Women of World war II

The recent Battlefield 5 trailer has stoked controversy over the role of women in video games. While most of the criticism comes from misogynists I do believe there is a valid discussion to be had about the subject.

Personally, I disliked the trailer because of two things: The gameplay it portrayed seemed incoherent and lacking in any kind of narrative and second, the way the developers chose to include women didn’t do the actual women of WWII justice.

The Gameplay

The gameplay the trailer portrayed seemed incoherent and lacking in any kind of narrative. It wasn’t sure exactly where the scene was supposed to be taking place or what time in the war.

The characters were hopping around blasting things. The weapons didn’t seem to fit any kind of specific roles or class types and I had a hard time suspending disbelief when the characters jumped out of a second story window and shot down an ME 109(?) with an MG 42. I couldn’t follow the trailer and I didn’t understand how what was presented was supposed to work inside actual gameplay.

(Also: Why are jeeps falling from the sky and crushing Nazis? Where are they coming from!?)

The gameplay I’ve seen does little to alleviate these concerns. I far as I can tell the developers have blurred the line between classes. For example, any player can now revive another instead of needing a medic which somewhat defeats the point of having a medic class in the first place.

The combat has also been shifted to focus more on infantry rather than vehicles, which seems kind of self-defeating given the setting. Why would they set a Battlefield game in the war that introduced the world to modern armored operations and then reduce the number of vehicles from the previous game?

This is not a good thing for a franchise that has distinguished itself (at least in my mind) as the more “hardcore” less “arcade-like” competitor to Call of Duty with more complex environments, gameplay mechanics, and vehicles.

The Elephant In The Room

In terms of the inclusion of women in combat, I believe what the trailer portrayed was both historically inaccurate, potentially damaging and honestly?; Lazy.

Let us be clear: Women did serve in front-line combat during WWII, but not with the Western Allies and certainly not with the fascist Axis. There was no point in which the Americans, British, Germans, Italians or French used female soldiers in the way they are portrayed in the trailer. Certainly, they would have an issue allowing any soldier missing an arm into combat.

In my opinion, If EA wanted to portray women in combat they should not have invented artificial female characters. There were thousands of female snipers and pilots that served in the Soviet Armies that would have easily fit for a game about World War II and made for a great narrative.

Lyudmila Pavlichenko, for example, had 309 kills to her name and received the Hero of the Soviet Union for her contribution to the war effort. For the sake of comparison; the legendary sniper of the Battle of Stalingrad, Vasily Zaytsev had from 242 to “over 300” confirmed kills (Russian source) and Chris Kyle tallied just 160. That’s right, Pavlichenko killed twice as many men as one of America’s most famous snipers.

220px-Lyudmila_Pavlichenko,_before_title
Lyudmila Pavlichenko

The Soviets also fielded three regiments of bombers piloted by females, the most famous of which were the 588th “Night Witches.” They earned the moniker because they operated at night and would cut the engines in their Po-2 biplanes on approach to target. Without the rumble of the engines, the canvas of the wings was said to sound like a broomstick. Swedish power metal band Sabaton even wrote a song about them.

Po-2
A Po-2 used by the 588th

In fact, women served in a variety of combat roles. Mariya Oktyabrskaya drove a T-34 tank. Sergeant Oktyabrskaya was killed in combat in 1944 around Vitebsk and was posthumously awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union and the Order of Lenin for her bravery.

Maria_Oktyabrskaya_photo
Mariya Oktyabrskaya

There is a rich history here that has been left untouched by western media. These stories of real women could have formed the basis of a great narrative that showcased the real women who fought the Third Reich on the front lines. Given the current debates over the role of women in combat, such a tale seems to be greatly needed.

In this article, Liza Mundy gives an overview of Svetlana Alexievich’s book “The Unwomanly Face of War.” Here there is a real view of female soldiers, some as young as 13 who took up arms and fought. It details how they sniped and pulled men from burning tanks. How they starved and endured the barren conditions of the eastern front only to comes back to be called “Army Whores” and “Military Bitches.” These were the real women of the front.

What EA is doing is shoehorning in diversity unnecessarily. The inclusion of a British female sniper is in especially poor taste because it both whitewashes British sexism and erases the roles of the Soviet snipers that appear to have inspired the female sniper archetype in the first place.

Glossing over important and often uncomfortable historical realities like sexism also defeat the purpose of including females in the first place. They are creating a separate universe where these realities did not exist and failing to educate the public about them in a way that assists in creating respect and equality for the real heroes of the war.

I understand that the Second World War is heavily mythologized in the media and in popular culture and what EA is doing has, in some ways, been done before. However it was a real event, tens of millions of people died in some of the most horrible ways imaginable. This number includes roughly 400,000 Americans. It was a war so horrific that it’s aftermath set the stage for a world order that exists to this day.

But I think this really to my final point: Battlefield is not a game about World War II just like Like Battlefield 1 was not a game about WWI. These are fantasy games that use these wars as a backdrop for Dice and EA’s latest iteration of their gameplay mechanics rather than using them as the basis of a gameplay experience.

Let’s be clear: This isn’t Call of Duty 2 or World at War where the player was given a bloody introduction to a sniping lying on a pile of bodies in levels that reference famous battles and classic movies. This isn’t a narrative driven game or high art like BioShock either.

In my opinion, this is all representative of a turn towards a more generic, cut down shooter that focuses less on immersing the player in a complex historical environment and more on loot crates.

I would love a game where I got to play as Lyudmila Pavlichenko. The sheer amount kills she had and the place she fought in (Crimea) would make for amazing level designs and an even better gameplay. But EA will likely not deliver that. Battlefield 5’s single player will be like Battlefield 1’s. Short, fantastical, and with little actual relation to anything that actually happened during the Second World War.

It will not seek to inform or make the player think. It isn’t going to be a game that gets anyone interested in studying the Second World War or examining the role of women. It’s just going to be another game.

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Russian Technology Failed in Syria

In the months following the Joint U.S, French, and British attack against the Assad regime’s chemical weapons facilities it has become clear that Syrian air defenses failed to meaningfully degrade the limited strike.

Assad was either incapable or unwilling to engage coalition with his air defense systems. He sent his fighter aircraft away from Syria before the strike and his missiles engaged only after weapons fired from coalition aircraft had impacted their targets. The missiles were not guided as Coalition forces did not detect any lock-on, reporting that 40 Syrian missiles were “fired at nothing” following the airstrikes.

Russia has continued to claim without evidence that 71 missiles were intercepted by Syrian Air Defense while the Pentagon holds that no missiles or aircraft were engaged successfully.

Russian MFA missile claim twitter

Russian media went on the claim the Pantsir S1 showed “almost 100 % effectiveness” yet goes on to claim that the sites struck were not protected by air defenses.

Here you can see satellite photographs of two of the target zones hit by the strike. In these photos, one can clearly see the effect of multiple impacts on several different buildings. Some buildings are no longer standing and others are hollowed out.

In this video of the strike (shot in Damascus), it’s clear that Syrian Air Defense did not effectively respond to the salvo of cruise missiles. At time mark 1:10 you can see several dozen cruise missile hit their targets in a very short period of time.

The intercept ratios the Russians are putting out also casts doubt on the veracity of their claims. Russian state news agency Tass claimed that the Syrians managed to down 71 missiles using a combination of 112 mismatched interceptors ranging from the 1960s vintage S-125 to the Strela-10 (a Stinger equivalent, sometimes mounted in pods on armored vehicles).

The success of either of these systems is unlikely because their age, design intent and the conditions they were operating in. The S-125 and S-200 for example were are not designed to hit low flying targets like cruise missiles and Strela is more suited to slow-moving targets like helicopters.

The ratio of hits is also unusually high( like Putin’s numbers during the last election). Western nations often fire at two to four interceptors to ensure target destruction, Syria is claiming that it’s dated air defense systems managed to achieve an 80% hit ratio firing less than two interceptors per missile, at midnight using air defense systems from the 1960s.

No video evidence of interceptions or crashed American missiles has surfaced either. The only videos we have are of dozens of allied missiles impacting Damascus.

Pictorial evidence also points to a complete failure of Syrian Air Defense. One photo seems to show interceptors being fired at a 45-degree angle and continuing skyward. While this would match an intercept trajectory for a bomber or fighter flying at high altitude, it doesn’t add up when you are trying to intercept a cruise missile designed to hug the ground.

Given the extensive damage, one can only conclude that even if the Syrians did manage to engage American missiles, the response was completely ineffective. All three targets were hit multiple times and many of the buildings were completely demolished. Those left standing look to be hollowed out.

The lying on the Regime is understandable. The Regime needs the propaganda to keep itself going. It has a well-known tendency to exaggerate numbers. It has claimed absurd success rates against Israeli aircraft and missiles despite having only a single confirmed kill against the IAF in the last 36 years.

Just a few weeks ago they the regime declared that it had intercepted nine Israeli missiles, only to redact the claim when it was relieved that there were no missiles and the regimes sensors had malfunctioned.

I believe Russia’s interest in perpetuating this lie is two-fold. First, Russia’s defense industry is vital for the functioning of the Russian state. They need to be able to sell weapons. The Russians then, are attempting to cover up just how badly outmatched some of their air defense systems were by legacy American, British and French aircraft using new missiles.

Second, the operational success of the American strike threatens Russia’s own conventional deterrence. Some systems like the Pantsir S1 are still in service with the Russian military, as are the Buk missile systems. The failure of these systems against a well tried, (even cliche) American mode of attack is not only embarrassing but undermines their conventional deterrence vis-a-vis NATO, which would be able to generate much more firepower in a war against Russia.

Add insult to injury, the Pentagon has claimed no stealth aircraft took part in the business end of the strike and that EA-6B Growlers provided electronic warfare support. B-1B Lancers, and French Typhoons, and British GR4 Tornados delivered all airborne munitions with F-22s sitting back to protect troops against possible retaliation.

When you add it all up it paints a dire picture for Russian air defense. Not even their propagandists have claimed that any of their legacy systems actually engaged an allied aircraft. With strike ranges on the order of 370 km for the JASSM and 1600 km for the TLAM. Allied aircraft and ships would be outside the range of even the S-400 air defense systems and most almost all anti-ship missiles.

In a war over the inability of the Russian made air defense systems to mitigate an American missile attack, let alone engage the airplanes that launched them poses a significant problem for the Russians. Supposedly, the S-300 would do better, but there a fewer of them and the capacity of the force has limits, especially when you consider that a full-scale attack would involve several hundred missiles. The invasion of Iraq involved 802 tomahawks alone.

 

 

The INF Is On It’s Deathbed

Since Donald Trump took office nuclear hawks have been on a quest to redevelop America’s nuclear arsenal and dismantle non-proliferation efforts. Senators like Tom Cotton have called for scrapping roughly 30 years of nuclear treaties dating back to the Reagan administration in response the Russia’s violation, with possibly the most important treaty on the chopping block being the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF).

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American Armored Vehicles Enter Manbij

Several convoys containing a number of American Stryker APCs has been spotted driving from the eastern side of the Euphrates river in northern Syria and entering the Kurdish held city of Manbij. The vehicles were armed with a a 12.7 and 7.62mm machine guns, and bear clear unit markings. The Strykers were clearly identifiable as American due to the large American flags shown flying high over the several of the vehicles. Also shown are HMMWVs  bracketing the convoys from the front and rear.

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U.S Soldiers disembark from their HMMWVs near Manbij (source)

This is a big leap for American involvement in the Syrian conflict. While there have been Special Operations Forces (SOF) in Syria prior to this deployment, they kept a low profile and moved around in non-standard vehicles. The forces now in Manbij are not only using standard American equipment, but the equipment itself is also clearly marked with American flags and unit markings that overtly signal an American presence .

The reason for this deployment was made apparent shortly after first pictures emerged, with the U.S has announcing that it is increasing it’s presence in  Manbij to “deter hostile acts, enhance governance & ensure there’s no persistent YPG presence.” In other words, the troops are meant to assure the Turks that there are no YPG units operating with the Syrian Democratic Forces west of the Euphrates. Implicitly (and more importantly) ,the troops are also meant to deter Turkey from taking further action against the America’s partners in Syria.

As Turkey has expanded it’s zones of control it has attacked both ISIS and the Syrian Kurds, viewing them both as a threat to Turkish security. Recently, Erdogen vowed to take Manbij after the capture of Al-Bab was completed. With clashes ongoing around the edge of the salient it’s clear the Turkish president was serious about his threat.

Because the United States is relying on Kurdish forces to take the Islamic State capital of Raqqa, Turkish aggression against the SDF is clearly damaging to American objectives in Syria. It appears that rather than try to talk Erdogan out of an offensive, the Trump Administration has decided to simply present him with a fait accompli, by placing American forces in the way of an Turkish/FSA advance.

With American troops now in Manbij, Turkish aggression against SDF forces has been all but ruled out, similar to how the introduction of Russian forces in regime areas ruled out western military action against Assad. The political risks are too high and diplomatic repercussions are simply too severe. This is especially given the fact the SDF has also invited Russian convoys and regime troops into the city and has agreed to hand over some areas west of the city to government control.

What this situation creates is a multi-national tripwire that will prevent Turkish-backed forces from attacking SDF controlled territory. With the regime controlling the western approaches to the city the introduction of Russian advisers to those areas is inevitable. If Turkey wants Manbij, they will have to go through Russian, Syrian and American troops to get to it.

The U.S has denied coordination with Russia and the regime and their presence seems to be of solely the work of the SDF. Turkey, for it’s part is now threatening to stop it’s military operations against ISIS unless the United States and Russia “cooperate” with Turkey on the issue. What will happen next is up in air, but for now, the SDF are safe from Turkish aggression and this will hopefully allow them to concentrate more of their forces against ISIS rather than having to leave them in the north to fight to FSA, who are nowhere near the ISIS capital in Raqqa.

A Hot Winter in Ukraine

Violence in Ukraine’s Donbas region has spiked following a call between President Trump and Vladimir Putin on the 28th of January. The attacks by Russian-backed separatists have already killed over a dozen Ukrainian soldiers and left over 100 more wounded.

Videos have emerged showing heavy artillery being fired from inside the separatist controlled region including barrages of GRAD rockets and howitzers. The projectiles have hit civilian areas in Ukraine very hard.

In the video below you can see a MLRS firing around 20 rockets from rebel territory into Ukraine.

The city of Avdiivka near Donetsk appears to be the primary target of the attacks. As shells rain down the city has been made virtually unlivable. Water and electricity have been cut and in -18 C temperatures  (-0.4 Fahrenheit) 12,000 people now need to be evacuated to stop them from freezing to to death.

As the civilians leave the Ukrainian Army is holding it’s ground. Having repelled a separatist ground assault the army has been filmed with tanks inside Avdiivka preparing to counter further attacks on the ground. The Ukrainians claim that their “tanks are ready” to fight and continue to move more heavy equipment into the area.

Fighting has also expanded to the north as far as Horlivka and to the south as far as Mariupol. During the first week of the assault the artillery fire was nearly continuous from dawn until nightfall.

The size of these forces and the depth and breath of the assault initially suggested a probing attack both in the military and political sense. As the week went on however, dozens of tanks, self propelled artillery and other mechanized forces and supplies have been reported moving towards the front in Donetsk. While the fire subsided somewhat, there is no indication that these forces are being pulled back.

If nothing is done to stop Russia’s aggression in Ukraine the separatists could begin pushing further west. As of February 3rd they appear to lack the mobile forces to break out of the Donbas. However, with amount of equipment now at the front they are certainly capable of launching limited offensives into Avdiivka and the Svitlodarsk bulge.

Russia’s hybrid forces on the front line are not designed for major long distance operations. However, with thousands of Russian troops are massed along the border with Ukraine it would be relatively easy to reinforce the separatists with the necessary equipment and personnel. Such action could be taken  under the cover of regular maneuvers like he ones the Russians are beginning in mid- February.

This aggression, along with a recent strafing of an American warship and the violation of the INF treaty, are clearly meant as tests for the Trump administration to see how far Putin can take his aggression.

Without a forceful response from both the United States and Europe the violence will continue. Even if Russia mysteriously pulls back it’s forces like they are prone to to doing, it will send a clear message that Russia free to attack Ukraine as it sees fit and do further damage to the world order and the stability of Eastern Europe.

Unfortunately, this is this message that the administration has already sent. Despite Ambassador Haley’s condemnation at the U.N, no coherent response has yet emerged. All Trump has managed to do so far is display his profound ignorance of the situation.

First, Trump described the fighting as part of a border dispute, rather than an invasion. Then, he implied that he didn’t know if the separatists were really backed and controlled by the Kremlin. Finally, in a ham-fisted gesture, the administration demanded that Russia return Crimea to Ukraine and end it’s aggression in exchange for improved relations; basically, a return to the standard U.S position under the Obama administration.

Trump has now wasted weeks learning what he should have know when he began shooting his mouth off about Russia in the first place. Despite his boasts about improving U.S-Russia relations, it’s now painfully obvious that he never took the time to understand why relations were deteriorating in the first place.

Now, having shown his weakness and incoherence,  Putin is likely to exploit it. Already another challenge is brewing with the Russian deployment of intermediate range cruise missiles for the first time since the Cold War; A challenge Trump is clearly unprepared to meet.

 

 

 

 

 

Russia is Massing Forces on the Ukrainian Border.

Over the past week the situation along the Ukrainian border has been worsening. Following the capture of alleged Ukrainian saboteurs in Crimea, Moscow has escalated both rhetorically and militarily against Ukraine. Reports have surfaced off new Russian troops near Donetsk. Meanwhile Conveys made up of troop transports and BTRs have been filmed moving into Crimea along with S-400 Air defense systems, warplanes and frigates in the Black Sea.

Russia build up
An info-graphic from the Institute for the Study of War showing the Russian build up.

In the preceding months, two Motorized Rifle Brigades and a Motor Rifle Division have been deployed to the border, along with the creation of three new divisions, each totaling around 10,000 troops. Along with recon, EW and a tank unit in Moldova’s Transnistria region, Russia has all of the components necessary for an invasion of Ukraine.

In Ukraine, troops have been placed on high alert as fears mount of an imminent invasion of southern and eastern portions of the war torn nation. Such fears have a basis not just in the reality of Russia’s military build up but the timing as well. Russian attacks and invasions have become know as August surprises because they tend to fall in the mouth of August while the world is distracted with presidential elections and the Olympics. Such was the case when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008.

Putin has also laid the rhetorical and political groundwork for such an invasion. The capture of “Ukrainian spies” makes a good pretext for action. Following the incident he accused Ukraine of terrorism and proclaimed that he will not let the offense “slide by”. He has also changed his position on the Minsk talks, and now calls them “pointless.”

The political motives behind the build up and possible invasion have been the subject of vast speculation. However, there are several rational reasons that Putin would invade or feint and invasion of Ukraine.

Inside Russia, his control over Russian media allows him to spin the West (or the “fascists” in Ukraine) as the aggressor. This gains him popularity  and primes his party’s victory in the upcoming 2016 legislative elections in December.

Externally, aggression puts pressure on the United States and the NATO alliance. It will bring the pro-western government in Kiev under pressure, and  further stain the already overstretched Ukrainian army even if the conflict stays at the level of armed observation and a full scale invasion is not launched.

Remember that Putin primary objective in Ukraine is to regain influence salvage the country as a Russian client state. Beyond that, he wants to destabilize NATO and the EU in Europe while bolstering his regime inside Russia. The more chaotic the situation the greater the advantage for Putin.

 

 

 

Don’t Involve Congress in Nuclear Decision Making

As concerns over a Trump presidency grow, more and more people have become concerned about the power of the executive. One of the most talked about concerns has been Trump’s control over America’s vast nuclear arsenal which many fear an unstable Trump could use disproportionately or in a fit of rage.

In response, Representative Ted Lieu has proposed legislation that would require the President and the Secretary of Defense to consult with congressional leaders before launching a nuclear strike. Currently, launching a nuclear attack requires only two people; the President and the concurrence of the Secretary of Defense. While two people are involved the Secretary is an appointee of the president and therefore somewhat beholden to him (or her).

As the General Hayden noted this system is designed for decisiveness, not debate. The reason for this is simple; in many scenarios there is simply no time for such debate. With only 30 minutes between the launch of an ICBM to detonation, this idea is unworkable under most circumstances.

“Launch under attack ” is one such case. In this scenario, enemy forces will have already fired off dozens of missiles armed with hundreds of warheads. Because of detection, confirmation and the process of going though the command, control and communications infrastructure,  the president will have a maximum of just two minutes to decide whether to launch the missiles before the enemy warheads hit American missile solos and destroy them.

Lieu’s proposal would involve having to having to consult with at least one more person during the decision making. Having to locate and consult the Speaker of the House and Senate Majority Leader and receive their concent could easily eat up those two minutes, making a timely response impossible.

Even if launch under attack were to be taken out of the equation, there are other problems with this proposal. Having to consult congressional leaders on nuclear use would mean limited flexibility in other situations that could embolden American adversaries like Russia and China.

In a limited use scenario time may also be critical. The addition friction created in the decision making process could seriously damage the credibility of our deterrent. What would happen if the President and Secretary of Defense have a different strategy than the House Majority Leader and that disagreement stalls action? How long would it take to reconcile those opinions?

If Putin, for example, knew that it might take several hours, or even a day to respond to a limited nuclear strike, it would give him more reason to conduct one. This would be especially true in an escalate to deescalate situation where Putin could conduct a limited strike, then, while leaders debate a response, Russia could use the extra time to sue for peace, solidifying gains before a response could be implemented.

As the Daily Beast noted, there are other ways to derail a delusional president than get Congress involved. A nuclear attack certainly meets the definition of an imminent threat that is firmly within the realm of an executive’s power to react to without asking for the consent of congress.

This should not be taken as a blanket condemnation of Lieu’s idea. If American and Russian weapons were not on hair trigger alert and more time was available to plan a response from the moment of re-alert, then a congressional approval process would have more merit. In a “first use” case as well, where time is less restricted and an unstable president is most likely to abuse power, giving congressional leaders a veto might be beneficial to global security.

That said, in most cases centralized decision making is necessary in wartime and especially in a nuclear crisis. Military command is a process that cannot be democratized; and the more critical the situation, the less room there is for debate. In that sense, launch under attack may be considered a logical extreme that demands the utmost speed an decisiveness.

The Kremlin Candidate

During a New York Times interview. presidential nominee (ugh) Donald Trump suggested that he would consider holding back military aid to the Baltic states in the event of a Russian invasion. Stating that he would only help “if they fulfill their obligations to us”. The remark  drew in intense criticism from all sides, including NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, John Kerry, Mitch McConnell, John Kasich and Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Trump doubled down this remarks during his acceptance speech at the GOP convention, implying that all allies, not just the Baltics, would be subject to the same reservations.
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