Monthly Archives: September 2013

Cop did what?

CRPDBadgeWe may not have time to cover this in detail, but the Castle Rock, Colorado, PD says that random spray-and-pray from an AR at a moving car full of burglars is a “reasonable” police technique, and the officer who missed the burglars and hit a passersby’s car ought to be commended.

The Douglas County, CO, District Attorney agrees. They also demand that the media keep the trigger-happy cop’s name secret.

Oh, Secret Police. Is that really where they wanna go?

It gets better. They guy who covered his wife as the Castle Rock bozo’s rounds plowed into his parked car instead of the inept cop’s moving target is himself… a retired Nevada policeman and state patrolman. Mike Cardella thinks, both as the victim here, and as a matter of professional pride, that the Castle Rock incompetent’s “actions were reckless.” Ya think?

Castle Rock’s ace investigators have been unable to determine how many shots the cop fired, or what else he hit, but he didn’t hit anybody (not even his targets). Which is a good thing, as along with Mike and Susan Cardella, an entire high school was in his beaten zone.

Now, the department says:

The Police Department takes great pride in making the Town one of the safest communities along Colorado’s Front Range.

Funny way they go about it.

'You guys can spray and pray if you like, but the Big Guy is a fan of precision fire.'

‘You guys can spray and pray if you like, but the Big Guy is a fan of precision fire.’

The Castle Rock Police Department is famous in Constitutional law for a 2005 Supreme Court case which ruled that the Department’s actions enabling a child murderer were perfectly OK. (FMI: Wikipedia, USSC cases at Cornell). No word on whether one of the cops from the 1999 incident at the root of this ruling was the doer this time.

In the 1999 incident, kidnapped children Leslie, Katheryn, and Rebecca Gonzales were murdered while the cops blew off four 911 calls and a personal visit. The responsible, or per the Supreme Court irresponsible, officers for the Gonzales murders were named Aaron Ahlfinger, Brink, O’Neill, Ruisi and possibly others; Ahlfinger promised the kid’s mother he’d put out a BOLO for the missing kids and their kidnapper, but he went to get chow instead, and still hadn’t sent the message when the killer rolled up to the station with the three dead kids in his truck looking for Suicide by Cop.

CRPD has a weak history of gunfight performance. In the shooting incident in which the killer of the Gonzales kids, their father Steven, was killed, one officer (Paul Stever) fired wildly, another (Jason Maes) initially forgot to take his shotgun safety off, and a third (Eugene McComas) couldn’t get his shotgun out of the cruiser rack.

FMI: The Denver Channel (ABC7)

When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have baseball bats (again)

Watch out for the one with your name on it.

Watch out for the one with your name on it.

Actually, if what the kid said about the guy is true, we kind of can’t blame her for going… wait for it… bats. (When the groaning stops, the meat of the story is below).

Thirty-year-old Forsythia Eliese Owen of Englewood told police she killed Denzel Rainey because a child accused Rainey of sexually abusing her. The 42-year-old man was found early Sunday in an alley. Rainey had lacerations to his head and a skull fracture. Both of Rainey’s arms, six ribs and his left hand were broken. He died of his injuries later at a hospital.

According to an affidavit obtained by KMGH, Owen described the beating to police and said she went to the alley where he slept and attacked him after learning of the molestation.

via Colorado woman in custody after killing suspected pedophile | Fox News.

Note that this fine upstanding victim was sleeping in an alley, suggesting homelessness, suggesting in turn insanity. What percentage of the homeless ought to be either in prison or in mental institutions? We’d go with 100% there.

If they’re going to diddle kids, we figure beating them to death with blunt instruments beats running them through the revolving courthouse door again. Anybody want to bet he has a record?

Rainey’s probability of recidivism, unlike what it would be if the courts had their way with him, is now zero.

Forsythia Eliese Owen: behold the look of "bat" guano crazy.

Forsythia Eliese Owen: behold the look of “bat” guano crazy.

But wait, it gets better. It turns out Rainey does have a record, but a petty one (DUI, dope possession). It’s Batwoman here (Forsythia Owen) who has a substantial and violent record.

An Englewood woman who told police she beat a man to death with a baseball bat because he molested a girl has a history of drug abuse, mental illness and violence, including stabbing a boyfriend in the chest after drugging him when she was 19 years old, court records state.

And she’e been around and around the revolving door:

On Sept. 25, 2002, a then-19-year-old Owen was arrested for stabbing a 30-year-old man she’d been dating for nine months in the chest with a knife at her Denver home, court records show.

Clearly, something else occurred, because Owen later pleaded guilty to felony assault that involved “drugging the victim,” court records state.

Owen was initially sentenced to four years of probation in January 2003. But she had her probation revoked 10 months later after she admitted using cocaine, methamphetamine and alcohol in violation of her probation conditions, according to court records.

Owen repeatedly broke requirements that she meet with or call probation officers, gave authorities a fake address and skipped drug tests, court records state. She was kicked out of drug treatment and mental health programs because of “non-compliance” and “minimal progress.” One program official wrote that she was “continually high” and “disruptive in the program.”

At Urban Peak’s Project Star treatment program, Owen was diagnosed with a “mood disorder” and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. But “staff had difficulty discerning whether her symptoms were a result of substance abuse or from her mental health issues,” according to a probation report that recommended revoking her probation.

Owen was resentenced a Denver community corrections program, but she was later rejected from that program, too.

In December 2004, she was resentenced to three years in state prison.

Hey, she only commits a violent assault about once a decade.

End of the Line: F-111 Aardvark/Pig

Australian F-111C in burner

Australian F-111C in burner

Once one of the most controversial aircraft to grace the sky, the last operational variant of the first variable-geometry warplane went out of business back at the start of this month, with the very last flying example being cut up to be shipped to a museum.

The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) has bid a final farewell to its last remaining F-111, which is being taken from Amberley base, west of Brisbane, to Hawaii.

The much-loved fighter bomber had its wings clipped ahead of its last journey to the Pacific Air Museum at Pearl Harbour.

Wing Commander Clive Wells has managed the disposal of all the Air Force’s F-111s.

“It’s quite an historic day from an Air Force perspective particularly for the guys who’ve worked on the F-111 … to see the last one just about to depart,” he said.

The RAAF originally purchased 43 F-111s.

Fate of most Australian F-111s. Due to asbestos content, they were only available to on-base museums.

Fate of most Australian F-111s. Due to asbestos content,  only a few were given to museums, and only on-base museums. The rest of the fleet? Wings and engines were sold for scrap, the fuselages buried.

Eight crashed, 23 were buried, and the remainder have been put on display in defence establishments and museums around Australia.

via Air Force bids farewell to final F-111 as it leaves for Pacific Air Museum – ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation).

The F-111 was the plane which flew for the halting and jerky development of the precision-guided-weapon tactics that would win the initial phase of the US Afghan war. While its own night and all-weather bombing equipment was state of the art in the 1960s, by the 1980s F-11F crews, and their Australian F-111C and later -G counterparts, were working on beacon bombing and hitting targets marked with ground laser designators.


‘Dump and Burn’ — a RAAF airshow stunt, not a Federal Reserve policy….

There was nothing quite like having an Aardvark go over your head at Mach .9+ and nought feet, on its way to pickle on your beacon or GLD paint. Its mighty turbofans shook the earth, and as it came off the target in burner it left streaks in the sky — these missions always took place at night. With relatively crude Paveway laser-guided bombs, and dumb bombs dropped on a beacon offset, the F-111 was a vital long-range, precision-strike weapon. The Australians one-upped the plane’s American inventors with a flaming fuel-dump display at airshows.

The office -- state of the art, circa President Kennedy. (This is an RAAF plane, photographed circa 1978). Pilot sits left, WSO/Navigator right

The office — state of the art, circa President Kennedy. (This is an RAAF plane, photographed circa 1978). Pilot sits left, WSO/Navigator right.

The F-111 had a troubled gestation, forced down the services’ throats by Robert S. Macnamara. The General Dynamics (ex-Convair) version of the design flunked every competitive evaluation against a Boeing competitor, but was selected, reportedly because Macnamara wanted to curry favor with LBJ: the President and General Dynamics were both Texans, after all. The jets’ first combat rotation in Vietnam ended in ignominious withdrawal after two ships lawn-darted fatally due to a terrain-following-system glitch. The jets went through several different intake designs, each one solving some old problems and introducing new ones. But in time, the plane became a reasonably successful combat ship, particularly in the 1986 strike on Libya (Operation El Dorado Canyon, see also Walter Boyne in Air Force Magazine) and in Desert Storm.

One of the plane's Rube Goldberg features was its Escape Module -- the entire cockpit was capable of blasting off and saving the crew.

One of the plane’s Rube Goldberg features was its Escape Module — the entire cockpit was capable of blasting off and saving the crew.

Australia is in a bit of a jam without the ‘Varks, as they had a 3500-mile range on internal fuel. It’s somewhat academic, perhaps: unlike the well-blooded American ‘Varks, the antipodean ones never saw combat. The RAAF is going to develop aerial tanking capability to get a sort of feeble simulacrum of the lost 111 capability with its sole remaining combat type, the F-18 Hornet. The Hornets are scheduled to be replaced with F-35 Lightnings, but the Australians are watching the F-35’s spiraling cost with dismay. Neither the Hornets nor the Lightnings can match the 111 for range and armament payload; but the 1960s-vintage jets were too costly to maintain.

What’s so special about John Moses Browning?



If you take that question the wrong way, you’re thinking who is this bozo to diss Saint JMB? But we’re not putting the emphasis on the JMB side of the sentence, but the What’s so special? end. As in: we really want to know. Why is this guy head and shoulders above the other great designers of weapons history? What made him tick? What made him that way?

Browning was not a degreed engineer, but he is, to date, the greatest firearms designer who has ever lived.  Consider this: had Browning done nothing but the 1911, he’d have a place in the top rank of gun designers, ever. But that’s not all he did, by any means. If he had done nothing but the M1917 and M1919 machine guns, he’d have a place in the top ranks of designers. If he’d done nothing but the M2HB, a gun which will still be in widespread infantry service a century after its introduction, and its .50 siblings, he’d be hailed as a genius. One runs out of superlatives describing Browning’s career, with at least 80 firearms designed, almost 150 patents granted, and literally three-quarters of US sporting arms production in the year 1900 being Browning designs — before his successes with automatic guns.

He did all that and he was just getting warmed up. He didn’t live to see World War II, but if he had, he’d have seen Browning designs serving every power on both sides of the war. If an American went to war in a rifle platoon, a Sherman tank, a P-39 or P-51 or B-17, he and his unit were gunned-up by Browning. If he made it home to go hunting the season after V-J day, there were long odds that he carried a Browning-designed rifle of shotgun, even if the name on it was Remington or Winchester. Browning’s versatility was legendary: he designed .25 caliber (6.35mm) pocket pistols and 37mm aircraft and AA cannon, and literally everything in between. He frequently designed the gun and the cartridge it fired.

A lot of geniuses have designed a lot of really great guns since some enterprising Chinese fellow whose name is lost to history discovered that gunpowder and a tube closed at one end sure beats the human hand when it comes to throwing things at one’s enemies.  But nobody comes close to Browning’s level of achievement; nobody matches him in versatility.

So why him? As we put it, what’s so special? 

We think Browning’s incredible primacy resulted from several things, apart from his own innate talent and work ethic (both of which were prodigious). Those things are:

  1. He was born to the trade
  2. He was prolific: his output was prodigious
  3. He was a master of the toolroom
  4. He lived at just the right time
  5. He could inspire and lead others

Born to the Trade

John M’s father, Jonathan Browning, was, himself, a gunsmith, designer and inventor. He made his first rifle at age 13, and despite being an apprentice blacksmith, became a specialist in guns by the time he was an adult. From 1824 he had his own gunshop and smithy in Brushy Fork, Tennessee, and later would move to Illinois (Where he befriended a country lawyer named Lincoln). He joined the Mormons in Illinois and fled with them to Utah, making guns at each way station of the Mormon flight.

Jonathan Browning Revolving Repeater

Jonathan Browning Cylinder Repeater. Image from a great article on Jonathan Browning by William C. Montgomery.

Very few of Jonathan’s rifles are known to have survived, but he made two percussion repeating rifles that were, then (1820s-1842), on the cutting edge of technology. The Slide Bar Repeating Rifle  was Jonathan’s term for what is more widely called a Harmonica Gun. The gun has a slot into which a steel Slide Bar is fitted. The slide bar had, normally, five chambers; after firing a shot, the user cocked the hammer and moved the Slide Bar to the side to move the empty chamber out from under the hammer, and a loaded chamber into place. When all five chambers had been discharged, the Slide Bar was removed, and each chamber loaded from the muzzle and reprimed with a percussion cap. Jonathan Browning’s gun differed from most in that it had an underhammer, and that an action lever cammed the Slide Bar hard against the barrel to make a gas seal. He also made a larger Slide Bar available — one with 25 chambers, arguably the first high-capacity magazine.

The second Browning innovation was the Cylinder Repeating rifle. This was a revolver rifle, with the cylinder rotated by hand between shots. Like the Slide Bar gun, the cylinder was cammed against the barrel to achieve a gas seal — the parts were designed to mate in the manner of nested cones.

Young John M. Browning. From the Browning Collectors web page.

Young John M. Browning. From the Browning Collectors web page.

The designer of those mid-19th-Century attempts to harness firepower sired many children; like other early Mormons, he was a polygamist, and his three wives would bear him 22 children. From age six one of them apprenticed himself, as it were, to his father. Within a year he’d built his own first rifle. This son was, of course, John Moses Browning.

(Aside: the last gun made by Jonathan Browning was an example of his son’s 1878 single-shot high-powered rifle design, which would be produced in quantity by Winchester starting in 1883).

Malcolm Gladwell has popularized the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of hard work to become an expert — that’s roughly five years of fulltime labor. JMB had exceeded this point before puberty.

If you aspire to breaking Browning’s records as a gun designer, you need to acknowledge that, unless you started from childhood, you’re starting out behind already.

Prolific Output

Browning worked on pistols, rifles, and machine guns. He worked on single-shot, lever, slide, and semi-automatic actions, and his semi-autos included gas-operated, recoil-operated, direct-blowback, and several types of locking mechanism. Exactly how many designs he did may not have been calculated anywhere: it’s known he designed 44 rifles and 13 shotguns for Winchester alone, a large number of which were not produced, and some of which may not have been made even as prototypes or models.

His military weapons included light and heavy infantry machine guns, aerial machineguns for fixed and flexible installations, and several iterations of the 37mm aircraft and anti-aircraft cannon, the last of which, the M9, would fire a 1-lb-plus armor-piercing shell at 3000 feet per second; an airplane was designed around it (the P39 Airacobra, marginal in US service but well-used, and well-loved, by the Soviets who received many via lend-lease). All the machine guns used by the US from squad on up in WWII and Korea were Browning designs. But these were only his most successful designs; there were others. At his peak, he may have been producing new designs at a rate of one a week. 

If you want to to be the next John Browning, you need to start designing now, and keep improving your designs and designing new ones until the day you die. (Browning died in his office in Belgium).

Master of the Toolroom

The Browning workshop, back in the day.

The Browning workshop, back in the day.

From an early age, John learned to cut, form and shape steel. This is something common to most of the gunsmiths and designers of the early and mid-20th Century — if you remember our recent feature on John Garand, the photo showed him not a a drawing board by at a milling machine.

Browning could not only design and test his own prototypes — he could also design and improve the machinery on which they’d be produced, a necessary task for the designer in his day. Nowadays, such production development is the milieu of specialized production engineers, who have more classroom training, and probably less shop-floor savvy, than Browning brought to the task.

A reproduction of Browning's workshop in the Browning Museum in Ogden, UT.

A reproduction of Browning’s workshop in the Browning Museum in Ogden, UT. (From this guy’s tour post).

In Browning’s day, processes were a little closer to hand-tooled prototype work, but it still required different kinds of savvy and modes of thinking .

If you want to be Browning, you have to master production processes, for prototypes and in series manufacturing, from the hands-on as well as the drawing-board angle. There may never again be a designer like that.

Living and Timing

John M. Browning in 1921 with Mr Burton of Winchester and the category-creating Browning Automatic Rifle.

John M. Browning in 1921 with Mr Burton of Winchester and the category-creating Browning Automatic Rifle.

John M Browning lived in just the right time: he was there at the early days of cartridge arms, when even basic principles hadn’t yet been settled and the possibilities of design were wide-open and unconstrained by prior art and customer expectation. No army worldwide, and no hunter or policeman, really had a satisfactory semi-auto or automatic weapon yet (except for the excellent Maxim)

It’s much easier to push your design into an unfulfilled requirement than it is to displace something a customer is already more or less comfortable with.

If you’re going to retire some of John M. Browning’s records, you’re going to need the right conditions and a few lucky breaks — just like he had.

Inspiration and Leadership

To read the comments of other Browning associates of the period is to see the wake of a man who was remarkable for far more than his raw genius. Browning was admired and respected, to be sure, but he was also liked. At FN in Belgium, the gunsmiths called him le maître, “the master,” and took pleasure in learning from him.

M Saive at the drawing board. Image: FN Herstal.

M Saive at the drawing board. Image: FN Herstal.

His Belgian protégé, M. Dieudonne Saive, went on to be a designer of some note himself. While he did not achieve Browning’s range of designs, he, too, is in the top rank for his work finalizing the High-Power pistol (also known as the GP or HP-35) that Browning began, and for his own SAFN-49 and FAL rifle designs, and MAG machine-gun, all of which owed something to Browning’s work as well as Saive’s own.

If you want to be the next John Moses Browning, you have to know when to step back, and how to share the burden — and the credit.

FYI Saturday posts are finally up

We’re ever behind around here. But they’re now up and backdated to:

  • 1400 Saturday: Saturday Matinee 2013 39: The Beast (1988) reviews the best Afghan-Soviet War movie set in a T-55 tank. Of course, it’s the only Afghan-Soviet War movie set in a T-55 tank, and almost the only Afghan-Soviet War movie. (Well, there’s 9 Rota and Rambo III, but that kind of makes our point, no?)


Interseasonal Sunday

Summer is over, with cool days and cooler nights hinting at a coming frost. The hydrangea is among the fabled 5% that does not get the word, still flowering defiantly even as oak and maple leaves — not changing color yet — have begin to fall. We’ll have to cut the hydrangea back rather a lot, as it’s overrun the irises and occupied a large section of patio by force. But one is loath to trim a bush still flowering.

The only trees starting to turn color are the birches and alders, which are as prolific as weeds in the back forest. Soon we will be bagging leaves for twice-weekly trips to the transfer station. If we have a normal winter we’re three months from snow; if we have one like last year, in six weeks we’ll be covered until April. Roll on Global Warming; one almost wishes that Professor Michael “Piltdown” Mann, the Jerry Sandusky of climate science, was correct in his apocalyptic  predictions. Too bad about Venice, but we could use a milder winter and longer growing season.

Today has been a day of troubleshooting, with Kid’s new airsoft gun acting up (think we can see what the problem is, but this is what warranties are for). Kid’s old Macbook acting up, not booting. Egads, we’re just one PS3 failure away from being neck-deep in bored teens. Better fix the laptop forthwith.

That was the Week that Was: 2013 Week 39

That was the week that was TW3OLate, late, late. Sometimes we feel like the White Rabbit around here. We’ll back date this post to maintain the pleasant fiction that we post a TW3 and Matinee every Saturday. (Would you believe, Sunday night?)

We do what we can.

The links are all live.

The Boring Statistics

This week saw a return to average volume from last week’s 19,000 words. It was about 14,000. We put up 22 posts, up from 20.  The mean post was 620 words, driven down by a handful of very short posts. Comrades, we have overfulfilled five-year-plan: we continued to exceed our target of 19 posts (3x day x6 days +1 on Sunday). Comments were in the low 60s, below average. What we’re writing isn’t exciting you, apparently.

Most Commented Post of the Week

The most commented post was Don’t Trust ATF? Neuther does the FBI. In all honesty, even ATF agents don’t trust their own agency to do right by them. They seem to revel in hanging field guys, especially guys who have done a lot of undercover work, out to dry, while a manager can commit just about any violation of law and policy you can name — even supplying guns to criminals that are then used to murder other Federal agents — and only gets promoted.

No wonder you guys like to talk about this agency.

The Week in Posts

Here’s the recap of our posts for this week:

How we did on last week’s promises

Not as well as we’d like, but about as well as we usually do. The overdue and the underdelivered:

  1. X A horror story from NJ promised originally now some four weeks ago.
  2. X A major post on Gerald Bull’s awesome space-capable artillery that seems to have entrenched itself on the back burner.
  3.  To post 3 x day x 6 days.
  4. X To post a √ WWWW, a TW3, and a X Saturday Matinee, before COB Saturday. Well, we did get them all up by Sunday.
  5. X One back Saturday Matinee. No joy here.

We like that set of promises and are keeping the same ones!

For Next Week

Our goal remains:

  1. to post three times a day, six days a week, of which:
  2. one gun-tech post and one SOF, UW, or war-related post up daily.
  3. a WWWW, on Wednesday.
  4. a Saturday Matinee, and a TW3 before the week ends at midnight Saturday.
  5. one back Matinee — at least.

See you with a TW3 on Saturday!

Saturday Matinee 2013 39: The Beast (1988)

The Beast DVDAfghanistan, 1980-something. A Soviet tank unit visits a brutal reprisal on a Pashtun mountain village north and east of Kandahar. It’s a scene of casual barbarity and calculating murder. The villagers fight back with rifles — mostly old Lee-Enfields —  grenades and a single recoilless rifle. One resister is made an example of, crushed under the treads of a tank after his capture. The men of the village are killed or driven into hiding; their few fatal blows against the armored Russian beasts don’t affect the outcome one iota. The women throw rocks at the tanks, without effect; the Soviets don’t even bother to kill them.

After poison gas and poisoning water holes and wells, they shoot 'em, stab 'em, and in this case, roto0-till 'em.

After poison gas and poisoning water holes and wells, they shoot ’em, stab ’em, and in this case, roto-till ’em.

That monstrous opening introduces The Beast, one of the very few movies about the Soviet nightmare in Afghanistan, a long and bitter war that undermined one of the greatest empires in history, and had a direct role in its dissolution. That history was in the future when The Beast edged into theaters in 1988; the story and events in the movie closely tracked the headlines of the 1980s. But the movie, shot in Israeli locations in a desert remarkably similar-looking to the actual areas it’s supposed to portray, is something else: it is an adaptation of a stage play that didn’t lose its staginess when it grew an outdoors and lost its confined stage.

The tank and the mountain setting notwithstanding, it’s really a movie about fraught personal relationships: those within the tank’s four-man crew, those within and among the pursuing mujahideen, and those where the two sets intersect.

Acting and Production

The actors are proficient journeymen and do what they can with an overwrought, often wordy script. Three roles are very important: Jason Patric as Konstantin Koverchenko, George Dzundza as tank and unit commander Daskal, and Steven Bauer in a typically good turn as Afghan villager Taj Mohammad, who’s forced to become Khan before his time by the death of his father.

George Dzundza as Daskal

George Dzundza as Daskal strives mightily to give depth to a shallow role.

Daskal is the weakest of the primary characters, not because there’s anything wrong with Dzundza’s performance, but because the script gives him such crabbed and meager scope. Daskal is almost cartoonish in his singleminded cruelty and drive; Dzundza delivers it, but it’s all he’s got to deliver. A story about his childhood, in which he killed German tanks as an 8-year-old at Stalingrad, becoming a celebrity called “Tank Boy,” seems an ill-fit with his present role as a company or battalion commander of an armor unit. But then the talky script often tells instead of shows, and when it does show: i.e. Russians poisoning a waterhole, to underline that they’re bad guys, or gunning down a friendly out of sheer paranoia — it overdoes it.

The conflict between Koverchenko and Daskal is mirrored by conflict between Taj Mohammad and another Afghan leader, even as the main conflict is supposed to be between Taj and the other muhajideen on the one side, and Koverchenko and the Russian tankers on the other.

Despite the script’s awkwardness, the actors do what they can. Some of the bit players are especially good, also. Eric Avari, an Indian-American actor of Parsi descent, is especially brilliant as Samad, an Afghan officer who tries to reconcile his Pashto heritage with his commitment to modernity and “scientific socialism.” The script, again, undermines his understated performance by all but hanging a “tragic figure!” sandwich board on the guy.

Apart from the absence of a script doctor’s tender ministrations, the movie has a few other telltale signs of a low budget. In the sweeping tank attack, for example, we seldom if ever see more than two moving tanks. And a key ingredient in the story — the conflicts, alliances, and realliances among the characters — often rings false. The characters act in ways that seem inexplicable without the dead hand of a writer making them do irrational things to build on-screen conflict or suspense.

But before we beat up the writer too badly for his stagey dialogue, let’s mention a few things he gets right: the power of the code of Pushtunwali, which is central to the plot of the story in its balancing of badal, revenge, and nanawatai, hospitality. For Hollywood reasons, the code is simplified, but it’s accurate. The script also emphasizes the eternal nature of Afghan culture with quotes and themes lovingly lifted by the greatest poet of the Northwest Frontier, Kipling. Only occasionally is the reader beaten over the head with this, as when a Kipling quote leads in to the movie; more often is so subtle as to be subliminal, as in the way the relationship of Taj and Konstantin tracks those of some of Kipling’s characters.

On the plus side of the ledger, director Kevin Reynolds knows how to exploit the suspense, however created; and how to shoot action. The climactic battle between the tank and an RPG team is well-paced enough to induce anxiety in a viewer (even if he has little love for either set of characters — can’t they both lose?). One way Reynolds does this is to cut between close-up shots and a very distant view that shows both the tank speeding along the road, and the muj rocketing over a mountain on gazelle feet to cut the off. It’s a “race to the crossing” for the late 20th Century.

Accuracy and Weapons

The Beast - starThere are two facets to the accuracy of The Beast: the props and the action. The action is, in places, quite unbelievable. There is a key moment when the action of women muj turns the tide of battle — something that is so foreign to Pushtu tribal culture that it’s starkly unbeliavable.

On the props, the producers tried. Perhaps the key prop is the tank itself: a generic T-55, the kind scattered around the world by Soviet influence-building approaches. Sometimes Reynolds shoots inside the tank with a widish-angle lens, emphasizing the cramped quarters, as the tankers run through realistic (if NATO-terminology) crew drills in combat. The muj refer to it as The Beast, and compare themselves to David hunting Goliath.

The Beast - stdshkaar

A foreign poster shows the fake DShK from its most convincing angle. The tank is itself almost a character in the film.

The tank’s flexible gun is supposed to be an DShK, but it isn’t; it’s a Browning cosmetically hacked to look Russian. The Russians do have period AKMS rifles, but the Afghans are armed with an improably wide range of weapons that includes not only AKMs, jezails and Enfields, but also Israeli-pattern FALs. Wait…what? A “Russian” helicopter is a Aerospatiale Super Frelon with a make-up job (the Frelon was in Israeli service during the making of this movie, which is probably how it came to stand in for an Mi-8). And they did show an RPG and an 82mm recoilless rifle somewhat accurately. There’s a hokey scene in which Koverchenko repairs an RPG with parts cannibalized from an Enfield. (Kids, don’t try this at home). The Afghans seem amazed at his mastery of the RPG… which is just silly, if you’ve ever known any Afghan men. Every one considers himself an absolute expert with all weapons, especially if you have the poor fortune to have to train these men who don’t think they need training.


Honest, he’s just dry-firing the RPG-7V in this scene. The movie does show it needs a rocket-grenade to work.

So, the weapons were sometimes right. Two things deserve consideration here, before we beat their accuracy up: first, in 1988 the Soviet Union was still largely a denied area, and its (and its satellites’) weapons exports to the West were de minimis. (Some years prior to this, it had taken a Presidential Finding to acquire comblock weapons for operational use by American special operations forces). So apart from the second thing, the filmmakers might be excused their irregularities. The second thing is that Israel, where they shot most if not all of the film, captured industrial quantities of Soviet arms in 1956, 1967 and 1973. So somebody should have been able to outfight the combatants with the right stuff.

The sights and sounds of guns firing are generally good. Artillery fire and explosions, though, are generally wrong: great Hollywood gouts of gasoline fire.

At least theres no bad CGI — this movie predates CGI.

The bottom line

The Beast is the best movie about Russians in Afghanistan to be set largely in and around a 36-ton tank. With its negative portrayal of not only the mission, but also the men, it must drive Russian Afghantsy to a reasonable first approximation of insanity. We know that former mujahideen hate the way they are portrayed here. (But what other feature tells the story of the Russo-Afghan war at all? Russians and Afghans alike also have problems with 9 Rota). It’s a fast-moving watch, with some cinematic and stage pretensions, which may explain why it has a certain cult-film following these days.

You’ll probably enjoy it if you’re not Russian, a mujahid, or prone to taking movies too seriously. K boyu!

Using gravity, and beating it

Using gravity: US Air Force tandem jumpmaster and jumper, and photographer, at terminal velocity. (The line is to a drogue that stabilizes the tandem pair). Beating gravity: A Delta rocket at sunset, launching an Italian geospatial-information satellite from Vandenberg AFB, in June 2007. (Technically, of course, a satellite launch too uses gravity, according to equations worked out between the 1880s and 1930s independently by Tsiolkovskiy, Oberth and Goddard. The orbit is where the satellite’s inertia equalizes with gravity to hold it equidistant from Earth).

vandenburg jump070607-F-6439T-001

I’m reminded of an old Army recruiting poster that said: “When you jump, it;s just you.” Unless you’re in the Air Force or the SEALs… then it’s just you and the cameraman. He, he, he.

Yes, the photo embiggens quite nicely, with just a click. Launch photos are always striking, but this one is, as far as we know, unique.

Vandenberg is an important West Coast launch site used for everything from commercial launches like this to classified payloads and missile-defense tests.

Hat tip: Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog.

How agencies react to Austerity: DOD vs. HSI

It’s instructive, sometimes, to see how different agencies react to lean budgetary times. Some go into hibernation. Others flare up like a box of flaming mortar increments — or, to continue the animal analogy, like salmon on their fatal trip upstream to reproduce. And then, as we will see, “hardships” for government workers are seldom equivalent to the real hardships faced by toilers in the Dreaded Private Sector™.

Hibernation: the DOD way

It sounds like it's The Grapes of Wrath for DOD civilians. But read on...

It sounds like it’s The Grapes of Wrath for DOD civilians. But read on…

This is what plonked into Department of the Army civilian inboxes yesterday afternoon.

From: [AN ARMY CIVILIAN BOSS] Sent: Friday, September 27, 2013 To: [REDACTED] Subject: FW: Verbal Furlough Notification (UNCLASSIFIED) Importance: High Classification: UNCLASSIFIED Caveats: NONE I’ve been asked to pass the following: Please let your civilian personnel know as soon as possible that the possibility of a “Shutdown” or “Emergency” Furlough exists if Congress does not pass an appropriations bill or continuing resolution by Monday 2359. How it will go: –If nothing is passed by Congress then DACs will come into work on Tuesday to receive and sign the furlough notification memo.  It sounds as if DACs will receive 4 hours of pay on Tuesday to complete the paperwork and shutdown workstations. –No DACs will be in a leave status.  Everyone will revert to a “non-pay” and “non-work” status. –Continue to check the OPM website for the latest information if a furlough goes into effect. Time sheets will be filled out as if there will be no furlough. v/r [REDACTED] Classification: UNCLASSIFIED Caveats: NONE

Conflagration: The DHS way

caligula-helen-mirren DHS’s investigative arm, Homeland Security Investigations, is having a massive offsite in Philadelphia this week. Offsite? Parr-tay! Not in the city, where the crime is: these aren’t the investigators who are meeting. These are the bosses. They’ll be in a Main Line hotel, with $200-and-up rooms. As the guy in Jurassic Park keeps mumbling. “Spared no expense.” And there are a lot of them. Twenty-five Senior Executive Service level Special Agents in Charge are flying in from all points of the compass. They’ll be met by forty Headquarters SESes, who are coming up from DC by train, plane (the most senior of them by VIP jets and helicopters), and automobile. Since it’s generally understood in the Federal service that an SES cannot find his own ass without a staff of five and a PowerPoint asslocation briefing, lesser staffers will be swarming like flies around the SESes. But nobody’s going to be driving in the local area. As a nod to “austerity,” no rental cars are laid on. (This also avoids the otherwise-inevitable task for some underling, to smooth Philadelphia PD’s Highway Patrol’s ruffled feathers and get DUI, leaving-the-scene, or vehicular-homicide charges against some member of the Senior Executive Service broomed). Caligula01But it’s not like these 65+ Very Important Personages will have to rusticate in their hotel, pounding shots from the minibar and stuffing themselves with room-service chateaubriand. Every DHS agency’s G-ride in town has been mobilized, and every criminal investigator has been pulled off whatever silly criminal investigation he or she was wasting time on. Instead each will act as driver, tour guide, concierge and procurer to the SES Roman Carnival. What’s your role in all this? Unless you’re one of the Privileged Partiers, or one of the Designated Drivers, whose job is to tug his forelock, cast his eyes down from the August Personage, and obey, your function in this whole thing is this: pay your taxes and keep your opinions to yourself. NSA is monitoring you, after all.

The History of Government shutdowns

If you get the feeling that this has all been done before, and better you’re probably not too far off the mark. The Congressional Research Service has looked in to the phenomenon, and found that:

Since FY1952, all of the regular appropriations acts were enacted on time in only four instances (FY1977, FY1989, FY1995, and FY1997). No CRs were enacted for three of these fiscal years, but CRs were enacted for FY1977 to fund certain unauthorized programs whose funding had been dropped from the regular appropriations acts. Further, no CRs were enacted for FY1953, even though all but one of the regular appropriations were enacted late.

So, Congress not doing its Article 1 job: not entirely a new thing. And, historically, a “government shutdown” isn’t a permanent trauma for DC workers: historically, they’ve always been paid afterwards for the hours they didn’t work. So in effect, this whole mess just winds up being one more luxo benefit for the permanent bureaucracy — an extra paid vacation! To wrap up, for any interested in this arcane subject, here are two Congressional Research Service documents, one on past funding gaps (from which the above quote is drawn) and the other, specifically, on DOD shutdowns.

A brief overview of funding gaps: (U)CRSonFederalFundingGaps–ABriefOverviewRS20348 [.pdf]

DOD Shutdowns: OpnsoftheDoDDuringaLapseinAppropsR41745 [.pdf]