Sunday, March 1, 2009

Reality is More Complicated than Logic

I said I'd stop reading and reporting on Juan Cole, since by now his methodology is clear, he's becoming boring, and my observations of him even more so. I expect to stick to my commitment, at least for a while, but one of you in the comments sent me to his post last week where he complains about the Guardian allowing an Israeli to speak. So I had a peak. Actually, it wasn't Cole, it was an anonymous "guest blogger"; and it was neat to see that Georgina Henry herself, executive editor of CiF, felt she had to defend herself. Broad sections of the (saner part of the) blogosphere regularly castigate the Guardian without Ms. Henry responding; it makes one wonder what particular chord Cole struck.

Cole's unnamed guest uses a standard but false trope: If Uri Dromi thinks he can get away with explaining the behavior of the IDF, he's wrong, indeed, he must be lying, since his allegations don't make sense:
My reaction to the content is that the piece attempts to blame the victims-- which is a well known sophist technique. As for the misleading explanations of what seems to be the use of legitimate weapons in inappropriate ways and contexts, my reaction can be summarised as "what absolute bollocks!”

The pictures of airburst phosphorous being used to set areas on fire are conclusive evidence of misuse.

Smokescreens use ground burst. If I had ever wanted a smoke point to cover a flanking movement then I wanted the smoke as a dense cloud on the ground at a height that exceeded the height of my people. Armoured Fighting Vehicle also have small smoke dischargers on the turrets and hulls designed to put a cloud of smoke in front of the vehicle to give time to reverse out of danger or to debus and engage the enemy.
Cole also often uses this technique: if the Bad Guys make a factual claim, we'll refute it not with counter-facts, which we don't have, but by ridiculing it with logic. It's a fun technique, because it dosen't require real acquaintance with the facts; it casts the original reporter as a fool and a liar for concocting such an obviously false tale; and since it does, after all, have a ring of logic to it, it can be refuted only by someone who really has the facts and can explain why the reality trumped the logic, or rather, why the logic of the reality was stronger than the logic of the arm-chair critic. The people with these facts rarely read Cole's blog, obviously, since they're on the field of battle and have better things to do with their time, while Cole's audience, most of whom have never been and cannot imagine, can join him in feeling smug and righteous.

So I waited a few days, and then asked the soldier when he came home over the weekend. I didn't show him Cole's screed, rather I asked him about this whole "white phosphorus and flechette" business. He started with the flechette topic. As he and I both know, flechettes are useless against hard targets such as tanks, APCs, or buildings; they are however quite effective against people - and remember, wars are waged by and against people; they are about killing, which is why they're such unpleasant things, even when they're necessary. Given the specifics of flechette shells, he told, they were used quite sparingly, and only in very specific cases: when Hamas fighters had been identified in specific places which were otherwise empty of civilians as far as could be known. Given their rather precisely knowable range of damage, this isn't so hard to do. The scenario of
The only mass of humans I could see were the women children and old men taking shelter in schools and hospitals and UN premises.
never happened. Nor would it have made any sense: even if one wished to kill civilians in a school, flechettes wouldn't work, not if the school had walls. Criticizing Israel for things it never did is, how to put this gently, potentially antisemitic.

The white phosphorus claim was used more often since it's a more dramatic weapon, I suppose. Achikam was very clear on how it was used: as a smokescreen, never on residential neighborhoods (in his section. He can't say what happened elsewhere). Very often, when his unit moved from place to place during daylight, they did so behind an artillery-laid smokescreen of white phosphorus; when I asked about the height above the ground, he was momentarily puzzled by the question: often there were many-storied buildings beyond the area, and in order to be hidden from spotters you need a smokescreen high enough to cover them, he explained. Obvious, isn't it, the moment you glance up from your laptop screen and think about the terrain of reality.


John F. Opie said...

Hi -

Actually, the smoke dischargers on armor fire a smoke grenade that provides a smokescreen away from the vehicle. You can also generate one by spilling fuel on the exhaust system, but this simply generates smoke where the vehicle is located, effectively making it a target. The whole idea is to make it hard to find the vehicle: making it the point where smoke is generated makes it easy to find.

On top of that, using WP as a ground burst means that the smoke first would have to disperse: an airburst means that the WP is already dispersed.

I know this, even though I never served (too damn nearsighted), but merely asked a question once at the Paris Air Show what those little round things on an anti-aircraft tank were.

Cole et al are excellent examples of those educated well beyond their abilities...

Joe in Australia said...

Hmm. So you're saying that a little cloud that traipsed around immediately over the heads of the IDF soldiers would not in fact disguise their location?