Friday, December 31, 2010

The Ivory Coast: Are the ghosts of Rwanda about to strike back?


  There might be a new war brewing in West Africa. 

  But don't hold your breath for the 24/7 live TV coverage. At best expect some images of machete wielding crazy black people (African-Africans?) threatening to go medieval on each other, and, since Ivory Coast is the world's largest cocoa producer, expect maybe some Ron Burgundy reporter interviewing a corporate shill chocolate spokesman as he laments how impending genocide in Africa might cause a ten cent rise in the price of Hershey Bars. Probably you'll hear nothing in the media unless you go looking. There are just too many real wars going on right now for anybody to give a shit about what's going down in West Africa.
   This war has the potential to get ugly though. And when we talk about ugly in African terms, we're talking really fucking ugly. People in the Ivory Coast have already started painting tribal insignias on their doors and front gates which means the country is gearing itself up to go Rwanda on itself in the near future. You don't want to get massacred by the wrong tribal death squad after all. There's only one thing worse than getting hacked up with machetes and that's getting hacked up accidentally by 'friendly machetes'.

   You'd think the world would care. The Rwandan genocide in 1994 resulted in 800,000 dead, most of them stabbed or carved up on the cheap because hey... bullets cost money. I remember Clinton making some speech when he was doing his elder statesmen book tour or something and dropping in on old Rwanda to say sorry he hadn't done anything to stop the massacre. It was pretty funny. I was thinking that what he was really saying was that it was a pity the Rwandans had no oil or diamonds to make it worthwhile for the US to intervene and keep the old colonial power structure in place. That's usually the one that's best for business. And this was a while back when the US still had a shot glass of moral authority left in the world. But of course, it's not like the Russians or Chinese or whoever else are waving some awesome flag of freedom. The world is closing down. The US still alludes to the idea of 'freedom' which is better than nothing I suppose. But lets face it, we're living in Blade Runner. Corporations run this shit now. There are no nation states anymore.

   The history of Ivory Coast follows the typical colonial West African model. The Europeans started the usual coastal rape in the late 15th century. Ivory Coast dodged the worst of the slave trade in the 17th century partly due to easier pickings further along the coast and also due to a lack of natural harbors. It got its name from a time before plastics when everything from piano keys to billiard balls were made from elephant tusks. Chances are that Mozart bashed together Don Giovanni and the Turkish Rondo on ivory lifted from that coast. However, by the time the 19th century rolled around there was a mysterious shortage of elephants there. Go figure. It was around this time some French Admiral signed a few pieces of paper with some native kings in the interior and the Côte d'Ivoire became a "French Protectorate" which basically gave the natives the right to be ass raped by the French for the next century.

   In 1960, the Ivorians finally gained their independence though not following the typical post colonial African script, you know, the one where the departing European power scribbles "congratulations you're independent" on a piece of paper and then fucks off home with the embassy furniture. Usually this scenario devolves into civil war. That's the thing about Africa that never worked. Dividing that vast continent up by drawing lines on European drawn maps and thinking those borders were anything but arbitrary and bore any relation to tribal, ethnic or religious division. Most times it took a war to settle those old scores after the Euros bailed.

   But Côte d'Ivoire didn't follow that script.

   That was largely due to one man, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the first president of the newly independent Ivory Coast in 1960. This guy wasn't some general who muscled his way to power thanks to a few container loads of AKs and RPGs from whatever country had an interest in watching Africa burn. It's hard to believe, but under this guy's leadership we're looking at an African 'success story'. Maybe. We're not talking bullet trains and universal healthcare or anything but still, most of the population of your capital city was not using the local beach  as an open air toilet like in neighboring Liberia. That's some measure of success by African standards right? The Ivory Coast prospered more than any other West African nation that wasn't sitting on top of tanker loads of oil. In fact, it was so prosperous that its cocoa, pineapple, banana and palm oil plantations started attracting labor from neighboring countries and led to an influx of people from Ghana, Liberia and Burkina Faso.

   By 1990 and after 30 years of rule, wily old Félix had pocketed 10 billion for himself and become the longest serving leader in African history that you've probably never heard of. No seriously, only Castro and Kim Jong Il's daddy have served longer in modern history. Peace and prosperity tends to have a negative effect on fame though. You need to chalk up some deaths before anyone remembers you these days. Félix died in 1993 but not before he was flown back from some French hospital on life support to die in his native land and have his lifeless hand sign some papers that made sure the acting Prime Minister at the time, Alassane Ouattara didn't stay in power. Bear with me here because shit's about to get interesting. Turns out Ouattara is central to what's going down today. He's the guy the UN and 'independent observers' are saying 'fairly' won last month's election. He's also a bankster who acted as Deputy Managing Director at the IMF from '94-'99 and if that doesn't make alarm bells ring than what does? Still, nobody in this seedy mess is going to have clean hands. Ouaterra is famous for causing the Ivorian parliament to come up with a new law in 1994 to keep him out of domestic politics by decreeing that only people whose parents were born in Ivory Coast could become el presidente. The measure passed. Turns out all that cheap labor that flooded into the country to work the plantations in the 60s and 70s weren't full citizens. Not even their children. Faultline number one created right there.

   But we're jumping ahead.

   What happened after solid old Félix Houphouët-Boigny died? After a massive state funeral he was succeeded by some guy who got overthrown in 1999 by a typical power hungry general in Ivory Coast's first military coup. The whole clean Ivorian record on the military takeover front was just too good to last. The new guy allowed free elections a year later after the economy took a nosedive and foreigners panicked and started pulling their money out of the country. Still, free elections are a pretty bad idea if you're an African dictator because another general is always likely to come along and fuck you up, in this case Laurent Gbagbo, and he has been the General enjoying Côte d'Ivoire power, coke and hookers from 2000 to this day. Of course, I'm leaving out a civil war he fought between 2000-2004 but it was pretty low grade shit compared to what's about to go down now.

   So where are the fault lines in all of this today?

   One is Gbagbo himself. He's liked by the army which is pretty much a win in electoral politics when you happen to be the general in charge of that army. You can divert some of those cocoa profits to army pensions and guarantee your legions a retirement Caesar style. Despite losing this election (if you believe the UN and IMF) he's refusing to step down and waving his dick around and saying 'fuck you' to the rest of the world. The United States, the United Nations, the European Union, the African Union and the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS) have all recognised electoral commission results showing Ouattara as the winner of the election and have called on Gbagbo to step down. That's pretty much when you know you're not wanted. But is a dick waving guy subject to the ordinary rules of pencil pushers? Right now, he wants the UN out and things could get ugly if his forces decide to mount an attack on the limited UN forces there. There's the possibility of losing some troops, Belgian Rwandan style and causing an 'incident' that might make the UN's pussy dry up.

   Basically the blowback right now is that those ECOWAS states might be prepared to get their shit together for the first time in history and actually mount an attack on the Ivorian capital to remove Gbagbo. That would certainly have me grabbing the popcorn. ECOWAS would field a hodge podge of 70s Soviet equipment like T-55 and T-72 tanks combined with British Scorpion light tanks bought in the '80s. They could also field some NATO equipment. Ivory Coast has pretty much nothing vehicle wise against this potential force except infantry, jungles and IEDs. I'm so big on heavy infantry right now that I'm down on military vehicles at the moment considering the amount of ways there are to take them out and score economic damage for the cost of ten bags of fertilizer buried under a manhole. Of course, no matter how dirty Gbagbo chooses to fight, ECOWAS would still win.

   The other fault line in all this is Ouaterra. He's liked by the UN, IMF and international community because he's going to be their stability guy where they get to make some nice inroads into that cocoa supply. If you know anything about the history of chocolate you'll know that it was pretty much the crack of 18th century Europe. Not that anyone cares today since it's a convenience store item. But still, the IMF has always had a hard on for anything they can pick up cheap in Africa. Currently Ouaterra is holed up in a hotel surrounded by Gbagbo's troops. That's a pretty shitty situation to be in considering you've got the weight of the world's financial institutions on your side. But loaded guns pointed at you always beat sentiments or speeches.

     Whats going to happen? I have no idea. But expect some kind of genocide if ECOWAS decides to invade in the name of 'democracy'. The rebels in the north (those Burkina Fasa residents denied citizenship because their parents working those plantations weren't citizens) have already stated they would join up with any pan African force if it were to invade and undo the power structure of those Christian coastal elites that have been running shit since the French left. The funniest story so far is thousands already fleeing Ivory Coast and heading for Liberia. That made me laugh. You know things are bad when civilians feel the need to flee to the worse shithole nextdoor.

   Right now, Gbagbo has been offered asylum and safe passage to wherever. After running a country for ten years he's probably stashed away a decent amount of bank, enough at least that he could live comfortably in the South of France for the rest of his life. But that's the problem with leaders and dictators and men in power. They become victims of "target fixation". It's something that used to happen to dive-bomber pilots in WWII. So much so that German Stuka dive bombers were fitted with an automatic air brake that pulled the plane out of a dive when the pilot became obsessed with landing his bomb on target to the point where he would crash his plane into the target. Sometimes, leaders get like that. When you own the kingdom so much that you can't let go of the control stick except when it's too late. It's because you can never imagine living a life anymore like a mere citizen.

    It's another classic war in Africa that nobody will give a shit about.

    Except maybe when Hershey Bars cost ten cents more.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The MG 42. An "evil" gun?

 Why do I like the German MG 42?

 Many will say liking any gun in military history is a pretty sick enterprise. It makes me a real bad person right? How many people died as a result of a trigger pull on that particular weapon? Truth is though, humans are going to kill each other no matter what. Go ahead and pick up a rock and, if you follow the same logic, chances are you are admiring a stone item that is culturally insignificant but responsible for more bashed in skulls in human history than anything delivered from the barrel of a gun.

  I've come to accept human nature. Guns are just the latest expression of that 'big rock'.

  But it is also worth mentioning, considering the MG 42's origin, that I am not a Nazi or any kind of follower of that particular ideology. I'm just a student of human history who notices that war is pretty much our favourite activity as a species. I just happen to find it entertaining to notice the ways we devise to kill each other. Now, let's move on to the fun stuff.

  The MG42 is my favourite 'evil' gun.

  First off, it looks like a real bitch, like that ex wife who bailed with Bob from marketing but had a certain femme fatale quality to her nonetheless. Risky, but good looking. A whore (in hindsight), but a good fuck at the time. Standing there laughing at you on her stilted legs, knowing she could blow you away at any time, she's the bitch that could wreck your life when you stare her down. That's an MG 42. That's a serious gun.

  And, for some reason I can't explain, I'm referring to the MG 42 as female.

   She was made of stamped steel, mass produced at the time, when the Germans in '38 were anticipating annexing some pretty serious amounts of real estate and were in need of a replacement for the heavier, more sturdy but less reliable MG34. The Wehrmacht needed something they could mass produce fast while still maintaining high quality and lethality. There's something about the way Germans engineer stuff that I can appreciate, like BMWs and Porsches, high quality stuff that's over engineered, looks great, but is a little too pricey.

   The MG42 was a lot like that.

   The order requirement from the Wehrmacht on a dream gun was a paradoxical checklist. They needed something they could produce cheaply and also something that could spit out terrifying amounts of ammo. The contract, like all seedy government contracts, was hard to fulfill. The Wehrmacht ended up accepting a bid from a guy who had never even built a gun before, Johannes Großfuß, a guy who ran a stamped parts steel factory who had no experience in gun manufacture but saw a niche he could fill when profitable Nazi government contracts started floating around 1930s Germany. One of his engineers came up with the "roller locked mechanism" an innovation in gun manufacture that improved firing rate and heat efficiency and won him the design. The Nazi's liked it so much they had three factories mass producing the design by 1940. Großfuß won the contract not because he owned enough politicians to see it through but because his was the best actual design as voted on by hardcore military people. (This was in a narrow period in military history when the government officials dictating military policy weren't owned by the private corporations producing the guns.)

   The Nazis were working off Guderian's as yet unproven 'Blitzkrieg' doctrine, the idea that some future 'lightening strike' would undo the ass rape of Versailles through speed and firepower and blow into France in a way that nobody had seen before. The German Army was gaming a new West Front offensive but this time without any 'hypothetical' rerun of WWI that involved Verdun, trenches or the Maginot Line.

   That was pretty much the MG 42's future function in a nutshell. To be the support weapon of every infantry platoon. To spit out 1200 rounds per minute. It's an amount of spray that the human ear can't even properly register, the interval between each report being so slight that it ends up sounding like ripping cloth, a continuous roar those GIs who faced it nicknamed "Hitler's Buzzsaw". The Russians on the Eastern Front had a similar nickname.

   The idea, from the German point of view, was that your TOT (time on target) was low when aiming so the interval between bullets mattered. The MG 42 was designed to put ten bullets on a target in a single second. That makes it harder to miss than similar machine guns available at the time like the British Vickers or American Brownings (both 600rpm ish guns). All forces who faced it hated it and agreed on one thing when facing an emplaced German machine gun position...

   It was a shit brix weapon.

   Of course, like every cool thing the Germans produced in WWII, the gun had its drawbacks. The thing was so lethal and spat out so much ammo that you had to be careful how you used it. You could run out of ammo pretty fast if you had a gunner who liked waving his dick around. Wehrmacht regulations warned against holding the trigger down for more than five seconds. 7.92mm ammo is heavy if you've got to carry it around. Belt fed machine gun defensive emplacements proved the gun's home. Also, it could turn red hot in minutes. Barrel changes were critical when laying down suppressive. And after '42, when the best days of Barbarossa were dying at Stalingrad and the whole Lebensraum fantasy started going to shit, defensive MG guns started coming into their own for the Wehrmacht.

   It's a brilliant gun. It looks evil. The design has been so successful that modern versions have transpired like the current MG3 in use in the modern German Army and in other Armys worldwide.

  You should hate it as a civilian. And you do. Because you don't have to face it.

  Still, it's my favourite 'evil' gun!