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Three Books New and Three Books Used

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

           

Diary of the Dark Years by Jean Guéhenno 

Augustus by Adrian Goldsworthy 

The Nixon Tapes edited by Douglas Brinkley & Luke Nichter 

Japanese Swordsmanship: Technique and Practice by Gordon Warner & Donn F. Draeger 

The French Secret Services by Douglas Porch

Russia, the Atom and the West by George F. Kennan 

I have numerous reviews to write on books already read, but I keep buying more, skimming them, and tossing them on the bookpile.

Diary of the Dark Years is a much quoted primary source about Paris under Nazi occupation.  It is the French equivalent to the diaries of Victor Klemperer and shows the agony of citizens of a once mighty great power, humbled by a conqueror and deeply divided in defeat. The Germans governed occupied France more leniently than nearly any other state except Denmark, until the end of the war when the urgent German need for manpower and the irritation of the French Resistance provoked draconian measures by the Gestapo and SS to provide slave labor and deport Jews to “the East”. Much of the dirty work was done by Vichy officials or the extreme Fascist French ultra-collaborators who were even further to the Right.

The Kennan book, a very slim volume of 116 pages, is derived from Kennan’s Reith Lectures, given past the apex of his diplomatic career when Kennan’s policy influence was waning but his fame and reputation were still rising with the general public. I’ve read several chapter already. Classic Kennan in the certitude of his assumptions, which included deep skepticism about the capacity for effective response, much less a forceful “rollback” of Soviet power, on the part of the West.

One of the authors of Japanese Swordsmanship, an early pioneer of American judo and Western study of Eastern martial arts, Donn Draeger, was most likely murdered by poison while visiting the restive tribes of Aceh in Indonesia during the early years of the insurgency.

What are you reading or buying?

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Some very welcome news: JM Berger & Jessica Stern

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- forthcoming book announced ]
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JM Berger at Intelwire frames it like this:

ISIS: THE STATE OF TERROR

Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger co-author the forthcoming book, “ISIS: The State of Terror,” from Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins. The book, which will debut in early 2015, will examine the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, how it is transforming the nature of extremist movements, and how we should evaluate the threat it presents.

Jessica Stern is a Harvard lecturer on terrorism and the author of the seminal text Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill. J.M. Berger is author of the definitive book on American jihadists, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, a frequent contributor to Foreign Policy, and editor of Intelwire.com.

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JM also tweeted:

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For another angle on Berger & Stern’s thinking, see their recent joint contribution to a round table at Politico:

A counterterrorism mission—and then some.
By J.M. Berger and Jessica Stern

When the Obama administration sends mixed messages about whether its campaign against the Islamic State insurgent group is war or counterterrorism, there is a reason, if not a good one. As explained by President Obama last week, the United States plans to employ counterterrorism tactics against a standing army currently preoccupied with waging war.

In many ways, our confrontation with the Islamic State is the culmination of 13 years of degraded definitions. Our enemies have evolved considerably since Sept. 11, 2001, and none more than ISIL, which has shed both the name and the sympathies of al Qaeda. The Islamic State excels at communication, and it has succeeded in establishing itself as a uniquely visible avatar of evil that demands a response. But on 9/11, we began a “war on terrorism” that has proven every bit as expansive and ambiguous as the phrase itself implies. It is a symptom of our broken political system that we require the frame of terrorism and the tone of apocalyptic crisis to take even limited action as a government.

Ultimately, it’s hard to escape the feeling that our policies still come from the gut, rather than the head. And ISIL knows exactly how to deliver a punch to the gut, as evidenced by its gruesome hostage beheadings and countless other atrocities. Its brutality and open taunts represent an invitation to war, and many sober strategists now speak of “destroying” the organization.

Bin Laden once said, “All that we have to do is to send two mujahideen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al Qaeda, in order to make the generals race there.” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the emir of ISIL, may be counting on just that response, and for the same reason—to draw the United States into a war of supreme costs, political, economic and human.

A limited counterterrorism campaign may insulate us from those costs, but it is not likely to be sufficient to accomplish the goals laid out by the president. ISIL is a different enemy from al Qaeda. It has not earned statehood, but it is an army and a culture, and more than a traditional terrorist organization. Limited measures are unlikely to destroy it and might not be enough to end its genocidal ambitions. Our stated goals do not match our intended methods. Something has to give — and it’s probably the goals.

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I reviewed JM’s previous book for Zenpundit, and mentioned Jessica Stern‘s work, which I greatly admire, in my post here, Book Review: JM Berger’s Jihad Joe. Their upcoming collaboration promises us an insightful, foundational, and must-readable analysis — richly nuanced, clearly presented, and avoiding the pitfalls of panicky sensationalism to which so much current reportage is prone.

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The ghost at all our feasts: three lectures by Adam Tooze

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

[linked by Lynn C. Rees]

One of Mark’s most influential book recommendations for me was The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy by Adam ToozeWages of Destruction made most other books on the Nazi complicated run German economy of 1920-1945 look infantile. I read Tooze’s newest book The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of Global Order 1916-1931 over July. A review is in the works. While you stay up nights waiting for that, Tooze gave three lectures at Stanford University’s Europe Center worth absorbing based on The Deluge:

  1. Making Peace in Europe 1917-1919: Brest-Litovsk and Versailles
  2. Hegemony: Europe, America and the problem of financial reconstruction, 1916-1933
  3. Unsettled Lands: the interwar crisis of agrarian Europe

The rise of the American empire 1849-1922 is the great question of our time.

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Book Review: The Discovery of Middle Earth

Friday, September 5th, 2014

[reviewed by Lynn C. Rees]

As The Discovery of Middle Earth: Mapping the Lost World of the Celts nears its end and appeals to Geoffrey of Monmouth as a source of historical truth proliferate, even the most oblivious reader starts to get the joke: Geoffrey’s Historia Regum Britanniae was a milestone in the genre of historical fiction satirizing historical non-fiction by posing as historical non-fiction.

Geoffrey succeeded so well that he earned 900 years worth of cranks mistaking his fiction for fact. As with Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, Geoffrey’s character of King Arthur is so compelling that many Historia readers keep insisting that Arthur must be real. This insistence is yet another demonstration that fiction believed shapes history as much as fact believed. The ideal of the real (but fake) Arthur shaped how Latin Christian rulers portrayed themselves and (sometimes) acted, and how their subjects thought they should portray themselves and act. Edward I even resorted to digging up Arthur’s bones to co-opt fiction to support his conquest of Free Britain.

Longshanks to Britons: See here? Arthur’s bones. No Once and Future King can save you now.

(Twirls mustache).

The Discovery of Middle Earth does not approach works by titans of its genre like Rachel Carson or Umberto Eco; the library Discovery of Middle Earth belongs in would explode in swirls of subatomic particles if it ever brushed against Eco’s antilibrary. But, even if it does not belong in Eco’s library, it does belong in another Eco chamber. Like Eco’s Foucault’s PendulumDiscovery of Middle Earth satirizes independent scholars who start drinking their own research. Though it lacks the deep scholarly verve and meticulous revelry in small details that makes Eco’s masterpiece a feast for readers, Discovery of Middle Earth is more approachable to readers who might get lost in Foucault’s weeds of arcana but who want more than the thin swill of the Dan Brown corpus.

The protagonist of The Discovery of Middle Earth (a thinly veiled pastiche of best-selling British highbrow tourist guide author Graham Robb) is an English independent scholar who spirals down into madness as an artifact recovered in the backyard of his Oxford cottage leads him to discover a previously unseen “Celtic” geography of lines drawn across Europe by “Druids” so contemporary that they would not be out of place at a Davos symposium. Soon enough he starts seeing this pattern staring back at him from obscure rural corners of France and later Britain and Ireland. As with all madness, he first becomes one with the pattern and then descends below that oneness when he finds the pattern staring back into him.

As he unravels, the pretensions of the self-reverential by self-referential auto-didactic are lampooned. The scholar comedically cherry picks from Julius Caesar’s Commentarii de bello gallico. He elevates Caesar to multicultural anthropologist when Caesar comes, Caesar sees, Caesar supports his mania. He dismisses Caesar as a lumpen proletariat boor when Caesar leaves, Caesar blinks, Caesar disses his mania. The author’s joke on his protagonist is obvious: for Caesar to be a consistent informer of any reimagining of ancient Gaul, Caesar’s history must be above suspicion. You can’t have it both ways.

Ha. The reader gets the joke.

In the lead character’s ravings, the Celts are a doom-laden lot, led like giant blond sheep to the slaughter by eerily modern Druids. The Druids construct a sort of proto-Europeon Union, acting as sacrosanct and impartial arbiters who smooth the frictions between feuding tribes and lead them to orderly settle west to central Europe on sites carefully chosen for their adherence to a Druid discovered system of meridian-esque lines and connected by remarkably straight roads.

Seeming intersections abound:

  • Hannibal, a self-appointed Herakles aware of these straight lines and straight roads after growing among Celts in Hispania, followed one prominent “Path of Herakles” from the Sacred Promontory through the Pyrenees and southern France until it crossed the Alps at the Matrona Pass.
  • Druids launch Celtic raids against RomeDelphi, and other places, not for loot but because they fell on fateful intersections of those lines.
  • The Celts line up to be slaughtered by the boorish Caesar at Alesia because it’s an auspicious spot and Druid prophecy said it must be so. Later Roman massacres of resigned Celts like the battle of Watling Street are consigned to the same genre of Celtic death by meridian.
  • The Romans hunt down the Druids like the proto-Knights Templar they were, exterminating their last redoubt on the Sacred Isle (itself crossing an auspicous line) like an army of knuckle-dragging Phillip the Fairs.

Satire of The Da Vinci Code, a target ever ripe, finds its way in. The English scholar, deep into self-referential madness, wanders into a rural French chapel and reflects on how the blood spattered Christ, hung upon the cross, was a direct and more bloody descendent of the antiseptic human sacrifice Druids oversaw in their sacred groves. Why, he muses, this chapel is merely a continuation of Celtitics with the addition of other (Roman) means.

Throughout, modern geographical information systems are lauded for the empowerment they bestow on even the lowliest of cranks. Google Earth. What sins are committed in thy name.

By the end, the English scholar is drawing imaginary lines through Britain and Ireland, consulting with the local tourist bureau of the smear on a map he promotes to Arthur’s Camelot, and raving about London coffee shops on the right meridian. His fictional work within this work of fiction can, as Wikipedia does with the Historia, be damned with faint praise: “Historians have a difficult time deciding what is historical fact and what is merely legend, making the book a reliable read for someone studying historiography, but unreliable for someone seeking historical facts”.

The moral of the story: any sufficiently advanced historical scholarship is indistinguishable from the History Channel. Scratch a Druid, find a Knights Templar.

The Discovery of Middle Earth is not powerful enough to cure the crimes it savages. Only a true masterwork of satire can do that, as Cervantes was ultimately the cure for Geoffrey. In Don Quixote, King Arthur met his antimatter twin. In The Discovery of Middle Earth, the Druids only meet a whoopee cushion.

Recommended for the lover of things Celtic in your life. For example, one of my nephews once liked Lord of the Dance. He even danced to it. He had a good excuse though: he was two years old. He didn’t know better.

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Book Recommendation: Ancient Religions, Modern Politics

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

[by J. Scott Shipman]

ancient religion

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ancient Religions, Modern Politics, The Islamic Case in Comparative Perspective, by Michael Cook

Charles Cameron recently had a post here at Zenpundit, Which is mightier, the pen or the sword?  Frequent commenter T. Greer recommended this volume in the comment section and I ordered immediately. My copy arrived this morning and I had some quiet time and a bit of commuting time to devote to Cook’s introduction and the first few chapters. This is a very good treatment of roots of Islam and how those roots affect today’s political climate. Cook divides the book into three large parts: Identity, Values, and Fundamentalism. The comparative element is his use of Hinduism and Latin American Catholicism when compared in scope and influence to Islam.

Here are a couple of good pull quotes from the Preface:

I should add some cautions about what the book does not do. First though it has a lot to say about the pre-modern world, it does not provide an account of that world for its own sake, and anyone who read the book as if it did would be likely to come away with a seriously distorted picture. This is perhaps particularly so in the Islamic case—and for two reasons. One is that, to put it bluntly, Islamic civilization died quite some time ago, unlike Islam which is very much alive; we will thus be concerned with the wider civilization only when it is relevant to features of the enduring religious heritage. (emphasis added)

Cook’s emphasis on shared identity is one of the best and most cogent descriptions I’ve found:

“…collective identity, particularly those that really matter to people—so much so that they may be willing to die for them. Identities of this kind, like values, can and do change, but they are not, as academic rhetoric would sometimes have it, in constant flux. The reason is simple; like shared currencies, shared identities are the basis of claims that people can make on each other, and without a degree of stability such an identity would be as useless as a hyperinflated currency. So it is not surprising that in the real world collective identities, though not immutable, often prove robust and recalcitrant, at times disconcertingly so.”

In the same comment thread where T. Greer recommended this Ancient Religions, Charles called Cook’s work his opus. Based on the few hours I’ve spent with the volume and the marginalia, Charles was characteristically “spot-on.”

Published in March of this year, this is a new and important title. With any luck, I’ll complete the book and do a more proper review sometime soon.

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