Category: 4GW

Links

File under “Really Strange”: Southern Californian gangsters turn up fighting for Assad in Syria (from Borderland Beat of course).

The explanation seems to be that if you’re an Armenian or indeed Syrian immigrant in LA, you’re considered Latino for purposes of street politics, and of course Armenians do have a dog in the fight.

Here’s a dense interview about the insurgent groups involved in the current resurgence of violence in Iraq. Note that the 1920 Revolution Brigade is back.

It looks like some Syrian rebels, and specifically the FSA, have got a connection for modern ATGWs.

And Mexican forces invade the United States.

Your occasional Mexican popular militia update

You know when people say “I hope he doesn’t get on any small planes”? Well, the leader of those Mexican countergangs has done, with proverbial results. He was transferred to the capital for his ambiguous safety and is all right. He may have made some sort of commitment to the government or perhaps not, while various weird things happen, the military try to disarm some of his people and then give the guns back, and his followers keep staking out more ground in the interregnum. Here, they expropriate, sorry, return illegally occupied land to its rightful owners, and Borderland Beat‘s DD is right there with smartphone in hand. I am in awe.

Al-Jazeera takes a view.

A blog you should read if you don’t already

Borderland Beat needs no introduction, as a great and indeed heroic blog. This week, it has excelled itself. Here is an interview with an American lawyer, a member of an elite Mexican-American family that straddled the border and the law with minimal concern, who became a defence brief to the cocaine traffickers, and eventually one of them. It’s stuffed with interesting information about the precise terms of business and the premodern tribal and modern class structures involved, as well as the personal history of a man who lived the traditional gangster movie story-arc.

But by the time you get working well, you’ve already met everybody and everybody knows everybody. It’s a very small circle. Everybody knows everybody. And that’s where the problems start occurring, because before it was the drug dealer who lived and went to those restaurants, to those clubs. And the juniors and their families went to those restaurants and to those clubs–separated. When the juniors became involved, they started mixing. People didn’t like that. People from good families started getting killed. People didn’t like that.

For the first time, the heat started coming down on the government, from people that had a voice. And that’s what started this big trend of real heat. Everything started coming out to the open. Because now real people, powerful, legitimate people, were bringing in heat to tell the government, “What the hell are you doing about this problem? Now they’re sucking in our kids. Now they’re sucking in our culture. Now they’re mixing with our crowds. Put a stop to these guys.”

And that’s when things really got ugly. The military and the police and eventually the navy ripped into the drugs world and it ripped back. These days, the big theme and the only hope that’s going is the self-defence movement of village-level countergangs. Was it inspired by US counterinsurgents of the 2000s, remembered from their denied 1970s ancestors, or borrowed from their leftist enemies? The Beat goes out in the field with the people who claim to be the reasonable rebels.

They’re an increasingly powerful and deadly force in politics, and they’re developing a bloodthirsty Internet following, to some extent a network of intelligence sources, to some extent a fan base, and to some extent a noisy propaganda machine.

The state in its desperation encouraged them, and in its absence and complicity made them necessary. Now it’s worrying about the forces it created. This tells us something about the origins of those of those forces.

According to their own account, “in the 80’s and early 90’s the great wave of violence that appeared on the roads of Montaña (now known as the Tlapa-Marquelia highway) and Costa Chica (San Luis Acatlán-Marquelia) in Guerrero drove some of the communities’ residents to join forces against it. At this time, organizations and production companies, mainly in the coffee industry, were also affected because they could not safely distribute their products and economic resources.”

That is to say that the origin of the community police is in protecting themselves and their land. It is part of their [indigenous] conception of collective justice, self-organization, and even self-government. They don’t hide their faces, and they are chosen at assembly elections for merits such as honesty and respect for their community and family. The community maintains them, even though they receive support from their respective governments.

These same causes also gave rise to the Community Police of Cherán, Michoacan, and groups in other indigenous populations of the Purépecha plateau in 2011. That year, the indigenous communities of this area got organized, took up arms, and fought the illegal loggers who were backed by The Michoacán Family and Knights Templar cartels..

In that quote we have a whole variety of interesting contradictions. There’s a founding myth, protecting the peaceful traders from dangerous bandits. They’re also described as an indigenous force representing indigenous values and interests and protecting the indigenous population’s ecological resources.

However, they’re also apparently looking after the coffee business, and in some senses fighting the enemies of the state, as well as being a threat to it. As we have seen, this may be either the result of a Briggs/Templer win-the-aborigine counterinsurgency plan or a sort of echo of one in the past. The intelligent answer is that probably all of these are true to some extent, and you should keep reading that blog.

No surprise blogging

From Crooked Timber:

Speaking of hypocrisy, what of the revelations (big surprise) that CIA had been briefing Pakistan govt on the drone strikes, while the latter was simultaneously denouncing them?

From the blog, December 2012, I point out that the CIA and the Pakistanis were evidently cooperating in so far as they coordinated their use of airspace over the NWFP, keeping the drones, army helicopters, and Pakistani F-16s out of each other’s way.

They weren’t just advised of the flying programme, but also of the targets and the intelligence files.

GSM Warlord, with actual statistics

Via Trombly x Exum, an interesting paper on mobile telephony and the Iraq war is here. I was impressed by the fact the authors know there are multiple antenna sectors per cell-site, and that they bothered to find out roughly what an emerging market GSM operator’s roll-out process is like. In fact, if you wonder, the paper is actually quite a good high-level brief on how you go about picking the sites for a mobile phone network and some of the operational considerations, in Iraq or anywhere.

But that’s not the point. The authors set out to answer whether GSM helped the insurgents or the counterinsurgents in Iraq. They reasoned that it might help the insurgents by letting them co-ordinate their activities and by letting them set off bombs remotely, and the counterinsurgents mostly by making it easier for civilians to inform on the insurgents. They also took note that it could contribute to economic development, which is presumed to help the government side. (They don’t discuss the impact of either counterinsurgent ELINT spying on GSM traffic, or insurgent spying, probably as it’s very hard to get any information.)

They pulled a hell of a lot of data, helpfully provided by Zain (i.e. ex-Celtel), and concluded after a creditable effort to understand it that there was a small, but formally statistically significant, effect in favour of the counterinsurgent. Importantly, this was strongest in the areas that were classified as mixed Shia/Sunni in 2003, i.e. the battlefield, and during early 2007, i.e. the decisive peak of the battle.

That said, the R^2s aren’t huge (highest is 0.28). There’s also a problem in that they took quite a lot of care to identify antenna sectors that got service for the first time, in order to compare them with ones that already had it and ones that never did. This is scientific, but it does pose the problem that Zain weren’t putting so many BTSs out there in the spring of 2007 in the worst of the civil war, because their people didn’t want to die, and therefore you wonder about the sample size and the representativeness of some data points that are quite crucial.

Actually, you learn a lot here about the history of Zain Iraq’s network; in the months before the fateful mosque attacks of 2006, they were building out like maniacs, true to their reputation back then as Mo Ibrahim’s pioneers covering the most troubled hellholes of Africa. Then, it got bad enough and suddenly that they shut down most investment and stayed that way until the end of 2007. The authors say that “month-to-month variance in violence” didn’t lead to “major design change”, but the point wouldn’t be design change but timing, and they also include a chart that suggests they basically stopped in the worst of the war.

Growth isn’t necessarily stabilising, and I suspect that Zain engineers would tell you that straight off. In a very low-trust society, more resources are quite likely to lead to more conflict. I think it’s a safe assumption that GSM coverage helps people to rat to the government more than it helps them to rat to insurgents, because insurgents need to be in the network of strong personal ties to survive. I’m not completely convinced, though. There were examples of insurgent intelligence exploitation of GSM back then (see the 2005 and 2006 archives) and the weak/strong tie distinction is subjective.

Also, I would like to know what role anti-social networking played; to what extent did better communications, that were mobile, two-way, and also personal, help to spread propaganda, hate-speech, and paranoia? Radio Mille Collines was a broadcast system, but there’s no obvious reason why incitement to genocide can’t be participatory via SMS or (better) voice.

That said, the most responsive measurement of violence was the percentage of IEDs found and cleared, which suggests something was going on.

But one of the most interesting things in the paper is this:

Most importantly, the teams would typically enter into long-term contracts with local community members and organizations to pay for site rental, generator fueling, site security, and training of local engineers to provide these services. Where possible, they would engage with local elites to identify the personnel who could be entrusted with these jobs.

This strategy of establishing close connection to local elites meant that once marketing had identified an area for network expansion, teams were mostly able to move in effectively even in areas with high violence.

So perhaps we’re seeing the emergence of people who can navigate the emerging low-trust society. On the one hand, the interhierarchical leaders of instant tradition, who would later be the key interlocutors with the Americans in the counterinsurgent phase, on the other, the pre-merger Celtel team who were already familiar with working in this kind of environment.

Guided?

Here’s something interesting. Andrew Krepinevich is quoted by the AOL News (!) blog criticising various aspects of US strategy, which is what he does. But this quote popped out of the background for me:

“The American military is losing some critical sources of advantage that it’s enjoyed over the last twenty years. One is the near monopoly we’ve had in precision guided weaponry,” he said. Not only are China and Iran investing in precision, he said, but even the terrorists who struck the US consulate in Benghazi may have used precision-guided mortar rounds…

May they really? If so, I think that’s the first confirmed use of guided indirect fire weapons against a US or “western” target, certainly by a nonstate actor, and a moment of some historic significance. Also, it’s Libya, which is currently leaking weapons in all directions. So if someone either has a supply of these rounds, or else an operation producing them, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they appear elsewhere soon.

That would include Syria and also Palestine, which makes it time to unfreeze this post out of the carbonite. Bill Clinton had a damn good point there.

GPS receivers available in commerce are restricted, via the CoCom export control machinery, to functioning below 60,000 feet altitude and at less than 1,000 knots ground speed. This is precisely intended to stop people building their own ballistic missile guidance systems, and greatly annoys amateur high altitude balloonists.

In practice, as JGC points out, some manufacturers implement this as an AND and some as an OR, but overall it functions as a restriction on the range of such a device. 1,000 knots is 514m/s. Assuming a 45 degree launch, that would give a maximum altitude of 22,000 feet, well within the restriction, and a range of 27km/16.7 miles with a time of flight of 74 seconds. For example, one of the Fajr-5s the Iranians claim they supplied to Hamas, or taught Hamas how to make would be out of court on both counts. Of course, it’s more likely that guidance would operate after the rocket burned out.

Middle Eastern Links

Back from MWC. Heavy cold. Browser queue jammed with stuff. I’m going to do a brief succession of link posts to clear up. (Happenings last week; huge Leveson revelations, James Murdoch out, King Mob abolished workfare, horse, Borisbus fiasco, debate on Daniel Morgan, even more Leveson..)

This one deals with everyone’s favourite global geo-political region, the Middle East. Anthony Shadid died, and Angry Arab thinks the obits weren’t tough enough on the Israelis. Alyssa at ThinkProgress has a list of 20 of his best dispatches and only one covers the Palestinians and tangentially at that. Really?

Foreign Policy‘s David Kenner provides some history of the 1982 Muslim Brotherhood revolt in Syria and its repression by President Assad’s dad President Assad. Worth noting that by the time the Syrian army began its infamous destruction of Hama in ’82, the struggle had been going on since 1976. Just because the rebels have kept it up so long – which is astonishing and a demonstration of extreme courage – shouldn’t be taken to mean that they are going to win in the end.

Colin Kahl, writing in the Washington Post, points out that the Osirak raid in 1981 didn’t slow down Saddam Hussein’s effort to build the Bomb, in part because it hadn’t really started before the raid. However, the attack convinced him to make a concerted effort, and also caused Iraq to abandon the power reactor-reprocessing-plutonium route in favour of the highly-enriched uranium route, which is much easier to conceal and also to distribute among multiple facilities and which turned out to have a entire black market supply chain.

He also links to this piece on planning considerations for Israel, which highlights their air-to-air refuelling tankers as a key constraint. Kahl also points out that in the event of an Israeli raid, their air force would probably be needed at home immediately afterwards.

The Americans, for what it’s worth, don’t think a strategic decision has been taken to get the Bomb.

Bizarrely, the IAEA inspectors have discovered that the fortified enrichment plant at Fordow in Iran contains 2,000 empty centrifuge cases but not the centrifuges themselves. Is it a bluff of some sort? Is it a decoy target? Is it just a very odd way of going about building an enrichment plant?

Binyamin Netanyahu memorably described as “carrying both Anne Frank and the entire IDF around in his head”, presumably in between the bees in his bonnet and the bats in his belfry. It is argued that he won’t attack Iran because the settlers won’t like it, or possibly that he’s bluffing about Iran to draw attention away from them.

Ultima Ratio is down, but you can read their excellent (French) review of Syed Saleem Shahbaz’s posthumous book Inside Al-Qa’ida and the Taliban in the Google cache. Fans of “Kashmir is still the issue” will be interested by the argument that Muhammad Ilyas Kashmiri and ex-Pakistani officer Haroon Ashik introduced a new strategy aiming to bring about more conflict between Pakistan and India, in the hope of alienating Pakistani leaders from the alliance with the US. Apparently they were planning something against an Indian nuclear site when Kashmiri was droned in June 2011.

RQ-170 upshot, part 2: the bubble

Is there a drone bubble? It’s not clear whether this is more like the .com bubble, when a lot of useful stuff was built but a couple of years too early, or more like the housing bubble, when a lot of stuff was built in the wrong places to the wrong standards at the wrong prices and will probably never be worth much. It’s the nature of a bubble, of course, that it’s precisely at the top of the bubble that the commitment to it is greatest.

One of the things the RQ-170 incident tells us about is some of the operational limitations of the drones. Typically, they are piloted in the cruise from locations that may be a long way off, using satellite communication links, but when they land, they do so under local control via line-of-sight radio link from their base. This allows us to set some bounds on how much of a problem link latency really is, which will take us circling back to John Robb’s South Korean gamers.

Gamers are famous for being obsessed with ping-times – the measurement of round-trip latency on the Internet – because it’s really, really annoying to see the other guy on your screen, go to zap’em, and get zapped yourself because it took longer for your zap to cross the Internet than theirs. Typically you can expect 40 or so milliseconds nationally, 60-80 inter-continentally…or several hundred if a satellite or an old-school cellular operator with a hierarchical network architecture is involved. A sat hop is always clearly identifiable in traceroute output because latency goes to several hundred ms, and there’s a great RIPE NCC paper on using the variations in latency over a year to identify the satellite’s geosynchronous (rather than geostationary) orbit as the slant-range changes.

On the other hand, roundtrip latency across an airfield circuit a couple of miles wide will be negligible. So we can conclude that tolerable latency for manoeuvring, as opposed to cruising, is very little. Now, check out this post on David Cenciotti’s blog from January 2010. Some of the Israeli air force’s F-15s have received a new communications radio suite specifically for controlling UAVs.

You might now be able to guess why even drone pilots are going through basic flight training. Also, this post of Cenciotti’s describes the causes of six recent hull losses, all of which are classic airmanship accidents – the sort of thing pilot training is designed to teach you to avoid.

That said, why did all those drones get built? The original, 1980s UAV concepts were usually about the fact that there was no pilot and therefore the craft could be treated as expendable, usually in order to gain intelligence on the (presumably) Soviet enemy’s air defences by acting as a ferret aircraft, forcing them to switch on the radars so the drone could identify them. But that’s not what they’ve been doing all these years.

The main reason for using them has been that they are lightweight and have long endurance. This is obviously important from an intelligence gathering perspective, whether you’re thinking of over-watching road convoys or of assassinating suspected terrorists (and there are strong arguments against that, as Joshua Foust points out). In fact, long endurance and good sensors are so important that there are even so-called manned drones – diesel-engined, piloted light aircraft stuffed with sensors, with the special feature that they fly with intelligence specialists aboard and provide a much faster turn-around of information for the army.

Their limitations – restricted manoeuvre, limited speed and payload, and high dependence on communications infrastructure – haven’t really been important because they have been operating in places and against enemies who don’t have an air force or ground-based air defences and don’t have an electronic warfare capability either. Where the enemy have had man-portable SAMs available, as sometimes in Iraq, they have chosen to save them for transport aircraft and the chance of killing Americans, which makes sense if anti-aircraft weapons are scarce (and surely, the fact of their scarcity has to be one of the major unreported news stories of the decade).

But then, the war in Iraq is meant to be over even if the drones are still landing in Kurdistan, and the US may be on its way to a “pre-1990″ military posture in the Gulf. This week’s strategic fashion is “Air-Sea Battle” and the Pacific, and nobody expects anything but the most hostile possible environment in the air and in the electromagnetic spectrum. And the RQ-170 incident is surely a straw in the wind. Also, the Bush wars were fought in an environment of huge airfields in the desert, and the ASB planners expect that the capacity of US bases in Japan and Guam and the decks of aircraft carriers will be their key logistical constraint. (The Russians aren’t betting everything on them either.)

I think, therefore, it’s fair to suggest that a lot of big drones are going to end up in the AMARC stockpile. After the Americans’ last major counter-insurgency, of course, that’s what happened. The low-tech ones are likely to keep proliferating, though, whether as part of the Royal Engineers’ route clearance system or annoying the hell out of Japanese whalers or even playing with lego.

The RQ-170 hack and the drone bubble

The fact that a majority of this year’s graduates from USAF basic pilot training are assigned to drone squadrons has got quite a bit of play in the blogosphere. Here, via Jamie Kenny, John Robb (who may still be burying money for fear of Obama or may not) argues that the reason they still do an initial flight training course is so that the pilot-heavy USAF hierarchy can maintain its hold on the institution. He instead wants to recruit South Korean gamers, in his usual faintly trendy dad way. Jamie adds the snark and suggests setting up a call centre in Salford.

On the other hand, before Christmas, the Iranians caught an RQ-170 intelligence/reconnaissance drone. Although the RQ-170 is reportedly meant to be at least partly stealthy, numerous reports suggest that the CIA was using it among other things to get live video of suspected nuclear sites. This seems to be a very common use case for drones, which usually have a long endurance in the air and can be risked remaining over the target for hours on end, if the surveillance doesn’t have to be covert.

Obviously, live video means that a radio transmitter has to be active 100% of the time. It’s also been reported that one of the RQ-170′s main sensors is a synthetic-aperture radar. Just as obviously, using radar involves transmitting lots of radio energy.

It is possible to make a radio transmitter less obvious, for example by saving up information and sending it in infrequent bursts, and by making the transmissions as directional as possible, which also requires less power and reduces the zone in which it is possible to detect the transmission. However, the nature of the message governs its form. Live video can’t be burst-transmitted because it wouldn’t be live. Similarly, real-time control signalling for the drone itself has to be instant, although engineering telemetry and the like could be saved and sent later, or only sent on request. And the need to keep a directional antenna pointing precisely at the satellite sets limits on the drone’s manoeuvring. None of this really works for a mapping radar, though, which by definition needs to sweep a radio beam across its field of view.

Even if it was difficult to acquire it on radar, then, it would have been very possible to detect and track the RQ-170 passively, by listening to its radio emissions. And it would have been much easier to get a radar detection with the advantage of knowing where to look.

There has been a lot of speculation about how they then attacked it. The most likely scenario suggests that they jammed the command link, forcing the drone to follow a pre-programmed routine for what to do if the link is lost. It might, for example, be required to circle a given location and wait for instructions, or even to set a course for somewhere near home, hold, and wait for the ground station to acquire them in line-of-sight mode.

Either way, it would use GPS to find its way, and it seems likely that the Iranians broadcast a fake GPS signal for it. Clive “Scary Commenter” Robinson explains how to go about spoofing GPS in some detail in Bruce Schneier’s comments, and points out that the hardware involved is cheap and available.

Although the military version would require you to break the encryption in order to prepare your own GPS signal, it’s possible that the Iranians either jammed it and forced the drone to fall back on the civilian GPS signal, and spoofed that, or else picked up the real signal at the location they wanted to spoof and re-broadcast it somewhere else, an attack known as “meaconing” during the second world war when the RAF Y-Service did it to German radio navigation. We would now call it a replay attack with a fairly small time window. (In fact, it’s still called meaconing.) Because GPS is based on timing, there would be a limit to how far off course they could put it this way without either producing impossible data or messages that failed the crypto validation, but this is a question of degree.

It’s been suggested that Russian hackers have a valid exploit of the RSA cipher, although the credibility of this suggestion is unknown.

The last link is from Charlie Stross, who basically outlined a conceptual GPS-spoofing attack in my old Enetation comments back in 2006, as a way of subverting Alistair Darling’s national road-pricing scheme.

Anyway, whether they cracked the RSA key or forced a roll-back to the cleartext GPS signal or replayed the real GPS signal from somewhere else, I think we can all agree it was a pretty neat trick. But what is the upshot? In the next post, I’m going to have a go at that…

Reflections on a HOWTO

I have been reading Curzio Malaparte’s Technique of the Coup d’état this weekend. It’s a fascinating document – the basic argument is that the October Revolution represented an exportable, universally applicable technology for taking control of the state, quite independent of ideological motivation or broader strategic situation. It was already fairly well-known at the time that Russia in 1917 really wasn’t the environment Marxists imagined would lead to a revolution and that Lenin had essentially retconned the whole thing to provide for giving history a little push. Malaparte’s unique contribution was to argue that it was more fundamental than that – the Bolshevik seizure of power could in reality have been carried out almost anywhere, for whatever reason. It wasn’t a strategic or ideological question, but one of operational art and tactics.

So, what’s this open-source putsch kit consist of? Basically you need a small force of determined rebels. Small is important – you want quality not quantity as secrecy, unanimity, and common understanding good enough to permit independent action are required. You want as much chaos as possible in advance of the coup, although not so much that everything’s shut. And then you occupy key infrastructures and command-and-control targets. Don’t, whatever you do, go after ministries or similar grand institutional buildings – get the stuff that would really cause trouble if it blew up.

Ideally, you do this by just floaking in through the front door as if you were in the railway station to catch a train rather than to seize the signalling centre. You’ll probably need, once you’ve got control of the real instruments of power, to stage some sort of symbolic overthrow of the government, but this is really only in order to get the message across to everybody else. Then, induce whatever authority is meant to be in charge after the head of government has been incapacitated to legitimise your action after the fact. It doesn’t matter much what state it’s in – a pro tip is to keep the parliament but get rid of enough opposition members to rig the vote.

Bada bing, bada boom, you are now the dictator.

From the other side, Malaparte argues that the worst thing that can go wrong is a general strike. There’s no point occupying key points if you can’t make the machine work yourself, as you’ll just be master of a lot of dark, cold buildings. The second worst thing that can go wrong is that you start to fall behind schedule. The whole trick relies on missing out as many people as possible, and the longer it takes, the more people have time to recover their orientation and get angry.

Interestingly, he comes up with something very like the 70s “historic compromise” concept in relation to this.

So you need either to get the support or at least the neutrality of the unions, or else render them unable to act in advance, which will mean fighting a civil war before you get to bring off the coup. And once you start, you’ve got to move quickly and keep moving.

Interestingly, he doesn’t say much about how you’re going to keep power once you’ve got it, if you can’t rely on calling everyone out on strike. After all, two can play at this game. This is a weakness in the whole concept, and quite an illuminating one.

Malaparte was a deeply odd character, a border-nationalist of German origins, an Italian first world war hero, later a diplomat and journalist and a fascist of the first hour who went on to fall out with fascism and get locked up. This is probably why he is read at all now. Having been released, he reported the Eastern Front of 1941 for the Italian papers until he fell out with the Germans, covered the Finnish sector until something similar happened, ended up back in Italy in time to take part in his second Italian coup (he had already managed to invade Russia twice, once as an attaché with the Poles in 1920 and again with the Germans as a journo in 1941, and live to tell the tale), served in the pro-Allied Italian army, and claimed to have become a communist.

He was also an almost joyously unreliable source, a self-mythologising war junkie who made Hemingway look sensible, and to be frank, if he fell out with the fascists it wasn’t because he was going soft or anything. I’ve read his dispatches from the Eastern Front (The Volga Rises in Europe) and found it hard to make out what the Germans objected to – obviously my standards aren’t those of a Wehrmacht press officer, but there’s a lot of hardboiled combat reporting, quite a bit of gratuitous fine writing, and nothing much critical of the war or Germany.

He also had an Ernst Röhm gay-fascist streak you could have landed a fleet of Savoia-Marchetti flying boats on, across it. Or at least his style did. The Volga… is just full of dashing blond Finnish officers and casually hunky, rough-trade Nazi recovery mechanics track-bashing in the Ukrainian sun, although there are a fair few fair country girls whose hearts and minds don’t seem to need much winning in there as well. (By the time it all got stuck in a ditch outside Rostov-on-Don he’d long since been ghosted by the German spin doctors.)

Anyway, a fascinating, utterly mad, and often deeply creepy writer. Back to the steps of the telephone exchange.

I think his coup technique is quite telling. Fascism always had an odd central contradiction in that it insisted it believed in hardcore political realism but also in romantic activism. Power, and specifically either firepower or horsepower, was all that mattered, but with enough will it would always be possible to change the power realities. Marxists offered inevitability; fascists opportunity. Rapid shock action directed at the key installations will give us the state, and that will give us everything else. Speed, style, ruthlessness, and cheek are everything. It’s the hope of audacity – get the right people together and a list of oil refineries, and everything is possible.

This may not sound very convincing, but it’s certainly true that many, many coups have been carried out following this rough plan.

Malaparte makes a complex distinction between the seizure of power in a parliamentary state and just using the parliamentary institutions to go legit later. He’s agin the first. I’m not so sure – two of the most successful coups of the 20th century were carried out in France, Petain’s parliamentary coup and de Gaulle’s rather less parliamentary one in 1958.

I think what’s happening here is that his residual fascist is showing.

Another thing that runs through the book is the idea, very common in extreme politics since 1918, that the military tactics of the late first world war – infiltration, independent action, surprise attack – can just be ported straight into politics. Malaparte actually goes so far as to make this explicit. It’s a great historical irony that the world experts of decentralised command were the Prussians, of course.

As always, though, it all makes for great tactics but lousy strategy.