The War Nerd Weekly
Radio War Nerd, Dispatch #1
Welcome to the first War Nerd Weekly dispatch for subscribers to the new Radio War Nerd show.
Just to get the sentimental stuff out of the way right off, I want to thank everyone who’s contributed to helping us put War Nerd Wednesdays on the air. It was amazing, how many people remember and appreciate all the stuff I’ve written over the years. All I can say is that I’ll try to do the best I can. And hope you’ll be patient with me, not used to trying to run my own little War Nerd operation, not my strongpoint as you probably guessed by now.
Part of the deal is that I’m sending subscribers regular private Radio War Nerd dispatches via a newsletter thing, to keep you up to date on the world of wars. We’re planning to do these updates on the Wednesdays between Radio War Nerd broadcasts, as a top-up between shows. So one Wednesday is the podcast; the next Wednesday is the newsletter, and so on. I’ll try to make them quick—real bullet-point prose, one or two paragraphs on what’s going on around in world o’ war, with links for anybody who wants to take a longer look. And if we get enough subscribers to turn this into a weekly gig, then that’s the deal too—weekly quick dispatches plus weekly podcasts. So far you guys have been subscribing at a much faster (and more generous) pace than either me or Ames expected, so we’re both humbled as Hell, and also a little gassy thinking about all the work we’ve pledged to do. But Hell, it’s fun, and it’ll be paid for, so it’s more than worth it...
This is my first try, so give me that proverbial break if it’s rough. By historical precedent, I claim the right to be no more proficient than American forces’ first battles in all our wars. Which means I only have to do as well as McDowell at First Bull Run, Fredendall at Kasserine Pass, or Smith at Osan.
I like to keep the bar as low as possible–make it a limbo duel more than a high jump tournament...
So you know where I’m at—I’m writing from way up in the mountains of Bulgaria, from a hotel room in a ski town called Borovets. Bulgaria’s very cheap, and you can get great deals in these ski places for August. Wandering in the forests here, you still see Cold-War “pillbox”-style machine-gun outposts. All they need is a sign saying “Free Hugs” to make a Slavic Blair Witch effect.
Okay, moving on...
I was hoping to lead off this first WNW dispatch with something besides Islamic State, but they came up with another of their show-stopping media stunts, blowing up a beautiful, ancient temple Palmyra, the ancient oasis they grabbed off Assad’s feeble SAA troops last May.
You see a lot of speculation about why IS is so fond of smashing ancient artifacts and blowing up magnificent temples. IS cites the ban on “graven images” that Islam borrowed from Judaism, but that scripture never made much sense (it doesn’t apply to photos or movies for some reason), and most Islamic countries are proud of their pre-Islamic ruins, wouldn’t dream of blowing them up. The simplest explanation is that killing all the hostages immediately is an IS trademark, and a temple is a hostage just as much as a foreign aid worker. IS is a late mutation of Sunni militias, and its policy’s always been to out-savage its rivals. Worked for a while, hasn’t worked later, but isn’t likely to change, especially because IS has been on a losing streak, and it’s usually after a string of defeats that armies start slaughtering hostages with a real vengeance...
By the way, this seems like a good time to clarify my stance on Islamic State. I was shocked to hear that I’m considered soft on Islamic State by some mainstream US bloggers who insist on building IS up into the second coming of Timur. That’s bizarre. Nobody could hate these murdering, slave-selling, sectarian hicks and assorted war tourists more than I do. I cheer every bomb that falls on them, every IS bigot’s head that explodes like a melon from a long-range shot from a .50 sniper rifle fired by a Kurdish woman of the YPJ.
But hating IS doesn’t mean puffing up their power. In fact, it seems crazy to do their PR for them if you really oppose them. Reporters hyping IS, giving them military creds they flat-out don’t deserve, have been some of their best recruiting agents. These people don’t understand how desperate young Sunni males are for a victory, and when they see big media acting terrified of IS, it makes them yearn to join this supposedly big, bad, invincible gang. I hate IS with all my heart, but I also said consistently that they were nothing but a medium-sized Iraq-based Sunni militia who’d fold when they met real opposition. They met it at Kobane, and they folded. They’re folding now, anyplace they face the YPG/J in Syria. They’re horrible slave-selling pigs, but that doesn’t make them invincible. Au contraire, as the feller said. The monster-image that helped IS to terrify the pitiful Iraqi Army has been hurting it recently, to the point that Al Baghdadi had to issue an order to his beheading crews to use a more soft-focus, oblique approach to those trademark mass-execution vids...
This is like Burger King trying to do salads, but it’ll be interesting to see what the very film-savvy IS camera crews will do. I imagine a film-school prof yelling from the sidelines, “Just indicate the head coming off! You don’t have to show it! Remember, the most scary images, the ones a viewer really remembers, are the ones the director doesn’t show! More Blair Witch Project, less Faces Of Death!”
Ukraine. A lot of readers said they’d like me to do more on the war in the Donetsk Basin (Donbas). It’s a typical 21st century war: slow, small-scale, increasingly dominated by mercenaries. Just go back 70-odd years and you’ll see how profoundly warfare’s changed since WWII. In the early 1940s, Ukraine was the perfect killing ground for two huge mobile armies that recruited every available man (and in the Soviet Army, woman). Now, on the same ground, a spiteful, stagnant war is sputtering along, fought by a weird mix of middle-aged amateurs and proxies from afar. Ukraine couldn’t even manage to round up a miserable 25,000 recruits in its latest drive. They came up with a little more than half the target, even though these recruitment numbers are ridiculously low for a country of 46 million people, all supposedly patriotic unto death.
And while Ukraine resorts to press-gangs and propaganda aimed at tomorrow’s cannon fodder, Russia is handing the war over to mercenaries, “kontraktniki” who enjoy war and make a good living at it. These were the men who made the Second Chechen War such a grimly effective CI operation, and they’re being drip-fed into Ukraine now, just enough to keep the place bleeding and the Kyiv government off-balance.
The only really energetic front in this slow-mo debacle is the social-media struggle. This is hands down the most trolled war in history. The troll-war goes on 24/7, and there’s nothing amateurish or slow about it. These are the true shock troops, the trolls who spew lies about their fellow Slavs from basements in Boston, Croydon, and Paris as well as Moscow and Kyiv. Some of the recruits in this propaganda war are just plain grotesque. Like “Tex” in this video Yasha Levine sent me. “Tex” is an American who somehow ended up in Donetsk narrating atrocity tours, showing off the damage done by “Ukrops” (slang for Ukrainians—“ukrop” also means “dill” which they use a lot of in their food, but that’s another story) artillery.
Tex is a passionate guy, which is to say completely gone. He reminds me of guys I’ve met growing up: blue-collar dudes who got seriously pissed off somewhere in their twenties and flipped hard, going from dumb American patriotism to not-much smarter Amerikkka-phobia. That always ends up with them groveling to some sleazy generalissimo murderer who just happens to be anti-American (at the moment), but gets mistaken by these flippers for some kind of hero rebel standing up to bad ol Uncle Sam. Tex is dedicated, I’ll give him that, but he’s not too well-versed in military history. For example, he says in his denunciation of “Nazis” (by which he means everybody but Putin) that “Artillery is the weapon of cowards.” This will be news to the Soviet Army, proud possessor of the finest artillery tradition in the world. Bonaparte might have some quibbles with it as well. But for our boy Tex, this artillery business is a moral issue, and God help the world when an American gets his big fat hands on the moral end of the war schtick.
After a few seconds of listening to Tex, I couldn’t even focus on the spittle-laced rants, because I was trying to remember who he reminded me of. That voice! It was a perfect double for some character from a movie. And then it came to me: “Tex” rhymes with “Rex,” as in “Rex Kwon Do.”
From the ridiculous to the stuff of nightmares: Peruvian forces announced recently that they’d rescued about 70 indigenous people who’d been kidnapped 25 years ago—yeah, 25 years ago—by Sendero Luminoso, “Shining Path,” those wacky Maoist guerrillas who were big in the Andes back in the 1980s and 90s.
Some of the captives were products of rape, born to captured women as part of a program to breed laborers for the coca farms that funded the struggle. There’s a wrinkle Marx never imagined: second-generation high-altitude coca slaves, in order to liberate the enslaved masses...
There’s a lot of war news that just doesn’t fit any of the narratives based on an idea of humans as rational critters. In Burundi, President Pierre Nkurunziza just ditched term limits to grant himself a third term.
Not so surprising in itself—so did FDR, breaking a taboo, if not a rule, when he went for a third and then a fourth term—but Nkurunziza is a strange guy even by Great-Lakes politician standards. He has his reasons for a little PTSD. Started out as a Hutu “rebel”; in Burundi, “rebel” usually means Hutu, though “rebels” tend to be Tutsi in Rwanda. Nkurunziza saw all but one of his brothers and sisters killed in the nightmare ethnic/civil wars that have torn these energetic, overcrowded lake countries to pieces.
A few weeks ago, his scariest lieutenant, General Adolphe Nshimirimana, was removed from office in a traditional Burundian ceremony, which is to say that somebody hit his SUV with at least two RPG rounds. Nshimirimana was one of those brilliant, ruthless men in sunglasses who are the real strength behind their glad-handing bosses. No one thought he could die. Til the RPGs hit, he was regarded as the killin’, rather than the dyin’, kind.
Now Nkurunziza has to try to make it on his charm, always a chancier possibility. He may do it, though. He’s got religion and sport on his side, and that works most of the time.
He thinks God appointed him to run Burundi, but then so did his fellow born-again Christian George W. “Fuckin’” Bush.
No, what sets Nkurunziza apart is soccer, or as these foreigners insist on calling it, football. Nkurunziza has his own team, Hallelujah FC, and by all accounts he’s way more interested in building up the team than running Burundi. Who knows, maybe Hallelujah has a better record, to paraphrase the old Babe Ruth/Coolidge joke.
It’s one of the weird pleasures of looking into the smaller wars, these gems like a soccer-crazed head of state who runs his own cudgel-wielding youth group, his own Hellelujah Chorus as it were.
Welp, that’s enough for now, I guess. We’ll keep these coming, and try to punch them up to something a little higher than Task Force Smith Standards by the second year of my online campaign.