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The Elegance of Distributed Lethality

December 22nd, 2020

[by J. Scott Shipman]

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In April of 2017 I was honored to speak at a Naval Postgraduate School Littoral Operations Center “Littoral Op-Tech” event in Cartagena, Columbia. This was supposed to be my last Op-tech event, as I was winding down the effort to make our submersible boat a reality. As it turned out, I was in Halifax, Nova Scotia about a year later—and that was my swan song.

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The core of this talk was based on four bullet points the late Wayne Hughes wrote on a piece of paper sometime in 2016 and asked me to deliver to VADM Tom Rowden. I had mentioned that I was scheduled to be in a meeting with the admiral the following week, so Wayne wrote four bullet points as points of departure for Admiral Rowden to consider as he attempted to execute his “distributed lethality” concept. The bullets were: Distributed Influence, Distributed Competition, Distributed Confrontation, and Distributed Interdiction. I made a copy and referred to them frequently and added to the list as I thought appropriate. Later in email correspondence, Wayne filled out his ideas of these bullet points and allowed me to use when I told him about this idea for the talk. These bullets are identified with (WPH).

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As far as I know, Distributed Lethality as a focus evaporated when VADM Rowden retired, but in my opinion his initiative was refreshing and much needed. Perhaps this little missive will resurrect some interest and spark new interest.

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If this collection of ideas seems a bit “all over the map,” it is because it is. The talk was meant to be given with slides, and to generate discussion. This is also my first foray back to blogging in too many years. I apologize in advance it this is too long and conversational—or too navy-centric. Charles left some big shoes to fill.

Setting the stage with quotes and ideas:

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“…strikes may in all instances be necessary but they will not in all instances be sufficient to achieve a national military purpose…[and] a fleet is incomplete which has not elements that can operate in waters next to the enemy coast.” From Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat, Second Edition, pg 249-250 by Wayne P. Hughes, Jr., CAPT, USN, Ret (emphasis added).

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“Where missiles are concerned, the contest between the offense and defense is marked by a serious differential in starting points. In practical terms, the offense has a huge and nearly motionless target to hit and needs to hit it only once. One large missile warhead is equivalent to something like five or ten direct hits by a sixteen-inch gun. The defense, on the other hand, is required to intercept an extremely fast and quite agile flying object, sometimes hardly detectable in the various phases of its trajectory, which can be launched from any operational dimension and often—for design purposes, every time—completely by surprise.” From The Littoral Arena; A Word of Caution, by RADM Yedidia “Didi” Ya’ari, Israel Navy, Naval War College Review, Summer 2014 (emphasis added) (this was a reprint suggested by Wayne Hughes who wrote, A Prophet For Our Times to accompany the rerelease.)

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“Future wars in which LRPS (Long Range Precision Strike) systems predominate will involve efforts by all sides to find adversary platforms while hiding their own from the enemy’s ISR and targeting systems. In the “hider/finder” competition, a mobile platform that can hide in clutter (such as environmental or electromagnetic noise, dense traffic areas, on and under the water, etc.) will likely survive and be capable of offensive action. This will become the paramount element in contested seas, straits, and littorals. The offensive action of targeting and counter targeting is decisive, and no navy ever triumphed at sea without having the offensive advantage.” RADM Walter E. Carter, Proceedings, May 2014

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These three quotes identify challenges that are just the tip of the iceberg one must encounter if there is any hope of success in the littorals. If history is our guide, the littorals are a life and death environment. Whether a defender or an aggressor, how a navy fights in coastal green water more often than not decides who wins and who loses.
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US VADM Tom Rowden, Commander of US Naval Surface Forces introduced the idea of “distributed lethality.” In a January 2015 article in Proceedings he and his colleagues wrote:
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“For more power in more places, the Navy should increase the offensive might of the surface force and employ ships in dispersed formations known as ‘hunter-killer surface action groups.’
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With respect to VADM Rowden, I would suggest a slight modification:
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“For more power in more places, the Navy should increase the offensive might of the surface and subsurface forces and employ ships in dispersed formations known as ‘hunter-killer surface action groups.”
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These hunter-killer action groups would be an elegant solution to challenges faced in the littorals. So let us quickly examine some of the attributes and advantages Distributed Lethality brings, bearing in mind many of these examples overlap.
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Distributable Options. The number of platforms will often determine the number of options available to leadership. Fewer platforms limits options in an almost binary fashion—ships are either available or not. As magnificent as some of our big deck multipurpose warships are, they can’t be in two places at once. The more ships, the more choices and the more flexibility across the spectrum.
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Distributable Presence. Presence is a message without words. The Freedom of Navigation Operations conducted in the South China Sea recently are a good example of the power of presence to send an unmistakable message. As William Beasley wisely suggested in the November 2015 issue of Proceedings, the US Navy needs to “close the presence gap.” Beasley “steals” a line from former Naval War College Dean CAPT Barney Rubel and defines “presence” — “it means being there.”
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Distributable Influence. (WPH) A large number of affordable surface [ JSS: and subsurface] ships can be widely distributed—or aggregated—on demand anywhere in the world where our presence is wanted and we are needed. I added subsurface ships to Wayne’s list because knowledge of the potential for additional subsurface presence will influence the decision-making process of an adversary.
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Distributable Competition. (WPH) A large number of lethal ships that are capable of cooperating to make sneak attacks using a wide variety of targeting capabilities, and can be based forward in peacetime at small cost in friendly ports.
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Distributable OODA. John Boyd’s OODA loop for Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act is a complex, yet simple diagram of decision making (or learning) and engagement. The larger point I want to illustrate with this slide is the power of Distributable Situational Awareness (observe) (manned or unmanned), Distributable Orientation (multiplied across platforms) (mostly manned, but aspects could be assigned to an algorithm), Distributable Decisions, and Distributable Action (manned or unmanned). Implicit in OODA is explicit knowledge of Commander’s Intent, where individual Commanding Officers possess the knowledge and capability to execute Commander’s Intent throughout the full spectrum of options.
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Armed with their commander’s intent, their human senses and ship sensors a ship’s captain will possess a level of adaptability/flexibility that we will never be able to pre-program into an unmanned system, or implement from remote control. From the Battle of Salamis over 2,000 years ago to the War on Terror, the history of warfare is replete with examples of human ingenuity and bravery overcoming what seemed like at the time impossible odds. As CAPT Frank Andrews wrote in a 1958 Proceedings article:
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“But let no one forget that one and only one element will finally sway the balance, when a country must defend the things for which it stands. That element is people, people who believe, people who will act, people who can think, people who have what it takes to outfight the enemy.”
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We believe there are roles for unmanned vehicles, but we advocate manned solutions over automation for there are things people can do that computers will never be able to do, make no mistake: our people are our edge. In the event of hostilities, navies will need resilient and survivable platforms to adapt, scout, and attack and create:
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Distributable Uncertainty. War is the business of the previously unthinkable. If history is any guide, man’s unmitigated barbarity and ability to conjure novel methods of death and destruction will continue. The outcomes won’t change, though the methods and pace will stagger our sensibilities, so we might as well stagger the enemy first. Shaping the mind of the adversary, in his planning and assumptions. The benefit of creating uncertainty is the creation of novelty in the mind of the adversary.
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Distributable Confrontation. (WPH) A large number of lethal ships the enemy understands will attack his fleet and commerce if shooting starts the larger number of lethal ships will conduct lethal attacks at an affordable cost to us and he is forced to devote his time and energy to defending against an attack at a time and place of our choosing with a force large enough to cause him great loss. The late naval strategist Herbert Rosinski said:
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“At sea there is no halfway house between victory and defeat, because there is no difference between what is needed for defense and what for attack. One side only can gain security at the cost of the other—or neither.”
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Distributable Interdiction. (WPH) Ships that will team with international partners to assert the right level of maritime interdiction all the way from occasional inspections up to a full distant quarantine or blockade.
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Distributable Deterrence. A credibly armed Fleet, large enough to be distributed/dispersed should dissuade any potential adversary of the inherent folly and hazard of engagement. As Colin Gray points out, “with deterrence the enemy gets a vote.” Deterrence is connected at the hip with credibility. Credible people, doctrine, ships and weapons combine to establish deterrence in the mind of the adversary. The best fight is the one that never occurs, where angst and second-guessing are artifacts for the historians.
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Back to Nuts and Bolts, or as a friend in the intel community called “ground truth”

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An affordable and executable set of solutions will be needed to make the most of these ideas. We believe essential elements of these action groups should be a combination of manned and optionally manned, subsurface and surface platforms. For the subsurface vehicles the price per hull should not exceed $250M and for the surface platforms the price should not exceed $100M (though we should aim for $70M). We should buy these ships in numbers. The broad concept of operations for these vehicles would be to operate and compliment our growing number of unmanned underwater vehicles, and our SSNs, where appropriate.

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For the subsurface realm we have concept model we call a “Hoss Boat:” a small, stealthy, air breathing lightly manned submersible boat designed to operate and fight on the surface or submerged. Our boats have a long surfaced endurance, able to patrol or project force in the littorals as a real-time, networked asset.
Since Hoss boats are small they can operate in shallow coastal water (in the 20-10 fathom curve range). Our boat combines stealth and persistence on station to greatly complicate a potential enemy’s tactical situation. Hoss Boats can hide in coastal clutter such as environmental or electromagnetic noise, dense traffic areas, the hundreds of islands in the SCS (or the Baltic Sea) to increase stealth in places where we’d probably never send an SSN or traditional SSK. Since she can hide on and under the water, unlike a traditional surface craft in the same environment she would likely survive and be capable of persistent offensive action.
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“Submarines are difficult to find and hard to destroy. Even fairly crude submarine forces can attack surface ships or other targets with a great deal of stealth, making them perfect for countries with limited resources. The threat of such an attack is a powerful deterrent in Asia, where coastal defenses are vital.” (Eric Talmadge. Battle for control of Asia’s Seas Goes Underwater, Associated Press, 19 January 2012)
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We planned her initial primary mission to be anti-surface ship (ASuW) warfare, holding at risk both combatants and when appropriate, other surface assets. She would also have a robust AA capability for air threats. This boat could also be used for scouting/ISR missions operating as a real-time, networked asset, although she is not bandwidth or network dependent and will be able to independently detect and destroy adversaries. We believe these boats could be built for about $250M per hull, considerably less than SSK/AIP solutions, and the resources required to deter them would have a favorable affect on would-be belligerents.
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Recently we added a small surface missile boat to our portfolio of possibilities, with the working moniker Hoss-Surface. While this boat has not been drawn her mission sets are similar in some respects to the submersible, and radically different in others. While both will have an anti-ship mission, the surface boat should have variants allowing for additional missions (ASW-MIW, for instance). Given the environments where she will operate, the radar cross section should be reduced as much as possible. Compared to an LCS, she won’t be fast at a modest 25 knots. Her main battery should include at least eight Norwegian naval strike-type anti-ship missiles and the largest gun the design will allow, but 30 caliber minimum. Our working price estimate is less than $70M per hull.
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Both of these boats can provide navies with a needed capability to distribute lethality that are survivable and offers more offensive flexibility at a lower cost. Lightly manned and highly automated, our boats would provide a “man-in-the-loop” level of situational awareness. It would be appropriate to interject here that instead of a binary choice manned or unmanned, both designs should be capable of working in concert with unmanned vehicles across the spectrum and incorporate “optional manning” as initial design consideration.
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The title of this talk describes Distributed Lethality as “elegant,” as indeed it is, but Distributed Lethality will continue to be a myth if at least three significant obstacles aren’t overcome. (1) No budget growth, (2) an acquisition process is too slow and complex (3) hard force structure choices. The Navy cannot control the first two without Congressional support, which will not happen quickly. Thankfully, within the Navy a fairly vigorous debate on force structure is on-going. If we frame the force structure debate through the prism of a Winston Churchill quote: “Now that we have run out of money we have to think,” our predicament comes into sharp relief and alternatives appear. Trust me: poverty focuses the mind.
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To its credit US Navy has embraced innovative technologies, but in ship building we have over-specialized (mostly because of economy) in large-deck multipurpose warships that are so complex and expensive they take years to design and build and of such value that every ship becomes a capital ship—too precious to send into harm’s way when the purpose of a warship is to fight and win when necessary. In too many cases, the budget will not endure the addition of the number or ships necessary meet our commitments using existing plans and acquisition assumptions/processes.
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It would seem the less complex and expensive alternatives we have suggested would fit the bill, if only we could speed up the acquisition process. There must be a way. Why? Because the status quo is not sustainable, safe, nor secure. How can we overcome these problems and challenges? We could begin by casting off what Angus K. Ross called some of our “lazy assumptions.” In an institutional bureaucracy like the Pentagon; lazy assumptions are ubiquitous because they are the path of least resistance. Some examples: the status quo is fine, we can shape any environment, our current acquisition process of buying/building ships optimizes for budget scarcity, unmanned will make all our dreams come true, etc., etc. At the risk of trafficking in clichés: If everyone is saying the same thing, someone isn’t thinking.
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What is the answer? No easy answers exist, but we could begin by setting aside a small amount of SCN and dedicating to less complex and less expensive smaller ships. The late Captain Wayne P. Hughes provided the scaffold of this approach in his essay for Proceedings in 2018.
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One immediate benefit to less complex ships would be shorter times between design, build and deployment. Right now the cycle time between design and deployment is approaching 20 years—where obsolescence can invalidate a solution before it hits the Fleet. There used to be a phrase, “low cost, technically acceptable,” and we would do well to remember as we move forward.
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Distributed Lethality properly deployed is the marriage of the strategic and the tactical. While more platforms options to distribute will largely be a function of strategic force structure planning, the capabilities conveyed by the increase in available ships provides tactical commanders on the scene who can adapt and attack—as their decisions more often than not decide who prevails.
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Distributed Lethality is elegant precisely because increased numbers of ships and the capability to adapt on the fly to achieve our ends: maritime dominance.
If we were to take a poll from the representatives of the militaries represented here today and asked if you want your navy to have more options and firepower in your area of responsibility my guess is there would be a resounding “YES.”
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We need alternatives and will stipulate there are many from which to choose. Our boats would be a cost effective way to influence war in the littorals in our favor, but there are other solutions to be sure.
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Making Distributed Lethality a reality is within our grasp if we possess the imagination to reach beyond the status quo and think differently. As Marc Andreessen once said, “True innovations don’t follow a pattern.” Our platforms and options offered by others are an innovation in how to fight that does not follow a prescribed pattern. On the subsurface front, as a student of military history I believe we’re reaching the point when an offensively disposed subsurface force will be needed in growing numbers. In a world of ubiquitous precision-guided munitions, surface ships will be increasingly at risk in areas where navies will need to have eyes and potentially provide fires—specifically in contested coastal shallow waters—the littorals. All navies will need a deeper subsurface bench.  We need also to explore surface design alternatives that are affordable and stealthy enough.
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The USN needs manned highly capable submersible craft and stealthy small missile boats that can be bought in numbers, to achieve a lethal, numerous and credible presence that can dramatically change warfare in the littorals.

Guest Post – Ashes in California: A reflection on the end of my father

November 27th, 2020

[mark safranski / zen ]

This year saw the passing of Charles Cameron, the longtime managing editor and co-blogger here at ZP. Charles is deeply missed by everyone who read or blogged here and to honor him on what would have been his birthday on Friday, we are publishing a memorial essay by his oldest son, Emlyn Cameron.

Ashes in California: A reflection on the end of my father

By Emlyn Cameron

In his mid-seventies, my father, always reluctant to do anything that might benefit his health, had a heart attack. A year later he had another one. This time he would undergo open-heart surgery. His physical condition meant the operation would put him at greater-than-average risk of dying.

The night before the surgery, I decided to walk to his hospital and talk to him. Telling your parent what you’d like them to know before they die is unhappy work. In my case, I got dizzy, and my face went numb and mostly immobile, and I felt as if I had a large bruise spreading deep in the tissue of my chest.

I had hoped it would bring him some fulfillment to know the effect he had upon his son. But, I doubted that when the issue of death ultimately asserted itself he would be in a position to care. My real aim was to make his death easier for me. This was part of a long attempt to steal incrementally from and lessen the store of grief I’d feel when he finally died.

I had started by trying to outright deny him the privilege of dying: When I was small, it occurred to me that Father wouldn’t be around forever. He was in his mid-fifties by the time I was 10, already unhealthy, and even other healthier, younger people died. I checked this with Mum, who confirmed my worry. So, I tried to go over his head – I asked God to step in and make a compact with me on the order of I’ll be good and pious if you’ll give my father a permanent reprieve. 

Santa Claus stuff. 

Some years later, in my early teens, I tried instead to maximize time with Father, despite my parents’ divorce: Every trip to a thrift store, or Saturday cruise between yard sales, in his battered sedan, and every heat-choked afternoon spent combing through his storage unit became essential. If I could spend enough time with him, maybe I could skip out on saying, “I could have, should have seen him more.” Whenever he drove away, I stood by the curb waving until his car evaporated at the horizon. Sometimes this would go on until my arms ached, or the blood refused to make the journey up to my fingertips and I had to use my arms in shifts. The way the street was quiet and empty and unchanged after he was gone made me uncomfortable. Eventually this ritual seemed silly and wasteful, so I gave up. 

I tried a more circuitous path. My father and I had always been similar in our temperaments but extremely different in our interests. Now, I played that up. I was more contemptuous than necessary, said “no” whenever possible, and highlighted our differences. If I renounced a certain amount of my ability to see him and show him my total affection, it seemed to me that made the occasions when I did so more meaningful and the weight of his eventual death less of a loss.

Living with him for a while near the end of high school, I stuck rigidly to my plans to be out of the apartment as often as possible, though he invited me to spend evenings watching movies with him; Pointed out the flaws and limited results of his flitting and optimistic approach to life – always working on some new, abortive book project, always living paycheck to paycheck and relying on good fortune to prevail. I unloaded my more militant, cynical, and ambitious ideas on him and heckled him for not cleaning his dishes. For his part, like Bazarov’s father in Fathers and Sons, he smiled and adored me for my cavalier and dismissive attitude – every correction was proof that his boy had grown up bright and bold, an improvement, however bizarre, on his old man.

After I’d left for Oregon to attend college, Mum called. She had taken Father to the emergency room for chest pains. It was his first heart attack. In spite of all the time I’d spent trying to think my way around grief or fear, I was nervous, desolated, and a little excited by the drama of it all. Friends of mine drove up from Sacramento so they could give me a ride to the hospital. The sun sank behind the hills. We drove fast through the dark fields of rural northern California. The road ahead was foggy. The cabin of the tiny Volkswagen, where the blaring radio glowed, held the only visible light. My friends joked. I gripped the hand beside me.

Father was swaddled in hospital clothes and thin blankets, his hair a mad mess. I took a video to keep with my collection of his voicemails.

“This is what I was like before,” he said, looking into the lens. He smiled, and then stuck his tongue out.

After that crisis, my approach softened. I was more interested in setting aside time, though not all of it, to see him; in behaving with tenderness when it seemed honest; and in talking proudly about him, and in agreement with him. 

When I sat by his hospital bed the following year, I shared what feeble, obvious sentimentalities I could: That I loved him, that I would miss him, that I appreciated all he had made me. I tried to keep it simple, in part so my voice would quaver as little as possible, and in part because – for all my consideration – I wasn’t sure what I could add to our time together. I remember crying. Not a great flow, but one or two warm, constricted tears, and I think he held my hand.

The next day, his operation was postponed. A friend who had been visiting him to talk about poetry took me to a drive-thru coffee shack.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do when he’s gone,” my friend said as we waited for our turn, the car idling in line. “Life’s going to be so different.”

“No, it’s not. It’s going to be painfully the same,” I said. “That’s the tragedy: We want the death to be big and life-changing but nothing changes. Every once in a while, we’ll get an idea to go see him and then we’ll remember we can’t. The world’s the same. Just a little poorer.”

My father came out of the surgery fine: an indefinite reprieve, a little longer to figure out how to make his death matter.

In 2018, I was accepted to grad school in New York. I credit this acceptance in large part to a personal essay I wrote describing my father’s ascetic approach to life — an apartment empty of most luxuries, but verdant with books, where all of his waking life, more or less, was spent studying and writing about the subjects of his passion — and how I felt that,irrespective of our many differences, if I was “my father’s son,” it was because I had inherited his monastic devotion to the subjects of my interest (My father, whose own pater had died well before Father was old enough to go to university, in turn credited his acceptance to Oxford to an essay about Bach’s B Minor Mass)

However, this acceptance — in combination with my family’s finances — meant I was going to be far from my home state indefinitely. Because I would not see many old friends for quite some time, and because Father had relinquished the apartment in which we’d lived together in favor of a nursing home, I stayed most of that summer as a guest of friends throughout California. It was only near the end of that summer that I saw him.

I visited him in his nursing home. Most of his things had been moved to the storage unit, but he had brought some small shelves with him. Across from the electric hospital bed in which he slept and worked, these had been deployed along the wall and filled with books on Russia, drone strikes, religious extremism, and protest art. Above his head was a photograph of his father, an officer in the Royal Navy who’d died young of a heart attack. Next to Father’s bed was a swivel table built to slide over his bed to provide a surface for food. His laptop occupied it and left only so much room as was filled by notepads and a mug stained with instant coffee grounds. Mum liked to joke that all my father had ever wanted was to stay in bed, writing, while food was brought to him, and he’d finally arranged it. She joked too that, when the nursing home had received him they had not thought he had the look of a long staying tenant. But Father had some secret vitality that was loathe to give up his endless work.

We talked about my classes. I was planning at that time to focus on conflict reporting and perhaps tensions in the Middle East. This enthused father, since it brought my interests within the sweep of his own. He also seemed to like it because I told him I thought domestic politics in the US was becoming so central to the news cycle that I might find myself working outside the spotlight of current events, and he was always proud when I found myself tacking against prevailing winds.

He told me that, when I was growing up in California he could always imagine my day to day life (even after the divorce) because he usually lived nearby by, and when I’d gone to college I attended a school at which he’d once taught so his imaginings could roam up to Oregon with me. He couldn’t say the same of New York and he asked me to write him a descriptive email once a week to help him out. 

I said no, I didn’t think I’d be able to keep that up, which made him laugh. When my father laughed, there was usually no sound. He just smiled with his few teeth (four in the front, on the lower gum) and his shoulders hopped and jumped in a pantomime of chuckling.

I told him I was going to record a video every day and, instead of a weekly email, I would try to send him a montage of a year in New York. I said this with some self reproach, because I was not sure if he would live a year. 

We had a long goodbye.

I went away and passed a glorious year in school. I found myself not following conflict reporting (I am a coward and fear death pretty patently, which rather limits the career options of a conflict reporter) and I also found myself increasingly fascinated by the topic of the American Right. I had found a field that felt as unifying to my own interests as religious extremism had been to my father’s career. 

I recorded a video most days, but did not set aside time to edit it into a whole. Instead I sent Father irregular emails and every so often we had a video call via facebook messenger. In our exchanges he welcomed my new focus as a kind of secant to his intellectual sphere.

So, for that first year and some change, we bonded primarily by exchanging articles that showed a convergence between our interests. Being a continent away, and trying to navigate my first experiences of continuous independence, I sought to balance my need to focus on daily life in New York and making the most of the new ways in which my father and I had found ourselves connecting. This did not usually translate into lengthy messages, but I tried to make my responses consistent and prompt. Promptness was especially important. 

And occasionally, without a better reason to say anything, the shadow of fear would fall over me and I’d send him an email or a twitter message just to say I loved him and hoped he knew, in case we went too long without speaking to do so again.

Eventually I tried something new with Father: He had been producing book reviews and short blog-post essays for many years. His focus had been Islamic fundamentalism and the wars in the Middle East, which had dominated current affairs for close to 20 years. My focus, domestic politics and the American Right, was increasingly central to current affairs now and an area that, while interesting to him, was not his primary concern. I was going to write essays and book reviews dealing with that topic, and he could edit them. If the finished product was good enough, he could post them as a domestic supplement to his writing on events abroad that would suit the political moment. In the process we could speak often and I could keep him apprised of what I was learning in an area of mutual interest.

So, from August 2019 on, my father and I worked on a series of essays and reviews together. He recommended works that had caught his attention or I broached a possible subject. Once a draft was complete, I would leave it with my father. He’d disentangle its clauses and disinter the submerged or incomplete ideas. Then, over messenger–our pixelated faces blurry and halting–he and I would discuss changes for hours.

My father and I, often interested in different topics or different parts of the same subject and hard to steer away from our preferred tracks, had not always been able to talk for very long or very constructively. Sometimes we spoke briefly along a mutual path; Sometimes we spoke at length but digressed ever further away from one another, each reaching for the conversational tiller. But, usually, it was at best one or the other between us and the conversations were (at least for me), frequently less about an organic back and forth that rarely appeared than about ensuring we had talked in any case.

But, during the months when we worked on these essays we kept steadily and naturally in close intellectual cooperation for whole afternoons. And at the end of day we had created something tangible together. 

I returned to California briefly in December 2019 for a friend’s wedding reception. While I was home, another friend took me to see my father. Father had had a portion of his foot removed, so I helped him into his wheelchair. 

I wheeled him out of the building, past other tenants. Many were moaning or seemed lost. Their vulnerability made me uncomfortable, especially as I rolled Father along and wondered if he would eventually be as unreachable. I did not think I would have the courage to visit him if his faculties eventually left him. Maybe that was why there seemed to be so few other visitors.

We drove my father to a Himalayan restaurant. He braced himself against my arm as he limped from the car to the door. We had a good dinner and spoke happily. When I took him home I said goodbye. This took quite some time, because I would give him a long hug and then I would delay leaving and talk awhile longer and then hold him again. 

Finally, I hugged him the last time. I bent down to his chair, he stretched thin arms up around my neck, and I held him a long time. I kissed the crown of his head. Age had made the fine hair and skin very soft. 

Then I joked that he had to be on his guard to live long enough for me to see him again when I could next fly into California. 

I flew back to New York and not too very long after the Coronavirus brought most things to a halt. My father, because of his age and his reliance on dialysis, was in a high risk category, but the nursing home closed its doors to visitors and reported no internal cases. From that point forward my brother and Mum visited him by bringing his favorite foods to the glass door of the nursing home and waiving when he was wheeled to the front. Then his food would be taken inside by a staff member to ensure containment wasn’t interrupted.

On August 11, 2020, my father sent me an article about William Bar and conservative jurisprudence via twitter. I thanked him. 

On August 12, 2020, my father sent me a link to an article by email and I put off responding. 

The next day I sent him a photo of a line from Ezra Pound that reminded me of something he’d told me once. He read it but didn’t respond. 

On August 28, 2020, my father had an outpatient surgery that went smoothly and my mum told me to email him, but I didn’t. I reminded myself a few times to do so, but I did not.

Ten days later, on Labor Day, I was having a beer with a friend outside of a bar in Brooklyn. Mum called and said that Father had had a heart attack in his nursing home and had been taken to the emergency room. She said she’d keep me informed.

I explained to my friend what had happened and said I wasn’t sure what to do, but that this had happened before and it wasn’t certain what it would mean. So we finished our drink and walked back to his apartment.

At 6:45PM, Mum texted me saying, “Still awaiting word. I think no news is good news in these circumstances.”

At 6:58PM my phone started to ring. It was Mum. It occurred to me briefly that she had said she would text me updates. I answered, finished something I was saying to my friend, and said hello.

“Hey Emlyn, so I’ve just talked to the doctor and something’s come up: Your father was flatlined for twenty minutes. They’ve managed to get his heart going but his brain isn’t coming back,” she said, calmly. “And they’ve asked me whether we want to continue having him on a ventilator, brain dead in a coma, or if we should let him go–” her voice broke, “–and I think we should let him go.”

I remembered that Father had liked to say that his body had just been there to carry his library card and his books. It struck me a little cruel that in the end it was only his brain that couldn’t be revived.

“I just thought you’d want to know.”

“Okay,” I said, and my voice shook, “Will you call me back afterwards?” She said she would. I asked her to put the phone near him when there was a chance, even though I knew he wouldn’t hear me, and to send me a photo of him since I couldn’t be there.

My mum put her cellphone near Father’s ear for a while. I said what I could, and for all the years I’d spent thinking about this moment, it was not much and it was difficult. I was glad I’d tried beforehand, and with more success I think, because, despite the sentimental need to say something, the time had passed. 

People say that the dead are “gone,” but I believe “over” is more appropriate. The aspect of people we love, their character and personality, is like a tremendous event occurring briefly. And, though his heart was still working, the tender spectacle of my father was over. 

Some time before, my father, who’d flirted coyly with religion all his life, had waylaid a Catholic priest present at the nursing home to perform last rites and asked him to visit

regularly to talk about theology. Mum arranged for this priest to come to the hospital and perform last rites for Father. My stepfather held up his cell phone on speakerphone, so that my younger brother — newly settled in his dorm room in LA — could listen in and Mum held the phone up on speaker phone so I could hear as well. The priest recited the Lord’s Prayer. The whole family, with the exception of Father and I, recited it with him.

When the ventilator was removed I heard a gasping, sucking noise. Mum assured me this was the ventilator and not Father. After that, it was uncertain how long his shallow breathing would sustain his body. 

Mum sent two photos of Father. It was hard to look at them. Like when I visited him a few years earlier and he had smiled into the camera and said, “This is what I was like before,” he was in thin hospital clothes and his hair was in a disarray. But he looked horribly abandoned now, not in the sense of a person but of a place. He looked empty and his face sagged, mouth open, in a way that reminded me of an old pumpkin sinking in on itself.

I had a few more calls with Mum that night, as I tried to keep a distant vigil, and my friend very kindly allowed me to use a guest room to take the calls. At one point, he put on some low, nordic music with a chanting sound and walked me to a small shrine he had on his book case, where he kept funeral cards from his grandparents and his grandfather’s pipe. He performed an impromptu service involving scented candles and smoking the pipe, then allowing it to burn (as if to allow someone invisibly with us to partake as well). Though he did not have a specific practice to offer me, he gave me this improvised ritual as a kind of sacrament to my father in recognition of his life, which was kind.

I began alerting people via text message. I was a little uncomfortable with the idea of a large wave of consoling messages, though the sentiment would not go unappreciated, and I felt oddly hesitant to tell anyone lest it should somehow turn out that a mistake had been made and I would have to walk back the announcement later. So, I told a relatively small group of people to begin with, people I spoke to so often or who were so close to Father that leaving it unsaid would be bizarre. Otherwise, I might have told no one.

The next day I asked for my four days bereavement leave and booked a flight home. In the afternoon, Father’s heart stopped. After that, when I informed people, I wasn’t sure if I should tell him he died Monday, as I believed, or Tuesday as the death certificate would likely state. 

Then I had dinner with some friends based in part on food my father had liked. We talked over what had happened. I got through most of it rather casually, until I tried to explain how I had waved at father’s car when I was a teenager. I began to cry and could only say, “I wrote it down. I wrote it down.”

The next day I flew out. As we approached California the landscape was obscured, but, unlike the trip through the darkened mountains to the north when father had his first heart attack, this time it was not fog: While I was away my home state had caught fire. Everything was hidden behind a pall of ash.

I stayed on a friend’s couch. The next morning the air quality was rated as unhealthy for the sensitive, and because I did not consider myself sensitive, I went outside to see the place I’d grown up. 

Every time I return, the buildings are much the same but seem a little smaller. I walked a street where Father and I had often visited a local Indian restaurant and a Goodwill during the time when I had volunteered for every thrift store run. While I was away the Goodwill had closed and the building stood empty. 

I looked towards the sun, which, through the smoke, looked like a blood moon. The layer of ash was so thick that one could stare into the sun indefinitely without one’s eyes watering. I wondered how long that would hold true.

I travelled with Mum to the crematorium, where I signed some papers and looked through a catalogue. We chose to do the simplest cremation and container and focus on where to spread the ashes. I asked if I could see my father and was told it would cost approximately $200, so I declined. 

I couldn’t see him in the hospital either because of the virus and the high number of bodies currently being held in their morgue. I understood the necessity and decided that I would focus instead on the meal I’d had with him at the Himalayan restaurant and the way it had felt to hug him when I said goodbye. That was probably better. 

It occurred to me that I would have to work hard to preserve that memory distinctly, because I would not feel his hair or soft skin again, or the way his arms reached up to encircle me.

In my time in California, Mum and I would have to sort his things to be sold or donated. Over the years, considering this ahead of time, I had made it a point to try to consider what to prioritize and if there was anything I would particularly want to preserve. I had a short list in my head.

Because I had taken my four days of leave starting Tuesday, and my flight back was early Sunday morning, I had three days left to help. Sometime after that, an antiquarian friend of my father’s was going to come and appraise what he’d left behind. 

Mum took me to the storage facility where my father had kept his library. We stepped out of the car, into air thick with smoke. It would have felt humid, except that it was palpably dry.

I unlocked the slatted metal door. I lifted it part way before it stuck, pinned by a collapsed tower of file boxes. I ducked under, shifted the tower, and pulled the door the rest of the way up.

The inside was a mess. In the heat cardboard boxes full of books, just about the sum total of my father’s worldly possessions, had degraded and slumped against one another or spilled entirely to the floor. A folding table with two old eMacs and an electric typewriter atop it had collapsed in a warped V. A stained mattress lay sideways against folded bookcases. 

I had hope that, even though the time was short, I could unpack it all and look through everything, determining what to save and what to let go. I trusted in a certain urgent determination to sort it all out by force of will.

We spent several hours going through box after box: My father’s books on games and game theory; His collected Jung; his material on jihad; some boxes of papers he’d written or read on millennial cults and Y2K when he’d worked for a think tank; and his poetry.

I found most of what I’d hope to find, and, in an unconsidered addition, a small yellow book of the sheet music for the B-minor mass, which I kept. As I sorted, Mum would occasionally point out something I had taken no notice of and pull this aside. Then she’d tell me some new story about my father’s life I had not known.

I found, also, a surprising number of books on my own pet subject, the American Right. Not collected because of me (they well predated my interest in the topic) but because they had been of interest to my father in their own right, if more tangentially and some time ago. There were many more than I had anticipated, and I realized that they had been on his shelves for years, there to see all the while. Because I had not yet come into my own before I had gone away and his things had been transferred here, I had never noticed. 

By the end of the first day of sorting we had gone through perhaps a third of what there was to uncover. We had spent a long time under the sun and, though the glare was not terrible yet, the heat still affected us, as did the smoke, and night was approaching.

Unable to keep everything that had been his, I opened an account with the same storage facility. It was smaller, but my own, and I took such as I could justify and moved it into my own keeping.

When we returned the air quality was rated Unhealthy and getting worse. I worked as fast as I could, but after a few hours we had only finished half the sorting and my chest had begun to tighten and my throat was feeling hoarse. 

A friend — whose own father had died when we were all in High School and who gave me such counsel as he could — came to assist us. With his help I made what was inside more organized, if not fully inventoried. 

My mum promised that she would go through it all with the antiquarian and if she saw anything she thought was important to keep she would do so. I gave her some suggestions and with regret shut the heavy metal door. I’d had my chance to make some sense of what had been left in my father’s wake and saved what I could, and I’d managed some but not nearly all of it. I felt a heavy sense of the inconclusive. 

The next day I would have to fly back to New York and get some sleep before I started work again. 

I could see the end of summer approaching. There was precious little to show for the year so far. 

Father wouldn’t be around to see the change of colors in the fall, or the spring of new life out ahead. 

That night Mum and I ate dinner together near the shuttered Goodwill. We ate in a restaurant that had monopolized my adolescent summer nights: Mel’s, a west coast phenomenon whose sock hop aesthetic is meant to be immutably quaint and familiar, embalmed in vinyl and fins. 

Outside the coronavirus was still raging and the wildfires were still burning. But, the day I’d flown in the local restriction on indoor seating had been lifted. 

The world was trying to go back to normal.

Steven Pressfield’s Video Series: The Warrior Archetype

November 10th, 2020

[mark safranski/ zen ]

During my long hiatus from blogging,  noted author and novelist Steven Pressfield developed a nice video series – The Warrior Archetype, I am putting Episode #2 as a sample below:

There are 25 episodes in all, with a strong but not exclusive emphasis on Sparta, with Steve reflecting on aspects of his writings and research in relatively short vignettes. Check it out here.

BOOK REVIEW: The COIN of the Islamic Realm by Furnish

November 8th, 2020

[mark safranski / zen ]

See the source image

The Coin of the Islamic Realm by Tim Furnish

Facing off with China is all the fashion in military, foreign policy and strategy circles these days but the challenges of insurgency will always be with us. This includes the Islamic world as old conflicts from the war on terrorism continue to burn despite the attention span of the American public and policymakers moving on even though or troops often have not. Dr. Tim Furnish, in a new book, forcefully reminds us that many of America’s counterinsurgency and counterterrorism problems in the greater Mideast are neither new nor particularly American in nature. Indeed, in The Coin of the Islamic Realm: Insurgencies & the Ottoman Empire, 1416-1916 we learn that America or its Saudi allies in Yemen tread down very well worn paths that Ottoman sultans, even invested as they were with the supreme religious authority of the Caliphate, navigated only with difficulty.

See the source image

Furnish, a specialist in the eschatological history of Islamic sects and Mahdist movements, history professor and former consultant to US Special Operations Command is well qualified to parse the tea leaves of historical Arab insurgencies and religious movements that resisted Ottoman imperial rule. Western analysts coming from perspectives of counterterrorism, military history, IR, colonial history typically underrate or ignore the religious dimensions driving irregular conflict and as Furnish demonstrates, while not always primary, (usually) Arab religious disputes with their Ottoman overlords tended to shape the military and political responses of both insurgent and counterinsurgent for nearly half a millennia, echoes of which we still see today in ISIS or the Houthi rebellion.

In The Coin of the Islamic Realm Furnish begins by briefly reviewing virtues and flaws of policy advice given in recent popular natsec pundit books on Islamic insurgency and terrorism as well as pondering the paucity of COIN studies on Turkish military campaigns in general but also specifically in English; a strange lacunae for western military analysts seeking to understand groups like AQ and ISIS given that the Ottoman state faced many similar rebellious or dissident movements in the same regions. Furnish argues that “Islam is key to understanding both the non-state challengers to Ottoman rule, and the Empire’s state responses” which will offer better template for “lessons learned” for American policy makers faced with Islamic or Islamist orientated terrorists and guerillas.

Furnish takes a look at a spectrum of discrete groups that struggled against the Ottoman empire – the Celalis, Kadizadelis, Druze, Zaydis, Sa’udi Wahhabis and Sudanese Mahdists and then draws distinctions between Ottoman counterinsurgency policies that produced, wins, losses and draws and the disastrous experiences of the earlier Almoravids against the Almohads in the medieval era Mahgreb. Furnish uses two lenses in his approach to analyzing the performance of the Imperial Ottoman state and their insurgent enemies: a constructivist, contextual view that incorporates the social, cultural and religious factors of the time and the traditional yardsticks of modern counterinsurgency strategy and tactics. How well did the Ottomans wage kinetic operations, win hearts and minds, engage in state-building and employ proxy forces?

As with modern counterinsurgency wars, the Ottoman record was mixed though on balance more successful than that of France in the 20th century or America in the 21st. The Ottomans being a polyglot, albeit, Muslim imperial state were regarded by most of their Arab and ethnic minority subjects as foreigners so therefore the religious authority of the Caliphate was a particularly sensitive point for the Sublime Porte. Furnish illustrates how the Ottomans could wage brutal military campaigns against heretical Fiver Zaydis or heterodox Druze, but didn’t particularly view either of these challenges as threats to the Sultan’s authority. Neither the Zaydi imams nor the Druze chieftains could mount an effective ideological challenge to the Sultan’s position as Caliph over a mostly Sunni Islamic world. More dangerous spiritually and seriously viewed were the Wahhabi and  Sudanese Mahdist theological attacks on the legitimacy of the Ottoman Caliphate. There were no deals for the Abd Allah bin Sa’ud, his first Sa’udi State and Wahhabist revolt was crushed by the Ottomans for his temerity and he was dragged in chains to Istanbul and publicly beheaded. As a Sufi influenced Hanafi aligned Caliphate, as Furnish describes, the Ottoman Imperial State would brook no religious challenges from either proto-Salafists or messianic Mahdists and their harsh and uncompromising interpretations of Islam.

While Furnish is in particular an expert in apocalyptic Mahdist movements (see his books , Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, their Jihads and Osama bin Laden and Ten Years Captivation With the Mahdi’s Camps) he does not neglect the aspects of Ottoman military campaigns against self-proclaimed Mahdi, Muhammed Ahmad. The fact is that the Sudanese Mahdist state did not arise simply on cult like religious proclamations but the tactical prowess of the Mahdi and his commanders who repeatedly outfought a series of Ottoman-Egyptian armies with Turkish, Egyptian and British commanders included the heroic but ill-fated Charles “Chinese” Gordon.  While it is true that the head of the Mahdi was eventually dug up and carried away in Lord Kitchener’s kerosene can, Furnish uses the experience of the Sudanese to explain how a Mahdist movement can make the leap from movement to military insurgency to Maddiya, or Mahdist state that ruled much of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan for 17 years.  That the Almohads, who were even more successful than the Sudanese in that they replaced the Almoravid regime entirely also began under a Berber Mahdi, Ibn Tumart , demonstrates the potential danger if Mahdist movements are permitted to gain popular traction.

The Ottoman campaigns in Yemen against the Zaydi highland tribes have an all too familiar ring to them, echoing both the cruel but fruitless Saudi experience today as well America’s frustrating experience in Afghanistan. Indeed it is not hard to describe Yemen as the Afghanistan of the Arabian peninsula in which the Ottomans endured centuries long on and off again quagmire. Every tool in the modern COIN toolkit was applied in Yemen by Ottoman Pashas – bribery, clear and hold, reprisals, cultivation of local factions, divide and conquer, foreign proxies – nothing could establish Yemen as a docile vilyet integrated into the empire. Yemen had to be abandoned entirely by the Ottomans for very long periods of time and the best that could usually be mustered was Zaydi Imams ruling most of the country, pledging a face saving allegiance to the Sultan while the nominal Ottoman governor was reduced to twiddling his thumbs in Sa’na. And sometimes not even that.

Furnish closes The Coin of the Islamic Realm with a summation of lessons learned from the Ottoman experience to deal with fundamentalist and apocalyptic insurgencies in the Islamic world: be willing to take the kinetic fight to the enemy, interdict outside support, deny the use of safe havens, capture or kill charismatic insurgent leaders (especially Mahdists) enlist respected Muslim religious leaders to condemn the theological distortions, errors and crimes of the terrorists or guerillas. Sound advice, but difficult to do when US policymakers want to fight limited wars with unlimited objectives in far away lands without expending political capital against enemies they seldom have the courage to describe honestly in public. Hopefully when facing the next ISIS or al Qaida they will take Furnish’s advice to heart.

The Coin of the Islamic Realm by Timothy Furnish fills an important gap in COIN literature and is particularly helpful for laymen to get a fast understanding of the theological fracture points within the Islamic world that crystallized into political upheaval and armed rebellion against central authority. I for example, learned much about Zaydi Fivers and the Ottoman Turk relationship with Sufi orders that were previously unknown to me as well as the historical nuances of Islam as practiced in the world’s last great multinational Muslim empire. What stood out from Furnish’s highly contextual take is how deeply rooted America’s policy challenges with irregular violence in the greater Middle-East are as well as how difficult it is for our politicians and generals to profit from lessons learned many times, often painfully, by others.

Strongly recommended.

The A Yeoman Farmer Series Part IV:

October 30th, 2020

[Mark Safranski/ zen]

I am stirring from blogging retirement to bring you a series culled from a historical-political essay by a scholar who is a very long time reader of ZP who wrote this post over a long period of time following the last presidential election. He writes under the pseudonym “A Yeoman Farmer” and his foil is the famous “Flight 93 Election” essay of “Publius Decius Mus” in The Claremont Review of BooksI will be breaking the essay into parts and turning the footnotes into section endnotes with each post and linking to the previous sections that have been posted. This post comprises Part IV and the final conclusion of the series.

Part I can be found here

Part II can be found here

Part III can be found here

The Reichstag is always burning: a commentary on The Flight 93 Election

By: A Yeoman Farmer

….

9. Continetti trips over a more promising approach when he writes of “stress[ing]
the ‘national interest abroad and national solidarity at home’ through foreign-
policy retrenchment, ‘support to workers buffeted by globalization,’ and setting
‘tax rates and immigration levels’ to foster social cohesion." That sounds a lot
like Trumpism. But the phrases that Continetti quotes are taken from Ross
Douthat and Reihan Salam, both of whom, like Continetti, are
vociferously—one might even say fanatically—anti-Trump. At least they,
unlike Kesler, give Trump credit for having identified the right stance on
today’s most salient issues. Yet, paradoxically, they won’t vote for Trump
whereas Kesler hints that he will. It’s reasonable, then, to read into Kesler’s
esoteric endorsement of Trump an implicit acknowledgment that the crisis is,
indeed, pretty dire. I expect a Claremont scholar to be wiser than most other
conservative intellectuals, and I am relieved not to be disappointed in this
instance.

The “right stance on today’s most salient issues” sums up the problem for what ails
America is not today’s more salient issues, it is something deeper and not one that is
solved by having the “right stance”, a stance that seems to be right only because it
fits the author’s prejudices. If the right stance were all that mattered, then there is no
fundamental choice to be made only different stances on the same issues. In other
words, there are no choices left, only policy positions, which itself suggests that the
crisis the author claims exist is simply that his policy preferences, the right stance, is
not being chosen or can be chosen. Yet, the author, aside from describing a
declension of the most alarming kind, the 1000-year progressivist Reich awaits,
simply refers to the right policy stances. One wonders if the real 1000-year Reich
could have been defeated with the right policy stances.

What is surprising, but in a deeper sense is not at all surprising since it fits the
contempt for the “corrupt” America, is that none of the conservatives and specifically
Trump did not have a proposal or thought for the opioid epidemic killing thousands of
Americans. Instead, the key issues are immigration, trade, and war as if these are
what are killing the most Americans each year. Here is where Kesler’s glib statement
and the author’s implicit support for it are revealed for their dishonesty. Trump did
not have a policy proposal on the opioid crisis and Hillary Clinton did. 6 I guess that
Professor Kesler believes that no policy option for opioids is better than Clinton’s
policy option.

What is not explained nor is it explored is how conservatives contributed to America
becoming so corrupt that it was in danger of going over the cliff on immigration,
trade, and war. If we look at the broad level, we see that Obama brought down
immigration levels, improved America’s trade position, and worked to bring
America’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan to an end. However, we are to
understand that America is at the cliff edge without having a point of reference to
know when it was not on the cliff edge or what specifically about the general issues
(trade, immigration, and war) as well as the eight sub issues that appear as
constants within American society (all societies?) was not problematic previously but
became problematic in 2016?

We are also given an insight into what Trumpism means when the author praises
Continetti’s proposals. Here is what Trumpism appears to be:

national interest abroad and national solidarity at home
foreign-policy retrenchment
support to workers buffeted by globalization
tax rates and immigration levels’ to foster social cohesion.

On the surface, these appear anodyne or boiler plates. What President does not
seek the national interest abroad and national solidarity at home? Is this an issue for
the campaign? This would also suggest that Obama was not pursuing the national
interest and national solidarity. The desire for foreign policy retrenchment seems to
seem a strange desire since Obama worked to retrench American foreign policy with
Muslim countries and to wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If these were
not retrenchments, then what does retrenchment look like? We are told America First
would be a form of retrenchment but would it be if it too seeks the national interest
abroad? How can we retrench foreign policy and simultaneously seek the national
interest abroad? As for the desire to support workers buffeted by globalization, this
appears laudable yet contradictory. Does this mean that we are to be insulated from
globalisation’s negative effectives and open to its positive effects? How exactly does
that work? It seems to be a nostrum that sounds good, it tastes great and it is less
filling or is simply sound and fury signifying nothing. It is a way to flatter the audience
that wants to hear that the government will take care of them so that we return to big
government to protect the worker by intervening in the economy to pick the winners
and losers. This might be Trumpism, but it is certainly not conservatism. As for tax
rates that foster social cohesion that seems rather strange approach unless the idea
is that misery loves company since tax rates have no connection to social cohesion.
Perhaps this is the silver bullet to solve social cohesion, better tax rates. Who knew?
Then again, the author might be right about conservativism’s decline if the best it can
do about social cohesion is to argue that tax rates are the answer.

 

10. Yet we may also reasonably ask: What explains the Pollyanna-ish declinism
of so many others? That is, the stance that Things-Are-Really-Bad—But-Not-So-
Bad-that-We-Have-to-Consider-Anything-Really-Different! The obvious
answer is that they don’t really believe the first half of that formulation. If so,
like Chicken Little, they should stick a sock in it. Pecuniary reasons also
suggest themselves, but let us foreswear recourse to this explanation until we
have disproved all the others.

Once again, the author suggests that things are so bad that we need a change and
not just any change, but a radical change, but without explaining what it is that ails
America except that the policy alternatives are so bad that people have voted for
them for the past eight years. What we are to understand is that we have a choice
between Candide or Gibbon without a choice between them. We are presented with
a Manichean choice when the reality is that statesmanship is rarely presented with
such choice except in the most extreme positions, usually moments of existential
crisis (think Churchill rallying Britain and the West against Hitler’s onslaught). The
author does not want to accept that the general direction of America can be
improved in some areas but that the Republic in its core is stable or is at least in a
position where the normal challenges that any republic faces are not approaching an
existential nature. If the Republic is in an existential crisis, the ails that he mentions
are at best the symptoms and not the cause, but we cannot discuss that because the
author believes that the symptoms are the cause.

As for the author’s lament of the conservatives who display a Pollyanna-ism which
he claims is unwarranted, we must ask what he thinks of Christians who believe that
final success is to be found with Christ so that any of the today’s travails can be
endured for that reason. In other words, the author seems strangely quiet about
religion’s role in conservatism or more generally the role that optimism plays within
America and American politics. If we follow the author, then we must refuse to be
optimistic in the face of challenges and that the challenges are so great that
optimism cannot be justified. More to the point, if they are to claim things are bad
they must be so bad that radical change is required, not just change but radical
change, which raises the question of whether conservatives can argue things are
bad, or things are very bad, but if they do they must embrace radical change for
anything less is surrender to unwarranted optimism.

However, what bothers the author is that his fellow conservatives either do not
believe that things are that bad, in particular as he does not grant that they can be
that bad in specific areas without being that bad overall, or they have a pecuniary
interest to say that things are bad but not so bad as to allow specific changes without
an revolution within the regime. In a neat rhetorical twist, truly Trumpian, the author
declares his fellow conservatives, who do not support him or Trump, are liars or on
the take.

 

11. Whatever the reason for the contradiction, there can be no doubt that there is
a contradiction. To simultaneously hold conservative cultural, economic, and
political beliefs—to insist that our liberal-left present reality and future direction
is incompatible with human nature and must undermine society—and yet also
believe that things can go on more or less the way they are going, ideally but
not necessarily with some conservative tinkering here and there, is logically
impossible.

The author, by looking at a potential contradiction, almost gets close to the problem
but seems to lose his way. He forgets what Strauss taught that all societies have
contradictions and those societies that try to remove them will destroy themselves for
that is what liberalism requires–the end of contradictions. If this is what the author is
trying to argue, that conservativism retains the same contradictions as Liberalism,
then that is a different argument to America is in terminal decline if it remains on its
current path, unless one thinks that America is not, nor ever was, a liberal country
and to pursue liberalism is the catastrophe that needs to be resisted. Yet, if that is
the argument, it fails, despite the author’s rhetorical flourishes, for two main reasons.
First, America is *the* liberal experiment since its founding. To argue that it was
never liberal, even assuming the argument that it was a deeply republican liberalism,
seems anachronistic. The second is that America’s pursuit of liberalism is its
experiment that unfolds with each generation where conservatives have offered the
necessary course corrections to keep that experiment from ending in failure since
that experiment by definition is whether human nature finds fulfilment through
liberalism and whether the experience of the past 230 years has provided evidence
in that argument. Yet, the crisis to which the author addresses, but does not identify,
is within liberalism, American liberalism, which he does not explore since he never
goes to the cause. Even though he gropes towards the source and sort of touches
on possible solutions, without understanding what he is doing, that is his heart is in
the right place, he never gets to the core of why America is in crisis and why Trump
has been able to emerge as a symptom of that crisis and his attempt to solve that
crisis is hampered by being its symptom. However, the author seems to believe it is
a crisis of liberalism as if there is a serious alternative within America to liberalism or
one that remains untried if not unimagined.

What some of his less restrained colleagues have accepted is a previous alternative
to liberalism, an outcome that is coeval with politics. However, their preferred
alternative only appeals because they have forgotten its previous failures elsewhere
in the belief that *this time* it will work in America which is a country founded in direct
opposition to that alternative.

 

12. Let’s be very blunt here: if you genuinely think things can go on with no
fundamental change needed, then you have implicitly admitted that
conservatism is wrong. Wrong philosophically, wrong on human nature, wrong
on the nature of politics, and wrong in its policy prescriptions. Because, first,
few of those prescriptions are in force today. Second, of the ones that are, the
left is busy undoing them, often with conservative assistance. And, third, the
whole trend of the West is ever-leftward, ever further away from what we all
understand as conservatism.

What has become clear is that the author really likes to present everything as a
Manichean choice in which the choice is either/or and rarely, if ever, both/and. Either
you must embrace radical change or you admit conservatism has failed. What is
curious about the author’s argument is how ahistorical it is. To claim that he knows
or has divined or diagnosed conservativism’s failure, suggests he has an insight into
conservatism, liberalism, and the American experiment that is superior to any other
argument. In his own words, if he is right, then conservatism is wrong and wrong
simply about everything until he arrived. Yet, for his audacity, his argument lacks
substance. As someone once said, the more audacious your argument, the less
evidence you need, which is perhaps describes the Trump campaign. For a
politician, this is excusable, but for someone professing to be a public commentator it
is inadequate if not bordering on incompetence masked by rhetorical eloquence.

The choice is a false one. America can continue without change to its regime, its
functioning liberal democratic society, its political institutions and norms and one can
demand that there is a need for change within all three without conservatism being
wrong. Yet, it is not whether one is wrong about America, it is that if you do not see
the problem as the author sees them then you are wrong about conservatism and
everything else.

You are:

Wrong philosophically

In a word, you are not a conservative. How we came to this moment is uncertain or
how no one else saw it not clear, but conservative philosophy is wrong for not seeing
that a fundamental change is needed. Except for being a Never Burke conservative,
he does not explain what that means to be philosophically wrong.

wrong on human nature

What is not clear is what this means. Human nature is not fixed nor is it fluid.
Instead, it is something, like philosophy itself, in that we are still working to discover it
which is why you can see dramatic changes in regimes or changes in politics based
on what we understand about human nature. It does not mean human nature has
changed or is changeable to know that our understanding of human nature develops
as we contemplate what it means to be human. However, that type of argument or
understanding is not presented here since it would get in the way of the political
argument.

wrong on the nature of politics, and

This statement seems redundant since if you are wrong about human nature then
you must be wrong about politics if it is to determine the best way to live as humans
since it is predicated upon a shared or agreed understanding of human nature. As
mentioned above, that understanding of the nature of politics cannot be fixed for it is
then political philosophy is at an end. If that quest is at an end, then we are now
transported into sectarianism.

wrong in its policy prescriptions

Finally, this seems superfluous since the failure of philosophy, human nature, and
the nature of politics would mean that any policy prescription would be wrong.
Except that it isn’t which gets us back to a deeper secondary question, again
unanswered and unasked by the author, in that we only see hints or a shadow of it or
rather its negation makes us aware of its presence. The author never explores the
relationship of thought to politics or how political philosophy informs political theory
for policy prescription especially as they appear only to be needed to resolve or
apply what is already agreed or already implicit in the system. If politics or political
thinking does not require philosophy or political philosophy, then the author should
discuss that since it seems to be a fundamental element of whether conservativism
is right or has something to say or whether the American experiment is even
possible. But, we never get to see this work. Instead, we are told why we are wrong.

Why?

Here we are doubly disappointed. The author does not explore such questions, as
we would expect that if you are to disagree and be wrong about the fundamentals of
political life, philosophy, human nature, politics and policy prescription then
something must exist to demonstrate this but the evidence for his argument is
disappointing in its superficiality and shallowness. The evidence that you are wrong
is that:

first, few of those prescriptions are in force today.

Our philosophy is wrong, our understanding of human nature is wrong, our
understanding of politics is wrong because few of those prescriptions are in force?
How does that follow? How can you draw such a sweeping conclusion from such
meagre evidence? The public do not like us and did not vote for us so everything is
wrong. Our policy prescriptions were changed, not all so some must have worked,
but most and therefore we are wrong not that the policy prescriptions were wrong or
poorly supported. It seems laughable but here we are and it gets worse because
some conservatives seem to disagree with other conservatives about what
conservative prescriptions are best.

Second, of the ones that are, the left is busy undoing them, often with
conservative assistance.

What this suggests then is that the policy prescriptions that were badged as
conservative might not have been truly conservative but served a faction and
therefore were not rooted in anything enduring except for what that faction wanted.
However, that is not possible because this problem is caused by the ever-present
bogeyman—the Left.

And, third, the whole trend of the West is ever-leftward, ever further away
from what we all understand as conservatism.

The author makes it appear that “fundamental change” is required without saying
what is a fundamental change. He hits at something deeper, something larger,
something longer lasting, something permanent, but he dares not address it. If
Trump is the fundamental change, we must wonder what was Franklin Roosevelt or
Lyndon Johnson? Were they the continuity candidates? We can believe that America
needs changes and there are areas of great or even urgent attention and we can
also know that the 2016 election is nowhere as important or requiring a “fundamental
change” as say the 1932 election or the 1968 election.

Leaving aside the hyperbole, which is quite difficult since the piece and its thinking
are infused with it, we face the fundamental question that is still unasked. The author
assumes that the policy prescriptions he has described, or the “right stances” on
policy issues, are what needs to change. If this is the radical change, the
“fundamental change”, then we have to ask: “How is this different from just another
series of policy proposals?” Within the essay, we do not find a fundamental or *the*
fundamental question, which would indicate a crisis of the magnitude exists, has
been asked.

End Part IV

Endnotes

6. When Professor Kesler used to make similar glib statements in his graduate seminars, some
students would ask afterwards about a particular statements and he would often grin and prevaricate
demonstrating his superior rhetorical skills and thus provided the more advanced students a second
seminar in the art of sophistry or the challenge of trying to differentiate the philosopher and the
sophist. One student, a veritable ubermensch, would often buy him a beer to congratulate him for
being particularly skilled in dodging that day’s questions. In the academic arena such games are
educative. In the public domain, they prove problematic because they display a desire to flatter and
dissemble to promote a man singularly unqualified to be president as the public cannot discern their
educative effect and only their political effect. If an academic is to dabble in politics, the least they can
be is responsible, but history has shown academics, particularly German ones have been less than
responsible when getting involved in politics.


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