2007/06/27

Western double standards

Some Non-Western people accuse us of double standards. I believe they are right.

I won't touch the double standard debate centering on the west's attitude to the conflict around Israel. It's already summer and too hot without burning myself on this topic.

A much more recent and probably more harmful double standard centers on Iran/Iraq.
We have seen in the past months several accusations that Iran is involved in the Iraqi insurgency (at least the Shi'ite part). Well, some of them were not true as the obviously untrue claims about Austrian heavy sniper rifles. Overall, I have absolutely no doubts about Iranian involvement, but such an involvement does not threaten our national security even remotely as much as the west's reaction to it threatens Iran's national security.

So where's the double standard?
Well, obviously we wouldn't tolerate if Iran invaded a Christian country close to us, installing a puppet theocracy and having over 100,000 troops in the country. We would certainly not support an insurgency against that for the simple reason that we would have stepped in with much more violent means than that, and much earlier.

Claims that Iran supports insurgents are OK if they are based on good information, but it's problematic if it's done as accusation. Any Iranian involvement is absolutely predictable, understandable, justified and natural by western policy standards.

If a nation decides to invade another one voluntarily, then it's simply in its own responsibility if shit surrounding that action happens.
You cannot knock someone down and expect that all others around treat you as if nothing happens. If some bystander pushes you a bit back afterwards it would be plain stupid to accuse him of a violation ... all neutral observers would have a good reason to believe you were nuts and blind towards your own behavior.

The really dangerous thing about this double standard is that it might be exploited to build up extremely questionable justifications for a war of aggression against Iran.

Sven Ortmann

2007/06/16

Learning from the past

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In Germany, it's popular to say "we need to learn from the past, remember the past".
Well, this is certainly true.

The problem with this is that the people who say this usually seem to mean only specific 12 years of the history of one (our) nation and with "we" they mean only Germans.

Well, that's silly. We have about seven thousand years of (partially) documented history, covering the whole world for at least a couple of hundred years.
There's no reason why we should focus on a small part of history - especially if we already live in a country that spent decades to study this part of history, draw lessons and do precautions. Many other nations are today in much more dire need of drawing lessons from that particular time than Germany (I better don't mention which, for that would distract).

Isn't it much more important to learn of other nation's experiences? Those experiences are much less likely to have resulted in lessons learned for your country. Those experiences are very relevant once your country changes its activities, enters new grounds and therefore acts without own experiences (as Germany with its engagement in peacekeeping).

Military history is in a poor shape in universities almost everywhere. It's less present in Germany than peace research. Peace research is fine - I wouldn't want to miss it. But I miss military history competence.

Military history helps to prevent old mistakes in military affairs. If military history was in good shape, there would probably have been more people in our parliament informed about Afghanistan's insurgency tradition against foreign forces. (Same for anthropology - someone should have told the parliament how different the Afghan society is in 2004 and that building democracy there was quite fallacious).
The European nations marched into Afghanistan although military history tells many stories about failures of such enterprises.

Now if we really want to remember and learn from history - shouldn't we fund the academics for it, adopt a full approach (international, all history) and listen to it when it's appropriate?

Sven Ortmann

2007/06/13

Reserves

The French introduced the "Levée en masse", the creation of many huge armies with conscripts, quickly after the French Revolution 1789. This enabled France to field the huge and quick armies that Napoleon used impressively.

The Prussians - after being defeated by such armies - created their own conscription system, but that system wasn't only about huge armies of conscripts trusted more than the professional soldiers since the Thirty Years War. They used the conscription to train many men as infantrymen and send them back to civil life. This way, they had a huge and quickly mobilized reserve of infantrymen while not violating the maximum troop strength limit imposed by the peace with Napoleon. The Prussian system was copied almost everywhere in the world ... and it seems about to descend into history books in Europe.

Many European countries do not practice this system anymore (although some keep the laws to enable a return to conscription) because they don't expect to need large armies in the past. Other countries keep the conscription system but it's often under heavy attack there and conscription might end in additional countries soon.

I'm no proponent of conscription if it isn't essential for national sovereignty. Today, conscription is merely a cost-saving measure that in fact reduces overall force deployability and capabilities. In my opinion, conscription is a kind of forced labour at low wages today and should indeed be suspended.

But it's not as obvious that large reserves are unnecessary. It might even be that large reserves are necessary to have serious land combat power at all.
The conflict in Chechnya among others demonstrates how a modern, heavy army still needs several divisions to capture and hold a small town and a relatively small landscape around it against determined light infantry.
The so-called force multipliers simply don't seem to be very effective against light infantry - not as much as against mechanized divisions. The tiny European armies of today probably lack the quantity to really dominate large areas. They're fine for destruction of military formations, but even a battle in one of the many million-people cities of Europe against a couple ten thousand light infantrymen would stretch the European armies to their limits.
Europe is quite urbanized in many regions and has large woods elsewhere. With one distant war after another exposing the limitations of our armies, one could argue that we should better prepare against enemies that might exploit these weaknesses.
The dwindling quantity of NATO infantry forces is a problem, as is the dwindling of the infantry reserves.

We need a post-conscription system that provides sufficient quantities of reservists with basic infantry training.
A system based on freedom instead of coercion, suitable to attract enough young men. It would help us to keep the understanding of military affairs at an acceptable level and the link between people and their army intact.

Sven Ortmann

2007/06/09

Translations and News

In 1870 when Chancellor Bismarck wanted a war with France for his very complicated grand strategy (that succeeded), he needed a provocation. He manipulated a letter with slight changes in the text - no really strong changes for a modern reader - and the subsequent publication of the letter helped a lot to incite the war of 1870/1871.

Nowadays, we'd like to protect our nations against warmongers among our own ranks. In a democracy, manipulation and wrong information undermine the legitimacy and functioning of the political system and need to be avoided even at high costs. The people are the sovereign, and they can only keep their sovereignty in a democracy that functions well.

That's why I'm quite furious about a problem that apparently few people even recognize: Our news lie systematically because of poor translations. Wrong news is a broader problem, but wrong translations are easily avoided.

The problem is most likely more relevant in nations with not so widespread language and least relevant in countries with very widespread language (in the NATO; USA and UK).

One example; on publicly financed TV channels (private TV channels aren't better) I can very often observe how simultaneous translation is used. This is prone to mistakes because of the lack of time for the interpreter. But for the sake of timeliness, this can probably be tolerated in most cases.
What cannot be tolerated is that a definitely wrong simultaneous translation appears in the news even hours after the taping. Many journalists are obviously not aware how serious their job is, otherwise they'd care more for exact translations.

And I don't mean just small mistakes or wrong emphasis in simultaneous translations. The freedom of interpretation that interpreters seem to claim is huge. Sometimes, there's little resemblance to the original text.

I believe this is one of many problems that grew over time and are adding sand into the mechanism of democracy.
Democracy doesn't function because people believe it's good - it functions only when many requirements are met and we need to have a keen eye on things like these.

(Maybe the next time we observe this in the news it's about time for a letter to the editor. Unless many people do this, it would probably not work - but we're in a democracy, so we're free to steer some journalists in search for a scandal on the topic ... they might make it into print with the story in the summer slump.
The system has what it needs to repair itself - but a recognition of a shortcoming and a stimulus to resolve it is usually necessary.)

Sven Ortmann

2007/06/06

Foreign languages

According to my experience, it only requires the knowledge of about 2,000 words and basic understanding of grammar of a foreign language for basic communication with foreign people. They'll need to slow down and speak clearly to be understood, but once they learn that you have trouble understanding, most will do so.

Well, 2,000 words isn't very much. It takes about seven months to learn them with an average of only 10 new words daily. That shouldn't take more than an average 15 to 30 minutes of daily study including learning grammar, numbers, possibly different alphabet and tests.

It's therefore difficult to understand why so many army officers in the NATO don't even understand Russian and Arab. Russian is well understood at NATO's eastern frontier and Arab is spoken on the southern frontier. As NATO is primarily about collective defense, it should be obvious that these forces should prepare for action in the NATO frontier areas.

Maybe the deficiency is a result of the Cold War. Interaction with civilian population was assumed not to be very relevant in Third World War scenarios (as if they stayed at home and didn't plug all roads in such a case...).

Learning foreign languages should be mandatory for senior NCOs and officers.

NCOs should at least learn basic Russian and basic Arab.
Officers should in addition be required to learn at least one more language, preferably one of these:
- Spanish (spoken in almost all of Latin America and in Spain, of course)
- French (spoken in some parts of Africa and in France, of course)

Besides that, all NATO ground forces soldiers should speak English fluently. It does not only help in civilian life afterwards, but it's after all the NATO-internal language. US and UK forces have a natural advantage here, so their soldiers could easily learn one more language than others, like Spanish in the case of the US forces.

Learning foreign languages helps to reduce friction.
Navigation, interaction with civilians, interaction with allies, understanding different cultures, reading military publications of other countries, first interrogation of prisoners - there are many cases in which foreign language knowledge helps.

Attempts have been made to issue technology to solve the problem of lack of language skills. This is quite usual - an army is incapable of something, the first response is often "What can we buy to solve that?". But that's no solution to the problem, just an embarrassing anecdote. Our soldiers of an alliance should not need technological devices to express very basic messages to people who speak one of the two major languages found next to this alliance. Training is much better than gadgets are.

It's about time for mandatory foreign language skills.

Sven Ortmann

2007/06/04

Arab reunification - would we stand by and congratulate?

The relationship of the NATO countries to Russia is often debated in our media. Russia could (well, it is doing so now) revive its economic strength and political influence.
Recently, I've heard a rumour that Russia has offered NATO the independence of Kosovo and therefore a solution for the lingering problem that ties some thousand western troops in Kosovo. The price would be that NATO wouldn't be allowed to accept membership of the Ukraine and Georgia (I didn't know that such a move was ever in discussion...).
That tells how difficult the relationship on the eastern frontier is and how much seems to go on in the secret diplomacy.

But let's have a look at NATO's southern frontier. To date, there are many weak states - no nation states, just states. The people would happily embrace the idea of a pan-arab union.
The dictatorships with their determination to survive independently are probably the only thing that keeps such a union from getting relevant (there's a multinational Arab League, but that's about as relevant as the common EU foreign policy).

Let's think about it. We promote democracy in the Arab world and tell them all the time that their existing lack of democracy is what hurts them most. We already learned in Iraq that democracy and freedom have their disadvantages in the region as dictatorships suppress some conflicts.

What would happen if indeed all Arab countries became democracies? It's really not improbable that this would lead pretty quick to an Arab federal state (to keep the oil riches for the oil rich regions instead of helping Moroccans with Saudi oil) and a revival of Arab nationalism.
Now this would be a unification that would directly threaten Israel, as it survives in part because the Arabs aren't united.

So apparently our interest to promote democracy collides with our interest in our security as well as most NATO countries' interest to keep Israel alive as a kind of Western enclave. We'd probably need to invite Israel into NATO to keep it independent once it's surrounded by a pan-Arab state. That would make us official arch-enemies of the Arab nation and wouldn't promote our external security at all.

But the probability of an unified Arabs isn't the only thing that questions the huge efforts to promote democracy at our southern frontier.
In general, people assume that democracies are more peaceful, more respectful than dictatorships and pose less threat to their neighbours. This is - judged by historical experience - a dubious assumption.

History knows many very belligerent democracies. Athens, for example was much more belligerent than the autocrat Sparta. The English had the very first (relatively) democratic nation state in Europe, yet they built an empire by aggression and became involved in many European wars just to influence the overall balance of power.
The USA was democratic from the beginning, but holds the record for invading other countries in the 20th century. Many U.S. invasions (especially till WW2) in Latin America give a strong evidence that democracy does not necessarily mean respect for other countries' sovereignty.
For comparison; the latest invasion of a foreign country originating in Iran/Persia that I could find in history records was launched in 1739 - but they were never democratic.

One reason for democratic belligerence is that dictators are often more focused on keeping their own people under control. A lost war does often end a dictatorship (remember the 1982 Falklands War? It was the death blow for the military dictatorship in Argentina). Dictators depend less on the support of capitalists/companies than democratic parties that need to finance their election campaigns. Dictators don't need such support; instead, they seek the support of institutions that manipulate the people more directly, as church and media. Church and media aren't nearly as interested in the economical booty of warfare.

The world isn't all black and white - democracy is the political order for greatest freedom and in the sum good, not evil. Yet promoting democracy doesn't necessarily mean that all things improve or even that those who do promote it do benefit of such an activity.
Germany struggled for centuries with its geographic position among powers instead of in a corner like Spain, UK or Russia. It's an unpleasant geo-strategic position. I guess it would be no pleasure for the NATO countries to have a large and united Arab federation on one and a renewed Russian zone of influence (or alliance) on its other European frontier.

Such a situation might become reality.

The history on the road to such a situation might be full of conflicts because we'd probably try to avert the consequences of our own doings.

Sven Ortmann

2007/06/02

COIN - four choices, no more

It's still interesting that COIN (counter insurgency) offers so many challenges to Western Forces and that they rarely seem to be successful as the British were in Malaysia (their COIN campaign allowed Malaysia to become an independent nation, kind of democracy instead of a Maoist state dominated by a Chinese minority).

There are really only four major paths for soldiers in control of a foreign nation:

1. They treat the indigenous population badly. The result is an insurgency that's fought against with many troops.
Result: Now they're not liberators or ambassadors of freedom - they're occupiers, oppressors...bad guys.

2. They treat the indigenous population badly. The result is an insurgency that's suppressed by killing many people. This is the Mongol version of COIN, which was also used in ancient times by Alexander the Great and many times more in history. Anyone who uses this method is a barbarian and guilty of genocide.

3. They treat the indigenous population badly. The result is an insurgency. The will of the indigenous population is stronger because their own country is the battlefield and the occupying nation's will is weak because the costs far outweigh the benefits of a continued COIN campaign. Now the occupiers are losers.

They don't want to be bad guys, mass murderers or losers? Then the 4th variant should be their choice!

4. They treat the indigenous population with respect. If nevertheless an insurgency arises, the population is considered rather to be an ally than the foe. Violence is so strictly limited against identified insurgents that the occupiers have probably even more casualties than insurgents and civilians together (as the British had in Northern Ireland).


Why is it so difficult for some NATO armies to maintain discipline and good behaviour once they're in a (previously) hostile country? It's the NCO's job to keep the discipline.
It's easy to predict what happens when you treat people different than you would treat your own people. If you shoot people unknown to you 100m in front of your checkpoint just because you believe they were too fast ... well, that shows that you don't value their life as you would if you were at home on checkpoint duty. Soldiers should always ask themselves "What would I do if they were my people?"

Driving through a city, ramming civilian cars with an armoured vehicle to force them to change the lane just to allow you faster driving is simply insane.
Crazy tings like this happen, and it's too obvious that neither a "hearts and minds" campaign nor the clash of wills (wills to support an ongoing war by either nation) can be won in such a style.

There are so many COIN strategies available, but none of them is both acceptable and promising without dependence on disciplined soldiers that limit their violence and respect the population.

Many COIN strategies focus on dividing civilian population and insurgents and to drag the population on your side by offering them real, lasting economic and/or political advantages ad protection. Enlisted soldiers and NCOs who disrespect the civilian population using depreciative nouns like "Haji" or "Skinny" for them and behaving like feudal or colonial masters do easily and reliably sabotage their general officer's strategy and therefore mission success.
They waste the taxpayer's money, their comrade's and possibly their own health and life and lots of time spent by the soldiers in that country.
Ultimately, they'll fail because of lack of decent behaviour and discipline.

Sven Ortmann

2007/06/01

Freedom to demonstrate

We have a recent discussion in Germany that deserves attention. This time, my entry in this blog will be about defense of freedom against internal threats.

Artikel 8
[Versammlungsfreiheit]
(1) Alle Deutschen haben das Recht, sich ohne Anmeldung oder Erlaubnis friedlich und ohne Waffen zu versammeln.

(2) Für Versammlungen unter freiem Himmel kann dieses Recht durch Gesetz oder auf Grund eines Gesetzes beschränkt werden.
"(1) All Germans have the privilege to assemble peacefully and without weapons. (2) For assemblies under open skies this privilege can be limited by law or based on a law." This is article 8 of the German constitution.

As far as I know, this limitation was intended to keep traffic flowing and to make it possible to protect vital organs of our state against pressure 'from the street', such as our two federal parliaments and our Federal Constitutional Court.

Well, such limitations are justified and understandable. Any further limitations are ... a difficult affair.

A so-called "G8" multinational political high-end meeting will take place in a coastal city called Heiligendamm in a couple of days. "G8" meetings are notorious for attracting demonstrations concerning globalization, fighting poverty in the less developed countries, human rights and for peace.
It's for sure discomforting for hosting bureaucrats and politicians if loud protesters annoy the participants.

Today, this discomfort of a couple persons seems to be as vital to our nation as the protection of our most important institutions of democracy.
That's how it looks. They build a fence around the place kilometres away and were only stopped by courts from forbidding demonstrations even farther away. Now they want to forbid demonstrations closer than 200 m to the fence.
Yes, Germans are building fences again. And again, it's only good for a couple of politicians and bureaucrats.

One of the foundations of our legal system is "Verhältnismäßigkeit", commensurability.
If you shoot someone in 'self-defence' because he stole you an apple, that's not commensurable and you'll dine in jail.
If you build a huge fence far away from a conference and limit the right anchored in article 8 of our constitution, it's not commensurable, you'll dine in relative silence.

This time, it's not a hysteria around terrorism. This time, it shows how far a creeping movement of bureaucrats and politicians has brought my country to an authoritarian state.

In fact, it doesn't suffice to be at alert and just watch out whether the dumb ass Neonazis somewhere gain ground in Germany.
The real threats are seldom those that are known for decades, because you have alread prepared against them. Sometimes, a real threat doesn't come from outside or from political extremists. Sometimes, previously unthinkable things happen because it's possible to accustom the people with many small steps into a direction to really dangerous changes.

The good thing about it is that the bureaucrats and politicians learned these days that this step was too large, it provoked a lot of resistance.
The bad thing about it is that they'll just continue with smaller steps.

Sven Ortmann

The new paradigm of war?

Wars have changed, or at least what kind of war people expect has changed.

The best known version of war is probably the war that most war movies are made about: Wars like the World Wars, or at least the miniature versions around Israel. States mobilize conscripts, convert their industries to wartime production needs and send fleets, armies and air forces against each other. This kind of war is what many armies in the world (and all air forces and navies) prepare for the most.

Yet there were also other wars in the past decades, more violent versions of the 19th century colonial wars. The so-called counter insurgencies and their baby siblings, the peacekeeping missions.
The first really challenging and very violent version of such a war was the Second Boer War 1899-1902. That war told the armies of Europe valuable first lessons on modern warfare, but was in fact in its later stage a counter insurgency campaign of the British.

Meanwhile, such insurgencies against Western troops have received different names; I like the term "War among people" most. It focuses on what's most essential for the NATO armies in these conflicts.
It's the clash of wills. They cannot simply destroy the adversary and therefore force the enemy to give up as Clausewitz offered as method for normal wars.
Instead, the enemy might stand up every time he was beaten down, no matter how hard the hits were. The only thing that counts is whether he's got the will to do so until the occupier's nation loses its commitment and gives up.
We've seen such a result in Indochina, Algeria, South Vietnam (previously part of Indochina), Rhodesia (now called Zimbabwe) and other countries. I guess the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are about to end just like this.

Being defeated almost every time by ill-equipped low-tech light infantry adversaries is an open challenge for the Western military ... especially concerning small-unit tactics, discipline, public relations, diplomacy and strategy.

But there's something about it that worries me deeply: Some experts (and I really mean experts) propose that this is a new paradigm, that industrial wars as seen till Korea 1953 are a thing of the past. They'd never occur again. Nuclear weapons made such conflicts impossible. It would be a waste of resources to prepare for industrial war. Heavy weapon systems were obsolete, only infantry / peace keepers and their small wars-compatible support elements would be required in the future.

I doubt this paradigm change.

True, an insurgency can win the clash of wills, break the adversary's vital trinity of forces-government-people by making the adversary's people war-weary. After all, the people about whose sovereignty the conflict is fought have so much more that motivates themselves.
But a paradigm change requires in my opinion that this new style of war is generally superior, just like Napoleonic troops were generally superior to 18th century troops due to their motivation, Napoleon's style of commanding independent corps for a common mission and less if any need of precautions against desertion.
Insurgents could never ever beat our armies at our homes. They simply couldn't invade us successfully. The West can at least invade their homes at will.

The only style of war to be used to take away from us what we have here at home (and not just destroy point targets), to take away our sovereignty and freedom is after all a classic invasion. If, for example Morocco decided that it wants to occupy southern Spain to make it muslim again, it would need to defeat the NATO's forces by conventional or nuclear means.

Here comes into play the assertion that conventional war is unthinkable because anything larger than a battalion would be wiped out by a nuclear warhead. Which would lead to the end of mankind according to the nuclear pendant of the domino theory.

Well, I base my beliefs a lot on historical lessons. One historical lesson is that chemical weapons could and should (according to the mentioned reasoning) have killed millions of civilians in World War Two.
In fact, almost nobody died due to chemical weapons in that war. The first nerve gasses were in production, gas delivery was much more advanced than in the First World War, but nobody really used gas.
Pandora's box wasn't opened.

Now what would happen if we followed the advice of the experts and reduced our conventional warfare capability even more in favor of small arms capabilities?
Would some power decide that it's about to build a large conventional force and invade us? After all, we would destroy ourselves if we started nuclear war.

In fact, nothing has changed since 1989 for the defense of the Western World. We still got nukes and we still need conventional forces to deter everyone else to be safe. The reasoning is still correct as it was in the 50's to 80's.
Defeats in COIN don't change the basis of our defense - just the scale of the conventional threat changed since 1990.

But if anyone believes that there's no real conventional challenge out there and won't be for the next decades...history has another lesson for him or her:
Germany was reduced to a 100,000 men military by 1933 and economically shattered.
Only about seven years later it had the most powerful air force and army of the world. The re-equipping of its forces made these forces superior organization and equipment. The neighbouring nations were slow to realize what happened and lost about three to five years of preparation time.

I certainly don't want to see our militaries changed to peacekeeping and counter-insurgency forces. I want them to prepare to defend their nations and their alliance. That's the first and best justification for their existence and expenses.

The very best thing that could happen in this world for us is that our forces prepare for the conventional and nuclear defense of the sovereignty of the NATO countries ... and nothing happens. Just like in the Cold War.
Mission accomplished (not Bush-style).

Sven Ortmann

Mission success vs. casualties

It's a classical problem of the military; to achieve something in the organized violence called war you need to take risks.

Demographic factors and sociological changes made human life more precious in the West than in previous generations.
Mothers often have only one son if at all and they didn't experience dying children in their own family and among neighbours as was usual just a couple generations ago.
We live much longer, therefore lose rather 60 than 40 years of life if we died at the age of 20.
News reports focus less on battle results but more on those things that today stimulate emotions: Suffering, casualties. Women holding dead babies in their arms as well as own casualty figures did never appear in World War news reports.

This is the background for the modern consideration of risks vs. chances.
It seems as if so-called "Force protection" is often being emphasized too much. The internal sanctioning mechanism of the officer corps does obviously threaten with severe consequences too much if an officer produces bad news or own casualties. No matter what he achieved by that in terms of local mission success.

I thought a while about how it should really be - and the result demands a lot from officers on different levels and even politicians. In addition to competence, a lot of considerations, courage and communication seems necessary.


1. The generals are responsible to explain risks and so on correctly to the politicians in advance of a conflict.

2. Once the political leadership gave a mission to the military leadership, the military leadership needs to start the snowball system of missions.

3. The missions need to be accomplished if possible and if the mission remains unchanged.

4. If the mission is impossible or has low probability of success, this fact needs to be reported upwards in time.

5. If considered possible, but only at losses that the executive officer deems unacceptable, he needs to report this expectation in time, with appropriate emphasis. If necessary right through the leadership system to the political leadership.

This requires that orders are given in a way that makes changes easy. An officer who gives a command but learns that all subordinates consider it as too risky for convincing reasons is too likely to press the order despite it's suboptimal. He should instead open the conversation more openly, telling the intent and asking for remarks on that.
As you see, I'm convinced that it's a lot about internal officer corps culture whether the balancing of mission success and casualties is well done or not. A wrong 'culture' can both lead to too few of both as well as can incompetence do.

To try to execute missions but to fail with small losses because loss minimization was a superior motivation than mission accomplishment is simply wrong. It's a waste of lives and accomplishes nothing. It can easily be more a waste of lives than a very bloody battle.
Care for soldiers is best done by good training, supply and appropriate missions, not by extremely careful execution of missions with probable mission failure.
It's hard, but nobody wants to spend years and lose friends/body parts and then see that everything was in vain because too few had the will to press for success.

Sven Ortmann