All entries for July 2009

July 13, 2009

Media outcries, military tactics and the problems of Afghanistan

Much of the reporting of the current British military involvement in Afghanistan has left me somewhat irritated and has caused some discussion in the household about the current state of war reporting and of people’s understanding of military matters.

Two things to say first.

1. None of this discussion is intended to lessen the individual tragedy of any death or injury or the impact of this on families and loved ones – it’s all horrid and awful

2. I say this stuff as a reflection on various reading and study over many years rather than from any direct experience of military engagement.

So, firstly. Some of the debate about ‘are our troops getting the protection they need’ or ‘we need more armour, helicopters, bigger, heavier, stronger’ leaves me wondering about what people understand about military operations.

Lets think about helicopters first.

Helicopters are great for getting from one place to another very quickly and in moderate safety. Not complete safety mind you. Helicopters are still vulnerable to ground fire – Black Hawk Down is a useful reminder of this.

The other thing about helicopters is that they are great for rapid response to a situation, but they don’t allow for long term domination of territory. The American experience in Vietnam is a useful comparison. Helicopters allowed US forces to move quickly around zones but with a few problems. Landing zones attracted a lot of attention from enemy fire making them dangerous locations. VC forces would get wind of the approaching US troops, leave an area wait for the patrols to leave and then come back. It made it very difficult for the US to actually gain long term control of areas. To do that you need men on the ground over a long period, not jumping from zone to zone to zone in an endlessly futile dance.

At some point you also have to get out of the helicopters and actually spend some time on the ground. You can’t effectively search an area using helicopters – you need to talk to people and get a grounds eye view, and that means risk.

And on that point – piling up armour seems to me to be an odd response. There are many occasions where fast and light wins over slow and heavy, especially in areas of uneven terrain and against a lightly armoured fast enemy. Yes, it means accepting greater risk but there are reasons why it can useful to be quick and manouverable.

Take for example a much older scenario. The massed ranks of French cavalry on the field of Agincourt were feared as the ultimate shock troops of their age. Heavily armoured, a mass charge was a terrible thing to experience, let alone be on the end of. However, as history illustrates, a muddy field and an opposing line of lightly armed English Longbowmen soon brought the medieval tanks to a grinding halt.

Similarly there are plenty of examples from more modern time where quick infantry have knocked out heavily armoured tanks and transports. Sure, you’d give the odds to the tank but then you can still get occasions when a plucky soldier armed with just a PIAT (basically a high explosive round stuck on a spring – not kidding! Afghanistan would not be the first time British Troops have been sent into combat with crap weapons!) can take out a heavily armoured German self-propelled gun.

And again, at some point you have to get out of the tank and walk about and that means risk.

The heavy armour approach leads you down the line of American Forces – big tanks, big guns – and this is not necessarily going to win hearts and minds.

The Russians had this same problem in Afghanistan – they had plenty of helicopters, tanks and more, and they couldn’t manage it.

This is a difficult conflict in military, political and ethical terms. I worry that the way it is reported turns it into the sort of debate we have about England’s lack of a genuine left-footed winger. It’s a gross over simplification of the reality of modern conflict.

And on this subject. The media representation seems to have drifted into a position where death and injury is a surprise. Do we think this is a zero-cost engagement? What is the agenda here? Do we think that with more equipment we can make soldiering a no-risk activity?

Some numbers:

Falklands – 74 days, 255 British and 649 Argentine soldiers dead
Battle of Ia Drang in Vietnam (where they had plenty of helicopters!) – 307 US killed
Allied dead in WW2 – 16 million in 6 years – of these 382,000 were UK
UK losses on D-day – 2,700
At Monte Cassino allied forces could lose 100s of men in hours of fighting, let alone days.

and that’s not to mention the terrible attrition of the first world war.

Not sure what the point here is – do we think that we can minimise risks in a combat situation? Considering where we have been the forces in Afghanistan seem to be doing a rather effective job of managing risk.

If you look at those numbers it’s simple – this is a risky business and if we are going to take military action then people will die, regardless of how many helicopters, tanks, sets of body armour and the like we can provide. Indeed, over reliance on these things may in fact reduce operational effectiveness both in terms of getting the locals on side and being able to respond to a mobile enemy.

It’s all a damn sight more complicated than the reports on the 24 hour news channels would like it to be.


July 01, 2009

The disruption of scienctific publishing – is this a wider issue?

Writing about web page http://michaelnielsen.org/blog/?p=629

A very interesting post from Michael Nielsen on the disruption faced by the world of academic publishing: http://michaelnielsen.org/blog/?p=629

What I find challenging about this post is that you can take the arguments and apply them beyond that context. So, when you hear ‘oh, HE won’t be effected that much’ or that ’ all this disruption talk is over-hyped’ we should bear the following in mind.

1. Industries and sectors do fail – there are plenty of examples of long established sectors and industries that do suffer significant upheaval, often without warning. HE is not immune to this by any means.

As my recent podcast interview with Steve Fuller reminded me, our modern concept of HE and universities is just that – a modern view. Who is to say that this view is not likely to go through a major readjustment as a response to digital developments.

2. The case of the music industry is characterised as – they were too stupid to see it coming or they are evil so deserve what they get. This may or may not be the case, but as Michael points out, just thinking you are smart and good is not a get out of jail card.

‘But if disruption can destroy even the smart and the good, then it can destroy anybody.’

I guess Universities see themselves as being on the site of progression and social good. This should not render us complacent to the challenges of digital disruption.

3. Michael points out that blog news sources are a lot cheaper and a lot more flexible than traditional newspapers, and so seem to be kicking the ass of print media. Universities are generally not cheap or flexible. We should be wary then, right?

This paragraph is interesting in this respect:


The same basic story can be told about the dispruption of the music industry, the minicomputer industry, and many other disruptions. Each industry has (or had) a standard organizational architecture. That organizational architecture is close to optimal, in the sense that small changes mostly make things worse, not better. Everyone in the industry uses some close variant of that architecture. Then a new technology emerges and creates the possibility for a radically different organizational architecture, using an entirely different combination of skills and relationships. The only way to get from one organizational architecture to the other is to make drastic, painful changes. The money and power that come from commitment to an existing organizational architecture actually place incumbents at a disadvantage, locking them in. It’s easier and more effective to start over, from scratch.

4. Another quote:

One common response to such predictions is the appealing game of comparison: “but we’re better than blogs / wikis / PLoS One / …!” These statements are currently true, at least when judged according to the conventional values of scientific publishing. But they’re as irrelevant as the equally true analogous statements were for newspapers.

Universities may think they are the best at research and teaching, but what if values change? Change happens.

5. What about risk taking:

When new technologies are being developed, the organizations that win are those that aggressively take risks, put visionary technologists in key decision-making positions, attain a deep organizational mastery of the relevant technologies, and, in most cases, make a lot of mistakes. Being wrong is a feature, not a bug, if it helps you evolve a model that works

It is hard to see how big organisations like universities are able to take big risks, especially as we are publicly funded. This is not a problem for other groups getting into this space. Apple, Academic Earth, YouTube and so on – they can take risks we can’t.

So, should troubled financial times be a stimulus to change? Probably. Inertia is a killer and reputation matters little when things shift so quickly, especially in a globalised environment.

Big disruptive change may or may not occur, but if we kid ourselves that it is impossible, then we or any of our peers are as likely to fail as any other organisation.

Warwick should be well able to deal with disruption – we are a disruptive force ourselves!


facebook groups part 2

Follow-up to faststudentcash.com and facebook freshers groups from Contemplating the Frame

So, I had an interesting exchange with the owner of one of the facebook groups relating to Warwick freshers.

Essentially they denied any connection to faststudentcash or to the 118 other groups with identical content. In the absence of further evidence to the contrary I will give them the benefit of the doubt. This is not to say that the other ‘official’ groups are in the same boat.

Note that in general this is not a call for Uni’s to seize control of facebook or prevent people from setting up groups relating to specific institutions. I have no issue with unofficial groups and am happy for students, present future or past, to do what they will with FB.

Where there seems to be something systematic though, this should be raising eyebrows.

Where this is useful is in reminding HEIs that they need to be active in their engagement with these channels, rather than passive. The creepy treehouse effect is a strong argument for non-involvement – do you want your dad at the school disco? However, a vacuum is there to be filled and so as Brad Ward argues, better to have a University sanctioned presence so that there is some clarity as to the official line rather than a free for all where no-one is clear who is official or not.


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