Bowe Bergdahl

I have a lot of veteran friends, obviously. But, I also have a lot of non-vet friends who may not fully understand what’s going on with Bergdahl, or not get why so many vets are ambivalent about his fate.

In 2009, Bergdahl was an odd duck, a leg infantryman (not qualified to jump out of planes) in an airborne unit. He was also apparently a bit of a philosopher, and seems to have become somewhat conflicted about the actions of the USA in Afghanistan. This is not uncommon among both vets and non-vets. It’s certainly true that we made some bone-headed moves, as well as smart moves. The balance is not something I’m going to get into, but it’s definitely an important backdrop for Bergdahl’s story.

He left his forward operating base (tiny outpost in dangerous territory) one morning, and was not seen again by the public except on video until this week.

So…the discussion centers around what the hell this low-ranking soldier was doing leaving a safe-ish zone in the middle of a war zone, while leaving his buddies to take up his slack. It becomes increasingly clear that Bergdahl was, at best, a confused young man. He apparently thought life should be more like the movies, and he was the hero. He may have thought he could change the Taliban into warm fuzzies, he may have just felt guilty about the small part he played in destroying pieces of Afghanistan. There’s no way to be certain at this time, but his motivations are almost beside the point.

The biggest point to veterans is this – he left his buddies in the lurch. He was part of a team. That team needed to trust *every* member to do his duty, and be where he was supposed to be, doing the job he was supposed to do. Any person missing not only reduces the effectiveness of the group by his absence, but reduces the effectiveness because they are duty-bound to try to find his ass. Trust and honor are words that carry a lot of weight in the military. These guys all needed to know that the guy sitting next to them would be capable and ready to defend each other without fail. One guy going missing isn’t just one guy – he’s a wound that is hard to heal in the body of that unit. The unit wants to be complete and whole, and will work to find missing or fallen members.

And this is what they did. His platoon (group of 30-50 men with guns) searched for him, taking away from their mission of defending a small part of Afghanistan. At least six people died during searches for Bergdahl. Some people say that the continuing low-level mission of “find Bergdahl” may have cost many other lives, but the military is not confirming that publicly.

Regardless of his motivations, and regardless of his causing disruption to his unit, there is also the constant reminder over the last five years that we had one prisoner of war in Afghanistan, and we wanted him back. We wanted him back because “No Man Left Behind” is a saying that soldiers believe in. He may have been a soup sandwich, but he was an American soldier, and damned if we didn’t want him returned to us. Several of my Army comrades have been posting “Bowe Tuesday” reminders for years, reinforcing that PFC Bergdahl was wanted back in the fold. Later, that became SGT Bergdahl, as without a determination of desertion, he was entitled to automatic promotion while a prisoner.

Now, he’s back, and the cost may be high (how valuable the prisoners we’re giving up are is a debate for someone with much more knowledge than I have about the subject), but he’s back. I assume there will be an investigation into his departure, but it will probably be very low-key and out of the public eye. I do know that he’s unlikely to ever serve another day as a normal soldier. If he’s still wearing a uniform in a year, I’ll be very surprised. I’m very curious whether his views on the relative value of American vs. Taliban culture and justice have changed.

So, welcome home, SGT Bergdahl. You’ve got some explaining to do.

It’s Not That Simple

Why do these things happen? Why do they keep happening? What can we do to stop them from happening?

These are the obvious questions asked, screamed, and cried out whenever something as horrific as the Newtown murders or the Aurora murders reach the national news. We want things to make sense, and we want to fix things which are broken. For many years, various groups have worked to demonize various trends, items, and products in order to stop violence. There doesn’t seem to be a simple answer, but we don’t want to deal with complex ones. There may not even be a complex answer.

Homicide by weapon
Homicide by weapon 1976-2004

First, is gun violence on the rise in the United States or not? If you watch the news, you’d think every public place is only a hair’s breadth from utter annihilation from a nut with a gun. Although gun violence in America is higher than most other industrialized nations by a rather large ratio, it’s actually not at a particularly high level compared to our own historical norm. Many people think that we live in especially dangerous times, but that’s simply not true. We’re no more in danger now than in 1975. Of course, our parents didn’t have four channels of 24-hour news that needed to be filled. We hear about more violence, but that doesn’t mean we are experiencing more violence. So, we aren’t seeing any more gun violence than our parents saw.

Second, is restricting gun ownership a panacea that would prevent gun violence? This seems obvious to many people. More guns must lead to more gun crimes, after all. But, other countries have higher rates of gun ownership than the USA does, and have much lower levels of gun-related homicide. Switzerland is a great example. Every able-boded male between 18 and 50 is a member of Switzerland’s armed forces and there are approximately 2 million firearms in private hands in that country of 6 million people. Approximately 25% of Swiss households have a firearm in the home. That’s about the same percentage as the USA (The Swiss have 46 guns per 100 people and we have 88 guns per 100 people in the USA, since we seem to have a lot more collectors or arsenal-builders here). There were 0.52 gun homicides per 100,000 citizens in Switzerland in 2010. In the USA, that was 3.2 – over six times the rate. So, availability of weapons doesn’t necessarily lead to more gun violence.

Finally, does media violence lead to actual violence? We are not the only country with violent video games and television shows and movies. Yet, we are an outlier in terms of gun violence compared to those other countries. Studies sometimes show that violent imagery can cause violent behavior, but the imagery is usually out of context and not how we actually encounter those images in real media consumption. Further, looking at violent behavior in a lab is only interesting to the researchers; looking at the rise of media violence and whether that correlates to real-world violence is what matters to society. There is no such correlation. As anyone who has lived through the past thirty years could tell you, media violence has not decreased and yet (as shown above) gun violence has decreased. If there’s any causative motion, you might be able to claim that the rise of more violent video games in the 1990s (as opposed to the cartoonish games of the 1980s) has actually caused us to become less violent. There is no proof for that statement, but if you look merely at correlation and ignore plausible causation, you could make that argument. So, media doesn’t make our citizens more violent.

What does make the United States different from other countries? Why do we have more gun violence than societies similar to our own? Why does Canada have one-quarter the gun-related homicide rate the USA has? Is our society so different from Canada and England and all the other industrialized nations? Before we try to make sweeping changes to our laws, it might be educational to figure out whether the things we want to change would plausibly make any difference. It’s not as simple as “more guns” or “fewer guns” or “video games” – it’s not obvious, and it’s not something we have figured out yet. It’s not a new problem, it’s not an increasingly large problem, but it’s definitely a difficult problem. Banning one thing or another might feel like the right thing to do, but it likely won’t make a difference.

This does not mean we should just give up and accept a certain level of murders because we don’t have a simple answer to fix the problem. But, we need to actually identify the cause of the problem before we can fix it.

Veterans Day 2011

Originally a memorial for the losses and celebration of the overall victory of World War I (somewhat erroneously called The War to End All Wars), amended later as, “a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace,” Veterans Day is not the same somber commemoration as Memorial Day. Never ignoring the sacrifices of those who fell in battle, it is a somewhat melancholy celebration of our servicemembers.

I had a great discussion at work this week with one of the Air Force folks I work with, ranging from the importance of the civilian leadership of the military and the intelligent employment of our forces. We agreed that it’s a shame so few of our elected representatives are veterans, as having a background other than international finance might be helpful when dealing with the pointy end of the stick.

I continue to be impressed by the active duty folks that I deal with on a daily basis. This all-volunteer force has had a great deal asked of it in the ten years since I got out of the service, some things a great deal less productive than others. The geopolitical situation has changed greatly and rapidly, and our servicemembers have been forced to adapt just as rapidly.

TS91_Full Team.JPGEveryone who has worn the uniform knew they could be asked to do things and go places where survival may be unlikely. We need to respect that willingness to sacrifice to support the policies of the United States, and we need to hope we don’t ask them to do so unnecessarily. “Support the troops” is a lot more complex than just “war is good” – remember that and maybe the hope that today is dedicated to world peace won’t be in vain.

Zoomie Acronyms

The Air Force loves acronyms. They love them so much, it doesn’t matter if they make things more confusing, or not even any shorter than an equivalent English word – they’ll use an acronym wherever possible.

I finally found out what “SMU” means in zoomie speak: Small Marching Unit. This was quite a surprise to me, as every email I get on-base that uses the acronym uses it as a verb. Here’s one from this week:

Please have all “A” shift ITP/ATP Airmen SMU to the parade field…

So, to expand the acronym (and no, I don’t know what ITP and ATP mean either):

Please have all “A” shift ITP/ATP Airmen Small Marching Unit to the parade field…

Notice that there is no verb after Airmen now, and yet they are to DO something to the parade field. This would normally require an “action word” as we were taught back in elementary school. This requirement oviously does not apply to Air Farce English.

The mystery of “SMU” has now been solved, and it is stupid. Not as stupid as when they use “ATT” instead of “now” but still pretty stupid.

Counterproductive Security Measures

The base computer network seemingly doesn’t trust any security certificates from any signing authority other than Verisign. This means that every web site that uses any other registrar (which is to say, a truly stupendous number of sites) gets an error message that the site’s security certificate cannot be verified to a trusted issuer. This happens with my company timecard system, as one rather important example. Since the network doesn’t trust Entrust or others, this means there is no way to be sure that the sites I connect to which are not Verisign-approved are real sites or phishing expeditions. This means that every site which is not Verisign-approved is a giant red beacon of “ignore this security warning because it’s really not a problem after all.” Every non-Verisign site adds one more item to the list of things to ignore which good security practices tell you NOT to ignore.

Although the Air Force has decided (for reasons which escape me) to allow Youtube and Facebook access on-base (but not Google Plus or even Google Calendar), this week Flash is broken. This is a security configuration issue, as the flashing error bar on the top of the page says the addon has been disabled, not that Flash is literally broken. So, one more flashing error bar to add to the list.

Again, this just encourages users to assume that every error message is, in fact, in error itself. If we get inundated with false positives, we are being trained to ignore actual positives. This also applies to the wave of “helpful” messages which greet us whenever we log in; I challenge any user here at Goodbuddy to honestly claim they read those every time they log into the network. Just more noise to ignore, and train people to ignore all messages because most of them are trivia or wrong.

Email is not foolproof

The USAF continues to rely far too much on email for communication, and continues to trust that sending an email is the perfect all-encompassing method of disseminating info with no possibility of failure.

Many years ago, when I was in the Army on this same Air Force base, a zoomie LT thought that a lack of getting a “reply receipt” from an email she sent was insubordinate and got very angry that I was, “deleting without reading” her emails. Of course, I was doing no such thing; Outlook at the time didn’t send a return receipt for previewing a message, and that’s how I read her missives (which didn’t apply to me in the Army anyway, but so much for logic).

Fast forward to 2011. The refrigerator is down the hall from my office, and I keep my sodas there. The fridge is in a common area, and there is a bulletin board right next to it. Imagine my surprise when my sodas were thrown away today. A sane person would have put the sodas aside, if cleaning out the fridge. They aren’t likely to spoil, after all. When I inquired, I was told that “everyone” was informed about the coming fridge purge, so wah (or something equivalent).

Obviously, I was not informed. The building manager sends an email to the squadron secretary, who sends it to everyone in the squadron. I am not in the squadron, but I had myself added to the squadron email list last year due to the necessity to stay abreast of issues in this building, and there is no email list for residents of the building. I apparently got booted out of the squadron email list sometime in the past (who knows how long ago, as I rarely care about USAF business and maybe I was just relieved at the lack of spam I didn’t care about). So, no notice for me, but complete notification to everyone in the building in the mind of the manager.

So…am I a crazy person for thinking, in addition to an email, a sign or note or post-it on the fridge or near it would have been a normal thing to do? I’m simple, apparently.

Gay Security Risk

In the military intelligence community, everyone is given training annually to spot and deal with security risks.  The major espionage cases I’ve seen over the years (Ames, Hanssen, Walkers, etc.) have been committed primarily for personal enrichment.  I don’t think any of those I listed were actually Soviet sympathizers – they just liked money.  There are other, smaller, cases where someone has illegally revealed classified material to unauthorized personnel.  Some of these have been considered espionage, others a mere security violation or classified compromise.  A recent letter to the editor for the Stars & Stripes states a common belief that Bradley Manning is one of those.  I tend to agree, pending actually seeing the evidence, because of Manning’s own statements to the quasi-journalist and hacker Adrian Lamo.

I do question Manning’s motives.  Many of the most right-wing commentators have assumed that Manning was hiding homosexuality and that caused him to get crazy in some ill-defined way and leak massive amounts of information that was probably not being protected appropriately to begin with (why would a lower-enlisted military analyst have access to State Dept cables unless he was working on something for which he had need to know, unless the State Dept cables were woefully over-released within the IC?).  Of course, that leads the conservative mind to say that homosexuals are a security risk, as they were deemed for many years.

But, here’s the thing about gays being security risks – it only applies if they can be blackmailed about it.  If being gay weren’t liable to get someone booted from the military, they couldn’t be blackmailed for it and therefore would not be a security risk because of it.  There is a long-standing understanding in securityland that people are vulnerable to espionage recruiters for many reasons, financial gain being the largest, but the potential for blackmail is brought up as well.  If there’s something in your past you’d rather nobody know, you may do something extreme and shady to prevent it from coming to light.  This is also the plot of some movies, but it happens to be true to some extent in reality.  Some people will leak a tiny insignificant detail to prevent a devastating revelation, and then they have a bigger problem down the road – they’re now blackmailable because of the initial leak and so can be brought into leaking more and more information down the road.

I’m not going to comment much on Manning’s case, as we know very little verifiable truth about it, but the idea that he leaked a bunch of classified and sensitive material because he was gay is just goofy.  From his own statements, he was an idealist who found out that governments are not always perfectly honest with their own citizens and then he decided to help the USA with its truth problem by divulging what he (in his infinite wisdom) deemed fit to release.  As anyone with a clearance would tell you, that boy was doing something he knew could get him put in prison for a long time.  He’s no innocent, no matter what Glenn Greenwald may portray (not that it justifies 8 months in solitary confinement pre-trial by any stretch).

It seems to me that, once DADT is repealed, gays will be much less prone to blackmail than they were in the 1980s, and therefore no longer a security risk.  This will bring the military in line with every other part of the federal government, which stopped considering gays as security risks long ago.

How To Get Blocked by the USAF

I understand the USAF’s web filters must be working overtime right now, as they attempt to keep the “disclosed but still classified” documents from Wikileaks away from anyone in the military, while they remain available to everyone else on the planet.  Just nod and smile.  What I find particularly amusing is that there seems to be one way to ensure any arbitrary URL is blocked: add the word “wikileaks” to the path. I open up a news site and some of the images are red Xs – they are all named some variant of xxahbr-wikileaks.jpg or something similar.  There are articles in mainstream websites which are not available, even though other articles on the same site are – the articles which are blocked all have “wikileaks” in the URL somewhere.  I can’t even get to the Wikipedia article about Wikileaks, while I can otherwise wander Wikipedia with impunity.  It’s bizarre, and entertaining, and yet… A Fox News article my boss emailed me the other day, pointing out the USAF blocking which the USAF has not seen fit to tell us about – that article I could access, even though it had the offending term in its URL.  I guess Fox News is on the USAF’s “always trust” list, while CBS isn’t.  Just a coincidence, I’m sure.

Jeep Destruction/Construction

The jeep was out of the Army inventory before I enlisted (I saw lots of CUCV and HMMWV and tracks and the occasional deuce and a half or five-ton), but they were legendary for their ease of repair.  These guys make it look incredibly easy to rip one apart and put it back together, in less than four minutes.  I think they’ve practiced.

Support the Troops

A student at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee was walking home from work when four men pulled him into an alley and forced him to lie face-down with a gun to his neck. They took everything from his pockets, but when the gang leader looked in the victim’s wallet and saw an Army Reserve ID card, he told his accomplices to give him his stuff back. “The guy continued to say throughout the situation that he respects what I do and at one point he actually thanked me and he actually apologized,” the unidentified 21-year-old victim said. “The leader of the group actually walked back [and] gave me a quick fist bump.” Police note that 10 minutes later, the gang robbed another man, who had a Department of Corrections inmate ID in his wallet. They didn’t give him his wallet back.

Veterans Day

I’ve worked for several defense contractors since I left the Army over 8 years ago. I’m always rather astonished when one of the companies doesn’t give Veterans Day as a paid company holiday. All our customers take the day off, and almost every employee is a veteran as well. Seems a bit dissonant.

Anyway, enough griping.

Happy Veterans Day. Remember it’s not Memorial Day, but it’s also not a day which is all about sales.

Army Photos

Speculate Wildly!

I’m continually amazed at how frequently what “everyone knows” about an event is wrong. For instance, did you know that the Columbine shootings in 1999 were actually intended to be a massive bombing? Fortunately for the students there, the bombs didn’t actually go off, but they were placed in the cafeteria. Almost nobody knows that, but almost everyone “knows” that the two shooters were part of the Trench Coat Mafia; they weren’t. Everyone knows the two shooters were bullied by jocks; they weren’t. Two girls were shot because they were Christian; also not true – Cassie Bernall’s entire exchange with Harris was when he yelled “Peek a boo” before he shot her.

So, this week we have another shooting. First reports are that three men, including a U.S. Army Major (and psychiatrist, ironically) shot dozens of people with handguns and M-16 rifles, and the Major was reported as killed by a police officer who lay fatally injured himself. Turns out, the Major isn’t dead. Neither is the cop. There are, as of now, no other shooters identified by law enforcement and none are expected. ABC reported that Hasan was a convert to Islam; his brother says they were raised Muslims. He’s been rumored to be a sleeper agent; apparently sleeping since his birth in Virginia to Muslim parents.

At this point, so soon after the shootings and while the gunman is in custody to be questioned, could everyone just take a moment to stop and NOT speculate or repeat rumors?

News Flash – Combat is Unhealthy

There’s a new report from Fort Carson that details some of the potential reasons that post has been home to a distressing cluster of homicide and suicide in recent years. Not surprising to veterans, it concludes that combat makes some people messed up in the head. And, also not a surprise, some (many?) soldiers and leaders belittle mental health issues, causing soldiers who are messed up to not seek treatment except through alcohol, drugs and the occasional act of gunplay.

Mainstream press is surprised.

Fitting In

The GIs in the office I’m currently working from all have an abiding love of Fox News, leaving the television stuck on that channel all day long, and (regulations be damned) speak against President Obama quite freely.  One of the officers asked if I’d seen some headline on Drudge Report (after having a discussion about my Skeptic magazine). As if that’s not bad enough, they just decided to turn off the television (too much Obama made them ill) and turned on some music. First request, not with any sense of irony or mockery: Got any Nickelback? 

Fortunately, I don’t need to worry about fitting in, as I’m expecting to move to a different office in a month.  Nickelback and Faux News, yay.

OPSEC Much?

According to this ABC report, a Reserve linguist is blabbing about some NSA program that targeted Americans.  I sure hope that she is being covered by some sort of Congressional exemption, cuz otherwise she’s kind of violating one of those NDAs like the one I signed this morning (probably the twentieth or more identical form I’ve signed over the years).  Strange that there’s no specific statement that the “whistleblower” is protected that way, but I guess journalists don’t have the same focus as intel geeks.

The Gummint Moves in Mysterious Ways

I’ve been working on military bases for pretty much my entire adult life.  In that time, I’ve been continually amazed and astonished at the utter inanity of the bureaucratic ninnies who are allowed to run much of the daily workings of the government.  For instance, we have a proxy server which blocks access to web sites deemed inappropriate.  Which sites are inappropriate and why remains a guessing game, as they have misconfigured the blasted thing to show a useless error message.  There are locations in the “Access Denied” template to display exactly what category of evil you were trying to access, as well as the usual boilerplate about Big Brother watching you and he’s gonna getcha.

Today, I discovered that RealClimate is blocked. Exactly how is a climatology site objectionable? Of course, the propaganda information sites they do allow are equally interesting. There has never been a day that drug abuser Rush Limbaugh or felon G Gordon Liddy has been blocked, to my knowledge. Comedian Al Franken’s Senate campaign site – blocked. Air America was blocked, then allowed, then blocked, and now it’s allowed again I believe. For the longest time, Little Green Footballs was allowed, while DailyKos was blocked. Now, they’re both blocked.  I can get behind that – neither of those sites is official use, I’d wager. Drudge Report and WorldNutDaily – always accessible.  Slate’s Video News – blocked. Go figure.

Seriously, RealClimate? Frack.

Bletchley Park endangered

Anyone who has read anything of the British crypto effort during WW2, especially regarding the Enigma machine, should be familiar with the name Bletchley Park.  It was the home of the UK equivalent to our NSA, and also housed Alan Turing during the war.  You’d think preserving such an important location would be completely uncontroversial.  Apparently everyone agrees that the site is a wonderful historical locale and its museum of computing is also a great resource.  But, they’re not too willing to pay for it.

The curator says they may be able to keep running for two more years, unless some generous folks step up.  That would be a shame.

Oh, and if you’re not a crypto geek, at least read Between Silk and Cyanide – it’s a fantastic read and a very interesting look at the difficulties of covert agents and how they tie in with the crypto geek culture as well.  Crypto geeks have all read Cryptonomicon, so I won’t bother to link to that one.  🙂

Web Filters are Stupid

The base where I work uses some of the most arbitrary web-blocking filters I’ve ever seen. Yesterday, I could get to ScienceBlogs, today they’re listed as forbidden because they are “Reference/Education” pages. Yes, we wouldn’t want anyone here at the Air Education and Training Command to get to any sort of reference or education page.

My personal website has been blocked today (but not yesterday), listed as a “Forum/Bulletin Board.” Strangely, I can still get to Rush Limbaugh; I’m sure that’s official government use there. Al Franken’s campaign page is blocked for being a “Personal Page” – no political slant at all there, is there?

The web filtering they’ve had in place has gotten ever-more draconian over the years, to the point that I’m actually surprised if a hyperlink does not end in an “Access Denied” page. Science Blogs has got to be the top of the WTF list, though.