When Did Truth Die?

Michiko Kakutani offers an eloquent compilation that explains the decay of veracity in the United States. But perhaps more importantly, it skillfully weaves together almost a century of painful lessons from history, literature, and politics.

The Death of Truth was highly scrutinized by media publishers, book critiques, and the greater literature community at the time of its publication. Google the reviews. As the title suggests The Death of Truth – Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump by Michiko Kakutani advocates for the truth to be added to the list of casualties of the former Trump administration. Reading this book at the end of 2021, almost exactly one year since Joe Biden became the 46th President of the United States, and almost 3 ½ years after its initial release, I can’t help but view this book as a compilation of essays that are really bite-sized opinion pieces. This makes for an immersive, moving reading experience, but also renders the message of The Death of Truth to be the mere same polemic it appeared to seek to quash. Admittedly, a provocative diagnosis of our current political landscape is hardly done in the total absence of partisanship. 

Kakutani brilliantly threads her analysis by starting with a historical review of culture wars and past regimes’ handling of truth. She gradually escalates her storyline to the twenty-first century with humanity’s dependency on social media, algorithmic subversion of political decision making, and foreign actors exploiting the American focus on self-pursuit at the expense of civil responsibilities. In her epilogue, Kakutani warns of the continued erosion of democratic institutions. We, the people, must protect the democratic institutions that uphold the roof of democracy. At the same time, there won’t be any easy remedies or shortcuts that will fix our polarized, cultural division. Times like these require deft civil disobedience of the many that are publicly rejecting the idea of cynicism and resignation pursued by the totalitarian few. 

People who are likely to read this book are unlikely to learn something new, but I believe it’s still worth it for the extensive reading resources provided by Kakutani. Her remarkably colorful writing style and sobering outlook on the future state of veracity in the United States won’t disappoint either. NPR’s Michael Schaub nailed it when he wrote: “The Death of Truth is a slim volume that’s equally intriguing and frustrating, an uneven effort from a writer who is, nonetheless, always interesting to read.”

Learn To Lead With These Simple Strategies And Tactics

Jocko Willink’s field manual translates leadership theory into a practical guide for your everyday leadership. 

Leading people to achieve sometimes abstract business objectives is arguably among the most intricate human endeavors. Leadership Strategy and Tactics: Field Manual by Jocko Willink is a step-by-step guide on leadership strategies and how to become effective in leading other people. 

The book is structured in two parts spanning seven sections. Each section covers a specific area and appears to answer a specific question. For example, in part two section two, subsection e. titled “Decentralized Command or Lazy Designation?” Willink explores different styles of leadership to illustrate that a decentralized command can have the collateral appearance that a leader is constantly avoiding work or taking responsibility. A solution to this problem is a blend between observation and readiness to perform. This means, a leader should be aware of attitudes or misperceptions before they bloom into problems. Any inkling of that should be mitigated by taking over a task or taking charge of the most challenging project. This requires a leader to maintain a certain level of involvement and skill training. At this point, it becomes clear that Willinks advice finds its boundaries in the complex, corporate world where an upper-level manager is unlikely to maintain involvement in the ground operations of his reports. If one or more reports turn out to intentionally undermine the decentralized command to get rid of work, then, according to Willink, a leader should seek means to replace those reports, which is also not feasible and oftentimes can expose the company to legal risk. Nevertheless, the subsection provides important clarity on appearances and perceptions for both leaders and reports. Moreover, the mere awareness of an attitude within the team or certain individuals can help preempt certain leadership decisions in favor of a more collaborative solution. 

Another interesting subsection covers “Everone Is The Same, Everyone Is Different”. Therein Willink explores the concept of scaled leadership in moderation. In most organizations, large or small, there will be a high degree of individuality, but also a clear, common denominator across the employee pool. It is the responsibility of the leader to create basic leadership tools applicable across the entire spectrum of employees whenever a business’ need requires a specific team to perform. At the same time, the leader must retain an observant mindset to effectively modulate these leadership tools depending on the situation and the individual members of the team. In his example, Willink suggests understanding the drivers of the situation first before taking diplomatic steps that might result in increasing or decreasing a reports’ responsibilities. While it may be common sense in theory, these concepts rarely translate well into the real corporate world without a modicum of friction or confusion among reports. Tact, diplomacy, and subtlety, therefore, make or break an effective communication which is the foundation to successfully drive a critical business need to completion. 

In his conclusion titled “It’s All On You But Not About You” Willink reiterates the importance of keeping your ego in check and making it about helping others to succeed. All responsibility stops with the leader of an organization or team. But it’s not about the responsibility or about the leader. Leadership is about making informed, inclusive decisions to effectively drive company objectives together as a team to succeed as a team. It’s about forming effective relationships of trust across all levels of the organization. This requires discipline over ego and emotions. Failing to enable others to perform at the highest level possible will inevitably invite corrosive attitudes into an otherwise well-performing team. Understanding that a leader only succeeds when the team succeeds is true leadership. It really summarizes the theme of this book: be humble and if you take care of the work, the work will take care of you.

Jocko Willink spent his formative years in the military. His leadership as a commanding officer of SEAL Team 3 aka “Task Unit Bruiser” led to the most military decorations of a Special Operations unit during the Iraq War. With all that in mind, his writing style is militaristic, relies on military terminology, and often draws premise from complex, military regulations. Altogether this really undermines creative extrapolation into everyday leadership. If you aren’t familiar with his previous publications this book can appear too detached from everyday business issues for the non-military, mid-level manager of a brick-and-mortar business. Overall Leadership Strategy and Tactics: Field Manual is a good book. While it rides and repeats common sense concepts it creates value as an everyday guide for early and experienced leaders alike. It does compete with other business and management books on leadership in a rather saturated market. This makes me believe the audience for this book would be found in the military, government or other large-scale corporations. I’m having a hard time seeing this book attracting an audience in more progressive sectors.

You can find Jock Willink on
Facebook @jkowillink
Instagram @jockowillink
Twitter @jockowillink
YouTube @jockopodcastofficial

Find A Behavioral Solution To Your Product Design Problem

Our actions are (very much) predictable and can be influenced.

Humans are complicated. Humans are different. Humans are irrational, unpredictable, and emotional. In DECODING the WHY – How Behavioral Science is Driving the Next Generation of Product Design author Nate Andorsky embraces all these idiosyncrasies by answering these underlying questions: what makes us do what we do and how can product designers learn from these behavioral patterns to build better products. 

Andorsky takes the reader on a story-driven adventure into behavioral science. Decoding the Why lives in a constant tension between the evolution of product design and human behavior. It describes psychological concepts and how they influence product designs. It provides practical guidance on how to meet the consumer’s cognitive state before intent is formed and how to use behavioral science to nudge the consumer towards action. For example in the part about ‘Meeting Our Future Selves’ Andorsky reviews Matthew McConaughey’s iconic Oscar acceptance speech after winning the Oscar for his performance in Dallas Buyers Club.

“When I was 15 years old I had a very important person in my life come to me and say, ‘Who’s your hero?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, I gotta think about that, give me a couple of weeks.’

This Person comes back two weeks later and says, ‘Who’s your hero?’ I replied, ‘You know what, I thought about it and it’s me in ten years.’

So I turn twenty-five. Ten years later, that same person comes to me and says, ‘So are you a hero?’ I replied, ‘No, no, no, not even close.’ ‘Why?’ she said. ‘Cause my hero is me at thirty-five,’ I said.

See, every day, every week, every month, every year of my life, my hero is always ten years away. I’m never going to meet my hero, I am never going to obtain that, and that’s totally fine because it gives me somebody to keep on chasing.”

If humans were rational we’d all pursue the rational thing to maximize our time and energy. However, we are not rational. All too often we give in to the instant gratification that lies in the moment by putting off the thing that helps us tomorrow. This concept is also known as Hyperbolic Discounting. Andorsky walks the reader through the obstacles that keep us from meeting our future selves by reviewing methods such as reward systems, gamification models, commitment devices, and goal setting, all of which, are used to inform product design. 

If I ever write a book, I will likely attempt to create a similar structure and flow. Andorsky did an excellent job by breaking down the content into easily digestible parts. Each part tells a captivating story concluding in an engaging question for the reader. While the subject matter could have easily been told with jargon and psychology terminology, the author consistently uses clear and non-academic language to explain a variety of behavioral and psychological concepts and theories. Altogether this makes for an accessible page-turner offering a wide range of practical applications. 

Taking a birds-eye view on Decoding the Why, I feel, I could come to two conclusions that could not be further apart: (1) Andorsky answers the eternal question of what makes us do what we do and how product designers can learn from these behavioral patterns to build better products or (2) Andorsky provides ammunition to weaponize psychology in order to calibrate intrusive technology that can be used to manipulate and exploit human behavior. Whatever your position is on the question of using behavioral science to influence user behavior, this book is a gateway to explore psychological concepts, and it is an important read for changemakers. It can be used for good, or, it can be used to inform better public policy. I’d rank Decoding the Why as a must-read for product designers, product managers, and anyone working to improve user experiences in technology. 

The Classic That Should Not Be? 

Maybe it is time to dial back our enthusiasm for classic novels with a checkered past and banal storylines.

Sometimes all it takes is a little controversy. J.D. Salinger inadvertently created controversy around his first published novel “The Catcher In The Rye” by crafting a contrast between individual experience and societal change. His main character’s use of inappropriate and foul language led to several removals from school curriculums while, at the same time, being subscribed to the school curriculums of many others for its brilliant depiction of childhood emotions and the struggle of adolescents. In essence, the Catcher in the Rye is about protecting the innocence of young life. It can be seen as a critique of society or merely as an autobiographical account (Salinger recanted his early statements that his main character Holden Caulfield was tailored after his own childhood). Frankly, I wasn’t moved when I was forced to read this book as a teenager and I’m not moved by it twenty years later. Maybe another few decades will make me view it differently, but for now, I question the Catcher in the Rye’s status as a classic. It is incoherent writing. It fails to establish gravitas or emotional trust in the main character’s thoughts and actions. It seems to me to be a book that was published a lifetime ago when the baby boomers were changing social structure forever, and not for the better. Salinger is a product of this generation. Some of his experience translates into younger generations, but I couldn’t relate. I really wanted to find myself in this book, however, I am glad that I didn’t.

Do We Want Science At Any Price?

Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program That Brought Nazi Scientists To America by Annie Jacobsen describes how American ambition to win the Space Race and the Cold War with the Soviet Union led to an unprecedented immigration bypass program to extract Nazi Germany’s brightest scientific minds.

Linda Hunt was the first writer to file multiple Freedom Of Information Act requests with different military organizations to access the classified documents pertaining to Operation Paperclip. After more than a year, two lawyers and a threatened lawsuit the U.S. Army finally released the records and billed her $239,680 in so-called search fees (significantly more than $500,000 in today’s money). Annie Jacobsen’s book builds upon Hunt’s revelations and adds hundreds of hours of interviews and declassified intelligence documents. Her paperback stands at 445 pages. It is segmented into five parts. It takes the reader to the end of WWII when the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency (JIOA) and the US Army’s Counterintelligence Corps (CIC) come across the Osenberg List. This document was the equivalent to a LinkedIn for scientists and engineers employed by the Third Reich. It served as a target list during Operation Paperclip with rocket scientist Wernher von Braun at its top. Jacobsen describes the bureaucratic and moral challenges of a democratic nation when recruiting Nazi war criminals. For example, the case of Walter Schreiber illustrated a nauseating calculus by the US military to contract the former surgeon general of the Third Reich under Operation Paperclip despite tacit knowledge of his contributions to war crimes. Another example is the case of Hubertus Strughold. He rose to academic fame and received the nickname “Father of Space Medicine”. A San Antonio library bore his name and a plaque was put on display to honor his scientific work in complete ignorance of his human experiments on concentration camp inmates. Needles to state that in both cases, the inconvenient, dark truth of their participation in Nazi war crimes eventually imbued and drowned these men’s careers. Although they were never held accountable.

The Paperclip extractions surrounding medicine and chemistry appear to dominate Jacobsen’s book. However the lines are blurred between the different areas of expertise of the German scientists. And the density of information opens a many rabbit holes for the curious history buff. One of the more captivating things about the entire program is its historical impact that can still be observed today. For example, the program went from its original call sign “Overcast” to “Paperclip” to “Defense Scientist Immigration Program” whereby the CIA renamed its involvement the “National Interest” program. This particular terminology recently reappeared in the Military Accessions to the Vital National Interest (MAVNI) program and later slightly amended during the State Department’s effort to facilitate travel for highly qualified applicants during COVID-19 pandemic imposed travel bans.  Furthermore, Operation Paperclip created the foundation for other highly classified, ethically and morally obscure intelligence operations such as “Operation Bluebird/Artichoke” or “Project MK-Ultra”. Another interesting facet to this entire program that is not discussed in the book is the difference in educational systems between the United States and Germany. To this day, I believe the state-sponsored approach to afford all citizens free access to education in Germany is advantageous over the American tuition-based approach that requires substantial financial support. It was a dominant factor to allow the early 20th century Germany to develop intercontinental rockets, advanced nerve agents and other ground-breaking technology. Then, the United States was not only lacking a competitive educational system but it lacked advanced military technology to keep up with the more progressive nations of the time.   

(The German rocket team at Fort Bliss, Texas, after World War II led by Dr. Wernher Von Braun. Source: NASA Marshall Space Flight Center photo/DefenseMediaNetwork)

Annie Jacobsen masterfully presents the moral dilemma the United States government had to resolve in the quickly evaporating environment following the allied victory over Nazi Germany. The well-reserached book is packed with historical facts, contemporary interviews, and portraits of person’s of interest, each material for a separate book or movie. While her writing style is concise and captivating, I found myself progressing slowly due to the aforementioned density of intriguing characters and circumstances that populate each page. This book sheds light on some of the toughest moral and ethical questions. Some of which are still unanswered today. How was it possible that our democratic government looked past the former commitment to Nazi Party ideology of countless scientists, a few even awarded the NSDAP’s Golden Party badge honoring their outstanding services to the Nazi Party or the Third Reich. Can US citizenship be bought by saving the nation millions in research? Was WWII all about extracting scientific and technological advantages at the price of admitting Nazi ideology to our educational and scientific institutions? 

I think the most uncomfortable takeaway from this book is the arbitrary character of the US government. An old German adage goes “Wes Brot is ess’ des Lied ich sing’” (who pays the piper calls the tune). Throughout history this arbitrary character of different US governments casted a shadow on American democracy and the price of freedom.  

Militarizing Influence

Our information environment is increasingly dependent on the inescapable, largely unregulated cyberspace. Beyond national and geographical boundaries, however, this comes with its unique challenges ranging from information accuracy, integrity and relevancy to weaponizing information to influence a target audience in the pursuit of a diplomatic or economic goal. 

tl;dr

This paper proposes the development and inclusion of Information Influence Operations (IIOs) in Cyberspace Operations. IIOs encompass the offensive and defensive use of cyberspace to influence a targeted population. This capability will enable the evolution of strategic messaging in cyberspace and allow response to near-peer efforts in information warfare.

Make sure to read the full paper titled Information Influence Operations: The Future of Information Dominance By Captain David Morin at https://cyberdefensereview.army.mil/CDR-Content/Articles/Article-View/Article/2537080/information-influence-operations-the-future-of-information-dominance/

(Source: DoD/Josef Cole)

The United States Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM) unifies the direction of cyber operations within the Department of Defense. This paper proposes to incorporate Information Influence Operations (IIOs) into its capability set. This influence will facilitate the exertion of soft power in the pursuit of US national interests. Moreover, IIOs will reduce the need for large-scale operations or use of critical cyber offensive operations. 

A notable omission in the paper is a clear definition of IIOs. The ‘Introduction’ suggests that “the unrealized value of cyberspace, and what makes it so dangerous, is it allows direct access to the individual and to the public at large. This access, when used correctly, provides actors in cyberspace the ability to influence public opinion and shape the narrative of ongoing operations.” This, however, appears to be conflating cyberspace with the general, public media landscape while it implies an operator could just hack Twitter accounts and send out some tweets with a favorable narrative. Applying the lessons and learnings from its efforts to counter foreign influence operations, Facebook views all “coordinated efforts to manipulate or corrupt public debate for a strategic goal” as an influence operation. By definition in Joint Publication 3-13, information operations are described as “the integrated use of electronic warfare, computer network operations, psychological operations (PSYOP), military deception, and operations security to influence, disrupt, or corrupt adversarial decision making while protecting our own.” Therefore a suitable definition combining all of three concepts would define IIOs as “a capability to shape and direct public opinion in order to influence, disrupt, or corrupt adversarial decision making by leveraging soft- and hardware technology supported by psychological weapons and tactics in the pursuit of a strategic national interest.”

The author could have expanded more on the principles of US combatant command structures and its basic chain of command. This would have helped the reader to understand the current discrepancies in ownership of IIOs. As it stands, US combatant commands are structured by geographic focus and functional capabilities. USCYBERCOM falls into the latter category. A functional command unifies different military branches to achieve its mission. It remains unclear which military branch currently takes ownership of IIOs, if any. Taking it a step further out of the frame, the author comes out short on delivering a convincing rationale of when and where IIOs should be deployed and under whose authority. Cyberspace is predominantly civilian space created and maintained by privately held servers all across the world. Would USCYBERCOM install a permanent Information Influence Operations Center to execute IIOs spanning multiple months and years? Would such action require presidential or congressional approval? And would approved missions cease at servers operated on US soil or exclude US citizens from manipulation? Would it release a transparency report detailing the measures taken against foreign and domestic threats and under whose authority? These and other important questions need to be considered when thinking about consolidation of government power.  

But not all is dark and gloomy. The author does detail his proposition with a few more insights. In revisiting Stuxnet, NotPetya or the Russian involvement in dividing the US electorate during the 2016 US Presidential elections the author builds a foundation to support the argument for a centralized command of IIOs. Two of these events were targeted cyber attacks on critical infrastructure, one allegedly driven by the US and Israel, and the third event was a carefully curated, multi-year effort to exploit vulnerabilities in the US democratic process. All of these events indeed demonstrate the power that can be wielded through cyberspace operations, but where I disagree with the author is the comparability of these unique events and a causality between cyberspace and influencing information. Combining cyber attacks to corrupt critical infrastructure with a targeted narrative to redirect the public’s attention is a serious threat to US national security. However, identifying the operator and the motive behind such an attack may reveal domestic, private actors with a mere criminal motive, if attribution is even possible. Take the coordinated social engineering attack on Twitter ahead of the 2020 US Presidential elections. Government accounts from Joe Biden to Barack Obama as well as the accounts of notable public figures such as Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos were hacked, hijacked and abused to distribute a bitcoin scam. Should USCYBERCOM have stepped in, take network control from Twitter, a private business, in order to mitigate and counter the attack? 

In the section ‘Influencers’ the author does raise valid concerns when he states that “influencers are capable of wielding influence over millions and have used this influence for a multitude of purposes from philanthropy and advertising to political ends.” Online reach is tantamount to circulation of a print paper with the difference being longevity – the internet never forgets. Unchecked influence of influencers is something our society needs to review and decide upon. Perhaps private businesses will recognize the powers that be and increase checks and balances for this specific type of user or automatically guardrail reach to create equity among users.

In the section ‘Operationalizing IIOs’ the author states “There is little brand loyalty in the online world. Consumers will go elsewhere to find what they need if their preference is slow or unavailable. Influencing and controlling that “someplace else” yields the opportunity to wield influence.” In essence, the author suggests to take advantage of users impatience by increasing the time it takes to load a website. Once this latency or lag is in place, an operator may incentivice users to shift their attention to an alternative information source. This can be achieved through well-targeted advertising campaigns. As an example, the author offers the case of Amazon losing over $72 million due to a 63 minute outage on Prime Day 2018.

There is research to support an increased impatience during ecommerce transactions. However, there is an equal amount of research on brand loyalty, which across markets sees about 75% and higher retention rates once a customer relationship has been successfully established. For example, an Amazon Prime user, who pays for the privilege of Prime is unlikely to switch a book order to Barnes & Noble simply because there is a few milliseconds of delay when placing the order. It takes a contrast in price and shipping time to break the established brand loyalty with Amazon. Furthermore, in the author’s example the IIO appears to be directed at an ecommerce transaction. Even in the hypothetical foreign policy scenario of introducing latency to Alibaba to redirect users to Amazon to decrease economic output/revenue or other feasible US objectives, the author doesn’t really explain how it could favorably influence future behavior.

IIOs offer a tremendous potential to support diplomacy while strengthening our national security. Allocating the responsibility to exert and drive information influence to a military institution, however, raises constitutional concerns. It would likely undermine the trust of our allies but also chill diplomatic relations with non-allied nations. From a military perspective, an effort to centralize capabilities can reduce overall cost of cyberspace operations and increase transparency among military stakeholders. On the other hand, all centralized command structures are vulnerable to a single-point of failure, which can be devastating when USCYBERCOM is facing a sophisticated, superior adversary. In addition, an effort to centralize IIOs might increase the response rate to attacks in cyberspace or efforts to coordinate foreign influence operations by an adversary due to the extended chain of command.   

How The U.S. Air Force Won WWII

On August 6, 1945 at 8:15 AM the Enola Gay, a Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber named after its pilot’s mother, was well above the city of Hiroshima in Japan. Its bomb bay opened and it released the infamous payload codenamed “Little Boy”. 53 seconds later and the city of Hiroshima resembled hell. This first ever wartime use of a nuclear weapon arguably expedited the Japanese decision to surrender the war. Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book “The Bomber Mafia” chronicles the renegade group of pilots who went well beyond the call of duty leading up to this point in history. They redefined military strategy that would become the foundation for the Air Force to eventually separate from the Army as an independent military branch. They utilized precision bombing tactics and creative strategy to attack the enemy from ever-changing angles at breathtaking casualty and destruction rates. While the nuclear attack on Hiroshima resulted in about 4.7 square miles of damage, the Bomber Mafia devised and executed incendiary air raid missions that destroyed ten times more enemy infrastructure and killed hundreds of thousands more. During Operation Meetinghouse, the single most deadly bomber attack in human history, as much as 16 square miles of Tokyo were destroyed. More than 100,000 civilians were killed and over one million left homeless. Gladwell presents the impossibility of choice these men were faced with in a page-turning fashion. 

The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War is unlike his previous books. He doesn’t introduce unknown facts or thought-provoking theories but instead zooms in on a specific moment in WWII history. Gladwell tries to answer the question what does it mean when technology and best intentions collide in the heat of war? All wars present a moral conflict. What allows Bomber Mafia to stand out is the impossibility of choice that these US military officials and soldiers were faced with: invasion by land, timed-precision bombing of high-value targets or relentless sorties dropping an inferno on enemy cities? Win at all cost versus a more humane approach to war. Like most of Gladwell’s books, its insights are easily transferable into our modern times. The Bomber Mafia takes place in the context of WWII but the moral dilemma it describes is relevant for 21st-century technology, for example when we think about artificial intelligence and human medicine or algorithm structure and social media.

“Curtis LeMay won the battle. Haywood Hansell won the war.”

The paperback’s metrics are 9 chapters plus author’s note and conclusion divided into two parts and spread across 206 pages. Apparently this book was conceived as an audiobook. The paperback only functions as a second addition. I didn’t miss anything noteworthy, but I have read the audiobook has more flesh to it. 

Bomber Diplomacy

Operation Rolling Thunder was a highly controversial aerial assault on key infrastructures under control of North Vietnam. Notwithstanding its failures, the bombing campaign offers important lessons on the concept of coercion. A recent UCLA research paper shows that an escalating exercise of airpower can unlock vital information to inform and revise coercive military campaigns. 

tl;dr

Operation Rolling Thunder’s failure has been widely blamed on the strategy of using force to send “signals.” It discredited the associated theory of coercion among a generation of military officers and scholars. In this paper, I show that whatever its other failures, Operation Rolling Thunder did successfully signal a threat. I rely on the latest research to demonstrate that Hanoi believed the bombing would eventually inflict massive destruction. I also show that Washington accurately ascribed the failure of the threat to North Vietnam’s resolve and continued the operation for reasons other than signaling. These findings show that Operation Rolling Thunder can be productively understood as an exercise in both signaling and countersignaling. Rather than discrediting the theory of coercion, these findings modify it. They show that failed threats can be informative and that coercive campaigns can become prolonged for reasons other than a lack of credibility.


Make sure to read the full paper titled Was Airpower “Misapplied” in the Vietnam War? Reassessing Signaling in Operation Rolling Thunder by Ron Gurantz at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09636412.2021.1915585

(Source: Robert Taylor)

Operation Rolling Thunder was an aerial assault during the Vietnam War designed to gradually escalate in force. It started on Mar 2, 1965 and ended on Nov 2, 1968. Rather than to pursue a shock and awe strategy then commander-in-chief and 36th President of the United States Lyndon B. Johnson opted for a limited-force strategy to signal the enemy American resolve and to coerce a truce. From the American perspective, the Vietnam War was a war with limited objectives, so it made sense to use limited means. North Vietnam, however, viewed it as a total war, so it made sense to resist any military strategy. Its failure to achieve a truce by compelling a cease of supplies to the Vietcong or stop infiltration into South Vietnam created a narrative among military strategist that the airpower was misused or misapplied.

The theory of coercion directs to “influence the enemy’s behavior to compel a certain outcome by means of anything short of brute force”. Applied to the Vietnam War, Operation Rolling Thunder was a means to influence North Vietnam’s behavior, notably to cease support of the Vietcong. It signaled a threat of grave devastation to North Vietnamese infrastructure and potentially civilian lives. Continued fighting does not contradict this conclusion, but indicates that North Vietnam understood the American approach of restraint, adapted to it, and accepted the threatened consequences. These actions taken by North Vietnam acted as a sort of countersignal. Furthermore, The United States recognized the effects of its signals early on, but nevertheless continued the bombing campaign under the calculus that a gradually escalating bombing campaign would erode North Vietnam’s resolve until it would reach a breaking point where the threat of heavy bombing would meet a vulnerable North Vietnamese leadership. Therefore coercing them to consider ceasefire, truce or pursue non-military alternatives such diplomacy.

As history tells, LBJ’s bomber diplomacy would not bode well for the United States. Nevertheless, the US military sent and received vital signals to inform and revise military strategy. Even though the threat of total destruction was accepted by the North Vietnamese, this countersignal was correctly interpreted by the United States as a willingness to accept consequences rather than a lack of credibility. So, why did the United States continue to gradually escalate rather than turn brute force when it became clear that North Vietnam was willing to accept heavy bombing? Coercion may benefit from restraint because an instant destruction of critical infrastructure would have left nothing to protect but also set back Vietnam’s faltering economy hundreds of years. Furthermore, coercion may benefit from restraint because the longer the bombing campaign lasts, the more it wears down the enemy’s will. The takeaway for military strategists may lie in the finding that signaling and restraint in warfare to allow for a gradual escalation will remain powerful alternatives to a blitzkrieg strategy. Sending and receiving signals has the power to inform and revise coercive military campaigns.

PBS offers an intriguing learning series on Operation Rolling Thunder and its wider impact on the Vietnam War. C-Span recorded a class by Douglas Kennedy of the U.S. Air Force Academy on Vietnam’s War’s “Operation Rolling Thunder” air campaign. Both complement and support the findings in Gurantz’ paper.

Cheer Up, It Could Always Be Worse. You Could Be Livin’ In Texas!

Molly Ivins collection of political commentary for there are nothin’ but good times ahead.

When I think of a strong and independent woman I think of Mary Tyler “Molly” Ivins. Her inimitable talent of writing political commentary that combines both, lighthearted humor and serious critique, is dearly missed in times when the fourth estate of our great nation seems to lack identity and direction. “Nothin’ But Good Times Ahead” is a compendium of her political columns published between circa 1991 and 1993. While the early ‘90s seem to be a world away, her writings could have been published today without missing the mark. In a way, this says a lot about the never-changing political theatrics that is American politics. That being said, this book has no beginning and no end. Each chapter stands alone at a perfect length for your daily commute. The occasional laugh is guaranteed. In the chapter “Gibber An Other Misdemeanors” Ivins describes the former Speaker of the House of Texas Representatives Gib Lewis as 

“The Gibber gave us so many moments to remember. Both his tongue and his syntax regularly got so tangled that his language was dubbed Gibberish and provided the state with wonderful divertissement. He once closed a session by thanking the members for having extinguished theirselfs. Upon being reelected at the beginning of another session, he told members he was both grateful and ‘filled with humidity.’”

Of course, it’s not all about making fun of elected officials. Her subjects receive an equal amount of praise if they did live up to their political mandate. Another feat of Ivins’s writing style is her subconscious hook with which she provokes the reader’s reflection and encourages political awareness.

“It’s all very well to dismiss the dismal sight of our Legislature in action by saying, ‘I’m just not interested in politics,’ but the qualifications of the people who prescribe your eyeglasses, how deep you will be buried, what books your kids read in school, whether your beautician knows how to give a perm, the size of the cells in Stripe City, and a thousand and one other matters that touch your lives daily are decided by the dweebs, dorks, geeks, crooks, and bozos we’ve put into public office.”

Nowadays, our media spews out and distributes divisive messages of the nature of “Don’t California my Texas”. Rachel Maddow and Tucker Carlson are relentless in pointing fingers at the other side. Ivins’ column, her legacy really, is about critical thinking. It’s about the essence of democracy – participation. If we, the people, fail to critically reflect on who we vote into public office and check their decisions once in a while, then we’re headed nowhere. Her contributions carry an optimistic message that it’s not all dark and gloomy. There are honorable folks out there, who have integrity and dedicate themselves to serve the public without ifs or buts. In her own words

“The people I admire most in our history are the hell-raisers and the rabble-rousers, the apple-cart upsetters and plain old mumpish eccentrics who just didn’t want to be like everybody else. They are the people who made and make the Constitution of the United States a living document”

If only she were around today. Rest in peace, Molly Ivins. 

On Tyranny

A pocket guide for civil disobedience to safe democracy.

Democracy requires action. Timothy Synder’s “Twenty Lessons From The Twentieth Century” inspires action. In his short pocket guide, Synder offers civic lessons ranging from taking responsibility for the face of the world to political awareness all the way to what it really means to be a patriot. His theme is ‘those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it’. It struck me as an ideal guide to give out at demonstrations or town hall meetings. His ideas for civic measures are worth recounting for they aim to protect the integrity of democracy. That being said, most of his lessons should be working knowledge for every citizen.