical progression of his story — this event led to this, which allowed this further event to occur — but instead the great deeds of great figures. In keeping with this narrative style, The Lord of the Rings is notably undramatic. For example, when the hobbits Merry and Pippin attempt to convince Treebeard to rally the Ents to help their friends, there is little dramatic tension: despite the Ents’ thousands of years of self-imposed isolation from the wider world, Treebeard readily agrees to help them. Again this isn’t a critique, but I can’t help noting that a modern fantasy story would inject a dramatic fakeout here — indeed, as did the film adaptation of The Two Towers.

Secondly, The Lord of the Rings is incredibly conservative. In addition to Tolkien’s obvious love of nature and trees, in Middle-earth yesterday was better than today, and today will be better than tomorrow. Middle-earth’s past saw greater evils but also greater triumphs, and a fading grace that cannot be replicated. This nostalgia is an inherent fact of the world, and Middle-earth’s slow path towards the mundane cannot be remedied through technological advancement. Indeed, a common criticism of George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is that Westerosi society and technology are unbelievable stagnant throughout the continent’s over 6,000 year history. But in Tolkien’s creation this criticism cannot apply, because in Middle-earth technological progress is implied to never even occur to its inhabitants — technology is either a gift from the gods, in the case of the Númenorians, or the necessarily evil work of outside powers, as with Sauman’s mind of ‘wheels and metal’.

In contemporary society, this brand of backwards-looking nostalgia is frequently criticized as romanticizing a violent and impoverished past. As I’ve frequently argued, the current era is an unprecedented golden age in human history, the recent decline interstate violence and poverty represent an enormous gain in human welfare, and romanticizing the past is most often only a disguised pinning for lost privileges. But I think it’s important to remember that this critique does not apply to Tolkien’s conservative worldview. As I’m sure other have noted, Tolkien invented Middle-earth in the midst of World War I and The Lord of the Rings was partially written during World War II. Given these circumstances it’s no wonder that Tolkien’s worldview was influenced by an era when all technological advancements seemed to only make wars more destructive. I’m reminded of Edward Gibbon’s famous claim in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that Rome in the second century AD was the best time and place to be alive in history. Today this seems ludicrous, but from Gibbon’s 18th century perspective, it’s a much more reasonable belief.

This conservatism is expressed in social themes, as well. Samwise Gamgee comes from a lower social class than Frodo, Merry, and Pippin, all idle gentleman while Sam’s family works. Sam is employed as Frodo’s servant, always refers to the other hobbits as “Mister”, and is expected to make the others breakfast and carry the heaviest pack, a subservience that is never questioned by his companions. In a more modern work Sam’s subservient position would be a topic to be addressed by the text; i.e. despite their master-servant relationship, Frodo would explicitly learn to treat Sam as an equal. But importantly, in Tolkien’s telling Sam’s class doesn’t make him less worthy than his social superiors — indeed, along with Aragorn Sam is one of the most unambiguously heroic characters in the novel. To Tolkien, innate goodness doesn’t replace inherited social status as the determinant of how people should be treated, another reflection of the culture influencing Tolkien’s writing.

Similarly, The Lord of the Rings is an strong endorsement of absolute monarchism, but not in a way that necessarily applies to our world. Unlike the modern understanding of monarchy Aragorn, the “divinely” appointed king, is literally better than the people he rules. Not just more capable in lore, medicine, and war, Aragorn lives far longer than his subjects — in Tolkien’s telling the preferred form of government is absolute rule by those who are so much more capable than those they govern that they may as well be another species. As others have remarked (I know Sean T. Collins has discussed this, but cannot find the link), Tolkien simply isn’t interested in the potential failings of hereditary government, or indeed governance at all. The Lord of the Rings ends with Aragorn coming into his crown, sidesteping the challenges of governance in a sentence, and Tolkien himself abandoned a story that was to be set during the reign of Aragon’s son and heir.

Tolkien also never questions whether the descendants of the Númenorians have the right to rule the Men of Middle-earth. Indeed, the racial themes of Middle-earth become more troubling if you chose to consider the inherently-superior Númenorians as colonists, though again this endorsement of the literally superior Númenorians doesn’t necessarily have any relevance to discussions of colonialism in our world. However, like fantasy authors to whom people of color are simply an inconvenience to be discarded, the fact that Tolkien created a world whose reality endorses hereditary monarchy and colonialism should be troubling to modern readers.

Anyway, also see Sean T. Collins on Tolkien’s poetry, Adam Roberts on the master-slave dialectic in Tolkienthis classic Tom Bombadil theory, and a Bombadil-related Portlandia sketch.

Why Do So Few Military Video Games Have Indian Bad Guys?

By Taylor Marvin

Before diving into the question I’d like to stress that I am not a gamer, and my knowledge of the medium comes from cultural osmosis as much as anything else. So, feel free to correct me.

The writers behind contemporary military first-person shooters, one of the most popular video game genres, face an interesting challenge: finding an enemy. Islamic terrorists are a natural choice. However, this route has its problems. As the 2010 controversy over Medal of Honor — which originally would have let gamers play as the Taliban — illustrated, games pitting players against Islamic militants may stray uncomfortably close to reality. But more importantly, terrorist antagonists can’t credible provide the sense of scale many game writers desire. Games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and the Battlefield series require balanced combat between equally-capable military forces rather than simply small-scale firefights, and many of their single-player campaigns feature invasions of the United States. Even given gaming’s suspension of disbelief there’s simply no way that Islamic terrorism can believably provide conflict on this scale.

This need for grand scale is problematic, because writers in both the games and film industries have trouble selecting antagonists capable of plausibly challenging the United States’ global military hegemony. Many writers simply skip the problem by calling in alien antagonists, implicitly arguing that an extraterrestrial invasion is more likely in the foreseeable future than a major, non-nuclear war between human combatants. Aliens also have the advantage of being entirely inoffensive. Casting human enemies, on the other hand, carries a substantial risk of bad publicity. While China is perhaps the most logical future US competitor, the prospect of alienating Chinese consumers and government censorship makes Chinese antagonists a rare choice (thought the upcoming Battlefield 4 appears to feature combat between US and PLA forces). Russian audiences, however, seem not to mind being cast as enemies in Western games — indeed, there’s something almost flattering about the implication that Russia’s one bad day away from invading, well, everywhere. Russia invades the continental United States and Europe throughout the Modern Warfare franchise, though Modern Warfare’s Russians are notably manipulated into war, and Alaska and Canada in Battlefield: Bad Company 2.


Another option is North Korea. The 2011 game Homefront and the 2012 remake of Reagan-era action film Red Dawn chronicle completely-implausible North Korean military occupations of the United States (though it is important to note that Red Dawn was originally written with Chinese antagonists whose nationality was hurriedly switched in post-production to avoid losing access to the increasingly important Chinese market; for its part the Japanese edition of Homefront removed references to North Korea). The near-future setting of the 2007 game Crysis postulated that a decade of economic development and military modernization would allow North Korea to mount amphibious operations into the South China Sea, though later entries in the series abandoned the People’s Liberation Army for alien and evil mega-corporation antagonists.

The recently-released trailer for the upcoming mega-hit Call of Duty: Ghosts appears to depict an invasion of the US by Spanish-speakers “from south of the Equator,” implying an invasion force of Peruvians or Argentines (or possibly Venezuelans depending on how geographically-challenged Ghosts’ writers are). Finally, many games like the above-mentioned Crysis series simply avoid the prospect of controversy altogether by calling in the classic anonymous-but-evil private militaries.

However, there’s one notable omission from the list of games’ nation-state antagonists: I can’t think of a single major contemporary military shooter with Indian enemies. With soon-to-be the world’s largest population, increasing military spending, and the expectation that it will grow into a global power this century, India is certainly a more plausible future military competitor for the United States than Latin America or especially North Korea. So why do no games pit Indian bad guys against Americans?

The most obvious answer to this puzzle is that India is a democracy and an increasingly close US ally. However, in my mind it’s unclear if this is a substantial barrier to military shooter writers looking for a new adversary — after all, despite the frosty US-Russian diplomatic relationship, no one thinks a war between the two is remotely likely. Another possibility is that, like with China, developers are afraid of losing access to the Indian market. But while the Indian government has a record of political censorship, it is unclear if the small Indian video game market is important enough to make this a pressing concern.

I think that a plausible explanation for the lack of Indian antagonists in contemporary military shooters is American culture’s racial narratives. In this narrative Middle Easterners are constructed as terrorists, but not competent enough to truly threaten the United States. (In reality Islamic nations are just as capable of invading the US as Russia; that is, not at all.) Games that feature the Russian military obviously benefit from a half-century of American culture that held the USSR as the ultimate threat, and from the Cold War nostalgia so evident in the Red Dawn remake. East Asian antagonists exist within the “yellow peril” narrative that depicts Asian men as alternatively martially threatening or asexual and submissive. But in my understand the popular Western conception of India leaves little room for threatening narratives — though it is important to note that American racists frequently fail to distinguish between India and southern and western Asia overall (whose inhabitants are constructed as terrorists), as the distressing reaction to the first Indian-America Miss America illustrates. Instead, in this racial narrative Indian men are viewed as uncivilized, impotent — outside of the Kama Sutra — and subservient, a narrative likely derived from deceptions of the British colonial period. Within this narrative it is difficult to construct to Indians as a threat, in video games or otherwise. Of course, this is enormously racist.

Again, this isn’t to say that I think a future war between the US and India is at all likely, or that deceptions of foreigners as FPS cannon fodder is particularly constructive. But it is an interesting question. Thoughts?

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin


What I read this week:

Is Mexican President Peña Nieto’s drug war strictly catch and release? And is this any worse than the alternative?

Last weekend, before President Obama’s Tuesday call for a delay on striking Syria, the LA Times reported that the planned airstrikes had grown into a three-day campaign that would see many cruise missiles fired at regime targets.

Artur Mas, president of Catalonia, has an op-ed in the NYT in support of a referendum on independence for the Spanish autonomous community. In honor of Catalan national day, on September 11 Catalonians in favor of independence formed a 250 mile, 1.6 million person-strong human chain. Along with Scotland’s 2014-scheduled independence vote, the Catalan independence movement could have enormous consequences for other restive regions in the EU.

Cuba’s Soviet-funded, and unfinished, nuclear power plant.

Early-week linkage at PVGlance.

Stateless – Assassinations.

If the Anti-CW Norm Should Be Enforced, Unauthorized Use Matters

Photo by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr, via Wikimedia.

Photo by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr, via Wikimedia.

By Taylor Marvin

Yesterday at Political Violence @ a Glance I posted a brief piece summarizing President Obama’s Tuesday speech on Syria, in which he called on Congress to delay a decision on whether to strike the Assad regime in favor of a potential diplomatic solution that would, with Russian support, see Assad give up his chemical weapons under international supervision. Commentators’ reaction to the diplomatic initiative was mixed. On the one hand, it allows Obama to avoid either the unpopular airstrikes that his previous ill-advised red line had rhetorically committed him to or an unprecedented rejection of his plan in Congress. If the initiative succeeds it will also strengthen the international norm against chemical weapons use much more effectively than limited, internationally unpopular, and likely irrelevant airstrikes. However, it remains unclear if the diplomatic plan will succeed, effectively cataloging and destroying Assad’s chemical weapon stockpiles in Syria’s chaotic civil war looks to be an extremely difficult and risky task requiring extensive international commitment, and the plan does nothing to end the war that has already killed over 100,000 people and appears to be degenerating into a bloody three-sided stalemate.

In contrast to Noah Schachtman and Colum Lynch’s worries that cooperating with the Assad regime on chemical weapons legitimizes it, Max Fisher writes today that it will not — while the Obama administration has maintained that “Assad must go” since the civil war’s inception, “Obama never actually sought to remove Assad from power against his will and has consistently acknowledged him as Syria’s head of state.” While this is true, it’s also clear that the lesson that chemical weapons use will at most result in a diplomatic effort to peacefully destroy these weapons and not airstrikes is not an encouraging one for Syria’s rebels, regardless of the potential airstrikes’ wisdom.

In his excellent piece on how Obama’s speech succeeded and failed, Kevin Lees highlights an important observation: Obama never definitively established that Assad ordered the Ghouta gas attack:

“Whatever the US government knows (or thinks it knows) about the Assad regime’s fault for the attack on August 21, it’s certainly been incredibly bashful about sharing it with the rest of us.  Middle Eastern armies often distribute gas masks to their troops, and the Syrian army is firing a great number of rockets into a great many neighborhoods these days.  That alone tells us nothing — it’s certainly information that can supplement the case for Assad’s blame, but it’s ultimately circumstantial.”

Claims that the rebels and not the regime were responsible for the August 21 attack that killed at the least hundreds of people, highlighted by Russian President Vladimir Putin in his op-ed in today’s New York Timesare not credible. As Erica Chenoweth and Human Rights Watch both noted today, international investigation overwhelmingly holds the regime, not opposition, culpable for the August 21 attack. But the Obama administration’s reluctance to draw a direct line between Assad and the attack doesn’t mean that there’s any real doubt what player was responsible. Most obviously, it’s possible that the Obama administration simply doesn’t want to reveal in detail its sources, for any number of reasons. Secondly, as Lees notes, it’s possible that a rogue regime commander or garbled orders were responsible. As I wrote in May, this loss of control is a more pertinent danger associated with chemical weapons than other strategic arms. Since chemical weapons are typically battlefield tactical weapons mounted on limited-range delivery platforms, they must be distributed to the battlefield before use. This gives local commanders direct control over chemical weapons, and it is possible that Assad did not directly order their use — either a local commander or regime subordinate could have acted on their own initiative, misunderstood orders, or believed Assad wished the attack launched when he did not. It is similarly possible, as recent reporting suggests, that the attack was either launched on an angry whim by Assad or was more lethal than intended.

But even if the August 21 attack was due to a loss of control over the regime’s chemical weapons or operational mistake and not directly ordered by Assad in a manner the US can document, it is unclear in my mind whether this should have any bearing on the decision to punish — whether diplomatically or otherwise — the regime. Leaders understand that distributing chemical munitions to military units in war zones is a risky delegation of the authority to actually use them. Ultimately it is this decision, not the act of actually pushing the button that launches a rocket or drops a bomb, that bears the responsibility for chemical attacks. If the goal of punishing chemical weapons use is to preserve the anti-CW norm — and this is a big if — then that is the decision that should be punished. Loss of control or operational mistakes ar not an excuse.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Ary Scheffer, 'The Temptation of Christ', 1854. Via Wikimedia.

Ary Scheffer, ‘The Temptation of Christ’, 1854. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

Crime and punishment in Syria, or why punishing CW use is not the responsibility to protect.

Richard Price on the right way to nurture a norm — it’s not with airstrikes.

Stephanie Carvin on the legal debate over Syria.

Relatedly, the true cost of humanitarian intervention, and Ora Szekely brainstorms what the international community can do to help.

What the departure of Venezuelan media iconoclast Leopoldo Castillo says about the country’s future.

Why AirSea Battle is a dangerous fixation.

More PVG links here.

Jacaszek – Rytm to Niesmiertelnosc.

France, Syria, and Power Projection

By Taylor Marvin

After the Obama administration’s weekend announcement that it will seek congressional approval before launching airstrikes in Syria, France has too announced that it will wait on the American government’s decision. On Twitter, The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf took the opportunity to remark that regardless of its decision to wait, France could punish the Assad regime’s chemical weapons use no matter what the US eventually decides.

But solo French strikes in Syria are so unlikely as to be nearly unthinkable, and power projection capability outside of America’s is much more restricted than Friedersdorf argues.

In his announcement that France would wait on the US Congress’ decision, French Interior Minister Manuel Valls explained that despite the French government’s desire to act it ‘needs a coalition’ before striking the Assad regime and could not “go it alone”. This wasn’t a reference to a French desire for international diplomatic support; instead, it is a veiled allusion to the French military’s very real need for cooperation from US force. As Robert Farley noted, despite their relatively high defense spending major NATO allies France and the UK lack the cruise missile assets necessary for striking Syria in any systematic fashion and, in Farley’s words “most of the NATO militaries have, for better or worse, been optimized for coalition ops with the United States.” While the French Navy is perhaps more balanced than today’s air-defense and anti-submarine warfare-optimized Royal Navy, in operations requiring air defense suppression or launching large numbers of cruise missiles — with the latter obviously relevant to the proposed strikes in Syria — both countries depend on working in tandem with more capable US forces.

USN photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Denny Cantrell, via Wikimedia.

Is it any wonder the country of Monet would design the prettiest aircraft in NATO? USN photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Denny Cantrell, via Wikimedia.

As Daniel Drezner alluded to on Twitter and I briefly noted earlier this week at Political Violence @ a Glance, the air campaign over Libya definitively illustrated that British and French sustained power projection is depending on US cooperation. During the Libyan campaign non-US NATO member participants benefited from extensive opening-phase US strikes that decimated Libyan air defense networks and quickly ran short of precision-guided munitions, relying on US stockpiles to plug the gap. As I wrote at the time, the lesson here is that the British and French defense budgets are essentially optimized only for power projection alongside the US. Both countries spend far more than would be necessary if they only intended to operate within NATO’s original mission — that is, self-defense. But the gap between the spending required for fielding moderately capable defensive military forces and those capable of sustained power projection is enormous. By keeping their defense spending in the no-mans-land between these two benchmarks the UK and France both field militaries that for practical purposes service maintaining the pretext of global power — in the words of’s John Pike “maybe they were just planning on using their air force for air shows” — but incapable of actually fighting sustained campaigns overseas without close US support.

But of course the Libyan campaign isn’t an analog for the proposed strikes in Syria — while in Libya NATO air forces essentially provided direct air support and strategic strikes to rebels forces, airstrikes in Syria would be much more restricted, only involve standoff weapons, and likely aim to only target military forces associated with the regime’s chemical weapons use. France does possess the air assets necessary to conduct very-limited standoff strikes on Syria. Given that the Obama administration is apparently considering only extremely restricted strikes that will only — arguably — symbolically punish the regime for Assad’s chemical weapons use, it’s possible that the US will elect to mostly limit itself to strikes the French in effect would be theoretically capable of on their own. But as Valls said, despite the very limited options on the still-nebulous coalition’s table France is unlikely to go it alone for both practical and political reasons. If Americans want Assad punished, it’s a punishment that the US forces will have to be involved in administering.

Why Are Bombings Still the Weapon of Choice in Iraq?

By Taylor Marvin

Sectarian violence is again on the rise in Iraq. July 2013 was the country’s deadliest month in five years, and sophisticated bombings targeting civilians are increasingly common occurrences. While this recent uptick in violence hasn’t approached the intensity that marked the worst years of the American occupation and civil war, the country appears to be headed towards greater instability. Iraq’s Sunni population is reportedly growing more frustrated and resentful of the Shiite-dominated central government, and sectarian violence lead by al-Qaeda in Iraq targeting Shiites has intensified in the last two years. In April Kurdish authorities deployed militia forces to Kirkuk to help prevent what Erbil reportedly believed to be an imminent sectarian civil war, while the Iraqi government in Baghdad viewed the move as a simple grab for the city’s oil resources. Many of Iraq’s persecuted Christian minority are now fleeing the country, with many fearing that all of the country’s Christians will soon be gone.

On Twitter, Danny Hirschel-Burns raised an interesting question: why do violent attacks in Iraq continue to be so characterized by bombings, as opposed to other methods?

I suspect that Iraqi militant groups’ apparent preference for bombings today has nothing to do with any conditions specific to the country’s recently-escalating sectarian conflict. Instead, it is likely the result of the continued application of the bombing-focused skill sets insurgents acquired during the American occupation of the country.

After the American invasion, anti-US insurgent groups quickly found that directly attacking American military units in Iraq’s crowded urban environments was dangerous at best, and often suicidal. These groups realized that bombings, overwhelmingly utilizing IEDs, were a safer, more effective means of successfully attacking US soldiers and killing large numbers of Iraqis, given the American military’s control of the country. While the vast majority of attempted IED attacks did not result in US casualties, they grew more dangerous over time. During 2003 and 2004 IEDs were responsible for 20 percent of US soldier deaths, but 50 percent in 2007, with the number of incidents peaking in late 2006. This rational, asymmetric response to coalition forces’ overwhelming military superiority quickly became the hallmark of the Iraqi insurgency.

Acquiring the skill set required to mount sophisticated bombing attacks is costly. During the American occupation insurgent groups continually improved IEDs and their techniques for employing them, leading to an arms race between insurgents and coalition forces; in a mutual learning process, as coalition troops grew more adept at countering IEDs, the bombs became harder to detect and deadlier. Tom Ricks profiled the early stages of this process in his 2006 book Fiasco

“Even these fairly primitive devices had their own evolution. At first, during the summer of 2003, almost all were hardwired — that is, attached by the lines used to detonate them. US forces learned to look for the wire and kill the person waiting at the other end. By the following winter, about half the bombs were remote-controlled, frequently set off using cellular telephones, car alarm transmitters, or toy car controllers.”

This evolutionary logic encouraged insurgents to become skilled at bombing warfare — those that didn’t either quit, or were killed.

After the US military’s withdrawal from Iraq, bombings are a less necessary component of militants’ arsenals. Today’s Iraqi security services are far less capable than the US military, meaning, like in other violent societies, non-bombing attacks now have a greater chance of succeeding. But it’s reasonable to suspect that Iraqi veterans of the occupation and civil war remain influenced by the skills and operational practices they acquired during that conflict, practices optimized for operating in an environment of overwhelming military inferiority. The sophisticated coordinated bombing attacks that are a hallmark of al Qaeda in Iraq require significant organizational experience to conduct. Given how steep the learning curve to acquire this experience is, militant groups not facing the evolutionary pressures of military occupation by a superior force are unlikely to acquire them at all, despite the potential payoff from doing so.