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Wal-Mart, The Red Army, and Nuclear Proliferation

To my mind, few publications are as consistently interesting as the London Review of Books, and the June 22 issue is a case in point. As in the New York Review of Books, pieces in the LRB are not so much reviews as extended meditations prompted by the book or film ostensibly under consideration. Three articles really stand out in the current issue.

First, there is a great piece by John Lanchester on the subject of Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart is a fascinating business to be sure, and Lanchester's review is worth reading if only for the notion that Sam Walton and Andy Warhol had something in common and for learning about the the marketing of Vlasic pickles. It is one of the most balanced and insightful pieces I've read on the controversial company.

Second, John Connelly examines (subscription required) the Red Army in World War II. Today, in the midst of Iraq and Afghanistan, the death of a single marine or soldier makes the evening news, which treats the casualty as the tragedy which it rightfully is. But it was not that long ago -- less than one hundred years -- where fifty thousand troops (or more) would die in a single battle, often in a day or two. Think of the Somme or Verdun, where whole generations were wiped out. Or imagine service in Stalin's Red Army. Troops were so ill-equipped that they trained with wooden rifles and replicas of tanks. The Soviet soldier was often sent into battle with no weapon at all, with the hope that the soldier could lift a rifle from a dead compatriot on the battlefield. And retreat was not an option; the secret police waited behind the lines to summarily execute anyone who retreated from a firing position. Soviet leaders expected their soldiers to die, which they did in big numbers. Of the 400,000 men in the Red Army's armored regiments, 310,000 were killed. These troops were not even referred to as "soldiers" or even "men." Rather, the Soviet leadership, knowing that death was all but certain for the men, simply called them "lives" -- as in "We need 100,000 more lives for Stalingrad." While the troops proved to be enormously brave, only the Nazis exceeded them in brutality toward civilians. Connelly notes that the Red Army raped at least 100,000 women in Berlin alone. The article is well worth your time.

Finally, Brian Jones discusses (subscription required) the crisis over Iran's quest for nuclear weapons. Jones' provocative argument stems from his conclusion that biological weapons are both easier to make and more difficult to deter (as their origins can be more difficult to trace than nuclear weapons). Even if we thwart Iran's nuclear ambition, the country can just continue to develop its BW capability. Alternatively, if we were to change the regime, Iran could easily collapse into a chaos that would allow terrorist groups to thrive and develop BW capability. So, Jones concludes:

"It will always be difficult to control nuclear proliferation without provoking a different threat that may be just as deadly but easier to develop and harder to deter. Military interventions, even if they succeed in setting back nuclear programmes, areunlikely to destroy them completely and may only strengthen hostile regimes. Or a regime may fall, leading to a breakdown of civil order, as has happened in Iraq. In either case, the likelihood of an unconventional response to perceived aggression using methods associated with terrorists will increase. We appear to be faced with an uncomfortable choice beteween promoting a world of strong, stable nation-states, some of which will be anipathetic to Western political and cultural values, or living in a more chaotic global society. . . . Before supporting precipitate action to halt Iran's nuclear programmme, Britain should consider whether that would undermine the chances of establishing a stable global framework, in which more states would possess nuclear weapons, but in which rogue states and terrorists would find it hard to survive, let alone to develop WMD."

To me, this is a fruitful way to think about the Bush/Blair doctrine.

Check out all these articles, and the LRB in general.