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 war. Show all posts
Showing posts with label war. Show all posts

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Who Controls Those who Control Us? Why a Lone man at the top is the Most Dangerous Thing in the World

In the game of chess, you win when you eliminate your opponent's king. In the real world, instead, killing the enemy leader is a much less effective strategy in comparison to being able to influence his choices in ways that harm his side. Here, I am examining the case of Benito Mussolini in Italy. Could it be that Mussolini was influenced, if not controlled, by the British secret services? It may have been one of the first cases of "one-man psyops" designed with the purpose of taking control of the mind of an enemy leader. Maybe something similar can explain some of the horribly bad decisions that our leaders are taking nowadays.

It never was a secret that Benito Mussolini started his political career as a shill for the British secret services. His task was pushing Italy to join the allies in World War One. Recent data show that, in 1917, he was still being paid by the British M15 to the tune of 100 pounds per week, a respectable sum at that time. 

We don't know what role the British Services had in Italy in the events after the end of WW1, but it is likely that they continued to support Mussolini, directly or indirectly. The British wanted a stable Italy that they saw as a staunch ally and a barrier against the ambitions of rival powers in the Mediterranean sea. Italy had played that role from when it had been created as a unified state, in 1861, with the help and financing of the British.

Italy was friendly to Britain, yes, but not a disinterested friend. Italians wanted something in exchange for their friendship, and they had it in the form of coal. Italy had no significant coal reserves, it was fully dependent on imports. It was British coal that had created the Italian industrial economy, from the early 1800s onward. That created a relationship between the two countries that many defined as a true brotherhood (fratellanza). But things changed in 1913, when Britain went through its "peak coal." Production stopped increasing and was disrupted by strikes and social unrest. 

Britain still had enough coal for its internal needs, but exports were affected. This was especially bad for Italy, which saw a precipitous drop in coal imports after the end of WWI. At that time, the change of mood toward the British in Italy was palpable. D. H. Lawrence reports in his "Sea and Sardinia," published in 1921, how insulting the "English" was a common subject of conversation among Italians. 

Now, put yourself in the shoes of someone who managed the British secret services in the early 1930s. It must have been clear to them that there was a problem with Italy. An enormous problem. Germany's coal production was still increasing and Germany could easily supply 100% of Italy's needs. Then, Italy and Germany were natural allies. Germany had no direct strategic interests in the Mediterranean sea, while Italy could use Germany's support to become the leading Mediterranean power. By taking control of the Suez Canal, Italy could effectively kick Britain out of the Mediterranean: truly a disaster for the British Empire. (Italy actually tried to do exactly that in 1940).

And then, Mussolini himself: another headache for the British who were discovering that they had created a golem they couldn't control. In 1933-34 two more things happened that made the situation critical. First, in 1933 Adolf Hitler took power in Germany. Then, in 1934, Mussolini held a referendum that gave him a majority of 99.84% percent of the votes. The two dictators shared views and methods, and the road was now open to the Rome-Berlin "Axis." It would be formalized in 1936.

Again, let's see the situation from the viewpoint of the British. Facing a confrontation with Germany, it was vital for them to do something to remove Italy from the game or, at least, to weaken it considerably. But how? Directly toppling Mussolini was unthinkable. But it may well be that the British still had some direct communication channels with him (and, by the way, Mussolini could speak English). So, when you have to deal with someone who is too powerful to attack directly, you use indirect means. Find his weak spot, and set up a trap. And Mussolini did have a weak spot: his dream of rebuilding the Roman Empire. 

Up to 1934, the Imperial dreams of Mussolini had been mostly for show: people dressed like ancient Romans parading in the streets, the ubiquitous "fascio" symbol, and the outstretched arm in the "Roman Salute," even though the Romans had never saluted each other in that way. And then, suddenly, there came the idea that, by attacking Ethiopia, Italy would recreate the Roman Empire. It had a certain perverse logic: since the King of Ethiopia had the title of Negusa Nagast (king of kings) he could be defined as an "emperor," Then, by defeating him, the King of Italy could take his title and become emperor. Never mind that the ancient Romans never had Ethiopia as a colony, they barely knew it existed. It was a recipe for an "instant empire."  

Italy had two colonies on the border with Ethiopia, and also an old grudge against Ethiopia, having been defeated by the Ethiopians at the battle of Adwa in 1896. But, up to 1934, nothing in the propaganda arsenal of the Fascist regime had identified Ethiopia as an important enemy or a target to be attacked. I went to examine the archives of one of the national newspapers, "La Stampa." I found that, before 1934, there was basically nothing about Ethiopia, except a few articles about local folklore. I also re-read D.H. Lawrence's "Etruscan Places" (written in the late 20s). It was, in many ways, a strong accusation against the Fascist regime, but Lawrence never mentions that Italy had Imperial dreams in Ethiopia. 

Then, on 5 December 1934, there came the "Walwal incident." Italian and Ethiopian troops clashed at the border of Ethiopia and Somaliland, with losses on both sides. From that moment, the Italian press started a campaign of accusations against the Ethiopians said to be attacking the Italian possessions in Eritrea. There started to appear the idea of the "civilizing" mission of Italy in that barbarous country and, finally, the whole soup was sparkled with references to the glory of the Roman Empire that Fascist Italy was going to recreate. And, yes, also young Ethiopian women were part of the deal for the conquerors. 

Less than one year after the Walwal incident, Italy invaded Ethiopia with a force of nearly 700,000 men, an enormous effort for a relatively poor country like Italy. After about 8 months of fighting, Ethiopia surrendered and the King of Italy happily (presumably) took upon himself the title of "Emperor of Ethiopia." The enthusiasm in Italy was beyond what anyone could have imagined: true enthusiasm, not just propaganda. How this mad idea could be swallowed so easily by most Italians is one of the greatest mysteries I encountered in my life. Apart from raping Ethiopian women (which was surely done on a large scale) what did they think exactly to accomplish? But let me not harp on that. 

Just consider the story from the viewpoint of the British. For them, it was an incredible success. First of all, they had been able to deflect the Italian strategic effort toward an objective that, for the British, had little importance. Second, they were forcing Italy to keep a large military force in a region where they had no direct connection with the mainland: it could be resupplied by sea, and only as long as the British allowed it. More than that, the costs of the military campaign and of maintaining the occupation of a land that remained hostile were a tremendous burden. The British then proceeded to further cripple the Italian economy by imposing economic sanctions and zeroing coal exports to Italy. The reaction in Italy was expressed with the slogan "noi tireremo diritto" ("we'll keep going onward"). But it was a devastating blow. Remarkably, the Italians had inflicted all the damage on themselves by themselves. 

A few years later, when World War Two started, the Italians were woefully unprepared. Their military equipment was obsolete, their economy weak, their troops insufficient. At the start of the war, the British proceeded to mop up the Italian forces in Ethiopia: an easy task since the Italians rapidly ran out of supplies. In the meantime, the Italian attempt to march on Suez in 1940 was a major catastrophe. But imagine that they had been able to deploy in Egypt the 120,000 fully equipped troops stranded in Ethiopia. Then, maybe history would have been different. But so it goes. 

Now, the big question: how did the British accomplish this miracle of deception? It may not have been so difficult. The secret of propaganda is no secret at all: just repeat the same thing over and over, letting no contrasting voices appear. Then, you can dominate minds. You saw how well it worked during the past two years with so many good people swayed just because they heard the same things over and over on TV, and they had no contrasting sources of information.

Dictators are not necessarily better than ordinary people at eschewing the destructive action of propaganda. They may, actually, be an even easier target, being often isolated in a knowledge bubble that admits no contrasting voice. We know that, by the 1930s, Mussolini was a lone man at the top, surrounded by yes-men, sycophants, and profiteers. He had no friends who could tell him things that he was not happy to hear, so he was the perfect target for a one-man psyop (using a modern term). Already 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." Mussolini may have thought that the British were afraid of him and that they were trying to appease him with concessions. In any case, he waited to be strong enough before acting on this treaty, but eventually he acted the way the British probably were expecting he would. Perhaps, there were other factors (*), but we'll never know for sure. 

The story of Mussolini's attack on Ethiopia is an example of a deception technology that consists in convincing an enemy leader to engage in an attack that he believes will be a cakewalk. Then, sitting back and enjoying the fireworks before intervening for the killing blow. It may have been used against Iraq at the time of Saddam Hussein. And it may have been used in recent times. Note that I don't mean that a leader who squanders his country's resources in a senseless military campaign shares the evil qualities of Benito Mussolini (a racist, bloodthirsty psychopath). It is just that all strong leaders are potential victims of this kind of "one-man psyops." As you know, history rhymes and one of these rhymes goes, "a lone man at the top is one of the most dangerous things in the world."

I already examined the fateful years when Benito Mussolini led Italy to utter defeat in World War 2. My previous posts can be found at these links

(*) We may speculate about the role of a specific person in convincing Mussolini that attacking Ethiopia was a good idea. Margherita Sarfatti (1880-1961) was his lover, confident, and mentor from when they met in Milano in 1911. Sarfatti was a Jewish intellectual, an artist, and a writer, sometimes credited with having "created" Mussolini's public image. But she was three years older than him and, with time, her influence on him started to fade. In that fateful year, 1933, Mussolini took another woman as mistress, Claretta Petacci, 28 years younger than him. In the same year, Sarfatti also saw the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany, and she couldn't have missed what it meant for her and for the European Jews in general. It was only in 1938 that Sarfatti was forced into exile, but we may imagine that in 1933 she still had a chance to influence Mussolini and deal a deadly blow to him. Did she titillate his vanity by telling him that he could really become the Emperor of a newly created Roman Empire? Was she influenced by the British secret services in order to do that? We shall never know, but one thing is sure: Sarfatti understood perfectly the mechanisms of political power and she was a master propagandist. As an example, here is a piece she wrote -- it seems -- while the Ethiopian invasion was ongoing. I do not hesitate in classing it as one of the best pieces of propaganda ever written. Read and savor it in all its details: it is truly a masterpiece if you remember that propaganda is aimed at simple minds using simple concepts. 




When the Abyssinians came upon us treacherously at Uol-Uol, the Duce curbed his anger and said: "in Geneva in Switzerland, there is the league of nations that we Italians also founded, so that justice and good agreement between the peoples may be created. Let's hear what they think to do in Geneva to give us satisfaction "

Instead, Geneva washed her hands in her lake: "I don't know anything, the rifles may have fired by themselves". "Oh yes?" said The Duce. "Is this your way of understanding justice? It is no longer the time to make fun of Italy, now we are in the 15th year of the Fascist era".

And he called all the generals of land and air, and the men of the sea, and said, "We must settle old and new accounts with that land of wild slaves. This is the coast of Africa, march down from the North and up from the South, and go and get me all of Ethiopia, with the capital Addis Abeba. I will take care to provide you with men, weapons, ships, orders, and food".

"All right," said the admirals and the land and air generals. "It will be done. Long Live The Duce! Long Live The King!" And all the young men of Italy ran under the tricolor flag with the insignia of the Fascio Littorio, to volunteer in Africa for Italy.

Margherita Sarfatti




Quando gli abissini ci vennero addosso a tradimento a Uol-Uol, i Duce frenò la collera e disse: «A Ginevra nella Svizzera, vi è la Società delle Nazioni che abbiamo fondato anche noi italiani, perchè metta la giustizia e il buon accordo fra i popoli. Sentiamo cosa pensano di fare a Ginevra per darci soddisfazione »

Invece Ginevra si lavò le mani nel suo lago: «lo non so niente, i fucili avranno magari sparato da soli». «Ah si?» disse il Duce. «È questa la maniera vostra di intendere la giustizia? Non è più il tempo di prendere in giro l'ltalia, adesso siamo nell'anno XV dell'era fascista». 

E chiamò tutti i generali di terra e d'aria, e gli ammiragli del mare, e disse: «Bisogna regolare i conti vecchi e nuovi con quel paese di schiavi selvaggi. Questa è la costa dell'Africa, Marciate in giù dal nord e in su dal sud, e andate a prendermi tutta l'Etiopia, con la capitale Addis Abeba. A darvi gli uomini, le armi, le navi, gi ordini e i viveri penso io».

«Va bene», dissero gli ammiragli e i generali di terra e d'aria. «Sarà fatto. Viva il Duce! Viva il Re!» E tutta lo gioventù d'Italia correva sotto la bandiera tricolore con l'insegna del Fascio Littorio, a battersi volontaria in Africa per l'Italia.

Margherita Sarfatti


Sunday, August 14, 2022

Europe: the Empire that wasn't


Napoleon Bonaparte in full imperial regalia. He got close to creating a European Empire, but he failed in the end. He faced the same strategic problem that other would-be European Emperors faced: having to fight on two opposite fronts at the same time, against Russia and against Britain. At present, the European Union (another form of European Empire) is facing the same strategic problems And it is being defeated, although in an economic war rather than in a conventional military one.

One of the fascinating things about history is how people tend to repeat the same mistakes over and over. A couple of generations are more than sufficient for leaders to forget everything their predecessors did, and run straight into a new -- but similar -- catastrophe. It is also called "history never repeats itself, but it does rhyme."

Then, among the fascinating sections of history, there is how people tend to get together to form those entities that we call "states" or, if they are large, "empires." They grow, they decline, they collapse, in a dance that lasts for centuries and that normally implies war, exterminations, and great suffering for large numbers of people. But most people seem to think that these purely virtual entities are important enough that human lives can be sacrificed to them. On this, history has been rhyming for a long time. 

Europe was often on the verge of becoming an empire, a single state with a centralized government. But that never happened. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Charlemagne was perhaps the first to have a go at a European Empire, during the 8th century AD. His "Holy Roman Empire" survived for nearly a millennium, but never included all of Western Europe. Then it was the turn of Napoleon Bonaparte, then the German Kaiser, then the German Nazis, and, recently, the European Union that, for the first time, didn't rely on military might. They were all failures, including the European Union -- an entity that nobody seems to want any longer. 

How should we see these events? A failure or a blessing? Of course, empires are not benevolent entities, and sometimes they do great damage. But a central European government might have avoided at least some of the bloodiest episodes of internecine European wars. It might also have injected some rules into the otherwise lawless worldwide expansion of the European states. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-1558) enacted laws designed to stop the enslavement and the extermination of the Native Americans by the European colonists. Charles V ruled only part of Europe and these laws were ineffective. But we may imagine that, if they had been backed by a strong central authority, they could have helped the Native Americans to survive the European onslaught. 

So, why couldn't Western European states create a central government? After all, when it was a question of making some money by military conquest, they didn't find that it was so difficult to fight together. It happened during the crusades (12th-4th century), the attack on Russia by Napoleon in 1812, the Crimean war (1853-1856), the attack on China during the Boxer rebellion (1899 -1901), and a few more cases. But, normally, the European states preferred to carve their own empires and destroy each other in internecine wars. 

One major problem for a European government is simply geographical. Europe is a peninsula of Eurasia that ends with the Urals, but that's just a convention. Are the Russians Europeans? In many ways, yes, except when their Western neighbors decide that they are barbarians to be exterminated (as during WW2) or, at least, people whose culture is to be rejected or annihilated (as it is happening nowadays). So, where is the Eastern border of Europe? Nobody knows, and that's a sure recipe for war. 

Then, on the Western side, is Britain part of Europe? Geography says that it is, but do the British consider themselves Europeans? The best that can be said is that they normally do, but only when it is convenient for them. During WW2, there was a common saying in Italy that went as "che Dio stramaledica gli inglesi" (may God heavily curse the British). A bit nasty, sure, but it highlights a certain feeling that continental Europeans have for Britain.

Geography dominates politics, and the result is that all the attempts to create a stable coalition of European states faced, and still faces, an unsolvable strategic problem. At Europe's borders, on the East and the West, there are two powerful states, Great Britain (now largely replaced by the US Empire) and Russia (for a period, in the form of the Soviet Union). Neither has an interest in seeing a strong Europe arising, and they normally consider avoiding that as one of their strategic priorities. Neither Russia nor Britain ever were interested in invading Europe. The case is slightly different for the US Empire, which does keep its military stationed in Europe. But, even so, the US occupation is more a question of political, rather than military, control. In any case, during the past few centuries, emergent European Empires usually found themselves fighting on two opposite fronts, on the East, and on the West. An impossible strategic situation that always ended with not just defeat, but catastrophe. 

It was Napoleon who inaugurated the challenge of fighting Britain and Russia at the same time. The resulting disaster led to the disappearance of France from the list of the world's "great powers." Then, it was the turn of the German government to do the same mistake. As a remarkable example of the stupidity of government leaders, they managed to do it twice, in 1914, and in 1939. Note, incidentally, that Adolf Hitler himself, wrote in his Mein Kampf (1933) that Germany should never find itself fighting on two fronts. And then, he led Germany exactly into that! The mind of the "great leaders" is often imperscrutable, but you may be justified in thinking that they are not as smart as their followers think they are. 

After the catastrophe of World War 2, Europeans seemed to realize that the attempt to unify Europe by military means was hopeless. So, they tried a combination of diplomatic and economic actions. It was not a bad idea in itself, but it failed utterly as the result of several factors. Mainly, it was because the leaders never really believed in the idea of a United Europe and consistently tried to manage the European Union in such a way as to gather the most they could for their countries, without much regard for the collective good. In time, the higher layers of the EU fell into the hands of traitors bought by foreign powers. As a result, the attempts to create a European military force were sabotaged. During the past few decades, Europe was effectively defanged and declawed, and, to use an appropriate euphemism, "neutered" in military terms. (image below from "The Economist"). 

In the end, the EU went through the same sequence of failures that had doomed the previous attempts at unification. The "Brexit," the exit of the UK from the Union in 2020, was the economic equivalent of the military defeat of Napoleon at Trafalgar (1805), and of Hitler at the battle of Britain (1940). But the true disaster came with the current attempt of bankrupting Russia with economic sanctions. That was the equivalent of the disastrous dash to Moscow of Napoleon's army (1812) and of Hitler's "Operation Barbarossa" (1941). History does rhyme!

The economic war is still ongoing, but we can already say that Russia is surviving the sanctions while Europe has been badly damaging itself. No matter what the outcome of the war in Ukraine will be, Europeans now face a cold winter without a sufficient supply of fuel, and a probable economic disaster. The same outcome of Napoleon's and Hitler's campaigns -- even though not in military terms.  

And now? Disasters beget disasters, it is one more rule of history. The European relentless rejection of everything that has to do with Russian culture and traditions is a human disaster that cannot be measured in economic terms. The last thing Europeans needed was an enemy on their Eastern border. Now they have created it, and they will have to live with it, just as they will have to live with the climate disaster that they lost the capability to fight. And, most likely, the idea of a United Europe is now buried forever. 

Monday, June 20, 2022

What's Really Happening in Ukraine? The Rules of Disinformation During Wartime


The front page from the Italian newspaper "La Stampa" on Oct 12, 1941. A good example of wartime propaganda.  

War is a complicated story with plenty of things happening at the same time. Not for nothing, there exists the term "fog of war," and it may well be that even generals and leaders don't know exactly what's going on on the battlefield. Then, imagine how the media are reporting the situation to us: it is not just a fog that separates the news from the truth: it is a brick wall. Yet, the media remain a major source of information for us. Can we use them to learn at least something about what's going on, discarding the lies and the exaggerations? 

To start, we can look at how wartime news was reported in historical cases. As an exercise, I examined how Italians were (dis-)informed by their government during World War 2. I used the archive of "La Stampa," one of the major Italian newspapers of the time, still existing today. The other national newspapers weren't reporting anything really different. Another advantage is that the archive of La Stampa is free to peruse. 

The archive contains a huge amount of material (all in Italian, sorry). I don't claim that I examined everything, but I did go through the decisive moments of the war, in 1941/43. It is a fascinating experience to imagine people reading the news of the time and trying to understand what was really going on. Could they figure it out? Probably not, at least for most of them. But let's go into the details.

Above, you can see an example of how news about the war was presented to Italians. The front page of "La Stampa" of Oct 12, 1941, was titled the "destruction of the Azov pocket." It was true: the battle of the sea of Azov was a major victory for the Axis forces. Even the report on the number of prisoners taken, about 100,000, was approximately correct. 

On the lower left part of the front page, you read of another front: in Ethiopia. The Italian troops fighting in the Amhara region ("Amara" in the text) are said to be offering an "indomitable resistance" against the attacking British troops. Again, it was true. The stronghold of Gondar, in Northern Ethiopia, was successfully resisting. 

That's just the first page. You can read more in the inner pages: reflections on how the defeat of Bolshevism in Russia will unavoidably bring the final defeat for England, of the victorious advance of the Italian troops in the Donetsk region, of heavy losses of the enemy on all fronts, including long lists of British warships damaged or sunk. 

So, if you were an Italian reading one of the national papers in October 1941, you would reasonably conclude that the Axis powers were winning in Russia, that Italy was successfully resisting in Ethiopia, and that the British were facing serious difficulties in all war theaters. That would not have been such a bad evaluation at that moment, perhaps the most favorable for the Axis during the whole war. 

The problem is that, as we know from our modern viewpoint, in October 1941 the German advance was already starting to slow down, and it would completely stall in early December. In Ethiopia, Gondar was just the last pocket of resistance of the former "Italian Empire." It was surrounded by the British, and it had zero chance to survive. It surrendered on Nov 27th 1941. 

How was this less than exciting news presented to the Italian readers? About the Russian front, in December they were told that the Germans had decided to stop their advance and that they were preparing to restart the offensive in spring. At the same time, they were repulsing Russian attacks. Then, about the defeat in Ethiopia, the Italians were told nothing. The fall of Gondar in November was simply not reported. Only on Dec 6, more than a month later, you could read that the "Italian officers of Gondar" were allowed to keep their swords while surrendering. From this, you could finally understand that Gondar was no more in Italian hands. As a compensation, you could read in the column nearby of "more British ships sunk in the Atlantic."

This is very typical. Bad news was simply not reported or delayed during the war. When the Italian contingent in Russia was destroyed, in 1942, it just disappeared from the news. As another example, in 1943, the British had been attacking the island of Pantelleria in the Mediterranean Sea. Up to June 12th, "La Stampa" was reporting the heroic resistance of the Italian defenders facing superior enemy forces. 

Remarkably, when the news above appeared, Pantelleria had already surrendered without firing a shot. That was not reported until June 14th as just a few lines in a corner of the front page. One day later, one of the pundits of the time explained why the loss of Pantelleria was of no importance and that the final victory of Italy was certain. Then, it was silence.   

This kind of disinformation is normal: it happens everywhere, surely not just in the Italian press during WW2. The interesting part is whether we can learn something from this story. I think I can propose a few rules of thumb on how wartime misinformation works. 


1. When the news reports a major victory of your side that involves a verifiable result, say, the occupation of a city or of a region, then it is most likely true. 

2. When the news reports that an enemy attack has been repulsed and that the enemy suffered heavy losses, it may be true, but it means that the enemy has superior forces in that area and that sooner or later will break through. 

3. When you don't hear anything anymore of a specific contingent, city, or region, it means that the contingent has been destroyed or that the city/region has been conquered by the enemy. 

4. When you read non-verifiable positive news ("enemy cruiser sunk" "40 enemy planes downed"), it is most likely false.

5. Whatever you hear from the "experts" has zero value. With one exception: when the  pundits start saying that "the situation looks bad, but the final victory is certain," it means that the war is lost.  

6. The golden rule: never, ever trust anything that the media tell you. 


These rules have a certain logic: despite the attempts of the media to "create their own reality" (Rumsfeld style) they cannot completely suppress the real reality. During WW2, even with the heavy censorship of the Fascist regime, Italians could find other sources of information, including what returning soldiers were telling, and the broadcasting from "Radio Londra," the British radio. Tuning to that station was forbidden and could be dangerous, but surely many people did that. Not that the British propaganda was any more truthful than the Italian one but, at least, Radio London provided Italians with a different version of the news. For instance, the fall of Gondar in 1941 was announced in British newspapers the day after it took place, with titles such as, "END OF MUSSOLINI'S EMPIRE." Radio Londra surely broadcast that and the people who listened were informed about the event several days in advance in comparison to those who had to wait for the Italian press to report it.  

About the current war in Ukraine, these rules can help. For a start, they can be used to filter out the most blatant lies. For instance, you surely heard the story of the "Ghost of Kyiv," the Ukrainian pilot said to have downed as many as 40 enemy planes (some say just six, others 10 or 20). It was non-verifiable news, and hence you could have suspected from the beginning that it was false. Indeed, it was confirmed to be fake by the Ukrainians themselves. The same is true for many reports of the rape of Ukrainian women and children. The originator of these reports, Lyudmila Denisova, Ukraine's commissioner for human rights, was removed from her post by the Ukrainian parliament under the accusation of having provided exaggerated and false news. And the same goes for the many obviously exaggerated reports of heavy losses on the Russian side.

Then, even with the heavy censorship we are embedded in, we can still manage to find a trickle of information from the "other side," not better than from this side, but still providing a different angle of view. The official Russian channels do not report heavy Russian losses (obviously!). Pro-Russian pundits repeat that Russia is winning, although they have toned down their statements several times. They have been telling us, repeatedly, that the Ukraine military was going to collapse, but that is just good evidence for the validity of the rule that says, "The opinion of the experts has zero value." In any case, the reports from both sides agree that, at present, the Russians are advancing, although slowly. Therefore, it is probably true. 

About the final outcome of the war, for the time being, we are in a condition similar to that of Italians in 1941. It would have been difficult for them to understand who would win, although they might have concluded that things were not going so well as the official reports said. But, by late 1942, a critical analysis, even just of the national news, should have made clear to anyone with a functioning brain that the war was lost for the Axis. About Ukraine, instead, we cannot say much for the time being, but it is hard to think that the war could last years. So, we should be able to know more in the near future. For the time being, just don't forget the golden rule: never, never trust what the media are telling you.

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, March 14, 2022

All the World is a Stage: How the Global Drama is Being Played Out


The "Commedia dell'Arte" was a form of popular theatre, often played without a script. The masked actors would improvise according to the characteristics of their "persona", their mask.

There are many ways of predicting the future, and my remote ancestors, the Etruscan Haruspices, would do it by examining the liver of a freshly killed goat. I may have inherited from them my interest in the future, although I don't usually go around killing goats. 

A gentler way of studying the future consists in considering the world as a stage. You know what the characters are, what they want, the way they usually behave. Then, when you put them on stage, they may act and create a drama even without following a script. It was the way the ancient Commedia dell'Arte worked. No script, actors would just play their part, according to their "persona." a term that in Latin means "mask" and that in our times came to be related to "personality,"

It may also work for states. They have a certain persona, a way to behave that may be predictable. About two months ago, I proposed an interpretation of the current drama patterned on an older drama: the European tragedy of World War 2. The actors, the states, were different, but their masks were very similar, and I sketched out what their behavior could have been. 

You see how things are going: the world powers are acting on stage as their masks impose them to do. In particular, the EU is playing the role that was of Italy in 1940. The lack of natural resources forces the EU to depend on foreign sources, in particular on importing natural gas from Russia -- which plays the role that was of Britain in the 1930s: that of fossil fuel exporter. In the old drama, in 1940, Italy attacked its main coal supplier, Britain, in a desperately ineffective campaign. In my earlier post, I wrote that the current situation "could easily develop into a similar outcome as in 1941, with the EU doing something completely idiotic: attacking Russia." It is happening, although only indirectly, so far. And, as things stand, the EU campaign doesn't seem to be much more effective than the old Italian campaign against Britain, although not (yet?) turning into a similar humiliating disaster. 

The new drama is just in its early stages. If it continues along the same lines as the old one, we'll see the involvement of the bigger players and the growing confrontation will lead to some kind of final catharsis. Let's just hope that, afterward, there will be someone left to ponder on what has happened.

(h/t "Art Deco") 

Monday, January 10, 2022

How to keep gasoline prices low: bomb your gas station


An Italian fighter plane (note the "fasci" symbols on the wings) shot down in England in November 1940, during WW2 (source). Sending obsolete biplanes with open cockpits against the modern British Spitfires is one of the most glaring examples of military incompetence in history. Among other things, this old tragedy may give us hints about the current situation in the world and, in particular, why the consumers of fossil fuels tend to bomb their suppliers. 

Not everyone in Europe has understood exactly what is happening with gas prices, yet, but the consequences could be heavy. For a brief moment, prices rose of a factor ten over what was considered as "normal." Then, prices subsided a little but still remain way higher than before. Electricity prices are directly affected by the trend and that is not only traumatic for consumers, but also for the European industry. 

So, what's happening? As usual, interpretations are flying free in the memesphere: those evil Russians, the conspiracy of the Americans, it is all a fault of those ugly Greens who don't want nuclear energy, the financial lobby conspiring against the people, etcetera.

Let me try an approach a little different. Let me compare the current situation with that of the 1930s in Europe. Back then, fossil fuels were already fundamental for the functioning of the economy, but coal was the truly critical resource: not for nothing it was called "King Coal."

The coal revolution had started to appear in Europe in the 19th century. The countries that had large coal reserves, England, Germany, and France, could start their industrial revolutions. Others were cut off from the bonanza: the lack of coal was the main cause of the decline of the Southern Mediterranean countries. The Turkish empire, the "sick man of Europe," was not really sick, it was starved of coal. 

But it was not strictly necessary to have coal mines to industrialize: it could be done by importing coal from the producing countries. Sailing ships could carry coal at low cost just about everywhere in the world, the problem was to transport it inland. Coal is bulky and heavy, the only way to do that is to have a good network of waterways. And having that depends on climate: the Southern Mediterranean countries are too dry to have it. But Northern Mediterranean countries had the network and could industrialize: it was the case of Italy. 

Italy went through its industrial revolution much later than the Northern European countries but succeeded using British coal. That, of course, meant that Italy became dependent on British coal imports. Not a problem as long as the two countries were friendly to each other. Unfortunately, as it often happens in life, money may well take the priority over friendship. 

In the early 1920s, coal production in England reached a peak and couldn't be increased any more. That, of course, led to higher prices and cuts in exports. At that time, nobody could understand how depletion affects production (not even nowadays people do). So most Italians took the reduced coal supply from Britain as a geopolitical attack. It was an evil strategy of the decadent plutocracy called the Perfidious Albion, specifically designed to harm the young and growing southern countries.  

The Italian conquest of Ethiopia was the turning point of the struggle. Britain reacted by stopping the exports of coal to Italy. That, and other international economic sanctions, pushed the Italian economy, already crippled by the cost of the war, to the brink of collapse. Given the situation, events played out as if following a prophecy written down long before. Italy had to rely more and more on German coal and that had obvious political consequences. 

The tragedy became a farce when old Italian biplanes tried to bomb Britain into submission in 1940. The campaign lasted just two months, enough for the Italian contingent to take heavy losses before it was withdrawn (*). It was not just a tactical blunder, but a strategic disaster since it gave the British and their allies an excuse to bomb Italy at will. Which they did, enthusiastically and very successfully. 

The curious thing about this disastrous campaign is how it inaugurated a tradition: bombing one's supplier of fossil fuels. Italy's bombing of Britain was just the first of a long series: in August 1941, the British attacked and bombed Iran to secure the Iranian oil wells. They were much more successful than the Italians and Iran surrendered in less than a week. In the same year, in November, the Japanese attempted the same trick by bombing the United States, their main supplier of oil. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was a tactical success, but a major strategic disaster, as we all know. 

After WWII, the "Carter Doctrine" implied the strategic value of oil producers in the Middle East. One of the outcomes was the protracted bombing of Iraq from 1991, still intermittently ongoing. Other oil suppliers bombed by Western states were Libya and Syria. 

In short, the tradition of bombing one's suppliers of fuels remains alive and well. Whether it can accomplish anything better than the disastrous attempt of Italy in 1941 is debatable, to say the least. After all, it is equivalent to blasting away your neighborhood gas station in order to get the gas you need, but this is the way the human mind seems to work. 

So, on the basis of this historical tradition, let's try to build a narrative about what's going on, right now, with the gas supply to Europe. We just need to translate the roles that some countries had in the 1930s with those of today. 

Coal --> Natural Gas
Italy --> Western Europe (EU)
Britain --> Russia
Germany --> USA

The correspondence is very good: we have a consumer of fossil energy (now Western Europe, then Italy) which is militarily weak, but threatens the supplier (Now Russia, then Britain) with military action despite the obvious superiority of the latter. The weak consumer (Europe/Italy) feels that it can get away with this suicidal strategy because it has the backup of a powerful ally (Now the USA, then Germany). 

Just like Britain did in 1936 to Italy, Russia appears to have reduced the supply of gas to Europe. In both cases, the result was/is a crisis in the economy of the consumers. Just as it happened in the late 1930s, the stronger ally is coming to the rescue: in 1936, Germany started supplying coal to Italy by rail, now the US is sending cryogenic gas to Europe -- both are expensive methods of transportation but allow the supplier to access a market that would have been barren, were it not for political reason. But becoming the customers of a militarily powerful country has political costs. 

The correspondence is so good that the current situation could easily develop into a similar outcome as in 1941, with the EU doing something completely idiotic: attacking Russia, hoping for the support of the powerful US ally. (also, traditionally, attacking Russia is done in Winter: what could go wrong?). 

One conclusion of this story is that humans always tend to worsen whatever major problem they happen to face. Apart from this, perhaps there is an alternative scenario that could lead Europe away from the perspective of nuclear annihilation: maybe we can learn something from the Italian experience. 

In 1936, during the coal embargo imposed by Britain, Italy carried out an attempt to reduce its consumption of fossil fuels that went under the name of "autarchy" (Autarchia). It was based on the renewable technologies available at that time, and it involved some crazy ideas, such as making shoe soles out of cardboard and dresses out of fiberglass. But, on the whole, the idea of relying as much as possible on national and local products made plenty of sense. It didn't work, mainly because the government squandered the Italian resources in useless wars, but, who knows? Today it might work better if we don't make the same mistake. 

(*) The Italian pilots had to fight with obsolete canvas biplanes: much slower than the British Spitfires. The Italian planes were also poorly armed, without an armored cockpit (the pilots used sandbags as makeshift armor), without sufficient heating, without the right training. And, of course, poor reliability of almost every mechanical system in a cold climate. Most of the Italian losses were due to mechanical failures, while no British planes are reported to have been lost to the Italians. If the definition of "epic" involves fighting against an overwhelmingly superior enemy, then the experience of the Italian force in the Battle of Britain can surely be defined in this way: an epic disaster. But whoever had this absurd idea deserved to be hanged, and at least one of them was.    

Friday, March 11, 2022

Strategy Without Tactics is the Slowest Road to Victory -- Lessons from the Italian Attack on Greece in 1940


I do not claim to be an expert in military matters or international politics, but I think we can learn a lot from history. There follows a post that I published a few years ago a few years ago on "Cassandra's Legacy," that I think is worth re-publishing in view of the current situation. 

Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) led the Italian government from 1922 to 1943. During the final years of his career, he made a series of truly colossal mistakes that led to disaster for Italy and for him, personally. Was Mussolini mad? An idiot? Or brain damaged? We cannot say for sure, but the problem with the way the minds of leaders function seems to be more and more important in our times.

An evident trend that we observe in history is that, in times of crisis, strong leaders tend to take over and assume all powers. It has happened with the Romans, whose government system moved from democracy to a military dictatorship. It seems to be happening to us, too, with more and more power being concentrated in the hands of the man (rarely the woman) at the top of the government's hierarchy.

There are reasons for this trend. Human society, as it is nowadays, doesn't seem to show any sign of collective intelligence. It is not a "brain," it can't plan for the future, it just stumbles onward. So, in a certain way, it makes sense to put a real brain in charge. The human brain is the most complex thing we know in the whole universe and it is not unreasonable to hope that it could manage society better than a mob.

The problem is that, sometimes, the brain at the top is not so good, actually it may be horribly bad. Like in the movie "Young Frankenstein," even with the best of goodwill, we may put abnormal brains inside society's head. Dictators, emperors, warlords, big men, generalissimos, strongmen, tycoons, and the like often indulge in killing, torturing, and oppressing their subjects, as well as in engaging in unprovoked and ruinous wars. On top of all that, they are also often sexual perverts. The final result is that they look like the prototypical evil madman character of comics or movies, complete with bloody eyes, wicked smile, and Satanic laughing.

But simply defining leaders as "mad" or "evil" doesn't tell us what makes their minds tick. Could some of them be truly insane? Maybe brain-damaged? Or is it just a kind of personality that propels them to the position they occupy? These are very difficult questions because it is impossible to diagnose mental illness from one person's public behavior and public statements. Doing that is, correctly, even considered unethical for professionals (even though it is done all the time in the political debate).

Here, I am not claiming to be saying anything definitive on this subject, but I think we can learn a lot if we examine the well-known case of Benito Mussolini, the Italian "Duce" from 1922 to 1943, as an example of a behavior that can be seen as insane and, also, rather typical for dictators and absolute rulers.

The mistakes that Benito Mussolini made during the last stages of his career as the prime minister of Italy were truly colossal, including declaring war on the United States in 1941. Let me give you a less well-known but highly significant example. In October 1940, the Italian army attacked Greece from Albania, a story that I discussed in a previous post. That implied having to cross the Epirus mountains in winter and how in the world could anyone think that it was a good idea? Why not wait for spring, instead? Unsurprisingly, the result was a military disaster with the Italian troops suffering heavy losses while stuck in the mud and the snow of the Epirus mountains during the 1940-41 winter, until the Germans came to the rescue - sensibly- in the following Spring. In a certain sense, the campaign was successful for the Axis because, eventually, Greece had to surrender. But it was also a tremendous waste of military resources that could have been used by Italy for the war effort against the British in North Africa. The blunder in Greece may have been a major factor in the Italian defeat in WWII.

The interesting point about this campaign is that we have the minutes of the government reunions that led to the ill-fated decision of attacking Greece. These documents don't seem to be available online, but they are reported by Mario Cervi in his 1969 book "Storia della Guerra di Grecia" (translated into English as "The Hollow Legions"). It is clear from the minutes that it was Mussolini, and Mussolini alone, who pushed for starting the attack at the beginning of Winter. During a reunion held on Oct 15, 1940, the Duce is reported to have said the date for the attack on Greece had been set by him and that "it cannot be postponed, not even of one hour." No reason was given for having chosen this specific date and none of the generals and high-level officers present at the reunion dared to object and to say that it would have been better to wait for spring to come. The impression is that Italy was led by a bumbling idiot surrounded by yes-men, and the results were consistent with this impression.

What made Mussolini behave in this way? There is the possibility that his brain was not functioning well. We know that Mussolini suffered from syphilis and that it is an illness that can lead to brain damage. But a biopsy was performed on a fragment of his brain after his death, in 1945, and the results were reasonably clear: no trace of brain damage. It was the functional brain of a 62-year-old man, as Mussolini was at the time of his death.

Mussolini is one of the very few cases of high-level political leaders for whom we have hard evidence of the presence or absence of brain damage. The quintessential evil dictator, Adolf Hitler, is said to have been suffering from Parkinson's or other neurological problems, but that cannot be proven since his body was burned to ashes after his suicide, in 1945. After the surrender of Germany, several Nazi leaders were examined in search of neurological problems. For one of them, Robert Ley, a post-mortem examination revealed a certain degree of physical damage to the frontal lobes. Whether that was the cause of his cruel behavior, however, is debatable.

That's more or less what we have. It doesn't prove that evil leaders never suffer from brain damage but the case of Mussolini tells us that dictators are not necessarily insane. Rather, they are best described as persons who suffer from a "narcissistic personality disorder" (NPD). It is a syndrome that describes their vindictive, paranoid, and cruel behavior, but also their ability to find followers and become popular. So, it may be that the NPD is not really a "disorder" but, rather, something functional for becoming a leader. 

There lies the problem: even in a democracy, a politician's first priority is being elected and that's a very different skill than that needed for leading a country. An NPD-affected ruler may not be necessarily evil, but he (very rarely she) will be almost certainly incompetent. It happens not just in politics, but also in business. I could also cite the names of scientists who seem to be affected by NPD. They are often incompetents in their fields, but they may achieve a certain degree of success by means of their social skills that allow them to accumulate research grants and attract smart collaborators. (Fortunately, they can't jail and torture their opponents! Not normally, at least.)

The problem with this situation is that, everywhere in the world, NPD-affected individuals aim at obtaining high-level government positions and often they succeed. Then, ruling a whole country gives them plenty of chances to be not just incompetents, but the kind of person that we describe as "criminally incompetent." The kind of disaster that can result may be illustrated, again, by Mussolini's case. During the Greek campaign, the Duce ordered the Italian Air Force to "destroy all Greek cities with more than 10,000 inhabitants" as reported by Cervi and by Davide Conti in his "L'occupazione italiana dei Balcani" (2008). Fortunately, the Italian air force of the time was not able to carry out this order. But what would happen if a similar order were given today by a leader who can control atomic weapons?

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.