Review: Gaming The Game

Gaming The Game

Sean Patrick Griffin’s Gaming the Game is about the gambling scandal centered around NBA referee Tim Donaghy. Its main “character” is now former pro gambler Jimmy Battista, who handled the actual betting side of things (oversimplified of course). I generally don’t like true crime books, but heard good things about this and the subject matter of sports betting was a naturally interesting one to me.

This is one of the best true crime books I’ve read.

The narrative (most of which centers around Battista, not Donaghy), is well-written and soundly researched at the same time. It really helped fill a gap in a part of the sports betting world I hadn’t really had to look up before-genuine sharps. (Touts are mentioned once dismissively, as they should be). You get to read about a lot of people, some of whom I could guess who their true identities were (Griffin rightfully uses pseudonyms).

The icing on the cake is an appendix where Griffin delves into line movements to see what effect the Donaghy actions -regardless of the man’s claims- had on the games he reffed and bet on. By giving it its own section, he can be extremely detailed and technical while not interfering with the flow of the rest of the book. The analysis could easily be a book unto itself.

If you have the slightest interest in sports betting or sleaze, get this book.

What Does Mobilization Mean?

Doing a rare commentary on a contemporary military situation, since it happens to overlap with what I’ve read about. Fair warning-I’m not an expert, I’m a civilian enthusiast who has read too much and seen too many order of battle charts. Take this what you will.

So, moving with the speed and grace of the Austin Powers steamroller victim, Russia has finally declared a “partial” mobilization after seven months of brutal attrition, including training units. At first limited to reservists and people with military experience in out of the way provinces (let’s be realistic), it’s nonetheless very broad. The initial goal is 300,000 troops, which sounds like a lot and is still politically dicey. Why they did this is obvious-the Ukrainian counteroffensives and the failure of their improvised semi-mobilization left them with little choice.

People have talked ad nausem about the equally obvious issues with training and equipping that many (or more) troops, as well as morale. So I’ll mention two topics. The first is what they can legitimately accomplish. This is to serve as a stationary dug-in meatshield as the first line of defense. Every army needs an infantry meatshield from somewhere. In the early summer Ukraine was doing this, desperately throwing poorly equipped and trained militia to the east. Of course, you can have that or you can have the 1991 Iraqi infantry formations, but there is a legitimate use for low-quality troops, at least on paper.

What they cannot do effectively is launch offensives. You can probably understand why this is a big deal. And that’s especially if they have worse and their opponents better equipment.

Now for the rivet-counting nerd part and what you need to equip 300,000 people (this is NOT saying the real ones would be equipped or organized this way, just showing how demanding it is equipment-wise). Using a mostly foot OPFOR infantry division as the baseline (ie, largely only suitable for defensive operations), and assuming a handwaved 20,000 strong divisional slice of support troops beyond the 10,000 strong division itself, you get get 15 division-equivalents, which is…

  • 465 tanks
  • 540 artillery pieces
  • 270 multiple rocket launchers
  • 540 anti-aircraft guns.

Even in Russia this does not grow on trees, especially after the stockpile has already been plundered massively.

Review: Will To Fight

Will To Fight

In the Will To Fight study/book, RAND analysts tried to take a look at one of the most important yet hard to study parts of war-the will of the soldiers to fight. It’s a mixed bag. On one hand, it’s sincere in trying to tackle something essential, and its detail is excellent.

On the other, it’s centered around a chart that resembles what you see in the dreaded DoD Powerpoints of Doom. This is not the most surprising thing, but it is still a little too awkward. And beyond the well done simulations and descriptions of games with morale factors and how they affect outcomes, it still has the feeling to trying to directly quantify what’s admitted in the study itself as not directly quantifiable.

Nonetheless, the topic is well-cited and well handled, and is important enough that “mixed” quality still makes it well worth a read.

Review: Wings Over The Hindu Kush

Wings Over The Hindu Kush

Lukas Muller’s Wings Over The Hindu Kush shines a light on an obscure footnote in aviation history: The Afghan air forces (yes, plural) between the Soviet withdraw and Enduring Freedom. Leaving behind a large quantity of helicopters and aircraft, there were enough parts and willing pilots for the Taliban and its rivals to create air forces up until 2001. As someone aware of their existence and interested in how functional air units could be maintained from such “scraps”, this book was an easy purchase.

In a complex, fluid situation without the best documentation, getting the detail that Muller did was no small feat. The book isn’t the biggest or most absolutely detailed, but it does tell the story of these helicopters, Fitters, and Fishbeds. And it’s a very interesting story.

The strike aircraft were far from the most capable or effective (the transports in a place with poor infrastructure were far more vital), but their mere presence in such conditions was surprising. And this book clears up the surprise in a great way.

The Eternal Death (And Life) Of The Tank

The year is 1916. Someone peers through his binoculars and sees an artillery shell smashing into one of these new tracked machines called “tanks”, destroying it. Shaking his head, he goes “These can’t amount to anything, they can be destroyed so easily.” (Even with modern tanks, if a big artillery shell hits it, it’s gonna hurt.)

The year is 2022. Someone looks on the internet and sees a drone launching a smart munition and destroying a tank. Shaking his head, he goes “these must be obsolete, they can be destroyed so easily.” Some things never change.

I could point to 1918 and heavy machine guns (really, the M2 Browning was considered a prime antitank gun at its introduction), 1944 and bazookas, 1973 and ATGMs, 1991 and laser-guided bombs, 2003 and smart cluster shells-you get the idea. Many others have said with far more knowledge and eloquence than me about the importance of armor, mobility, and firepower, regardless of its destructibility. So I’ll take another route.

Imagine something that is objectively less well armed and less armored than a tank. Now imagine that it, vulnerable to everything a tank is and so much more, is nonetheless not obsolete but remains totally indispensable. I’m talking of course about the classic basic box-APC, proof against small arms and some shrapnel. There’s a reason why Ukraine in the current war has been so eager to receive any kind of vehicle with an engine and armor plating, and why released footage of its current offensive in Kherson has shown them being put to good use.

There’s a reason why, especially on any kind of open terrain, armored forces are so much more accomplished than unarmored ones. And no amount of anti-tank gadgets can change that.

Review: Soviet Era Airliners

Soviet-Era Airliners: The Final Three Decades

In many ways, Aeroflot mirrored the USSR itself. Its breakup in 1991 scattered the massive airline’s assets across all the independent republics. Christopher Buckley’s Soviet-Era Airliners: The Final Three Decades tells the story of what happened to all the “Classics”, “Crusties”, “Carelesses”, “Clobbers”, and more. While the collapse of the USSR and the failure of its aviation industry to make a competitive product caused its new-build civil aircraft industry to fall apart instantly, there were lots of surplus planes around.

This book does a great job showing most of their fates. There’s lots of details and even more excellent photographs. If you like civil aviation at all, this is a great book. I was curious to see what happened to these flying trilobites, and now I know.

Review: The Machine That Changed The World

The Machine That Changed The World

The product of a large MIT study of the auto industry, The Machine That Changed The World attempts to tell the story of “lean production”. The two other production types of motor vehicles mentioned in the book are obvious: Handmade/custom “craft production”, only used for a handful of low-unit firms, and classic assembly line “mass production”. But what is “lean production”? This was and still is a hard question to answer. But in its attempt, the book is an excellent study of the car industry.

One hand, this is a masterpiece in many ways. It’s a very technical but also very accessible study. It shows the difference between the older and newer ways of auto production very clearly. And its anecdotes are good in and of themselves.

But it also has some pretty serious flaws. This book is not only dated, but also was released at the absolute peak of the Japanese market bubble. So its veneration of Japanese production when the industry had a huge tailwind and was yet to experience a massive stress test needs to be taken with a large quantity of salt.

That being said, while not the most definitive book on auto production, it’s still a great historical resource.

Review: Confrontation

Confrontation: The War With Indonesia 1962-1966

Peter van der Bijl’s Confrontation is a military history of the four-year small war known as the Konfrontasi. It goes into extremely military detail. What’s not to like? The answer is, surprisingly, a lot. This isn’t really a bad book, but it is a flawed one.

The first flaw comes from the nature of the war: It really wasn’t much of one. It was more a political stunt by Sukarno than anything else, and the actual service chiefs did the bare minimum to support it. This isn’t the author’s fault, but his priorities are. There’s less of the politics (though they’re still present) and more of firefights in the jungle that blend together (almost always ending with “better-trained Commonwealth troops get the better of worse Indonesians”).

The second comes from the author’s biases. There are a lot of rants about journalists, especially journalists covering the Troubles, which feel kind of out of place. Worse is the absolute fawning hagiography of the British and Commonwealth armies. This is accurate in terms of specifics vis a vis the Indonesians, but still gets annoying, as does the very British slant of “unlike you knuckle-dragging Yanks, we won our jungle war” without noticing the very different context of Malaya. Finally, there’s no real attempt to explore escalation counterfactuals beyond just “The Indonesian air force and navy wasn’t very good”.

This ultimately comes across as just a series of jungle warfare vignettes. It’s not the worst book about its conflict, but it’s not the best and could be much more.

Review: Shadow Strike

Shadow Strike

In true Israeli fashion, the country’s leadership stayed publicly mum when a building in eastern Syria mysteriously exploded on September 6, 2007. Ten years later, they announced what everyone already knew-they had bombed and destroyed a Syrian reactor building. Yaakov Katz proceeded to write Shadow Strike, the story of the operation and its lead-up.

Previously, I had regarded the operation purely in terms of its anticlimactic execution. Like so many other times since 1948, the Israelis came, they bombed, they conquered. For the sake of secrecy, the site of the North Korean-supplied reactor had no defenses around it. But Katz tells the story of how a combination of flukes (getting a Syrian official’s laptop that showed very well what it was), politics (in Jerusalem and Washington), and urgency (the reactor had to be destroyed before it went critical) and in the process, makes it far more intriguing then the tip of the iceberg.

The reactor, unlike Osirak, was optimized to produce plutonium for weapons, and getting it operational would have cleared the biggest bottleneck to nuclear warheads. While no reprocessing or warhead assembly buildings were found, those are significantly easier to hide.

This has to rank as one of the lucky fates of history. I do not think Assad would have launched a first strike-his family did not survive by being foolhardy. And even with the bottleneck cleared, there were still more obstacles to actually making a bomb. But knowing that the Syrian Civil War beckoned, having a hot reactor running during it-and one of a more rickety design than the heavily shielded ones at Enerhodar, is a nightmare that was averted.

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.