The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."
Showing posts with label Putin. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Putin. Show all posts

Monday, March 20, 2023

Putin Must Die! How to make sure that the war will not end soon





As a comment to the recent decision of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague to issue an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin, I propose here an excerpt from the chapter titled "The Evil Side of Collapse" of my book, "Before Collapse," (2019). In the book, I argue that there is a way to reduce the impact of systemic collapse that I call the "Seneca Strategy," which consists in accepting an unavoidable decline in order to soften a later crash. Conversely, there exists also an "anti-Seneca" strategy that consists in forcing the system to resist decline at all costs. The result is that the collapse is postponed but, when it comes, it is rapid and disastrous. It may be applied in a military conflict when the objective is the utter and total destruction of one's enemy. It consists in making it clear to enemy leaders that they will be treated as criminals if they surrender so that they will keep fighting to the bitter end. It was applied by the Allies during WWII, as I briefly discuss here. 



From "Before Collapse,"  di Ugo Bardi, Springer 2019 (*)


In military matters, there exists an “anti-Seneca” strategy that consists in disregarding Sun Tzu’s principle of minimum effort, aiming instead at continuing the war all the way to the complete military defeat, or even the annihilation, of the enemy. Such a plan could be based on ideological, political, or religious considerations leading one or both sides to believe that the very existence of the other is a deadly threat that must be removed using force. In ancient times, religious hatred led to the extermination of entire populations, and there is a rather well-known statement that may have been pronounced after the fall of the Albigensian city of B├ęziers, in Southern France, in 1209. It is said that the Papal legate who was with the attacking Catholic troops was asked what to do with the citizens, which surely included both Catholics and Albigensian heretics. The answer was, "Kill them all; God will know His own." 

That war, just like most modern wars, was an “identity war” where the enemy is seen as not just an adversary, but an evil entity to be destroyed. These wars tend to be brutal and carried on all the way to the total extermination of the losing side. In some cases, though, wars may be prolonged simply because they are good business for some people and companies on both sides.

A possible case of this kind of “anti-Seneca” strategy may be found in the campaign that was started in the US in 1914 to provide food for Belgium during the First World War. The campaign is normally described as a great humanitarian success, but in the recent book Prolonging the Agony (2018),  the authors, Docherty and Macgregor, suggest that the relief effort was just the facade for the real task of the operation: supplying food to Germany so that the German army could continue fighting until it was completely destroyed. This interpretation appears to be mainly speculation, but we can't ignore that Belgium was occupied by the German army at that time, and so it could be expected that at least part of the food sent there would end up in German hands. 

Something more ominous took place during the Second World War. By September 1943, after the surrender of Italy, it must have been clear to everybody on both sides that the Allies had won the war; it was only a question of time for them to finish the job. So, what could have prevented the German government from following the example of Italy and deciding to surrender, maybe ousting Hitler, as the Italian government had done with Mussolini? We do not know whether some members of the German leadership considered this strategy, but it seems clear that the Allies did not encourage them. One month after Italy surrendered, in October 1943, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin, signed a document known as the “Moscow Declaration.” Among other things, it stated that:

At the time of granting of any armistice to any government which may be set up in Germany, those German officers and men and members of the Nazi party who have been responsible for or have taken a consenting part in the above atrocities, massacres and executions will be sent back to the countries in which their abominable deeds were done … and judged on the spot by the peoples whom they have outraged.

… most assuredly the three Allied powers will pursue them to the uttermost ends of the earth and will deliver them to their accusors in order that justice may be done. … <else> they will be punished by joint decision of the government of the Allies.

What was the purpose of broadcasting this document that threatened the extermination of the German leadership, knowing that it would have been read by the Germans, too? The Allies seemed to want to make sure that the German leaders understood that there was no space to negotiate an armistice. The only way out left to the German military was to take the situation into their own hands to get rid of the leaders that the Allied had vowed to punish. That was probably the reason for the assassination attempt carried out against Adolf Hitler on June 20th, 1944. It failed, and we will never know if it would have shortened the war.

Perhaps as a reaction to the coup against Hitler in Germany, a few months later, on September 21, 1944, the Allies publicly diffused a plan for post-war Germany that had been approved at the Quebec Conference by the British and American governments. The plan, known as the “Morgenthau Plan,” was proposed by Henry Morgenthau Jr. secretary of the Treasury of the United States. Among other things, it called for the complete destruction of Germany’s industrial infrastructure and the transformation of Germany into a purely agricultural society at a nearly Medieval technology level. If carried out as stated, the plan would have killed millions of Germans since German agriculture, alone, would have been unable to sustain the German population. The plan was initially approved by the US president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. 

Unlike the Moscow declaration that aimed at punishing German leaders, the Morgenthau plan called for the punishment of the whole German population. Again, the proponents could not have been unaware that their plan was visible to the Germans and that the German government would have used it as a propaganda tool. President Roosevelt's son-in-law, Lt. Colonel John Boettiger, stated that the Morgenthau Plan was "worth thirty divisions to the Germans." The general upheaval against the plan among the US leadership led President Roosevelt to disavow it. But it may have been one of the reasons that led the Germans to fight like cornered rats to the bitter end.

So, what was the idea behind the Morgenthau plan? As you may imagine, the story generated a number of conspiracy theories. One of these theories proposes that the plan was not conceived by Morgenthau himself, but by his assistant secretary, Harry Dexter White⁠. After the war, White was accused of being a Soviet spy by the Venona investigation, a US counterintelligence effort started during WW2 that was the prelude to the well-known “Witch Hunts” carried out by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. According to a later interpretation⁠, White had acted under instructions from Stalin himself, who wanted the Germans to suffer under the Allied occupation so much that they would welcome a Soviet intervention. It goes without saying that this is just speculation, but, since this chapter deals with the evil side of collapse, this story fits very well with it.

There is no evidence that the Morgenthau plan was conceived by evil people gathering in secret in a smoke-filled room. Rather, it has certain logic if examined from the point of view of the people engaged in the war effort against Germany in the 1940s. They had seen Germany rebuilding its army and restarting its war effort to conquer Europe just 20 years after it had been defeated in a way that seemed to be final, in 1918. It is not surprising that they wanted to make sure that it could not happen again. But, according to their experience, it was not sufficient to defeat Germany to obtain that result: no peace treaty, no matter how harsh on the losers, could obtain that. The only way to put to rest the German ambitions of conquest forever was by means of the complete destruction of the German armed forces and the occupation of all of Germany. For this, the German forces had to fight like cornered rats. And it seems reasonable that if you want a rat to fight in that way, you have to corner it first. The Morgenthau plan left no hope for the Germans except in terms of a desperate fight to the last man.

We do not know whether the people who conceived the plan saw it in these terms. The documents we have seem to indicate that there was a strong feeling among the people of the American government during the war about the need to punish Germany and the Germans, as described, for instance, in Beschloss’s book The Conquerors. Whatever the case, fortunately, the Morgenthau plan was never officially adopted, and, in 1947, the US changed its focus from destroying Germany to rebuilding it by means of the Marshall plan.

There have been other cases of wars where there was no attempt to apply the wise strategy proposed by Sun-Tzu, who suggests always leaving the enemy a way to escape. Nowadays, wars seem to be becoming more and more polarized and destructive, just like the political debate. Once a war has started, the only way to conclude it seems to be the complete collapse of the enemy and the extermination of its leaders. The laughter of the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, at the news of the murder of the leader of Libya, Muammar Gaddafi, in 2011 is a case in point of how brutal these confrontations have become. It is hard to see how the trend in this direction could be reversed until the current international system of interaction among states that created it collapses. At least, it should be clear that the anti-Seneca strategy is an especially inefficient way to win wars.




(*) This is a lightly edited text from an early version of the book. 

Friday, May 13, 2022

Ukraine: does history repeat itself, or just rhymes?

 


Greek Artillery in 1940, fighting the Italian invasion

I have no more information available than the average person connected to the Web, nor can I claim to be more than an armchair strategist. For these reasons, I haven't written anything about the war in Ukraine, so far. But I have studied Italian history, and I have a special fascination for the incompetence of leaders. So, I thought I could propose to you a retelling of the Greco-Italian war of 1940, one of the clearest demonstrations of incompetence that a government ever provided. Can it provide us with insight into the current situation? I leave that to you to decide.  


In the late 1930s, Benito Mussolini, the prime minister of Italy, had reached the stage in which he could not be contradicted by anyone. And not just that: he was like a child who, when he wants a toy, wants it immediately. Since Mussolini was the absolute ruler of the country, this combination of incompetence and arrogance was the perfect recipe for disaster. Which took place in multiple forms.  

In 1940, when World War II had just started, it seems that Mussolini's main concern was to show his ally, and also rival, Adolf Hitler, that Italy, too, could engage in a victorious blitzkrieg campaign. It was at this stage that the idea of attacking Greece appeared. It made some sense because Greece was a potential ally of Britain (**), and also a relatively weak target. After all, Italy had been able to subdue the Albanian Kingdom in just a few days, the year before. So, why should things be different with Greece?

The problems with this idea were several: the main one was that -- unlike Albania -- Greece had a serious army.  But Mussolini wanted the invasion at all costs, and his military staff seemed to be engaged mainly in the game of pleasing him. So, a plan was devised to use the Italian troops stationed in Albania to attack Greece. Everyone seemed to be convinced that it would be a cakewalk and that Greece would fall at the first push. So, in the Summer of 1940, Mussolini set the date for the start of the invasion in October. Nobody dared tell him that the plan implied crossing the Epirus mountains and that doing that in winter was not exactly a good idea for a blitzkrieg, German style. 

Duly, on the chosen date of October 28, 1940, the Italian infantry advanced into Greece. It was instant disaster. The Greeks were waiting, well-entrenched, supplied with weapons and ammunition by the British, and ready to fight. The list of mistakes made with this campaign is so long to be worth a whole book (which exists, it is titled "The Hollow Legions" by Mario Cervi). Let's just say that the Italian attack was carried out by insufficient troops, insufficiently equipped, insufficiently prepared, and led by incompetent generals. The Italian high command seemed to think that they were still fighting World War I. What could go wrong with running against an entrenched enemy with fixed bayonets? 

During the first weeks of the campaign, not only the Italians could not advance, bogged in the mud and the snow, but they took heavy losses, and they seriously risked being thrown back into the sea. That could be avoided only throwing everything available in terms of troops and equipment at the Greeks. The struggle lasted about six months, and even with a numerical superiority of 2 to 1, the Italians couldn't get through. It ended when the Germans intervened in the spring of 1941. At that point, the combined pressure of the German and Italian armies forced Greece to surrender. 

The cost of the Greek campaign had been enormous for Italy: more than 100,000 casualties. The Greek front had also absorbed five times more troops than on the North-African front, where they would have been badly needed -- one of the reasons for the Italian defeat in that region. It was one of those victories that one almost wishes had been defeats. 

But Italy suffered the strongest blow in terms of propaganda. Mussolini had built his reputation as an "infallible" leader (the slogan was "Mussolini is always right"). After all, up to then, he had won all the wars he had engaged Italy in. But the failure of the Greek campaign offered the Allies a chance to paint him not just as an evil dictator (which he was), but also as a bumbling idiot (which he was, too). To say nothing about the blow to the reputation of Italy as a military power. Even from the Axis side, Mussolini received plenty of flak. The Germans used the Italian blunder in Greece as an excuse for the failure of their 1941 campaign against the Soviet Union, which they attributed to the delay caused by the need of helping the distressed Italians (*). Only in Italy, the press continued to praise Mussolini's leadership and his clever strategic insights.  

So, history always teaches you lessons, often fascinating ones. In this case, we can learn that:

  1. Having won the previous war doesn't mean automatically winning the following one.
  2. Invincible leaders often turn out to be just lucky leaders. Until their luck runs out.
  3. Aging leaders may turn into bumbling idiots. Or maybe that's what they were all along.
  4. No mistake made by a leader can be so big that his followers will not praise it as evidence of superior strategic savvy.
  5. A victory obtained at too high a price is worse than a defeat. 
  6. Propaganda is mightier than the sword.
  7. History pardons no mistakes. 

Now, does the story of the Italian attack on Greece in 1940 offer us insights into the current situation in Ukraine? Maybe, but only in part. Evaluating ongoing events by comparing them to historical ones is the fastest way to enormous mistakes. Whatever happens in the world, happens for a reason, and Tolstoy correctly said that "a king is history's slave." History made Mussolini able to make enormous mistakes only because a series of factors had converged in making these mistakes possible. Other factors led to what's happening right now in Ukraine. And history moves on anyway. 

The main reason why I told you about the Greco-Italian war is that, more than 80 years later, we can pause for a moment to consider why tens of thousands of Italian and Greek men fought against each other so hard and died in such large numbers. Thinking about how useless that ancient war was may give us some perspective on how useless the current war is. We can only hope that it will end as soon as possible. 

 

(*) The story that the Italians were responsible for the failure of the German attack on Russia in 1941 is, most likely, just a piece of propaganda. It may hold something true, though, and it opens a number of fascinating questions about leader control. Why exactly did Mussolini decide to attack Greece in winter? Just because he was completely stupid? Or was the idea somehow "planted" in his mind by a foreign agency? We'll never know that, but it is remarkable how often leaders don't just make huge mistakes, they make the kind of mistakes that play in the hands of their enemies. 

(**) Formally, in 1940, Greece was neutral. But, in international politics, form and substance are always different. When Italy invaded Albania in 1939, it sent to Greece a clear message: "you are next." In the complex mosaic of the Balkan politics, that had pushed Greece into the uncomfortable position of being surrounded by potential enemies (Bulgaria, Italy, and Turkey) and, as a consequence, to seek for closer links to its traditional ally, Britain. The British saw Greece mainly as an ally against German expansion in the Balkans and, in 1934, had created the "Balkan Entente" that implied military support in case of threats on the signatories’ territorial integrity. All that gives a certain strategic logic to the events of 1940-1941. 


Monday, May 2, 2022

The Saddam Trap: Winning by Checkmate

 

The game of chess is not supposed to be a realistic simulation of a battle. But, on one point, it may provide a fundamental hint: wars are mostly a question of command and control. Killing or neutralizing the leader (the king) may cause the collapse of the country's military forces. But, in modern times, country leaders are rarely killed by their enemies, rather, they are controlled, sometimes in subtle ways that involve them engaging in foolish or counterproductive actions. 

 

If the world is a giant chessboard, then the leaders of the major powers are equivalent to the "king" in chess. It is a common perception that whatever is being done in the giant struggle, is done by specific orders from the great leader, be him Putin, Biden, Xi Jinping, or whoever controls -- or is said to control -- a country.  

This perception opens up a chess-like strategy that consists in eliminating the enemy leader. But that is rarely a good idea. Unlike what happens in chess, a dead leader may be turned into a heroic figure by propaganda, and then replaced by another one who may be even more warlike. So, a better strategy could consist in controlling the enemy leader(s), something that you cannot do in Chess. If you can convince your enemy to make poor strategic choices, you are halfway to victory (Sun Tzu never said that in his "The Art of War", but he could have). 

So, let's see if we can find historical examples of this strategy having been successfully applied in the recent past. I can propose at least three. 

1. Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III), 1808 – 1873. The nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, turned Emperor of the French, is such a fascinating figure that I dedicated at least four posts to him (see below). The fascination about him derives from the fact that he was thoroughly, completely, and hopelessly incompetent. All his major decisions seemed to be aimed at ruining the remaining chances for France to become a world power, as it had been during the reign of his uncle, Napoleon 1st. One of these decisions was especially disastrous: when Louis Napoleon helped the Piedmont King, Vittorio Emanuele II, to defeat the Austrians and then unify Italy into a single kingdom. The result was the creation of a state that forever blocked all the attempts of France to expand in North Africa. Was Luis Napoleon controlled by the Piedmontese? It seems that he was: the control took the form of the work of the Countess of Castiglione, aka Virginia Oldoini, one of the most beautiful women of the time. She was sent to France by her cousin, the Prime Minister of the Piedmontese government, with the explicit purpose of becoming Louis Napoleon's lover and influencing his decisions. It is hard to say how effective Ms. Oldoini was, considering that Luis Napoleon took plenty of bad decisions even before knowing her. But we may at least suspect that she had a role in shaping the world as it is today. 

2. Benito Mussolini, 1883 – 1945. You could say that his first years of leadership went reasonably well. The turning point for him seems to have been the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Still today, we may wonder how it was possible that the Italian government engaged the country in the conquest of a territory that held nothing of interest for the Italian economy and that, much worse, was a gigantic burden for the state's coffers. It should have been obvious that the military forces stationed there could not be resupplied in case of a major conflict and were destined to be defeated. Which was precisely what happened. Was the idea of invading Ethiopia "planted" in Mussolini's mind by the British secret services? If that was the case, it was a remarkably successful trick that considerably weakened Italy's military power at the start of World War II. How could that have been obtained? It is hard to think that Mussolini could be controlled using women: he was a renowned womanizer and had plenty of them. But we know that the British secret services had paid him to push the Italian government to join the Allies during WWI. Then, in 1925, Britain had agreed to sign a treaty known as the "Anglo-Italian Agreement" that said, essentially, "if you want to invade Ethiopia, go ahead, we won't move a finger to stop you." That opened up for Mussolini the road to put into practice a mad idea of his: that of rebuilding the ancient Roman Empire, maybe with him becoming emperor. Instead, he ended up hanged by the feet, but that's the way history works. Incidentally, Mussolini's removal from power in 1943 is a remarkable example of a Chess-like decapitation strategy in modern times. Without a leader, the Italian armed forces disbanded and ceased to fight in days. 

3. Saddam Hussein, 1937 – 2006. Hussein was another remarkably incompetent leader who engaged his country in a disastrous war against neighboring Iran, probably thinking of himself as the heir of the Arab leaders who had conquered Iran during the 7th century AD. His doom came when he took another disastrous decision, that of invading Kuwait in 1990. It is well known that, before invading, Hussein met the US ambassador in Iraq, April Glaspie, and discussed with her his grievances with the Kuwait government. We have the transcripts of their discussion: while she never explicitly encouraged Hussein to invade Kuwait, she also didn't mention that the US would have been strongly displeased. Then, surely, not everything that was said was also transcribed, and we may imagine that Hussein would not have invaded Kuwait if he had imagined the US reaction. On the contrary, he may have taken what the ambassador said as a green light. After all, the US had supported Iraq in the war against Iran, so Hussein could easily imagine that the US would continue to support him. We will never know, but we may at least suspect that Hussein was framed and pushed into making the mistake that would eventually lead to his death and the destruction of Iraq. 

There are surely more examples of absurd decisions taken by country leaders. That may be the case with Stalin's decision to invade Finland in 1939. It looked like an easy task, but it cost more than 300,000 casualties to the Soviet Union. Then, some people argue that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 was, at least in part, a trap created by the American diplomacy to put them in a position from which they could not back down anymore. But the three examples I listed, I think, are enough to indicate that a strong leader can be pushed to take bad decisions by foreign forces, although the methods for doing so are not straightforward. 

Neither money nor intimidation can do much to control top-level leaders: they are riding the tiger, so, they afford to appear weak, or -- worse -- as traitors to their countries.  Sex may be a more effective tool, and the recent story of Jeffrey Epstein tells us that many politicians may have sex-related skeletons in their closets. But truly powerful leaders can intimidate their critics and afford to be womanizers or sexual perverts. Silvio Berlusconi in Italy is a case in point. 

So, stroking an overinflated ego may be the best strategy to influence a leader. All country leaders are normally lone men (very rarely women) surrounded by people who have no interest and no convenience in contradicting them. Older leaders may be especially sensitive to this approach and, surely, in getting older, their mental capabilities do not improve. Lev Tolstoy gave us a remarkable description of how Napoleon (the first) made incredible mistakes simply by doing the things that had been doing before and then discovering in horror that these things didn't work anymore (see below). 

In this light, the best controlling technique to defeat a foreign leader can be called "The Saddam Trap" (we may also call it "Saddamization." It does sound bad but, just for this reason, it may be a suitable definition). The Saddam Trap consists in enticing the leader to engage the country in a military adventure that, in the beginning, looks like a cakewalk (what could go wrong with invading Kuwait?) Then, it turns out to have been a trap from which the great leader cannot extricate himself without losing face-- which for him is equivalent to admitting defeat. Leaders cannot admit defeat, they can only double down and hope that making a mistake bigger will turn it into a success. Except that it doesn't always work. And then history moves forward, unforgiving as usual. 

The study of history may tell us much about our present, but we have to be cautious in interpreting current events according to similarities with previous ones. And don't forget that the "great leaders" are few: most of our politicians can be bought on the cheap, we don't need to look for sophisticated strategies. So, we cannot say with certainty how exactly some recent events can be interpreted in terms of one or more leaders being trapped Saddam-style or, simply, paid to sell their country to a foreign power. With time, though, we will know. 


_______________________________

Lev Tolstoy: War and Peace.


Napoleon was experiencing a feeling of depression like that of an ever-lucky gambler who, after recklessly flinging money about and always winning, suddenly just when he has calculated all the chances of the game, finds that the more he considers his play the more surely he loses.

His troops were the same, his generals the same, the same preparations had been made, the same dispositions, and the same proclamation courte et energique, he himself was still the same: he knew that and knew that he was now even more experienced and skillful than before. Even the enemy was the same as at Austerlitz and Friedland yet the terrible stroke of his arm had supernaturally become impotent.

All the old methods that had been unfailingly crowned with success: the concentration of batteries on one point, an attack by reserves to break the enemy’s line, and a cavalry attack by ‘the men of iron,’ all these methods had already been employed, yet not only was there no victory, but from all sides came the same news of generals killed and wounded, of reinforcements needed, of the impossibility of driving back the Russians, and of disorganization among his own troops.

Formerly, after he had given two or three orders and uttered a few phrases, marshals and adjutants had come galloping up with congratulations and happy faces, announcing the trophies taken, the corps of prisoners, bundles of enemy eagles and standards, cannon and stores, and Murat had only begged leave to loose the cavalry to gather in the baggage wagons. So it had been at Lodi, Marengo, Arcola, Jena, Austerlitz, Wagram, and so on. But now something strange was happening to his troops.

Despite news of the capture of the fleches, Napoleon saw that this was not the same, not at all the same, as what had happened in his former battles. He saw that what he was feeling was felt by all the men about him experienced in the art of war. All their faces looked dejected, and they all shunned one another’s eyes only a de Beausset could fail to grasp the meaning of what was happening.

But Napoleon with his long experience of war well knew the meaning of a battle not gained by the attacking side in eight hours, after all efforts had been expended. He knew that it was a lost battle and that the least accident might now with the fight balanced on such a strained center destroy him and his army.

When he ran his mind over the whole of this strange Russian campaign in which not one battle had been won, and in which not a flag, or cannon, or army corps had been captured in two months, when he looked at the concealed depression on the faces around him and heard reports of the Russians still holding their ground a terrible feeling like a nightmare took possession of him, and all the unlucky accidents that might destroy him occurred to his mind. The Russians might fall on his left wing, might break through his center, he himself might be killed by a stray cannon ball. All this was possible. In former battles he had only considered the possibilities of success, but now innumerable unlucky chances presented themselves, and he expected them all. Yes, it was like a dream in which a man fancies that a ruffian is coming to attack him, and raises his arm to strike that ruffian a terrible blow which he knows should annihilate him, but then feels that his arm drops powerless and limp like a rag, and the horror of unavoidable destruction seizes him in his helplessness.

The news that the Russians were attacking the left flank of the French army aroused that horror in Napoleon. He sat silently on a camp stool below the knoll, with head bowed and elbows on his knees.

Sunday, March 6, 2022

The World as a Chess Game. Is it Being Played by Masters or by Idiots?

 


An old movie showed the story of someone trying to impersonate a chess Grand Master. He succeeded to the point that he was invited to play a simultaneous series of games at a local chess association. He barely knew the rules of the game, but his haphazard moves surprised his opponents so much that several of them decided to declare defeat. Unfortunately for him, some of the opponents just played to win and easily defeated the pretended Grand Master. What we are seeing in the world nowadays looks like a giant chess game. Is it being played by masters or by idiots?


Let me start, by saying that I have no intention to join the ranks of the armchair strategists who are telling us exactly what's happening in Ukraine, and why. Evidently, they have a direct phone connection with the Kremlin, because they can say that "Putin thinks.... " and "Putin wants.....". Just allow me to note that, up to the day of the invasion, most pro-Russian sites were poking fun at those dumb Westerners who thought that Russia would invade Ukraine. Come on, they said, that would be just silly. What would Russia do with "Banderastan" after having conquered it? Then, after that the invasion started, suddenly these same sites were praising Putin's strategic savvy, explaining that the invasion of Ukraine was necessary, just, and unavoidable and that Putin had acted, as usual, as the chess master we all know he is. Maybe. 

It is not just a problem with the pro-Russian media. It is the same everywhere. Once a government takes a decision, it is not only enforced by law, but it goes through the state propaganda machine which seems to be able to hypnotize the majority of citizens into complete obeisance. They will believe what they are told and happily repeat it to each other. 

Especially during the past two years, governments have been playing a cat-and-mouse game with their citizens, forcing on them the most quixotic norms one could imagine: to lock themselves inside their homes all the time, to wear masks even in the open, to be injected with concoctions of uncertain safety, and much more. The government could have ordered people to balance a ball on their nose and they would have complied -- happily. In Canada, the government confiscated citizens' property simply because they had expressed their disagreement with the government's policies. To say nothing about confiscating the property of Russian citizens just because they are Russian. And they could do all that with complete impunity. It was typical, once, of Roman Emperors or other absolute rulers of the past.

There is some logic in this behavior. According to the historian Peter Turchin, modern societies compete with each other mainly in military terms. So, there is an evolutionary pressure that leads to the development of social structures where dissent can be eliminated when it is time to focus all resources on fighting. That can be probably best obtained by means of a pyramidal structure where the top levels can take all the decisions. And, of course, there is nothing wrong with having citizens willing to defend their country, even at the cost of their lives. But who decides that dying for one's country is necessary?  On which basis, and according to what principles?    

The problem is that the decisional mechanisms of most governments are nearly completely opaque to citizens. It doesn't seem to matter whether governments are democratically elected or not. Once a certain group of people is in power, they can take major decisions, such as starting a war, with just a veneer of authorization from parliaments, or even without that. In Italy, for instance, the government has been acting for two years on the basis of an emergency status that the government itself declared, and that it has the power to extend at will (recently, it was extended up to December 2022). 

Emergency powers are a recursive feature of governments: once a government has declared an emergency, the fact of being in an emergency allows the government to extend it. There are no mechanisms other than the government itself that can to revoke it. As an example, in 1926, Mussolini enacted "special laws" that were supposed to last for five years, but that were extended up to 1943. In practice, for 17 years, Mussolini could do whatever he wanted and make war on any country without having to ask permission to anyone -- until he was arrested and then hanged. And note that Mussolini was elected in elections that historians tend to judge as having been fair. 

It seems strange that in the age of the Internet, with information being so widely spread and available, the government decisional process remains the same as it was at the time of the Mayan Sun Kings. Yet, it is the way governance works almost everywhere in the world. So, we can only make hypotheses on what leads governments to do what they are doing. We could say that:

1.  The government is genuinely worried about a serious threat to society and is acting to counter it on the basis of the available knowledge.

2. The government is led by one or more psychopaths and/or narcissists who operate to aggrandize their personal power. They surround themselves with yes-men and the resulting "groupthink" leads to all sorts of disasters. 

3. The key members of the government have been corrupted by economic interest groups who push for wasteful and dangerous actions in order to obtain large profits. 

4. As in the previous case, the key members of the government have been corrupted, but in this case by an external power that uses them to ruin the country in military or economic terms, or both. 

5. The souls and the brains of the top-level people in the government have been eaten by Chthonic deities or other demonic entities. These entities use the human members of the government as avatars with the objective of destroying the country and killing as many innocent people as possible. 

Combinations of the above are always possible. The point is that, right now, it is impossible to say which condition has led to the current disaster in Ukraine (and I wouldn't discount the possibility #5, demonic entities). Whatever the case, we can only watch the drama as it unfolds. We'll know if our leaders are chess masters or impostors after the war is over, if that will ever occur. 

But we do know something about past cases, and we can say at least something about why some monumental mistakes were made, in some cases costing millions of lives. Just as one example, the 2003 war on Iraq was believed by the public to be a case of hypothesis  #1, (genuine worry). We now know that it was mostly a combination of cases #2 and #3 (and, again, I would not discount the role of demonic entities). You could also argue that in Italy we are seeing case #4 in action (with some help from Chthonic deities). You may have some fun reviewing past history in view of these lines: the record of most governments doesn't come out as brilliant. 

You may also be interested to review a case where major strategic blunders were created by the deadly combination of groupthink and a psychotic leader: Benito Mussolini. Below, I am reproducing a post previously published on "Cassandra's Legacy" about the decision mechanism of Mussolini's government. 

Basically, Mussolini was not mad, he had just lost track of reality. It may have been the result of having been in power for too long and of having won all the wars he had engaged Italy in, up to 1940. A good illustration of how successes don't teach you anything. Does this story apply to the current situation? Time will tell. 


Sunday, November 1, 2020- from "Cassandra's Legacy" (slightly revised)

The Mind of the Evil Ruler: What Goes on inside the Heads of the People who Govern the World?


The damage that bad rulers can do to people and things is gigantic, especially considering that they command military apparatuses of immense power. But what goes on inside their minds, exactly? Are some of them truly evil? Or just criminally incompetent? We'll probably never know for sure, but we have some hints for at least some of them. Here, I am exploring the case of Benito Mussolini, using the diary written by his son-in-law as a source of information.


There is a sentence attributed to Terry Pratchett that goes as, "the IQ of a mob is the IQ of its most stupid member divided by the number of mobsters." Actually, I think Robert Heinlein said something similar first. In any case, the idea that collective intelligence goes down with the number of members of a group seems to have some logic in it, although it cannot be said to be scientifically proven.

If that's true, then we have a huge problem. How to manage states formed of tens or hundreds of millions, even billions, of people? A possible solution is to reduce the denominator of the formula to a single ruler who takes all the decisions. Indeed, it seems that human crowds, dumb as they may be, believe that all problems can be solved by someone who can "get things done." 

Unfortunately, history tells us that the idea of giving all the power to a single man doesn't work so well. Another quote by Robert Heinlein says "A well-run tyranny is almost as scarce as an efficient democracy." You may have read that Trump is a narcissist, Biden is affected by Alzheimer's, Putin by the Asperger syndrome, and that Assad is evil just because he is. And more.

The list of mad or evil rulers is long, but what do we know about these people? Very little because they live shielded by a barrier of lies in the form of propaganda and press releases. Even the people who know them well, relatives and close friends, may well be fooled by people who arrived at the top exactly by their capability of fooling everyone, even themselves.

Maybe, if we could have a diary written by one of these madmen, say, Adolf Hitler, we could know more. But the manuscript claimed to be Hitler's diary in 1983 was a hoax, and no dictator of note ever left us a personal diary. The closest thing to a personal diary of a dictator is the one kept by Galeazzo Ciano, foreign minister of the Mussolini government in Italy from 1937 to 1943. He was not only a close collaborator of the Duce but also a close relative: his son-in-law. You can find the complete diary in Italian at this link.
 
Note that Ciano was not an intellectual, nor had any professional expertise. He is best described as a high-rank playboy who had used the money and the prestige of his father, a war hero, to gain access to Mussolini's family and eventually to marry Mussolini's daughter. That, of course, opened a bright career for him at the top government levels. He was widely considered the most likely candidate to succeed the Duce as Italy's leader. During the period in which he was active as foreign minister, he often acted as the second-in-command in the government. 

Ciano wrote detailed notes of his everyday activities as foreign minister for the whole period of his appointment. Of course, we don't have to take these notes as completely truthful. Especially in the final pages, we clearly detect an attempt by Ciano to distance himself from his illustrious father-in-law and his egregious blunders. Later on, he was shot for treason on orders of Mussolini himself. But, overall, it is probable that many details of the daily written document do reflect real events.
 
One thing that's clear from Ciano's notes is how haphazardly Italy was run. A country of 45 million inhabitants was steered by people who seemed to carry on, day by day, without a specific direction. Mostly, the story sounds like a TV soap: the atmosphere in the high echelons of the government was a poisonous mix of gossip, treachery, incompetence, and abject deference to the great boss. The name of the game was a simple sentence: "Mussolini is always right." Anyone could be demoted to a powerless position if he happened to displease the commander in chief. In 1939, that happened also to Achille Starace, a longtime associate of Mussolini and secretary of the Fascist party. 

Even Mussolini himself didn't seem to have a clear idea of what he was doing. He seemed to be thinking that Italy needed to expand in new territories because it was a young nation that needed space for its growing population. That could be obtained at the expense of the evil and decadent plutocracies that were England and France. And that would result in the creation of an Italian Empire, recreating the power and the glory of the ancient Roman Empire.

If that was the plan, it wasn't a good plan. Mussolini, just like most politicians, couldn't reason quantitatively and had neither interest nor trust in data. He acted mainly on the basis of his intuition and he never understood how badly unprepared were the Italian armed forces, nor how weak the Italian economy was. Unfortunately for him, he was lucky enough that his initial military adventures were successful. Victories don't teach you anything.

Not that Mussolini was a fool. As a young man, he had been a smart politician and a brilliant journalist. We have his diary during the time when he was in the trenches during WWI and there we find nothing of the warlike rhetoric of his later years. He always kept his head low: no question for him to jump out of the trench and lead a bayonet assault. In 1917, he was lightly wounded by the accidental explosion of an Italian cannon and that was the end of the war for him. It was also a stroke of luck: not only he could gain a reputation as a war hero, but he avoided being caught in the rout of the Italian army after the disaster of the battle of Caporetto, a few months later. 

20 years later, we read in Ciano's diary how the smart politician had turned into a bumbling fool. Let me translate a few excerpts for you. 
 
Dec 19, 1937. The Duce said: "On my grave I want this epigraph: Here lies one of the most intelligent animals ever appeared on the face of the earth". The Duce is proud of his instinct which he considers, and has actually proved to be, infallible.
Sep 29-30 1938 (Criticizing Great Britain) "When animals are adored in a country to the point of making cemeteries, hospitals, homes for them; when bequests are made to parrots it is a sign that decadence is underway. Moreover, in addition to the many reasons, this also depends on the composition of the English people. 4 million more women. Four million sexually dissatisfied creatures, artificially creating a multitude of problems to arouse or artificially creating a multitude of problems to excite or appease their senses. Not being able to embrace a single man, they embrace humanity ".

June 3, 1939 "I," said the Duce, "am like a cat, cautious and prudent, but when I take a leap I am sure to land where I want.

Dec 24, 1940 – It's snowing. The Duce looks out of the window and is happy that it snows: "This snow and this cold are fine" he says "so the pipsqueaks die: and this mediocre Italian breed is improved. One of the main reasons why I wanted the reforestation of the Apennines it was to make Italy colder and snowier ".
You see what I mean, and there is much more in the same tune in Ciano's diary. We are reading of an old man who has lost track of reality. Yet, as I wrote in a previous post, a post-mortem examination showed that Mussolini's brain was still functional during the last years of his rule. By all means, it was the normal brain of a normal person. What Mussolini's brain had lost was not neurons, but the capability of empathy: understanding and caring for your fellow human beings. 

Empathy requires a certain effort, it is a tool that needs to be sharpened every day. But just as you get fat if you don't exercise your body, you get dumb if you don't exercise your mind. What happened with Mussolini and the Italian government was a self-reinforcing loop. The people around Mussolini soon found that they could keep their position if they never disagreed with the boss. Mussolini, in turn, found that he could easily get rid of those who disagreed with him. And the result was that he was even more surrounded by yes-men who always agreed with him. Eventually, he found he didn't need empathy: he could just order people to do what he wanted. 

It was not just Mussolini's mind that had degraded for lack of exercise. It was the whole chain of command of the Italian government that had degraded in a way that reminds the sentence by Terry Pratchett about the collective intelligence of a group. By the 1930s, the process had led to a situation that you could describe as "government by the whims of the boss."

It all became painfully clear when, in 1940, Mussolini ordered the invasion of Greece in winter, across the Epirus mountains, with woefully insufficient and poorly equipped troops. We have the minutes of the government reunions that preceded the attack on Greece: it is clear it was the Duce alone who decided to attack and the date of the attack. Nobody dared to oppose his decision. On the contrary, generals competed with each other to state that it could be done easily. A classic effect of groupthink. Disaster ensued, as it should have been expected. And Mussolini's lack of empathy was tragically clear when, on 16 January 1941, Ciano reports these words by Mussolini: ""Greece was a political masterpiece; we managed to isolate this country and make it fight it alone, against us. The one which has not performed well is the army." Not a word of regret for having sent the troops to fight without adequate winter equipment, without heavy weapons, without sufficient air support. Truly, when idiocy matches cruelty, these are the results. 

I think that the key to the whole story is the excerpt from Ciano's diary where he describes how Mussolini rejoiced at the thought of Italians freezing to death. This is not just incompetency or stupidity, it is one of the few moments in Ciano's diary where we see true evil appearing. You might want to picture in your head Mussolini standing near the window of his office, maybe close to a warm radiator, while he rubs his hands together and smiles in a Satanic smile like the character of a comic book. (you may add also the classic Satanic laughter that goes as Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!)

My impression is that, while losing empathy, Mussolini was also gradually losing the moral bonds that keep normal people from being truly evil. He had discovered that not only he could order to kill foreigners as he pleased, but that the more foreigners he caused to be killed, the more he became popular in Italy. So, he proceeded to expand this strategy until, unfortunately for him (and for many others), the idea backfired. Badly. After that a half million Italians had died because of Mussolini's mistakes, you know how he ended, hanged upside-down. Nobody should rejoice at the death of anyone, but it seems that the universe has ways to punish one's worst mistakes.

Mussolini's case is just one that's close enough to our times that we have abundant documentation about it. It is also sufficiently remote that we can discuss it from a reasonably objective viewpoint. The question is: why is it so easy for governments to be hijacked by evil/incompetent/dumb leaders? Unfortunately, that may occur much more often than we would like to think. Are some of our leaders rejoicing when large numbers of mere commoners die because of their actions, just as Mussolini did? I can think of at least one example of one of our prominent politicians rejoicing at the violent death of the leader of a foreign country, and you probably understand whom I mean. 

And what could be the effect on a president's mind of the capability of killing anyone, anywhere, by a drone strike without the need to provide a justification or fearing retaliation? Can you imagine that drone strikes are decided by people who rub their hands together while producing Satanic smiles? We won't know how evil these people really are until much after they are gone, if ever.