Saturday, March 19, 2011

Ever notice how antiseptics sting?

The less you know, the more you think you know. You needn't trust Robert's Rules for this maxim. King Mongkut of Siam knew it.* Chris Rock pointed out that "people love to not know."** And two psychologists named Dunning and Kruger made it official science.

Dunning and Kruger found not only that the more ignorant people were, the less able they were to recognize and correct their own mistakes. No surprise there. But it also occurred that the less competent people are, the more competent they perceived themselves to be. In a surprising corollary, they also found that the more competent and knowledgeable a person was, the less likely he was to think of himself as an expert -- since he was more likely to know what he didn't know.

So with that Rule/song lyric/stand-up bit/effect in place, let me say at the outset that I'm anything but an expert on military doctrine. And I know it. But in five years as a reporter in the heart of the largest military aviation community in the free world, even I couldn't avoid learning a thing two -- including from some of the guys who put the "no" in the last big "no fly zone" mounted by the United States.

You'd be hard pressed to find anyone who knows less, and knows less about what he doesn't know, than just about anyone on cable news. These days, when they are not busy pretending to be experts about nuclear power generation, the hawkish talking news heads, comfortably ensconced in their studios and enrobed in their agendas, invoke the words "no fly zone" as if they were a magical incantation or a mystic's mantra. Who can blame them. Say it with me -- No. Fly. Zone. It sounds so pure, so antiseptic.

Here's the simple truth of it:

Instituting a no fly zone in Libya means killing lots Libyans on the ground at the outset. We are not -- I pray -- planning to sacrifice NATO or US pilots to Libya's reasonably sophisticated air defenses, so we're going to have to neutralize scores of SAM*** sites and "decapitate their command and control apparatus." In other words, were going to smart bomb, cruise missile and HARM**** installations full of human beings who are going to die.

Maintaining a no fly zone means killing Libyans in the air thereafter. Are we only shooting down fighter planes? That's good for one or two humans per plane. What about attack helicopters? Same score. Troop-carrying helicopters? That's good for a dozen. Troop-carrying fixed wing planes? Now you're talking real numbers.

Patrolling a no fly zone means putting pilots (American pilots? British? French?) at real risk of death or capture every day. Engines fail. Ground troops get off lucky shots with shoulder-fired SAMs. Mr. Murphy is an ever-malevolent presence.

So "establishing a no fly zone" is "going to war," whatever else you call it.

Should we go to war with Libya? I'm not here to say yes or no. As any reader of this blog knows, I'm hardly a pacifist. There are things worth killing for, worth dying for. Maybe Libya is one of them.

But let's for goodness' sake be honest with ourselves about the choice we're making. Ya know?

And it puzzle me to learn
That tho' a man may be in doubt of what he know,
Very quickly he will fight...
He'll fight to prove that what he does not know is so!

"A Puzzlement," lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein.

** Yes, I know that's a paraphrase, but come on. I'm not PC -- but I'm also not Chris Rock.

*** Surface to air missiles. The Lybians have sophisticated air defense systems, including S300 missiles purchased during the post Soviet fire sale.

**** High-speed Anti-Radiation Missiles track the radar that SAMs use, riding down the signal to take out the SAM site.


  1. "There are things worth killing for, worth dying for. Maybe Lybia is one of them." Not sure - they don't supply a substantial portion of our oil, and while bad, what's happening there hardly qualifies as a genocide (IE - Rwanda or Balkan states) So outside a complelling national interest or a moral obligation to stop a genocide, I'm not sure it's worth it.

  2. A righty tweeter today "don't be fooled" saying that Obama didn't really want to go to war with Quadaffi, but Hillary made him do it! Geeze, who's a guy got to bomb to get some respect out here???

  3. I always liked Rumsfeld's formulation; "[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know.

    We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.

    But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know."

    Put it all together and you get this paradox: Only people in the know know about the unknown unknowns.

  4. If only Rumsfeld weren't an utter, unrepentant scoundrel with the blood of American servicemen and women on his hands, I might have quoted him in the main post.

    But in that he was certainly right.

  5. Ever see the documentary "Fog of War"

    It is excellent and relevant to America today