May 15, 2022 – Containerization (Part 1) – Arsenal For Democracy Ep. 426

Originally seen as a marginal innovation on existing shipping, containerization ended up revolutionizing the global economy and destroying many local economies. This resulted directly from (and enabled) the US war in Vietnam. (Bill and Rachel.)

Links and notes for ep. 426 (PDF):

Theme music by Stunt Bird.

Viet Nam: All that might have been

Idle speculations on lost opportunities in US-Vietnam relations.


I suspect, from all that I’ve read over the years (particularly books like “The Last Valley”), that Vietnam is and likely always was probably the least communist of all the “communist countries,” past and present. (Today it certainly isn’t. Even China doesn’t hold a candle to the mass capitalism of modern Vietnam.)

Communism for Vietnam was, in essence, a successful political and material organizing mechanism for national liberation and an ideology for poverty reduction and social modernization. If you look at the World Bank’s inaugural (1977) report on the unified Vietnam, it’s clear that the Communist Party began dismantling communism — particularly the necessary wartime central planning — and began reorganizing the entire economy of both halves of the country within about a year of the war’s end. There’s also a lot of emphasis in the United States – because of who we backed in the war and our many South Vietnam military and political refugees – about the postwar reprisals, but there’s far less acknowledgment of how fast the postwar Vietnamese government reintegrated and reconstructed southern Vietnam’s economy after the war. And all that transformation was happening in 1975 and 1976, before even the sweeping liberalizations of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Politically and governmentally, communism was a good model for supervising the war effort in Vietnam’s wars of independence and unification from 1945-1975. It proved itself in battle for decades. Once they won, it went away because its utility was past.

For Vietnam, even economically, communism was never an interim state before utopian socialism. It was an interim state before broad-based, social, and artisanal capitalism – a capitalism that cares about the little people and gives them a real shot in life.

It was the dictatorship for the proletariat to get the West out of Vietnam and itself out of extreme poverty. Read more

Saigon’s Fall at Forty

A British journalist recounts and reflects upon his experiences in Saigon at the end — May 30, 1975 — and after:

Through all the years of conflict, war had not often touched Saigon, with the exceptions of the occasional rocket attack, some restaurant bombings and the dramatic but limited incursion into the city – indeed, into the grounds of the US embassy itself – during the Tet offensive in 1968. Saigon shuddered, but felt it had escaped the worst. And in fact, as the liberation music echoed down the streets, it had just escaped again. Although few knew it, the North Vietnamese had been prepared to batter the city with heavy artillery and to fight their way in, block by block, if the defence they met had been stronger. Had the last South Vietnamese president, General Duong Van Minh, not ordered the army to lay down its arms, Saigon would have fared very badly indeed. Vietnamese joked that the communists took Saigon “without breaking a light bulb”. That was not true either: casualties were heavy on both sides, but the fighting stopped just short of the city limits. In the centre, there was potentially more to fear from lawlessness and looters.

And here’s an excerpt from a report he filed in 1975 in the final hours:

The power that succeeded the French, the United States, has now been reduced to impotence after its vast expenditure of $150,000 millions [i.e. $150 billion] and 50,000 American lives.

Helicopters settle on top of its fort-like Embassy to take out remaining staff, and the water sprinklers that have whirled on the plush lawns throughout the dry season are finally silent.

The diplomats inside have spent the last week evacuating American and Vietnamese – tidying up after 20 years of American policy in Indo-China. “I feel like someone with a dustpan and broom,” one said, “but at least we’re trying to fulfil our last obligations.”

Whatever happens now, an era is finally over. Journalists, like the Vietnamese themselves, have been simply overwhelmed by the magnitude of what is happening, an event of the utmost significance both for Vietnam and the world. Attempts to encompass it inevitably fail. The only thing to do now is to wait.


Ongoing tolls of past US air campaigns: Laos

As we approach another American bombardment, expanding from Iraq into Syria — the latest in a history spanning more than two centuries — it’s important to remember and reflect upon the continuing casualties of past cross-border bombardments by United States forces.

As the Laotian Civil War (1953-1975) spiraled out of control by the late 1960s and came to involve everyone in the region and the United States, the government and military of Laos attempted to drop out of involvement in the Vietnam War and wider Indochina struggle. But the North Vietnamese Army, opposed by the United States, continued to maintain a presence there and was using the country as a supply line to communist rebels in South Vietnam.

In response, from about 1969 to 1973, the United States military dropped 260 million cluster bomblets on the country a little over forty years ago. As many as 80 million of these munitions remain unexploded and potentially live, across the Laotian countryside, which is one reason why Laos has lagged so far behind the region in economic development. (It’s hard to expand or upgrade farms, let alone build infrastructure and communities when there are armed bombs everywhere, going off unexpectedly all the time). 20,000 people have been killed or injured in Laos by unexploded cluster bomblets since the end of the cluster bombing campaign in the early 1970s. Al-Jazeera recently reported on some of the local teams trying to clear areas of bombs.

Caption: Unexploded cluster sub-munition, probably a BLU-26 type. Plain of Jars, Laos. | Credit: Seabifar - Wikimedia

Caption: Unexploded cluster sub-munition, probably a BLU-26 type. Plain of Jars, Laos. | Credit: Seabifar – Wikimedia

Replacing the War Powers Act

Senators Tim Kaine (D-VA) and John McCain (R-AZ) want to get rid of the War Powers Act — slogan: “Consistently Ignored by Presidents Since 1973!” — and replace it with something that might actually work and better reflect realities of U.S. military operations today. Here’s the Wikipedia summary of the existing law, which officially is called the “War Powers Resolution of 1973“:

The War Powers Resolution requires the President to notify Congress within 48 hours of committing armed forces to military action and forbids armed forces from remaining for more than 60 days, with a further 30 day withdrawal period, without an authorization of the use of military force or a declaration of war. The resolution was passed by two-thirds of Congress, overriding a presidential veto.

The failed presidential veto was by Richard Nixon, the year before his resignation, but Congress was responding to significant public outrage about the secret, unauthorized bombings in Cambodia during the Vietnam War — which, while authorized by Congress, had also never been declared. (In fact, the last formal Declaration of War was part of World War II.)

Although it’s no surprise that Nixon rejected the legitimacy of the law — given his unusually heightened aversion to the legitimacy of applying any law to the U.S. Presidency — every president since then (except for possibly one incident in 1975 under President Ford, who had fairly recently been elevated directly from and by the legislative branch to the White House via the resignations of Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon) has also officially refused to acknowledge its constitutionality as a general principle.

Even so, to be on the safe side, presidents have generally unofficially adhered to it by providing the proper notice to Congress more or less as a “courtesy” without acknowledging the resolution as the reason. A few instances are disputed as to whether this notice was provided. Congress has never been able to successfully enforce the resolution or end any conflicts with it, and the Supreme Court won’t get into the middle of that inter-branch fight.

Tim Kaine essentially feels this situation is absurd, as well as out of date, and he wants a compromise that preserves the ability of the executive to act quickly when necessary but also preserves the rights of Congress to have a say and maintain accountability. From the ThinkProgress article (linked above):

Rather than only having to notify Congress after launching military action, Kaine and McCain want the force presidents to consult with legislators prior to sending U.S. soldiers, sailors, and pilots into harm’s way.

Under current law, the president has to notify Congress whenever placing forces in areas where “imminent” hostilities are likely, and is given a sixty-day window to conduct the operation absent Congressional approval and another thirty-days allotted towards withdrawal. The new proposal would reduce that autonomy, requiring the Executive Branch to “consult with Congress before ordering deployment into a ‘significant armed conflict,’ or, combat operations lasting, or expected to last, more than seven days.”

That provision would exclude humanitarian missions and covert operations, and the initial consultation could be deferred in time of emergency, but must take place within three days after. The legislation would also raise a new joint committee composed of the heads of the Armed Services, Foreign Relations, Intelligence, and Appropriations in both Houses of Congress “to ensure there is a timely exchange of views between the legislative and executive branches, not just notification by the executive.”

Finally, the law, if passed and signed, would require a vote in Congress in support of or against any military operation within 30 days.

Now is a relatively good time to try to introduce such a revision, not too long after an angry Congress (and a well-timed revolt in the UK parliament) managed to talk down the Obama Administration from launching a major air campaign in Syria, proving that Congress still had at least a shred of influence on U.S. military actions after more than two decades of rubber-stamping.

But, in 2008, the Obama Campaign more or less signaled their opposition to a similar proposal. While unfortunate, this is not a huge surprise. Most presidents (or presidential hopefuls) reject out of hand any legal limitations on their powers as “commander-in-chief,” even despite the Constitution’s specific and intentional provision reserving the power to declare wars to Congress (a power typically previously wielded only by the monarch heads of state in the Europe of the day against which the Framers were comparing their system). President Obama doesn’t want to limit his own power (or that of his successors) to act decisively and quickly in the face of the “unknown unknowns,” as former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously called them.

Game-changer? On the Afghan minerals report

Recently, the New York Times dropped a bombshell article that began thus:

The United States has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself, according to senior American government officials.

The previously unknown deposits — including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium — are so big and include so many minerals that are essential to modern industry that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world, the United States officials believe.

An internal Pentagon memo, for example, states that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and BlackBerrys.

The huge caveat in the story is that Afghanistan has no heavy mining industry right now and probably wouldn’t be able to extract and process these resources in a cost-effective manner for at least a decade. Almost inarguably, this story is a game-changer in Afghanistan. The overarching question, is how will it actually change the “game,” and whether for good or ill.

For more on the growing economic importance of lithium carbonate, read this post that was co-incidentally published earlier the same time the article came out.

Is the report accurate and presented fairly (and does that matter)?

First things first. Is this report even accurate or is it overblown American military propaganda being presented as news? Probably closer to the latter, despite the prestige of the Times journalist who reported the story (who resisted allegations he’d been played). Brooklynbad, who had written the post on lithium I linked above, examined what a bunch of other bloggers and analysts were saying:

Marc Armbinder at The Atlantic:

The way in which the story was presented — with on-the-record quotations from the Commander in Chief of CENTCOM, no less — and the weird promotion of a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense to Undersecretary of Defense suggest a broad and deliberate information operation designed to influence public opinion on the course of the war.

As was pointed out on the front page yesterday, the idea that there was vast mineral wealth in Afghanistan was known by the government for years. The article was presented, however, as if the United States struck “gold in them thar hills.” Kate Drummond at Wired:

But the military (and observers of the military) have known about Afghanistan’s mineral riches for years. The U.S. Geological Survey and the Navy concluded in a 2007 report that “Afghanistan has significant amounts of undiscovered nonfuel mineral resources,” including ”large quantities of accessible iron and copper [and] abundant deposits of colored stones and gemstones, including emerald, ruby [and] sapphire.”

Not to mention that the $1 trillion figure is — at best — a guesstimate. None of the earlier U.S military reports on Afghan’s mineral riches cite that amount.

Keep in mind that the article in question cites the proverbial “internal Pentagon memo” skillfully obtained, apparently. Generals and civilian officials from the Pentagon are willing to be quoted about the memo, with Petraeus saying, “There is stunning potential here.”

Ambinder’s piece, quoted briefly in that post, is probably worth reading in full to see why this is, as he puts it, an accurate story but not new information in any way that really changes the situation. However, he is making the point that this article was possibly being set up by the Pentagon and possibly the Obama Administration as part of a public opinion/information campaign.

Brooklynbad added the next day after reading the journalist’s defense of his article:

So, in summary, a Pentagon official sends a team of CIA guys to Afghanistan to come up with a valuation of the country’s wealth. They come back with $900 billion. A member of the team contacts a New York Times reporter to “tell him what they were finding.” Apparently, they thought the reporter was extremely interested in Afghan geology, although he has no history of such writing. Next, the reporter interviews all the people who contacted him. [And then writes the article saying this could “fundamentally alter … the Afghan war itself” …] Access at work. Why would any pajama-wearing blogger question that?

But, although the facts are theoretically believed to be accurate, if presented in a very misleading/propagandistic manner… that may not be relevant. In politics, war, and economics, perception is often what matters most. This article, if part of a larger information campaign and media blitz, does matter, even if it’s spin, because it affects perceptions of reality here and abroad — at least in the short-term, until people decide again that it’s probably unrealistic to expect much to come of these resources.

This is a powerful “news” story that shapes the narrative and even the facts on the ground. With that in mind, I’ve finally got around to analyzing what it means in this post. I had a brief discussion with a reader from Pakistan who generally shared my deeply pessimistic view of the news.

How does it affect Afghanistan?

Afghanistan doesn’t just lack a strong mining ministry, it lacks a strong anything in the central government. It government is a kleptocracy that is unable to extend its control outside the capital and a couple of regions and has unclear loyalties at this point (at best). Semi-stable regions with barely-functioning governments and significant natural resources are a magnet for transnational corporations that can afford to provide security for their operations. From the United States and Europe, that’s usually in the form of private military contractors as seen in South America and sub-Saharan Africa, but if China becomes interested it would probably copy its Sudan model and bring in People’s Liberation Army troops to protect its state-owned extraction operations. There’s going to be an incentive from profiteers to keep Afghanistan only somewhat stable — safe enough to operate with outside security, but not stable enough to collect revenues. The areas these resources were “discovered” is primarily in what is now Taliban-held zones.

For the Taliban, this is potentially great news. If they are willing to partner with outside companies/states, they could cut deals to take some of the profits in exchange for restraining local instability while continuing its war against the central government. Right now, they have basically been doing this for opium crops in many areas, taking what they had once banned and making it a very profitable cash crop to finance their operations. Clearly, moral qualms got thrown out the window at some point, since international money streams talk. If they think they could exploit this, whether or not they succeed, they will do their best to try. Even if they fail, it will increase national violence in the medium-term, if they try to seize and exploit the deposits.

(Added @ 10:31 PM) Afghanistan’s government certainly can’t develop this any time soon:

Moreover, before we get too excited about lithium and rare-earth metals and all that, Afghanistan could probably use some help with a much simpler resource: cement.

According to an article in the journal Industrial Minerals, “Afghanistan has the lowest cement production in the world at 2kg per capita; in neighbouring Pakistan it is 92kg per capita and in the UK it is 200kg per capita.” Afghanistan’s cement plants were built by a Czech company in the 1950s, and nobody’s invested in them since the 1970s. Most of Afghanistan’s cement is imported today, mainly from Pakistan and Iran. Apparently the mining ministry has been working to set up four new plants, but they are only expected to meet about half the country’s cement needs.

Why do I mention this? One of the smartest uses of development resources is also one of the simplest: building concrete floors. Last year, a team of Berkeley researchers found that “replacing dirt floors with cement appears to be at least as effective for health as nutritional supplements and as helpful for brain development as early childhood development programs.” And guess what concrete’s made of? Hint: it’s not lithium.


So, for the average Afghan civilian, this is just more bad news, not a much-needed development. As my reader put it, “this is just laying out the welcome mat” both for further Western presence and for a regional metals-mineral rush, as well as for ethnic clashes among the different Afghan (and Pakistani) populations of the various areas where these deposits are located. An alternative scenario from the Taliban grab presented above would be for the various minority ethnicities to fight over little pockets of metals and minerals near their traditional fiefdoms.

How does it affect the general region?

For Pakistan, this probably translates to more conflict and upheaval as well. There are a number of scenarios that would pretty much result in that outcome. India, which has an interest in acquiring lithium for batteries and other modern technological production, has tried to develop Afghanistan into a part of its sphere of influence for years to harass Pakistan and divide Pakistan’s military so as to prepare for an attack from both directions — or so the hardliner/conspiracy theorists in Pakistan claim. India could potentially try to get in on this. China might as well, given its investments in copper mining in Afghanistan, but it might be less interested than the United States expects.

Pakistan’s intelligence services has had close ties to the Afghan Taliban since they created them as a counterbalance to foreign influences there. It seems likely that Pakistani intelligence operatives would rush to take advantage of the situation if the Taliban makes a bid for control of the mineral deposits. In any case, a less stable Afghanistan and a longer war (if this delays an American exit) means continued spillover conflict in Pakistan and further American air attacks inside Pakistan as part of purported counterterrorism operations. It also seems likely that any interested corporations would try to use Pakistan as a connector to the outside world, including for bringing in supplies, until the hypothetical time when Afghanistan is developed enough to link back more to the capital than to Pakistan in the eastern areas where the deposits are concentrated.

How does it affect the United States?

Rosy scenario: Afghanistan, with continued United States funding and limited military assistance over then next fifteen years, develops a mining industry in a secure environment that provides the central government with a steady supply of revenue, enabling it to pay for its own security eventually, and then it becomes a stable democracy and a role model for the region — none of which was likely before this discovery and with US withdrawal — and therefore we must stay longer now.

More realistic scenario: The United States pro-war camp attempts to pressure everyone into signing onto an indefinite extension of the war, because suddenly it’s supposedly winnable and it will be our fault if we leave now, just when we could have turned things around and paid for the war magically with resources that don’t belong to us… and after all that, whether or not we stay, Afghanistan will fail to develop the resources anywhere near as early as hoped, if at all.

But there’s definitely going to be a lot of pressure in Washington now to use this report as justification to stay. Does it really change that this war is a lost cause for the United States (in my opinion)? No, I don’t believe it does. Nor do I cynically believe that the United States went into Afghanistan in the first place knowing we could get minerals and metals — that’s idiotic, since we didn’t know much of anything about Afghanistan until we went in, and we only went in because Bush couldn’t work out how to justify invading Iraq first after 9/11, which was his preference. BUT, it’s hard not to be cynical on the timing of the report, since the United States has not actually begun withdrawal and is at a point where gains that should have materialized by now from the second surge have failed to do so.

This brings me to my last area of analysis, which is also related to what affect this report will have on the United States.

Do we have a past parallel to this situation?

There’s a bit of a deja vu here, which is perhaps a bit of a good thing, as well as a bad thing. I didn’t discover this myself (I saw it first on The Daily Show), but I looked it up to confirm. In the final years of the Vietnam War, an oil company was given exploratory rights to look for oil off the coast of ‘Nam. In the early 1970s, just as the United States was theoretically trying to pull out, the American news media exploded with reports that there were vast underwater oil fields in South Vietnam’s territorial waters, which continued periodically until North Vietnam overran the South a few years later, at which point it was moot for the United States.

It seems like a pretty big coincidence that just as the Vietnam War, which was for years our longest war, was possibly going to be wrapped up, there was a “discovery” of lots of oil, which meant we couldn’t let South Vietnam fall to the Communists! Or in these very credible words in the New York Times in March 1971:

Secretary of State William P. Rogers said today that reports of large oil deposits off the shore of South Vietnam “have absolutely no effect on United States policy.”

Of course not.

And it’s a pretty gigantic coincidence that just as the War in Afghanistan surpassed the Vietnam War’s length in US involvement of ground troops with a year to go before the pullout is scheduled to begin, the Pentagon and Afghan government suddenly tell the New York Times that there’s a massive mineral deposit in one of the most at-risk zones in the country. As with the Vietnam oil sites, we knew about the Afghan deposits for at least a few years before somebody decided to hype them to the media. Even more conveniently, they tell us that the deposits are worth at least $1 trillion, which happens to be exactly the same amount that the war has now cost the United States, as of a few weeks ago.

On the good side, if Vietnam is any example, this “discovery” won’t really do much to keep us from leaving Afghanistan eventually. But it seems likely to drag it out to an even bitterer end. We can only hope not.

This piece was originally published at Starboard Broadside.