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Mosul Museum: “between the real and its representation”

Saturday, February 28th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — last of three posts — the media studies / pomo side of the IS Mosul Museum rampage ]
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Simulacra Baudrillard

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It’s the sort of thing Bryan Alexander so often features in his Infocult blog — an instance of cyberfear. Writing of “Jihadi John” aka Mohammed Emwazi in the NYRB, Malise Ruthven says:

The casual brutalism of his online videos — he decapitated five Western and two Japanese hostages as well as numerous Syrian soldiers, and posed with the severed heads — suggests the insidious way that a generation brought up in cyberspace may have lost the connection between the real and its representation.

We’re in Baudrillard territory here, Simulacra and Simulation — even though it was written before digital / virtual “space” was much of an issue — is the relevant text here:

Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory – precession of simulacra – it is the map that engenders the territory..

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This also bears relation to the bad news / good news, perhaps, of the IS video of iconoclasm in the Mosul museum:

Theory and Practice, Ideal and Real, War and Peace

Monday, January 26th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — hoping to introduce my many friends in the peace and light camp to my many friends in the carry a big stick camp, with a view to furthering mutual understanding ]
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A confluence in my infostream this morning:
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cantilever
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Let’s start with this brilliant example of theory (the diagram of the cantilever principle, above) and practice (the human demonstration, below). In the above instance, at least, the theory works out in practice. BTW, I think this image qualifies as a DoubleQuote in the Wild.

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There’s a problem when things just don’t work out that way, however, and Cardinal Richelieu nails it:
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Richelieu quote
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I’m afraid the recently past century amply bears out Richelieu’s point.

Theory is often too simple to match practice, and attempts to fit the real world into a crippling procrustean box of its own devising.

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I might not have taken an interest in these two tweets, if I hadn’t also read Ahmed Humayun‘s post, The Politics of Barbarism, on 3 Quarks Daily today, and blog-friend Omar Ali‘s comments in particular.

Humayun’s piece is essentially a precis and analysis of Abu Bakr Naji‘s The Management of Savagery, a book, incidentally, which has as much to do with management as it does with savagery.

But to get to the point which interests me, one Raza Husain commented that in place of recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq:

A trillion dollars on development work, schools, hospitals, roads, power plants, would have been money better spent and possibly just as helpful to the American economy if not to the arms industry in particular.

to which Omar responded:

A trillion dollars spent through what state apparatus? protected by what army? under which laws? (not saying it cannot be done, but those questions need answers first, otherwise how will the money actually get spent where you want it spent?)

And that’s it, right there.

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Richard Grenier paraphrased George Orwell nicely when he wrote:

people sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf

If I was to DoubleQuote that, my pairing quote would be from John Adams:

I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculature, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.

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The Ideal and Real are, respectively, Theory and Practice, and we need, we are constituted to need both — and yet our discourse all too often promotes one (shorthand: peace) or the other (shorthand: war), without looking at how each can serve and illuminate the other.

For my purposes, it is essentially peace that is the objective, and war that should (where and when needed) serve it: but it is justice, as in peace with justice, that is the necessary third term bringing peace and war (to include revolution?) into their constantly shifting alignment.

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If one group of people chants peace, peace, while another prepares for, and makes, war — without justice rather than profit being its central motivation and the arbiter of its outcomes — there’s little chance of mutual understanding. The peaceables will think the warlikes lack “moral” sense, the warlikes will think the peaceables lack “common” sense, each side will seem senseless to the other — and the wheel will continue to turn.

What I would like to see — to foster — is deliberation, debate, discourse between these two camps, the idealists and the realists (and I use those terms without their technical senses as terms of art), those who would seek peace and those who would protect them from violence.

Because humanity is half-angelic, half-bestial, and the question is how the angelic can best deploy against the bestial. Or as Naji has it, against Savagery.

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There are two distinct scenarions that I try to bear in mind, in one of which an archipelago of islands is seen in a seascape, while the other shows a number of lakes in a lanscape of mountains, hills and valleys.

The only difference between them, as I envision them, is the water level.

Raise the water level, and the lakes join to become a sea in which the isolated remaining hill and mountain tops have become islands — lower the water level, and the islands become the hills and mountain tops of a landscape, with the sea now diminished to a congeries of lakes and pools in its valleys.

The quest, here, by analogy, is for optimal levels of protective violence to obtain and sustain a widespread and liveable landscape of peace.

Your thoughts?

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Image sources:

  • Cantilever, via BoingBoing
  • Richelieu, via the Economist
  • T. Greer on Sun Tzu the Radical

    Sunday, January 4th, 2015

    [by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

    T. Greer at Scholar’s Stage had an outstanding post on Sun Tzu and his classic The Art of War the other day in which I learned a number of things that were new to me, which is the best kind of blog post!

    The Radical Sunzi

    When translated into English, the Sunzi Bingfa, usually titled Sunzi’s Art of War, is a fairly small work. When we take away the commentary and annotation added by its translators we are left with a sparse text indeed: Roger Ames’ translation is 71 pages long, the Denma Group’s translation is 66 pages, Victor Mair’s translation is only 56, and Ralph Sawyer’s translation clocks in at a mere 30 pages total. [1] The brevity of the Sunzi explains its staying power. The Sunzi only has space for a foundational discussion of abstract strategic principles, leaving no room for detailed discussions of either the tactics or the political realities of its time. This is what gives the Sunzi its transcendent feel. Great power competition between the kingdoms of Chu, Qi, and Qin faded into the realm of memory centuries ago; the proper way to deploy squadrons of crossbowmen and charioteers is now a question that interests only the historian. In contrast, the strategic principles outlined in the Sunzi endure. Their very terseness frees them from the historical context from which they came and allows them to be applied by men living thousands of years after they were first etched into bamboo.

    Timeless as it may seem, however, the Sunzi was the product of problems experienced at a specific time and a specific place. It is my belief that we cannot really understand the Sunzi if we do not first understand the world from which it came–the world of the Warring States.[2] A few historians and scholars of Chinese thought have written this sort of analysis; the best of these attempts to place the Sunzi within its historical context are usually focused on the broad, macro-historical trends that divided the Spring and Autumn period that preceded the Sunzifrom the Warring States period that gave birth to it. From this perspective the Sunzi and the other military manuals that followed it were the natural product of a world torn asunder by wars waged on an ever increasing scale between large infantry armies fighting in the name of territorial, bureaucratized states.[3] There is, however, more to the Sunzi‘s historical setting than the institutional history of ancient China. Just as important is the intellectual milieu of early Warring States times. The compilers of the Sunzi were not the first Chinese to write about war. When read as a response to these earlier voices, the Sunzi’s vision of war and politics is nothing less than radical. [….]

    Here comes the important part, one that demonstrates a curious symmetry with the cultural shift  between the post-Dark Age heroic-aristocratic Archaic Greece to the Classical Greece of the Golden Age that laid the foundations of Western civilization:

    ….The Sunzi that Meyer describes is radical–at the time of its compilation it was possibly the most radical attack on ancient China’s old aristocratic order etched in bamboo. The Sunzi‘s assault on the old regime begins with its opening line:

    The military [bing] is the great affair of the state, the terrain of life and death, the way of survival and extinction, it cannot but be investigated. [4]

    To modern ears this sentence may sound controversial, but it is hardly subversive. Its revolutionary nature only becomes clear when we see what it was written in response to. The place to turn is the Zuo Zhuan, China’s oldest narrative historical account and one of the few preserves of the old Spring and Autumn ethos. One of its better known dictums reads:

    The great affairs of state are sacrifice and warfare.[5]

    Meyer comments on the contrast between the two statements:

    [In the Sunzi] all mention of sacrifice is eliminated, telegraphing the text’s contention that martial matters must be viewed in purely material terms. Rather than “warfare,” the “military” is held up as the great affair of state, implying (as the text goes on to elaborate) that there are uses for military power beyond the ‘honorable’ contest of arms. Moreover, the word that the Sunzi uses by reference to the “military,” bing???, does not evoke the aristocratic charioteer but the common foot solider, who had become the backbone of the Warring States army.[6]

    The Sunzi‘s insistence that military methods were more important to the state’s survival than sacrifice was not merely radical–it was nonsensical. In the early Chinese world view, sacrifice and warfare could not be separated from each other. As with the Aztecs, Maya, and many other premodern peoples, for the Chinese of Zhou times, warfare was a sacrificial ritual. The Lost Book of Zhou, an early warring states record that chronicled the conquests of the semi-mythical King Wu, provides a clear picture of these views. It contains an interesting narrative account of the King’s return to his clan’s ancestral temple to report his victorious conquest:

    Read the rest here

    I just finished reading a book by the Israeli scholar Moshe Halbertal, On Sacrifice; here’s an enormous difference between a culture that “sacrifices to” and one that is worth or requires “sacrificing for“. It is not only a cultural difference, it is cognitive. Strategy is possible in a “sacrificing to” society only to the extent that it does not conflict with (often maximalist) religious dictates, which will often mean a rational strategy to achieve victory is impossible. The Jews at Masada or the Greeks of the Trojan War would have understood the precepts of warfare of the ancient Chinese of the Zhou era very well.

    In war, the bronze age peoples sacrificed to. We sacrifice for – and to spend our lives to best effect we need strategy.

    The Perils of Surprise

    Monday, December 8th, 2014

    [by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

    “Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

    The United States was at peace with that nation, and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific. Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in the American island of Oahu, the Japanese ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to our secretary of state a formal reply to a recent American message. While this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or armed attack.

    It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time the Japanese government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace.

    ….Japan has, therefore, undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday and today speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation.

    As commander in chief of the Army and Navy I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense. But always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us. . .

    Indeed we have remembered. Remembered much yet learned little.

    As the number of WWII veterans decreases with each year, we should recall the visceral anger most Americans felt toward Japan at the time. It was a white hot rage that caused previously powerful isolationist sentiment to vanish overnight. Only with patient difficulty did FDR, Marshall and other senior American leaders persuade an aroused public of the imperative strategic need for a “Germany First” policy. Nazi Germany was the foe Americans knew we must defeat but the Imperial Japanese were the ones we hated.

    Racism is usually trotted out as the trite explanation. While it is true most white Americans of that generation harbored  racist assumptions about East Asians this prejudice hardly stood in the way of warmly embracing Chiang Kai-shek’s China, or later figures like Syngman Rhee and Ngo Dinh Diem and the countries they led. No, what galled Americans was that the Japanese had taken us by surprise! The Japanese had embarrassed America by catching us with our pants down, but more importantly that had done it by cheating! They had, you see, attacked us by surprise.

    The US government probably should not have been surprised. Imperial Japan struck Tsarist Russia’s far eastern fleet in much the same way in the Russo-Japanese War. The Imperial Japanese Navy had used the question of a hypothetical attack on Pearl Harbor for thirty years in training officer cadets. We were economically squeezing Japan’s access to oil and iron in an effort to hobble their war machine and pressure them into settlement with China and regurgitating their foreign conquests, at least some of them. Conquests which in the quasi-autarkic world of managed trade and western monopolies in raw materials that Japanese militarists saw as crucial for the survival for their empire. Coupled with intelligence warnings, we might have at least been on our guard.

    We were not. Japan however, paid dearly for their stupendous triumph at Pearl Harbor. They reaped the whirlwind. So too did Germany. While Joseph Stalin may have been the only person in the world who was surprised when Hitler unleashed the blitzkrieg on the Soviet Union, he was the one person who mattered most. In the long run, it meant Germany’s utter ruin. Tactical surprise is a great advantage but it is hard. Converting tactical surprise into strategic success is a lot harder. While both Sun Tzu and Clausewitz are enthusiastic regarding the potential of surprise, it is mostly on the tactical level and only rarely, as Clausewitz admitted, is it parlayed in the “higher provinces of strategy”. Instead we can expect, too often as he cautioned, “a sound blow in return”.

    Why is this?

    The reason is that humans are adaptive. If the blow by surprise is not lethal enough to finish them off or convince them to accept terms, after the initial shock and confusion subsides a thirst for revenge may come to the fore. Perhaps even at the expense of rational interests or self-preservation. They may be willing to change forever from what they were to become what can win.

    Surprise is perilous.

    New Book: American Spartan by Ann Scott Tyson

    Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

    [by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

    American Spartan: The Promise, the Mission, and the Betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant by Ann Scott Tyson 

    Was just sent a review copy of American Spartan courtesy of Callie at  Oettinger & Associates which tells the story of Major Jim Gant, the special forces officer and AfPak hand who pushed hard for a controversial strategy in Afghanistan based on arming and training loyalist paramilitaries out of Afghan tribesmen ( or whatever localist network would suffice when tribal identity was weak or absent). I am looking forward to reading this book for a number of reasons.

    Long time readers may recall Gant coming to wider attention with his paper, One Tribe at a Time with an assist from noted author Steven Pressfield, where he called for a campaign strategy against the Taliban from “the bottom up” using “the tribes” because the current top down strategy of killing insurgents while building a strong, centralized, state would never work – the war would just drag on indefinitely until the US grew tired and quit Afghanistan ( as is happening….now). Gant, who forged a tight relationship with Afghan tribal leader  Noor Azfal ,won some fans with his paper in very high places, including SECDEF Robert Gates and Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus who gave him some cover to implement his ideas but he also faced formidable resistance and criticism. Academic experts were particularly incensed by Gant’s broad-brush use of “tribes” to cover a wide array of local networks and Afghan identities and that “tribes” were a term modern anthropology held in deep disdain ( RAND’s David Ronfeldt pointed out that while these networks are not historical tribes they are certainly “tribal” in terms of behavior patterns) while the government of Mohammed Karzai and its American boosters were bitterly hostile to any strategy that might arm locals outside Kabul’s direct control.

      It was also a risky strategy. Loyalist paramilitaries are often very effective in a military sense – as happened in Colombia when the government tolerated and encouraged private militias to make war on FARC and the ELN and badly mauled the Communist insurgents – but they are inherently unreliable politically. Paramilitaries can also  “go off the reservation” – this also happened in Colombia – and commit atrocities or become criminal enterprises or engage in warlordism and have to be reined in by the government. All of these were particular risks in the context of Afghanistan where warlordism and drug trafficking had been particularly acute problems even under Taliban rule. On the other hand, warlordism and drug trafficking has hardly been unknown in the ANA regular units and national police and is hardly the province only of irregulars.

    Another reason I am interested in this book is the subtitle’s accusation of “betrayal” which I infer comes out of the long institutional cultural and chain of command clashes of bureaucratic politics between Big Army and Special Forces and Special Operations Forces communities. The long history in the big picture is that many general purpose force commanders do not know how to use these troops to best strategic effect and sometimes resent the autonomy with which they operate ( a resentment returned and repaid  at times with a lack of consultation and ignoring of local priorities in operational planning).

    The author, Ann Scott Tyson is a long-time and experienced war reporter who embedded extensively with US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. She is also married to her subject which should make for some interesting analysis when I review the book.


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