November 22, 2003

Hey, Sarge, Why Are They Shooting At Us with American Guns?

Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon is really two novels. One of them is about World War II, code-breaking and computation, and is superb. The other is about the perennial geek fantasy of pirate off-shore data-havens and untraceable electronic money, and is really not very good at all. (People have tried to explain to me why the scene with the breakfast cereal is supposed to be funny; I remain unamused.) One of the things which contributes to the badness of the contemporary story is that various characters expound irritatingly stupid theories about economics, finance, politics, et cetera, ideas so dumb that they would embarrass the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. Worse, they are, pretty obviously, acting as Stephenson's mouth-pieces, and he should know better.

One of the more astounding of these ideas is that put forward by one of the engineers of the data-haven. He is doing this, he explains, because as an Orthodox Jew, he wants to ensure that there will never be a recurrence of the Holocaust, that persecuted minorities will never again be defenseless. Therefore, the data haven will distribute a manual on low-tech guerrilla warfare, improvised weaponry and explosives, sabotage, etc., and the electronic money will provide a way for resistance groups to obtain more serious military materiel. (Stephenson tossed in some cutesy acronyms, which I'm insufficiently motivated to look up in my copy of the book.) To put it mildly, this does not sound like a very effective way for unpopular groups to defend themselves against a functioning modern state with a decently-organized army, but it does sound like a recipe for promoting third world civil wars, terrorism, Marines getting sent home in body bags, and, indeed, genocide.

This comes to mind because I've just finished reading Christopher Hayes's piece on the international small arms trade in The American Prospect. To the extent that we plan on having American troops in a lot of countries for a long time, we have a serious incentive to see that those troops are not being shot at with American (or Belgian or Czech or...) advanced automatic weapons, but rather something from the mid-nineteenth century, if not the early Iron Age. The inhabitants of those countries, too, would be much better off if their countrymen did not find it very easy to buy militarily-useful weapons. Indeed, people who are serious about national security have been sounding alarms about this worsening problem for at least a decade. Readers will not be surprised to learn that the current administration, far from trying to take steps to curb the international trade in small arms, is in fact opposed to what small practical steps are actually on the agenda, though at least it has the grace to say it is concerned. For basic economic reasons (see that last link), it's an issue which will require concerted international action, though the major cost involved is summoning the will-power to act.

The US government also, of course, opposes international treaties banning landmines, but it has an at-least-semi-plausible strategic rationale for doing so, which is that a thick strip of dirt filled with landmines and running across the breadth of the Korean Penninsula is the only thing standing between Kim Jong-il and Seoul. I am not competent to evaluate this claim, though I hope the people making it realize the gravity of the issue. It is very, very hard to see any way in which the US benefits from allowing the market in the weapons of guerrilla warfare to continue unchecked, however. But I've already ranted at length this week about this administration's incorrigible irresponsibility when it comes to national security.

Finally, it is of a piece with the National Rifle Association's often-repeated attitude towards officers of the American government that it is trying to block any attempt to curb the small arms trade. Why does the right hate our soldiers so? (Was that unfair and inflammatory? Good.)

The Continuing Crisis The Running-Dogs of Reaction

Posted by crshalizi at November 22, 2003 02:04 | permanent link

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