The Face of War

War is as inevitable as the sunrise. Hardly a laughing matter, but I’m smiling because I’ve been stuck on these seven words for half an hour, like a never-ending sabbatical. Not because of some Saturday morning attack of writer’s block, but because the internet has ground to a halt, a case of digital hydroponics. Dripping out byte by byte. In desperation, I even wrote the same seven words out in MS-Word, like I do when I’m writing these chronicles on an airplane.

In the nineties (like so last century) Larry Ellison, of Oracle fame, came up with an idea you might remember, called the Network Computer. Since Oracle is in the business of client-server software, a cheap machine, enslaved, as Frank Zappa might say, to the beef pies, would shift the paradigm from Microsoft’s heavy operating system and locally running applications. Such a device, the equivalent of the tactfully named ‘dumb terminal’ from the 1970s, was called a thin client. Not stupid, svelte. In keeping with the politically correct 1990s, when dwarves became vertically challenged, and dogs became canine Americans.

Sun microsystems, and others, signed up enthusiastically to this Mickeysoft-bashing orgy. It’s funny how the playground bully changes: Standard Oil of New Jersey, Bell Telephone, IBM, Microsoft, and now Google. Coming soon, Facebook. Uncle Larry was right before his time, and Network Computers were about as common as thin clients at McDonalds. Ellison is still the third wealthiest person in the U.S. so don’t weep.

A diskless computer? Dependent on servers to provide both content and applications? Sounds pretty much like a smartphone to me. Part of the reason my little netbook was at crawling speed about an hour ago was undoubtedly because it was exchanging data with the net (could be Mars, for all I know). Years ago, you connected to the internet by means of a large, boxy modem (or modulator-demodulator). Crazy things like baud rates were important. Old school modems made the most extraordinary noise when they were doing their business, like a cross between a jet fighter and severe constipation. I loved the whole thing. Of course modems still exist, but they’re sleak and sexy, and they strike without warning.

Back in clunky modemday, some guy once woke up with a start at three in the morning with the eerie noise. His computer had developed a mind of its own and was dialling the internet. The guy leapt out of bed and ripped the innards from the wall. But these days your computer is at it all the time. Like your bank manager, your cute little phone or laptop is not on your side, he’s on theirs. While you upload your pictures and engage in digital socialism, it’s busy giving away the farm.

I try to engage with the other side, the external element over which I have no control, in a manner that leaves me room for manoeuvre. I’m not in love with servers. I see the point, but also the caveats. I guess the connection to warfare is exactly that, people and nations dealing with externalities that may have potentially devastating effects on their lives. The title of my article comes from a book published by Martha Gellhorn in 1959―following the killing of Marie Colvin, you may have noticed Martha’s name come up as a comparison.

Martha Gellhorn - smart, smooth, and sexy, one of the coolest women of the twentieth century.

Gellhorn covered enough wars to typify and distinguish the common and the particular. This Syrian war is a dirty little war, different from Libya in three ways. The West is a little more tired and a lot more broke, there’s a U.S. election in November, and Ghaddafi didn’t have a Russian friend. In reality, the situation in Yemen is reasonably similar, with a regime supported by Saudi Arabia and the U.S., surviving intense and persistent confrontation. The difference is that the Syrian approach of massacring its own people by the townload is stomach-churning to behold. The Syrian power structure, an Alawite minority balancing act with Druzes and Christians, rules over a population of fifteen million Sunnis. Iran, a Shia nation, is quite happy to support the ruling party in Syria, for obvious reasons.

The sovereign nations of the Mid-East have engaged in a succession of small wars, at least by the standards of the European theaters of the XXth century, or the war between China and Japan, followed by the Chinese civil war that ousted Chiang Kai-Shek. The Nationalist leader summed up the two opponents by stating:

The Japanese are a disease of the skin. The Communists are a disease of the heart.

The news out of Iran today, or more precisely out of the IAEA inspection, makes public what the Israeli and U.S. intelligence agencies know only too well. The ‘confidential’ IAEA report was leaked to the Associated Press (this kind of leak is of course perfectly okay), and makes interesting reading. Apparently the Iranians fielded only a mid-level delegation to meet with the top-flight IAEA scientists; the locals were not empowered to make decisions, merely to react to some of the points raised. Which they did: out of sixty-five paragraphs in a fifteen page document, the Iranian delegates claimed all sixty-five were fabricated.

Following in the best 'Dambusters' tradition, Boeing's new MOP bomb can drill through two hundred feet of reinforced concrete.

As this goes on, articles in journals such as Foreign Affairs are trumpeting the virtues, even the necessity, of a U.S. attack on Iran. The United States military now has at its disposal a thirty thousand pound bomb, aptly named the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, or MOP. I’m sure that the people who invent the acronyms are all fans of Dr. Strangelove. Oil prices are now pushing up to the levels reached in 2011.

If you exclude Israel, will it be the Shia or the Sunnis that get the atom bomb first in the Middle East? Right now, the Shia look set to win. If they do, Saudi Arabia will be right there next to them. Adding nuclear weapons to that part of the world, over and above the Iraeli holding, will provide the next global scale theater of war.

There’s always the possibility that the Obama administration may decide to mop things up. The target will be Natanz, where the nuclear facility is buried under reinforced concrete. About eight meters deep underground. That’s about fifteen percent of what the Boeing bomb can blast through. The area is ringed by air defenses, but if the first wave of Operation Iraqi Freedom is anything to go by, that won’t last long. After that, the site will be a sitting duck. As you can imagine, the hawk stance on this issue has not gone without commentary.

If the hawks win, and Obama’s luck holds as it did for the killing of Bin Laden, he can look forward to a second term. A war strike is always a risk for a savvy politician, but if he pulls this one off the Republicans will have no choice but to applaud.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.

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