failed russian flatworm strategy

Even flatworms have demonstrated the ability to learn from experience. Flatworms, like mammals, have a centralized brain; they can be trained to remember a behavior and perform it on cue. They can also be trained to avoid behaviors.

The same apparently isn’t true of Russian Army field commanders.

Your basic flatworm–not clever, but capable of learning from experience.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about the Russian invasion of Ukraine is the staggering incompetence of their field commanders, who repeatedly fail to take even the most basic precautions to protect their troops. I mean, anybody who has spent any amount of time in military harness just assumes their commanders are fucking idiots who are casually trying to get them killed. The difference is that in the Russian Army, that appears to be true.

Behavioral psychologists back in the 1950s trained flatworms to avoid electric shocks. The Russian Army has failed to learn that lesson. In the weeks since they invaded Ukraine, the Russians have repeatedly left troops and vehicles in vulnerable, stationary positions. And the Ukrainian military has repeatedly shelled the shit out of them.

Last week, the Russians decided to take the town of Lysychansk, which meant they had to cross the Siverskyi Donets River. Crossing a river in a combat zone is a big deal. It’s a complex tactical situation for a couple of reasons. First and most obvious, the troops and vehicles crossing the river are terribly exposed. There’s no cover or concealment on a bridge. Second, you have a LOT of vehicles and troops concentrated in the same place, waiting to take their turn crossing the bridge. So they’re exposed, vulnerable and stationary. An army has to prepare to cross a river.

The Ukrainians knew the Russian Army needed to cross the Siverskyi Donets River. They sent a guy named Max–an engineer and an EOD (explosive ordinance disposal) officer–to scope out the situation. He took a recon unit along the river, found the best place to ford it, and left some recon troops in place to keep watch. They prepared to defend the river.

And hey, the Russians showed up as expected. The Ukrainians let them build a pontoon bridge. They let a few troops and combat vehicles to cross over. Then they shelled the shit out of the bridge and the troops and vehicles waiting to cross over. When the artillery subsided, the Ukrainian Air Force showed up and did some close quarters bombing. The Ukrainian recon units hunted down and killed the troops that had already crossed the river and had no way back.

A flatworm wouldn’t have made this mistake.

We don’t have any solid numbers, but it appears the Russians lost over 50 armored combat vehicles and anywhere from 1500 to 2000 troops–and that includes specialized combat engineering troops, which are really hard to replace. That’s effectively a couple of battalion tactical groups eliminated. It’s a staggering loss for the Russian Army at a time when they’re already getting their ass kicked.

This was clever work by the Ukrainians, but it was made possible by the incompetence of the Russians. They failed to do any reliable reconnaissance before the operation. They failed to have reliable real-time drone recon information. They failed to establish and provide any artillery protection for their troops. They failed to provide close air support. They failed in every possible way.

A flatworm can learn from experience.

As a supporter of Ukrainian independence, I’m glad to see Russia get bloodied. But as a military veteran, I hate seeing any troops get killed because of the rigid stupidity of their leaders. The Russian Army has demonstrated it can’t win a traditional, linear ground war, not even against a smaller nation.

The Russian Army is dumber than a flatworm.

UPDATE: It appears the Russian Army attempted to cross the Siverskyi Donets River three times. They failed in their first attempt as reported, so they made a second attempt AT THE SAME LOCATION. I’m not making that up. And hey bingo, they got the same result. Lots of destroyed vehicles, lots of dead troops. So, being the Russian Army, they decided to try cross the river a third time AT THE SAME LOCATION AGAIN. With the same result.

EDITORIAL FLATWORM NOTE: Okay, this has nothing to do with Russia or Ukraine, but there’s an exceedingly cool thing about flatworms and memory. Like a lot of other types of worms, flatworms can regenerate themselves. If you whack off a flatworm’s tail (and really, you shouldn’t, because what’s a flatworm ever done to you?), in a couple of weeks it’ll grow into an entirely new flatworm, complete with a shiny new centralized brain.

But that’s not the cool thing. The cool thing is that if the original flatworm had been taught to run (well, not run–it’s a flatworm, after all) a maze, the newly regenerated flatworm would remember how to run the maze too. Which suggests memory isn’t limited to the centralized brain. Memory MAY be somehow stored in other cells. How cool is that?

ukraine, let my memory of you be like a blade in my soul

Sometimes fiction and reality collide in unexpected and horrifying ways. A couple of days ago, the war in Ukraine crashed into a fantasy novel written in 1990.

Years ago I had a friend who kept encouraging me to read fantasy fiction. I’d read Tolkien, of course, but I was generally uninterested in the genre. She gave me a novel by a writer with the unlikely name of Guy Gavriel Kay. If a friend gives you something to read, the laws of friendship require you to at least try to read it. So I dutifully read the prologue (I’m also generally suspicious of prologues), then put the novel on a shelf with other novels I’d probably never finish.

The prologue was beautifully written, although the prose was more elegant than the fiction I was accustomed to reading. The characters were engaging and the situation they were facing was powerful. It was largely a nighttime conversation between two men–a prince leading an army facing certain destruction in the morning and a sculptor/friend who was a volunteer in that army. They both acknowledged they were probably going to die in a few hours and wondered if the war was a cause worth dying. This is part of their conversation.

“Oh, our pride. Our terrible pride. Will they remember that most about us, do you think, after we are gone?”
“Perhaps. But they will remember. The one thing we know with certainty is that they will remember us…. We will leave a name.”

Very powerful, emotional, dramatic stuff, right there. My problem was the heroic speech. I’ve done my time in military harness. So did both of my brothers. So did my father and most of my uncles. I’ve been around military men all my life. That’s not how they talk, especially when it comes to really important stuff, like killing and dying. Combined with my basic dislike of the genre, it was enough for me to stop reading.

Now, you may be saying, “But Greg, old sock, it’s fiction…and fantasy fiction at that. Give the writer some slack.” And you’d be right (also, stop calling me ‘old sock’). I’d made a mistake by putting that novel on the shelf. A few years later, another friend–also a fan of fantasy fiction–handed me another novel, also by Guy Gavriel Kay (it’s not a name you’re likely to forget). Again, the laws of friendship required me to try it. The Lions of Al-Rassan. It was amazing and has become one of my favorite novels. I was so taken by it that I went back to the shelves and pulled out the novel I’d abandoned before.

Tigana. That’s the title. It’s also the name of the independent province in which the two men in the prologue lived. The story takes place after the battle referred to in the prologue. Here’s a thing Kay does extraordinarily well–he doesn’t just inform the reader, “Yeah, these guys? They live in Tigana.” Instead he quietly, slowly, subtly adds layers of history, art, tradition, music, cuisine–layers of a unique, believable culture–so that Tigana isn’t just a place on a map. It becomes an indelible aspect of a character’s identity.

This is critically important to the story, because the battle referred to in the prologue destroys all that. The invading sorcerer/king was so enraged by the Tiganan resistance against his army and so grief-stricken by the death of his son (killed in the war) that he wasn’t content with merely conquering and ruling Tigana. He had his army kill women and children, he burned their fields and razed their villages, he flattened their cities. Not content with the physical destruction of Tigana, he eradicated their culture–tore down their statues, destroyed their art. He re-named the capitol city after his dead son. He renamed the province Lower Corte (Corte being the province’s traditional enemy; he wanted to insure the survivors understood they were lesser than their enemies). He killed almost an entire generation of people, and then (because this is the sort of thing sorcerer/kings do) he cast a magic spell that stripped the true name Tigana from the memory of every person NOT born in the province. Nobody else could even hear the name if it was spoken. This meant the few remaining Tiganans couldn’t even discuss with others what had happened to their land and culture. It was as if the kingdom of Tigana had never existed.

This is essentially what Putin and Russia planned for Ukraine.

A few days ago the Russian state-owned news agency RIA Novosti published an article called What Should Russia Do With Ukraine? (You can read a translation of the article here.) It’s grounded on the premise that most of the population of Ukraine are Banderite Nazis or Nazi sympathizers. Banderite refers to Stephan Bandera, a Ukrainian nationalist, Nazi collaborator, and anti-Communist leader who was assassinated by Soviet agents in 1959. The article suggests that Ukrainians have so internalized Nazism that they’re not even aware they’re Nazis. It’s part of their culture, their identity.

That’s complete bullshit, of course, but for Russia/Putin it’s necessary bullshit to justify the plan for Ukraine. When the author of this article says ‘Nazi’ he means ‘Ukrainian’. The article says Nazis must be killed.

Those Nazis who took up arms must be destroyed on the battlefield, as many of them as possible. No significant distinction should be made between the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the so-called “nationalist battalions,”

This also applies to ordinary citizens who support the government of Ukraine. Whatever happens to them during the ‘military special operation by the Russian Federation’ is a just punishment for that support.

They supported the Nazi authorities and pandered to them. A just punishment for this part of the population can only be possible through bearing the inevitable hardships of a just war against the Nazi system…. The Banderite elites must be eliminated; their re-education is impossible.

The survivors of the ‘war against the Nazi system’ will be re-educated and forced to engage in the manual labor of rebuilding the territory.

The further denazification of this bulk of the population will take the form of re-education through ideological repressions (suppression) of Nazi paradigms and a harsh censorship not only in the political sphere but also in the spheres of culture and education…. making the names of accomplices of the Nazi regime public, involving them in forced labor to restore the destroyed infrastructure as punishment for Nazi activities

The article acknowledges that wiping out Ukrainian culture would be a generation-long process.

The period of denazification can take no less than one generation that has to be born, brought up and mature under the conditions of denazification.

Obviously, this includes eliminating the very name of Ukraine.

[T]he name “Ukraine” cannot be kept as a title of any fully denazified state entity on the territory liberated from the Nazi regime…. Denazification will inevitably include de-ukrainization…. history has proved it impossible for Ukraine to exist as a nation-state, and any attempts to “build” such a nation-state naturally lead to Nazism. Ukrainism is an artificial anti-Russian construct that has no civilizational substance of its own.

In the novel, a group of rebel Tiganan conspirators disguise themselves as traveling musicians and merchants and plot to assassinate the sorcerer/king and restore the ability of the people to remember the province of Tigana. One of the characters repeats a sort of prayer: Tigana, let my memory of you be like a blade in my soul. The memory of lost beauty is painful, but pain keeps the memory of that beauty alive.

In the novel, the erasure of Tigana is done through brute force reinforced by magic. Putin doesn’t have any real magic; all he has is brutality and the weak magic of propaganda, like this article. It’s difficult to say how effective the propaganda is with the Russian populace. There are reports that around 70% of Russian people support Putin’s war. Those reports may also be propaganda. Or they may accurately reflect the opinions of people whose only source of information is purposely biased. (Yes, I’m looking at FOX News.)

In the novel, only those born in what was once Tigana can hear the name spoken. Only they can keep the idea of Tigana alive. In real life, all of us can speak about Ukraine, can retain the memory of Ukraine’s once-beautiful cities, can honor the ordinary people of Ukraine who’ve resisted Russia, can weep for those who’ve been tortured and killed, can celebrate the Ukrainian identity and keep it alive.

Ukraine, let my memory of you be like a blade in my soul.

Bucha

We knew this was going to happen. We knew it was happening. It happens in every war. Always has, always will. Where there is war, there will be war crimes committed against civilians. It’s usually impulsive; troops who’ve been under prolonged stress and ongoing fear sometimes strike out in rage and frustration, in a desire for revenge against the situation they’re in.

But what’s taking place in Ukraine is war crime as a matter of policy. It’s war crime as a strategy. The indiscriminate shelling of civilian apartment buildings, of shelters, of hospitals has been deliberate and intentional. It’s been a conscious, calculated attempt to terrorize the populace and the government of Ukraine and sap their will to resist.

What’s happened in Bucha is different. The shelling and bombing, as horrific as it’s been, was remote, impersonal. It was done at a distance, by troops who would never witness the destruction they were causing. You drop a bomb, you fire an artillery shell, and whatever happens will happen somewhere else to people whose bodies you’ll never see.

In Bucha it was personal. Individual civilians deliberately murdered by individual Russians. Civilians with their hands tied behind their backs, executed in the street. Random civilians riding their bikes, murdered for no reason other than a desire to kill somebody. Men and women shot while sitting in their cars. At least 40 bodies of civilians were scattered along the street. Reports of nearly 300 buried–or partially buried–in two mass graves.

Bucha is was just a small quiet town. A little more than 35,000 people. There’s a nice little municipal park and an international children’s center. Or at least there used to be–now, who knows? The town began as a railway stop back in the 1890s. The station house is still the town’s main landmark. Assuming it’s still there.

Bucha Railway Station

Maybe that railroad was the reason Bucha was a military objective. Russia is accustomed to moving troops and materiel by rail, and Bucha is on the doorstep of Kyiv. I don’t know.

What I know is this: Russia has turned Bucha into a graveyard. You may not want to look at this video of Ukrainian troops arriving in Bucha. You may not want to look at it, but you should. It’s awful, it’s gut-wrenching, but it’s important that the world–that YOU–see what Russia under Putin has done. What Russia is continuing to do in other towns and cities in Ukraine, because this isn’t going to stop until the Russian invasion has stopped.

The video refers to Russian troops as ‘animals’. It would be easy to dismiss the men who did this as less than human. But by doing that, we also diminish their responsibility. The horrifying truth is that the people who did this are almost certainly ordinary young men who’ve been traumatized by their situation. This is what war does; what it’s always done. It ruins everything.

Michael Herr, an Esquire magazine reporter who covered the war in Vietnam, wrote this about that war:

There was such a dense concentration of energy there, American and essentially adolescent, if that energy could have been channeled into anything more than noise, waste and pain it would have lighted up Indochina for a thousand years.

That’s true of any war in any place at any time. Had the energy, the money, the materiel, the humanity pissed away in this single month been applied to “anything more than noise, waste, and pain” Ukraine would be a garden. Bucha would still be a charming town.

Bucha

Now it’s a hellscape, littered with burnt out vehicles, destroyed buildings, the dead scattered like trash. And why?

Putin.

We can literally lay the responsibility of all this on one man. Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. Fuck him. Fuck him in the neck. Fuck anybody who praises him. Fuck anybody who offers an excuse for him. Putin, may he rot in hell.

dead generals

Yesterday I wrote that I didn’t need to write about the war in Ukraine all the time. So this morning, what am I doing? Right; writing about the war in Ukraine. Specifically, all the dead generals. The Russian Army has lost five (and possibly a sixth, though that’s unconfirmed at the moment) generals in the last 25 days. They’ve lost three regimental commanders in the last 24 hours. When I say ‘lost’ I don’t mean they became confused and wandered off; I mean they were killed in combat.

Generals and regimental commanders (in the US military, RCOs are usually full colonels, the rank just below general) hardly ever get killed. They might die of a heart attack or liver disease or something, but they just don’t get killed in combat. They’re rarely close enough to the fighting to be at risk.

You may be asking, “Greg, old sock, why would these Russian generals and RCOs be so close to the fighting?” It’s a valid question (and c’mon, stop calling me ‘old sock’). The answer is, they’ve got to be close to the fighting because failures in their electronic communications equipment force the generals to be there in person to give orders.

You may be asking, “Greg, old…uh, these ‘failures in electronic communication equipment’ of which you speak…what are they?” Another good question, and the answer is both tragic an hilarious. The Russian Army developed a sophisticated, highly secure, cryptophone system called Era. It was supposed to allow secure communication in almost any situation–so long as there is at least 3G cellular telephony available.

What did the Russian Army do at the beginning of their invasion? They destroyed all the cell phone towers. So they basically knee-capped their sophisticated Era cryptophones; they just won’t work. That means the Russians have been reduced to using ordinary cellphones with sim cards to communicate with each other, and those calls are easily intercepted by Ukrainians. Now the generals and RCOs have to get close enough to the fighting to issue strategic orders. Which means they’re close enough to get killed.

Generals and RCOs getting killed plays hell with morale–both the morale of the troops, who hate not knowing who’s in charge, and the morale of the remaining generals and RCOs who now have to take their place close to the fighting.

To make matters worse for the Russian Army (and yeah, we want to make things worse for them), Russia accidentally acknowledged that almost 10,000 Russians have been killed in action, and more than 16,000 wounded. The WIA number is undoubtedly low. As a general rule of thumb, you can assume two to three times as many combat wounded as combat killed–so the number of WIA is probably closer to 20-30,000.

Here’s another thing to take into consideration: in combat, wounding the enemy is often more effective than killing them. A dead soldier can’t be helped, so troops can ignore them and keep fighting. A wounded soldier, on the other hand, is screaming (which has to be distracting) and requires aid, which means other troops have to stop and treat them and carry them off the battlefield–which further reduces the size of the fighting force.

Again, these casualty numbers are in just over three weeks of fighting. The US, in the 20 years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, had 7,000 KIA.

In an earlier post, I talked about the Russian Army running out of trucks. They’re also running out of generals and combat troops. They should load the remaining troops into the remaining trucks and get the fuck out of Ukraine.

Oh, and fuck Putin in the neck.

attrition

Every morning this week I’ve sat here at the keyboard and started to write a post about the situation in Ukraine. Every single morning I’ve put a couple hundred words in a row, and every morning I’ve deleted them all.

I mean, what is there to say? Well, obviously there’s a LOT to say–the military situation, the refugee situation, the NATO situation, the war crimes situation, and on and on and on. But the internet is awash in experts opining and analyzing all that. What is there for ME to say? Is there anything I can contribute that’s meaningful?

Not much. I can express opinions, but my opinions about Ukraine aren’t very much different from most folks. And as for those folks whose opinions support Russia and Putin–what is there to say to or about them? Not much, other than ‘Russian warship, go fuck yourself’.

The problem (for me) is that it’s hard to write about anything else at the moment. Everything else seems trivial. Art? Clarence Thomas in the hospital? Republican hypocrisy? Pickleball? The January 6th prosecutions? The arrival of Spring and getting back on the bike? Voter suppression? The latest research on crows? Today’s hearing on the nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court? There are lots of things that occupy my mind and my time besides Ukraine. It’s just that none of them seem as important. None of them ARE as important.

What makes this all the more awful is that the war in Ukraine has become something of a stalemate. It’s turning into a war of attrition–the ugliest, cruelest, and most brutal form of war. A war of attrition isn’t about territorial control; it’s about imposing as much suffering as possible in every way possible in order to force the enemy to give up. It’s about wearing away at the very foundations of a sustainable life–food and shelter. It’s about reducing towns and cities to uninhabitable rubble.

But here’s the truly awful thing: I suspect–I fear–the American public will begin to treat the war of attrition in the same way they’ve treated the global pandemic. They’ll get bored with it. It’ll be normalized, in the same way they’ve come to accept a thousand deaths a week from Covid as normal. In the same way they’ve come to accept extreme weather disasters as normal. Instead of being tortured from a death by a thousand cuts, those cuts will be seen as routine. (By the way, if you google ‘death by a thousand cuts’ most of the results will refer to a song by Taylor Swift rather than lingchi, the ancient Chinese method of torture and execution–how’s that for normalization?)

NOTHING ABOUT THE WAR IN UKRAINE IS NORMAL.

So, what are we to do? What am I to do? Carry on as usual with this blog? I guess the only answer is to try to find some sort of balance. Write about the stuff that interests me, even if some of that stuff is trivial. But also keep talking about the suffering of the people of Ukraine, and about the deliberate cruelty of Putin, and about the policies of nations that support–or fail to support–Ukraine.

That’s what I’ve decided to do. But it feels a little like attrition.

some semi-related thoughts on Ukraine

First off, this is just fucking nuts. I think we can all agree on that. I mean Russia (and when I say ‘Russia’ I mean that motherfucker Vlad Putin) is conducting what is essentially a war of conquest–the type of war that pretty much disappeared by the beginning of the 20th century. Russia is basically saying “Ukraine has shit we want, they’re not going to give it to us, so we’re going to take it.” It’s a large scale gangster war.

Nations (and gangsters and racist police officers) could get by with that shit back in the day before ubiquitous online real-time videography. Not anymore. Now there’s always somebody with a camera and an internet connection to record and distribute the violence. And not just the violence, but the ugly result of the violence. And not just the violence and the ugly result, but also the failures–those times when the violence rebounds against the violent.

A dead Russian soldier smells as bad as a dead Ukrainian civilian

Ukrainians are using tech to undermine Russia’s superiority of numbers. They’re using Google Maps traffic reports to identify streets where Russian military convoys are disrupting traffic–and a convoy that’s moving slowly is a target. Ordinary people are using cell phones to send and receive military intelligence in real time, to coordinate not just attack plans but also places for non-combatants to shelter. They’re using social media to support and encourage each other, to gain international support, and to undermine the morale of Russian troops and the Russian population.

They’re making videos of ordinary Ukrainians confronting and threatening Russian troops. The woman who offered Russians sunflower seeds to carry in their pockets so flowers will grow from their dead bodies. The guy who said they’d play football with the heads of Russian soldiers. They’re making videos of Russian troops surrendering, of Russians being ambushed and killed–videos of dead Russians. It’s brutal and ugly, to be sure. But Russian soldiers will see it on social media. The parents of Russian soldiers will see it back home. They’ll see the bodies of their sons, mangled and burnt. And some of those parents will take to the streets to protest the war. Anything that discourages the aggressor is probably worth it.

Another weird and awful benefit of modern tech. All those combat video games have taught young Ukrainian how to fight an urban war. They know how to create and use choke points, they know the benefits of sniping (an ounce of sniper is worth a pound of suppressing fire), they know the difference between cover and concealment and how to use them, they know not to stay in one place, they know the vulnerable points of tanks and armored vehicles. They’ve used those skills in games, and while there’s a massive difference between knowing stuff in a game and implementing it in real life, the knowledge is there and it’s useful. It’s horrible that young Ukrainians need that knowledge, but it’s good that they have it. This is an urban war in which Playstation and Xbox have been training tools.

Nobody really wins when civilians have to take up arms

The thing is, in video games death is just a delay. In video games, you’ve always got a fair chance of winning. Russian troops may not be very well trained, they may be poorly equipped, they may have serious logistical issues regarding supplies (like food, fuel, ammunition), they may have morale issues, they may not be a very effective fighting force, but there’s a lot of them. Numbers matter. And no matter how dedicated and clever and determined the people of Ukraine are, the odds are against them.

There’s a great deal of bold talk about how Putin has already lost–and there’s a lot of truth there. Putin has fucked Russia’s economy for years, he’s fucked the reputation of Russia. But Russia still has the power to seize Ukraine. They have the power to install a puppet regime. What they don’t have is the power to peacefully occupy Ukraine. So yeah, in that sense, Putin and Russia have already lost. But that doesn’t mean Ukraine will win. Or even survive as anything other than an underground resistance movement.

I do think, though, that this could be one of those inflection points people keep talking about. I think this invasion could teach the democratic world that we can no longer sing the praises of democracy and claim to value human rights AND continue to conduct business as usual with dictators and tyrants. Tolerating authoritarian regimes because there’s something in it for us–that’s just encouraging those regimes to flourish. We can’t continue to treat economics and human rights as separate, unrelated issues.

Democracy may be an unwieldy and awkward and inefficient system of governance, but it’s infinitely preferable to an efficient dictatorship. The people of Ukraine understand that.