Review: The Rhodesian War

The Rhodesian War: A Military History

The subject of Rhodesia and its war is dominated by uh, “iffy” sources that I shouldn’t have to explain the problems with. Thankfully, among these strides a beautiful unicorn: Moorcraft and McLaughlin’s The Rhodesian War: A Military History. Originally released not long after the war’s end and Zimbabwe’s creation, it recently got an updated edition on post-war developments.

What this is is a very evenhanded, very detailed look completely devoid of “Fire Forces! Selous Scouts!” “Shorts!” “Be a Man Among Men!” Soldier of Fortune romanticism. It doesn’t hesitate to look at the negatives of the guerillas (and, in the updated edition, the Mugabe regime), but it’s unsparing in its blunt assesment of the minority government: Rhodesia was doomed from the start. The British knew it. Apartheid South Africa knew it, which is why they tried to twist Rhodesia into stepping aside in favor of a moderate African government, rather than face a radicalized one on their border that would develop from a victorious war. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that even South Vietnam and 2001-2021 Afghanistan rested on vastly sturdier foundations than Rhodesia did.

The Rhodesians had no concept of war as a political entity and were only good at leveraging limited resources in tactical operations. Even those were aided by weaker opponents (Rhodesians themselves had said that if the guerillas had been as astute in military craft as the Vietnamese ones had been, the war would have been lost much sooner), and said opposition was becoming better as the end of the decade neared.

This is one of the best-single volume military histories I’ve read. It’s also a great antidote to noxious internet fandom surrounding a country that simply did not deserve it.

The Nuclear Assumptions

The one thing going in the would-be nuclear terrorists favor is that nuclear weapons have a lot of “slack” built into their design. IE, they can be ridiculously “inefficient” and still be devastating. Even a rough-implosion sub-kiloton warhead is still a much hotter, radioactive version of this:

But that’s it. Everything else works against them. There’s a lot of attention paid to nuclear material ever since the 1940s for obvious reasons. The materials require specialized personnel and are hazardous (radiation is the least of the worries-both uranium and plutonium are extremely flammable, for one). I used the analogy of Y2K in my review of the best book on the subject that I’ve read.

While reading Brian Michael Jenkins’ own book, one passage jumped at me. This was Jenkins, a renowned terrorism and security expert, talking about how the yields increased.

We have too easily slid from the scientists’ first estimates of terrorist nuclear devices with yields likely to be in the tenths of a kiloton range to a now-assumed standard of a ten-kiloton terrorist bomb. The worst case has become the baseline assessment.

-Brian Michael Jenkins. Will Terrorists Go Nuclear? (Kindle Locations 3611-3612). Kindle Edition.

And yet, both seem valid. Ten kilotons is slightly less than Little Boy, an extremely simple “bang two chunks of HEU together” design whose biggest limiter is that it requires a lot of fissile material. Less than a kiloton is what’s often theorized for a very basic implosion design, necessary with plutonium as the explosive material. Since in the 1970s there was justified fear around the glut of plutonium, that is not an unreasonable assumption. Likewise, it’s also not unreasonable to assume that with access to Little Boy levels of material (Cold War “Surplus”?) one could make a Little Boy level bomb.

There are no real case studies to go on. Aum Shinrikyo conducted the only known and most credible attempt to acquire nuclear weapons by a terror group. It never got beyond basic theoretical designs, as has every other terror daydream. With a (thankful) sample size of zero, all planners can do is base the possibilities on theory.

Review: The Burma Wars

The Burma Wars

Because Myanmar/Burma features so prominently in my current novel draft, I figure I’d look at George Bruce’s The Burma Wars , a history of the British conquest. There were three large Anglo-Burmese wars, but Bruce mostly concentrates on the first. This is understandable, as the latter two were uninteresting squashes.

Bruce is every bit the Empire fan you’d expect a British pop-historian of the 1970s to be, but he still gives the Burmese credit when due. They were comparably armed, had a knack for building fortifications quickly, and the Anglo-Indian force that went against them was logistically troubled and questionably led. And yet, the British still eventually won, and it only got better/worse from there.

I wouldn’t make an old piece of popular history the sole source on any big historical event, but this at least made for a good starting point. I’m glad I read it.

A Thousand Words: The Assassination of Trotsky

The Assassination of Trotsky

Directed by Joseph Losey and starring Richard Burton as the title character, The Assassination of Trotsky is often placed on many “worst movies ever” lists. It is a well deserved placement. For this is a terrible, terrible movie. And it’s deliberately terrible-it’s not due to circumstances, but due to creative choices.

First off is Richard Burton’s performance. His Trotsky looks like a cheap Colonel Sanders mascot and acts like that aging beatnik professor you had in college and loathed. You will learn absolutely nothing about the historical context from this film. In fact, the only way to make sense of the incoherent plotting is to assume that Losey thought the audience would already know everything historically relevant.

Second is the massive, massive padding. Since it doesn’t take ninety minutes to have an ax hitting someone in the head (SPOILER ALERT!), Losey fills the movie with filler. This includes a scene involving rabbits being raised, a long gondola ride where Stalin’s image appears in the water, and, worst of all, a long and gruesome bullfight scene. The only attempts at suspense involve dragging every scene out and playing minimalist music. This gets old after about, oh, two such scenes.

About the only sympathetic character is Romy Schneider’s “Gita”, who is as confused with the situation and disgusted with the bullfight as the audience is. Sadly, she cannot carry on her own, and is the subject of a padding scene as well.

This is a terrible, terrible mess that’s almost so bad it’s good. Almost.

Review: Revisiting South Africa’s Nuclear Program

Revisiting South Africa’s Nuclear Program

Apartheid South Africa built a handful of nuclear bombs before the ANC government dismantled them. As a result of that revelation and transparency, it provided an interesting look into a a field that is understandably quite opaque otherwise. David Albright and Andrea Stricker’s Revisiting South Africa’s Nuclear Program show it in depth.

Altough this is a technical nonfiction book, Albright and Stricker nonetheless write well, and it’s quite accessible to non-nuclear physicists. The creation, developmental struggles, warhead production, and removal of South Africa’s nuclear weapons is all covered, and there are several interestingly unique factors about it that the book provides.

The first is a technical tidbit. South Africa went with a conceptually simpler gun-type device in the style of Little Boy. However, their device was small enough to fit on a Raptor glide bomb carried by a Blackburn Buccaneer, and there were (preliminary) plans to boost it to around a hundred kilotons using a special pellet. As most powers have used implosion devices, South Africa’s experience shows how far the basic gun-type can be pushed.

The second is that, unlike other nuclear programs, South Africa’s was comparably well run and efficient. The pragmatic choice of a gun-type was one of the good decisions that it made. And it still took several years in peacetime while running into bottlenecks-most notably the enriching of uranium.

For those interested in the relevant subjects, this book is thus a good read.

Review: Mikoyan MiG-23

Famous Russian Aircraft: Mikoyan MiG-23 and MiG-27

Another Gordon/Komissarov book specializing in the study of just one platform, I knew I had to get the volume on one of my favorite ugly ducklings: the MiG-23. The Flogger did not enjoy a charmed life. With hindsight, it occupied an uncomfortable niche between the cheap MiG-21 and advanced later fighters. Its swing-wing design was a long-term limiter. The MiG-23MS export version, with no long-range missile ability, was the equivalent of using a Manning brother as a running quarterback.

This is a little better laid out than the MiG-29 book, but it still has iffy formatting and a tendency to shift into colloquialisms like lots of exclamation points! That being said, it delivers a lot of technical-and operational-info. It has the strike and fighter variants all covered, as well as exotic proposals like the IFR-capable carrier versions and my most beloved unsuccessful attempt to put new wine in old wineskins: The MiG-23-98 series.

It’s definitely written by and for aviation enthusiasts, but I had fun with this book. It’s a worthy tribute to an often (and not unreasonably) savaged aircraft.

Review: British Cruisers

British Cruisers

Norman Friedman turns his knowledgeable eye to one of the most arbitrary ship classes in British Cruisers. Going from the early 20th Century to the Cold War, he covers the enigmatic ship type that can best be summed up as “bigger than a contemporary destroyer, but not too big”. From wartime workhorses to unusual goofy designs, Friedman leaves few Royal Navy stones unturned.

The final desperate attempts at large capital ships after 1945 are the most interesting to me. The large “escort cruisers” started off as ASW helicopter ships, then grew into the famed de facto light carriers they became and were later used as. Everything else was rightly shelved. But this is a typically excellent technical history of cruisers in all eras.

Saddam’s Almost-Bomb

Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had a legitimate nuclear weapons program that was, by most accounts, very close to building a functioning Fat Man-level device before the invasion of Kuwait. A draft nuclear operations manual was even made. For all intents and purposes, it was destroyed in the 1991 Gulf War and there was no serious attempt to restart it prior to 2003.

The WMD swing-and-miss isn’t really the subject of this post. It was a combination of the inherent untrustworthiness of the Iraqi regime (which still would have more than willing to make genuine WMDs), a desperate desire to avoid a false negative after 9/11, and a bizzare bluff aimed at Iran by a Saddam who was increasingly believing his own propaganda. I have increasingly believed that, after 1991 and especially after 2001, that the Iraq War, or at least the country undergoing a catastrophic meltdown (see the Syrian Civil War), would have been inevitable given that element and the inherent instability of it, but that’s for another time.

Anyway, the Iraqi design was a spherical implosion device centered around 15-18 kilograms of highly-enriched uranium. The first incarnation of it was very wide (over a meter), with the big Tu-16 and Tu-22 bombers being the only delivery systems capable of dropping it. Later it shrank to the point where it could fit inside a ballistic missile, and active programs were focused on making longer-ranged missiles that could carry such a device. The yield is unknown and the only available references to them in open sources I’ve found are understandably redacted. One theory based on text size I’ve seen argued that the small design had the strength of only one kiloton and the big one three, which fits with the yield of early North Korean (pure test) designs. More generous estimates put it around 10-20. Regardless, it was unlikely to be more than low double digit kilotons in terms of blast strength. It’s worth noting that even the lowest-end estimate would still mean a radioactive version of the 2020 Beirut explosion.

Barring the invasion of Kuwait or other serious external interference, the program could have been up and churning out warheads by the mid-1990s. Of course, there would be serious external interference. Israel’s hyped attack on the Osirak reactor arguably owed more to the mania of Menachem Begin than any practical effect. Begin was the admitted inspiration for the supervillain Magneto (to give an idea of his temperament), and someone who embodied Alexander Wallace’s “hurt people hurt people” statement. Osirak was physically unsuited to producing weapons-grade material in quantity, and its destruction led to a much more hardened and dispersed program. Nonetheless, the Israelis would try.

Would they succeed? Would having the bomb actually lead to a calming effect, as argued by some? (Given the Kargil and Ussuri wars, I’m skeptical). As with everything involving the “devices”, there’s a thankfully small sample size to consider. There are many, many unknowns. But the atomic wolf was truly there.

Minnesota Weird

Minnesota is home to a very strange demographic: Just as how North Carolina has an unusually large number of basketball colleges, the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes has an unusually large number of “romantic” scandals involving female politicians. And they have ranged from the most powerful (state Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, forced out after a relationship with a subordinate), to the most embarassing (State Rep Tara Mack, literally caught in the act with another legislator), to the absolute most bizarre.

Even after nine tumultuous years, I still haven’t seen a political scandal as utterly bizarre as the Laura Brod one. And it’s not about anything she did or was accused of doing (consensual affair and posing for an ill-considered photo). It’s about how it unfolded.

Much of the stuff is only accessible via archives, but as far as I can tell, this is how I’ve read it went down. In August 2008, State Rep. Laura Brod had an affair and posed for a naughty photo. In 2009, when she was expected to run for governor, a ton of internet gossip and drama went out (but no real concrete evidence). There was legal action involving her and a “John Doe”. Brod bailed out of her expected campaign for governor for “health reasons”, and then did not run for reelection in 2010.

Hacking, impersonating, yikes!

In 2011, she was appointed to the University of Minnesota Board of Regents. Around the same time, the Koch/Michael Brodkorb scandal broke, and Brodkorb sued for gender discrimination, alleging that women who slept with male superiors weren’t punished the way he was. A list of his allegations against specific people mysteriously and briefly ended up online, in what was largely regarded as a deliberate mudsling.

In July 2013, out of nowhere, a single-use Tumblr appeared with the Brod photo and the words “This is a picture of University of Minnesota Regent and former State Rep. Laura Brod. A thousand words describe this picture and the story behind it.” But those ‘thousand words’ did not appear (until now, arguably). The now-defunct City Pages ran a series of articles about the Brod photo, talking about its supposed political importance, and eventually going into the details of when the picture was taken and that Brod had spent campaign money on legal fees afterwards. They did not mention or even really speculate on anything like who the photographer/”other man” was, if the relationship brought about any conflict of interest, or anything that would make it a legitimate scandal and not just a tawdry swipe at someone no longer in office.

The result was that everyone expressed sympathy for Brod, and rightfully so. Everyone from her divorcing husband to people who called themselves staunch political opponents spoke on her behalf. The articles about the photo trailed off, no real news about investigative results emerged, and everyone moved on. Laura Brod later remarried and had a successful life outside of government.

The strange thing is the slow drip nature of it, which, combined with the lack of actually identifying or speculating, has made me wonder if that meant the people releasing it were covering for the photographer/”other man”.

Of course, that was a little long ago, but Minnesota couldn’t resist keeping the “streak” going. State GOP Chair Jennifer Carnahan was forced out amid a trafficking (!) scandal, and drunkenly stated that she didn’t care about her ill congressman husband because he’d “soon be dead”. Then came the retaliatory gossip on the internet alleging that she had multiple abortions.

Meanwhile, New York political scandals tend to be boring. Then again, we never elected a pro wrestler as governor…