Marine Corps rules of engagement

The general stood on top of an amtrac, backed by the U.S. and Marine Corps flags. His voice boomed through a microphone to the hundred or so men standing beneath him. The theme was rules of engagement, and he wanted to make four points very clear. First, commanders had an inherent obligation — not merely a right, but a legal and ethical obligation — to defend their Marines. Second, when the enemy used human shields or put legitimate targets next to mosques and hospitals, he, not we, endangered those innocents. Third, a commander would be held responsible not for the facts as they emerged from an investigation, but for the facts as they appeared to him in good faith at the time — at night, in a sandstorm, with bullets in the air. His fourth and final point distilled the rules of engagement to their essence. He called it Wilhelm’s Law, a tribute to General Charles Wilhelm: if the enemy started the shooting, our concern should be proportionality — responding with adequate, but not excessive, force. If we started the shooting, the concern should be collateral damage.

I took notes as he spoke, thinking that this guidance was pure gold to be passed on to my troops. The rules of engagement harked back to my college classes on Saint Augustine and “just war” theory. I couldn’t control the justice of the declaration of war, but I could control the justice of its conduct within my tiny sphere of influence. Doing right, I thought, wasn’t only a moral imperative but also the most expedient way to lead my platoon. The rules of engagement would be for the Marines’ minds what armor was for their bodies. I made a note to include all this in the formal operations order I would issue a few days later. But I kept the general’s last statement for myself: “Officers,” he said, “please don’t get yourselves killed. It’s very bad for unit morale.”

Fick, Nathaniel. One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer. Houghton Mifflin; Boston. 2005. p. 182 (hardcover)

Gaddis on the Cold War

The pope had been an actor before he became a priest, and his triumphant return to Poland in 1979 revealed that he had lost none of his theatrical skills. Few leaders of his era could match him in his ability to use words, gestures, exhortations, rebukes — even jokes — to move the hearts and minds of the millions who saw and heard him. All at once a single individual, through a series of dramatic performances, was changing the course of history. That was in a way appropriate, because the Cold War itself was a kind of theatre in which distinctions between illusions and reality were not always obvious. It presented great opportunities for great actors to play great roles.

These opportunities did not become fully apparent, however, until the early 1980s, for it was only then that the material forms of power upon which the United States, the Soviet Union, and their allies had lavished so much attention for so long — the nuclear weapons and missiles, the conventional military forces, the intelligence establishments, the military-industrial complexes, the propaganda machines — began to lose their potency. Real power rested, during the final decade of the Cold War, with leaders like John Paul II, whose mastery of intangibles — of such qualities as courage, eloquence, imagination, determination, and faith — allowed them to expose disparities between what people believed and the systems under which the Cold War had obliged them to live. The gaps were most glaring in the Marxist-Leninist world: so much so that when fully revealed there was no way to close them other than to dismantle communism itself, and thereby end the Cold War.

Gaddis, John Lewis. The Cold War: A New History. p. 195-6

This book covered familiar ground, since I have been taking courses on the Cold War since at least high school. Still, it has a concise and interesting argument. It was interesting to read about the Soviet placement of missiles in Cuba being primarily motivated by a desire to spread communism in Latin America by protecting the ‘spontaneous’ Marxist takeover of Cuba. The book may be overly kind to Nixon and Reagan, with both depicted as accomplished grand strategists. The book is probably appropriately harsh on Mao: estimating deaths from his Great Leap Forward at 30 million and highlighting the strangeness of him still being revered in China while few feel similarly about Stalin.

The Vela double flash

During the readout of Vela 6911, AFTEC personnel watched as a stylus drew a figure representing the variations in light intensity, as monitored by the two satellite bhangmeters. There was no data from a third optical sensor, whose mission was to provide the geographic origin of any noticeable flash of light, because it was out of commission. Nor would there be any reading from the satellite’s electromagnetic pulse sensors, which were no longer functioning. But what the technicians saw was sufficient cause for concern. The stylus drew a figure with a double hump, indicating a brief intense flash of light, a dramatic decline in intensity, and then a second, longer-lasting flash. Such double flashes had always been associated with nuclear detonations, where the fireball’s surface is rapidly overtaken by the expanding hydrodynamic shock wave, which acts as an optical shutter and hides the small but extremely hot and bright early fireball behind an opaque ionized shock front which is comparatively quite dim. The initial flash normally lasts only a millisecond and emits about only 1 percent of the total thermal energy, although it is the point of maximum intensity. It appeared that some nation or nations, in some part of the world covered by Vela 6911, had detonated a nuclear device in the atmosphere.

Richelson, Jeffrey T. Spying on the Bomb: American Nuclear Intelligence from Nazi Germany to Iran and North Korea. W.W. Norton and Company; New York. 2007. p. 285 (paperback)

Submarine intelligence on Able Archer

Parche left for the Barents shortly after yet another diplomatic scuffle, in which the Soviets boycotted the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, answering the U.S. boycott of the games in Moscow four years earlier. When she returned, it was clear that she had brought home far more than the most optimistic intelligence officials had hoped for. The taps had been recording all through the alert spiked by Able Archer and had captured a detailed look at the Soviet Navy’s nuclear strategy. This was an ear to the Soviet Navy’s nuclear command-and-control structure as it was placing some of its missile submarines on high alert, rehearsing for war. Some former intelligence officials say this information simply confirmed the picture that had been emerging from the taps about how the Soviets planned to use their missile subs. But other former CIA, NSA, and Navy officials say that Parche’s take from this mission was so critical to their understanding of the Soviets that it qualified as “the big casino,” or “the crown jewels.”

Sontag, Sherry and Christopher Drew. Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage. PublicAffairs; New York. 1998. p. 245 (hardcover)

Shadowing Soviet subs during the cold war

When the Yankee subs were the best the Soviet Union had, nearly every one sent within range of the United States had been in the line of fire of U.S. subs shadowing behind. If war had broken out, those subs could have sunk the Soviet boomers before they ever fired. Then, if both sides ever launched their land-based ICBMs, only the United States would have been left with a second-strike capability tucked away in the oceans. This was the edge that the Navy had been preparing for ever since Whitey Mach first rode bronc on the Lapon. But the strategy relied on three things: that the Soviet subs remained relatively noisy; that they never realized how often they were being followed; and that they continued to patrol in open seas where they could be trailed in the first place.

Still, any strategy that allowed for even a few missile subs to fire at U.S. targets was a far cry from the days when most of the Soviet Yankees traveled the seas with unknown and lethal shadows that could prevent them from shooting at all. And for intelligence officials, it was a huge relief to realize that the Soviets were not readying to use their improved position [in 1984] to start a war.

Sontag, Sherry and Christopher Drew. Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage. PublicAffairs; New York. 1998. p. 210, 247 (hardcover)

On Operation Ivy Bells

Finally the men were ready to crawl out the outer hatch. In the control room, McNish could see them walking what seemed a space walk. Only barely lit by their handheld lights, they cut a ghostly path through the murky water to the [Soviet] communications cable [in the Sea of Okhotsk]. Once there, they began using pneumatic airguns to blow debris and sand away from the wire. As soon as it was clear, the men started to attach the tap, a device about three feet long that held a recorder filled with big rolls of tape. Off the main box was a cylinder that contained a lithium-powered battery. A separate connector wrapped around the cable and would draw out the words and data that ran through. The tap worked through induction. There would be no cutting into the cable, no risk of an electrical short from seeping seawater.

Bradley saw the next step, and he saw it clearly. He wanted to tap as many of the lines as possible, and he wanted to plant a device that could record for several months or even a year, a device that would keep working in Okhotsk even when Halibut was docked at Mare Island. His staff contacted Bell Laboratories, whose engineers were familiar with undersea phone cables and began designing a much larger trap pod. Just like the smaller recorder Halibut carried on her first trip, this new device worked through induction, but this tap pod was huge. Nearly 20 feet long and more than 3 feet wide, it weighed about 6 tons and utilized a form of nuclear power. [Probably a radioisotope thermal generator.] It would be able to pick up electronic frequencies from dozens of lines for months at a time. Halibut could plant the tap one year, then go back and retrieve it the next.

When the new tap was finished, it looked like a giant tube that had been squashed some from the top and welded shut at the ends. The device was crammed with miniature electronic circuits and had the capacity to record for weeks at a time.

Sontag, Sherry and Christopher Drew. Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage. PublicAffairs; New York. 1998. p. 171-2, 174-5, 175 (hardcover)

The 1979 Vela Incident

There are some historical events where it may be impossible for ordinary people to learn the truth. For example, there are situations where more than one nation state has a good reason to circulate a false history — complete with credible-seeming historical documents.

One such case may be the 1979 Vela incident, in which an American satellite may have detected a clandestine nuclear test in the Indian Ocean. Some analyses have concluded that no nuclear explosion took place and that the satellite malfunctioned. Historian Richard Rhodes, who has written a series of excellent books about the history of nuclear weapons, thinks that it was a joint Israeli-South African nuclear test.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists recently published a long discussion of the issue.

“Sanctuary” dedication

At Massey College today a magnificent new sculpture was unveiled in the quad: a bronze cast of birch branches made by Camilla Geary-Martin.

The artwork is dedicated in part to Ursula Franklin — a remarkable Senior Fellow of the College — as well as the late Boris Stoicheff.

Out in the Edgeworth–Kuiper belt

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has been returning some exciting data, after a long flight through the solar system:

This documentary provides illuminating background on the mission: The Year of Pluto.

It is much to be hoped that the New Horizons craft will be able to observe other Kuiper belt objects.